When Bob Timberland* was approached by a friend who asked him to install software on her computer to block her habitual use of sex websites, the computer programmer was stunned. Timberland hadn't thought of women as being users (let alone abusers) of cybersex. And his friend -- a professional who seemed to lead a healthy and ordinary life -- certainly didn't appear to fit the bill of an individual who was struggling with Internet sex addiction. Yet, according to stats published in In the Shadows of the Net (Hazelden Publishing & Educational Services, 2001) about 40 per cent of individuals addicted to cybersex are women -- women of all ages and backgrounds.
What is cybersex?
Cybersex is the use of graphic, online sexual material. It runs the gamut from viewing pornographic photographs and downloading and watching pornographic movies online, to having sexually explicit chats that often simulate sex with other Internet users, and using web cams that allow you to request the live performance of sex acts.
"Women tend to be more likely to be hooked on cybersex that includes conversation and some modicum of relationship," says Dr. Marion Goertz, a registered marriage and family therapist in Toronto. "They still want to know and be known to some degree; whereas men often report liking the anonymity of response to a visual form with no interest in knowing any personal data about the person's image they are using for purposes of stimulation."
Why do women use it?
"Women access Internet porn sites for either information or gratification," says Dr. Goertz. "The anonymity of the Internet allows them to explore, connect and be informed in a private, controlled setting. This doesn't mean that they will pursue any of the options presented but they want to be more in control of their sexual experiences."
Studies show that, over time and through repeated use, the use of cybersex provides an emotional or mental escape -- even a "high" -- and this is when the behaviour can become a compulsion. This is evident when women continue to spend time on sex sites even though they know their job productivity is slipping and their behaviour puts them at risk of being fired, their relationships with family and friends are suffering and they are spending more money or going into debt to download pornography from the Internet.
* fictional name was used
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Is it an addiction?
The medical community is still debating whether to formally label the excessive use of cybersex -- in which the individual has no control over their habit -- as a formal "addiction," but many psychologists who treat men and women who are hooked on Internet sex maintain it is a legitimate compulsive disorder.
"Women can, and do, develop addictions to chat rooms and Internet relationships," says Dr. Goertz. "Many partners of people addicted to Internet interactions (cybersex chat rooms etc.) consider their partner to be unfaithful and often label their online involvement an affair."
Those most strongly hooked on Internet sex are likely to spend hours each day masturbating to pornographic images or with an individual contacted through a chat room.
Goertz says the best warning signs of any addictive behavior, including cybersex, is a change in regular life patterns seemingly without cause. Here are some other signs that indicate you, your sister or girlfriend may be hooked on cybersex.
• The need to return to sex sites to escape problems or relieve boredom, tension and loneliness.
• Restlessness, irritability and tension when not online.
• The need to spend more and more time or money on Internet sex activities.
• Preoccupation with cybersex. For example, you are thinking about when you can next visit a pornographic site while making dinner or in a work meeting.
• Unsuccessful attempts to reduce or quit use.
• Lying about the extent of time spent on the activity...not aware of time passing.
• Neglecting family, friends and work.
• Actual or threatened loss of significant relationships, job and financial stability because of computer use.
Treatment for cybersex addiction includes individual counselling and support groups for addicts and their partners. If you or a woman you know is struggling with cybersex, check out the following helpful resources and counselling programs:
• Cyber Sexual Addiction: www.cybersexualaddiction.com
• Sex Addicts Anonymous: www.saa-recovery.org
• Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous: www.slaafws.org
• Codependents of Sex Addicts: www.cosa-recovery.org
• Codeps (www.codeps.org) offers online support for partners.
• Tangled in the Web: Understanding Cybersex from Fantasy to Addiction -- a self-help recovery guide that is also helpful for spouses and family members living with an online sex addict. Available at Chapters.ca.
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