By Erin Sherbert
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Before the numbers were even analyzed, the flood of press calls started. When the research was released, reporters jumped all over the findings, zeroing in on the concept of cybersex addiction. Riding the wave of media and professional attention, Cooper went on to publish journal articles based on his findings.
But given the potential problems with his methodology, Cooper should have emphasized the importance of putting his findings in proper context. The numbers only revealed what was true for a select number of people: those who had Internet access in the United States, who visited MSNBC online, and who chose to participate in an Internet-based study. (MSNBC made a note on its site that the survey was "non-scientific.")
From the outset, Cooper's research results have been questioned. But though he admits that there are potential problems related to his methodology, he defends his work.
"I think there are questions," he says. "There are always benefits and limits to any methodology. In all of our research, we have taken a number of steps to increase our reliability and our confidence in our results."
Some sexuality experts still view Cooper's research with skepticism. "It is no different than when any [media] organization has a little poll on their Web site that says, 'Do you like John Kerry, yes or no?,' and then there's a footnote at the bottom that says the results are nonscientific," says Dr. Donna Hoffman, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University and the co-director of eLab, an e-commerce research center. "They're no different than what Cooper is doing."
"Al Cooper is relatively unusual in researching the use of the Internet for sexual purposes," adds Dr. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute. "This is an important area for study, and he has been a front-runner. [But his] large surveys of Internet users are of limited value because they are convenience samples. My impression is that he is viewed with some interest by the field, but with recognition of the methodological and conceptual limitations of his research so far."
Despite such concerns, Cooper's initial data was deemed significant by many sexuality researchers because it was an early attempt to get a handle on a mysterious, misunderstood world.
"We can't say that Cooper's data is representative of the general public, but [it] clearly shows that some people out there have Web-based sexual behavior problems," says Dr. Doug Epperson, a psychology professor at Iowa State University who is heading a large-scale study on sexual compulsivity. "His data is quite compelling in that it indicates people have problems; what is less compelling [from the data] is what percent of the population has that problem."
Even with their statistical fuzziness, articles based on that first Internet survey have been published in peer-reviewed journals. In that respect, Cooper is responsible for turning attention to an aspect of sexuality that had, until that point, been largely ignored by clinicians and psychology and sexuality academics.
"Before many of us did, he realized that the computer was going to have an extremely important impact on people's lives," says Dr. Howard Ruppel of the San Francisco-based Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. "His work shows -- and he was there before all of us -- about the downside: people who do become obsessively preoccupied with the Internet. [Cooper's ideas] were revelatory."
Cooper continued to work on the issue and produced a number of uncontroversial theoretical and clinical materials. He edited the first professional book on the subject, Sex & the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians, which therapists across the country say they have found useful.
Undeterred by the criticism elicited by his first foray into Internet surveys, Cooper has continued to conduct new ones with MSNBC and with a popular Swedish Web site. The later studies have produced more nuanced findings, he says. For example, they acknowledge that someone who engages in 11 or more hours of online sexual activity related to health education is not a cybersex compulsive. But overall, he says, the newer results have corroborated his first MSNBC study.
Though his cybersex-positive messages don't always make the airwaves, Cooper says he continues to work with reporters because he sees it as his responsibility as a mental health professional.
"Clearly, education is one reason [for the media work]," Cooper says. "As a psychologist, you're supposed to be helping people, and I can either help one person in my office or I can help a million people [through the press]. It's a different kind of help, but they're both helpful."
"He's tried to talk about [Internet sexuality] in a way that is ... catchy but not titillating," adds Cooper's ex-wife, Georgie Keyssner, who watched as his career blossomed in the late '90s after the MSNBC survey (they were amicably divorced in 2001). "If you don't get a soundbite out of it, then you're not heard. He's not promoting it; he wants to discuss it, to make people aware that there are issues around it."
At precisely 8:30 a.m., the always-punctual Cooper steps to the front of the San Francisco hotel conference room. He starts his presentation by acknowledging the white elephant in the room -- the long-standing professional disagreement over the problem he'll spend the day discussing.