Cybersex in the Recovery Community

Sharon O’Hara is the former Clinical Director of the Sexual Recovery Institute and sees private clients for individual, group, and couple therapy both Beverly Hills and San Pedro.

Addiction to cybersex is a very popular topic these days. In a recent survey of over 9000 Internet users reported in the Journal of Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity (vol.7, 2000), fully 17% admitted that their online sexual behavior had gone out of control. Sex is the most researched topic on the Internet, due to what is referred to by Dr. Alan Cooper as the “Triple-A engine” of sexual compulsivity: anonymity, accessibility, and affordability. Never before in the history of the world has so much sexual material been available so quickly to so many people as currently exists on the Internet. Pornography used to mean an occasional Playboy under the mattress—now the average teen can see thousands of sexual images in the time it used to take to read a magazine.

What do these facts mean to the 12-Step recovery community? Let’s face it: if you are an addict when it comes to alcohol or drugs, it’s likely that your sexual life is also vulnerable to addictive patterns. Newly recovering addicts are especially prone to cross-addiction, and if your job or hobby involves major use of a computer, it’s awfully tempting to put that resentful partner/spouse out of your mind while indulging in a downloaded sexual fantasy.

Recently I talked to a couple about their cybersex history (I’ll call them Steve and Anne). Steve was rightly proud of his three years of sobriety after kicking a heroin habit of 10 years duration. Anne and Steve wanted to save their marriage, but Steve was about to lose his job selling computer software due to being caught at work downloading fetish images from a sexual site. Meanwhile Anne, originally very righteous in her views on pornography, later admitted that she had gone to chat rooms herself in order to have stimulating sexual conversations with strangers. Over several weeks of therapy this couple managed to institute new boundaries through a combination of self-censorship (loading special software on the computer that blocks out sexual material), practicing communication exercises, healthy sex homework, and attending some Recovering Couples Anonymous meetings.

If you or someone you know is experiencing problems with cybersex compulsivity, perhaps you will find more information of interest in the following questions and answers culled from my past columns on “Love & Sex” in the Steps For Recovery newspaper:

Q. I’m a recovering from methamphetamine abuse, and recently I decided to start going to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings because since I got sober from drugs, I can’t seem to stop masturbating. Lately I’ve been staying up at night, smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes, looking at various sex sites on the Internet. I’ve even got my favorite ones “bookmarked” so I can return to them at the click of a mouse. Sometimes I masturbate past the point of pleasure. It’s like I have to wear myself out or something.

I have a girlfriend, sort of, but she’s always upset with me for one thing or another, and it’s so much easier to masturbate than to deal with her. The last time I went over to see her, I thought we were going to have sex, but she got a recovery phone call from a friend of hers, and I ended up falling asleep waiting for her to get off the phone. So in the middle of the night I woke up, then went home and did my little ritual in order to go back to sleep. I don’t even know if I have a problem or not—I guess it’s hard to take this masturbation thing seriously, since the consequences are nowhere near as severe as they were when I was on drugs.

A. There is a controversy about the role of masturbation in sexual recovery circles. The folks at SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) and SRA (Sexual Recovery Anonymous) take the position that if you identify yourself as a sex addict, then you are fooling yourself if you think that you can masturbate successfully. What they mean by “successfully” is when you masturbate as a self-nurturing activity, without compromising your intimate relationships, and unaccompanied by degrading sexual fantasies. SA/SRA members take the stand that sex addicts need to abstain from masturbation altogether and instead seek for sexual expression within marriage or a committed relationship.

SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous, SCA (Sexual Compulsives Anonymous), and SLAA (Sex and Love Anonymous) all take the position that abstention from masturbation is a personal decision. However, most of these latter group members would also agree that abstaining from masturbation is a good idea in early recovery (in order to break self-destructive patterns).

In your case, you yourself began going to SAA meetings because you thought you had a problem with masturbation. That says something right there. It sounds like you are using masturbation as your primary coping skill whenever you have a falling-out with your girlfriend. It would be wise for you to try to create some alternative coping skills, with the help of an SAA sponsor and appropriate therapist. You’re right that compulsive masturbation may not have the same intense consequences as methamphetamine abuse, but you may lose out on being able to sustain any kind of intimate relationship if the only woman you’ll let into your heart is made up of pixels on a screen.

Q. I’m a recovering alcoholic—two years sober—and I just found out that my wife is hooked on computer sex. I thought that she was just working late, but she’s really hooked by those “chat rooms” and romance e-mail that amounts to sending sex letters to strangers. All of this came crashing down last month when she admitted that she actually met one of these guys in a restaurant—he’d flown to L.A. from Maine or someplace. She told me that she didn’t have sex with the guy, because he wasn’t so intriguing in person as he was on the computer, and I guess she felt guilty so she confessed. I was really angry, and then she confronted me about how she had stood by me when I was drinking really bad. She thinks it’s time for me to be understanding about her problem, but I just want to wring her neck. I keep imagining her with these guys and I just see red. Then I feel guilty because she did stand by me when I went to treatment. Should I stick with her or what?

A. The shoe is definitely on the other foot. Many addicts feel just as confused as you do when their partners start engaging in some kind of addictive behavior. Of course, there are some differences. Alcoholics most often bring consequences on themselves. They ruin their health, their job performance, or their reputation. But sex addicts who act out with other sex partners are potentially putting their spouses’ lives at risk. After all, we are living in the age of AIDS. And even if you don’t get a life-threatening disease, there are all kinds of other nasty sexually transmitted diseases floating around, such as herpes, chlamydia, and venereal warts.

In other words, it’s generally easier to be an Al-Anon support person than it is to be an S-Anon support person. Al-Anon says things like: “Just take care of yourself, lead your own life, and let the alcoholic have consequences.” Unfortunately, the spouse of a sex addict may have his/her life on the line. The health consequences that your wife may end up paying could be transferred to you.

However, in your case, it sounds like your wife confessed because she may want some help in order to stop her compulsive behavior. If she’s willing to go to treatment or to attend one of the sexual recovery groups (SAA, SA, SLAA or SRA), then your relationship has a chance of being repaired. I don’t suggest that you make an impulsive decision about the future of your relationship. You might want to check out S-Anon, COSA or CODA and discover what codependent recovery is all about—it may even strengthen your chemical recovery.

Q. My husband has this pornography problem. Well, I think it’s a pornography problem, but he thinks it’s just a hobby. Tom assures me that he’s faithful to me, never had an affair, never saw any prostitutes, so why should I complain? Problem is, he’s so computer-obsessed that he doesn’t even want to have sex with me very often, about every 3 months or so. Meanwhile, practically every night Tom is downloading pictures from the Internet, and he has a stack of porno magazines in the garage.

Our son is 12 and I’m afraid that he’s going to pick up these same bad habits, or maybe do something worse. I’ve already found Penthouse magazines under my son’s mattress. Can you tell me a way that I can get my husband Tom to stop being such a bad role model for my son with this porno stuff? Tom gave up cigarettes last year when he saw our son smoking, but he’s turned a deaf ear to my complaints about the computer.

A. Being curious about Penthouse-type magazines is fairly normal behavior for 12-year-olds. Sometimes overreacting to finding such magazines can be more traumatic to the child than the pornography itself. It’s important not to shame children but to use such situations as opportunities to talk about healthy sexuality that is age-appropriate.

On the other hand, it does sound as if you and your husband have an intimacy problem. Tom appears to like interacting with pornography more than he likes interacting sexually with you. This behavior may indicate a true compulsion that predates your relationship, or it may be indicative of some other problem in your marriage. I don’t know how you relate to your own sexuality. The best way that you can teach your child about sex is to demonstrate a loving and affectionate relationship with your husband.

I would definitely suggest couples therapy, and if your husband won’t go, find a therapist for yourself.. You may eventually have to issue an ultimatum to your husband—either the cybersex goes or you do—but before you get to that stage, you might also want to check out S-Anon, which is a support group for spouses where there are problematic sexual issues.

(If you copy this article for others, please copy the following author bio as well):

Sharon O’Hara, MFT, CSAT, has offices in the Beverly Hills and Torrance/San Pedro area, specializing in treating sex addicts and their partners. She can be reached via email at sharonoharamft@gmail.com.

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