Cybersex: An insidious addiction
Specific characteristics of cybersex
The internet, while it offers enormous possibilities on many levels – information, data, speed of contact, time saved and relationships improved – also renews long-established problems of the offline world (solitude, pornography, violence, theft, viruses) but on a qualitatively different scale. Like any new development, digital technology cannot solve a problem without creating new ones.
What is addiction? It speaks of the essential need of every person for “something else” to live for, recognizing that alone we are not sufficient.
An addiction can be health if it helps personal development: think of food, water and sleep keeping the person healthy; culture, recreation and relationships enriching us, making life more beautiful and interesting for ourselves and for others.
Addiction becomes unhealthy, sick and even pathological if it prevents the development of the person, impoverishes their existence, even destroying that person. While a healthy addiction opens up to a relationship, to coming out of one’s shell, unhealthy addictions lead, on the contrary, to closing back in on oneself and to making one’s self the center of everything.
A particularly destructive form is the addiction to virtual pornography through access to websites. In particular, sexual dependence expresses the contradictions of a society and a lifestyle that seeks to accommodate every possible emotion. That is why we find here problems and difficulties very similar to those found in the real world. However, the web also presents specific differences, and thus new grounds for concern compared to printed and DVD pornography.
First of all, the time devoted to surfing the net (and the influence that all this has on the imagination and the mind) tends to expand. Always new and more easily available, the offer leads to a significant increase of this dimension in the life of the addict. Al Cooper, one of the pioneers in this field, noticed that almost all of those sampled in his research into cybersex activities engaged in it for at least 10 hours a week. Free time – and other time as well – thus ends up being progressively eroded by the computer screen, interfering with sleep time more and more.
The mode of diffusion is also relevant: unlike the printed medium, cybersex reaches an increasingly broader section of the general public. This can become dangerous for those who, at the age of development, begin to deal with the delicate and complex issues around sexuality (together with the underlying and equally critical issues related to loneliness, to the sense of inferiority or frustration to which pornography seems to offer a powerful mode of compensation).
Another important point is anonymity, which can cover relational difficulties or lack of self-acceptance: a simple click allows you to enter anywhere with ease, and especially to decide what identity to assume, thanks to the many possibilities offered by the virtual community. There is a real feeling here of being all-powerful.
Anonymity also means that accessing pornographic material enables you to avoid the unpleasant situation of having to purchase it from a stranger in a shop, as was the case before: now you can access free material in your room whenever you want, even if then many tend to be sucked into paid sites, ruining themselves financially.
Then, as in any dependency, there is the inability to stop, to disconnect, to say “no” to the thought of continuing to surf. Scholars talk about sexual addiction associated with craving, and also about substance addiction. Here there are no physical disturbances due to abstinence crises (mainly psychological), but rather a strong general malaise and increasing irritability.
In addictions in general, and in sexual addiction in particular, we see a personality that has remained in the childish, passive stage, unable to resist the cravings for pleasure despite the shame, which is why their whole world revolves around a need considered necessary and unstoppable.
The aggravating circumstance of age
This problem affects all ages, but it is particularly serious and harmful for children. Currently, the majority of users who frequent pornographic websites are adolescents. According to Internet Filter Review data, the average age of children who come into contact with online pornography in the USA is 11 years; those who access cybersex are between 12 and 17 years old.
In Italy, 61 percent of users are aged between 18 and 34, but according to data from Covenanteyes (a site that deals with prevention and offers help to get out of pornography addiction), 80 percent of them come into contact with pornography before the age of majority. Italian boys start watching pornography on average at the age of 11. Parents give their children an iPhone without thinking about its unlimited access possibilities, which, combined with curiosity and inexperience, will in many cases lead to terrible consequences, mostly felt too late.
Research conducted in Bologna has shown that 95.5 percent of children between 12 and 15 years old visit pornography sites, constituting their usual way of learning about sex. Added to this is the fact that the web allows you to practice what you have seen, something that never happened in previous generations.
Interactivity is the great novelty of the internet, allowing you to intervene in what you see. Virtual interaction, unlike a physical relationship, favors the loosening of inhibitory brakes and thus the ease of acquiring harmful habits while being unaware of their danger: “People feel freer to read erotic stories on the screen or to watch explicitly sexual images on their computers, but they probably would never have entered an adult cinema or witnessed an erotic show.”
The nature of invisibility and anonymity can reinforce the feeling that after all it is only a simple game which you can leave when and how you want, supporting the tendency to let go, revealing the most vulgar or intimate side of a person, by posting uninhibited images to attract attention and comments.
One of the most popular fashions among teenagers in the United States (but not only there) is sexting (a mixture of sex and texting), which consists of sending personal pornographic photos by email or mobile phone to friends or even strangers. Those engaged in this exchange are mostly completely unaware, not only of becoming prey to predators and pedophiles, but also of the fact that those images will reappear years later without you being able to regain control of these images.
A disease of the mind
Cybersex is a virus that infects a person’s highest faculty: intelligence.
First of all on the level of imagination. The sites visited end up dominating life, study, work commitments, relationships, leisure and interests, favoring the tendency to see people as pornographic objects. The addict finds it increasingly difficult to live in the real world, to concentrate on work, to establish relationships of friendship and affection, ending up creating a parallel world, alternative to that in which he or she lives, and increasingly taking refuge there, not bearing the burden and frustrations of ordinary life.
This is seen in the following testimony: “I lived a normal life and then suddenly felt this eagerness to watch porn. Once the desire struck me, it was as if everything around me was losing importance. All I was thinking about was getting to a computer. It was like I was being pulled by some mighty force. I’d cancel meetings, invent excuses, do anything to get to the computer. Once there, I’d lock out everything else. I used to spend hours on the internet watching pornography. It was like I was in a cave and the rest of the world didn’t exist. It always ended with masturbation, and then it was as if I came out of the cave to start seeing the world again. I remember the feeling of looking at the clock and being upset seeing how long I had been out of reality. It was almost as if I didn’t know where I had been, how to wake up from a dream or something like that.”
Hence there is the inevitable correlation between the increase in pornography and disregard for other aspects of life. What is viewed, besides obsessing the mind, impoverishes it, until it causes it to atrophy. Pornographic images are the most difficult to memorize, and cybersex, in turn, involves a further cognitive decrease compared to printed pornography. And not by chance.
The excitement caused by web pornography has a powerful weakening impact on cognitive processes, such as memory, reflection, attention and critical processing, and therefore on the freedom and ability to distance oneself from emotional experience. Like Pinocchio’s Toyland, cybersex is a sweet trap from which it becomes increasingly difficult to escape.
In a study conducted by the University of Duisburg-Essen, a sample of 28 males were subjected to four different modes of images and then later asked to recall them: pornographic images presented the greatest difficulties of memorization, because the focus is on what the psychiatrist Otto Kernberg calls the “partial objects” of the bodies, neglecting every other aspect. This cognitive deficit is even more evident with online pornography. People concentrate exclusively on the image, yet strangely they cannot remember it clearly: even if they invest more and more time, attention and interest in it, everything is at the expense of reworking, self-control, the possibility of stopping, in practice the reflexive faculty proper to the mind.
The inability to remember significant faces and details shows how viewing pornographic sites is linked to a depersonalization of the virtual partner: the more anonymous he or she is, the more the imagination is stimulated and excitement increases.
Increasingly frequent access to these sites also erodes sexual desire and energy, with serious consequences for the partner, who often complains of being treated with coldness and indifference The addict’s behavior is marked by superficiality, and the difficulty in getting involved, not only in sexual relations but in life in general.
A research project in a therapeutic setting linked to so-called “self-help groups” summarizes in the following terms the typology of this new form of slavery: “On the basis of long experience and 150,000 letters received from various American groups similar to ours, the most immediate and evident consequence of porn addiction is the drastic drop in sexual tension, both for men and women, and for men a growing partial or total impotence. Porn addiction negatively modifies all aspects of an individual’s life: working relationships, ability to apply oneself and pay attention to one’s own work, application to study, relationships of both friendship and love, progressive mistrust of oneself. As far as the influence on sexual dynamics is concerned, the most significant consequences are: decrease in sexual desire toward one’s partner; semi-impotence or total impotence in the act with a real person; … conditioning to look at potential partners only and exclusively as pornographic objects.”
Online pornographic images also tend to associate the basic ingredients of perversion – imagination, eroticism and anger – to the desire to destroy the other: “The vision of pornography associates emotions and feelings that should not be together, feelings that make no sense and are not compatible: sexual excitement mixed with shock, fear and anger; the orgasm associated with guilt, shame, frustration and sense of impotence … The adrenal gland expels cortisol, the stress hormone, which in turn activates multiple body-system processes to combat stress … Experts have called this vicious circle a ‘total overload’ of the system. The human organism is not made to support this extreme level of conflictual stimulation. We have no natural mechanism to deal with it. That is why many neuropsychologists and therapists call pornography ‘visual cocaine.’”
Cybersex is thus structurally inhumane: it leads to behaviors that tend to consider the other in terms of an object of pleasure.
Violence and pornography
Hence the strong link between pornography and violence, a marked symptom of the feelings of unworthiness and inner anger. In addition, the decrease in sexual energy, a consequence of cybersex, leads the addict to have to increase the doses to reaffirm their power and achieve excitement by humiliating the other, especially with violence or. Sexual perversion is a close crossroads of power and violence inflicted on the other.
This is the most disturbing consequence of porn addiction and is shown by the increase in violent behavior toward women, involving even torture and murder. The ever-increasing number of crime reports on this subject show how easily the pornography-violence link can degenerate into tragic outcomes.
All this has been well known to psychological research since its inception: “Since 1870 it is a proven fact that pornographic representations induce those who use them to commit acts of violence.” In fact, these are two modes of deviant behavior that present strong similarities, such as depersonalization, devaluation and the relationship experienced in a predominantly destructive manner.
Although it is not possible to establish a precise cause-effect relationship, many studies agree on the link between viewing violent and/or pornographic programs and violent behavior, including from a sexual point of view. The debate within a “tolerant” country like Denmark is instructive. In the 1960s the government decided to eliminate all rules and restrictions on the distribution of pornographic material; liberalization did not lead, as happened in the same period in the United States, to the feared effect of an increase in sexual assaults and violence. Things changed dramatically over the next decade, however, especially once pornographic material began to present an increasing dose of violence. The long-term effects of this spread were striking: over six years (1968-74) there was a 100 percent increase in sexually violent behavior.
Later research, in particular by Edward Donnerstein of the University of Wisconsin, confirmed that the fundamental explanation behind such an increase was based on the explosive mixture of pornography and sexual violence with significant consequences in the level of aggressive behavior.
In one experiment, films of various kinds (neutral, erotic, erotic-violent) were shown to different groups. Participants were then asked to take on roles of responsibility and to punish with an electric shock those who had failed in the performance of a given task. The results showed a similarity between watching the film and the tendency to aggression: “The men who had seen the film with neutral content were less punitive and administered minor shocks to both male and female ‘subjects.’ The erotic but non-violent video induced the men to be slightly more aggressive toward the male ‘students,’ but not toward the women. Following the observation of a scene of violent rape the situation was completely different: the men who had witnessed that video administered high levels of electric current, but only to their female victims and not to the men … Exposure to sexually explicit and violent material influences men in the sense of making them more aggressive toward women.”
The link between pornography and violence, even if it cannot be exactly quantified since the variables involved (cultural, environmental, character-based, emotional) are too many and too complex, shows a similar trend to that of addictions in general: at first it seems benevolent and attractive, but over time it requires increasingly strong and perverse doses.
Jim Gamble, founder and head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), said: “One of the problems with the internet connection is that people who have deviant sexual desires initially find a good way to satisfy that desire on the internet. But we are witnessing an irreversible spiral: we start with the images and then we want more access not only to still images, but to video, chat, and then more in real experience.”
The link between pornography and pedophilia
Pornography also has a worrying link with pedophile behavior. Studies show the high relevance between the use of these sites and fantasies enacted in the course of sexual violence: out of a sample of 561 pedophiles, the statistical link (35 percent) between the use of pornographic material (mostly adult material) and abusing behavior is undeniable.
It is strange that such a sensitive issue, full of serious consequences, has only recently received adequate attention from public authorities and legislation, despite numerous research studies showing the close link between pornography and sexual violence, particularly in the case of child abuse: “A study of all child molestation cases reported to the Los Angeles Police over a ten-year period showed that in 60 percent of cases pornography (with adults and/or children) was used to lower the inhibitions of the child molested and/or to excite the pedophile. Once the defenses are lowered … these children then suffer terribly from guilt, shame and anger, especially when they grow up and become more fully aware of the enormity of the abuse they have suffered. These emotions are further exacerbated when the children understand that there is a permanent record of their nightmare in circulation under the eyes of all, perhaps even future friends, or, in the years to come, even their children.”
The pedophilia-pornography link becomes evident on the occasion of criminal acts, as noted by Elena Martellozzo, professor of criminology at the University of Westminster and specialist in sexual crimes related to the internet: “I spent 10 years watching child abuse online and the relationship between viewing indecent images and hands-on drug addicts. It is very difficult to establish that observing indecent images can lead to sexual abuse. But what we can definitely say is that, in the vast majority of cases, when someone indecently assaulted a child, indecent images were then found on their computers.”
Despite this, the increase in the spread of pornographic sites is alarming. The following figures give an idea: in the year 2018 a single pornographic site recorded almost 34 billion visitors (92 million per day), an increase of 14 million compared to 2017. It seems that the number of these sites is around 150 million, of which at least 5 million specialize in child pornography. It is difficult to get precise data, both for the hidden and fluid nature of the dark web and for its rapid and ever-spreading increase (every day on average 300 new sites appear), but it seems that porn occupies 30 percent of internet traffic, and every minute 63,000 visitors register, with a gain of at least 5,000 dollars per second. In 2006 alone the online pornography market made a profit of $13.3 billion in the USA (and $100 billion in the rest of the world). In Italy, in 2009, porn had a turnover of about 1.12 billion euros a year, and child pornography a profit of $3 million per year: “We are facing an emergency covered over in silence and solitude. Yet it is extremely treacherous because it undermines not only the relationships of couples, but also the ability of the individual to have healthy relationships and, in the most serious cases, to face and live reality.”
The lack of interest of the institutions
Given the close relationship between pornography and sexual violence, the decision at European level in March 2013 not to ban it from the web in all its forms, including advertising and sex tourism (unless it has the connotations of child pornography) seems even sadder and more opportunistic. The impasse of today’s democratic societies emerges. On the one hand they encourage all forms of behavior and thought in the name of freedom of expression, and on the other they impose summary punishments (which in the end are empty gestures) as soon as the harmful consequences become public knowledge. In any case, people are careful not to question the “cultural reservoirs” from which the perpetrators mostly draw, because this would be to the detriment of inveterate economic interests and power.
It is also true that a merely penal-judicial approach is ultimately ineffective if it does not have the courage to confront deeper, but also more disturbing, ethical and cultural questions, such as, for example, the increasingly marked tendency to liberalization, which in fact favors the addiction and commodification of relationships and human sexuality: “Is it liberation or, on the contrary, are we experiencing a difficult and unconscious decline? We are talking about an abandonment of the ethics of the relationships: man-woman, man-woman-child. We are talking about abuse of the body and emotional and affective growth. The scripts of coexistence must change. We cannot expect punishment alone to ensure the possibility of living our lives and relationships in a mature way and not in an asymmetrical and unbalanced manner.”
The future of entire generations is at stake as they see their dreams and most precious desires stolen by a distorted and false vision of sexuality, to become consumer objects. The comparison with what has been seen on the sites (considered as real events and not, as mostly happens, as fiction) increases performance anxiety in children and the sense of inadequacy and shame as they consider themselves unworthy of esteem and affection. All this ends up conditioning not only sexual behavior (lived out according to the model of pornography) but the more general sphere of relationships, characterized by depersonalization and violence.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 8, art. 3, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1908.3
 Cf. N. Ghezzani, Quando l’amore è una schiavitù. Come uscire dalla dipendenza affettiva e raggiungere la maturità psicologica, Milano, FrancoAngeli, 2006.
 Cf A. Cooper, “Sexuality and the Internet: surfing into a new millennium,” CyberPsychology & Behavior (1998/2) 187-193.
 Cf. M. Castleman – T. DeRuvo, L’ultima droga. La pornografia su Internet e il suo impatto sulla mente, Fara Gera d’Adda (Bg), Utelibri, 2009, 226f.
 Cf. www.pornotossina.it/2018/12/15/; www.covenanteyes.com
 P. Wallace, La psicologia di Internet, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 2000, 234
 M. Castleman – T. DeRuvo, L’ultima droga…, op. cit., 101f.
 The partial object is a characteristic element of perversion, the tendency to focus on erotic detail rather than on the person as a whole. For Kernberg, this obsessive interest is the symptom of a development blocked from the psychological point of view, in particular the inability to engage affectively and to meet the other in a dimension of tenderness and care, in a relationship of equality. Cf. O. Kernberg, Relazioni d’amore. Normalità e patologia, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 1996, 73-92.
 Cf. C. Laier – F. P. Schulte – M. Brand, “Pornographic Picture Processing Interferes with Working Memory Performance,” in The Journal of Sex Research 50 (2013) 642-652.
 Quoted in U. Galimberti, “La pornografia non è una faccenda sessuale,” in la Repubblica delle donne, No. 535, February 10, 2007, 202.
 M. Castleman – T. DeRuvo, L’ultima droga…, op. cit., 67-69. Cf. S. Ackerman, Discovering the Brain, Washington, Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences, 1992, 76f.
 “Perversion is first and foremost the result of a substantial interaction between hostility and sexual desire … The more manifest the hostility, the less doubtful it is that it is really about perversion. Murder, mutilation as a source of sexual excitement, carnal violence, sadism with precise physical punishments […] are all forms, on a descending scale, of conscious anger against one’s sexual object, forms in which it is essential to be superior to the other, to inflict damage on that person, to triumph over the other” (R. Stoller, Perversione: la forma erotica dell’odio, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1978, 9; 66). This need to express by violence a superiority, typical of the perverse act, would explain the serious lack of peer relations found in those who engage in sexual abuse.
 For further details, cf. G. Cucci, Dipendenza sessuale online. La nuova forma di un’antica schiavitù,, Milan, Àncora – La Civiltà Cattolica, 2015, 55-60.
 M. Lasar, “The Triumph of the Visual: Stages and Cycles in the Pornography Controversy from the McCarthy Era to the Present,” in Journal of Policy History (1995/2) 182.
 P. Wallace, La psicologia di Internet, op. cit., 226f. Cf. E. Donnerstein, “Aggressive erotica and violence against women,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39 (1980) 269-277; Id., “Pornography; Its effects on violence against women,” in N. M. Malamuth – E. Donnerstein (eds), Pornography and sexual aggression, New York, Academic Press, 1984, 53-81; D. G. Smith, “The social content of pornography,” in Journal of Communication 26 (1976) 16-33.
 Cf. R. Langevin – S. Curnoe, “The Use of Pornography during the Commission of Sexual Offenses,” in International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 48 (2004) 572–586; G. Cucci – H. Zollner, Chiesa e pedofilia. Una ferita aperta. Un approccio psicologico-pastorale, Milan, Àncora, 2010, 39-55.
 M. Castleman – T. DeRuvo, L’ ultima droga…, op. cit., 158. Cf. B. Trebilcock, “Child Molesters on the Internet,” in Redbook Magazine, No. 188, 1997, 100-107.
 www.linkiesta.it/it/article/2012/04/07/il-futuro-del-web-e-di-youporn-piu-che-della-cnn/5518; www.pinkblog.it/post/3773/cybersex-chatsex-cyberporn-addiction-intervista-al-professor-tonino-cantelmi
 “The mere risk that one day we might get to ban porn caused a tsunami of protest by citizens against the government of the European Union, with the European Parliament forced to put filters on its mailboxes because they were subjected to hundreds of thousands of messages in defense of the freedom of the Net (“Porno in Europa, proteste per il rischio blocco. 600mila email in tre giorni, paura attacco hacker,” in la Repubblica, March 9, 2013).
 R. Giommi – E. M. Perrotta, “L’attrazione verso i deboli è anche bisogno di potere,” in la Repubblica, September 26, 1996, 19.
 Cf. W. Owens et Al., “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents: A Review of the Research,” in Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity(2012) 99-122.