Intimate love — 14 March 2010
Is Internet sex an addiction?

No one likes to be labeled an addict, particularly when his/her behavior does not involve the use of a substance such as legal or illegal drugs or alcohol. Yet, many frustrated partners, observing a mate’s total absorption with the computer have resorted to using this description to quell their hurt.

The trend of labeling any captivating, non-chemical activity as an addiction, has encountered many a skeptic. Yet, with the advent of technological developments, researchers have found that excessive human-machine interactions have potentially addictive behavioral styles that parallel those seen in: gambling, overeating, exercise, shopping, sex, computer game playing and other Internet use.

In “Sex on the Internet: observations and implications for Internet sex addiction”, Mark Griffiths states that passive human-machine interactions such as television viewing or active interactions such as computer games and Internet sex, “usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies.” “They also feature the core components of addiction, including salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse.”

Salience is the state of mind whereby Internet sex becomes the dominant preoccupation and creates ongoing cravings. Mood modification is the “high” emotions described by users. Tolerance involves the ongoing need for increased frequency required to achieve the desired satisfaction. Withdrawal, as felt by other addicts, is the discomfort, such as shakes, irritability and agitation felt with reduction or termination of use of behavior. Conflict is common between the user and the spouse regarding Internet sex. Relapse entails the resumption of Internet sex use despite the individual’s decision to decrease or terminate this habit.

Dr. Patrick Carnes, an international expert on sex addiction defined ten criteria for the diagnosis of sex addiction. In addition to the six categories listed above he adds: distractibility from occupational, academic, domestic or social obligations in favor of addictive conduct, continuation of behavior despite its causing social, financial, psychological problems, giving up or limiting social, occupational or recreational activities because of addiction, and distress, anxiety, restlessness or irritability when unable to engage in this behavior.

Psychologist/researcher Kimberly Young claims that cybersex addiction and cyber –relationship addiction are two subtypes of Internet addiction. She estimates that 20 percent of Internet addicts are engaged in cybersex or pornography online. Her research found that men are more likely to view pornography and women are more inclined to engage in erotic conversations online.

Dr. Young also found that those who are more at risk for developing cybersex addiction have “suffered from low self esteem, distorted body image, untreated sexual dysfunction or a prior sexual addiction.” The users were secretive, hiding their use from their mate, felt shame and guilt and were less interested in sex with their partner. Mates of Internet sex users report anger, hurt, rejection, lowered self-worth, shame and devastation.

Whether Internet sex addiction is a unique category or a subcategory of Internet addiction, or not an addiction at all, it is a very distressing experience for both the user and his/her mate. As such, it is my view that any issue that causes deep pain for one or both partners is critical enough to address and resolve. Help is available.

• Accept that any repeated behavior that requires secrecy from your mate and evokes your guilt, shame and vocational/relational risk taking is not worth the temporary thrill it provides.
• Realize that your obsessive preoccupation with solitary pleasure is by definition destructive to your connection with your mate.
• Assess whether your behavior brings you closer to or distances you from those you love. Isolation and detachment violate your original choice of unity, belonging and love and ultimately create unbearable loneliness.
• Seek help. Even if you disagree with the label of Internet sex addiction, this classification opens treatment avenues for you. Many residential addiction treatment programs are able to successfully treat your relationship-destructive habit and help you restore your health and your love connection.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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