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Health & Sex

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Public Confessions of Private Affairs

Tune in to the trend of Internet- and TV-based confessions to find out why it’s happening and whether it’s helpful.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Addicted to pornography and masturbation, a man confesses to his wife, quitting his addictions cold turkey. But when he caves into his cravings again, he chooses to tell another source altogether. He sits down at his personal computer, logs on to -- the oldest of several online confessional web sites -- types his transgressions, and sends them into cyberspace, anonymously. The confessor never knows who is privy to his most private affairs, nor does anyone who reads the confession personally know the confessor.

Deriving pleasure from watching other people in pain is nothing new. In ancient Greece, audiences clamored to watch tragedies unfold on stage, a favorite pastime that was said to have a cathartic, or emotionally cleansing, effect. Today, the obsession with peering into the pain in other people's lives continues, with some twists. Instead of sitting in an amphitheater, audiences now can watch personal tragedies unfold from the comfort of their living room -- on the Internet or TV. And today, real people -- not actors -- are confessing their deep, dark secrets to anyone who wants to listen.

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Along with this emerging trend of public confessions come a few questions. For starters, what do public confessions of private affairs say about people willing to bare their souls to strangers? Just as curious, why do voyeuristic-like audiences so eagerly imbibe this normally confidential information from strangers? At WebMD, we turned to the experts to learn more about this popular phenomenon: what fuels confessors and audiences to engage in this trend and what sort of impact, both immediate and long-lasting, does it have.

The Rise of Public Confessions

Temple University professor and former president of the American Psychological Association Frank Farley, PhD, points to daytime TV figures such as Jerry Springer as largely responsible for the emergence of TV confessions. In what he refers to as "the Jerry Springer effect," Farley notes the television personality's mastery at getting people to reveal their inner lives to audiences. Reveling in their 15 minutes of fame, however twisted, everyday people became motivated to share their personal sagas before millions of viewers. In turn, audiences tuned in to the show to see what bizarre scenario would unfold next.

Adding fuel to the public confession phenomenon is the proliferation of psychological terminology by the public. Once reserved for mental health professionals, terms like ADHD and obsessive compulsive are now commonplace. "People can reveal themselves more effectively because they have a language to use," Farley tells WebMD.

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