FOR many people, a peek at an "adult" site offers merely a titillating glimpse into an illicit world.
For others, a peek becomes a moment of respite, a brief vacation from the demands of the real world. Then it becomes a habit. Soon, it is a compulsion that occupies hours and hours every day, shattering careers, marriages and lives.
The addictive nature of cruising the Internet and the obsessive allure of pornography combine to take over their existence. And although many who become addicted have had a history of acting out sexually with prostitutes, phone sex or pornographic magazines and movies, others are pulled in from outside such an orbit.
The Internet, more than any other type of mass medium, seems to be creating a new group of people engaged in compulsive sexual behavior, say psychologists and clinicians. The accessibility, anonymity and affordability -- what one researcher calls the "triple A engine" -- are reeling in people who would otherwise have never engaged in such behavior.
"I tried to figure out why it was that these images, or why it was that seeing this act, was so powerful, and I haven't been able to," says Phil, a married 28-year-old in Washington state. Like others interviewed for this story, he agreed only to the use of his first name. "But the obsession just ruled, and once I got into that world, it just took over."
Phil's story -- with infinite variations but the same grisly narrative -- is repeated by many whose lives are consumed by cyber porn. Whether gay or straight, married or single, those interviewed describe the intense feelings of guilt and excitement when entering this intoxicating universe, far away from the less thrilling one in which they live.
"As cyber sex has become more and more of a problem, what has shifted for me is the realization that many people who were into cyber sex didn't fit the classic profile of sex addicts," says Patrick Carnes, author of "In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior." He has spent 30 years studying and establishing sex addiction as a field of psychological dysfunction.
"For most people this is not an issue," says John Bancroft, the former director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. "But others have always had a problem keeping any kind of sexual stimuli under control and they have never had opportunities to go over the top as they do now."
Sex addiction is not recognized as a legitimate psychiatric disorder. But psychologists, psychiatrists and other clinicians are reporting increasing numbers of cases in which men -- and researchers estimate that about 72% of visitors to pornographic sites are men -- are showing all the signs of having an addictive disorder. They spend hours a day cruising the Net for explicit sexual sites. They become utterly dependent on the stimulus, making normal life -- especially intimate life -- no longer possible. When the material isn't there, they become obsessively preoccupied with it. And they ultimately crave even more time on the Web with even more graphic, lurid or outrageous stimuli.
It's the Internet's potential for escalation that has created such an increase in compulsive sexual behavior, says Rob Weiss, clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, an outpatient treatment center for people with sexual behavior problems. In the past, someone could buy videos or magazines, each with a clear beginning, middle and end. "But now you can sit in the den and it never ends," he says. "There is a much better opportunity for someone with addictive tendencies to just get lost."
Some people who are lured into this world begin to act out in their three-dimensional existence, visiting prostitutes, for example, or engaging in phone sex. But most do not. The Internet offers an endless variety of stimulation, but it also leads to what psychologists refer to as a "dissociated state." Staring at the screen, feeling increasingly stimulated, clicking the mouse, all become almost a form of hypnosis, a state impossible to sustain in the real world.
Typically only a real crisis -- a lost job, a confrontation by a spouse, police at the door because illegal pornography has been downloaded -- can lead the addict to treatment. An assortment of 12-step programs have emerged to support recovery, and psychotherapists are reporting a surge in their practices of people seeking some way to rid themselves of this problem.
The strain of addiction
Night after night he sat at the computer, eyes scratchy with fatigue, back aching and tense, his right hand sometimes cramping from clicking the mouse from site to site to site.
Phil considers himself a sex addict.
When he was most out of control, he would wake up, kiss his wife goodbye, go to an adult bookstore and watch a movie while masturbating. Then, at work and when completing his undergraduate degree, he would check in at various Internet sites and try to recapture the images he saw in the film.
Most evenings he would visit nearly 200 pornographic sites and masturbate two or three times. Some of the sites were chat rooms and he conversed with young women he fantasized were teenage girls and suspected were older men pretending they were teenage girls.
He flirted with women, or girls, on the sites, looked at pictures, watched pornographic video streaming -- and found that the novel variations of what could be considered a pretty basic act were seemingly endless. After all, more than 4.2 million websites and more than 372 million pages are devoted to pornography, according to the Internet security service Internet Filter Review. Even if he had maintained this rate of consumption, it would have taken him almost two and half years to see everything.
But he could never see everything, because the pornographic universe, more rapaciously than Einstein's universe, is constantly expanding. Industry figures estimate that about 200 new sex-related sites are added each day.
"You keep yourself in a state of arousal for anywhere from half an hour to two or three hours," Phil says. "It's degrading and humiliating and very, very frustrating and confusing. A lot of it is based on the need to escape and get away from everything."
Those interviewed who are attempting to kick their Internet pornographic habit describe feelings of dissociation, and the way that the graphic sexual images on the Web intrude in their daily lives. Given the range of erotica they are exposed to, their own intimate lives pale in comparison, as partners, spouses and girlfriends recede in importance.
If there is one psychological element that unites them, clinicians who work with these addicts say, it is a basic fear of real intimacy. And for many, the sexual and illicit charge they receive from cruising the Internet is a way to cope with depression or anxiety that rules the rest of their lives. Web porn becomes a kind of self-administered shock therapy.
Among clinicians, they are seen as suffering from "problematic online sexual behavior." They range in age from pre-pubertal to geriatric.
In one study of 9,265 general Internet users, about 6% scored in a way that suggested cyber sex compulsivity, while an additional 10% of the entire sample was considered "at risk." That research, conducted in 2000 by Al Cooper, a psychologist at Stanford University, was published in the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. Extrapolating from this research, experts estimate that Internet sex has taken over the lives of possibly 8.9 million people in this country.
They do not fit any neat or coherent profile.
In his early book on sex addiction, "Don't Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction," Carnes described sex addicts as people who shared a number of characteristics. Overwhelmingly, they had a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse in their childhoods. They often had suicidal thoughts or feelings and strong feelings of loneliness, and most came from families where there was abuse of drugs or alcohol.
Not so for the person addicted to cyber sex. Many are men, but women are increasingly showing up at 12-step programs, addicted less to graphic sex but much more to Internet "relationships" and Internet dating.
The brain's response
Masters and Johnson, the eminent duo of sex research, divided the human sexual response into four distinct phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. Though these phases differ for each individual, it is generally understood that most people with both a healthy libido and a satisfying intimate relationship fully experience all of them. Perhaps not reliably, perhaps not all the time, but frequently enough to maintain a certain emotional and sexual equilibrium.
These behavioral phases, neuroscientists have learned, are generated by an exquisite interplay between two competing systems in the brain: the excitatory system and the inhibitory system. Experts in the human sexual response, like former Kinsey Institute director John Bancroft, caution that at this point "we can only speculate and conceptualize how the brain functions in an inhibitory way."
Nonetheless, when there is sexual dysfunction, when someone is uninterested in sex -- called a sexual anorexic by some clinicians -- or obsessively masturbating, it is safe to say that either the inhibitory system or the excitatory system is out of whack.
The final ingredient in the inner workings of our sexual responses is what sex researchers call an arousal template. As individual as a fingerprint, an arousal template is, Carnes writes, "the total constellation of thoughts, images, behaviors, sounds, smells, sights fantasies and objects that arouse us sexually." The template can be as elaborate as an opera or as innocent as a particular perfume, but the images and feelings that it contains set in motion all the other elements of our sexual responses.
But with the variety and intensity of images, the Internet can throw this arousal template and all that follows into chaos.
"It can tap into an arousal template or fetish behavior that we don't even know we have," says David Delmonico, a professor of psychology at Duquesne University and co-director of Internet Behavior Consulting. The counseling group helps people who have problems controlling their use of the Internet, such as preteens addicted to instant messaging and adults unable to control cyber sex.
On the Internet, fairly standard pornography can lead very quickly into the darker world of teenagers or even younger children. "A lot of guys will say that they didn't start with the teen stuff or the little kid stuff," Delmonico says. "But it became more and more enticing for reasons that they simply were unable to explain."
Bondage sites and bestiality sites. Diapering sites and foot fetish sites. Young teens, hermaphrodites, dirty socks and excessively large organs. Anyone cruising the Internet can find more and more vehicles for arousal.
"People build up a tolerance, it doesn't give them the same high that it did before," Carnes says. So the process from excitement to resolution is thwarted. They need more to get excited and, for those who are compulsively hooked on cyber sex, the gratification of resolution never occurs.
Drew is nearly 40 years old, a married father who lives in Virginia. He is also a recovering sex addict who says he has been helped by Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. When he went online, he says, he was seeking escape from the tedium of daily life, from the depression that haunted him for as long as he could remember.
In one of the few studies of sexual compulsivity, published in 2004 in the Journal of Sex Research, a small sample of 31 self-identified sex addicts received questionnaires and were interviewed, then compared with an age-matched control group.
Although a symptom of depression for most people is decreased interest in sex, the study found that for a small number, including those who consider themselves sex addicts, their interest in sex increased with their depression.
In another study, published in 2003 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 9.4% of those who saw themselves as sex addicts reported increased interest in sex when depressed and more than 20% were more interested in sex when they were anxious. In addition, 45% of the self-identified sex addicts described feeling dissociated from their activities, an experience that was often repeated anecdotally.
The findings, though preliminary, have led some clinicians to augment their treatment of sexual compulsion with treatment for depression. And given the fact that one of the side effects of many antidepressants is decreased libido, some clinicians have found that antidepressant medication can also help.
When the emotions overwhelmed Drew, he would click on an Internet icon on his desktop and seek out teenage girls.
"When you are out there and in chat rooms or discussion boards and others are all discussing this as not a big deal, it lowers your resistance to it," he says. "So you are more open to doing other things."
In fact, so desensitized have people become to explicit sexual images from the Internet, that many law enforcement officials or forensic psychologists specializing in sex offender programs have reported that the Internet has created a new dilemma in the field. Phallometric testing had long been a reliable way to measure arousal patterns among sex offenders by showing them erotic images of varying degrees.
But the images no longer have the power to arouse because the offenders are so desensitized by the far more graphic and lurid images that are available on the Internet. "One of the most stunning clinical shifts I have seen is how quickly cyber sex exploration alters arousal," Carnes says.
Like many behavioral addictions -- eating disorders, gambling -- cyber sex obsession does not occur in a vacuum. The partner or spouse of someone who is obsessed with Internet sex suffers immeasurable humiliation and anguish.
Phil's wife was shattered by his fascination with the world of online pornography. Initially she thought that his enthrallment with pornography and Internet sex was simply the experimentation of a young and healthy man. But over the years she felt her own self-esteem shrivel as she realized that she could never compete with the Internet.
"I always felt like I was some doll, acting out his fantasies but without any real connection between the two of us," she says.
Weiss of L.A.'s Sexual Recovery Institute says that treatment for people who are sexual compulsives must also include treating an unhealthy relationship.
"A healthy partner would say, 'I'm not sitting around here while you are doing that, I am outta here.' " But instead, many of these partners, in textbook versions of codependence, shield their children from their father's activities "by making sure they ring the bell when coming home, so daddy knows we are here and will stop masturbating in front of the computer," Weiss says.
Therapy and support
As Internet sex problems have increased, so have treatments.
An alphabet soup of 12-step programs -- Sex Addicts Anonymous, Codependents of Sex Addicts, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous -- have sprung up to meet the exploding needs. Some preach complete abstinence unless in a married relationship, others chart areas of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Clinicians have turned to cognitive behavior therapy, as well as drugs, because there is a long established link between aberrant sexual behavior and depression, anxiety and other emotional disorders.
"We look at our clients who are sex addicts like it is an eating disorder," says Weiss. "Sexual recovery is not not having sex. It is about healthy sexuality and staying within those boundaries."
Four years ago, Phil's wife threatened to leave if he did not get his behavior under control. She then took him to a meeting of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. He looked around the room and heard stories that made him shudder, both because those who recited them seemed to be such losers, and because he recognized himself.
They are now struggling to pull their lives back together as a couple, going to 12-step meetings of Codependents of Sex Addicts and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.
Phil cannot access the computer at home, and the television is locked and only his wife has the key. They go to meetings frequently and struggle to claim a normal intimate life. Phil has recently been diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, and acknowledges having struggled with depression, like so many who act out sexually.
Phil's marriage is the most powerful incentive to change that exists. "
If I lose my wife, I won't have anything left to live for," he says, his voice thick with emotion. "My hope is just to make it through the day. Hour to hour. Minute to minute. It's 9 o'clock in the morning and I haven't acted out. There was a time when I would have acted three or four times already. So that gives me hope."
Because of his wife, Phil is one of the very lucky ones. For those who lack such a sustaining or intimate connection, hope will forever compete with a click of a mouse.
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Where to turn for support
A number of resources and support groups are available for people who believe that they or their partners might be addicted to cyber sex.
Although support groups and 12-step programs are the treatments of choice, there are fundamental differences between their basic philosophies.
S-Anon and Sex Addicts Anonymous believe that the only way to recover is through sexual abstinence and an exclusive marital relationship.
But these programs often do not feel manageable for people who are unmarried or gay.
Other groups, such as Sexual Recovery and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, contend that recovery needs to be structured by integrating normal and healthy sexual activity into daily life.
Here are some of the main support groups:
* Codependents (or Co-Addicts) of Sex Addicts (COSA): www.cosa-recovery.org.* Counseling Affiliates Sexual Addiction Treatment Program, including tests: www.sexaddictionhelp.com.
* Recovering Couples Anonymous: www.recovering-couples.org.
* S-Anon: (800) 210-8141, (615) 833-3152 or www.sanon.org.
* Sex Addicts Anonymous: (800) 477-8191, (713) 869-4902 or www.sexaa.org.
* Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, for those who are also involved in compulsive emotional relationships online: www.slaafws.org.
* Sexual addiction resources, by Patrick Carnes: www.sexhelp.com.
* Sexual Compulsives Anonymous: (310) 859-5585 or www.sca-recovery.org.
* Sexual Recovery Institute, Los Angeles: (310) 360-0130 or www.sexualrecovery.com.
* Sexual Recovery Anonymous, sexualrecovery.org.
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How to know if you need help
A number of tests are available on the Web to determine if you have a problem with sex addiction or Internet sex addiction.
A positive answer to one of these three basic questions suggests that someone has a sex addiction, according to the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health:
* Do I have a sense that I have lost control over my specific sexual behavior?
* Am I experiencing significant consequences because of my specific out-of-control sexual behavior?
* Do I feel like I am constantly thinking about my specific out-of-control sexual behavior, even when I don't want to?
Questions about Internet sex addiction can be found at www.sexhelp.com or www.sexaddictionhelp.com.
In his book, "In the Shadows of the Net," Patrick Carnes writes that a positive answer to any of the statements below could indicate a problem.
Have you ever done any of the following:
* Kept sexual activity on the Internet a secret from family members.
* Carried out sexual activities on the Net at work.
* Frequently found yourself erasing your computer history files in an effort to conceal your activity on the Net.
* Felt ashamed at the thought that someone you love might discover your Internet use.
* Found that your time on the Net takes away from or prevents you from doing other tasks and activities.
* Found yourself in a kind of online trance or time warp during which the hours just slipped by.
* Frequently visited chat rooms that are focused on sexual conversation.
* Looked forward to your sexual activities on the Net and felt frustrated and anxious when you couldn't get on when you planned.
* Found yourself masturbating while on the Net.
* Had sexual chat room friends who became more important than the family and friends in your life.
* Regularly visited porn sites.
* Downloaded pornography from a newsgroup on more than one occasion.
* Had favorite porn sites.
* Visited fetish porn sites on more than one occasion.
* Viewed child pornography online.
* Taken part in the CUseeMe sexual video rooms.