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?

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."

When Cooper uses such language as "crack cocaine" and "exploding," he garners attention -- and opens himself up to criticism. Ask other scientists about Dr. Al Cooper, and it becomes apparent that he is the subject of both adoration and outrage. Though many admire his drive and innovation, critics say Cooper has drawn conclusions about Internet sexuality that remain largely theoretical and unproven. And in using Internet surveys to draw his points, they say, he has left his results open to question.

The good doctor during a taping of Sex With Cindy 
Photo courtesy of Dr. Cooper
The good doctor during a taping of Sex With Cindy Crawford.
Cooper is an avid Internet dater.
Paolo Vescia
Cooper is an avid Internet dater.

Even the terms "cybersex compulsion" and "cybersex addiction" are controversial. Since the phrase "sex addict" was coined about two decades ago by an Arizona-based addiction specialist, psychologists have argued about what to call the problem and how to treat it. The debate circles around whether people who have out-of-control sexual habits should be called "sex addicts" or "sexual compulsives," or some other name altogether. Though it may seem like a battle of semantics, experts explain that what the phenomenon is called can affect the type of treatment a patient receives. Cooper's research forms the cybersex branch of this debate.

Despite the questions surrounding the issue itself and the imprecise data Cooper uses, he continues to offer professional seminars and appear on various media outlets warning the public about the worrisome problem. He may be helping Americans confront a serious concern -- but he also appears to be flogging the issue to get the attention he seems to crave.

Even as a preteen, Alvin Cooper showed a propensity for giving advice. As his parents and siblings like to tell it, soon after moving from working-class Queens to the more affluent Long Island during middle school, Cooper, an eager listener, began to be approached by kids from the neighborhood for relationship advice. (Cooper, who says he was always interested in human behavior, remembers these encounters as long conversations with friends who were willing to open up to him about their problems.)

When Cooper was about 17, he insisted on weekly "family meetings," at which the entire Cooper clan would gather to talk candidly for an hour. But sex was not a subject readily broached within Cooper's Jewish family (he says he's "culturally Jewish" but not religious), even during these soul-baring sessions. "We were not that open," his mother says. "If, at 12 or 13, he said he was interested in sex, we would have washed his mouth out with soap. We modernized after a while, but when Al was growing up, it was not discussed that much. It was more something that he brought in. We learned a lot through him."

Cooper's father owned a small glass and mirror business in Brooklyn where Cooper's mother also worked. Cooper's parents, second-generation immigrants who'd grown up during the Depression, labored exceedingly long hours; through their example, Cooper and his siblings adopted the workaholic lifestyle. After earning an A.A. in liberal arts from a local community college, Cooper graduated early from both UC Riverside (where he got a bachelor's degree in psychology) and Texas Tech, where he received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Before starting an internship at the VA Medical Center in Palo Alto, he joined a kibbutz halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for about two months, where he says he impressed (and, as a result, was able to date) some of the locals, particularly with his willingness to take on the hardest tasks, such as working on the chicken farms. Recently, he has taken up Buddhist meditation, tennis, and yoga in an attempt to curb his fixation on work -- but he has still suffered a few injuries from pushing himself too hard during these activities.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that when he somewhat serendipitously unearthed the subject of cybersexuality, Cooper went full-bore in his research, writing, and media efforts. His days are usually packed from morning to night: professional seminars, back-to-back appointments with patients, exercise, and then more work from home. In 15-minute time blocks, he takes media calls.

In recent months, he has reduced his hours at the Stanford University student health clinic, where he is a popular staff psychologist, and dedicates the time to yet more media calls and research-related endeavors. In addition to promoting himself, his business, and his point of view, Cooper sees such appearances and interviews as opportunities to educate the public on sexuality.

"Supposedly, as a psychologist, you're a thought leader in your world and community and your family," he says. "I can talk to a group of 40 or 100, or I could have something in Cosmo or Men's Health or the Washington Post and have hundreds of thousands of people read it, and open their eyes a little bit."

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