March 9th, 2009

The following is an article I wrote for Click Me, my now defunct VillageVoice.com column about having sex online. Though you may still see some personal articles and/or Q&As from me over at the Voice, this is likely the last reporter-ly piece. So enjoy!

A recent study links online and depression – but don’t believe the buzz kill just yet.

Cybersex has long suffered the unfortunate stigma of being a pastime for loners and the emotional inept. Now science has stepped in with its official take on internet romps and our feelings. This past October an Australian study, “The Psychology of using the Internet for CyberSex,” unleashed the claim that there’s a direct relation between internet-users’ depression levels and the amount of time they spend engaging in dirty chat or watching pornography. The 1,325 people surveyed logged, on average, more than twelve hours a week to wett their dot-com whistles. 358 of them ranked “moderately to severely depressed.” Word caught on fast with print media and blogs: getting it on online makes you sad. However, said Swinburne University PhD student Marcus Squirrell, the researcher who conducted the study, that’s far from the full story.

Though Squirrell, busy with both his clinical psychology degree and his therapy patients (one of whom actually threatened to commit murder right before our interview), was hard to track down, we eventually spoke over the phone – and over seventeen time zones – from his office in Australia. Right off the bat, Squirrell helped set the facts straight. First, what he means by cybersex is just about any form of online sexual entertainment. Next, the data he’s using was collected from an online survey he posted on sex-oriented websites. He also wanted to stress that his study doesn’t just look at depression, but also at anxiety, loneliness, and interpersonal attachment. Most importantly, he said, “Depression and anxiety certainly correlate with increased use of cybersex but we can’t actually say it’s a casual relationship.” The two may impact each other, but a study of this kind can’t prove one causes the other.

That’s exactly the quarrel psychology professionals had with Squirrell’s work as they saw it reported by the media. Dr. Kimberly Young, an expert on online sex addition, expressing her concerns over email wrote that, instead of cybersex leading to depression, “it may be depressed people use cybersex more.” Now that Squirrell has had a chance to voice his side of the story, it’s clear he too is unwilling to dump the oversimplified blame on the internet. “It may be that the people who are more severely depressed are more likely to be engaging in cybersex, since it might help with their anxiety,” he said, explaining a potentially positive link. “It gives them a purpose and allows them to make human connections that are harder to make face to face.”

Back in December I was also able to speak with Professor Ann Knowles, one of Squirrell’s two academic advisors, who shed some additional light on this research. First off, she explained, the study is far from complete, so no definitive conclusions can yet be drawn. Though all data has been collected, Squirrell’s official results won’t be released until this summer. Knowles stood behind her student’s methods, but did admit the people surveyed only represented one subset of the cybersex world. “The type of sites on which the questionnaire was posted it is certainly not a representative sample of the general community because it must over-represent people who visit sites dedicated to various sexual topics,” she said. What about the correlation between online sex and emotions in more casual enthusiasts? The scientific world may never know.

While the jury is still out on whether depression causes cybersex or cybersex causes depression, plenty of people who have sex online – and have it a lot, like the men Squirrell surveyed – don’t seem sad or anxious or lonely. One anonymous enthusiast, who has spent up to fifteen hours a week over the last ten years surfing for porn and exchanging naughty emails, reports that such activities allow him to express a fetish he feels embarrassed about in real life. Another interviewee, who dedicates a similar amount of time to erotic chat, said that, since he used to be shy with flesh-and-blood women, he didn’t have many opportunities to assert himself sexually. He admits, “Cybersex was, for a couple years, my sole outlet for coming to know more about myself sexually.” Eventually, his experience helped him start real-life relationships. These days, the more he gets laid online, the more he gets laid offline – and the better he feels.

Unlike the news sources that ran condemnatory headlines like “Cybersex causes depression!”, Squirrell himself enthusiastically admits that online pleasures can be wonderful things – when taken in moderation. “Don’t think for one minute I’ve got anything against cybersex,” he laughed. “For the majority of people it’s not a harmful activity… In fact, I think it can be quite life-enhancing, as long as people make relationships outside the online world.” Know what that means, sad, anxious, and lonely people? Button up your pants, step away from the keyboard, then go make some friends and get a therapist. Afterwards you’re welcome to come back and share in the fun with the rest of us.

Tags: Click Me, cybersex

3 Responses to “‘Does Online Sex Really Make You Sad?’”

  1. Everett Says:

    Hello Guru, what entice you to post an article. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.

  2. Team Roster Says:

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