Casual encounters among the online ads
“It doesn’t get a lot of oxygen in the media, but I think that the internet facilitates and possibly accelerates [sex addiction]. It makes sex very easy to come by, via porn or hook-up sites, and not only feeds the desire but could arguably be seen as creating behavioural patterns. I think the urge to indulge in sex is akin to the urge to drink or take [drugs]; it’s about finding a distraction or solace in something else: instant pleasure, a thrill, an element of danger, etc.”
It’s been a year since Kevin – who is 32 and works in IT for a corporation in Dublin – realised he couldn’t live a double life any more. Last November his then-girlfriend discovered that he’d cheated on her with an online hook-up. The extent of the problem began to unravel over the next three weeks, after which he sought help and began attending a clinic for sex addiction.
Kevin had been acquainted with pornography and sexual acts from an early age. Though much of that was blocked out until he began therapy, it set off an addiction cycle that spiralled out of control during his 20s.
“Addicts, no matter what their medium is, have triggers,” he says, explaining that he had gone six months without turning to the internet for sexual gratification when he began his previous relationship. Over time, being belittled or verbally abused by his partner gradually pushed Kevin back into the cycle.
“Most are just out for fun,” he says of the women he’d secretly meet, distinguishing between those pursuing it “recreationally” and those with an addiction. Only one or two appeared to be in the latter category, but Kevin believes the symptoms are easy to ignore.
Now that he’s in recovery, he sees a dangerous link between the evolution of the sex industry and a gradual acceptance in society of behaviours once considered taboo. “Sexual boundaries and standards are being pushed very low, in my opinion, and I can only see it getting worse,” he says. “I think younger generations would not bat an eyelid at meeting people offline any more, whereas for my generation it was considered dangerous, but that was because it was a ‘new’ thing. It’s not new any more. We’ve seen it grow and evolve.”
Interviews for this article were conducted by email. Where possible, checks were made to ascertain that participants’ stated ages, genders and identities were genuine. No real names have been used
Intimacy and intensity: Crossing the line into addiction
“People using the internet for casual sex on a recreational basis is the equivalent of someone who goes for a pint and decides to go home after one,” says Austin Prior, head of continuing care at the Rutland Centre, an addiction rehabilitation facility in Dublin.
“For the compulsive addict, the same thinking applies, but they can’t always stop when they want to stop.”
The Rutland Centre has seen a steady increase in sex-addiction cases over the past four years. As with alcohol or substance abuse, Prior explains, the issue often begins as a way of overcoming social anxiety or filling an emotional gap, like replacing intimacy with intensity.
“The internet offers a way of doing this anonymously and risk-free,” says Declan Fitzpatrick of the Dublin-based Merrion Therapy and Counselling Centre. “It’s very different from approaching someone in a nightclub or asking someone from work out on a date. Some people find that quite difficult, so the internet provides this ready-made playground which can be very alluring.”
For most people, using the internet this way isn’t a problem. Among those seeking help for out-of-control sexual behaviours, however, Prior and Fitzpatrick say the difficulties can range from shame and secrecy to problems with relationships, finances and sexual health.
“The reality is, there’s a lot of it out there,” says Fitzpatrick. “The internet makes it so easy to engage with those compulsive behaviours because it’s instant, anonymous and cheap.”
“It’s very difficult for people to talk about,” says Prior. “But there is a growing acceptance of this as a real issue, and there is help available, from self-help groups on, just like there is for alcoholics and drug users.
“It’s important for people to understand that, if this is an issue, they shouldn’t be afraid to look for help.”