FOR many people, a peek at an "adult" site offers merely a titillating glimpse into an illicit world.
For others, a peek becomes a moment of respite, a brief vacation from the demands of the real world. Then it becomes a habit. Soon, it is a compulsion that occupies hours and hours every day, shattering careers, marriages and lives.
The addictive nature of cruising the Internet and the obsessive allure of pornography combine to take over their existence. And although many who become addicted have had a history of acting out sexually with prostitutes, phone sex or pornographic magazines and movies, others are pulled in from outside such an orbit.
The Internet, more than any other type of mass medium, seems to be creating a new group of people engaged in compulsive sexual behavior, say psychologists and clinicians. The accessibility, anonymity and affordability -- what one researcher calls the "triple A engine" -- are reeling in people who would otherwise have never engaged in such behavior.
"I tried to figure out why it was that these images, or why it was that seeing this act, was so powerful, and I haven't been able to," says Phil, a married 28-year-old in Washington state. Like others interviewed for this story, he agreed only to the use of his first name. "But the obsession just ruled, and once I got into that world, it just took over."
Phil's story -- with infinite variations but the same grisly narrative -- is repeated by many whose lives are consumed by cyber porn. Whether gay or straight, married or single, those interviewed describe the intense feelings of guilt and excitement when entering this intoxicating universe, far away from the less thrilling one in which they live.
"As cyber sex has become more and more of a problem, what has shifted for me is the realization that many people who were into cyber sex didn't fit the classic profile of sex addicts," says Patrick Carnes, author of "In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior." He has spent 30 years studying and establishing sex addiction as a field of psychological dysfunction.
"For most people this is not an issue," says John Bancroft, the former director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. "But others have always had a problem keeping any kind of sexual stimuli under control and they have never had opportunities to go over the top as they do now."
Sex addiction is not recognized as a legitimate psychiatric disorder. But psychologists, psychiatrists and other clinicians are reporting increasing numbers of cases in which men -- and researchers estimate that about 72% of visitors to pornographic sites are men -- are showing all the signs of having an addictive disorder. They spend hours a day cruising the Net for explicit sexual sites. They become utterly dependent on the stimulus, making normal life -- especially intimate life -- no longer possible. When the material isn't there, they become obsessively preoccupied with it. And they ultimately crave even more time on the Web with even more graphic, lurid or outrageous stimuli.
It's the Internet's potential for escalation that has created such an increase in compulsive sexual behavior, says Rob Weiss, clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, an outpatient treatment center for people with sexual behavior problems. In the past, someone could buy videos or magazines, each with a clear beginning, middle and end. "But now you can sit in the den and it never ends," he says. "There is a much better opportunity for someone with addictive tendencies to just get lost."
Some people who are lured into this world begin to act out in their three-dimensional existence, visiting prostitutes, for example, or engaging in phone sex. But most do not. The Internet offers an endless variety of stimulation, but it also leads to what psychologists refer to as a "dissociated state." Staring at the screen, feeling increasingly stimulated, clicking the mouse, all become almost a form of hypnosis, a state impossible to sustain in the real world.
Typically only a real crisis -- a lost job, a confrontation by a spouse, police at the door because illegal pornography has been downloaded -- can lead the addict to treatment. An assortment of 12-step programs have emerged to support recovery, and psychotherapists are reporting a surge in their practices of people seeking some way to rid themselves of this problem.
The strain of addiction
Night after night he sat at the computer, eyes scratchy with fatigue, back aching and tense, his right hand sometimes cramping from clicking the mouse from site to site to site.
Phil considers himself a sex addict.
When he was most out of control, he would wake up, kiss his wife goodbye, go to an adult bookstore and watch a movie while masturbating. Then, at work and when completing his undergraduate degree, he would check in at various Internet sites and try to recapture the images he saw in the film.