Sex Addiction on the Internet

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Sex Addiction on the Internet
Mark Griffiths
Nottingham Trent University, UK
The Internet appears to have become an ever-increasing part in many areas of people’s
day-to-day lives. One area that deserves further examination surrounds sex addiction
and its relationship with excessive Internet usage. It has been alleged by some academics
that social pathologies are beginning to surface in cyberspace and have been referred to
as “technological addictions.” This article examines the concept of “Internet addiction”
in relation to excessive sexual behavior. It contains discussions of the concept of sexual
addiction and whether the whole concept is viable. This is done through the evaluation of
the small amount of empirical data available. It is concluded that Internet sex is a new
medium of expression that may increase participation because of the perceived anonymity
and disinhibition factors. It is also argued that although the amount of empirical data
is small, Internet sex addiction exists and that there are many opportunities for future
research. These are explicitly outlined.

Excessive sexual behavior
It is probably a fair assumption to make that most academics–particu-
larly working in the addiction field–do not view excessive sex as an addiction.
There have been many attacks on the concept of sex addiction from many
different standpoints. These have been summarized by Goodman (1992)
as including the:
sociological – “addiction” is no more than a label for behavior that
deviates from social norms (Coleman, 1986; Levine & Troiden, 1988)
conventional – addiction is a physiological condition and must
therefore be defined physiologically (Coleman, 1986; Levine & Troiden,
scientific – free use of the word “addiction” has rendered the term
meaningless (Coleman, 1986)
moral – sexual behavior as an addiction undermines individuals’
responsibility for their behavior

Despite a somewhat negative academic stance towards the concept of
Janus Head, 7(1), 188-217. Copyright © 2004 by Trivium Publications, Amherst, NY
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Mark Griffiths 189

sex addiction, it has not stopped a growth in this area of research. The con-
cept of excessive sex being pathologised is not new. Excessive sex has been
described in many different ways throughout the centuries and such condi-
tions have included the Casanova type, compulsive promiscuity, compulsive
sexuality, Don Juan(ita)ism, Don Juan Syndrome, Don Juan Complex,
erotomania, hyperaesthesia, hypererotocism, hyperlibido, hypersensuality,
idiopathic sexual precocity, libertinism, the Messalina Complex, nympho-
mania, oversexuality, pansexual promiscuity, pathologic multi-partnerism,
pathologic promiscuity, satyriasis, sexual hyperversion and urethromania
(Orford, 1985).
Until very recently, far more was written about female forms of excessive
sex (e.g., nymphomania) in negative terms than male forms (e.g., satyriasis).
This is most probably due to the sexual double standard that exists within
society. In fact, an evaluation of the pre-1980’s sexuality literature would
have us believe there are far more female “sex addicts” than male ones. In
reality, female sex addiction is quite rare, and it is males who are far more
likely to be addicted to sex.
Is excessive sex really an addiction?
In comparison with other forms of addictive behavior, sex addiction
has not traditional y been viewed as a bona fide form of addiction. However,
depending upon the definition of addiction used, it is clear that excessive
forms of sexual behavior share close links and similarities with other forms
of more well known addictions. Like an alcoholic or a pathological gam-
bler, sexual addicts are unable to stop their self-destructive sexual behavior.
In fact, sex addicts will often ignore severe emotional, interpersonal, and
physical consequences of their behavior. The consequences of excessive
sexual behavior are far-reaching and can result in lost relationships, fam-
ily break-ups, difficulties with work, arrests, financial troubles, a loss of
interest in things not sexual, low self-esteem and despair. However, there is
still debate over the most appropriate term to use in describing those with
excessive sexual behaviors including sexual addiction (Carnes, 1983), sexual
compulsion (Coleman, 1986), sexual impulsivity (Barth & Kinder, 1987)
and nonparaphilia related disorders (Kafka, 1993).
Carnes (1999) defines sex addiction as any sexual y-related, compulsive
behavior which interferes with normal living and eventual y becomes unman-
ageable, although he has also described it as a pathological relationship with
a mood altering experience (Carnes, 1983). By examining the psychological

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motivation for addiction, there appear to be three basic categories: arousal
addictions that stimulate and thrill; satiation addictions that ease tension
and discomfort; and fantasy addictions that escape mundane reality. Sexual
behavior has the capacity to span all three of these types of addiction.
It is hard to establish the extent of sex addiction although estimates
range from 3-6% of the population (Carnes, 1999). Further, research in-
dicates a high correlation between childhood abuse and sexual addiction
in adulthood, and it is very common for sex addicts to have experienced
high levels of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. Socio-demographic
characteristics are skewed by those who turn up for treatment in special-
ist clinics or self-help groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), Sexual
Compulsives Anonymous (SCA), and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous
(SLAA). It appears to be mostly male with an increasing number of females.
However, sex addictions appear to come from all races, classes and sexual
Sex addictions appear to have recognizable behavior patterns (Carnes,
1999). This involves acting out a pattern of out-of-control sexual behavior
(e.g., compulsive masturbation, persistent indulging in pornography, having
constant affairs etc.) in which severe mood changes relate to sexual activity.
The sex addict experiences severe consequences due to sexual behavior and
an inability to stop despite these adverse consequences. These consequences
can include loss of a partner or spouse, severe marital or relationship prob-
lems, loss of career opportunities, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicidal
obsession, suicide attempts, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, and
legal risks from nuisance offenses to rape. Sex addicts gradually increase the
amount of sexual activity because the current level of activity is no longer
sufficiently satisfying (i.e., they build up tolerance). As tolerance develops,
individuals may find themselves seeking out more unusual sexual experi-
ences, more frequent sexual experiences, and more graphic pornography.
These behavior patterns are only indicative and do not preclude other signs
that may be indicative of sex addiction.
One of the most interesting developments over the last few years is the
increasing use of the Internet as a sexual outlet. This fairly new medium of
communication has not been outlined in previous typologies of sex addic-
tion. The Internet as a sexual outlet may in fact have many implications for
how we view sex addiction and may in itself raise questions about the nature
of sex addiction itself. There are also questions as to whether Internet sex
addiction exists and, if it does exist, whether it is any different from “tradi-
tional” sex addiction. Research in this new area is only just beginning, and

Mark Griffiths 191

there appear to be far more questions than answers. Nevertheless, a paucity
of empirical data does not mean the area should be neglected.
Sexually-related uses of the Internet
The Internet is altering patterns of social communication and in-
terpersonal relationships. This is nowhere more true than in the field of
sexuality (Cooper, Delmonico & Burg, 2000). Furthermore, sex is the most
frequently searched for topic on the Internet (Freeman-Longo & Blanchard,
1998). Young (2000) claims that the convenience of online pornography
and adult chat sites provides an immediately available vehicle to easily fall
into compulsive patterns of online use. Pornographers have always been
the first to exploit new publishing technologies (e.g., photography, video-
tape, Internet etc.). It is estimated that the online pornography industry
will reach $366 million by 2001 (Sprenger, 1999) though other estimates
suggest it is already worth $1billion (The Guardian, 1999). Further, the
research company Datamonitor reported that over half of all spending on
the Internet is related to sexual activity (The Guardian, 1999). This includes
the conventional (e.g., Internet versions of widely available pornographic
magazines like Playboy), the not so conventional (e.g., Internet versions of
very hardcore pornographic magazines) and what can only be described as
the bizarre (e.g., discussion groups on almost any sexual paraphilia, perver-
sion and deviation). Moreover, there are also pornographic picture libraries
(commercial and free-access), videos and video clips, live strip-shows, live
sex shows and voyeuristic Web-Cam sites (Griffiths, 2000a).
Before any examination of the “addictiveness potential” of the Internet
and its relationship to sex addiction, Griffiths (2000a) has argued that the
first step is to examine all the different ways that the Internet can be used
for sexually-related purposes. The reason for this approach is this to identify
which activities may be done to excess and/or which might be potentially
addictive. Griffiths then notes that the Internet can (and has) been used
for a number of diverse activities surrounding sexually motivated behavior.
These include the use of the Internet for:
 seeking out sexually-related material for educational use
 buying or selling sexually-related goods for further use offline
 visiting and/or purchasing goods in online virtual sex shops
 seeking out material for entertainment/masturbatory purposes
for use online

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seeking out sex therapists

seeking out sexual partners for an enduring relationship

seeking out sexual partners for a transitory relationship
(i.e., escorts, prostitutes, swingers) via online personal advertisements/”lonely
hearts” columns, escort agencies and/or chat rooms

seeking out individuals who then become victims of
sexually-related Internet crime (online sexual harassment, cyberstalking,
paedophilic “grooming” of children)

engaging in and maintaining online relationships via e-
mail and/or chat rooms

exploring gender and identity roles by swapping gender
or creating other personas and forming online relationships

digitally manipulating images on the Internet for enter-
tainment and/or masturbatory purposes (e.g. celebrity fake photographs
where heads of famous people are superimposed onto someone else’s naked
It is evident from these types of Internet behavior that very few of these
are likely to be potential y excessive, addictive, obsessive and/or compulsive.
The most likely behaviors include the use of online pornography for mas-
turbatory purposes, engaging in online relationships, and sexually-related
Internet crime (e.g., cyberstalking). Before examining the implications of
these behaviours, the next section briefly overviews the concept of “Internet
addiction” more generally.
Internet addiction : A brief overview
One area where Internet sexuality is beginning to be discussed aca-
demically is that of “Internet addiction.” As with sex addiction itself, there
is opposition to the general concept of behavioral (i.e., non-chemical) ad-
dictions such as Internet addiction. However, there is a growing movement
(e.g., Orford, 1985; Marks, 1990; Griffiths, 1996a) which views a number
of diverse behaviors as potential y addictive including gambling, overeating,
sex, exercise, shopping, and computer game playing. Internet addiction is
another such area since it has been alleged by some academics that social
pathologies (i.e. technological addictions) may be beginning to surface in
cyberspace (e.g., Griffiths, 1996b; 1998a; 2000b; 2000c; Brenner, 1997;
Cooper, 1998; Scherer, 1997; Young, 1998a; 1998b).

Mark Griffiths 193

Technological addictions are non-chemical (behavioral) addictions
that involve excessive human-machine interaction. They can either be pas-
sive (e.g., television) or active (e.g., computer games) and usually contain
inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion
of addictive tendencies (Griffiths, 1995a). They also feature the core com-
ponents of addiction including salience, mood modification, tolerance,
withdrawal, conflict and relapse (Griffiths, 1996a; 1996c). It has been argued
by Griffiths (1996c) that any behavior (e.g. Internet use) which fulfils these
criteria can be operationally defined as addictions. These core components
have been expanded upon by Griffiths (2000a) in relation to Internet sex
of whatever type it happens to be (e.g. downloading pornography, cybersex
relationships etc.):
Salience – This occurs when Internet sex becomes the most important
activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations
and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behavior (deterioration
of socialized behavior). For instance, even if the person is not actually on
their computer engaged in Internet sex, they will be thinking about the
next time they will be.
Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people
report as a consequence of engaging in Internet sex and can be seen as a
coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing “buzz” or a “high” or
paradoxically tranquilizing feel of “escape” or “numbing”).
Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of Internet sex
are required to achieve the former mood modificating effects. This basically
means that, for someone engaged in Internet sex, they gradually build up
the amount of the time they spend in front of the computer engaged in
the behavior.
Withdrawal symptoms These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or
physical effects which occur when Internet sex is discontinued or suddenly
reduced (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc).
Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the Internet user and those
around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (job,
social life, hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves
(intrapsychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control), which

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are concerned with spending too much time engaged in Internet sex.
Relapse This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of
Internet sex to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the
height of excessive Internet sex to be quickly restored after many years of
abstinence or control.
Young (1999a) claims Internet addiction is a broad term which covers
a wide variety of behaviors and impulse control problems. She claims this
is further categorized by five specific subtypes:
Cybersexual addiction: this typical y involves the compulsive use of adult
websites for cybersex and cyberporn.
Cyber-relationship addiction: this typical y involves the over-involvement
in online relationships.
Net compulsions: this typically involves obsessive/compulsive activities
such as online gambling, shopping, day-trading etc.
Information overload: this typically involves compulsive web surfing or
database searching.
Computer addiction: this typically involves obsessive computer game
playing on games such as Doom, Myst, Solitaire etc.
Only two of these specifically refer to potential sexually-based addic-
tions (i.e., cybersexual addiction and cyber-relationship addiction). Such
distinctions are potentially very useful as it would be helpful if research-
ers in the area used the same words and had exemplar descriptions of
such behaviors so that everyone could be clear as to what exactly they are
researching. This would be helpful for both comparative and evaluative
purposes. Such definitions are provided in the following section (cybersex
and cyber-relationships).
Young’s classification also raises the question of what people are actual y
addicted to. On a primary level, is it the sexual y-related behavior or is it the
Internet? In reply to Young, Griffiths (1999a; 2000b) has argued that many
of these excessive users are not “Internet addicts” but just use the Internet
excessively as a medium to fuel other addictions. Griffiths argues that a
gambling addict or a computer game addict is not addicted to the Internet.
The Internet is just the place where they engage in the behavior. The same
argument can be applied to Internet sex addicts. However, there are case

Mark Griffiths 195

study reports of individuals who appear to be addicted to the Internet itself.
These are usually people who use Internet chat rooms or play fantasy role
playing games–activities that they would not engage in except on the Internet
itself (some of which are sex-related). These individuals to some extent are
engaged in text-based virtual realities and take on other personas and social
identities as a way of making themselves feel good about themselves.
In these cases, the Internet may provide an alternative reality to the
users and al ow them feelings of immersion and anonymity (which may lead
to an altered state of consciousness). This in itself may be highly psychologi-
cally and/or physiologically rewarding. The anonymity of the Internet has
been identified as a consistent factor underlying excessive use of the Internet
(Young, 1998b; Griffiths, 1995b). This is perhaps particularly relevant to
those using Internet pornography. There may be many people who are using
the medium of the Internet because (a) it overcomes the embarrassment of
going into shops to buy pornography over the shop counter and (b) it is
faster than waiting for other non-face-to-face commercial transactions (e.g.,
mail order). Anonymity may also encourage deviant, deceptive and criminal
online acts such as the development of aggressive online personas or the view-
ing and downloading of il egal images (e.g., pornography) (Young, 1999). On
a more general level Internet sex is a new medium of expression which may
increase participation because of the perceived anonymity and disinhibition
factors. This is something that needs monitoring very carefully.
There have been a few studies of excessive Internet use that have found
a small proportion of users who admitted using the Internet for sexual pur-
poses (e.g., Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 1997; Scherer, 1997; Young,
1998b; Cooper, Putnam, Planchon & Boies, 1999; Cooper, Delmonico
& Burg, 2000; Schwartz & Southern, 2000). None of the surveys to date
conclusively show that Internet addiction exists or that Internet sex addiction
is problematic to anyone but a small minority. At best, they indicate that
Internet addiction may be prevalent in a significant minority of individu-
als but that more research using validated survey instruments and other
techniques (e.g., in-depth qualitative interviews) are required. Due to their
level of detail, case studies of excessive Internet users may provide the best
evidence for the existence of Internet sex addiction. Even if just one case
study can be located, it could be argued that Internet sex addiction actually
does exist. However, most researchers in the area would require more proof
than case studies alone.

196 Janus Head
Cybersex and cyber-relationships
Probably one of the most unexpected uses surrounding the growth
of the Internet concerns the development of online relationships and their
potentially addicting nature. Young, Griffin-Shelley, Cooper, O’Mara
and Buchanan (2000) define an online relationship (a “cyberaffair”) as a
romantic and/or sexual relationship that is initiated via online contact and
maintained predominantly through electronic conversations that occur
through e-mail and in virtual communities such as chat rooms, interactive
games, or newsgroups. Young et al. report that what starts off as a simple
e-mail exchange or an innocent chat room encounter can escalate into an
intense and passionate cyberaffair and eventually into face-to-face sexual
encounters. Further, those in online relationships often turn to mutual erotic
dialogue (often referred to as “cybersex”). In this instance, cybersex involves
online users swapping text-based sexual fantasies with each other. These
text-based interactions may be accompanied by masturbation. Online chat
rooms provide opportunities for online social gatherings to occur almost at
the push of a button without even having to move from your desk. Online
group participants can–if they so desire–develop one-to-one conversations
at a later point either through the use of continuous e-mails or by instant
messages from chat rooms. It could perhaps be argued that electronic com-
munication is the easiest, most disinhibiting and most accessible way to
meet potential new partners.
There are a number of factors that make online contacts potentially
seductive and/or addictive. Such factors (as mentioned in the previous sec-
tion) include the disinhibiting and anonymous nature of the Internet. This
may be very exciting to those engaged in an online affair. Disinhibition is
clearly one of the Internet’s key appeals as there is little doubt that the In-
ternet makes people less inhibited (Joinson, 1998). Online users appear to
open up more quickly online and reveal themselves emotional y much faster
than in the offline world. What might take months or years in an offline
relationship may only takes days or weeks online. As Cooper and Sportolari
(1997) have pointed out, the perception of trust, intimacy and acceptance
has the potential to encourage online users to use these relationships as a
primary source of companionship and comfort.
Some researchers have made attempts to explain how and why infidel-
ity occurs online. Cooper (1998a) suggested there are three primary factors
which “turbocharge” online sexuality and aid our understanding of the power
and attraction of the Internet for sexual pursuits. He terms these factors the

Mark Griffiths 197

“Triple A Engine.” The three components are:
Accessibility – in that there are millions of sites available 24 hours a day,
seven days a week
Affordability – in that competition on the Web keeps prices low and
there are many ways to access ‘free’ sex
Anonymity – in that people perceive their communications to be anony-
Young (1999) also claimed to have developed a variant of the “Triple
A Engine” which she called the “ACE model” (Anonymity, Convenience,
Escape). Neither of these are strictly models as neither explains the pro-
cess of how online relationships develop. However, they do provide (in
acronym form) the variables involved in the acquisition, development and
maintenance of emotional and/or sexual relationships on the Internet (i.e.,
anonymity, access, convenience, affordability and escape). It would also
appear that virtual environments have the potential to provide short-term
comfort, excitement and/or distraction. Other “attractive” factors outlined
by Schneider (2000) include the fact that cybersex is legal, available in the
privacy of one’s home, inexpensive, and does not put the user at risk of a
sexually transmitted disease. It is also ideal for hiding the activity from a
partner because it does not leave any obvious evidence of any sexual encoun-
ter. For those online, Internet sex may provide a sense of safety and ready
access to partners. These aspects of Internet sex, moreover, might prove to
be an advantage for disenfranchised groups (e.g., homosexuals).
Researchers investigating the addictive potential of the Internet have
noted the correlations between time spent online and negative consequences
reported by users (e.g. Cooper, Scherer et al, 1999; Young & Rogers, 1998).
Cooper (1998a) asserts that the Triple A Engine appears to increase the
chances that the Internet will become problematic for those who already
have a problem with sexual compulsivity or for those who have psychological
vulnerabilities rendering them at risk for developing such compulsivity.
Young (2000) claims the anonymity of electronic transactions provides
the user with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and
nature of the online sexual experience. She says that, unlike real life sexual
experiences, a woman can quickly change partners if her cyber-lover isn’t
very good or a man can log off after his orgasm without any long goodbyes.
Young also raises questions that the Internet might help in answering. For