Sex Addiction The interface between insecurity and consumerism

Text: Antonella Gambotto-Burke

Human socialisation and mating rituals have undergone more changes in the past 20 or so years than at any other time in history, and they’re all technologically driven. The most prevalent – sex addiction – is destroying our cultural capacity for intimacy, the touchstone of deep sexual contentment.

In terms of sexual dysfunction, the internet was described by the late clinician Dr Al Cooper, author of Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force, as “the Triple A Engine” (Access, Affordability and Anonymity). LA-based sex therapist Rob Weiss is one of the leading figures dealing with the fallout. On opening the first US sex addiction outpatient clinic, he was busy “but not really busy. Once the internet came in, I had a line out the door.”

The incidence of internet sex addiction escalated so rapidly from 1995 to 1998 that Weiss had to hire six therapists to keep up with the demand: over 160 clients were booking appointments each week. These days, it’s a global epidemic. “Cybersex addiction is a huge problem that people still aren’t talking about,” Weiss says. “One of the issues for my clients at the moment is hookup apps – Tinder, Grindr, Ashley Madison, all that stuff. Next on the list is Virtual Reality porn and Virtual Reality sex, which will be the game changer, for sure.”

Disturbingly, the age of addicts is decreasing; therapists speak of seeing children as young as nine whose sexuality – and, concomitantly, worldview – have been deformed by cyberporn. As adolescents spend almost half of each day interacting with technology, the resultant deficits are an urgent social issue. Developmental milestones (literary, interpersonal) are retarded or delayed; self-regulation is impacted, as is focus; there has been a sharp increase in behavioural and psychological disorders and stress levels; and, critically, specialists are seeing an increasing level of difficulty in separating fantasy from reality.

In Australia, rates of child-on-child sex abuse are rising. The late academic and child protection advocate Professor Freda Briggs reported that children who sexually abuse other children are likely to be reenacting pornography they have seen on smartphones, videos or online. In 2017, NSW Police began investigating the alleged rape of unconscious and inebriated teenage girl at an eastern suburbs house party by a 15-year-old boy, who then emailed the footage to at least 50 other 15-year-old boys; he appeared in Sydney’s Children’s Court on charges of producing and distributing child pornography.

Dr Monica Campo, a Senior Research Officer with The Australian Institute of Family Studies, has observed that the consumption of pornography has resulted in girls and women “being coerced or feeling pressured to share naked images of themselves online… a recent Australian survey of 15-19 year old girls revealed that 51 per cent believed girls feel social pressure to share naked images of themselves online. A related issue to consider is how pornography influences young people’s self-concept and body image.”

As Min Yi Tan reported in Neighbourhood last year, some adolescent girls compromise: under pressure from their boyfriends to produce “sexual trophy” shots, they send self-erasing pornographic photographs via Snapchat. The problem? There are third party apps that can record the footage. One girl noted that “even prostitutes don’t let you film them”. It’s easier, she said, for a sex worker to say no to a client than for a girlfriend to draw boundaries with her partner.

Dr Mary Anne Layden, Director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania described pornography as the “most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today.”

Courtship is now seen as antiquated. As one journalist described the demographic of a threesomes app, “Many users are single, straight men who simply want to skip the pleasantries expected on old-fashioned dating apps.” Thing is, intimacy and romance are far from mere “pleasantries”; they’re important phases serving a purpose, establishing levels of emotional safety, commitment, compatibility and so on.

Everything has changed regarding dating,” Weiss explains. “Everything. The developmental stages we thought we knew are changing. It used to be: I go to high school, I might date, I might or might not be sexual, maybe I go on to work or college and eventually I might start dating and being sexual or both. Now what is happening is that the majority of people are being sexual online with porn or with each other and then they might go on a date. And so what we’re seeing is young people who know a lot about sex and a lot about the physical act but asking someone out, holding someone’s hand, being tender, knowing how to handle it when someone they like doesn’t contact them – that stuff they don’t know how to do. What kids learn in high school is how to look at porn and have casual sex.”

In comparison, intimacy is fragile, founded on slowness, honesty, tenderness and respect, which is the axis of emotional integration. Our culture, however, attributes little value to these qualities as contentment is the antithesis of consumerism. This same sense of urgency, bolstered by inhumane work hours, financial and status stressors and personal demands results in the spiritual disquiet that triggers compulsion.

The abuse of pornography is considered superior to that of drugs and alcohol as it does not involve a forfeiting of consciousness and nor does it (generally) entail legal transgression. While perversions are rarely openly discussed, pornographic use / abuse has been normalised to the extent that it has come to be synonymous with alpha masculinity rather than being perceived as a byproduct of emotional and cultural dysfunction.

This normalisation has resulted in hypersexuality being treated as specious complaint – the DSM5 (the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) does not list it – and debates about its existence, many pivoting on salacious jokes. The problem? It’s not funny.

In his book Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, Weiss quotes the distraught partner of a sex addict: “I realize now that many of the things he liked and requested when we made love were re-creations of images he had viewed online. He is no longer able to be intimate. He objectifies me, other women, and girls on the street. When we go out, it’s like his head is on a swivel, staring at every woman who goes by. When we’re together in bed, he fantasises about the women he’s seen online and imagines that he’s having sex with one of them. I know he does; I can feel it.

“I have been humiliated, used, betrayed, lied to, and misled. It’s almost impossible to let him touch me without feeling really yucky. I tried to continue being sexual with him initially. In fact, I tried being more sexual, to compete better with the porn girls, but I couldn’t do it. Now we’ve stopped having sex altogether.”

As Cooper said, “The net is a blade with many edges.”

Robert Weiss. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Weiss. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Part of the philosophical fallout of pornography is the sense of sexual entitlement and emotional detachment that feeds sex addiction. Women have come to be perceived as what is known in pornography as “cum dumps”: they mop up the emotional and physical effluvium of sex addiction.

This level of abuse in the service of sexual pleasure is not only near-universal, but increasingly accepted as normal. When, in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film of Fifty Shades of Grey, the 21-year-old sexually inexperienced Anastasia Steele refuses her 27-year-old lover’s offer of vaginal and anal fisting, he looks as crestfallen as if she had broken his heart. The women flocking to buy the book and film could be seen as struggling to find romance in amongst the pornography that now characterises intimate relationships. Like the woman Weiss quotes, girls ape the behaviour of the “hoes” over whom the boys they love masturbate, struggling to outdo them in order to hold their partners’ attention. As one man wrote of women searching for multiple sexual partners online, “And the best part is, the girls are just as savage as the guys.”

They need to be. The understanding that sexually, one woman is insufficiently exciting for one man is, because of cyberporn, now par for the course. The Girls Next Door, a Playboy Mansion reality series that ran until 2010, was global primetime viewing, meaning that children were exposed to it; the fact that it concerned the exploits of a sleazy, ugly octogenarian with three attractive sexual partners under the age of 30 was considered amusing. When he died in 2017, the BBC opened its obituary with these words: “Hugh Hefner created a fantasy world for millions of men but unlike most of his readers, actually got to live the dream.”

The “dream”: partnerships engineered to bolster status, controlling women with money, emotionless sex.

Cyberporn powerfully exploits gender archetypes, playing into male insecurity about impotence, whether social, economic or sexual. Rather than learning to manage anger, pain, loneliness and frustration, boys and men are being conditioned by pornography to understand women – in particular, young or sexually appealing women – as objects designed to bolster their sense of adequacy. In particular, the intensity of the immersion created by pornography makes it easy to suspend morality. A man who identifies as socially conscious, politically correct and a feminist can thus justify his porn abuse; because he respects the “choices” of women, there is no conflict. Conveniently, the socio-political and historical contexts of these false “choices” can be ignored.

This desensitisation is a process that makes sexualised abuse necessary in porn, to the extent that violence, extreme perversion and humiliation are now pornographic tropes. The nature of the medium means it cannot be otherwise, for novelty is key: the market is desensitised. In otherwise constructive people, ideological bifurcation becomes necessary to cope, hence the almost evangelical insistence on the myths of “fantasy”, “free speech” and “choice” in relation to porn.

Pornographers have no interest in social responsibility; they run a business that pivots on the emotional exploitation and distortion of men. One study found that 60 per cent of compulsive porn users experience low libido or erectile dysfunction with partners but function perfectly with porn: this is the goal of all pornographers, who profit from a docile and dependent market.

What this means is that the majority of boys and men are being sexually conditioned not only to be aroused by material that is sociopathic in essence, but to understand sex as commercial in scope – that is to say, as a power-based form of stress relief. Sexual expression is no longer understood to be a means of sustaining a relationship or showing deep feeling for a partner, but as an exercise in dispelling the tensions created by a consumerist culture. In this respect, pornography is what Carl Smith, Learning Technology Research Centre director describes as “context engineering”, a form of biohacking in which humanity is superseded.

The good news is that cybersex addiction can, if handled intelligently, be what psychotherapist Eric Pierni called a “gateway to authentic masculinity”. “There is,” he writes, “something very special that awaits a man on the other side of his sexual addiction. It is access to his authentic masculine self which can be considered the source of his true power. By power, I’m referring to the place where a man feels integrated, centered and whole. When a man does the work to heal the pain that has been driving his sexual addiction what emerges is a deeply loving, compassionate and powerful man. He embodies the authentic masculine and becomes a gift for himself and all the people he touches. He essentially comes home.”

As Weiss points out, addictions are cyclical in nature, leaving addicts stuck in what he calls “an endless, downwardly spiralling loop.” The circuit breakers vary – for some, it can be the loss of a job or relationship; for others, a sexually transmitted disease; for the fortunate, falling in love – but all require the underpinning of commitment, work, guidance and social support.

From his early adolescence to young adulthood, Weiss, now in a stable, longterm relationship, had sex with over a thousand strangers. “I had a troubled home life – my mother was violent and psychotic – and I acted out through anonymous sex. Through it, I felt in control and powerful. I tried to develop intimate relationships while all this was going on and couldn’t. I tried to grow my career while this was going on and couldn’t. My primary focus was sex. Finally, someone sent me to a recovery meeting, and I never left the programme. It’s 33 years now, so I’m here to tell you that recovery is more than possible: it’s a reality.”


If you think you may have issues with pornography or cybersex, you’ll find support here:


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