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Sex and the Single Psychologist 

Should Dr. Al Cooper's fuzzy data and controversial subject stop him from becoming a media darling -- or getting a date?

Wednesday, Apr 7 2004
In March 2000, Dr. Alvin Cooper, a clinical psychologist and an expert on the obviously marketable subject of sex and the Internet, made an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. During the conversation, the host took an almost flippant tone with Cooper, who was on the show to talk about research he had conducted on the subject of cybersexuality.

O'Reilly told Cooper, who lives in Santa Clara and founded the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, that he had never looked at Internet porn ("I don't know if I want to give my credit card to some guy named Monty with a -- you know, a raincoat on," O'Reilly said); the host also mentioned that it has "been documented many, many times" that organized crime is behind pornography on the Web.

While O'Reilly riffed aimlessly and carelessly on the subject, Cooper struggled to maintain his point. Finally, toward the end of the short segment, Cooper was able to elaborate on his findings, noting that some people can become cybersex "addicts."

"And people know [that they're addicted]," interjected O'Reilly, embodying, for a moment, all the ignorance that Cooper has struggled against in his career. "I mean, they know in their heart what's going on here."

"I don't think people do know," said Cooper, a compact man with dark eyes and hair and the nasally intonation of his native New York. "I think education about these issues is really important. People do all kinds of things that they don't realize might be illegal, might be dangerous, might make them lose their job."

"OK, doctor," O'Reilly interrupted. "We appreciate it. ... And coming up next, how Tom Cruise used the media to be a big superstar."

The exchange with O'Reilly, brief as it was, embodies Cooper's dilemma. The doctor clearly wants to help people recognize what appears to be a genuine problem -- being compelled to turn to the Internet for sex, over and over, without the power to stop -- but he has trouble getting past the snicker factor. It doesn't help that he's pursuing his education campaign via high-profile media soundbites like those he provided on The O'Reilly Factor. And Cooper rarely gets a chance to explain that his own data is based on an anecdotal, rather than a scientific, research method -- and that, though he's respected in his field, some fellow scientists aren't even sure there is such a thing as "cybersex addiction" in the first place. But it's all just publicity in the end -- for the issue, and for the avid Internet dater Dr. Cooper.

Cooper's office at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre is spacious and sunny. A pastel floral couch rests at one end of the room, amid a semicircle of blue chairs. On his bookshelves, laden with texts on sex therapy and marriage counseling, Cooper has placed a number of "sex-themed" tchotchkes -- a penis gourd from Australia; a statuette of Priapus, the Greek god of fertility -- that he picked up during his travels around the world.

It's from this office that Cooper, a regular on the professional psychology lecture circuit, counsels patients or runs group therapy sessions. At the deep wooden desk pushed against one of the office walls, he often fields press calls from the major news outlets, which contact him for quotes on all things related to sex on the Internet.

In the resulting newspaper articles and television appearances, Cooper has publicly weighed in on topics ranging from Internet child pornography to women and online erotica. A local paper even dubbed Cooper the "Masters and Johnson of cybersex," a title he clearly relishes.

Over the years, Cooper has earned the regard of many in his field, especially for his work as a clinician. "Dr. Cooper has done a lot of the seminal research in the area [of Internet sexuality]," attests Dr. Mark Schwartz, clinical co-director of a Masters and Johnson clinic in Missouri. "I would certainly say he's the leader in the field right now. Most of us use his clinical techniques and data to get sex addicts under control."

Numerous experts see Cooper's work as groundbreaking -- he was among the first to write, research, and lecture about cybersexuality. Cooper also edited Sex & the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians, the first professional book on the topic, published in 2000 (he's now working on an update). His research is being referenced by a group of prominent psychologists attempting to get an iteration of "sexual compulsion" included in a future edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the psychiatrists' bible for mental health disorders. Indeed, Cooper, who has an impressive six-page-long CV, has made a name for himself by being a half-step ahead of the crowd when thinking about how the Internet might affect human sexuality.

But he's perhaps best known for being an expert on "cybersex compulsion," the so-called dark side of Internet sexuality. Many of his media appearances reference the subject, and he often cites research he has conducted through Internet-based surveys on the Web portal Through these studies, Cooper estimates that about 1 percent of American Internet users -- or more than 200,000 people -- are compulsives who have a serious problem with cybersex, and about 8 to 14 percent of Internet users are "at risk" for becoming compulsive users. He says his research shows that as much as 17 percent of the U.S. online population -- people who might not have had a problem with their sexual habits before the advent of the Internet -- is similarly at risk. He also estimates that about 25 to 30 percent of his center's patients arrive with computer-related sexuality problems.

While there are undoubtedly people who have lost control of their cybersex habits, Cooper has also managed to make PR hay out of his specialty.

In soundbites for the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications, he has made snappy comments about the problem; in one interview with the Charlotte Observer, he likened the Internet to "the crack cocaine of sexual addiction." And as he warned in the published results of his first Internet-based study in 1998, "This is a hidden public health hazard exploding in part because very few are recognizing it or taking it seriously."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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