by Patrick Carnes, David Delmonico, Elizabeth Griffin, with Joseph Moriarty
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 20th 2002
statistics at the start of this book are striking:
of January 1999, there were nearly 100,000,000 total unique visitors per month five
free porn Web sites.
November 1999, Nielsen Net Ratings showed 12.5 million surfers visited porn
sites in September from their homes.
profile of severe problems with sex on the Net exists for 1% of Internet
usersand 40% of these extreme cases are women.
authors do not give a source for this latter statistic, and of course, it is
somewhat subjective what counts as a severe problem. Nevertheless, it seems quite likely that the
widespread use of Internet pornography and sexually explicit chat rooms leads
people to have problems. The authors
explain how the anonymity of online access, the ability of people to use their
computers in private, and the powerful rationalization that virtual
interactions are not real can combine to entice people to spend hours online,
sacrificing real relationships and increasing their sense of loneliness. Patrick Carnes has an Internet Screening
Test to help people decide if they have a problem with their use of sexual
material on the Internet, and many people taking this test will probably
confirm their fears that they do have a problem. Of course, there will always be some vagueness about when a difficulty
like this is really a clinical disorder, and news organizations and people
offering therapeutic services may be tempted to exaggerate the prevalence of
the problem. Nevertheless, it would not
be at all surprising if hundreds of thousands of people had difficulty
controlling their use of pornography and sex-chat on the Internet. People spend too much time at their
computers in essentially lonely pursuits, spending money on expensive services,
and even become involved in trading illegal images. They put their whole lives in jeopardy.
The authors of this book are not
dogmatic about what the best solutions to this problem are, but they clearly
are sympathetic to 12-Step approaches.
They relate this behavior to other forms of addiction, especially sexual
addiction. They do not think that the
problems will be solved by legislation or censorship, because people will find
ways around such barriers. Throughout
the book, they give many case histories of people who have engaged in
compulsive online sexual behavior, the damaged they have caused in their lives,
and the ways that they have used to break free of their unhealthy habits. This is a quick book to read through,
although it might take much longer to work through it.
Some of the recommendations seem
sensible and are independent of the 12-Step approach; for example, removing
temptation by such simple acts as putting your computer in a public place where
you will not be tempted to return to pornographic material; the authors also
recommend group therapy and working with a mentor. But the heart of the book is modeled on 12-Step thinking, and
this carries with it well known advantages and disadvantages. Some people will have difficulty with the
religious elements in the 12 Steps, and others will find the approach
rigid. The most obvious problem with
the book is that although the authors say they have had a great deal of
experience and are confident that their suggestions will be helpful, they
provide no documentation to support their claims. Even for a self-help book, the collection of footnotes is small,
and there are very few scholarly works even mentioned in the bibliography.
So while the identification of the
problem is reasonably straightforward, the solution is not. There are still only a few books available
dealing with Internet addiction and even fewer specifically addressing
compulsive use of computers for sexual release, and so In the Shadows of the
Net could be a helpful starting point for those who are looking for
answers. But those who are already
hostile to 12-Step approaches to solving personal problems will probably
dislike the suggestions for help that the book offers.
There are some interesting ideas in
this book worth exploring. One is that
people who indulge in compulsive online sexual behavior often enter a sort of
trance, in which they fail to notice the passage of time and become utterly
absorbed in their activity. Im not
aware of any research done on this, and the authors do not provide any
references. But this suggestion does
fit with the more general experience people have of spending hours-on-end
playing computer games or talking in chat rooms only realizing how much time
they have wasted once they end the activity.
To what extent this is literally a state of trance is hard to say, and
deserves more research.
Another issue needing more research
is whether compulsive computer use, and especially compulsive online sexual
behavior, really qualifies as an addiction, and whether it should count as a
mental disorder. The authors certainly believe that the behavior they discuss
is a form of addiction, and discuss how it fits well-known patterns of
addiction. But they do not delve deep into the addiction literature, and they
do not even scrape the surface of whether the compulsive behavior is a mental
disorder that would fit into the next edition of the American Psychiatric
Associations DSM. This is
certainly an issue that will be controversial, but it needs careful
thought. Given the number of
self-defeating patterns of behavior that are already included in DSM-IV,
it is hard to see what principled reason there could be to not allow compulsive
online sexual behavior as a mental disorder.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.