The widespread availability of Internet pornography has made it possible for millions of people to get sexual gratification easily, frequently, and without public attention. But because we so widely associate attraction to pornography with men, and because Internet pornography in general is a relatively recent phenomenon, there’s been very little scrutiny, either in academic research or the popular media, on women who become addicted to cybersex.
Technically, cybersex is defined as sexually motivated behavior involving the Internet. Unlike other forms of addictive behavior, such as gambling disorder and substance disorders, cybersex addiction is not an officially recognized disorder and therefore mental health professionals would not give a diagnosis to people who show the signs of this kind of addiction.
Research in the field is still emerging, but based on what’s known currently, it appears that women are in fact less likely to use cybersex than men, and when they do, they're more likely to join chat rooms than to view pornography. Research also shows that women become more likely to prefer interactive cybersex as they get older.
In investigating this relatively unexplored area, University of Duisberg-Essen psychologist Christian Laier and a team of German researchers decided to study the nature of cybersex addiction in women and understand its predictors. They began with a perspective known as the gratification hypothesis, which proposes that people become addicted to cybersex because they both anticipate and then receive sexual satisfaction. Unlike people who don’t develop an addiction, those hooked on cybersex actually become aroused by sexual cues on the Internet. If you don’t become turned on by pornographic images on the Internet, you won’t become a cybersex addict. If you do, and you experience a set of other risk factors, you may.
Laier and his team recruited 102 young heterosexual adult females from the community ranging from 18 to 29 years old. The researchers told participants ahead of time that they would be viewing explicit pornographic material of legal sexual practices. The young women were divided into groups based on their reported use of both Internet pornography and Internet sex chat rooms—Internet Pornography Users (IPUs); non-IPUs (NIPUs); interactive cybersex applications users only (ICUs); and noninteractive or no cybersex interactive applications users (NICUs). Most of the comparisons of interest involved the IPUs vs. the NIPUs.
Compared to the NIPUs, the IPUs were more likely to watch softcore photos and videos, but they were even more likely to visit hardcore photo and video websites. There were no group differences in a host of other practices, such as having sex chats, having sex via Webcam, using dating sites, going to live sex shows, purchasing online sex toys, reading sexually arousing literature, searching information on STDs, or seeking advice on sexual practices.
During the one-hour testing in the lab, participants filled out a questionnaire, indicating how addicted they were to cybersex, known as the Internet Addiction Test adapted for cybersex use (IATs). There are two scales on the IATS—one reflecting loss of control and time management and the second tapping craving and social problems. Participants also answered a questionnaire measuring their propensity for sexual excitation and another, the Hypersexual Behavior Inventory (HBI), to assess problematic sexual behavior. They also rated themselves on a set of physiological and psychological symptoms within the past week, and provided information on the number of sexual partners they had both within the previous week and the previous 6 months.
The experimental portion of the study involved showing participants 100 stimuli depicting various sexual scenarios. Before and after watching these stimuli, participants rated their own sexual desire as well as their desire to masturbate.
As they predicted, Laier and his colleagues found that the IPUs felt more sexually aroused and had higher cravings than the NIPUs. Those with higher cybersex addiction, in turn, found the pictures more exciting, felt more cravings, were also more sensitive to sexual excitation, had more problematic sexual behaviors, and had more psychological symptoms.
You might think that women hooked on Internet porn have poorer real-life relationships. However, those with strong cybersex addiction were no more likely than their non-addicted counterparts to have sexual partners in large numbers, to feel less satisfied with their sexual contacts, or to use interactive cybersex sites.
The study’s findings were clear: Women with a greater predisposition to becoming addicted to cybersex find Internet depictions of sexual activity more exciting and more likely to lead to cravings. Like men, women who become addicted to Internet pornography seem to do so out of a desire to achieve gratification. They don’t lack sexual activity in their lives, though they do seem to have more psychological problems. In the experiment, the pictures served as cues, similar to those that also trigger other addictive behavior, such as alcohol-related cues that trigger alcohol use.
The bottom line is that whether male or female, people who use the Internet for sex are doing so because they find online depictions to be reinforcing. What’s not clear is why it is that Internet images are so rewarding for these individuals, and how the cue of seeing sexual behavior online leads to craving.
One might argue that, in contrast to risky sexual behavior, cybersex addiction isn’t particularly troublesome. The individuals pursuing online sexual arousal aren’t hurting anyone, and the behavior is legal. But being hooked on cybersex can interfere with an individual’s ability to lead a productive and satisfying life.
Although the women in the Laier, et al. study did not have fewer or less rewarding sexual relationships in their own lives, they did have more symptoms indicating psychological problems. They also were more likely to engage in riskier sexual behavior. For example, they were more likely than NIPUs to agree, "My sexual thoughts and fantasies distract me from accomplishing important tasks," and "I feel like my sexual behavior is taking me in a direction I don’t want to go." They also agreed that they "do things sexually that are against my values and beliefs."
Clearly, both men and women can become cybersex addicts. In the case of women, at least, the ramifications can lead include a set of unwanted consequences, some that may even pose danger to physical and mental health.
If you or someone you know seems to be veering in this direction, it's important to recognize that cybersex addiction can create real, not just virtual, problems in living.
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LaierChristian, PekalJaro, and BrandMatthias. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. August 2014, 17(8): 505-511. doi:10.1089/cyber.2013.0396.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014