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As with other addictions, tolerance to cybersex stimulation can develop, prompting the addict to take more and more risks to recapture the initial high, Dr. Online viewing that began as a harmless recreation can become an all-consuming activity and even lead to real sexual encounters with people met online.
Cybersex compulsives can become so involved with their online activities that they ignore their partners and children and risk their jobs. Cooper's survey, 20 percent of the men and 12 percent of the women reported they had used computers at work for some sexual pursuits.
For most people these forays into cybersex are relatively harmless pursuits, but experts in the field say that the affordability, accessibility and anonymity of the Internet are fueling a brand new psychological disorder -- cybersex addiction -- that appears to be spreading with astonishing rapidity and bringing turmoil to the lives of those affected.
Cooper wrote in his Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity report. Jennifer Schneider, a physician in Tucson, Ariz., who is associate editor of the journal, said in an interview that even when cybersex addicts and their partners sought treatment, they often concealed their real problem, and therapists often failed to ask questions that would disclose it. Cooper, who works at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center in Santa Clara, Calif., cybersex compulsives are just like drug addicts; they ''use the Internet as an important part of their sexual acting out, much like a drug addict who has a 'drug of choice,' '' and often with serious harm to their home lives and livelihood.
As a result, the diagnosis of cybersex addiction is often missed, Dr. Especially vulnerable to becoming hooked on Internet sex, he wrote, are ''those users whose sexuality may have been suppressed and limited all their lives [who] suddenly find an infinite supply of sexual opportunities'' on the Internet. Dana Putnam, a psychologist in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said other factors that could increase a person's vulnerability to cybersex compulsion were depression and other forms of emotional distress, relationship problems and a failure to get one's sexual needs met. Schneider among 94 family members affected by cybersex addiction revealed that the problem could arise even among those in loving marriages with ample sexual opportunities.
Many companies now monitor employees' online activities, and repeated visits to sexually oriented sites have cost people their jobs.
And some people, including two physicians, have landed in federal prison for two years because they downloaded child pornography when authorities were watching, Dr. Still, most who pursue cybersex consider it harmless and safe to do so.