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Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons

The Internet is nurturing a taste for voyeurism that often comes at the expense of intimacy.

VOYEURISM - or the need to spy on others - has been part of human history since our inception. But television and now the Internet seem only to have whetted our natural voyeuristic tendencies. Even Leave It to Beaver had a voyeuristic aspect to it, giving its audience the chance to view the Cleavers' life from a safe distance. But the more recent success of TV shows such as Survivor suggest that spying has become a favourite pastime. Indeed, some would argue that our culture has developed an insatiable appetite for voyeurism. You need only to surf the channels to see the plethora of "real-life" specials on TV these days, offering everything from police chases and shootouts to animals attacking humans, freak accidents, wedding bloopers and heroic rescues. And now the Internet has taken virtual voyeurism to new heights.

Most of this unilateral spying takes place on the Net through cameras that allow us to watch people in their most private moments. Voyeurism can involve sexual or nonsexual acts, but on the Internet, even predominantly nonsexual spying gives you the thrill of being an uninvited guest at someone else's private party. At JenniCam.com, for example, an average young woman has drawn in millions of viewers through a Web cam. Jenni says that she is just living her life, but if you look at the pictures she has posted at any one time, in each series there is always a breast exposed.

What does this say about us as a society? On the surface, it says we're fascinated by the titillating and mundane details of other people's lives. More profoundly, however, this heightened interest in voyeurism may be one consequence of our increasingly disconnected lives. Sexuality, after all, has always been one of the most powerful ways to feel emotionally connected. It is the search for these emotions that drive voyeuristic pursuits on the Internet. So paradoxically, the more time we spend online and the less spent in the company of others, the more we need the instant gratification of the Net.

The Illusion of Intimacy.

While information technology has transformed the way we communicate, allowing us to forge and maintain relationships we might not be able to otherwise, it does have its dark side. Technology in general and the Internet in particular have presented us with three major trade-offs. First, we have acquired split-second convenience at the risk of information overload and the resulting stress. Second, we have benefited from increased efficiencies at the risk of decreased intimacy. And third, we have gained increased power as a society at the risk of feeling disempowered as individuals. It may be the tension between these trade-offs that has spurred the flight into voyeuristic activities.

Let's start with stress. While the Internet makes a variety of daily transactions simpler, it also increases our sense of being overwhelmed. That, in turn, sends us scurrying for relief. While it may be difficult for many of us to find the time to play 18 holes with our buddies, anyone interested in emotional gratification can get a quick fix on the Net. At the same time, new information technologies heighten our need for an emotional connection with others. Each day the information superhighway adds another lane, and production is expected to come barrelling down it. The pressure to produce can result in isolation from colleagues, friends and the people we love.

The rush to produce rather than relate is exacerbated by the difficulty that some people have with engaging in intimate face-to-face contact. Intimacy requires honestly facing the emotions of others and ourselves. The Internet allows us the illusion of intimacy packaged in an anonymous, easy-to-swallow experience. The accessibility of the Internet makes voyeurism practical - fitting into the cracks of time not filled - and its anonymity makes it tolerable. We can have the illusion of being in relationships without the work and risk of revealing ourselves.

Take the case of "Janet", the pseudonym for a woman who works as a software technician for a large computer company. Janet, who is divorced, lurks in sexually oriented chat rooms for 15 to 30 minutes, two or three times a day. She insists that it helps her unwind from the pressures of her work. She seldom says anything in the discussions; she just watches the interactions between other participants. By itself, such voyeurism seems harmless. The problem is that Janet plays voyeur instead of dropping by and spending a few minutes in small talk with other people at work.

The overload of information on the Internet can also make us feel powerless. What we learn today is already outdated by tomorrow. Voyeurism strikes back against these perceptions of powerlessness. Anonymous watching is a way to take control, to do what you want to do when you want to do it. The anger is not far beneath the surface for those who enjoy upskirt MPEGs (videos taken and posted by people who secretly film up women's dresses) and spy cams in locker rooms and bathrooms.

Voyeuristic activities may seem easier than facing the complex needs of a flesh-and-blood lover. The growing time we spend at computers makes it easier to stare into monitors instead of eyes. Yet it is the eyes of those who surround us that we need the courage to see. In our research, we have found that those who spend more than 11 hours a week online for sexual activities are more likely to have a range of psychological problems.

This is not an insoluble problem. Therapists who specialise in addiction can help those who find themselves obsessed with online voyeurism. Employers who recognise the importance of face-to-face gatherings and family time can also make a difference as well. On one level, staff meetings, collaborative team projects and flexible schedules may not seem like the most productive uses of time, but on another, they may well constitute the relational nourishment that keeps people more engaged.

In the end, voyeuristic activities cannot compete with the potency of three-dimensional relationships. True survivors are not those who make the final cut on a deserted island but those who ask "How was your day?" and wait to hear the answer.

Al Cooper is director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre in California as well as coordinator of counselling and psychological training at Cowell Student Health at Stanford University. Information on his new book, Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force, can be found on his Web site, www.sex-centre.com.

I David Marcus is a clinician at the centre who specialises in the treatment of cybersex addiction

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