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?

But there may also be a more personal reason that media work appeals to Cooper. "We all want our family's attention and approval, right?" he confides. "My father ... is really a hands-on kinda guy: He could fix anything. He never really understood what I did. A lot of people don't.

"So for me, I got a kick calling up my father and saying, 'I'm going to be on 20/20 tonight,' so he can kinda see, have something to tell his friends: 'I guess he's doing something out there! He's on TV, he must be doing something!'"

On a Friday morning in early March, Cooper's cybersex addiction seminar has come to San Francisco. About 25 psychologists gather in a nondescript Holiday Inn conference room and munch on bagels and croissants while thumbing through the seminar manual, which cites an impressive number of statistics related to Internet sexuality -- many culled from Cooper's own research.

Santa Clara's Dr. Alvin Cooper has been dubbed the 
"Masters and Johnson of cybersex."
Paolo Vescia
Santa Clara's Dr. Alvin Cooper has been dubbed the "Masters and Johnson of cybersex."
Sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein is a vocal critic of 
Cooper's "sexual addiction" model.
Paolo Vescia
Sex therapist Dr. Marty Klein is a vocal critic of Cooper's "sexual addiction" model.

Cooper stands at the front of the conference room in a neutral-colored suit, fiddling with his PowerPoint presentation. One attendee approaches him excitedly, telling him he's "been seeing more of this kind of stuff." Another psychologist wanders up to say, "I'm referring one of my clients to you because I don't know what I'm doing."

Though Cooper is now an established expert in the field, his entree into researching Internet sexuality began almost accidentally, and was greatly aided by the media. "It was a combination of press and starting to see patients with these issues," he says. "I was starting to recognize that something was happening. At the start, [Internet sexuality] really wasn't taken seriously. It's hard to imagine now. I don't think people could really see how central the Internet was going to be to life and society and culture and business."

In the mid-'90s, Cooper -- who already had a fairly regular presence in the media -- began writing a sexuality column for a self-help and psychology Web site, spawning even more calls from the press. By 1997, he had been invited to pen a sex advice column for Men's Healthmagazine. Writing in a playboyish, jocular tone, he tackled sex-related issues ranging from Prozac as a remedy for premature ejaculation (yes, it is one) to the safety concerns behind penis enlargement (he doesn't recommend it). That same year, Cooper led the first-ever professional session on Internet sexuality at an annual gathering of the California Psychological Association and was asked to guest-edit the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists' now-defunct Journal of Sex Education and Therapy.

In his advice columns, Cooper showed a natural flair for dispensing helpful and engaging pop psychology. Other press outlets noticed, and reporters began calling him for comments on such subjects as "orgasmofibbing" and Internet dating. Cooper says he enjoyed fielding the calls, and learned that if he wanted to be quoted, he had to come prepared with a whiz-bang soundbite.

By the time his sex and relationship column "Sexploration" debuted on in May 1998, Cooper had established himself as an Internet sexuality expert, and he began receiving more and more questions from reporters relating to the new medium. Typically, he says, he responded with industry-standard conjecture; he was always ready with an opinion. But the questions also made him realize that much of what he told the press was based on educated guesses; there'd been little research done on Internet sexuality.

"There was all kinds of guessing," he says. "In reality, no one knew anything."

Today, there's still a lot to learn. Cooper began his quest for more solid information on Internet sexuality in 1998, when he teamed up with MSNBC to produce a Web survey on cybersexuality. Web users were invited to participate in a 47-point questionnaire through a pop-up window that appeared on-screen. The survey sought to gauge the frequency and type of America's "online sexual activity." Cooper, who initially hoped to tally about 1,000 responses, received 13,505 replies.

Though the study attracted a large number of respondents (one of the widely acknowledged benefits of using the Internet for research), Cooper's critics say his method has a number of flaws. For one thing, the people who responded to the survey volunteered rather than being randomly selected -- a standard of good scientific research -- and thus, they weren't likely to accurately represent a large swath of the Internet-using population. And because Web-based research was so new, there was no way -- and there still isn't -- of ensuring that someone was being honest about his identity and answers.

Cooper, anticipating concerns about his methodology, tried to eliminate responses that would skew his data by dumping duplicate replies and throwing out surveys from people who didn't bother to fill out a significant portion of the questionnaire, among other strategies. He whittled down the responses he considered valid to about 9,000. After analyzing the data, he drew a number of conclusions, including:

More than 90 percent of the people who took the survey didn't have a problem with their Internet sex activities.

About 8.5 percent were at risk for developing cybersex compulsion.

People who spend 11 hours or more per week engaged in online sexual activities (which, according to Cooper's definition, included everything from viewing Internet porn to buying a vibrator online to researching STDs) are more likely to be cybersex compulsives.

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