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Sexed text and lust discussed: Another brief look at cybersex

The advent of the Internet has enabled people’s engagement in a wide variety of online sexual behaviors. The Internet can provide a “safe” space for sexual exploration that presents less physical and social danger than offline activities, and may also provide access to a social community and a support system for non-normative gender and sexual expression (e.g., sexual fetishes and paraphilias). Additionally, a small minority of people may use the Internet excessively to engage in cybersex. Rather than being complementary, their use of cybersex may become a substitute for their offline sexual lives. For a small minority, their behaviors may take on addictive qualities that can be indicative of an online sexual addiction.

I noted in a number of papers that I published in the early 2000s (e.g., Journal of Sex Research [2001] and CyberPsychology and Behavior [2000]; see ‘Further reading’ below) that the Internet can be – and has been – used for a number of diverse activities surrounding sexually motivated online behavior. These include the use of the Internet for (i) seeking out sexually related material for educational use, (ii) buying or selling sexually related goods for further use offline, (iii) visiting and/or purchasing goods in online virtual sex shops, (iv) seeking out material for entertainment/masturbatory purposes for use online, (v) seeking out sex therapists, and (vi) seeking out sexual partners for an enduring relationship.

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Other sexually motivated uses of the Internet include (i) seeking out sexual partners for a transitory relationship (i.e., escorts, prostitutes, swingers) via online personal advertisements/“lonely hearts” columns, escort agencies, and/or chat rooms, (ii) seeking out individuals who then become victims of sexually related Internet crime (online sexual harassment, cyberstalking, pedophilic “grooming” of children), (iii) engaging in and maintaining online relationships via email and/or chat rooms, (iv) exploring gender and identity roles by swapping gender or creating other personas and forming online relationships, and (v) digitally manipulating images on the Internet for entertainment and/or masturbatory purposes (e.g., celebrity fake photographs where heads of famous people are superimposed onto someone else’s naked body)

More recently, in a 2012 issue of the journal Addiction Research and Theory, I noted that online sexual behaviors 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 (e.g., text-based chat and/or video-linked conversations). Either of these types of online behavior may be accompanied by concurrent masturbation. Furthermore, online activities with a sexual component can be problematic for some because (1) they manifest sexual desires that the person (or their offline sexual partner) disapprove of or feel guilty about; (2) they divert (or distort) sexual energy from offline sexual behavior; and (3) the search for the ideal online sexual material may take up a great deal of time. Therefore, it appears necessary to distinguish not only between consumptive and interactive cybersex, but also between “normal” and “deviant” online sexual behaviors.

The late 1990s and early 2000s experienced a proliferation of studies investigating how human sexual behavior is enacted on the Internet. Some scholars (such as James Quinn and Craig Forsyth in a 2005 issue of the journal Deviant Behavior) claimed that technology transformed vicarious sex into an increasingly viable and attractive substitute for interpersonal forms of sexual fulfilment. Such an assertion suggests that a minority of cybersex users may use the Internet as a substitute for offline behaviours. It also suggests that what happens online may be very fulfilling for some people.

Sex on the Internet is particularly viable because of the inherent qualities of the Internet that the late Dr. Al Cooper 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. Most of the time, sexual activities can be pursued at virtually no cost online, a point that demarcates 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.

As an adaptation to Dr. Cooper’s Triple A Engine, Dr. Kimberley Young and colleagues proposed the 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.

Compared to offline sex, the Internet appears to offer the possibility to engage in cybersex anytime and anywhere for little financial cost. Therefore, research studies have found individuals are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors on the Internet rather than offline. The lower threshold associated with perceived lower risks of engaging in online sex may therefore increase the chance of persons who are at risk for developing sex addiction offline to actually develop sex addiction on the Internet. Empirical studies have increased our understanding of specific online sexual activities (e.g., Internet sex addiction). Here, the distinction between people who use Internet sex to improve their offline sex life and those who use it as a substitution may play an important role. Furthermore, cross-cultural differences point to the fact that the sociocultural context plays an important role in influencing people’s attitudes toward sexual behaviors.

In line with this, two potential scenarios materialize. First, one might assume that as views of sex are relatively liberal in some cultures relative to other more conservative cultures, members of the former may be more likely to engage in sex on the Internet because they have more open attitudes toward sexuality in general. Alternatively, particularly because some cultures are relatively conservative when it comes to sex, their members could potentially be more likely to engage in cybersex in order to compensate for the lack of freedoms in expressing their sexuality offline.

Note: This article used material previously published in the following book chapter: Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Internet sex. In Naples, N.A. (Ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Chichester: Wiley. DOI: 10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss408

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cooper, A. (1998). Sexuality and the internet: Surfing into the new millennium. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 1, 187–193.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 163-174.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000).  Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

Griffiths, M.D. (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. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111–124.

Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Compulsive sexual behaviour as a behavioural addiction: The impact of the Internet and other issues. Addiction, 111, 2107-2109.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

Quinn, J.F. & Forsyth, C.J. (2005). Describing sexual behavior in the era of the Internet: A typology for empirical research. Deviant Behavior, 26(3), 191–207.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 363–372.

Young, K., Pistner, M., O’Mara, J. & and Buchanan, J. (1999). Cyber-disorders: A mental health concern for the new millennium. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3(5), 475 – 479.

 

Lust discussed: A brief overview of our recent papers on sex addiction

Following my recent blogs where I outlined some of the papers that my colleagues and I have published on mindfulness, Internet addiction, gaming addiction, youth gambling, exercise addiction, and shopping addiction, here is a round-up of recent papers that my colleagues and I have published on sex addiction.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

  • At present, the prevalence of rates of sexual addiction in the UK is unknown. This study investigated what treatment services were available within British Mental Health Trusts (MHTs) that are currently provided for those who experience compulsive and/or addictive sexual behaviours within the National Health Service (NHS) system. In March and April 2013, a total of 58 letters were sent by email to all Mental Health Trusts in the UK requesting information about (i) sexual addiction services and (ii) past 5-year treatment of sexual addiction. The request for information was sent to all MHTs under the Freedom of Information Act (2001). Results showed that 53 of the 58 MHTs (91 %) did not provide any service (specialist or otherwise) for treating those with problematic sexual behaviours. Based on the responses provided, only five MHTs reported having had treated sexual addiction as a disorder that took primacy over the past 5 years. There was also some evidence to suggest that the NHS may potentially treat sexual addiction as a secondary disorder that is intrinsic and/or co-morbid to the initial referral made by the GP. In light of these findings, implications for the treatment of sex addiction in a British context are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

  • Background and aims: Hypersexuality and sexual addiction among females is a little understudied phenomenon. Shame is thought to be intrinsic to hypersexual behaviours, especially in women. Therefore, the aim of this study was to understand both hypersexual behaviours and consequences of hypersexual behaviours and their respective contributions to shame in a British sample of females (n = 102). Methods: Data were collected online via Survey Monkey. Results: Results showed the Sexual Behaviour History (SBH) and the Hypersexual Disorder Questionnaire (HDQ) had significant positive correlation with scores on the Shame Inventory. The results indicated that hypersexual behaviours were able to predict a small percentage of the variability in shame once sexual orientation (heterosexual vs. non-heterosexual) and religious beliefs (belief vs. no belief) were controlled for. Results also showed there was no evidence that religious affiliation and/or religious beliefs had an influence on the levels of hypersexuality and consequences of sexual behaviours as predictors of shame. Conclusions: While women in the UK are rapidly shifting to a feminist way of thinking with or without technology, hypersexual disorder may often be misdiagnosed and misunderstood because of the lack of understanding and how it is conceptualised. The implications of these findings are discussed.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, 2, 163-174.

  • Researchers have suggested that the advances of the Internet over the past two decades have gradually eliminated traditional offline methods of obtaining sexual material. Additionally, research on cybersex and/or online sex addictions has increased alongside the development of online technology. The present study extended the findings from Griffiths’ (2012) systematic empirical review of online sex addiction by additionally investigating empirical studies that implemented and/or documented clinical treatments for online sex addiction in adults. A total of nine studies were identified and then each underwent a CONSORT evaluation. The main findings of the present review provide some evidence to suggest that some treatments (both psychological and/or pharmacological) provide positive outcomes among those experiencing difficulties with online sex addiction. Similar to Griffiths’ original review, this study recommends that further research is warranted to establish the efficacy of empirically driven treatments for online sex addiction.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Understanding conceptualisations of female sex addiction and recovery using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. Psychology Research, 5, 585-603.

  • Relatively little research has been carried out into female sex addiction. There is even less regarding understandings of lived experiences of sex addiction among females. Consequently, the purpose of the present study was to examine the experiences of female sex addiction (from onset to recovery). This was done by investigating the experiences and conceptualisations of three women who self-reported as having had a historical problem with sex addiction. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) methodology was applied in the current research process in which three female participants shared their journey through the onset, progression, and recovery of sex addiction. The IPA produced five superordinate themes that accounted for the varying degrees of sexual addiction among a British sample of females: (1) “Focus on self as a sex addict”; (2) “Uncontrollable desire”; (3) “Undesirable feelings”; (4) “Derision”; and (5) “Self help, treatment and recovery”. The implications of these findings towards the understanding and the need for the implementation of treatment are discussed.

Dhuffar, M., Pontes, H.M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The role of negative mood states and consequences of hypersexual behaviours in predicting hypersexuality among university students. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 4, 181–188.

  • The issue of whether hypersexual behaviours exist among university students is controversial because many of these individuals engage in sexual exploration during their time at university. To date, little is known about the correlates of hypersexual behaviours among university students in the UK. Therefore, the aims of this exploratory study were two-fold. Firstly, to explore and establish the correlates of hypersexual behaviours, and secondly, to investigate whether hypersexuality among university students can be predicted by variables relating to negative mood states (i.e., emotional dysregulation, loneliness, shame, and life satisfaction) and consequences of hypersexual behaviour.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of sex addiction: A case study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, in press.

  • Sex addiction is a disorder that can have serious adverse functional consequences. Treatment effectiveness research for sex addiction is currently underdeveloped, and interventions are generally based on guidelines for treating other behavioural (as well as chemical) addictions. Consequently, there is a need to clinically evaluate tailored treatments that target the specific symptoms of sex addiction. It has been proposed that second-generation mindfulness-based interventions (SG-MBIs) may be an appropriate treatment for sex addiction because in addition to helping individuals increase perceptual distance from craving for desired objects and experiences, some SG-MBIs specifically contain meditations intended to undermine attachment to sex and/or the human body. To date, no study exploring the utility of mindfulness for treating sex addiction has been conducted. This paper presents an in-depth clinical case study of a male individual suffering from sex addiction that underwent treatment utilising an SG-MBI known as Meditation Awareness Training (MAT). Following completion of MAT, the participant demonstrated clinically significant improvements regarding the addictive sexual behaviour, as well less depression and psychological distress. The MAT intervention also led to improvements in sleep quality, job satisfaction, and non-attachment to self and experiences. Salutary outcomes were maintained at six-month follow-up. The current study extends the literature exploring the applications of mindfulness for treating behavioural addiction, and findings of this case study indicate that further clinical investigation into the role of mindfulness for treating sex addiction is warranted.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 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.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). The use of online methodologies in studying paraphilia: A review. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 143-150.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Collecting behavioural addiction treatment data using Freedom of Information requests. SAGE Research Methods Cases. Located at: DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/978144627305014533925

The must of lust discussed: Why isn’t sex addiction in the DSM-5?

Please note: A shorter and slightly different version of this blog first appeared on addiction.com

Sex addiction appears to be a highly controversial area among both the general public and those who work in the addiction field. Some psychologists adhere to the position that unless the behaviour involves the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine heroin), then it can’t really be considered an addiction. But I’m not one of them. If it were up to me, I would have given serious consideration to including sex addiction in the latest (fifth) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Given that ‘gambling disorder’ was reclassified from a disorder of impulse control to a behavioural addiction in the DSM-5, there is now no theoretical reason why other behavioural addictions can’t be added in the years to come. So why wasn’t sex addiction included in the latest DSM-5? Here are some possible reasons.

Some researchers think that sex addiction just doesn’t exist (for moral and theoretical reasons): Many scholars have attacked the whole concept of sex addiction saying it is a complete myth. It’s not hard to see why, as many of the claims appear to have good face validity. Many sociologists would argue that ‘sex addiction’ is little more than a label for sexual behaviour that significantly deviates from society’s norms. The most conventional attack on sex addiction is a variation on the position outlined in my introduction (i.e., that ‘addiction’ is a physiological condition caused by ingestion of physiological substances, and must therefore be defined physiologically). There are also attacks on more moral grounds with people saying that if excessive sexual behaviour is classed as an addiction it undermines individuals’ responsibility for their behaviour (although this argument could be said of almost any addiction).

The word ‘addiction’ has become meaningless: There are also those researchers within the social sciences who claim that the every day use of the word ‘addiction’ has rendered the term meaningless (such as people saying that their favorite television show is ‘addictive viewing’ or that certain books are ‘addictive reading’). Related to this is that those that work in the field don’t agree on what the disorder (e.g. ‘sex addiction’, ‘sexual addiction’, ‘hypersexuality disorder’, ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’, ‘pornography addiction’, etc.) should be called and whether it is a syndrome (i.e., a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms) or whether there are many different sub-types (pathological promiscuity, compulsive masturbation, etc.). 

There is a lack of empirical evidence about sex addiction: One of the main reasons that sex addiction is not yet included in the DSM-5 is that the empirical research in the area is relatively weak. Although there has been a lot of research, there has never been any nationally representative prevalence surveys of sex addiction using validated addiction criteria, and a lot of research studies are based upon those people who turn up for treatment. Like Internet Gaming Disorder (which is now in the appendix of the DSM-5), sex addiction (or more likely ‘Hypersexual Disorder’) will not be included as a separate mental disorder until the (i) defining features of sex addiction have been identified, (ii) reliability and validity of specific sex addiction criteria have been obtained cross-culturally, (iii) prevalence rates of sex addiction have been determined in representative epidemiological samples across the world, and (iv) etiology and associated biological features of sex addiction have been evaluated.

The term ‘sex addiction’ is used an excuse to justify infidelity: One of the reasons why sex addiction may not be taken seriously is that the term is often used by high profile celebrities as an excuse by those individuals who have been sexually unfaithful to their partners (e.g., Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny, Russell Brand). In some of these cases, sex addiction is used to justify the individual’s serial infidelity. This is what social psychologists refer to as a ‘functional attribution’. For instance, the golfer Tiger Woods claimed an addiction to sex after his wife found out that he had many sexual relationships during their marriage. If his wife had never found out, I doubt whether Woods would have claimed he was addicted to sex. I would argue that many celebrities are in a position where they were bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and succumbed. But how many people wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the opportunity? It becomes a problem only when you’re discovered, when it’s in danger of harming the celebrity’s brand image.

The evidence for sex addiction is inflated by those with a vested interest: One of the real issues in the field of sex addiction is that we really have no idea of how many people genuinely experience sex addiction. Sex addiction specialists like Patrick Carnes claims that up to 6% of all adults are addicted to sex. If this was really the case I would expect there to be sex addiction clinics and self-help support groups in every major city across the world – but that isn’t the case. However, that doesn’t mean sex addiction doesn’t exist, only that the size of the problem isn’t on the scale that Carnes suggests. Coupled with this is that those therapists that treat sex addiction have a vested interest. Out simply, there are many therapists worldwide who make a living out of treating the disorder. Getting the disorder recognized by leading psychological and psychiatric organizations (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization) legitimizes the work of sex addiction counselors and therapists so it is not surprising when such individuals claim how widespread the disorder is.

There may of course be other reasons why sex addiction is not considered a genuine disorder. Compared to behavioural addictions like gambling disorder, the empirical evidence base is weak. There is little in the way of neurobiological research (increasingly seen as ‘gold standard’ research when it comes to legitimizing addictions as genuine). But carrying out research on those who claim to have sex addiction can face ethical problems. For instance, is it ethical to show hardcore pornography to a self-admitted pornography addict while participating in a brain neuroimaging experiment? Is the viewing of such material likely to stimulate and enhance the individual’s sexual urges and result in a relapse following the experiment? There are also issues surrounding cultural norms. The normality and abnormality of sexual behaviour lies on a continuum but what is considered normal and appropriate in one culture may not be viewed similarly in another (what is often referred to by sociologists as ‘normative ambiguity’). Personally, I believe that sex addiction is a reality but that it affects a small minority of individuals. However, many sex therapists claim it is on the increase, particularly because the Internet has made sexual material so easy to access. Maybe if sex addiction does eventually make it into future editions of the DSM, it will be one of the sub-categories of Internet Addiction Disorder rather than a standalone category.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Understanding the role of shame and its consequences in female hypersexual behaviours: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 3, 231–237.

Dhuffar, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). A systematic review of online sex addiction and clinical treatments using CONSORT evaluation. Current Addiction Reports, DOI 10.1007/s40429-015-0055-x

Goodman, A. (1992). Sexual addiction: Designation and treatment. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 18, 303-314.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Excessive internet use: Implications for sexual behavior. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 537-552.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.

Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Addicted to love: The psychology of sex addiction. Psychology Review, 8, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Addicted to sex? Psychology Review, 16(1), 27-29.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D. & Dhuffar, M. (2014). Treatment of sexual addiction within the British National Health Service. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 561-571.

Kafka, M. P. (2010). Hypersexual disorder: A proposed diagnosis for DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 377–400.

Orford, J. (2001). Excessive sexuality. In J. Orford, Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of the Addictions. Chichester: Wiley.