When Fantasy Turns into Obsession
Craig is a banker from Iowa who became addicted to adult chat rooms. He explained, “I spend time in chat rooms on office time. I made up false names and genders for myself, pretending to be other people by sending out pictures (of women, I’m male) and saying they’re me, all this accompanied by masturbation whenever I’m alone in the office (usually after hours). I wasted hours looking for cybersex, finding the right cyberlover, and the right fantasy for the moment. It’s like I need to make the experience last as long as I can before I climax. Typing used to be great, but recently I started to phone sex making the sex part real and part fantasy. I do a lot of work-related research, but there’s almost always one window open on a porn site. Some are “pay” but most are free. I have a habit of saving pictures I like which often leads to megabytes, or GIGABYTES of wasted drive space that I end up deleting all at once after a while.”
Craig further explained, “I fear getting caught by my boss. I’m starting to “work” late just for time alone with the computer, wasting money on pay sites. I try to restrict myself from masturbating at home (I’m married), but I will be right back on the sex sites once my wife is in the shower or asleep. The real scary part for me is that I like cybersex better than having sex with my wife. Real sex just doesn’t seem as good and it is starting to impact my marriage. Please help me understand why I find this virtual world so exciting.”
Craig is a cybersex addict. Cybersex can be defined as sexual arousal using computer technology, especially by wearing virtual reality equipment or by exchanging messages with another person via the Internet. Cybersex comes in many forms, from online pornography, to adult chat rooms, webcam sex, wearable stimulators, haptics, and Occulus-style VR goggles. Cybersex in any form offers a distraction to temporarily cope with negative thoughts or problems in your life, as the activity offers the ability to absorb oneself into the Internet and its various adult sites, giving you a means to relax and temporarily feel good about yourself. Over time, a fun habit develops into a compulsive obsession. At this stage, life becomes unmanageable as relationships or careers are jeopardized because of the compulsive behavior. Longer periods of time are spent searching for new pornographic images or mingling in adult chat rooms. Cybersex no longer seems to be a voluntary act, but a sexual act that must be completed.
Recovery When Relapse is a Click Away
Avoiding relapse is a common struggle for anyone in recovery, but the problem often seems compounded with cybersex addiction by the need to use the computer while in recovery from the addiction. The relapse process is especially difficult for the cybersex addict due to what I call the Stop-Start-Relapse Cycle. The cycle is an internal dialogue that serves to maintain the compulsive behavior.
- Rationalization – Users will rationalize that cybersex serves as a “treat” from a long, hard day of work often making self-statement such as, “Just a few minutes won’t hurt,” “I can control my net use,” or “I am right here at the computer, what the heck?” The user will try to justify the need to look at a few pictures or chat for a few minutes, but they soon discover that time slips by and the behavior is not so easily contained.
- Regret – After the cybersex experience, the users’ experience a period of deep regret. Once they climax, the addict feels guilt or shame for the behavior such as, “I feel guilty for how this is hurting my wife” or “I can’t believe I wasted all this time,” or “I am a horrible person for what I just did.”
- Abstinence – The addict views the behavior as a personal failure of willpower and promises never to do it again and a short period of abstinence follows. During this time, the addict temporarily engages in healthy patterns of behavior, resumes interests in old hobbies, spends more time with his family, exercises, and gets enough rest.
- Relapse – The addict in recovery feels tempted to return to the computer during stressful or emotionally charged moments. They begin to crave and miss cybersex. They tell themselves that cybersex is the best way to relax and feel good about themselves. Or they begin not to care about the consequences. They remember how good cybersex felt both sexually and emotionally, and they forget how bad they felt afterwards. The rationalization period starts again and the cycle repeats itself.
How do you kick the cybersex habit when you need to be on the Internet and screens for work? How can you stop abusing with our society’s daily reliance on technology? Similar to programs that address overeating and food addiction, you need to learn how to make healthy, positive choices about your screen use since complete abstinence isn’t always possible in today’s technological world.
As in food addiction, certain types of food trigger binge behavior. Let’s say chocolate or potato chips will trigger binge behavior but celery sticks will not, so avoidance of those “trigger” foods is a necessary part of recovery. Recovery from food addiction is about relearning how to eat in order to make more informed and healthier food selections with success being measured through objective goals such as changes in caloric intake and weight loss.
To address cybersex addiction the same basic steps are applied. First, determine the Internet activities, situations, and emotions that are most likely to trigger net binges. A particular chat room, a certain time of day, or the mood you are in just before you log online may all serve as’triggers” that will lead to inappropriate conduct and abuse. Recovery means relearning how to use the Internet in order to make better choices about time is spent online with success being measured through objective, measurable time management goals and abstinence requirements that are achieved and maintained. Goals should include a reduction in the number of hours you spend online in total, the ability to maintain abstinence from adult online content, and an increase in other offline activities using these five steps.
- Keep a Daily Activity Log. The first step towards reaching your goals is to thoroughly assess your Internet use during the day in order to identify high-risk situations, feelings, or events that lead to net-binges. During the workday a lot happens to an employee. You may be anxious about a big meeting or feel frustrated or tense after the boss criticizes your work, and you turn to cybersex as way to deal with these emotions and work-related tensions. Certain moods or events during the day can trigger cybersex use and help you escape or avoid a troubling feeling or tense moment. To help you pinpoint what triggers your cybersex activities I suggest maintaining a Daily Activity Log to keep track of when you use the computer for cybersex each hour of the day, every day of the week. Each time you go online to engage in cybersex, record the day, time, and events going on at the moment.
- Cope with Triggers. While cybersex is a convenient distraction from problems, cybersex does very little to actually help you cope with the underlying issues that led you to where you are today. If you are suffering from marital problems, consider marital counseling to address those intimacy issues instead of turning to cybersex. If you view porn to handle stress at work, then you need to leam more effective stress management techniques to help you relax besides the Internet. Whatever your situation, please understand that it won’t be easy but will be well worth the effort.
- Set a Schedule. Set time limits. You can delete unnecessary apps, put your phone on a charger when you come home from work and not look at it again until the morning, or ignore your phone when you are talking with others. I challenge smartphone users to take a 48-hour digital detox. Often, users struggle with this time frame, so I suggest starting with a 24-hour detox. It is a way to set a baseline with where, when, and how much you use your smartphone. In setting time limits, be conscious of the situations and emotions that make you want to check your phone. Is it boredom? Loneliness? Anxiety? Maybe something else would soothe you. Be strong when your phone beeps or rings. Don’t always answer it. In fact, avoid temptation by turning off the alert signals. Be disciplined about not using your device in certain situations (such as when you’re with children, driving, or in a meeting) or at certain hours (for instance, between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.).
- Limit Non-Essential Use. It is important to limit non-essential use of the Internet and this typically means reducing the number of hours spent sitting at the computer. First, you should assess how much time you use the Internet for frivolous things, such as buying a book on Amazon when you could walk down to the local bookseller, or reading the New York Times online when you could purchase the paper. Evaluate all the tasks you perform on the Internet and examine which of these can you cut out of your life. The computer is a constant temptation to use it for sexual rather than work-related purposes. So if you do have to be on the computer for work, then you need to limit all extracurricular use of the Internet as a way to minimize temptation.
- Disconnect to Reconnect. Establish tech-free time at home. No phones at the dinner table, go media-free for one hour after dinner, or be more present in the moment instead of snapping a photo. Spend quality time with others. Go out to dinner with your spouse and keep the smartphones at home. Enjoy a day at the park with your family without any smartphones. Go for a Sunday drive with your family and leave all the technology at home.
The Cybersex Addiction Index (CAI)
- Do you routinely spend time in sexting and instant messaging with the sole purpose of finding cybersex?
- Do you feel preoccupied with using the online world for sex?
- Do you frequently use anonymous communication to engage in sexual fantasies?
- Do you anticipate your next online session with the expectation that you will find sexual arousal or gratification?
- Do you move from cybersex to phone sex or even real-life meetings?
- Do you hide your online interactions from your significant other?
- Do you feel guilt or shame from your online use?
- Did you accidentally become aroused by cybersex only to now find that you actively seek it out when you log online?
- Do you masturbate when having cybersex or looking at at online pornography?
- Do you feel less interest with your real-life sexual partner only to prefer cybersex as a primary form of sexual gratification?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, you may be addicted to online sex. With this technology so widely available, more people have come to realize their initial curiosity has turned into an addiction.
Kimberly Young is Founder, the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery, and Netaddiction.com.