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Getting hooked on cybersex can
destroy lives, families

When we talk about cybersex and cybersex addiction, we're not talking about harmless
chatrooms or innocent curiosity over a titillating Web site. "Cybersex" refers to the enormous amount of sexual and pornographic material on the Internet and the anonymous way in which users can access this information. A cybersex addict is an Internet user for whom the allure of cybersex has become uncontrollable.

"Think of addictions you know about such as alcohol or drugs or compulsive gambling" suggests Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in the identification, treatment and study of sexual addiction. "Sex addiction is like those other addictions -- it's a problem with the brain. Most people learn from their mistakes, then go on to make responsible choices. Sex addicts keep making the same bad and destructive choices because they don't want to give up the neuro-chemical high their compulsive behavior gives them."

Cybersex addiction is indiscriminate. Ministers and cops, housewives and business executives, fathers and mothers, men and women, young and old, married and single, rich and poor, have confessed that their behavior is often out of control when it comes to sex and the Internet.

Although the Internet only came into general public use in the 1990s, Carnes and his coauthors of In the Shadows of the Net report that Nielsen Net Ratings indicated 12.5 million Web surfers visited porn sites in just one month (September 1999). This was a 140 percent rise in traffic in just six months. "In fact," write the authors, "the word 'sex' is one of the most frequently typed words in search engines. The only words more common than 'sex' are 'and and 'the.'

It is a myth, says Carnes, that sexual activity on the Internet is not harmful because there is no direct physical contact with another person in this place of "virtual reality." Spouses may defend their on-line flirtations with others in a sex chatroom by claiming "it's just a game" -- even when the correspondence gets more sexually explicit.

Getting hooked on cybersex can destroy lives and families. Some addicts go on to have destructive physical relationships with people they meet on-line, and some lose jobs because of the inordinate amount of time spent on their computers. And, with sex on the Internet generating $1 billion annually, some lose money.

Yet Carnes emphasizes that this is not a moral issue or a character issue. "Were seeing people at 40, 50, and 60 years old becoming fixated on things they were never drawn to before in their lives. People used to have to go to adult bookstores to see pornography. Now there's less risk."

The sheer volume of pornographic Web sites that show things such as violent sexual activities or pictures of nude children, can normalize these things for some people who may have never dreamed they would act on any impulse this pornography ignites. Then suddenly, says Carnes, we're filling prisons with perpetrators who aren't your classic sex offenders. "I'm seeing people who had respectable careers like judges and attorneys ending up in jail."

As dismal as this picture seems, Carnes is optimistic about getting the appropriate help for cybersex addicts because therapists and the public are becoming more aware of the problem. He says about 70 percent of the clients treated for sex addictions have admitted that they use the Internet in their activities, so many clinicians who were skeptics before are now acknowledging that cybersex addiction is a problem.

Carnes says a Twelve Step approach makes perfect sense for cybersex addicts. The first step is for addicts to acknowledge the problem and admit that they are powerless over their behavior. Then Step by Step, recovering addicts learn how to work through their guilt and shame, to take responsibility for their actions, and to move into a state of acceptance and serenity. Fellowships such as Sex Addicts Anonymous at (713-869-4902) and Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous at (781-255-8825) are good places to start the journey of recovery. Family members and friends whose lives have also spun out of control because of their loved one's cybersex addiction can benefit from groups like Codependents of Sex Addicts (763-537-6904).

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient addiction and mental health care for adults and youth, the Foundation has treatment centers and telehealth services nationwide as well as a network of collaborators throughout health care. Through charitable support and a commitment to innovation, the Foundation is able to continually enhance care, research, programs and services, and help more people. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in its services and throughout the organization, which also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.

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