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Understanding Cybersex Compulsion

LukeNotes, Fall 2011

One outcome of the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s has been the open discussion and depiction of sexual issues in the media. The Internet magnifies and distorts that dynamic by making pornography of all types easily available. With an income exceeding $12 billion annually in the United States alone, the business of pornography is larger than many Fortune 500 companies. Over 12 percent of websites worldwide are pornography sites. (Cooper, 2004; Ropelato, 2006; Maahs &Liederbach, 2007; Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010)

No longer does a person have to buy sexual materials in person at an adult shop. Now all it takes is a computer and a few search terms. Chat rooms, live video feeds and blogs all make sexual images more accessible than ever before. Three significant factors make the Internet a unique vehicle for pornography:

  • The belief that the user remains anonymous, that no one will know if you are accessing pornography online. This is not the case since each interaction on the Internet is tracked electronically. Everything done online may be called up at some future date and seen by others.
  • The easy availability of images, stories and videos. Internet pornography is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, anywhere that there is an Internet connection. And with so many different sites, it is easy to cater to the particular interest of an individual user.
  • Affordability. Many Internet pornography sites are free. Even for those sites that charge, the monthly cost is equal to that of a dinner out. (Carnes et al, 2001; Suler, 2004)
Recognizing Risk Factors for Priests and Religious

Research (Laaser & Gregoire, 2003) has indicated a number of factors that put priests and religious at higher risk for using Internet pornography. Three are overwork, loneliness and an immature spirituality.

As dioceses and religious congregations downsize or combine parishes or ministries, the demands on clergy and religious are increasing. In addition, some users of Internet pornography frequently exhibit what researchers call “righteous workaholism”: working to the point of burnout as a way of compensating for a poor self image. These individuals focus on doing rather than being. When the overwork strategy does not make them feel better, they may turn to Internet pornography to soothe heightened feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt and shame.

Loneliness is another risk factor. Research has found that many of the viewers are shy and even socially anxious. They always have found it difficult to make friends and connect with others. Some harbor such self doubt that they believe that if others really got to know them, they would not be loved. The Internet, with its anonymity, provides those who are socially awkward and anxious with a safe place to meet others. Additionally images on Internet pornography sites do not ask anything of the viewer; instead, they appear to be there to please and accommodate.

Immature spirituality is one of externalized rather than internalized or personalized spirituality. Those who have such spirituality may lead a compartmentalized or double life. To the outside world they are the image of a good priest or religious, but internally, their spirituality is based on fear and black and white thinking. Lacking the true spirituality that can sustain them, and fearing that they cannot maintain the outward appearance that others expect, they turn to Internet pornography to feel “good,” if only for a little while.

Also at risk are individuals who have experienced other addictive behaviors. Those who have struggled with substance abuse to alter their mood can be primed for the experience of using pornography. With its ready access, vulnerable clergy and religious can fall quite easily into repetitive use of sexual images to soothe feelings of fatigue, fear, anger and disconnection. The pattern of using Internet pornography is like any other compulsive activity. With time the behavior becomes habitual—sites are memorized and the images are catalogued in the brain. Once the brain recognizes familiar patterns, the individual will have difficulty stopping and reversing these patterns without help.

Considering Treatment Options

Treatment of compulsive Internet sexual behavior is effective and accessible. Maintaining sobriety is an ongoing challenge requiring the right combination of social support, therapy and behavioral interventions. Since social isolation is often a factor,12-step groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous or Sexual Compulsives Anonymous offer peer support to stop the problematic activity and create healthier behavior patterns. Individual and group therapy using cognitive-behavioral interventions help to address underlying issues that may contribute to the problem, teach skills to curb overwork and provide a venue to learn social interaction skills. Spiritual direction with a trained spiritual director can help move the individual towards a more mature spirituality. Practical steps also need to be taken to limit the availability of pornography. This includes using software to block access to pornographic sites and avoiding all use of the Internet for a period of time until some of the underlying issues are addressed and behavior patterns that support their recovery are established.