- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

REDDING, Calif. - Internet pornography started as a curiosity for the Redding man.

Soon it developed into countless hours of clicking through thousands of erotic images.

The man's ability to focus at work began to deteriorate. If he saw a woman dressed a certain way, she'd become a fantasy subject just like the pictures on the screen.

At home, intimacy died out with the woman he married.

"It started affecting the way I viewed things within my family and with friends, said the man, who has sought counseling for sexual addiction and asked to remain anonymous. "Everything became sexualized. You start looking for time to view porn, and that means other things like work, family and social life get put aside. I didn't think I had a problem until it hurt everybody around me."

The cyber-porn industry portrays itself as a safe place to explore sexuality a place where people of all ages can be promiscuous without the threat of transmitted disease.

Yet mental health experts warn that on-line porn has sparked a huge jump in sexual addiction with hazardous side effects. Their offices are filled by people who have lost jobs, spouses and large sums of money because of on-line sex.

Many men say they've lost the ability to view women as anything but objects. Women are addicted to partners they've met in chat rooms, but not in person.

"Cyber-sex is the crack cocaine of sexual addiction," said Dr. Robert Weiss, director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles and co-author of an upcoming book on cyber-porn. "It works so quickly and it's so instantly intense. 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."

Some 25 million Americans visit cyber-sex sites between one to 10 hours a week, according to estimates from a recent study by MSNBC. Another 4.7 million people view cyber-porn in excess of 11 hours a week, classifying them as sexually compulsive, according to the study.

Sex is the No. 1 searched-for topic on the Internet, and it represents the third-largest source of on-line revenue, according to Dr. Weiss.

Two statistics placed together are perhaps most telling: The MSNBC study says 57 million Americans have access to the Internet, and Dr. Weiss says 60 percent of all Web-site visits are sexual in nature.

Cyber-porn has exploded, he said, because of its perceived anonymity, the speed of accessing material and affordability. A person no longer needs to be shamed by walking into an adult bookstore or by asking someone for a dirty magazine behind the counter.

Every conceivable fetish can be found on-line, and thousands of news groups and Web pages are free.

"We see 125 cases a week, and easily half of them have had Internet involvement," Dr. Weiss said. "The point of sexual addiction is to stay in the excitement state. The computer offers the perfect opportunity to do that. The video doesn't end, and you can always go to another site."

Mental health experts are also reporting an increase in clients who struggle with the seduction of Internet porn. It's an addiction that can be as intense as alcoholism or drug abuse, said Gerry Blasingame, a licensed marriage and family therapist at New Directions to Hope in Redding.

"There is a chemical change in the human brain upon orgasm, and it has been reported that there is a chemical change in the brain from sexual thinking and/or fantasizing," Mr. Blasingame said. "The men I've worked with regarding this problem imply that the more they view porn, the less they can stop themselves. It eventually has led to major disruptions in their marriages or lives. Indeed, many are single, and the cyber-sex becomes a substitute for a real relationship."

According to the MSNBC study, men prefer Web sites featuring visual erotica twice as much as women, while women favor chat rooms twice as much as men. Women had a slightly lower rate of sexually compulsive Internet behavior than men.

Mr. Blasingame said pornography can become an outlet for stress that develops into a habit. Later, as a compulsive activity, the urge becomes so strong a person believes he or she must repeat the habit to decrease tension.

"We have no way of discerning who will develop an addiction to porn, so the more conservative approach of abstinence may be more prudent," Mr. Blasingame said. "Maybe the religions of the world have more validity on this subject than the general public wants to respect."

Trying to hide the Internet porn behavior from a spouse has been a common theme in recent years, said Redding clinical psychologist Marilyn Wooley. Of the MSNBC survey respondents who said they view porn each week, 70 percent indicated they keep their habits a secret.

"We're seeing a lot of distrust in families and signs of addiction similar to alcoholism," Miss Wooley said. "Many of these people are feeling uncomfortable. They're bored or distressed, and they're looking for something to get them back to an even state. There are many good ways to do this and many bad ways. Having sex with a machine and not your spouse can certainly indicate a problem."

There are some who argue that cyber-porn has its merits. Streaming video, for instance, was a cyber-porn creation, said a senior management official for one of the country's largest adult Web-site companies.

The official said his Los Angeles-area company has multiple Web sites that operate on monthly memberships. The company gets many members on referral from free adult sites. The operators of the free sites get a commission when a referral signs up on a larger, paid site.

The paid sites often feature low-cost trials, which convert into monthly memberships unless the user cancels. Most sites charge from $20-$35 a month for services that include images, video cams, video segments, sound clips, chat rooms and games.

Dr. Weiss said the majority of people who view Internet porn don't become addicted, just as not everyone who drinks alcohol becomes an alcoholic.

He added that sexual addiction is defined by an inability to stop despite negative consequences such as lost sleep, lost wages or damaged relationships.

"Part of the problem with cyber-sex is, it reinforces and normalizes sexual disorders," Dr. Weiss said. "A man may have had a passing interest in teen-aged girls, but he'd never go into a bookstore or try to buy child pornography. Sitting in his living room he finds a ton of teen sites and thinks maybe it's not such a big problem.

"There's a lot of marginal sexual behavior being reinforced because people are going on-line and seeing so much material."

The Redding man who sought therapy for his addiction said four to six hours of Internet pornography a week was enough to harm him.

"Nothing positive has ever come out of porn," he said. "It does nothing but weaken family values and allows thinking errors to begin."

* Distributed by Scripps Howard

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