In January 2001, Shelley, a 36-year-old Georgia mother of four, came to a decision about online porn. "We have to get an Internet filter," she told her husband, James.
He agreed. "Yeah, I don't want the kids getting a hold of that stuff," he said.
"Actually," Shelley said, "I'm more concerned about you."
Shelley had confronted James about looking at online porn; he'd promised to stop. But she'd since found some dicey sites in their browser history, some dating to the very night that she'd given birth to their fourth child and he'd gone home from the hospital to get some sleep. "He said all along that this was his problem; he wasn't unhappy in our marriage or sex life and there was nothing between us that led to the porn," Shelley says. "The friends he used to go to strip joints with turned him on to it, and it drove a wedge between us. He felt dirty and gross, but he kept going back. There was just such an immediate, easy draw."
James' explanations didn't fly with Shelley at first. "A big part of the problem was my feeling that I didn't satisfy him," she says. "I also couldn't understand how a man with three daughters could look at women like that. But the worst betrayal was the lies, the sense that it was 'OK' to keep secrets. I was like, 'You have this life that I don't know about.'"
The two agreed to go into counseling over this impasse. But Shelley insisted that wasn't enough. She told James that she wouldn't feel comfortable until she knew he was physically unable to visit porn sites. "I said I couldn't deal with the constant fear," she says.
So, for $5 a month, she simply shut down the fear at its source, by installing filtering software to block out porn -- leaving James with the surfing capacity of a kid at the library.
With names like NetNanny and CYBERSitter, most Internet filters are generally thought of as barriers between adult content and children. "When I started I thought I'd be marketing to mothers about their kids," says 54-year-old Ned Dominick of Macon, Ga., who launched his filtering company, WiseChoice.net, in 1999 after finding himself drawn "like a freight train" to online porn that he knew would upset his wife. But now, over half of WiseChoice.net's 3,000 customers are adults who use Internet filters to stymie not their children, but themselves or other adults. They pay $5 a month for the service in the U.S., Europe, Australia and Singapore. And in fact, says Dominick, most of his adult customers are "wives who are putting the filter on because they're offended by their husband's porn use," he says. "The kids get protected along the way, but the adult users are the 900-pound gorillas hidden behind the rock."
Like many filters, WiseChoice works like this: Any Web address you type in or click on is routed to the WiseChoice server. If it's on WiseChoice's million-word-site "block list," you get a quick message saying the page or function is not accessible. Porn is automatically blocked; you can also block chat and instant message service, peer-to-peer downloading, and user groups. Only the purchaser is permitted to disarm the filter -- and that's only by calling WiseChoice for a deactivation code.
Sounds pretty secure, but filters aren't always foolproof (or hack-proof). Some fail to screen sites that would be considered objectionable; others cast such a wide net that they may block non-porn (such as informational sites for teens about sex). And they're not the only tool for the job: Some adults choose -- or add on -- other solutions, such as Internet service providers with their own built-in filters and non-fudgeable Web history trackers that you're expected to share with an "accountability" buddy.
When Shelley first floated the filter idea, she says, "James was like, 'Whatever.' You know, just appeasement." But now he's hooked on the freedom from temptation. "It wasn't until we got the filter that he was glad we did. Once he made up his mind to stop -- when he could see the damage it was doing to me and to our marriage -- then it was just a matter of removal of the temptation. It really just took away that magnetic pull," she says. James decided later to install a filter on his work computer, too.
When average computer users encounter Internet porn -- and it's almost impossible not to -- they're able to ignore it or enjoy it. But when porn becomes a problem in a relationship, can it really be solved just by padlocking the cookie jar? And why can't these people just, well, not go there?
Because cyber-porn is essentially different from the good old-fashioned stuff on paper (or celluloid), says Al Cooper, Ph.D., director of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre in Santa Clara, Calif. "It's accessible, affordable and anonymous," he says, describing the "triple-A engine" that drives Net users to porn. You don't have to get in your car, hide behind a plain brown wrapper or worry that the punk at the Qwik-Mart who sold you the Hustler will rat to your kid in homeroom. And on the Web, the supply is seemingly infinite.
According to Cooper and others, the "three As" have ensnared a new, highly susceptible segment of the Web-using population. They're the folks who, on the online porn-viewer character spectrum, lie somewhere between "recreational user" and the guy Philip Seymour Hoffman played in "Happiness." Recreational users, says Cooper, make up the "vast majority" (up to 85 percent, he estimates) of people who seek out sex on the Web, spending maybe an hour a week, or maybe even getting a daily dose, but not at the expense of much else; all, arguably, in good dirty fun. "They don't watch 'Baywatch' for the plot, but they're also not masturbating in the living room," says Cooper. At the other end lie the small percentage of "sexually compulsive users" who don't do much else -- and who would probably find ways to dig up dirty pictures even if their PC blew a gasket.
Between these two extremes lie the "at-risk" users, the approximately 10 percent of online sex-seekers who develop habits that affect their lives offline. "These are the ones we're most concerned about," says Cooper. "They're more impulsive than compulsive." They might use porn as stress relief, anger release or escape, he says. Fighting and making up with your wife, including makeup sex, might take you three hours, but "you can go on the computer and do the same thing in 20 seconds," he says. "These users aren't necessarily the people with the deepest issues. But part of the reason Internet porn is creating a problem is that you need a higher level of self-control and discipline than you would otherwise. After you look at 999 pictures, the 1,000th vagina is boring, so you're compelled to keep looking for more. That's how at-risk or even recreational users get into more serious problems."
Like what? Well, depending on whom you ask, it's purveyors of Internet porn -- not, say, the gay-wedding-friendly mayor of New Paltz, N.Y. -- who pose the gravest threat to marriage. In a recent survey by and of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two-thirds of responding members said they'd handled a divorce case over the past year in which Internet use had played a role -- over half of those members specified that the "role" was "excessive use of porn."
"This is new," says organization president Richard Barry, noting that seven or eight years ago the Internet was virtually unheard of as a factor in divorce cases. "It has to be the Web." Barry likens habitual online sex sessions, even just looking at photos, to affairs. "There's anger, a violation of trust, a sense of rejection," he says of the women whose husbands come home with virtual lipstick on their collars. (Women who engage in this "excessive use," he says, are in the "substantial minority.")
"These really very unpretty pictures on the screen become a substitute for marital love and affection, and that's where the rejection comes from," he says, paraphrasing a common complaint: "'Instead of spending time with me, you're spending time hunched over a computer late at night.'" A partner's porn habit may create, feed on, exacerbate -- or simply allow the user to ignore -- deeper issues of jealousy, resentment, boredom, lack of communication or compassion, and so on.
In John's case, his wife's alcoholism was the secret that went ignored. About five years ago, the Virginia grandfather and former vice president of sales for a software company started hanging out on porn sites and viewing photos in newsgroups and chat rooms as an escape from his troubled home life. "There were just so many nights when my wife would fall asleep drunk on the couch and I'd find myself going into the den, bored or sulking, and going online -- just out of curiosity. Eventually it became less tantalizing and more numbing, but I did it anyway," says John (not his real name). He never sent a photo to anyone, only chatted with adults. "I'd just open a picture, look at it, and delete it," he says. What John didn't realize -- his profession notwithstanding -- was that the "empty trash" command doesn't delete delete. His username was traced to an AOL chat room where child porn had been traded; the cops tossed his house and confiscated his computer -- on which the FBI found thousands of un-deleted porn pics. Due to mandatory sentencing laws, John served two years in prison and lost his job, marriage and savings. He's now a convicted felon and registered sex offender.
Would the simple stopgap of a filter have made a difference? "Absolutely," says John. "None of this would have happened if I'd simply stopped having access." John does take responsibility for his own actions: "I know I shouldn't have been there in the first place," he says. "But if I had been forced to stop, I believe that I might actually have taken care of my wife and saved my marriage." Less of a threat to society than to himself, John is convinced that Internet blocks fit the crime better than prison bars. "I never would've gone to the part of town with the dirty bookstores," he says. "I never left my den."
It bears noting that both Ned Dominick and John are devout Christians who ascribe their ultimate resilience, at least in part, to their faith. Many filtering services and other anti-cyberporn weapons -- such as the Promise Keepers' "Eye Promise" accountability software, which sends your Web-browsing history to a buddy, and the much hipper XXXChurch.com's "Help at Home" program -- are explicitly evangelical. WiseChoice.net, however, is not messianic in its message; it's not, at least in its promotional copy, explicitly peddling a solution to sin.
"My point of view is that this is not a Christian issue, it's a sexual issue," says Dominick. "I've stopped asking the moral questions about porn. There is a moral issue, but there is a more compelling one: What are we willing to pay for our Internet porn? Are we willing to pay with our marriages, or families, our jobs, our reputations?"
Still, one wonders. Not all compulsive users are born-again Christians, of course. But does something about deep devotion also make one more vulnerable to the lure of the forbidden, like a kid breaking into the off-limits liquor cabinet?
"I know from having talked to so many people who come from more rigid backgrounds -- whether a fundamentalist religion, or the military -- that Internet porn offers this world or view of a kind of life that they could never live, and it's accessible and affordable," says Robin Cato, executive director of the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. "They become an easy mark for getting way into it before they really even know what's happened." Enter guilt, shame, and the fear of being found out. "These people may be from homes where sex wasn't talked about, or they've learned, if indirectly, that sex is 'bad.' Yet they have this sexuality that they need to acknowledge and they're not given permission to do that, so it can come out in ways they need to keep secret," she says.
And it's not easy when those secrets are revealed. "We've had a few knock-down, drag-out fights with men who've called to demand that we remove it," says Dominick, "but 90 percent of people we've talked to welcome the boundaries."
That, or they just know when to fold 'em. Dominick remembers one man who "flipped out -- raged and screamed until she took it back off the computer," he recalls. "I thought that was the end of it until about three weeks later, when I got a call from him asking me to set up the filter again. When I asked him what had changed, he replied, 'I'd like to move back home!' She'd thrown him and his computer out. He couldn't come back unless it was filtered."
Not every woman who buys a filter does so for the man in her life. "My husband is out the door by 4 a.m. I used to wake up when he left and think, 'OK, now I can go online,'" says Ivy (not her real name), 43, a St. Louis mom, of her months of caving in to cyber-temptation for up to two hours every morning, until her then 18-month-old son woke up. She first checked out online porn ("to see what all the hullabaloo was about," she says), after her husband Bud, 46, a truck driver, confessed to doing the same. ("I didn't have the problem when I didn't have a computer," he says.) At the time, they were going through other underlying problems: power struggles over money; her postpartum depression. Result: "I'd forgotten that he was on my team and started to feel like he was my enemy," Ivy says. But instead of talking with him and tackling the real troubles, she took the path of much less resistance: go to bed sad and mad, wake up early and lose herself in the online "fantasy" world of these "nameless, faceless" people who had no problems, only pleasure. "The 'answer' became the problem," she says. "I realized the porn was not only robbing my sleep (I was crabby all the time), but it made me want to withdraw from my husband even more. It made me feel good at the moment, but it was just a fix. The rest of the time it made me feel like crap."
Ivy and her husband entered marriage counseling and heard about Web filters. After Ivy installed WiseChoice and the two began to address the primary issues, her 4 a.m. urges gradually subsided, and without much of a fight. "It was annoying at first, but I would rather be annoyed than have my marriage fall apart," she says.
Experts acknowledge that filters can help curtail a compulsion -- when the users have taken a look at their own motivations and want the filter to work. "They can be great tools when someone is really ready to use them," says Cato of the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. But, as with other addictions, the choice has to come from within. "You can filter and monitor all you want, but it's not going to work unless you also address why you are trying to escape," he says. "Otherwise it's like just hiding the bottles from an alcoholic." For Ivy, who was more than ready, the filter was a means of tossing the bottles altogether so that she could devote her energy to shoring up not just her will power, but her relationship. "I still struggle with temptation at times, but the counseling is helping for sure. I am learning new ways to deal with stress, getting more exercise and having more conversations with my husband -- who says he understands how it feels to be stressed and want to self-medicate -- before things get out of hand," she says. "We are in this thing together and will fight it with our commitment to each other."