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Child & Adolescent Development: Overview
Impulse Control Disorders

by Al Cooper (Editor)
Brunner-Routledge, 2000
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 20th 2005

Cybersex

Despite the melodramatic title of this book, Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force is in fact an academic publication, and originally came out as a special issue of the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity.  The seven articles are scholarly in form, with footnotes and references.  The authors are mostly associated with private clinics, treatment centers, or universities, although there is detailed information about them, and so it isn't clear what their affiliation with universities is, or even what degrees they hold.  (There's nothing to stop someone from teaching an introductory psychology university course as an adjunct professor and then saying that they are at that university.)  My concern over status here is because there is a scarcity of good research on online addiction, especially for online sex, probably because it is a relatively new phenomenon, and so one needs to give careful scrutiny to claims about the prevalence and treatment of these problems.  The articles here seem well researched and the authors take a thoughtful approach to their topic, but they tend to avoid some of the more difficult ethical and conceptual problems about the nature of cybersex addiction.  Nevertheless, it is an important contribution to the available literature.

This book was published in 2000, yet it remains one of the few serious examinations of the phenomenon of cybersex as an addiction.  The writing is mostly free of academic jargon and indeed one of the papers includes quotations from family members talking about their experience of how cybersex addictions have affected their lives, and these are gripping and moving.  Some of the papers include technical terms, but it is possible to understand the main ideas even if one is not familiar with the technicalities.  Many of the papers talk about causes and ways to address online sex addictions, and this could be useful both to therapists, addicts themselves, and their family members. 

The first paper, by Al Cooper, David Delmonico and Ron Burg sets out and analyses a survey they performed of sexual addiction online.  Cooper is here listed as affiliated with the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center, and the short biographical sketch about him on the back cover says he is the Director of that Center.  It also says that he is the training program coordinator for Stanford's counseling and psychological services at their Cowell Student Health Center.  He has suggested in other work that there are three main factors that "turbocharge" online sexual activity -- easy accessibility, easy affordability, and relative anonymity -- and he has dubbed this the "Triple-A Engine."  While this sounds very plausible, no evidence is cited in support of the claim.  The survey that this paper discusses was conducted in 1998, via the MSNBC web site.   While one might worry that people who might fill out a survey on sexual addiction might not be a representative sample, the authors say that they have evidence that their respondents were representative of online users. 

Their data are certainly interesting: while 83.5% of their sample of 9,265 respondents are categorized as nonsexually compulsive, the remaining 16.5% of online users had some degree of sexual compulsivity.  It is interesting to know that the majority of all users engaged in some online sexual activity each week, although for most it was not a problem.  10.9% of all users (or two thirds of those who have some degree of compulsivity) count as having moderate compulsivity, 4.6% of all users (or 29% of all those with some compulsivity) were sexually compulsive, and about 1% (or about 6% of those with some compulsivity) were cybersex compulsive.  The distinction between sexually compulsive and cybersex compulsive is one that merits some thought: people in the two groups both scored over two standard deviations above the norm on the sexual compulsivity scale, but cybersex compulsives spent more than 11 hours online each week in sexual activity pursuits.  The main idea behind the cybersex compulsives is that for them, cybersex is the main form that there compulsivity takes, while for sexual compulsives more generally, cybersex is just one form that their compulsivity takes.  Surprisingly, the amount of time spent online seeking out sexual material was not the main mark of compulsion: those with no compulsivity, moderate compulsivity and sexual compulsivity apparently showed little difference in this, at 1-10 hours per week.  Strikingly, the most extreme category, those with cybersex compulsions, spent 15-25 hours per week pursuing online sexual material.  Given that probably the majority of the population in North America and Europe use computers and go online on a regular basis, this suggests that literally millions of people are struggling with major cybersex compulsions and are wasting large portions of their lives with online sexual activities. 

The most powerful article in the book is Jennifer Schneider's "Effects of Cybersex Addiction on the Family," which spells out the results of a brief survey in which respondents gave written answers to questions.  Strikingly, while in the Cooper survey there was little indication that men were more likely to be cybersexually compulsive than women, in Schneider's survey of family members affected by cybersex, 91 of the 94 people were women, of the 3 men who completed the survey, 2 were in homosexual relationships, while only 1 of the 91 women was lesbian. It is hard to know how to assess this disparity.  One possibility is that while men having cybersex causes troubles in relationships while women's cybersex does not cause trouble.  Or it might be that Schneider's sample is too small and too unrepresentative, and that the effect of women having cybersex for their partners went undetected by her.  Schneider makes a distinction somewhat similar to that of Cooper et al between the sexually compulsive and cybersex compulsives, but she draws it more explicitly between those for whom online sex is a continuation of a preexisting addictive sexual disorder and those for whom the cybersex has itself been addictive.  Of the addicts as described by their partners in the survey population, 29 were in the former category while 16 were in the latter.  This suggests that for a substantial proportion of people who have cybersex addictions of any kind, they would not have had them if they had not encountered the online world.  But the results of Schneider's survey are at best just indications of what subsequent more thorough surveys might investigate.  What Schneider's work does most powerfully is show the damaging effects on families of cybersex, especially because of the violation of trust it causes through repeated lying and the shame of all involved.  It can also cause sexual problems between the couple, and especially if a woman feels that she cannot compare to the partners in her partner's pornography or chat-room partners.  Furthermore, cybersex addicts are simply not physically present much of the time since they are busy with their online obsessions, and the lying and shame may lead to their being less emotionally available to their families.  The families of addicts always experience terrible sadness, frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal, and the writing of the survey-respondents brings to life how similar the case is for cybersex addiction.  There is brief discussion of ways to repair the damage done by this problem, but it is clear that as with other addictions, the problematic behavior can be very difficult to overcome even when marriages are in danger and families may split apart.

Kimberly S. Young et al. discuss the particular phenomenon of cyberaffairs, in which people have erotic relationships online in email, chatrooms, and even interactive games.  They are a growing cause of divorce and while Young et al. have not conducted any surveys on the problem themselves, the other papers in this book suggest that, along with other forms of cybersex, people are having such relationships in increasing numbers.  It is clear that online infidelity can be just as emotionally damaging as real-life affairs.  Much of the article is devoted to hints for therapists in helping people face the damage caused and repair their relationship.  They recommend using nonjudgmental language, reducing shame, and using empathetic listening; all this seems rather obvious and part of most therapists' standard technique.  Nevertheless, the article could at least provide a useful starting place for therapists looking to treat clients with such problems, and it may be helpful to families themselves trying to cope with the aftereffects of cyberaffairs. 

After these three articles, the following three tend to repeat much of the information already stated or to provide information that is probably already familiar to most people.  Robert Freeman-Longo discusses the dangers of online sexuality and cybersex for children and teens.  His main concern is the exposure of young people to pornographic images and themselves becoming addicted to pornography.  He does not devote much attention to the much publicized worry of young people being solicited for sexual liaisons in chatrooms.  His main recommendation is to educate people about the dangers of the Internet, use software that blocks inappropriate sites and to supervise young people's online activity as much as possible.  In another article, Dana Putnam, who runs the website onlinesexaddict.org, and Marlene Maheu set out some of the online resources for avoiding and recovering from online sex addiction.  Given that this paper is now 5 years old, it is likely to be somewhat out of date now, although the authors keep their recommendations fairly general.  Although Maressa Orzack and Carol Ross ask a great question with their "Should Virtual Sex Be Treated Like Other Sex Addictions?," their paper is really a summary of available treatment options with a couple of cases used to illustrate their discussion. 

The final paper in the book, by Mark Schwarz and Stephen Southern of the Masters & Johnson Clinic, is probably the most provocative in the collection, because it delves more deeply into the psychodynamics of cybersex.  Apart from the obvious problems that other authors have set out, Schwarz and Southern take it as obvious that cybersex is a barrier to genuine intimacy between people, and their task is to explain why people engage in such self-defeating behavior.  Other papers remain silent about the causes of cybersex addiction, refer to a behaviorist model of masturbatory conditioning, or focus on the attractions of cybersex, such as in Cooper's "Triple-A Engine."  But Schwartz and Southern go deeper, highlighting the depth psychology and unconscious factors that might play a role.  The computer is not a substance one ingests like heroin, and so to use a simple addiction model when discussing cybersex will probably be inadequate.  Like other self-defeating behavior like eating disorders, cybersex may partly be about control.  Cybersex can be an attempt to make oneself desirable, and through the conscious fantasy, addicts might hope to foster a sense of power and control over one's life.  Schwartz and Southern also discuss the dissociation that goes with cybersex addiction.  Focus on the computer can put people in a trance-like state and this helps them to ignore outside events and emotions that they don't want to experience. 

Maybe the most controversial claim the authors make is that cybersex will often be an unconscious attempt to work through previous trauma and gain control over the traumatic event.  They describe a priest who engages in cybersex with teenage boys, but he himself was abused as a boy, and they say he is attempting to regain his lost youth.  They give two brief examples.  A 35-year-old woman engages in cybersex in which she tells me to treat her like a slut, because when she was 16 she gave up her own baby for adoption and at some level she believes that she really is a slut.  In a survey of 40 patients, they determined that 27 had a history of sexual abuse, 29 had mood disorder, and 28 had sexual addiction. 14 of the 21 women in the study had an eating disorder, and 14 of the 19 men had a chemical dependency.  This sort of evidence is hardly strong confirmation of their hypothesis that cybersex typically serves as a re-enactment of past trauma, and skeptics might point out that such abuse hypotheses have often not stood up to careful scrutiny.  If cybersex addiction is as prevalent as some studies seem to show, then this would mean that sexual abuse is very common, and this takes us into familiar controversies.  Nevertheless, it is a claim that deserved further investigation. 

For treatment of cybersex addiction, Schwartz and Southern propose the same sorts of approaches suggested by others in this collection, but they put more emphasis on seeing the cybersex as symptomatic of an underlying disorder such as depression or PTSD.  But some clients may also have social skills deficits leading to their sense of isolation and their reliance on the virtual world, so Schwartz and Southern recommend social skills training for such people.  For other sorts of problems, they propose using many of the standard techniques of sex therapy. 

Since all these papers take a therapeutic stance, they have no interest in assessing personal responsibility for cybersex.  They do not want people to blame themselves because that simply increases shame.  Nevertheless, the question of responsibility will probably be of great concern to families with cybersex addicts and also to the addicts themselves.  At one end of the spectrum of possible positions is a simple disease model, which would hold that cybersex addicts have no direct control over their behavior, although they can take steps to end their disease.  Many people will be very skeptical about applying a disease model to cybersex addiction, which would be the most responsibility-absolving approach.  The view at the other extreme, that cybersex addiction is pure self-indulgence and has no excuse, may be more plausible to some. This is similar to cases where people are impatient with the excuses of compulsive gamblers, compulsive eaters, and compulsive shoppers.  There are positions between these two extremes which assign partial responsibility to the addict depending on the circumstances and the addict's history.  These questions of responsibility cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, especially when a cybersex addict has been negligent to his or her children, or has engaged in illegal online activity.  Psychologists may want to leave blame out of the therapeutic encounter, but they still should have something to say about the extent to which individuals could have refrained from engaging in their addictive behavior.  It is somewhat disappointing that the papers in this book avoid this issue. 

What is clear is that as most homes have not just one but several computers, often with a fast Internet connection, and personal phones (mobile/cell) and other portable devices become more integrated with the Internet, the problem of compulsive online sexual activity is likely to grow, and it will be very difficult to create software or controls that will prevent it.  While books like Cybersex should be helpful in an individual therapeutic context, we may well also have to deal with the addiction as a social problem.  It seems unlikely that any "Just Say No" education program would be of much use.  If psychologists can provide any real insight and effective intervention into the problem, they may be able to have a powerful role to play in the shaping of our assessment of the benefits and costs of the Internet. 

 

Link:

·        Review of Kimberly S. Young: Caught in the Net

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.