In 1995, Time magazine broke one of the first big stories on “cyberporn.” In that piece, Philip Elmer-Dewitt described the new allure of online porn:
… pornography is different on the computer networks. You can obtain it in the privacy of your home—without having to walk into a seedy bookstore or movie house. You can download only those things that turn you on, rather than buy an entire magazine or video. You can explore different aspects of your sexuality without exposing yourself to communicable diseases or public ridicule. 1
Easy access, anonymity, and affordability have made Internet porn more attractive and seemingly less dangerous than past outlets for sexual experimentation. We’re starting to see, however, that looking for sex online is not without dangers and disappointments.
It’s still possible for the online sex surfer to get caught, get taken advantage of, get addicted or get in trouble with the law. Even the sex surfer who avoids these pitfalls may fail to find what they are looking for. Of equal concern to the dangers of looking for sex online is the disappointment of not finding it . . . in a meaningful way.
What could be more anonymous than viewing pornography on the Internet? A number of things actually—including physically walking into a sex store on the seedy side of town. Ironically, the same technology that makes it possible to view porn anonymously also makes it possible to track virtual footprints.
We often hear the expression, “surfing the Web.” But a better metaphor may be “walking on the beach” because your footprints follow you wherever you go. All browsers, Netscape, Internet Explorer, AOL, are equipped with a cache—a temporary file that saves a copy of any HTML pages, images or files that you access for quick downloading later. Though your cache files can be deleted, recovering them is simply a matter of knowing where to look.
Another means of following the footprints is through your Internet Service Provider. Though hard data is unavailable, it is estimated that more than two thirds of ISPs keep records similar to what the cache retains. The contents of these files have even been admitted as evidence in divorce hearings.
Lastly, the pornography industry behaves in a manner similar to a black widow spider. They have their web of Internet sites floating in space, waiting for the slightest hint of movement. When they realize someone has touched their web they hone in and attack, by attaching a cookie to your computer and tracking your usage. Furthermore, they commonly require a name and email address in exchange for a password. Once they have your name and email, they know exactly who you are and will proceed to inundate you with unsolicited messages until you shake yourself free or “succumb to their venom.”
In addition to risking your reputation by leaving footprints, you also risk being ripped off. The online porn industry has popped up in the news recently for fraud and credit scams. One porn site operator spoke truthfully about the industry when she said, “Porn comes down to this, we women are exploiting men’s weaknesses. You’re handing me your credit card. I’m not a victim. I’m exploiting you!” 2
Greg Gutfeld, writing in Men’s Health magazine, reported his experiences with illegitimate credit card charges:
They know most people are too embarrassed to fight back. One man I spoke with told me he’d signed up for a 1-week free preview, supplying his credit-card number. “They sent me an access code for the site. But the code was seven numbers; they gave me five. I e-mailed my cancellation request numerous times, but they didn’t respond. They charged me for membership three months in a row. It’s going to be embarrassing to call my credit card company, but I’ve got to do it.” Many victims of these scams simply pay up rather than fess up. 3
Adult web sites have also expanded beyond credit card fraud, into more legitimate means of taking your money. Recently AT&T issued a consumer alert because some customers had unwittingly triggered international long-distance charges when they accessed some sites. The Washington Post reported, “The [customers] said they were unaware that while surfing X-rated Web sites for a ‘free’ preview, or by clicking hot links in steamy e-mail spams, they had stepped into a new and apparently legal billing ploy.”4 By failing to read the small print the unwary surfer granted permission to terminate the modem connection to his local ISP and connect a long-distance call to another country. The article ends with the following sober advice, “AT&T advises that other than never visiting adult entertainment Web sites, there is no fail-proof measures to take.”5
You may manage to avoid getting caught, or even getting ripped off, but addiction is an even harder bullet to dodge. Greg Gutfeld explains that online porn has attracted a surprising number of married, professional men.” Most of them have never had a problem with porn before,” he says. “They certainly never felt like prisoners of sexual compulsion. Until now. For some, curiosity has progressed to obsession. They don’t mean to like electronic sex so much, but they do. And the need grows. They require more and more to keep from getting bored.”6 Internet pornography has earned itself a reputation for being the crack cocaine of sexual addiction. “It works so quickly and it’s so instantly intense,” says Dr. Robert Weiss of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. “We’re seeing a whole population of clients who have never had a history with the problem, but for the first time, they’re beginning one particular activity and getting hooked.”7
The experience of sexual arousal can be adrenalized and intense when viewing pornography, and like any ‘high’ your body will crave another hit. The result is a pattern of addiction and escalation. Soft-core pictures of women in lingerie will soon become boring and you will seek full nudity, and as that loses novelty you will look for something more enticing. Dr. Victor Cline, of the University of Utah, has studied this escalation and reports that it proceeds according to four steps.8
Addiction: You keep coming back to porn. It becomes a regular part of your life. You’re hooked and can’t quit.
Escalation: You start to look for more graphic pornography. You start using porn that disgusted you earlier, but is now enticing to you.
Desensitization: You begin feeling numb towards the images you see. Even the most graphic porn is no longer arousing. You become desperate to feel the same thrill again, but you can’t find it.
Acting out sexually: This is the point that you make a critical jump and start acting out the images you have seen and rehearsed in your mind.
Carnes estimates that 8 percent of men and 3 percent of women in the U.S. are sexually addicted.9 Another study by Stanford and Duquesne Universities revealed that at least 200,000 Americans are hopelessly addicted to e-porn.10
Getting in trouble
Charles Taylor Johnston wasn’t looking for pornography when he stumbled onto photos of children in sexual positions in an America Online chat room. That accidental discovery drew Johnston, a 35-year-old father of two, into a secret habit that eventually led him to jail.11
Johnston did not realize he could go to jail for possessing child pornography. But in 1996, a new law made it illegal for individuals to post child pornography and obscenity online. The law also targets individuals who indicate a willingness to travel for the purposes of engaging in sexual activity with a child. News about the law, however, was not widely reported. During his conviction in early 1997, Johnston made a statement encouraging the media to inform the public about laws related to Internet pornography.
Charles Johnston is by no means the only Web porn surfer to find himself behind bars: businessmen, teachers, coaches, and even several religious leaders have been arrested for downloading child pornography from the Internet or for arranging to have sex with minors.
For many seekers of online sex, the dangers of getting caught, getting addicted, getting taken advantage of or getting in trouble with the law simply become obstacles to work around. Instead of avoiding the dangerous behavior, they just try to dodge the dangerous consequences. Much harder to dodge is the inevitable disappointment of trying to find meaningful sexual fulfillment outside of a committed marriage.
A recent Zogby International survey, conducted for Focus on the Family, found that one in every five person admitted that they had visited a sexually-oriented Web site. Interestingly, two-thirds of them expressed that they didn’t think it was possible to find sexual fulfillment online. It turns out that the Internet is better at delivering sexual arousal than sexual intimacy.
Seeking sexual fulfillment through pornography will inexorably leave you unsatisfied. For starters, it will subtly affect the way you view women. Dr. Gary Brooks detailed this in his book called The Centerfold Syndrome. Essentially, women lose their relational value and are viewed as only sexual objects. The effects are especially obvious in marital relationships. “When a man, after weeks of [Internet pornography], actually sleeps with his wife, he’s in for a letdown,” says Greg Gutfeld.
This is common sense, and scientifically proven. Emotional arousal causes the release of epinephrine in your brain that chemically burns the pictures into your permanent memory. This enables those airbrushed and digitally enhanced pictures of women to remain with you through adulthood, and emerge at the most inopportune times.12
The New York Times recently told the story of a 34-year-old woman who discovered that her husband—a minister—had an online porn habit. “How can I compete with hundreds of anonymous others who are now in our bed, in his head? Our bed is crowded with countless faceless strangers, where once we were intimate.”13
Relationships are not only threatened by competing online images. Many become threatened by real life affairs inspired by online experimentation. Dan Garrett, a private investigator in South Carolina has seen a spike in cases related to online affairs. A lot of Garrett’s cases involve couples who have been married for 15 years or more. “They get bored and complacent,” Garrett says. “They get a computer. They start playing solitaire and then go to chat rooms. The next thing you know, they’re meeting someone at the Red Roof Inn.”14
It’s easy to become attracted to a would-be Internet lover. The person on the screen seems to have only good qualities. The Internet provides a disguise much like those used at a masquerade ball—inflaming curiosity and fantasies that often push men and women to leave their “real world” relationships behind.
A lesson for families
In addition to compromising your relationships with the opposite sex, pornography can have a dramatic effect on your children. Most men confess their first introduction to pornography resulted from finding a stash of magazines belonging to either their father or a friend. This early exposure set many men on a path toward sexual addiction. Furthermore, children are very perceptive. Sons seek to imitate the actions of their primary role model and often view women through the same lens their fathers do. Daughters, on the other hand, look for their sense of self worth in their father’s love and often find instead a sense that women are valued only for their body.
Dr. Jennifer Schneider, the assistant editor of the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity says that children are often victimized by Internet sex. She explains that children stumble on the pornographic material left on or near the computer or walk in on a parent masturbating at the computer.15
One man confessed that his addiction to pornography nearly destroyed his wife and daughter. Both women suffered from eating disorders and had suicidal tendencies because of his rejection. Every afternoon as he returned from work he feared finding his wife on the floor with her wrists slit, because of her feelings of inadequacy. Years later they went through counseling and his daughter shared her struggles. Tearfully she explained her feelings of inferiority. She saw how her father totally rejected her mom, a beautiful woman, and feared never finding a man who would love her and tell her she was beautiful. The two women this man loved the most suffered greatly because their husband and father rejected them to fulfill his lust for sex.
The New York Times recently reported that children also suffer from watching their parents fight over Internet sex—especially if the fight leads to divorce. The article goes on to say, “even if the marriage survives, children may lack adequate parental attention when one parent is preoccupied with sex on the computer and the other is preoccupied with the cybersex addict.”16
Elusive search for intimacy
When Carl, an oceanographer, was interviewed about his sex surfing for Men’s Health magazine, he told the writer, “It is a constant battle to remind myself, when arousal material is so easily accessed, that to attain a higher level of real sexual fulfillment takes intimacy.”17
The National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families addressed this issue in an article titled “Protecting yourself from pornography’s subtle effects”:
Getting along with the opposite sex is often difficult and sometimes downright exasperating. The effort that goes into maintaining a vibrant and mutually fulfilling sexual relationship sometimes feels like work when sex is supposed to be fun, right? That’s when pornography can begin to seem more interesting. But no matter how alluring or inviting the scenario, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. And frankly, it’s a cop-out from building a meaningful relationship with a real person.18
By focusing so strongly on meeting a need for sexual arousal without addressing sexual intimacy, Internet pornography inevitably leads to disappointment. Unfortunately, thousands of men and women have already followed the siren song of Internet sex—finding more than they ever bargained for—but not finding the fulfillment they most desired.