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Old Temptation, New Technology:

Pornography And The Internet In Today’s World

By Patrick J. Carnes

Today’s information superhighway, the Internet, has become both a blessing and a curse. High-speed technology has those who counsel scrambling to keep up with the myriad of problems created by the proliferation and availability of pornography. The Internet is not the problem; it is the solitude and isolation of the user that can engender the problematic behavior that leads to sexual addiction. No one is immune, and the problem is growing.


In 2002, sex-related sites became the No. 1 economic sector of the Internet, with sales exceeding the combined sales of both software and computers. Pornography has also become a problem in the workplace. Seventy percent of Internet pornography traffic occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Seventy-two percent of companies that have addressed Internet misuse reported that 69 percent of those cases were pornography related. Leading software publishers estimate as much as $83 billion a year in lost productivity for American companies.1 Serious researchers2 showed in large samples that one in six employees was now having trouble with sexual behavior online.

Researchers have noted problems with compulsive and addictive behavior online, especially in the areas of gambling and sexuality.3 Others have noted behaviors such as online trading, gaming, and compulsive computer use.4 In addition to Cooper’s original research, people who work with compulsive sexual behavior documented problematic online sexual behavior in which people’s daily ability to function was being affected by their cybersexual activities.5

Sex Addiction Defined

What is a sex addict? During the last 2 to 3 decades, a series of studies has been performed that has created a profile for sex addiction. In keeping with the guidelines used to assess pathological gambling, alcoholism, and substance abuse, the following criteria for diagnosing sex addiction have emerged:

  1. Recurrent failure to resist impulses to engage in specific sexual behavior;
  2. Frequently engaging in sexual behaviors to a greater extent, or over a longer period, than intended;
  3. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop, reduce, or control sexual behaviors;
  4. Inordinate amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experiences;
  5. Preoccupation with sexual behavior or preparatory activities;
  6. Frequent engaging in the behavior when expected to fulfill occupational, academic, domestic, or social obligations;
  7. Continuation of the behavior despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent social, financial, psychological, or physical problem that is caused or exacerbated by the behavior;
  8. Need to increase the intensity, frequency, number, or risk level of behaviors to achieve the desired effect; or diminished effect with continued behaviors at the same level of intensity, frequency, number, or risk;
  9. Giving up or limiting social, occupational, or recreational activities because of the behavior;
  10. Distress, anxiety, restlessness, or irritability if unable to engage in the behavior.

Patients consistently report that they experienced a rapid escalation in both the amount of and diversity of sexual behavior. People who have significant problems often find that the problems started almost immediately. Consider the pastor who started viewing pornography on July 4. Five weeks later he was discovered and had already embezzled $8,000 from the church to pay for his online activities. That pattern, while not true of all cases, is common enough to be noticed by clinicians. Factors that contribute to their escalation include the appearance of anonymity and ease of access. Also a pattern of denial quickly emerges in which the behavior is seen as having no consequences even though clear consequences are inevitable (such as the discovery of embezzled funds).

Patients who were already having trouble with compulsive sexuality found the Internet to be a significant catalyst that intensified their sexual behavior. The Internet not only intensified the eroticization that was problematic, but also added new resources. For example, if compulsive prostitution was a problem, it intensified as a result of Internet activity. Some patients report having no history of compulsive sexual behavior until they discovered the Internet. When their sexual behavior escalated on the Net, they started behaviors offline that became compulsive as well.

When church leaders are confronted by problematic sexual behavior and it fits the parameters of addictive/compulsive illness, they need to understand this disorder in order to make appropriate management decisions and to evaluate clinical approaches.

During the last 3 decades, professionals have acknowledged that some people use sex to manage their internal distress. These people are similar to compulsive gamblers, compulsive overeaters, or alcoholics who are not able to contain their impulses, and who experience destructive results.

Depending on one’s professional framework, the words addiction and compulsion have been used to describe this disorder. In my field of addiction medicine, one sign of addiction is compulsive use. Other professionals occasionally make distinctions between addiction and compulsion. Some use them interchangeably. There is, however, a growing common understanding of the problem and how it occurs. Great progress is being made in treatment. Advances in neurochemistry may soon redefine our terminology when we understand more clearly the biology of the disorder.6

We find pastors of all denominations to be more vulnerable due to many factors.

The essential problem church decisionmakers have is in identifying sexual compulsivity. Typically, pastors who are in trouble for their sexual behavior are not candid with those in authority about their behavior. Nor are they likely to reveal that their sexual behavior is a part of a consistent, self-destructive pattern. This illness causes the pastor to hide the severity of his problem from others, to delude himself about his ability to control his behavior, and to minimize its impact on others. The fact pastors are to be models of moral behavior compounds the problem because their position adds to their shame and fear.

The National Campaign To Stop Pornography (2005) offers an excellent example of how trapped a pastor can feel because of the high moral standards laypeople hold him to and the high standard the pastor holds himself to. “If you had a pastor admit to his congregation that he struggled with an eating problem and that he was addicted to fried chicken, he would probably find some sympathy or get a chuckle out of it. But if the pastor confesses he has used pornography, more than likely the pastor would be [censored or disciplined]. The consequences of moral failure are deeply personal and professional. Instead of seeking help for their temptation, pastors may attempt to buy time through secrecy.”

Consider the following examples that illustrate the diversity and complexity of sexual addiction among pastors:

While these examples represent diverse behaviors, the common theme is sexually compulsive behavior. Church leaders need to understand that there is a common profile.

Christianity Today administered a reader survey to both clergy and laymen on Internet pornography.7 Even the lower percentage of people in this survey who have viewed Internet pornography show similar statistical patterns to the larger demographic of America:



The essentials of the treatment process are best understood by reviewing the characteristics of those affected by compulsive sexual behavior. The emerging profile will help church leaders understand the requirements of treatment. All data listed in specific traits come from a study of more than 1,000 sex addicts published in 1991.23 Critical characteristics are:

Distrust of authority. Most patients come from dysfunctional families that have significant problems with addictive disorders. Only 13 percent of the families of origin have no addictions to report. Children who grow up in these families are severely affected by parents with addictive disorders. Most important, 77 percent of the families are extremely rigid and controlling. Children from this kind of family do not develop normal abilities of self-limitation and responsibility. They learn in childhood that compliance with authority means an essential loss of self. As adults they are comfortable hiding things from those in authority and resistant to accountability.

Intimacy deficit. More than 87 percent of patients come from disengaged families — a family environment in which family members are detached, uninvolved, or emotionally absent. All compulsive and addictive behaviors are signs of significant intimacy disorder and the inability to get needs met in healthy ways.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. Common to all addictive/compulsive behaviors is a history of trauma and abuse. Sexually compulsive patients have a history of sexual abuse (81 percent), physical abuse (72 percent), and emotional abuse (97 percent). Addictions and compulsions become a way to manage stress disordered affect and may include repeating the trauma compulsively.

Extreme eroticization. One effect of abusive families and childhood sexual abuse is, as adults, survivors sexualize all interactions. They often sense that most people do not have the same relationship filters they do, which adds to their shame.

Shame-based sense of self. Shame stems from a failure to achieve a positive sense of self and a profound belief in one’s lack of worth. The constant failure to stop unwanted behavior confirms the belief that a person is fundamentally flawed and unlovable.

Compartmentalization. A survival mechanism for abused children is to compartmentalize to avoid reality. For an adult, this means dividing life into compartments. This explains why a person lives out flawed behaviors as though no one will find out, and why people can tell outright lies without distress. When Robert Louis Stevenson described alcoholism with the metaphorical story of Jekyll and Hyde, he approached this kind of internal fragmentation.

Compulsive cycles. Most addicts (72 percent) binge and then feel despair much like a bulimic will binge and purge. Many pastors preach against promiscuity or some sexual behavior only to be discovered or arrested for practicing that behavior. In their public pronouncements, they were purging while privately they were clearly bingeing. These cycles add to both shame and compartmentalizing.

Self-destructive behavior. Many report doing high-risk behavior that resulted in severe consequences. Children who are sexually abused often integrate fear into their arousal templates. For adults, this means sex must have a fear component, which results in risk-seeking sex. Frequently, these patients knew there was a 100 percent probability their behavior would be disastrous and did it anyway.

Other addictions. Seldom do these patients have only a sexual problem. Most (83 percent) have other addictive/compulsive disorders as well. For example, 41 percent have problems with alcohol or drugs, and 38 percent have an eating disorder. Other issues include gambling, financial disorders, and nicotine. Usually compulsive sexual behaviors are part of an intricate weave of behaviors to manage internal distress. Sometimes addictions are fused. For example, studies are emerging that show a close connection between cocaine use and sexual acting out. Many patients would never use cocaine without sex and vice versa. Various reports also document switching — replacing one set of addictive/compulsive behaviors with another.

Concomitant mental health disorders. Dual diagnosis issues are common with these patients. Addictive and compulsive disorders are often accompanied by acute depression that is constantly intensified by the failure to control sexual behavior. Other issues include bipolar swings, narcissism, and sociopathy that further complicates treatment planning.

The treatment challenge is to provide a therapeutic environment that gains the patient’s trust but also holds the patient accountable. Further, sufficient containment must occur to stop self-destructive behavior. Once that is established, the core issues of family control, dysfunction, and abuse can be addressed. Tools for managing stress, shame reduction, and relapse prevention are critical. Information about sex and sexual addiction, along with cognitive behavioral interventions, disrupt cognitive distortions and dysfunctional beliefs. Other addictions and mental health issues also must be addressed as part of treatment planning.

Pastors need to recognize there is a problem among the people they serve, and also a problem among themselves. By being open to the illness and the sexual addiction recovery process, there is opportunity for pastors to help both their congregations and themselves by contributing to sexual health.

—Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., c.a.s.,is clinical director of Sexual Disorder Services at The Meadows, an internationally recognized, private multiple addiction/disorder treatment and recovery facility in Wickenburg, Arizona.


1. R. Greenspan, “Internet Abuse Drains Time and Money,” Websense Inc. Internet Misuse in the News (2002).

2. Al Cooper, ed., Cybersex: The Dark Side of the Force. (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2000).

3. S.A. King, “Internet Gambling and Pornography: Illustrative Examples of the Psychological Consequences of Communication Anarchy,” CyberPsychology and Behavior, vol. 2, no. 3, (1999): 175–194.

4. H. Shaffer, “The Epistemology of ‘Addictive Disease’: The Lincoln-Douglas Debate,” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, vol. 4, (1987): 103–112. Also, Kimberly Young, and others, “Online Infidelity: A New Dimension in Couple Relationships With Implications for Evaluation and Treatment,” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: Journal of Treatment and Prevention, vol.7, (2000): 59–74.

5. J. Schneider, “Effects of Cybersex Addiction on the Family: Results of a Survey,” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: Journal of Treatment and Prevention, vol. 7, (2000): 31–58. Also, M. Schwartz, and S. Southern, “Compulsive Cybersex: The New Tea Room,” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: Journal of Treatment and Prevention, vol. 7, (2000): 127–144. Also, Patrick Carnes, D.L. Delmonico, and E.J. Griffin, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2001).

6. Patrick Carnes, “Addiction or Compulsion: Politics or Illness?” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: Journal of Treatment and Prevention, vol. 3, no. 2, (1996).

7. Christine J. Gardner, “Tangled in the Worst of the Web,” Christianity Today, vol. 45, no. 4, 5 March 2001, 42. .

8. Nielsen Netratings, 2001.

9. CBC News: The Passionate Eye — “, Cybersex Addiction” aired: Monday, February 7, 2005, at 9 p.m. on cbc-tv, .

10. Jon Swartz, “Internet Use Is Doubling Every 100 Days: Digital Industries a Driving Economic Force,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 April 1998.

11. “Web Surpasses One Billion Documents,” Inktomi press release, January 18, 2000. The original website is no longer available. Inktomi (a web search provider) became a subsidiary of Yahoo, March 19, 2003.

12., 2001.

13., 2002; Internet Pornography Statistics, 2004; cbc News: The Passionate Eye — “, Cybersex Addiction” aired: Monday, February 7, 2005, at 9 p.m. on cbc-tv.

14. Timothy Egan, “Wall Street Meets Pornography,” New York Times, 23 October 2000.

15. A. Cooper, D. Delmonico, and R. Burg, “Cybersex Users, Abusers, and Compulsives: New Findings and Implications,” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: Journal of Treatment and Prevention, vol.7, no. 1–2 (1999) 5–30. Also, Timothy Egan, “Wall Street Meets Pornography,” New York Times, 23 October 2000. Also, P. Goodson, D. McCormick, and A. Evans, “Searching for Sexually Explicit Materials on the Internet: An Exploratory Study of College Student’s Behavior and Attitudes and Emotional Arousal,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 30, no. 2, (American Psychological Association, April 2001) 101–108.

16. David Finkelhor, Kimberly Mitchell, and Janis Wolak, “Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation’s Youth,” (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, June 2000). More information about Crimes against Children Research Center publications and activities is available from the program administrator at: University of New Hampshire, 126 Horton Hall Durham, New Hampshire 03824, by calling: 1-603-862-1888, or visiting:

17. Toronto Globe and Mail, 25 September 2003.

18. SexTracker.

19. Saratoga Institute, 1999.

20. cbc News: The Passionate Eye — “, Cybersex Addiction” aired: Monday, February 7, 2005, at 9 p.m. on cbc-tv.

21. Internet Filter Review, 2004.

22. Alexa Research, 2001. This domain name expired on 6 April 2005 and is pending renewal or deletion, however a Google search reveals many sources with this information. Also, Alvin Cooper and others, “Sexuality on the Internet: From Sexual Exploration to Pathological Expression,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 30, no. 2 (American Psychological Association, April 1999). Also, A. Foley, “Beyond Critical Consumption: Analyzing a Website Using Mode of Address, Discourse Analysis, and Symptomatic Reading.” Paper presented at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology in Denver, Colorado (October 2000).

23. Patrick Carnes, Don’t Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction (Minnesota: Gentle Press, 1997).

Additional Resources

1. Patrick Carnes, “The Anatomy of Arousal: Three Internet Portals,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, vol. 18, no. 3, (New York: Brunner-Routledge, August 2003).

2. Patrick Carnes, “The Making of a Sex Addict” (2005). (Adapted from “The Obsessive Shadow,” 1998).

3. P. Shizgal, and A. Arvanitogiannis, “Gambling on Dopamine,” Science, vol. 2, 299.

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