The Role of Sexual Compulsivity, Impulsivity, and Experiential Avoidance in Internet Pornography Use

By Wetterneck, Chad T.; Burgess, Angela J. et al. | The Psychological Record, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Role of Sexual Compulsivity, Impulsivity, and Experiential Avoidance in Internet Pornography Use


Wetterneck, Chad T., Burgess, Angela J., Short, Mary B., Smith, Angela H., Cervantes, Maritza E., The Psychological Record


In recent years, the Internet pornography (IP) business has grown to an estimated 13-billion-dollar industry (Ropelato, 2006), with nearly 50% of all Internet use related to sexually oriented websites (McNair, 2002). For several years research has indicated that, for some individuals, IP use may be associated with negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety, relationship/intimacy difficulties (Philaretou, Malhfouz, & Allen, 2005), career problems, financial losses (Schneider, 2000), decreased sexual satisfaction (Stack, Wasserman, & Kern, 2004), and risky sexual behavior (Carroll et al., 2008; Haggstrom-Nordin, Hanson, & Tyden, 2005; Morrison, Harriman, Morrison, Bearden, & Ellis, 2004; Peter & Valkenburg, 2008). More than half of male IP users indicate that their pornography use is problematic in at least one major life domain, with the greatest implications in psychological/spiritual, behavioral (e.g., relationship problems, problems at work or school), and social domains (Twohig, Crosby, & Cox, 2009). While it is evident that some individuals suffer significant negative outcomes from IP use, which individuals suffer and why they suffer remains unclear. There is an ongoing debate in IP research regarding what constitutes problematic levels of IP use (Kubey, Lavin, & Barrows, 2001) and how problem use should be conceptualized.

Problem IP use has been conceptualized as an aspect of sexual impulsivity (Mick & Hollander, 2006), sexual compulsivity (Cooper, Scherer, Boies, & Gordan, 1999; Davis, Flett, & Besser, 2002; Griffiths, 2001), and sexual addiction (Orzack & Ross, 2000). Previous research has estimated that 17% of the U.S. population who view pornography regularly meet criteria for sexual compulsivity (Cooper, Delmonico, & Burg, 2000), and often individuals describe their own use as "impulsive," "compulsive," or "addictive" (Bancroft & Vukadinovic, 2004). Impulsivity often is defined as acting suddenly on an urge with little forethought. Impulsive actions can be dysfunctional or functional. Though impulsive behavior most often is thought of negatively, it also can be adaptive or functional, such as in situations where quick action without excessive deliberation allows an individual to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity (Evenden, 1999). Impulsivity also commonly is understood as action toward engaging in pleasurable activities with little forethought (Grant, Mancebo, Pinto, Eisen, & Rasmussen, 2006; Schlosser, Black, Blum, & Goldstein, 1994). Sexual compulsivity has been characterized by the insistent, repetitive, and intrusive urge to engage in sexual behaviors (Kalichman & Rompa, 2001). Compulsivity tends to be associated with the idea of removing a negative feeling and likened to a compelling, nagging, or distracting feeling that one must engage in a certain behavior (e.g., feeling that one must scratch an itch).

Mick and Hollander (2006) conceptualized problematic sexual behaviors as being related to characteristics of both impulsivity and compulsivity. Within this model, acting on an impulse initiates a cycle of urges to engage in sexual behavior (i.e., the compulsive component). Several studies have supported the relationship between impulsivity and Internet use (Davis et al., 2002; Shapira, Goldsmith, Keck, Khosla, & McElroy, 2000), which may initiate the cycle. The sexual behavior is pleasurable at first, and physiological reinforcement maintains the behavior. However, personal factors such as loneliness, anxiety, depression, or interpersonal stress may contribute to the ease of conditioning as the behavior alters a negative mood (Cooper, Putnam, Planchon, & Sylvain, 1999), leading to compulsions to engage in the behavior for some. Thus, the pleasurable physiological response initiates sexual behavior, and the physiological and psychological reinforcement that results from the behavior maintain the cycle. Further, Quayle and Vaughan (2006) theorized that individuals using the Internet to satisfy sexual needs may be particularly prone to addictive use because of this cycle of reinforcement. …

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