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Posted February 22, 2006

Beware of the new Devils within our Midst – Cyber-sex and Cyber-relating

Taken from St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland

"Fr. Kevin and Sister Karen"

It is 3:00 AM and Fr. Kevin stares at his computer screen once again. Everyone else is asleep and he is obsessed with finding stimulating pornographic material. Images of women, men and children scream through the phone line, display on his computer screen and then are stored in his mind. He feels highly aroused and absorbed momentarily and then unsatisfied. Over the past six months, his nightly cruising on the Internet has increased. In the last month, Fr. Kevin has started to spend long hours at his computer each afternoon, telling the parish secretary that he is not available. He has exhausted his common cruising areas and is thinking about signing onto a pay-per-view site, but worries about being able to be identified. When parishioners complained about the parish phone always being busy, Fr. Kevin became outraged and then put in a separate line for his computer. In the past, he spent his day off with other priests but now he stays home, locked in his room with his computer, and frequently does not come to meals. Sr. Karen told her new local community that she has never felt more alive in her life and that she does not understand why the sisters are "concerned" about her and her relationship with Susan. Sr. Karen met Susan in a travel chat room on the Internet about 6 weeks ago and now they communicate daily, often two to three times a day via e-mail. Sr. Karen related that they have a lot in common, they understand one another and that they talk at a very deep level. Sr. Karen has told Susan much about her personal life and her struggles moving to a new community and a new ministry. Susan is struggling with being a stay-at-home mom and often "talks" with Sr. Karen about the changes she is experiencing. Although they live several hours apart, they plan to spend a weekend together as soon as they are able to find a suitable place and time. Each of them feels more understood by the other than by those with whom they live.

Internet and Gender

Although Fr. Kevin and Sr. Karen are attracted to and are using the Internet on a daily basis, there are some distinct differences between them, some of which parallel gender differences that exist in our society. In addition, we can learn more about how and why the Internet is impacting people's lives, by looking at how Fr. Kevin and Sr. Karen are using the Internet. The research to date indicates some differences between how men and women use the Internet. Men are more likely than women to seek out cybersex (digitized sexual content for the purpose of sexual arousal and stimulation), especially pornography, since they are usually more visually stimulated than women. Similarly, they tend to seek out activities which objectify others such as pornography, anonymous sex, and voyeurism. The data suggest that men on the Internet look for a stimulating sexual encounter, not a relationship. In contrast, women are more likely to be interested in fantasy, romance and other activities that provide at least the illusion of a relationship. Women are often attracted to chat rooms where they seek support, acceptance and comfort through on-line relationships. In these "virtual communities" women often feel they belong and are able to share with others in a safe and non-threatening environment. Some women will engage in cybersex chat, but usually after they have formed some type of relationship.

Progression of Use

Both Fr. Kevin and Sr. Karen, in rather short periods of time, have changed how they are using their computers and the Internet. Sr. Karen began her relationship with Susan in a chat room where there were other participants, and now she is communicating frequently and only with Susan via personal e-mails. In cyber-relating this is a frequent progression: more frequent messages and the use of private chat rooms or e-mail for more personal relating. It is also quite common that persons will then move to telephone contact and personal meetings as well, as Susan and Sr. Karen are planning. Fr. Kevin is spending more and more time on-line, in order to achieve the same amount of "satisfaction" that he experienced in the past. He is frequently alone as he neglects other areas of his life, both his ministry to the parishioners and his personal relationships. He seems to have a growing inability to control his Internet use. And, he is considering engaging in more risky behavior, paying for materials (pornography or moving video clips), in order to find more stimulating images. These behaviors, along with his outrage when asked about his phone usage, are indications that Fr. Kevin is most likely out of control and is dealing with a cybersex addiction.

Underlying Dynamics

The more we learn about persons and their Internet use, the more we are learning about what underlies its use and why it is so compelling. E-mail and chat rooms provide an opportunity for quick, easy and very personal communication. Frequently a sense of intimacy, often pseudo intimacy, is experienced. Apparent anonymity seems to produce a false sense of security which removes natural inhibitions or cautions that ordinarily occur in face-to-face relating. Often with excessive use of e-mail and chat rooms, the most frequent underlying issues are: desire for connection with others, the ability to influence another/others and/or a sense of being important which would be especially true for persons whose daily interactions are limited or fail to produce satisfaction. However, these basic human needs need to be met in one's day-to-day life. Virtual reality is ,at best, a temporary escape.

Compulsive cybersex users are often persons with unconventional sexual practices and compulsive traits who use the Internet as a source of stimulation. For others, as Fr. Kevin, with no prior history of sexual compulsivity, underlying issues are often not sexual in nature. Sexual activity is a means of altering mood and coping with low self-esteem, stress, depression, sexual abuse, social isolation and/or inadequate social skills. Until persons break through denial, admit their difficulty and seek help, they will continue to have a constricted real life with significant issues that could and need to be addressed and a virtual life with a rapidly escalating pattern of compulsive cybersex or cyber-relating.

Lynn M. Levo, CSJ, Ph.D. is Director of Education at Saint Luke Institute