by Robert Weiss and Jennifer Schneider
Alyson Books, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Feb 20th 2007
Untangling the Web is aimed at general readers who are themselves struggling with Internet sexual addictions, or who know someone who is damaging the rest of his or her life with pornography, Internet sex, or online romances. The initial chapters describe the problems that people have, and then the final chapters suggest solutions. The book is an updated version of Cybersex Exposed, released in 2001 by a different publisher.
The picture the Weiss and Schneider paint of the problem of pornography and cybersex is familiar. They refer to the idea of Al Cooper that the Internet is a "Triple A Engine" for sexual addiction, due to its affordability, accessibility, and anonymity. They provide many statistics about how much time people spend online accessing sexual materials or engaged in sexually exciting chat rooms. The book contains many short examples of people whose relationships are placed in danger because of excessive use of pornography, chat rooms, or instant messaging with web cams. The authors say those who are particularly at risk of sexual addiction are characterized by a history of childhood abuse, trauma or neglect, a history of addictions in the family, a history of intimacy problems and relationship concerns, a tendency to leave relationships when the initial thrill has gone, a pattern of drug, alcohol or food abuse, a history of anxiety, depression, or emotional challenges, social or emotional isolation, a tendency to use porn and masturbation to replace personal communication and support, and an ability to lead a double life. These risk factors are very common, so presumably most people are at risk for sexual addiction, especially with the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our lives.
While men tend to use Internet porn more than women, it is still quite possible for women to become sex addicts through Internet use, and they are especially vulnerable to becoming involved in cyber-romances with men with whom they would want nothing to do in real life. Gay men and lesbian women are also just as vulnerable to cybersexual addiction as straights. The book explains that there have not been many careful studies of these problems, so it is hard to get reliable statistics, but the problem is common and growing for the whole population.
There's a strong tendency for Internet porn users to escalate their use in both time spend looking and the kind of material they view, the authors emphasize. Often users start with mildly suggestive imagery and as they become used to it and through browsing are exposed to more explicit and extreme content, they can start to seek out images of rape, degradation, bestiality, and pedophilia. Furthermore, children and teenagers are themselves viewing pornography on the Internet, sometimes when they discover their parents' "hidden" files and sometimes on their own. Other young people are suffering because members of their parents have become sex addicts, and they are either neglected or even directly exposed to their parents' addictions.
Weiss and Schneider provide plenty of practical suggestions for how to limit access to Internet pornography and other sexually explicit material that may tempt potential sex addicts. However, their main approach to helping addicts is based on the recovery movement and twelve-step plans. They suggest finding an "accountability partner" or sponsor who can help the addict when he or she is struggling with a desire to go back to problematic behavior. They also suggest a complete abstinence approach to sexually explicit materials, even to the extent of avoiding R and unrated movies. They recommend joining twelve step support groups and therapy. At the end of the book is a list of resources where readers can find more help.
The authors' advice is based on their own clinical experience. Weiss is a founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute, while Schneider is a physician who has written or co-authored many books about infidelity, addiction, and sexual addiction, and she is an associate editor of the journal "Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: the Journal of Treatment and Prevention." So the authors have a strong claim to be experts in their field. Yet unfortunately they provide no evidence of the effectiveness of their suggestions for ending sexual addiction. Indeed, as with all twelve step programs that work anonymously, it is very difficult in principle to show that they are effective, and what research has been done on the success rates of such programs has not been encouraging. Their ideas may well be worth trying, and for people who are motivated to end their problems with cybersex and Internet pornography, their suggestions may be the best ones available. It is probably better to take some positive steps rather than simply proclaim decision to no longer engage in the problematic behavior, since as with most behavioral addictions, people tend to find it very difficult to avoid temptations. Nevertheless, it is clear that there needs to be more investigation and research into what treatments are successful for different populations. Given the lack of clear evidence on these issues, it would be more honest of the authors to spell out which of their recommendations have been proven to succeed and which are speculative.
Untangling the Web is written in clear language and is easily readable. The many personal cases make the issues vivid and help the reader grasp how serious problems with cybersex and Internet pornography can become. While the book is mainly about heterosexuals, it does include some discussion and cases of the addictions of gays and lesbians. On the whole, it compares well with other similar books aiming to help people understand and deal with Internet sexual addictions.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.