For more than 20 years I’ve been involved in the treatment of intimacy disorders and sexual addiction. As such, it’s hardly a surprise to me, as I write about in my book Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, that two decades of digitally driven access to sexual content and partners has pushed the pedal to the metal on the sex addiction bus. Frankly, ever since the Internet came along – vastly increasing the anonymity, affordability, and accessibility of highly stimulating sexual content and potential partners – the incidence of compulsive/addictive sexual behavior among men, women, and even adolescents has steadily risen. Sometimes it seems as if every new advance in digital technology brings with it a new venue for addictive sexual fantasies and behavior – no matter the technology’s intended purpose – and a new crop of sex addicts.
Last October front page headlines brought us the story of Ross Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, alleged mastermind of Silk Road, a “Deep Web” Internet site hawking everything from illicit drugs to fake IDs to deadly weapons. Basically, Silk Road was eBay for illegal goods and services (with its creator, Ulbricht, grabbing a thin slice of every transaction). Trouble is, even when the Silk Road story first broke it was clear to law enforcement and to the people who follow and understand such things that forcing Dread Pirate Roberts to walk the proverbial plank wasn’t going to change much. And it hasn’t. The Deep Web rolls on unabated.
As a therapist specializing in the treatment of sexual disorders, I find that it’s important to keep abreast of new sexnologies and the ever-expanding digital sex lexicon. (In fact, let’s call it a sexicon.) Simply put, if I am to be effective as a therapist it is an absolute necessity that I fully understand what my clients are telling me. I need to “get it” when one of my clients looks at me and says: “Well, I was doing the J-Date thing and my wife didn’t know because I kept it totally virtual with sexts and iCU2. But then I scoped the Ashley Madison app and suddenly it was IRL all over the place. Now I’m a walking STD and I’ve got this cyberstalker chopping bunnies in my kitchen. Seriously, she’s posting and tweeting my sexts all over town and I am not ROTFL because my wife is catching on. She even wants to put a Net Nanny on my Droid.”
Safely at Play in the Digital Funhouse
Last week I wrote about some of the dangers that kids face in today’s increasingly online society, primarily covering digital predators, pornography, sexting, and cyberbullying. This week’s blog is focused on what parents can do to protect their children while still allowing them the freedom to grow and the opportunity to experience all the good that technology has to offer. And there is a LOT of good. Today kids are able to learn, communicate, and interact on a much wider scale than ever before. It’s a great big tantalizing world, fully available to young people at the mere touch of a button. And that is a very cool thing, even if it’s sometimes a little bit scary for parents.
In today’s digital world, one of the greatest concerns for most parents is their children’s online safety – and, by extension, their children’s real-world safety. These fears are sometimes overblown, though they are hardly ungrounded. Let’s face it, with the increasing sophistication of search engines and GPS apps it’s becoming more difficult by the day to maintain one’s personal privacy, especially for kids, who often don’t understand the need to withhold information. Children who share personal data via texts, emails, or in chats – even by simply naming their school, giving their full name, or mentioning a parent’s employer – can unwittingly and unknowingly create real-life risks.
Fantasy vs. Reality
On January 21, at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration, millions watched as pop music star Beyoncé belted out our national anthem, accompanied by a live orchestra. But what we saw and what we heard were not the same thing. As it turns out, the pop star’s voice and the orchestra were mostly muted, with a studio version of the anthem pumped out to cover any potential imperfections in the live performance. A few days later, at a press conference for the Super Bowl – at which Beyoncé was the halftime entertainment – she said, when asked about her “performance” at the inauguration, that she is a perfectionist and she wanted to sound her best, especially at an event as important as that one. She’d not had time to fully rehearse with the orchestra, she’d not had time for a proper sound check, and the weather (30 degrees) was not great for her voice. Thus, she opted to “sing along” with her prerecorded track.
I have written extensively about the intersection of technology and sexual addiction, examining the topic in blogs here and here, and in the upcoming book (Summer 2013) “Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effects of Digital Technology on Sex, Relationships, and Intimacy.” Because of that, I was hoping to take a time out from all the “sexnology” writing, but the recently concluded International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has pushed me toward this all-too-familiar topic yet again.
By most accounts, this year’s CES was a bit of a snooze-fest. Several major players (Apple and Google among them) stayed away entirely, though plenty of smaller vendors were busy hawking Apple and Google related devices. The general consensus seems to be that this year’s CES fell short of past years in terms of completely new technologies to see, enjoy, and make plans to buy. Instead, vendors presented a lot of enhancements and tweaks to existing technology.
A Bold New World
Once upon a time, “lonely hearts” advertisements could be found hidden in the back pages of aspiring underground magazines and local city newspapers. To search for a mate, you placed a printed ad that provided a few salient (but never overtly salacious) bits of information about yourself, along with a brief statement about what you were seeking in a potential partner. If you could afford the extra money and were brave enough, you might even have a friend take a 35mm photo of your face to place alongside your words. The publications that carried these ads typically charged by the letter or word and the ads were expensive, so you had to be succinct and clear. To respond to someone else’s ad, you simply sent an “I’m interested” letter to that individual’s designated P.O. box and included the number of your own so they could write you back. This P.O. Box technique was used to ensure that neither party could directly contact the other prematurely. If each person liked the written responses he or she was receiving, after a few letters back and forth (something that could take a month or more), there might be a mutual decision to make that initial phone call to set up a first meeting in real time.
The idea of “virtual sex” has long been a science fiction staple. One very funny cinematic example (well-known to most baby boomers) is the 1973 film, “Sleeper”, starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, a comedy about life in the distant future. One of the movie’s great fantasy inventions is the Orgasmatron, a telephone booth-like contraption that helps users become sexually aroused by stimulating their brains in an intensely sexual way. (Click on HERE for some entertaining clips).
Allen actually confirmed the scientific feasibility of this idea with both Isaac Asimov and sci-fi writer Ben Bova prior to making the film, so it’s not surprising to learn there actually is a real orgasmatron (discovered serendipitously in trials for a potential spinal cord stimulator). The device apparently works rather well, but it costs quite a bit of money and requires the surgical insertion of electrodes near the spine. Needless to say, it is not widely used for pleasurable purposes.
There are, however, numerous less intrusive and more affordable “sexnologies” that can be utilized to erotically simulate and stimulate.
For many of us, digital information gathering and online interaction have become integrated into our daily routine from the first multitasking moments. We check email, tweet and text, update Facebook, and simultaneously peruse “newspapers” from all over the globe, all while draining the morning coffee. And we do all of this on faster, more sophisticated, more portable and affordable electronic devices than ever before.
This incredible array of sophisticated interconnectivity provides endless new opportunities to support our very traditional human needs for community and social interaction. Innovations like Facebook, with over 500 million users, and Twitter, with over 300 million users, offer real-time interactions with an increasingly wider and more diverse group of people.
Friends and family who may have been too distant for regular contact just a few years ago can now be intimately folded into our lives. For partners, spouses and families separated for long periods of time by work or military service, the tech-connect boom is a godsend. Couples are now able to bond long-distance in real time, share a growing child’s latest milestone, and even engage in visual intimacy via the webcams now routinely incorporated into computers and smart-phones.
Those not yet in a committed relationship can put technology to good use when home or traveling via e-dating—establishing and growing budding relationships with a decreasing focus on who lives where. We make friends, we share and grow from our experiences, we celebrate, and we commiserate—one world, a growing interactive community.
One downside of the tech-connect boom is that whenever human access to intensely pleasurable and arousing substances, like cocaine and crystal meth, previously rare treats, like refined sugar and sweets (now on sale at every gas station), or experiences, like gambling and sex, is increased, the potential for impulsivity, compulsivity, and addiction rears its ugly head.