To some it may feel like our culture has been suddenly barraged with sexual addiction books, film, media and reality TV. Films like Shame, TV shows like Bad Sex, the recent extensive media coverage of sexually troubled politicians and sports figures, combined with a recent Newsweek/Daily Beast cover story on the topic, almost seem to be converging on this issue and pushing it in our faces overnight.
But as a clinician who has been treating sex addiction and training therapists for nearly 20 years, I can reliably report what any experienced marriage counselor or addiction specialist will also tell you – that there has seen a steady escalation of addictive sex and intimacy problems ever since the Internet first came publically available in the early to mid-90’s. With every technological turn of the screw (pardon the pun), those of us who treat compulsive and addictive sex and intimacy disorders have seen an increase in clients troubled by these very issues; to us it makes perfect sense.
As the general public has increasingly gained immediate, free access to graphic sexual content (think porn websites) and free access to casual sexual partnering (think Craigslist, prostitute hook-up sites, “friend finder” sex apps, etc), more problems have appeared. Simply reflect on what one had to do to gain access to – or to purchase large amounts of pornography in say 1988, or who one had to ask to find an urban red light district or prostitute in say 1992, compared to what it takes to find these experiences today. All the intermediate steps that might have inhibited someone from making impulsive and compulsive sexual choices are gone.
Today you can find online porn in an instant; whether its on a laptop or anonymous sexual partners within 10 minutes on a smartphone. It’s so accessible that you don’t even have to get dressed, leave your house, find and park behind the local adult bookstore or get off the subway in a dangerous neighborhood to find porn or a casual hook-up. Finding endless amounts of porn and anonymous sex are easier, potentially less embarrassing, more anonymous – safer if you will. You can now use technology to find what you want and you don’t have to go anywhere or ask anyone anything while avoiding potential problems, embarrassment or even potential rejections.
These changes have not produced problems for everyone and it is not a psychotherapist’s job to judge whether or not this access is problematic for our culture at large. What can be said with authority is that there are certain individuals (male and female) who have the kinds of intimacy, sexual and emotional challenges (see the film Shame for more details), who simply feel better when they access and engage instantaneous sexual material and anonymous sex/romantic intensity. For some, these activities (much like drinking or drugs for other types of addicts) provides a quick, short-term fix that serves to temporarily stave off long-held emotional challenges and pain.
So what is driving the fact that sexual addiction is now receiving so much attention in your local theater, on TV and in the media? It’s called critical mass. Simply put, this problem, which has been quietly escalating for as long as 20 years, is now reaching a critical mass. So many people today are having so many problems with adult sexuality, pornography, intimacy, adultery, and infidelity, etc., that it seems to be all anyone can talk about. And as any therapist or person who’s been to psychotherapy knows, it’s better to discuss problems than to bury them and pretend they aren’t there. I say we are heading in the right direction….