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Sex, Tech and the Addiction Epidemic


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The Tech-Connect Boom  

Computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers and other mobile devices are ubiquitous in modern society. These Internet-accessible devices today provide a level of human interconnectivity that was almost unfathomable as little as a decade ago. Innovations like Facebook (launched in 2004), and Twitter (launched in 2006), have changed the way the world communicates by allowing live, real-time interaction with almost anyone, anytime, anywhere. Currently, Facebook has over a billion users, and Twitter more than 500 million (Bennett, 2012). When you consider the fact that the total population of the United States is a mere 315 million people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012), you gain some perspective on how big a deal our involvement with online media has become–and in such a short period of time. Furthermore, that involvement is increasing by the day. In 2012, the total number of people using the Internet worldwide was estimated at 2.4 billion, a 566% increase since 2000, with more people joining the digital revolution every single minute (Internet World Stats, 2012). Smartphones, tablets and the like have literally propelled humanity past hundreds of years of printed, typed and similar forms of text-driven communication into a future-now experience of live face-to-face interaction with anyone on the planet who has access to a similar device. 

On the plus side, this tech-connect explosion provides endless opportunities for evolving friendships that share common interests, developing community support of all types, increased engagement in our political systems, education, and even finding and developing romantic relationships. Couples and families physically separated by work or for any number of other reasons can stay connected long-distance, sharing in real time the minutiae of their day-to-day lives, indifferent to the miles or even continents that may separate them in the physical world. Furthermore, couples disconnected by geography can share emotional intimacy and even sexual acts via webcams and other ever-evolving computer-generated experiences. Those not in a committed relationship also use technology–to stay in touch with friends and even to find partners via e-dating, establishing and growing new relationships with less focus than ever before on who lives where. The very concept of physical distance is becoming a nonissue in terms of developing and maintaining relationships.

Houston, We Have a Problem  

Unfortunately, for individuals with social anxiety, profound adult or childhood trauma, attachment and intimacy disorders, and impulsive or addictive behavior problems the Internet has also brought access to an endless array of intense, highly stimulating, potentially addictive sexual content and experiences. Graphically arousing imagery, prostitution websites, geolocated anonymous sexual partners and even “virtual sex” encounters are now affordably and instantaneously available via the numerous smart devices we carry around 24/7 in our purses, pockets and briefcases. 

These sexual and romantic offerings are, of course, no more than a highly pleasurable source of fantasy-based amusement and distraction for the vast majority of individuals who choose to “connect” online, or more simply, to “get on to get off.” Regrettably, for individuals with the types of pre-existing emotional and psychological vulnerabilities mentioned above, use of these readily accessible, nearly instantaneous, impulsive and highly gratifying “pleasurable activities” can devolve into repetitive patterns of highly obsessive behaviors. In much the same way that drugs, gambling and overeating can be problematic for those prone to addiction, online porn, virtual sex and app-based hookups can become less a playful distraction and more a primary means of emotional escape, dissociation and self-soothing. 

People seeking treatment for these sexual addiction issues often say they find themselves losing not only precious free time to cybersex, but interest in and focus on their personal life, relationship(s), career, family, home, etc. Their sole aim in life becomes an obsessive and often desperate search for romantic and/or sexual intensity. Over time, individuals trapped in this fantasy-based cycle of emotional arousal and obsession experience the same type and degree of negative life consequences as other addicts–physical and emotional health concerns (disease transmission, lack of sleep, anxiety, etc.), relationship troubles, educational and career issues, legal problems and more. The siren’s call to just look at the next intensely arousing image or person turns into hours, sometimes even days, lost to porn and webcam sex. Many sex addicts describe a feeling of literally giving themselves away over and over again to the quick, anonymous, Internet-based sexual connections now available anywhere, anytime. 

Evolving Technology–Increase in Addictive Problems  

Whenever our access to intensely pleasurable and arousing substances, like cocaine and crystal meth, or experiences, like gambling and sex, is increased, so too is the potential for addiction. This is especially true when these substances and/or experiences are highly refined and amplified (like crack cocaine or Internet porn). 

To find a clear example of how technology has negatively affected human health and increased problem behavior patterns, you need to look no further than your local gas station/minimart. Who could have predicted that the past few decades of ever-improving transportation technology combined with our ability to inexpensively refine and distribute both wheat and sugar would lead to a generation of obesity? When entering a gas station to pay for your petrol a mere 30 or so years ago, the other items being sold consisted mainly of engine oil, coolant, radiator hoses, windshield wiper blades and the occasional pack of stale gum. But try paying for gas now without being bombarded by a junk food extravaganza–shelf after shelf of cookies, candies, donuts, chips, chocolate and soda, each product literally bursting with fats, sugar and unwelcome carbohydrates. And who among us doesn’t want/need that packet of cookies and a corn syrup-laced carbonated drink to wash them down? This ease of access combined with the greatly reduced cost of consumption is rapidly becoming a bit too much for our poor old mammalian psyches. After all, refined sugar is addictive, so our brains learn to crave it. 

Online porn is similar. For starters, it is intensely refined. If you don’t believe me, compare the magazine and video porn of the 1980s with the material you find online today! Furthermore, porn is now endlessly accessible and affordable. Oftentimes it’s free. Just as technological advances make it both easier and cheaper to access pleasurable, biologically stimulating and addictive foods in an ever-increasing variety, instant online access to profoundly pleasurable sexual content and encounters has fostered an increase in sexual acting out and sexual addiction. Thus, as we further develop our digital and related technologies (Faster! More! Now!), addiction to both substances and behaviors increases. It’s just that simple.

Sexual Content and Experience Timeline  

  • Prehistory to 1860: Intimate and recreational sexuality; cave, drawn and painted pornography; affairs and infidelity; public baths; prostitutes and harems; masturbation to fantasy
  • 1890 to 1977: All of the above plus photographic porn; XXX movies; adult bookstores and porn shops; bathhouses and strip clubs
  • 1977 to 1990: All of the above plus in-home video (Betamax and VHS); phone sex; softcore porn on cable TV; “Adult” and “Escort” sections in phone books, magazines and newspapers
  • 1990 to 2004: All of the above plus online bulletin board systems; websites for porn and prostitution; file transfer sites; chat rooms, online hookup sites (Craigslist, etc.); webcams and interactive live sex
  • 2004 to the Present: All of the above plus sexting and live video streaming to and from smartphones; GPS (geolocating) smartphone hookup apps; social networking; virtual world sex (Second Life, virtual sex games, etc.); teledildonics; eye-tracking software

Sex–There’s an App for That!  

Recent technological advances have brought increased access to much more than pornography. Extramarital affairs and anonymous/casual sexual encounters have also become more accessible. Using the same technology it takes to find a nearby sushi bar, so called “friend finder” smartphone apps like Ashley Madison, Skout, Blendr, Grindr and Pink Cupid allow individuals to instantly locate sex partners. Download one of these apps onto your smartphone, log on, and the interface instantly displays a grid of pictures of immediately available potential sex partners. The apps use geolocating software to show you which potential partners are the closest–often they’re within a few hundred feet. Tapping on a picture displays a brief profile of that user, along with the option to chat, send pictures (sext) or share your own location. If the interest is mutual, you make a plan to meet and have sex. No more fumbling around in bars or on the street risking rejection or worse. No muss, no fuss–just the sex, thank you very much. 

If you’re using the Ashley Madison app to hook up, it’s actually better if you’re married (to someone other than your hookup partner). In fact, Ashley Madison’s company slogan reads: Life is Short, Have an Affair. Shockingly (or not), at the time of this writing Ashley Madison has well over 16 million members (Ashley Madison, 2012), which makes it one of the world’s most popular apps. In other words, the company has successfully monetized infidelity. And Ashley Madison was a successful website long before smartphone apps ever hit the scene, so it’s an excellent example of a company that has successfully transitioned from one media platform (computers) to another (smartphones). If only all business were so adaptable.

Unsurprisingly, smartphone apps have become the crack cocaine of sex addiction. Consider the words of Jason, a 36-year-old married, hardworking, self-employed electrician.

When our second child was born last year, time alone with my wife, Alicia, changed from frequent sex to late-night feedings and diaper changes. I had pretty much resigned myself to a diminished sex life until I got my first smartphone. I found the apps for Ashley Madison and Blendr pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I was spending more time hooking up than managing my shop. Time I used to spend calling on clients, making repairs and dealing with problems was suddenly devoted to stop-and-go sex, sex and more sex. I got behind on the mortgage and all the other bills, and I started lying to Alicia, too, telling her I was working late when I was hooking up with women I’d met online. Eventually she got suspicious, and she checked my smartphone to see what she could find. There were nude pictures of me and of a whole lot of women I’d met, plus text messages setting up sexual encounters. She took our baby and left, and now she wants to divorce me. The worst part is I still can’t stay away from the apps.

Say Hello to “Sexnology”  

It’s not just online porn and sex locater apps that are addictive. Vulnerable individuals must also face the threat of “virtual sex”–an entire universe of “sexnologies” designed to erotically simulate and/or stimulate. For instance, RealTouch has created a “teledildonic” masturbatory device that synchronizes in  real time with online porn. Working in tandem with the action taking place onscreen, the device warms itself, lubricates, grips, pulses, etc. It can be used in conjunction with a live person, too–a loved one, a porn performer, even a random webcam hookup who, at his or her end of the digital universe, stimulates a sensor-covered rod that transmits signals across the Internet to the receiving RealTouch device, which responds accordingly. In other words, people can now give and receive virtual hand-jobs and oral sex. In similar fashion, the KissPhone allows people to receive digital kisses. The person on one end of the digital connection kisses his or her phone and that device measures lip pressure, temperature, movement, etc., and then transmits that information to the KissPhone at the other end, which recreates it. It’s hardly a leap to envision a digitally accessed bank of movie star and porn performer kisses (and more) available for a price. Even rudimentary sex toys that have been around for years such as the Fleshlight–which mimics the sensation of a mouth, vulva or anus using “real feel superskin”–are getting new features. For instance, there is now an iPad-ready Fleshlight holding case that secures the Fleshlight beneath a user’s iPad so he can get off hands-free while watching porn. 

In addition to physical devices, sex in “virtual worlds” is also popular. In digital universes such as Second Life, users create customized fantasy avatars (animated figures) that are then used to participate in interactive online sexcapades. Some games allow users to basically produce their own pornography by creating locations and erotic scenarios, building actors with fetishized (usually oversized) body parts, controlling what the performers do, changing camera angles and even adding musical scores. Cecil B. DeMille would be amazed, though James Cameron might say, “Been there, done that.”

Another innovation is onscreen eye tracking, where tiny cameras (built-in or attached to the computer) track your eye movements as you scroll through, read and otherwise view the contents of a webpage. This technology allows the computer to “learn” about you by watching your eyes, discerning what most fascinates you based on how many nanoseconds your gaze lingers on one part of the computer screen versus another. The more interested in or aroused you are by something, the longer you will view it onscreen. In essence, your eyes automatically and often unconsciously linger on language, images or even parts of images you find engaging. This means that computers can, just by tracking your eye movements, determine what turns you on the most and then respond by opening pages, images and videos that mirror your deepest desires. It doesn’t even matter if you are consciously aware of your interest; the computer knows. Needless to say, the pornographic possibilities are endless.

Young People, Technology and Sexual Addiction  

Research on the topic of adolescent sexual activity is somewhat limited, but the little information there is makes it quite clear that as online accessibility, affordability and anonymity have increased, so too has problematic sexual behavior among teens (Braun-Courville & Rojas, 2009). Young people who are vulnerable to impulsive and addictive behavior patterns (boys and girls) are compulsively viewing and masturbating to pornography, obsessively engaging in romantic fantasies via chat rooms and social media sites such as Facebook, impulsively arranging casual and/or anonymous sexual hookups through dating sites and online hookup apps, and repeatedly engaging in various forms of virtual sex via webcams and pornographic video games. 

That said, with adolescents it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between normal sexual curiosity and problematic sexual behaviors. Furthermore, both teenagers and sex addicts are notoriously secretive about their behaviors, so diagnosing a teen sex addict is doubly difficult. Nevertheless, we know that children who repetitively abuse pornography or other sexual fantasies, urges and behaviors can suffer from stunted–sometimes severely stunted–emotional and psychological growth (Svedine, Adkerman, & Prieve, 2010). There is a very good chance that, without intervention and treatment, these individuals will struggle with dating, developing relationships and engaging in true (as opposed to purely sexual) intimacy later in life. Today we have 25-year-old clients entering sexual addiction treatment who’ve been viewing hardcore online pornography for 10 or 12 years–nearly half their lives. The effect of this kind of behavior on a young person’s neural development in terms of sexuality, intimacy and attachment are just beginning to be investigated, yet these clients are already lining up in our waiting rooms looking for help.

Evidence of this stunted emotional and psychological growth is now being seen on a large scale in Japan, where every two years a survey on male-female relations is conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Notably, in 2008 the number of males age 16 to 19 with no interest in or an aversion to in-the-flesh sex was 17.5%; in 2010 the percentage nearly doubled, to 36.1%. A similar increase was seen in males age 20 to 24 (Pulvers, 2012). Not surprisingly, this timeframe meshes with the tech-connect explosion and the increased availability of Internet pornography and virtual sex. In fact, the 2010 study cited the easy access to and no-strings-attached nature of online porn and virtual sex as significant factors in young males’ growing disinterest in real-world sexual activity. 

This lack of interest in real-world sex is also manifesting physically (in both young and older males) as sexual dysfunction–both delayed ejaculation (DE) and erectile dysfunction (ED). An increasingly documented cause for this is an overinvolvement with–for some, addiction to–pornography and masturbation as a primary sexual outlet (Wilson, 2012). In a way, this confirms what many in the sexual addiction treatment field have known for quite some time–that among the many symptoms and consequences of sex and porn addiction is reduced or even nonexistent interest in sexual, physical and emotional connections with longer-term sexual partners. In other words, an adolescent boy or a grown man who spends 75% or more of his sexual life masturbating to an endless, constantly changing supply of pornography is, over time, likely to find a real world partner less stimulating. 

Face-Hooked  

Not surprisingly, social media sites can be problematic for people who struggle with addictive patterns of romantic and relationship obsession (love addicts). In fact, Facebook has become a new (and socially acceptable) place for men and women to post and peruse intimate photos, seek out hot chats, garner personal information and hook up for virtual or in-person sexual encounters. Many love addicts, particularly women, describe social networks as the primary location in which they conduct their obsessive search for romantic intensity. Consider the words of Barbara, a 29-year-old housewife and the mother of two young boys.

After I got married and we had our two beautiful kids, I thought I finally had everything I ever wanted. But being at home all day with no one to talk to but two toddlers got a little boring. That’s when I discovered Facebook. At first, I reconnected with old high school friends and some cousins that moved away as teenagers. Then, out of the blue, I got a “poke” and then an e-mail from a man I’d never met, asking me to chat online. It was a huge rush. Within a few weeks, I couldn’t wait for my husband to leave each day so I could go online and connect, and within a few months I was involved in a string of online affairs. Plus, I was fantasizing about hooking up in person. Eventually I started going to motels to meet the guys for sex. I know what I’m doing is wrong, and that I’m hurting not only myself but my family, but I can’t seem to stop.

Notice that Barbara was searching for a “connection” rather than sex. This is a typical feature in the addictive sexual/romantic behavior patterns of women. Whereas men’s sexual acting out typically takes easily recognizable, overtly sexual forms such as anonymous sexual hookups, compulsive viewing of pornography (with or without masturbation), and use of prostitutes and erotic massage, female sex/love addicts tend to view their behavior in terms of “relationships.” Thus, women struggling with repeated patterns of problematic sexual/romantic behavior typically enter treatment reporting relationship-oriented symptoms such as: 

  • A history of short, failed romances where sex is the primary bond
  • A pattern of inappropriate sexual relationships (i.e., with a boss or a married man)
  • Consistently returning to or remaining with partners who are abusive, neglectful and/or emotionally unavailable
  • Consistently having sex as a means of feeling loved
  • Engaging in multiple extramarital affairs

 

What Does the Future Hold?  

As the anonymity, accessibility and affordability of intensely stimulating, explicit sexual imagery and willing sexual partners increase, so too does the number of people reporting sexually addictive behaviors. Thus we see that the same technology that offers comfort, connection and interpersonal growth for much of the population can, for those predisposed to impulsive or compulsive behaviors, turn into an obsessive quagmire of sexual fantasy and self-abuse. For some, these activities devolve over time into the kinds of problematic behavior patterns that eventually (and inevitably) result in profound personal, professional and sometimes even legal trouble. 

Happily, the news is not all bad. As the Internet has evolved, awareness of the problems it sometimes creates has also evolved, and new technologies are now being used toward positive change. As easily as you can locate porn and anonymous sex, you can also find educational material, 12-step recovery groups and professionals who specialize in the treatment of sexual addiction. Some treatment centers such as The Ranch in Tennessee use SKYPE and other connective software to introduce patients to 12-step recovery without having to leave the safety of the treatment environment. And all of the 12-step sex and love addiction recovery programs (Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and Sexual Recovery Anonymous) host websites explaining the nature of sex and/or love addiction, while also providing meeting lists, contact information and lots of helpful advice. Most of the 12-step groups offer at least a few online meetings for individuals who travel or live in remote areas. Additionally, there are a variety of smartphone apps designed to help addicts stay sober. As recovering sex addicts have learned, almost any technology that can be used to act out can also be used to stay sober.

This article was generated from an initial paper published in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention (December 2010), titled “Smart Phones, Social Networking, Sexting and Problematic Sexual Behaviors–A Call for Research,” by Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S, and Charles P. Samenow, MD, MPH.

 

References

Ashley Madison Website, http://www.ashleymadison.com/ (accessed Nov 7, 2012). 

Bennett, S. Twitter on track for 500 million total users by March, 250 million active users by end of 2012. MediaBistro, http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/twitter-active-total-users_b17655 (accessed Jan 13, 2012).

Braun-Courville, D. K. & Rojas, M. (2009). Exposure to sexually explicit web sites and adolescent sexual attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45, 156-162. 

Internet World Stats. Internet usage statistics: The Internet big picture, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm (accessed Nov 7, 2012).

Pulvers, R. (April 29, 2012). Reversing Japan’s rising sex aversion may depend on a rebirth of hope. Japan Times, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120429rp.html.

Svedin, C. G., Akerman, I., & Prieve, G. (2010). “Frequent Users of Pornography: A Population Based Epidemiological Study of Swedish Male Adolescents,” Journal of Adolescence, 34(4), 779-788.

United States Census Bureau, U.S. & world population clocks, http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html (accessed Nov 7, 2012).

Wilson, G. (August 26, 2012). Erectile dysfunction and porn, your brain on porn, http://yourbrainonporn.com/erectile-dysfunction-and-porn.

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