Is Cybersex Sex?
No one knows how many people are doing it. Maybe you’re one of them.
Sex on the ‘Net: late at night in a dark, quiet house. Or in the bright light of morning, just a room away from the kids playing Nintendo. Computer screens across America are glowing with lusty self-portraits and requests, aimed at strangers whose “handles” read like vanity license plates: Cumgood. 69ForU. Babyface.
What exactly are these cybersuitors doing? Just as in the so-called real world, some get their thrills strictly between the ears. Many more have one hand on the keyboard and one on themselves (typing lots of words with no Ks or Ls). Others do their foreplay on-line, then consummate alone, after signing off (paying for the arousal, coming for free).
An unknown number gender-bend, too. Is that really a 14-year-old girl in hot pants you just seduced–or a Hulk Hogan look-alike in a tattered t-shirt surrounded by rug-rats? Maybe it’s actually a college guy with a pocket protector and acne, or a bored Manhattan couple slumming. There’s just no way to tell who Cherry@VP really is.
Some cybersexers are indignant about this manipulation. Many deny it exists, preferring the fantasy that their cyber-partners are exactly what they claim. Some don’t care. And a few revel in it. For them, not knowing their cyber-partner feels exotic; knowing that this stranger may not even be who s/he is portraying is even more exciting.
No one knows how cybersex affects its practitioners’ lives. It provides an opportunity to experiment with new things–erotic power play, for example, asking for what you want, even using words like penis and vulva. Those who have seen themselves through the eyes of only one sexual partner can sense what they might be like with others: they can shop around, expose themselves, be discovered and appreciated anew, be reassured that they’re not, say, frigid, oversexed, or “too” kinky. And young people with little experience can learn about themselves: how they like to be treated, how to say “no” and mean it, what it feels like to initiate or receive attention gracefully.
Cybersex is, of course, “safe sex,” a play space with virtually no serious consequences for mistakes. It’s the chance to explore ourselves and the dynamics of intimate relating, without the fear of hurting self or others, that all of us should have had as adolescents–and almost none of us did.
For some practitioners, cybersex is an amusing adjunct to satisfying sexual relationships, monogamous or otherwise. In that sense, they can take it or leave it; it doesn’t touch them deeply, and they can easily let it go if they want to.
But it figures that most cyberlovers are courting in space less from choice than from necessity. One might hope that cybersex gives America’s nerds and misfits a place to rehearse human connection and practice being socially comfortable, ultimately empowering them to go into the physical world and actually meet someone. But we can just as easily imagine that by providing comfort and validating their withdrawal from people, cybersex invites loners and outcasts further into their isolation. If we want these engineers and accountants to reproduce someday, this isn’t good.
IS IT SEX?
But is any of this sex? And does it matter?
The second question is far easier to answer than the first: yes. It matters because the very inquiry challenges our belief that we know what sex is, and therefore what it isn’t. And that leads us to consider why we have sex, what we want from it, how it feels… in short, what the point of it is.
So what makes something sex?
Orgasm? Nah, you’ve had sex without coming. Many women, of course, do it all the time, deliberately or not. As men get older–and wearier, and wiser–so do they.
Intercourse? Nah, no one getting great head would deny that it’s sex. If your supposedly monogamous wife said she had “only” gotten a hand job from someone, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, OK, as long as you didn’t have sex.” (And while we’re on the subject, if a guy is getting off watching his wife go down on another guy, is he having sex with her? with him? Both?)
Genital contact? Nah, you’ve kissed and caressed someone you deeply desired, and walked away thinking that was great sex, even if you wished you had done more stuff.
See, the more you look at it, the more difficult–and interesting–it gets. So let’s make it harder still. Surely, “sex” requires that people be in the same room, right? Well, the multimillion dollar phone sex industry suggests otherwise. Imagine a professional fantasy lover breathing your name (and several assorted vices) into a phone. You’re at the other end, one hand holding the instrument, the other stroking your own instrument. Or think of your real-life lover doing the whispering (certainly cheaper, especially if it’s a local call) while you get hotter and hotter listening. Not sex, huh?
One more time: consider a letter or videotape created specifically for your lustful pleasure. You hear your sweetheart’s voice, maybe see the body you know and treasure; you have the additional thrill of knowing that your lover created this erotic opportunity just for you, and you feel connected to him/her as you enjoy it. Not sex?
Thoroughly confused now? Good. That means we can return to our question –is cybersex sex?–with renewed appreciation for the subtleties of erotic attachment. Obviously, sex is more than what the bodies do. It’s about erotic energy–noticing, feeling, fueling, and channeling it. And for many people it’s apparently about feeling connected. That’s why they can experience sex through telephones and computers–the drive to feel erotically attached to the universe transcends the vehicle used to connect.
TO HAVE OR TO BE?
In fact, “to have sex” is a misleading expression. “Being sexual” is more accurate, because sex is something you experience, moment by moment, not a thing you own or consume. You’re being sexual whenever you’re channeling erotic energy. By contrast, “having sex” seems rather limited.
You don’t even need a partner experiencing it at the same time. Traditionally, of course, we envision sex as involving sharing or exchanging. Thus, we think of people “having sex with” someone–that is, sharing the commodity. And that, in fact, is why a lot of people don’t understand that masturbation isn’t a substitute for sex, it is sex. It’s being sexual, regardless of the fact that there’s no one else involved.
So cybersex is sex. It’s sex because the cybersexer is experiencing her/his own erotic energy. S/he may or may not be sharing this with someone else, and if there’s a someone else, that person may or may not be who s/he pretends to be. It doesn’t matter.
Admitting that it’s sex, of course, raises intriguing issues such as consent and infidelity. If you’re being quietly sexual on-line unbeknownst to your keyboard acquaintance, have you violated her/his right to consent? And what if you invite an on-line sexual connection, but portray a radically different persona than your own–can your cyberpartner really give informed consent?
If cybersex is clearly not sex, we can do it and say we’re not being unfaithful to a spouse or steady partner. But does a cyber-fling break your promise of fidelity? If your vows merely exclude “having sex” with someone else, you can well claim you’re not actually having sex with someone. But it’s a gray area, and it calls for an honest conversation; when people start prevaricating about the definition of their relationship agreements, it’s time for a serious talk, regardless of the content–sex, money, childrearing, taking care of the dog.
On the other hand, the situation is more complicated if our vows are really about being exclusive with our eroticism, and they exclude the exchange of erotic energy with anyone else. What about flirting? What about fantasies while masturbating? Or while making love? With vows of erotic energy exclusivity, cybersex is only one of many potentially problematic activities.
In fact, the only reason to ask the question “is cybersex sex?” is to realize just how complicated the whole matter is. Not only is sex itself a mystery. Predictably, it turns out that our ways of talking about it are cloaked in ambiguity and mystery as well. We’re a species whose definition of this most central human activity is usually, “I dunno, I guess I know it when I see it.”
Cybersex is only the latest step in our long erotic evolution. If it pushes us to expand our definition of “sex”–on or off the Internet–then our soul-less, gland-less, desire-less machines will have served our lust well.
Your superb program covered a wide variety of issues in a practical, useful way, and your humor made the experience even more enjoyable.
- Stanford University Medical School
Your teaching program was peppered with valuable examples, and provided alternative ways of regarding various situations, and some new handles for managing difficult dilemmas.
- Board of Examiners in Sex Therapy & Counseling, Canada
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