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Internet pornography frequented by 20% of U.S. adults, studies show

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (BP)–Two surveys of Internet pornography use show a growing addiction ensnaring millions of Americans and threatening the health of the church, public safety and national productivity.

Both found that a fifth of American adults visit sexually oriented websites, leading many into compulsive behavior. An official for the Family Research Council links that to such problems as sex crimes, abortion and marital discord.

Released March 21, the latest survey of more than 1,000 adults reveals 20 percent of American adults — as many as 40 million — click on sexually oriented websites. Conducted March 8-10 by the New York-based polling firm of Zogby International, the study was commissioned by Focus on the Family.

Eighteen percent of respondents who are married visit such sites. Almost the same percentage who called themselves born-again Christians told Zogby they indulge in online pornography.

However, since Christians represented just a fifth of the respondents, the statistical sample is too small to yield an accurate estimate of the number involved, said Steve Watters, an Internet research analyst at Focus on the Family.

Still, he said it is clear pornography represents a growing problem that the church needs to address.

The Colorado Springs, Colo., ministry receives 100 calls, letters and e-mails a month about porn-related issues. One of every five calls to its pastoral care line deals with pornography or Internet problems, he said.

“One of 10 people you see in your church will have visited a sexually oriented website,” Watters said. “If churches recognize this, we hope it will be easier to bring up in Sunday school and accountability groups.

“What we hear from counselors is people don’t get help until they get caught. We hope the church will take a proactive stance and help ward off problems before they get serious. We suspect it is a growing problem.”

Ironically, while millions are lured by the idea of finding sexual fulfillment, nearly two-thirds of those polled agree that isn’t possible.

In addition, increasing numbers of people are contacting the ministry, complaining of online porn damaging their marital relationship, Watters said.

“Viewing pornographic images online or trading intimate messages in chat rooms may seem like ‘harmless entertainment’ at first,” noted James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

“However, these activities can quickly lead to the addiction and compulsive behavior that poison relationships in the real world. Many marriages have already been destroyed as men and women have been lured away from their spouses by online fantasies.”

The Zogby poll parallels the findings of another study conducted by researchers from Stanford and Duquesne universities. It found a minimum of 20 percent of American adults on the Internet visit sexually explicit sites.

Although the authors only classified 1 percent of users as “cyber sex compulsives,” that represents at least 200,000 people, based on an estimated 20 million people visiting porn sites each month. They defined compulsive as spending at least 11 hours a week in such activity.

In addition, much greater numbers of people are at risk, said lead investigator Al Cooper of Stanford. He is also affiliated with the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre.

“There is indeed a significant minority [8-17 percent of the sample] for whom online sexual behaviors may become a potentially serious problem,” Cooper said. “[They] demonstrate a number of compulsive and otherwise worrisome indicators.”

Statistics came from nearly 9,300 respondents who completed a 59-item survey on the MSNBC website in March and April of 1998. A full report will appear March 29 in Sexual Addiction and Compulsion: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention.

Among its key findings:

— 70 percent indicated they keep their online sex usage a secret. Cooper calls that alarming, telling MSNBC, “Denial and secrecy are what keep an addiction going.”

— The Internet offers a new, powerful place to act out behavior. And, significant numbers of people who never had problems before are at risk of developing difficulties because of the ease of using search engines.

— 70 percent of e-porn traffic occurs between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on workdays. Twenty percent of men and 12 percent of women use their work computer to access online sexual material.

— The problem is largely male. Men represented 83 percent of the users visiting the top five sexually explicit websites. While men preferred visually oriented material by a 49-22 percent margin over women, females favored sex-oriented talk in chat rooms by a nearly identical margin.

— There is a direct relation between Internet sexual pursuits and the degree to which it is a problem in respondents’ lives. Cybersex compulsives were more likely to report sexual and non-sexual risk-taking behaviors, supporting theories that these people are chronically depressed or dissatisfied and use these activities to fill the void.

The senior director of legal studies for the Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington calls the findings “pretty scary.”

Jan LaRue, who has been involved in fighting pornography for eight years, said this activity leads to serious consequences. Police officers posing as children have arrested numerous pedophiles across the nation who use the Internet to attempt to entice victims, she said.

“I’ve always said because of the anonymity of the Internet we’ll see people acting out more quickly,” LaRue said. “Because of this, we’ll see people acting out sexually explicit online behavior. What’s attendant with that are sex crimes, murders and people being stalked.”

The study ought to also concern employers, she said, because of the “monumental” potential for sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. She also questioned how much productivity is lost because of workers wasting time accessing sexually explicit material.

The FRC official said Internet pornography also holds ominous implications. She cited a Time magazine story last year that said 44 percent of teenagers have visited sexually explicit sites.

“Psychologists are literally calling this a time bomb from what they know right now,” she said. “Women and gay men are especially vulnerable to limiting and destructive chains of sexual compulsion.”

She said the study’s results validate the family educational and lobbying group’s push for congressional legislation. FRC urges requiring filtering software by schools and libraries that receive federal funds for Internet connections.

The council advocates blocking access to material that has already been declared illegal by Supreme Court rulings, such as child pornography. Ironically, she said, a defendant in Arizona recently argued he shouldn’t be prosecuted because the same material was available at the public library.

“The material on the Internet is worse than anything we’ve seen in adult bookstores,” LaRue said. “Child porn is above ground again because of the speed with which people can access it.

“Pedophiles send e-mails to each other about the best public libraries to download child porn,” she added. “A guy in Los Angeles was operating his own child porn website at the library and soliciting sex with children from there. The only reason he was caught is because a police officer connected with him.”

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  • Ken Walker