To what extent can cybersex be addictive?
For many years I have been writing about sexual addictions – particularly those online. Online sexual behaviours can be classified as either cybersexual consumption (i.e., downloading and watching sexual content online such as pornography or reading sexual content in forums/chat sites without actively participating), or cybersexual interaction with others in real-time (e.g., synchronous participation in the form of text-based chat and/or video-linked conversations) or delayed (e.g., asynchronous interaction in the form of exchanging sexual content via email text, pictures and/or video). Either of these behaviours may be accompanied by concurrent masturbation. Furthermore, Internet activities with a sexual component can be problematic because (a) they manifest sexual desires that the person (or their corporeal sexual partner) disapprove of or feel guilty about, (b) they divert sexual energy from corporeal sex, or greatly distort it, and (c) because the search for the ideal online sexual material takes a great deal of time.
My research on this topic in the early 2000s also highlighted other potential usages the Internet can be put to with regards to engaging in sexual activities. These include sexual behaviours related to criminal activities, namely displaying, downloading or distributing illegal material such as paedophilic images and movies, and sexual menace online, that includes harassment and cyberstalking. Therefore, it appears necessary not only to distinguish between consumptive and interactive cybersex, but also between “normal” and deviant online sexual behaviours. Here, “deviant” refers to any behaviour that can potentially result in criminal prosecution. Therefore, it would appear that there is a wide variety of sexual activities that the Internet can be used for – some of which may take on addictive qualities as individuals begin to compulsively engage in them.
Sex on the Internet is particularly viable because of the inherent qualities of the Internet that the late Al Cooper has referred to as the Triple A Engine (Access, Affordability and Anonymity). The online world including explicit sexual material as well as potential online and offline sexual partners can be accessed anytime and anywhere, as long as there is an Internet connection in place. Most of the time, sexual activities can be pursued at virtually no cost online, clearly demarcating online sex from offline sex, considering the expenditures involved in buying sex tapes or paying for sex workers. In comparison, the costs for bandwidth access are relatively low. The internet liberates individuals from the imminent fear of engaging in something that is charged with a variety of taboos in offline life and provides the option to freely explore their (sexual) selves.
Other things that might make online activities more (or less) dangerous might be perceived safety and a lack of consequences for the behaviour. Perhaps some individuals are more inclined to think of their activities as relatively harmless (and in some ways, they might be), until they (or their partner) see themselves as “out of control”. Perhaps the perceived physical or social danger attached to offline sexual compulsivity encourages avoidance of behaviours that would contribute to these compulsions. Accordingly, the Internet could be used by those who already see themselves as “sex addicts” as a way to avoid the perceived consequences of offline behaviour.
As an adaptation to Al Cooper’s initial concept, Dr Kimberley Young and colleagues developed their own ACE model, incorporating Anonymity, Convenience and Escape as factors salient to the Internet. These factors facilitate the engagement in sex by decreasing the inhibition thresholds present in offline sexual relations. Not only is a person anonymous online, but the Internet is ubiquitous and it can be accessed conveniently from a safe base, such as the person’s home. Furthermore, the Internet can serve as a space of refuge, somewhere to escape to when faced with daily hassles.
This clearly resonates with the idea of any addiction, including technological addictions, originating in a need to cope with everyday stressors via escaping into alternative mood states induced by substances, activities, or alternative worlds provided by virtual environments. With regards to pornography use, Al Cooper’s and Kimberley Young’s salient factors can be extended even further by integrating sophistication and monitoring, factors that may further limit actual usage. Both sophistication, operationalized as occupational prestige and education, and external monitoring, for instance by the spouse, contribute to a reduction of the probability to use pornography and/or engage in other types of online sexual behaviour.
To date, only a relatively small number of studies have empirically assessed Internet sex addiction. My colleague (Daria Kuss) and I have an upcoming review to be published in the next issue of the journal Addiction Research and Theory. The purpose of our review was to present and critically evaluate the current scientific knowledge about online sex addiction. Upon careful review of the current scientific literature, only fourteen scientific studies of online sex addiction in adults were identified. Overall, the studies we reviewed highlighted that the essential feature that distinguishes people who engage in cybersex in a healthy and complementary way to their offline sexuality was not excessive use per se, but the presence of a variety of negative consequences.
From a diagnostic viewpoint, the excessive engagement in sex may be viewed as genuinely pathological once it causes significant impairment in a person’s life. Such impairment may relate to different areas of the affected person’s life, including their professional, social/romantic, and/or leisure life. Similarly, if cybersex users experience clinically significant distress and/or impairment because of their engagement in online sexual behaviours, it appears relatively safe to claim that they suffer from Internet sex addiction.
We also concluded that the gender dissimilarities found in most of the studies to date, indicate that the prevalence of online sex addiction (as well as the preference for particular Internet applications) differs between men and women. This is related to the finding that the Internet seems to be a particularly fertile ground for marginalized groups, such as homosexuals and bisexuals, as well as females, who may feel liberated from real life constraints with regards to exploring their sexuality and finding offline sex partners online.
The reasons that females may compulsively seek sex online appear to be similar to those of bisexuals and homosexuals, namely the liberating potential of the Internet that enables the almost infinite exploration of sexuality without the latent taboos imposed by societal and cultural environments. Pathological use of Internet sex not only requires future research, but the current studies indicate specific areas that may be further explored empirically.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
My sincere thanks to Daria Kuss (Nottingham Trent University) for providing her expertise and input into this blog
Griffiths, M. (2000). Excessive Internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 3(4), 536-552.
Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.
Griffiths, M. (2001). Sex on the Internet: Observations and implications for Internet sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38(4), 333-342.
Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Sex addiction on the Internet. Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology and the Arts, 7(2), 188-217.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29.
Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Theory and Research, DOI: 10.3109/16066359.2011.588351.
Young, K. & Nabuco de Abreu, C. (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. New York: Wiley.