In today’s world, pretty much everyone has a laptop, tablet, and/or smartphone. As such, pretty much everyone has 24/7 access to everything the internet and smartphone apps have to offer—including sex and romance. And because of this, sexual addiction is very much on the rise.
For most people, of course, digital sexnology is not an issue. The vast majority of people are able to experiment with porn, video chat, hookup apps, and the like without getting addicted, just as most people are able to drink alcohol or take a few puffs of marijuana without becoming addicted. However, some people (approximately 15 to 20 percent of the overall population) are vulnerable to addictive disorders (of all types), usually thanks to a combination of genetics, early-life exposure, and unresolved trauma issues. For these individuals, digital sexuality can become an addiction just like alcohol or drugs, with all of the usual addiction-related consequences: relationship trouble, problems at work or in school, loss of interest in previously enjoyable hobbies and activities, depression, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, financial woes, legal issues, etc.
Thus, we see that human vulnerability rather than sexnology is to blame for sexual addiction. The simple truth is that compulsive sexual behaviors have been around since the dawn of man. In fact, research conducted in the 1980s (the pre-internet years) found that 3 to 5 percent of the adult male population struggled with addictive sexuality. That is the group I was treating in the early 1990s in my sex addiction focused clinical practice. Mostly these guys were hooked on prostitutes, porn theaters, strip clubs, serial affairs, and/or phone sex (at $.99 per minute).
By the late 90s, however, after porn sites, online bulletin boards, and AOL chat rooms hit the net, my clients were far more likely to be struggling with internet driven sexuality. Plus, I was seeing a much higher number of sexually addicted clients. That’s when I started to think that the affordability, anonymity, and accessibility (the Triple-A Engine) of the internet might be facilitating and driving sexual addiction. As it turns out, I was right. Research published in 1999 listed the number of sexually addicted adult males as 8.5 percent of the population, approximately double the pre-internet finding.
Seventeen years later we don’t have updated figures, but it’s clear that as digital technology becomes more and more sexualized, sexual addiction is on the rise. Moreover, once the sole province of adult males, sex addiction is now an equal opportunity disorder, with females and younger people (especially adolescent males) also struggling.
It is also clear that the vast majority of today’s sex addicts incorporate digital technology into their addictive routine. Some do so exclusively, compulsively using porn, virtual reality sex games, and video chat without ever having a real world sexual encounter. Others use technology nonexclusively, typically facilitating real world sex via hookup apps and social media. Usually, this is in addition to their compulsive use of porn, video chat, and other forms of digital sexuality.
The simple and undeniable truth is that modern day sex addiction is a digital endeavor. Whatever a sex addict wants, technology provides. And it does so in abundance. For example, researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam report the following:
In 1991, the year the World Wide Web went online, there were fewer than 90 different adult magazines published in America, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find a newsstand that carried more than a dozen. Just six years later, in 1997, there were about 900 pornography sites on the Web. Today, the filtering software CYBERsitter blocks 2.5 million adult Web sites.
Notably, Ogas and Gaddam conducted their research in 2009 and 2010, before the advent of user-generated porn (the sexy selfies and self-made videos that now pepper the internet). This new form of porn typically makes its way into wider circulation when sexts, images, and videos on dating sites, hookup apps, and social media are misappropriated. Nowadays, between professional and user-generated imagery, porn is so ubiquitous that it’s impossible to quantify.
And porn is just the tip of the sexnological iceberg. Hookup apps are almost as prevalent. For instance, Tinder, a popular app worldwide, is available in 30 languages with more than 50 million users. And the app’s users are swiping other members’ profiles 1.6 billion times every single day. In case you’re wondering, that’s 18,518 swipes per second! So yeah, it appears that some people might be addicted.
In the late 1990s I coined the term “cybersex addiction” to differentiate between the two types of clients I was seeing: traditional (real world) sex addicts, and those who were acting out primarily online. Today that term is redundant. All sex addicts are cybersex addicts to some degree. Regardless of age or gender, sex addicts typically engage in several or even all of the following behaviors:
- Compulsive use of digital pornography, with or without masturbation
- Compulsive casual and/or anonymous sexual hookups facilitated by dating and/or hookup websites and apps
- Compulsive engagement in video chat, with sessions often culminating in mutual masturbation
- Compulsive searching for sexualized imagery and/or potential sex partners on social media sites
- Compulsive sexting (sending and/or receiving)
- Compulsively seeking (or selling) sexual favors via websites like Craigslist and Backpage, and also on more traditional dating and hookup websites and apps
- Compulsively searching for and hooking up with PNP (party and play) partners via websites and apps
- Compulsively seeking and engaging in marathon sex and/or group sex, usually finding partners via websites and apps
- Compulsive exhibitionism and/or voyeurism via webcam, often on sites that randomly pair chat partners (such as Chatroulette and Omegle)
- Playing virtual world sex games
Despite the change in venue (moving from the real world to the online world), the basics of sex addiction have remained constant. Sex addicts are preoccupied with sex to the point of obsession, they’ve lost control over their sexual behaviors (typically evidenced by multiple failed attempts to quit or cut back), and they’re experiencing directly related negative life consequences as a result. And because sex addiction is, for the most part, the same as ever, sex addiction treatment, with a few minor digital era tweaks, is the same as always—most often a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, accountability, social learning, and 12-step recovery.
I think it is important to reiterate, before I wrap up, that although sexnology does facilitate sexual addiction, it is not a root cause of sexual addiction. In fact, as stated above, most people are able to use porn, hookup apps, and other sexnologies in non-compulsive ways. They do not become addicted, and they do not experience negative consequences. Generally, it is only the individuals who are predisposed to addiction who struggle with digital sexuality, the same as they might struggle with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or any other potentially addictive substance or activity. As such, the growing availability of digitized sexual content and partners does not increase the likelihood that people will struggle with life and/or become addicted; it merely increases the likelihood that their problems will be sexual in nature.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician, Rob has served as a subject expert for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is also the author of several highly regarded books. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.