In today’s world, pretty much everyone owns a computer, laptop, pad, smartphone and/or some other Internet-enabled digital device. As of this writing, there are nearly 3 billion Internet users worldwide, with almost 90 percent of Americans going online at least occasionally. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and the like have hundreds of millions of users. We also interact via text, instant messaging, various forms of chat, webcams, gaming devices and more. In short, digital technologies allow real-time relations with pretty much anyone, anywhere, at any time.
The good news is that this constant and nearly limitless interconnectivity exposes us to more information, more entertainment and more people than ever before. Plus, it enables and supports our very human needs for community and social support, allowing us to not only meet new people but to maintain meaningful contact with existing friends and family even when they are thousands of miles away. Relationships that would have fizzled as little as a decade ago because somebody moved away for work, school or any number of other reasons can now continue unabated, sometimes even growing and thriving.
The bad news is that digital technology also brings increased potential for addiction. Websites and apps can for some people facilitate a wide variety of addictions, including sexual addiction. Yes, for the vast majority of people things like Internet pornography, text and video chat rooms, social media sites, dating sites, and “adult friend finder” apps are either sources of pleasurable distraction or healthy ways to find new friends and possibly dates. However, individuals predisposed to addictive and impulsive behavior patterns can quickly and easily lose themselves in an online sexual wonderland. And while this loss of control over sexual fantasies and activities may sound like a really good time, it isn’t. In reality, sexual addiction (also known as hypersexuality and sexual compulsivity) is about as much fun as heroin addiction, and it’s just as devastating in terms of negative life consequences.
Sexual Addiction Defined
Sex addicts are dysfunctionally preoccupied with sexual fantasies and activity. Like drug addicts, they build their lives around their addiction—planning for it, seeking it out, engaging in it and covering it up. Over time, they lose interest in healthy activities they used to enjoy—working, going to school, hanging out with friends and family, exercise, hobbies, etc., instead focusing on their pursuit of sexual fantasy and activity. Eventually sex addicts, like alcoholics and drug addicts, experience negative consequences related to their addiction. These problems include (but are hardly limited to) relationship instability, emotional turmoil, physical health issues, trouble at work or in school, financial woes, and arrest. Typically, sex addicts have tried and failed (sometimes repeatedly) to self-correct their sexual compulsivity. Often they’ve made (but failed to uphold) promises to themselves and/or loved ones to eliminate or at least to limit their problematic sexual activities.
The Rising Role of “Sexnology”
In days of yore, if you wanted to look at pornography you had to be at least 18 and willing to fork over a significant amount of cash for a magazine that offered, at most, a very limited range of 10 or 20 images. Nowadays porn of every ilk imaginable is available 24/7/365 to anyone with an Internet connection regardless of age. Softcore, hardcore, straight, gay, bisexual, groups, fetishes and anything else you can think of is out there, and more often than not it’s free. All an interested person needs to do is seek it out. Heck, with iPads and smartphones you don’t even have to get out of bed. For sex addicts this can be incredibly problematic.
And it’s not just porn that presents a problem for sex addicts. Extramarital affairs and anonymous/casual sexual encounters have also become much more accessible thanks primarily to “adult friend finder” apps. With these apps, which use the same geolocating technology that can help you locate a nearby restaurant, you can instantly locate any number of potential sex partners. Sex addicts who don’t want an in-the-flesh encounter can visit video chat rooms for mutual masturbation or play virtual sex games (where they create avatars of themselves and walk them through various erotic scenarios). Or they can engage in numerous other forms of virtual sexual activity. No muss, no fuss, just the sex, thank you very much.
Even seemingly benign technologies are showing the potential for abuse. For instance, social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram have become new (and socially acceptable) places to peruse intimate photos, gain personal information, seek out hot chats, and hook up for online or in-person sexual encounters.
Help Is Available
The Internet and related digital technologies have increased the average person’s ability to affordably and anonymously access an astounding array of intensely stimulating sexual content and potential partners. With this increase therapists are seeing a parallel rise in the number of people seeking help with out-of-control sexual fantasies and behaviors. In short, with every advance in digital technology, we see a corresponding upturn in the incidence of sexual addiction.
Happily, help is available to those who seek it. Generally sex addicts in search of recovery respond best to a combination of addiction focused individual therapy—both individual and group—and the support of twelve-step fellowships like Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. For sex addicts who are struggling with recovery and lasting behavior change, inpatient sex addiction rehab facilities can jumpstart the healing process.
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 is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.