For the last five years (at least), Jerry, a handsome 36-year-old office manager, has put the search for sex ahead of all else – even though he’s not having any in-person sexual encounters. Instead, he looks at and masturbates to hardcore pornography for several hours each weeknight and all day on the weekends, and occasionally he engages in mutual masturbation with strangers via webcam. Until a few years ago he tried to also date in real life, usually going out with nice women who were interested in a long-term relationship. He says that he really liked one of them, but that he was never really present with her and she eventually broke things off. He admits that on their dates he was usually more focused on going home and going online than on her. As it turns out, she broke up with him because she thought he was cheating on her (and in a way he was). That was three years ago, and Jerry has not been on a date since. He has tried several times to quit using porn, and sometimes he manages to do so for a day or two. But before long he feels depressed and lonely and he goes back online as a way to escape the pain. Recently, he’s started using his office computer to access porn during work hours – a situation that he knows will not end well. And yet he continues.
In many ways, Jerry is typical of cybersex addicts (and addicts in general), in that he is unable to stop his behaviors for longer than a few days on his own despite the many lines he has drawn in the sand – “only for a few minutes,” “I’ll go online tonight but not tomorrow,” etc. Put simply, his internal swearing off is just not enough to overcome the escapist allure of online sexuality when he is challenged with emotional and psychological discomfort. When emotionally or psychologically triggered, Jerry has no useful defense against the allure of cybersex. Without outside assistance, the temptation of emotional escape and dissociation through cybersexual intensity is simply too powerful.
The good news is that, as fully discussed my recently published book, Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, positive changes can and do occur if cybersex addicts are willing to ask for help and accept assistance. The first step, of course, is seeking help – be it with a sexual addiction treatment specialist or in a 12 step sexual recovery program. Once that step is taken, the next recommended action steps toward change are as follows:
- Cybersex addicts should find an accountability partner. An accountability partner is a person to whom the addict can be accountable for his or her current behaviors and the life changes to come. It is also a person to whom the addict can turn for addiction-related support and advice. Ideally, this person is either a therapist (preferably a certified sex addiction treatment specialist) or a “sponsor” in the addict’s 12 step sexual recovery program. (Spouses do not make good accountability partners because they are too close to, and usually too injured by, the addict’s sexually addictive behaviors.) The accountability partner’s job is to assist the addict, either in person or by phone, with his or her commitments toward change and healing. Accountability partners should be empathetic and supportive (and directive when needed) rather than judgmental.
- Cybersex addicts should throw out all physical material related to the problem. Yes, cybersex addicts do most of their damage online. However, they typically have flash drives and other external storage devices on which they store and catalog their sexual collections. They may also have teledildonic devices that they use as part of their addictive activity. These things need to go. The best tactic is for addicts to smash these things with a hammer until they’re unusable and deposit the remains in a commercial dumpster at least a mile from home.
- Cybersex addicts should “clean” their digital devices while being monitored by their accountability partner. In the presence of their accountability partner, cybersex addicts should delete all files, emails, bookmarks, photos, videos, contact information, screen names, profiles, sexts, texts, games, apps and other items related to their sexual acting out. The addict’s accountability partner should be present for this process to make sure the addict doesn’t decide to enjoy these things one last time before discarding them. Some cybersex addicts might also want to disable the webcams on their digital devices (if possible).
- Cybersex addicts should cancel memberships to websites or apps that service their addiction. Sometimes this task is easier said than done, as many online memberships automatically renew whether people want them to or not. Knowing this, cybersex addicts might also want to cancel the credit card they’ve used to pay for these services. If the addict does not wish to outright cancel the card, he or she can simply call his or her credit card company and report the card as lost or stolen. The company will happily send a replacement card with a new number, and this serves the same purpose. Cybersex addicts need to also be aware that sites and apps to which they’ve previously subscribed will try to entice them back via email. If this is too triggering for the addict, he or she may want to consider a new email account.
- Cybersex addicts should stay away from gray area activities. There is a saying in the 12 step recovery community: If you hang out in the barbershop, you’ll eventually get a haircut. Essentially, this means that alcoholics should not hang out in bars, drug addicts should cut ties with their friends who are still actively using, and cybersex addicts should not tempt themselves with R and NC-17 rated movies, or the Victoria’s Secret catalog, or “nonsexual” chat rooms, etc.
- Cybersex addicts should orient their home and work computers in a public-facing direction. Knowing that others can see what they are doing online often helps cybersex addicts control their digital activity. Admittedly, given the easily portable nature of many devices, especially smartphones, this is not always feasible. That said, every precaution helps. Cybersex addicts might also commit to only using the Internet when others are present, and to checking in with their accountability partner before and after they go online. (Even a text message check-in will do.)
- Cybersex addicts should display inspirational photos. Cybersex addicts should place pictures of loved ones near their Internet-enabled devices, and use the same or similar images as backgrounds on the actual devices. It is also helpful to use loved ones’ voices or the addict’s wedding song as a ring or text tone. Put simply, reminders of what problematic cybersexual activity might cost the addict can be a powerful deterrent to problematic behaviors.
- Cybersex addicts should install filtering and monitoring software on their digital devices. If cybersex addicts plan to use the internet and their smartphones while in recovery – and for nearly all cybersex addicts this is the case, as these things are “musts” for both work and healthy socialization – then they should install “parental control software” on all of their digital devices. As the parental control label suggests, these products were initially developed to protect children from inappropriate content and contacts, but they can easily be adapted for use by recovering cybersex addicts. Ideally these products can prevent access to troublesome sites and apps (via the filtering capabilities) while helping the addict rebuild accountability (via the monitoring features). For a fuller discussion of filtering and monitoring software products, including recommendations on which are best for cybersex addicts, please visit this link on the Sexual Recovery Institute It is important to state that even the best software products cannot guarantee sexual sobriety. In fact, a tech-savvy addict can eventually find ways to circumvent almost any protective program. As such, these products should not be viewed as enforcers of recovery. Instead, they should be regarded as tools of healing that can help a motivated cybersex addict maintain sobriety and rebuild trust. At worst, a decent program may cause a cybersex addict to pause and think before he or she circumvents the software and proceeds with a problematic behavior.
Needless to say, there is much more to healing from cybersexual addiction than taking these initial steps toward sobriety and behavior change. As such, this topic – healing from cybersex addiction – will be discussed in an ongoing way over the course of my next several postings to this site. In the next blog, I will discuss the ways in which cybersex addicts can best define and develop a plan for ongoing sexual sobriety.