Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Cybersex Addiction: Challenges to Relationships and Recovery

hand on computerRecently, politics has brought cybersex addiction to the forefront of our media sources and our minds. Given political agenda, however, the focus has primarily been one of voiced outrage, questions of leadership competency and judgment about spousal reactions.

Less focus has been directed at the consideration of cybersex as addiction, and the challenges to relationships and recovery.

Given the explosion of Internet use in the last decade, experts are still building on research that examines the parameters, diagnosis and treatment of on-line compulsive sexual behaviors.  As yet there is still no official diagnosis for Cybersex Addiction in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V, despite increasing evidence that addictive cybersex is as devastating as other addictions.

A beginning look may invite prevention for some and motivation to seek help for others.

What is Cybersex?

Cybersex can include viewing sexual images or content online, talking about the material with others online, or engaging in two-way conversations about sex acts. It can also include the use of Web cameras to engage in sexual acts with another partner online.

How Common is it?

  • Visits to adult sexual sites are not rare for adult online users and do not necessarily equate to addiction. Research on cybersex with samples of over 9,000 reveals that 20-30% of online users visit sites that engage in online sexual activities and report no adverse reactions.
  • What the report finds is a marked difference in the quality, amount of time, secrecy, compulsivity and devastation between those who occasionally visit a site and those who become addicted to on-line sexual pursuits.
  • Findings suggest that while 20 million people visit sexual sites each month, only one percent will develop a cybersex compulsion. As the researchers suggest with concern–that is 200,000 people.

Experts like Al Cooper, editor of Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force describe the difference in terms of a continuum model. He describes three types of people who use the Internet for sexual pursuits:

  • The recreational users who access online sexuality more out of curiosity and entertainment purposes and do not have problems with online sexual behavior. They are comparable to social drinkers.
  • Sexual compulsive users who have a pre-existing problem with pathological sexual expression and use the Internet as one of the forums for their sexual activities.
  • The people “At-Risk for Cybersex Addiction”- those who have underlying unresolved emotional problems and for whom the anonymity, accessibility and affordability of the Internet makes possible a “fix” that develops into a Cybersex addiction.

When is Cybersex an Addiction?

  • Like the addiction to drugs or alcohol, cybersex addiction involves an obsessive and compelling need for a “ fix” at the cost of anyone and anything.
  • Cybersex is physically and neurophysiologically transformative.The sexual arousal and release affords pleasure that is temporarily transformative. Simply said, it may be a “fix” for anxiety, despair, self-doubt, rage, fear of abandonment etc.. The problem is that the fix doesn’t last. It can’t.
  • As with any addiction, there is an increasing tolerance, an increasing need and a lack of control in satisfying it.
  • There is an inability to stop despite grave physical, social, economic and emotional consequences.
  • Denial, self-deception and lying become desperate responses in face of confrontation.
  • Often at the point of actually losing “ the fix” the person suffers not only psychological devastation; but also physical withdrawal symptoms.

I lived for the time when I could be back online. I felt guilty because I avoided sex with my wife. I kept thinking I could stop.

I stayed until everyone left the office. I took a lot of risks.

 Challenges to Relationships

While all addictions have the potential to destroy marriages, cybersex impairs the addicted partner and assaults and implicates the spouse.

Whereas it is difficult to hide the evidence of alcohol or drugs, compulsive sexting, masturbating to porn sites, or online sexual liaisons can be hidden for a time.

The discovery brings with it a cascade of feelings. The addicted partner often moves from denial to shame, remorse and promises. The partner of an addicted person often moves through feelings of denial, shock, anger, violation and self-blame.

Often the spouse feels betrayed–likening it to an affair.

Both men and women partners of  addicted partners report feeling rejected and self-recriminating.

  • I am intelligent – how did I miss this? Maybe I wasn’t there enough or sexy enough. Maybe I have to dress differently?
  • She was replacing me with someone online…I felt ashamed and disgusted.

For many couples, after the discovery, there is a marked effort to problem solve and sexually reconnect with promises to stop.

Often it is the failed attempt and resulting crisis that becomes the turning point for help or the end of the relationship.

Challenges to Recovery

No one recovers from a cybersex addiction without help and no one recovers for someone else.

Recovery is possible and may start with sexual rehab programs or 12 step programs; but there are specific challenges that make sustained commitment, self imposed restrictions and ongoing work with a sponsor, therapist and/ or group indispensible.

Temptations of a High Tech Culture

  • Robert Weiss and Jennifer Schneider, authors of Untangling the Web, note that whereas avoidance of people, places and things is viable when addressing a drug or alcohol addiction to avoid craving and relapse, there are few places or ways of functioning at home or at work without a phone or computer.  These sources of cybersex temptation are endemic to modern culture. While total restriction may be a crucial step for detox in a rehab program, the outside world is fraught with temptations.
  • Successful sobriety equates to ongoing self-imposed restrictions that may include new computers, programs that block sites, use of computers only in a public room, and ongoing self-monitoring with the help of sponsors and continued involvement with 12 step groups etc.

New Definition of Abstinence

  • The definition of sobriety for most addictions means complete abstinence. With cybersex addiction, sobriety cannot equate to complete abstinence from sex. Complete abstinence for most would jeopardize marriage recovery or impede options for future connection and intimacy.
  • As such, abstinence must be defined as a personal, often written, commitment to be shared with a sponsor or therapist as well as the partner. This is the commitment that usually has to take hold for marital partners to trust a way to reconnect again.

Recovery from cybersex addiction like most addictions is a commitment that takes time and motivation. For those suffering, life changes come not only from undoing the “fix” but continued help to address the issues and sources of emotional pain that put them at risk.

For couples, professional help is crucial for both partners to address issues of secrecy, shame and mistrust as well as to offer support and options for new patterns of communication and intimacy.

In a culture of ever expanding technology and online resources, we are offered a great deal and we are also put at risk. Although, we may still be learning about cybersex addiction, people are suffering now.

We can’t wait to share what we know. We can’t wait to address the problem.