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How ‘Porn Addiction’ Took Hold of the Internet

An excerpt from How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: an Unexpected History by Samantha Cole.


Porn as addiction is a pathology of the internet age. For psychologists who believed in sex addiction as a clinical condition in pre-internet days, pornography use was considered a “victimless behavior,” a symptom but not an affliction unto itself. It wasn’t until internet-connected computers started appearing in family rec rooms in the late nineties did the idea of someone getting so hooked on internet porn that it could ruin their lives entered the mainstream.

Part of that notion began with the work of Dr. Kimberly Young. She’d written the first survey to assess and diagnose internet addiction a few years prior, and founded the Center for Internet Addiction in Pennsylvania. “We’re a nation of puritans,” Young said in 2000. “This is the first time in our history we’ve had something so uncensored in our homes. You can get to very objectionable material in a few keystrokes—even by accident—and then it’s hard to get out of the site.”

The web was only a few years old when Young first noticed a disturbing trend: People who logged on sometimes couldn’t bring themselves to log back off. She hadn’t set out to study cybersex or online porn in particular when she pioneered the field of “internet addiction” as early as 1995, but she clearly felt that the lure of cybersex was a big part of this growing problem. To get to the bottom of why and how the intrusion of a tan box of wires and chips could severely upend lives, Young created a short Internet Addiction questionnaire and posted it around Usenet in November 1994.

A graphic of the questionnaire Young posted to Usenet in 1994.

A graphic of the questionnaire Young posted to Usenet in 1994.

Young found that eighty percent of the nearly five hundred respondents qualified as internet addicts by her self-styled definition. She conducted longer interviews with several of the respondents, cataloging stories of destroyed families, lost jobs, and crumbling marriages—all linked to the arrival of the internet in homes or workplaces. One thing many of them had in common: sexual relationships that happened online.

Young herself was ghosted by a man she met on the BBS group alt.personals while researching her 1998 book, Caught in the Net. The experience gave her a firsthand look at how online relationships form with speed and intensity. She projected her own desires onto her connection from the moment she responded to his generic personals ad about enjoying walks and candlelit dinners, with the assumption that he was romantic and cared little about physical appearance. Their email dalliance escalated to real emotion, at least on her side: “In many ways it was like having a conversation with a part of myself.”

Perhaps this experience jaded her, coloring her view of the people she diagnosed with internet addiction. Regardless, the common thread through many of her so-called addicts’ stories was sexual connection: They got a taste of affection from internet strangers on services like Usenet, MUDs, or AOL’s People Connection chat rooms, and were willing to risk it all to chase that thrill.

When the internet was still new and people were still unaccustomed to the strange world of connectivity, worries about cybersex addiction loomed large. Kids stumbling into online porn was one thing, but what if adults fell down the rabbit hole of role-playing, flirting, and one-handed typing—and couldn’t crawl back out?

Psychologist Mark Schwartz said cybersex was “like heroin” in 2000 and an epidemic in 2008. “There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t get two calls [about sex addiction],” he said. But neither internet addiction nor porn addiction are in the psychologist’s diagnostic manual, the

DSM-5, and among mental health professionals these diagnoses have always been controversial. Some psychologists now believe drawing such strong parallels between internet compulsivity and addictions like gambling or alcoholism is flawed. And not being unable to log off at the expense of relationships and personal health is usually a sign of other issues, like depression or bipolar disorder.

But the idea of internet addiction has stuck around anyway. Today, Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous guides members through a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous (complete with a spiritual awakening at the end). “Digital detox” retreats fill up with people who can’t put their cellphones down, and worries about porn and sex addiction go hand-in-hand with this new age anxiety. As the internet grows up, sexologists are taking new approaches to this issue.

Some researchers have theorized that hypersexuality, or what some clinicians might call sex addiction, isn’t different from having a high libido. Others have found that self-proclaimed porn addicts often feel high levels of shame around their own behavior, even though they’re relatively normal. One study led by neuroscientist Nicole Prause showed that LGBTQIA+ people, especially gay men, are more often labeled sex addicts than straight men—a harmful stereotype that perpetuates the idea that queer sexuality is somehow wrong. It’s also a sign, according to Prause, that porn and sex addiction is a moral diagnosis, not a medical one. “I think the overrepresentation of homosexual men in sex addiction centers is strong evidence that the diagnosis is primarily used for social control of sexuality, rather than treating any actual disease that should affect all men equally,” she told Vice in 2019.

For a disorder many psychologists question, a lot of people turn to internet strangers to beg for help. Reddit, a message board with millions of users bonding with one another about everything from gardening to running to their favorite OnlyFans models, is home to multiple communities devoted to breaking what they feel is the death grip of a serious mental illness that keeps them clicking back to pornography.

All of this is wrapped in an internet that’s increasingly hostile toward sex education, sex workers, and sexual speech. Sex educators’ work is consistently censored on social media, labeled harmful or dangerous to children, while schools and parents fail to teach kids anything about how their bodies work or what healthy sex, desire, and consent looks like.

Excerpted from How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: an Unexpected History by Samantha Cole. Workman © 2022

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