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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.

 

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

Further reading

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.