In today’s world the Internet is pretty much ubiquitous. Nearly everyone owns a computer, laptop, pad, smartphone, or whatever – all of which provide a level of interconnectivity and access that was almost unthinkable as little as ten years ago. Because of this, we now have endless opportunities for social interaction and almost limitless access to information and entertainment. Unfortunately, for some people certain forms of online content can be addictive. This is especially true with intensely arousing “sexnologies” like digital pornography (still images and videos), hookup websites and smartphone apps (Skout, Tinder, Ashley Madison, and the like), sexualized chat (text and video), virtual reality sex worlds, and much, much more.
As clinicians treating sexual addiction and other sexual disorders are well aware, online porn is usually the bell cow in terms of sexnology-driven addictions. This is hardly a surprise, given the current online porn explosion. And no, I’m not exaggerating when I use the word “explosion.” Current statistics tell us that 12% of today’s websites are pornographic, 25% of search engine requests are porn-related, and 35% of all downloads are of sexualized imagery. And all of these numbers are up significantly from just a few years ago, thanks primarily to user-generated pornography (amateur exhibitionism, misappropriated sexts, and the like). The simple truth is that pornography of every ilk imaginable is now anonymously available to anyone, anytime, on practically any digital device, and more often than not it’s free. The barriers to intensely arousing sexual imagery that existed just a few years ago (social taboos, age limitations, lack of variety, cost, and the like) no longer exist in today’s increasingly digital universe.
Porn, of course, is merely the tip of the sexnology iceberg. These days it is entirely possible to meet a potential sex partner using a smartphone hookup app, to flirt with that person via texts and sexts, to be sexual with that person via webcam and teledildonic devices, and then to brag about the encounter by posting on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. And the person with whom you’ve had this torrid sexual fling has never even been in the same room with you, because the entire interaction has taken place online. In fact, he or she might not even live on the same continent.
The deeper one looks at digital technology, the more obvious it becomes that anyone who is looking for highly arousing sexual content and willing sexual partners both can and will find an unending supply. On the one hand, this is pretty darn cool, since the backyard dating pond of yesteryear is now a big giant ocean. On the other hand, this unlimited access can be incredibly problematic for individuals predisposed to addiction. For most people, of course, accessing pornography, willing sexual partners, and other digital sexual activities is a source of temporary pleasure and amusement. However, those predisposed to addictive behavior patterns can easily find themselves lost in an escalating, obsessive quest for “more, different, and better.” Rather than using sexnology for fun and amusement, these people use the emotional intensity it provides as a way to escape and dissociate from uncomfortable emotions, life stressors, and the pain underlying psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, attachment deficits, unresolved trauma, and low self-esteem. Over time, repeatedly engaging in such behaviors can become compulsive and develop into an addiction.
Research conducted in the 1980s, before the Internet, suggested that 3 to 5 percent of the adult population struggled with addictive sexual behavior – mostly adult men who were hooked on video porn, affairs, prostitution, old fashioned phone sex, and similar activities. More recent studies and a great deal of anecdotal evidence indicate the problem of sexual addiction is growing more common in both adults and adolescents, and more evenly distributed among males and females. There is no doubt whatsoever that these changes are directly related to the easy, affordable, and anonymous access to pornography, willing sexual partners, and other highly arousing sexual activities that the Internet and other forms of digital technology provide. In other words, as digital technology has increased people’s access to potentially addictive sexuality, mental health professionals have seen a corresponding increase in the number (and variety) of people struggling with sexual addiction. It’s just that simple.
For more information on sex addiction, and on the intersection of tech and sex, you may want to check out one or both of the following books: Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.