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Fantasy obsession in the Internet age

A new book by Robert Weiss LCSW, CAS and Jennifer Schneider M.D., Ph.D. offers explanations for porn addiction, with strategies towards healing.

Cybersex. Solicitation of minors on the Web. Internet porn. The Internet and the immediacy that it offers for sexual gratification has shaped our society more profoundly than any other media in history. Prominent politicians, business executives and Americans have seen their careers and lives derailed due to cybersex addiction.

With personal stories from porn addicts and significant others, professionals Robert Weiss and Jennifer Schneider offer direction, understanding, and hope to anyone sturggling with the devastating effects of porn and sexual betrayal on intimacy, relationships, family, career, and self respect.

Read an excerpt of chapter one, below.

Chapter One:
How bad is the online problem?

I have joined a porn site again and have spent the last week e-mailing women for sex. I am online twenty-four hours a day. I have not worked. I hardly sleep. I am useless.I am concerned about my addiction to pornography. I feel it has kept me from taking the risks needed to be intimate enough to have a real relationship with someone else. I’m 32.I have lost someone I loved very much due to my cybersex and porn addictions. Please tell me how I can get the help I need.

These problems continue to increase. A ground-breaking survey by Dr. Alvin Cooper and associates of a 9,265 Internet users found that 8.5 percent were sexually compulsive or addicted. These cybersex users spent at least eleven hours per week in online sexual pursuits. They were considered to be addictive in their cybersex use because they generally denied they had a problem; had made repeated efforts to decrease their online sexual activities; and continued going online despite poor academic or job performance, relationship difficulties, job loss, sexual harassment lawsuits, arrest, failed relationships, or other adverse consequences related to their cybersex use.

Approximately 1 percent of those identified as “cybersex addicts” in a follow-up analysis reported a lengthy history of sexual acting out (compulsive sexual activities) and sexually addictive behaviors such as anonymous sex, sex with prostitutes, and compulsive masturbation, that long preceded their discovery of sex on the Internet. This group of people was having sexual behavior problems even before the Internet came along. For them, the appearance of the Internet simply became another means of accessing a longstanding obsession.

Hank, a 46-year-old married man, began downloading and viewing pornography and erotic stories online from almost the first day he got a computer. Over time this advanced to nightly participation in sexually oriented chat rooms while masturbating to the images and explicit communication that other people would offer him online. Despite having no previous history of adultery, Hank planned and carried out two extramarital sexual encounters with long-term online sexual partners, seeking help only when his wife found out about his behavior and threatened to leave him. Hank writes of the many consequences of his cybersex involvement:

Looking back, I am amazed by the immense amount of time and energy I put into my cybersex activity. It created emotional distance, frustration, and impatience in my relationships with my wife and children and took up work time and office resources. Waiting until my wife went to sleep and then often staying up on the computer until two or three in the morning left me, more often than not, getting only three to six hours of sleep, leaving me exhausted, depressed, and physically unwell. Our marital sex life became practically existent and I watched my wife blame herself for my distancing from her. I spent money we didn’t have on pay-per-view porn sites, memberships in online sex sites and the Webcam I used to access and engage in live online sex acts. I even bought gifts for some online “girlfriends” whom I never actually met.  Several times I had to cancel my credit cards when I found out that the ones I had used to pay for some of these online services had been used illegally by others. My teenage son found my porn stash one day on the computer and began “collecting” it for himself. He has caught me on more than one occasion viewing pornography. He knows it is wrong and that I am wrong to be involved in it. My son and I have kept the secret of our online porn  use from his mother, my wife. I know it’s crazy, I heard that when I say it all out loud, but I have to admit that I think about getting back online all the time.

And it isn’t only men who have these problems. Rosalie is a married 35-year-old systems analyst. Having made it through a rough and impoverished childhood, which she had decided to just “put behind,” she was pleased finally to have a peaceful and stable family of her own. A mother of two children, she felt content with her life. This changed rapidly with her discovery of online sex.

One day at work, I accidentally stumbled across a porn site by hitting the wrong key when looking for a business Web site online. Curiosity is why I went back. Within a matter of days, I was visiting porn sites and sexual chat rooms on a daily basis, and within weeks, it seemed like that was all I did. It literally took control and consumed my life. I went from joining all the free stuff, to accessing anything I could to fuel my interest. I didn’t want to go home. I began to lie to my husband about having to work late just so I could continue. I lost my mind in such a short time that I could not function at work or home. It took all I could do hold up a straight face among my coworkers and family. I became very withdrawn and depressed. My mind filled with dark and hurtful images, including bestiality. I felt like such a bad person, but I didn’t know what to do. I guess that cybersex can take people down a road they never dreamed they would go. I somehow got sucked into it and it has been hell to get out.

Hank and Rosalie are examples of people who got quickly hooked on the net. What is it about computer sex that can make it so powerful and addicting? Dr. Alvin Cooper, a cybersex addiction expert, reported that the intensity and lure of the Internet are powered by “A Triple A Engine,” that is, Accessibility, Affordability, and Anonymity of the Internet.

With more and more people gaining access to the Web daily, Internet access has grown to hundreds of millions of people. Moreover, it no longer takes a genius to find your way around. Computing software, once an engineering mystery, is now user-friendly with screen icons and helpful prompts making computer use simple, even for very young children. Increasingly today, you can access the Internet in one form or another not only through the traditional stationary home and work computer, but from anywhere in the world via laptop computer, PDA, cell phone, and portable digital music/video player. Any airport waiting area, hotel, or coffee shop with a Wi-Fi hotspot offers the ability to get online and download images and information from a remote location.

In the 1970s, computers were prohibitively expensive, occupied large rooms, and were truly functional only for government and large corporate use. Today, much more powerful computers take up no more than a corner of a desk, are relatively inexpensive and cost almost nothing to use. An evening spent in a pornographic bookstore or strip club might cost hundreds of dollars, whereas an evening spent on the computer might cost 40 cents unless you are buying images or joining membership sites. Unlimited Internet has made entertainment in general, and sexual entertainment in particular, more affordable than ever before.

As long-distance medium if communication, the Internet has many possibilities that person-to-person contact does not. It allows the user to try out different roles, to assume any identity or characteristics he wishes: A 5’4 300 lbs.-man can present himself in a teen chat room as an 18-year-old high school basketball player or as a 16-year-old girl seeking a pen pal. Most people who visit chat rooms change some facts about themselves, often their age or physical appearance, and even their gender. In a yearlong (2000-2001) survey of more than 9,000 Internet users, 48 percent reported that they changed their age “occasionally” and 23 percent reported they did so “often.” Thirty-eight percent of the entire sample reported changing their race while online; 5 percent admitted to claiming occasionally to be the opposite sex, or “gender bending.” Many people use false names or “handles” to increase their anonymity.

The Internet by nature is very anonymous. Like most online users, you most likely have a perception of complete privacy in your interactions. Not having to leave home to access sexual material or contact eliminates the possibility of being observed or caught by a neighbor, friend, or coworker somewhere in the midst of a sexual interaction (adult bookstore, massage parlor, public park). Using a computer or portable device, you can access a desired Web site pretty much anywhere – from your own living room or bedroom to a moving car or elevator. People in the past who might have been too uncomfortable or embarrassed to be caught sitting in an “adult theatre” or strip club, now savor the same types of activities in the privacy of their home or – all too often – in their office at work, and increasingly in restaurants, bars, coffee houses, or just about anywhere the Internet can be accessed.

The accessibility, affordability, and anonymity of online use make it very attractive, particularly for pornography viewing and sexual intrigue. There are other features that also increase the lure of the Internet for cybersex use.

One significant way in which viewing Internet pornography differs from television, films, and magazines is that the Internet is addictive. No longer does a viewer of sexual content passively purchase a magazine or film and be stuck with what they get; he or she can now sort and reshuffle their images and experiences, changing them a the first feeling of boredom or disinterest. Not only does the online user have control over the endlessness of sexual words and images, but interactivity also means live interactions between real people in real time. With the Internet, users connect through words (chats) or images (Webcams), actually interacting with the person at the other end. These exchanges can range from simple discussions all the way to live sexual acts being directed through the keyboard while being watched and mutually experienced on screen. Thus Internet technology has the power to hold and keep one’s interest far longer than any previous medium for sexual content.