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In the Shadows of the NetReview - In the Shadows of the Net
Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior
by Patrick Carnes, David Delmonico, Elizabeth Griffin, with Joseph Moriarty
Hazelden, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 20th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 12)

The statistics at the start of this book are striking:

·          As of January 1999, there were nearly 100,000,000 total unique visitors per month five free porn Web sites.

·          In November 1999, Nielsen Net Ratings showed 12.5 million surfers visited porn sites in September from their homes.

·          A profile of severe problems with sex on the Net exists for 1% of Internet users—and 40% of these extreme cases are women.

The authors do not give a source for this latter statistic, and of course, it is somewhat subjective what counts as a “severe problem.”  Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that the widespread use of Internet pornography and sexually explicit chat rooms leads people to have problems.  The authors explain how the anonymity of online access, the ability of people to use their computers in private, and the powerful rationalization that virtual interactions are not “real” can combine to entice people to spend hours online, sacrificing real relationships and increasing their sense of loneliness.  Patrick Carnes has an Internet Screening Test to help people decide if they have a problem with their use of sexual material on the Internet, and many people taking this test will probably confirm their fears that they do have a problem.  Of course, there will always be some vagueness about when a difficulty like this is really a clinical disorder, and news organizations and people offering therapeutic services may be tempted to exaggerate the prevalence of the problem.  Nevertheless, it would not be at all surprising if hundreds of thousands of people had difficulty controlling their use of pornography and sex-chat on the Internet.  People spend too much time at their computers in essentially lonely pursuits, spending money on expensive services, and even become involved in trading illegal images.  They put their whole lives in jeopardy. 

            The authors of this book are not dogmatic about what the best solutions to this problem are, but they clearly are sympathetic to 12-Step approaches.  They relate this behavior to other forms of addiction, especially sexual addiction.  They do not think that the problems will be solved by legislation or censorship, because people will find ways around such barriers.  Throughout the book, they give many case histories of people who have engaged in compulsive online sexual behavior, the damaged they have caused in their lives, and the ways that they have used to break free of their unhealthy habits.  This is a quick book to read through, although it might take much longer to work through it.

            Some of the recommendations seem sensible and are independent of the 12-Step approach; for example, removing temptation by such simple acts as putting your computer in a public place where you will not be tempted to return to pornographic material; the authors also recommend group therapy and working with a mentor.  But the heart of the book is modeled on 12-Step thinking, and this carries with it well known advantages and disadvantages.  Some people will have difficulty with the religious elements in the 12 Steps, and others will find the approach rigid.  The most obvious problem with the book is that although the authors say they have had a great deal of experience and are confident that their suggestions will be helpful, they provide no documentation to support their claims.  Even for a self-help book, the collection of footnotes is small, and there are very few scholarly works even mentioned in the bibliography. 

            So while the identification of the problem is reasonably straightforward, the solution is not.  There are still only a few books available dealing with Internet addiction and even fewer specifically addressing compulsive use of computers for sexual release, and so In the Shadows of the Net could be a helpful starting point for those who are looking for answers.  But those who are already hostile to 12-Step approaches to solving personal problems will probably dislike the suggestions for help that the book offers.

            There are some interesting ideas in this book worth exploring.  One is that people who indulge in compulsive online sexual behavior often enter a sort of trance, in which they fail to notice the passage of time and become utterly absorbed in their activity.  I’m not aware of any research done on this, and the authors do not provide any references.  But this suggestion does fit with the more general experience people have of spending hours-on-end playing computer games or talking in chat rooms only realizing how much time they have wasted once they end the activity.  To what extent this is literally a state of trance is hard to say, and deserves more research.

            Another issue needing more research is whether compulsive computer use, and especially compulsive online sexual behavior, really qualifies as an addiction, and whether it should count as a mental disorder. The authors certainly believe that the behavior they discuss is a form of addiction, and discuss how it fits well-known patterns of addiction. But they do not delve deep into the addiction literature, and they do not even scrape the surface of whether the compulsive behavior is a mental disorder that would fit into the next edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM.  This is certainly an issue that will be controversial, but it needs careful thought.  Given the number of self-defeating patterns of behavior that are already included in DSM-IV, it is hard to see what principled reason there could be to not allow compulsive online sexual behavior as a mental disorder.

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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