Cybersex Addiction…What is it?

What is Cybersex Addiction?

Cybersex Addiction

Cybersex addiction is a form of sex addiction in which the sexual behavior involves the use of the internet for a sexual experience that becomes addictive, that is the addict is unable to stop excessive sexual behavior despite the consequences.  Cybersex goes beyond pornography addiction, in which the addict spends 10 or more hours a week viewing pornographic internet images or videos.  These may be legal pornography or they may be illegal, i.e. images or videos involving children or underage teens.   Addiction to internet pornography is now being talked about as a virtual epidemic in the United States and elsewhere.  In the Christian community alone, 57% of pastors report that porn addiction is the most damaging issue for their congregation (Dan Drake, MS) and 71% of those with sexual acting-out problems also use the internet as a sexual venue.

Teens and Cybersex Addiction

There are many ways in which the internet can fuel cybersex addiction.  “Sexting” had become common in recent years among teens in particular.  In sexting young people share sexual material with others in the form of written text that has sexual content or they transmit sexual images such as nude photos of themselves or someone else. The internet is a significant gateway drug for young people to be primed for cybersex addiction.  The average first time contact with internet pornography is age 11.  The largest consumers of internet pornography are the 12 to 17 year old group.  Even without pornography however, teens and even children are subject to a barrage of sexual content through electronic games that contain highly sexual material.

Cybersex Addiction in Many Forms

A wide range of adolescent and adult behaviors fit under the broad category of cybersex addiction.  These include accessing sexual chat rooms, finding prostitutes, finding “hook-ups” (others who are immediately available for sex in real life) and selling or trading of pornographic photos and videos.  When these activities are engaged in excessively they tend to interfere with the person’s normal functioning in their daily life.  When the person fails to stop the excessive sexual behavior despite the consequences they are like a drug addict who cannot do without their drug.  They are described as having a cybersex addiction

The Real Life Problems Associated with Cybersex Addiction

I had a patient who was a successful medical doctor who was so in the grip of a cybersex addiction that he had on one occasion had sex with seven different women in one day, all of whom he found through ads on the internet.  For the most part we think of cybersex addicts as using a computer or laptop but this same man told me that when he gave up his access to his smart phone and laptop in an effort to quit, he managed to find a way to use his automobile GPS to find a “hook-up” i.e. access to an immediate sex partner.

Cybersex addiction is often called “the great accelerator” or “the crack cocaine of sex addiction”.  A person prone to sexual acting-out behavior discovers new kinds of imagery and behavior that they never thought of consciously before and quickly becomes compulsively fixated on these new images and scenarios, ultimately seeking to act them out in their life.  It is thought that this takes place because the new imagery acts to trigger something unconscious, something forgotten but not gone, in the psychosexual history of the person.

Cybersex addiction is particularly insidious because it is sexual contact that is easily accessible, often cheap or free and can be done anonymously in private.  It is equally insidious because in contrast to some other kinds of sex addicts such as those who have serial affairs, spend their salaries on strippers or prostitutes, or engage in real-life risky behaviors like voyeurism or exhibitionism, cybersex addicts have little fear of the consequences because they can  tell themselves that their behavior may be compulsive but that it is basically harmless or victimless.  This is most definitely not the case.  It is a pattern of behavior that exists over time and usually does not resolve itself but rather tends to increase or “escalate” in terms of the obsession with the behavior, the frequency of the behavior, the risks taken in the process, and the increasing disregard for what is socially acceptable.

Cybersex addiction has serious consequences on many fronts: marital, financial, and occupational.  One of my patients who is a cybersex addict developed a fetish that completely consumed him sexually both online and in real life.  He sought treatment when he realized that he was himself disgusted with this behavior and that he was incapable of a normal relationship.  Of the many costs of cybersex addiction, perhaps one of the least appreciated is that young males who view significant amounts of pornography are becoming unable to be sexually aroused by a real person.  So insidious is the airbrushed perfectionism of the internet’s sexual imagery (97% of internet imagery is artificially altered to be more perfect) that recent findings suggest that men are becoming impotent in real life situations with real women.

If not actually causeing impotence, cybersex addiction presents a serious risk to a person’s ability to bond with another in a love relationship.  The expectations of what sex is become too unrealistic.  A sex addict  I know in his 50’s who has struggled with cybersex in many of it’s forms is fond of saying: “Miss January is always there for me, she always wants me!”  Never mind that’s she’s not a real person.


Why is Sex Addiction Called an Intimacy Disorder?

Why is Sex Addiction an Intimacy Disorder?

Normally sex and intimacy should be with the same person

Sex Addiction is called an intimacy disorder because people who are sex addicts do not know how to relate in an intimate (close) relationship in an open and comfortable way.  Not only are sex and intimacy detached from one another they are not even in the same neighborhood.  Intimacy is an essential part of love relationships.  It is the ability to share all parts of ourselves (our thoughts, our bodies, our feelings), to be vulnerable, and to be honest about what is going on inside of us.  Even with someone they love, sex addicts are “intimacy disabled”, that is they are fearful of sharing their true selves with another person and are therefore unable to share one or more aspects of their true selves.  They are unhappy and lonely and desperately want to “connect”.  Like the now cliché lyric says, they are “looking for love in all the wrong places”.  But the solution to the problem does not lie outside of them.  It is more than just bad choices, poor judgment or a lack of adequate information.  It is a deeper problem and that is why it is termed and intimacy disorder.  The sex addict is literally unable to break down the wall that distorts and separates his sex life from his normal life and unable to integrate the various parts of himself in the context of a loving relationship.  See for partners of sex addicts.


Origins in Infant and childhood bonding problems

Sexual addiction as an intimacy disorder results in part from a lack of adequate bonding due to some disruption in the relationship to a primary caregiver (usually the parent).  Sex addicts were often sexually abused as children but they are more often emotionally neglected and tend to come from families that are rigid, authoritarian or sexually repressed.  This failure leads to an inability to trust and to bond normally with another and a fear of sharing all the parts of oneself with another.   In sex addicts this intimacy disorder results in the addict leading a “double life”.  Most often the addict’s sex life exists apart from his or her life with a spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend.  Even when the sex addict is having sex with a partner or spouse, it is often the case that the addict is not “all there”.  He or she may be lost in fantasy or just going through the motions.  Many addicts feel they are having satisfying sex with their partners when in fact they are not really able to be present.  Even addicts who feel they really desire their partner usually have some other more compelling and highly charged experience that they revert to outside of their relationship whether it is serial seduction, hook-ups, prostitutes, chat rooms or affairs.

It’s not always the parents’ fault

Not all problems with attachment in childhood and the resulting intimacy disorders come from parental neglect.  Some attachment problems also arise through accidents of fate such as the illness, absence or death of a caregiver.  (There is also thought to be both a genetic predisposition to addictions in general which may be passed on as a predisposition to addiction in the case of sexual addiction as well.)

Intimacy disorder is curable

A person who is so-called “intimacy-abled” is able to form a healthy intimate and sexual attachment with a partner in adulthood.  That implies the ability to trust your partner, to trust your own ability to set boundaries, to communicate your feelings in the moment, to be able to commit, and to relate to a partner with all aspects of yourself and not to lead part of your life in isolation or compartmentalization, separate from the one you love.   The untreated baggage of a disordered attachment history leads to mistrust, fear, distancing, sexual conflicts, feeling unlovable, and lack of experience with healthy communication.  These are underlying problems that are effectively treated in sex addiction treatment and sex addiction therapy.  The work of recovery is not only about becoming able to abstain from compulsive sexual addictive behaviors; it is about learning to relate to others in a different way.  Tackling the intimacy disorder aspects of the sex addict psyche is fundamental to lasting recovery from sex addiction.   See also Getting Help.



Sex Addiction as a “Pathological Relationship” with a “Drug”

One of the definitions of sex addiction is: “a pathological relationship with a mood altering experience.”  This definition comes out of an earlier formulation in alcohol and drug dependency theory, namely that addiction is “a pathological  relationship with a mood altering substance”.  Expanding the definition of addiction to include behaviors, sometimes called “process addictions” such as gambling, eating, and sexual addictive behaviors allows us to see the person’s relationship to the sexual behavior as problematic or pathological, rather than the behavior itself.  The key point here is that the same behavior may be sexually addictive behavior for one person and not for another.  Good examples of this are cyber sex and internet pornography.  Someone may engage in these in an infrequent and harmless way while another person may engage in these to the point that they constitute a sexual addiction.

A pathological relationship to a sexually addictictive behavior has to do with the role it plays in our life.  In the case of sexual addictions the behavior occupies a role in our lives that is unhealthy in some way, meaning that it has consequences that are destructive or dangerous to ourselves or others.  In the case of sexual addiction the pathological element could have to do with

  1. extreme focus on the behavior, such as using internet pornography for hours every day,
  2.  the riskiness of the behavior such as frequent anonymous sex,
  3. with the potential legal consequences of behaviors such as exhibitionism and voyeurism and
  4. the potential for the behavior to be seriously disruptive to the person’s life and functioning in relationships, career, etc whether or not the sex addiction is ever discovered.

A mood altering behavior refers to the sex addict’s reason for engaging in the behavior (or engaging in it to an excessive degree).  In sex addiction, as in all other addictions, behaviors are considered potentially mood altering and therefore potentially addictive in that they can be used to “medicate” unpleasant feelings (such as fear, depression, worthlessness, rage etc.) due to the chemicals released in the brain when those behaviors are performed. See also Sex Addiction is a Drug

For many people who struggle with sex addiction, masturbation was used early in life as a self-soothing or self-medicating strategy to escape from fear, abandonment, depression and betrayal.  Many sexually addictive behaviors are a reenactment of traumatic experiences from childhood.  Sexual addictive behavior carried over into adulthood becomes a habitual way to deal with emotion and stress.  Unfortunately sexual addiction as a way to self-medicate has far reaching and negative consequences as do all drugs.  See also This is Your Brain on Cyber Porn