Sex and the Single Surfer
By Jimmy MaherA few years ago, I came to a somewhat disconcerting realization: my worldview is fundamentally different from that of the current youth generation. I was formed by a different set of experience while growing up, and because of this there is a gulf between me and a current, say, high school senior that can never be fully erased. For a young man who for whatever reasons tends to think of himself as even younger than he is, a realization like this comes as something of a shock. Can old fogeyhood be far behind? How long until I am muttering bitterly about "kids today?"
One of the biggest distinctions between my generation and the one that follows can be found in our attitudes toward sex. When I was growing up, sex was very much a taboo, at times seemingly completely inaccessible, thing. My friends and I were forced to sneak Playboy magazines from our fathers’ proverbial closets just to get clued in to how things worked. If one of our members managed to acquire a porn video by means licit or illicit, it was a major event. I must have been fifteen or close to it before I had a clear conception of exactly how women were put together and what went where, and as for the act itself, I learned – amidst the usual confusion, terse negotiations, and occasional humiliation -- more by doing than by watching. The materials for me to acquire my sex education in any other way simply were not available to me.
All of this sounds quaint today, even to me. Adolescents today have access to a bewildering array of pornography and sexual fantasy. The era of "on the job" sexual training, at least in this country, is over. By the time an adolescent has sex for the first time, he or she has likely watched countless hours of pornography and engaged in plenty of explicit sexual instruction and fantasy. This new development is largely due to one form of media that did not even exist when I was growing up: the Internet. Internet sex is a self-contained world onto itself, in which the act itself, its meaning (if any), and the emotional repercussions thereof take on a dramatically different form. I want to examine the effect this brave new world has on sexuality here in the mundane world of flesh-and-blood reality. Before I can do that, though, I must spend some time looking at this new sexual ecology we have created.
On the Internet, sex is a commercial rather than emotional exchange. Everything is available here for a price. Every kink, no matter how strange, can be easily satisfied. First of all, there are of course hours upon hours of pornography of the traditional, passive variety, in which the viewer watches pictures or movie clips and does what needs to be done to satisfy himself. Porn is available to satisfy every desire, including many that have little relationship to the traditional porn archetypes of well-endowed blondes coupling with equally well-equipped and muscular males. Perhaps there is something to be said for this democratization of sex. Certainly, amateurs, unusual for their very lack of unusualness, have plenty of sites. Fulfilling the never-ending desire of men for very young women, teen sites are also all over the Internet, all swearing of course that their cheerleader uniform-wearing models are all actually eighteen or over. Conversely, those who desire an older, "experienced" woman to fantasize about can find sites dedicated to "mature" models. Those who like certain races are well catered for: sites abound featuring Asian, black, and Latina models. Those perennial male favorites, lesbians, abound. Lovers of overweight or even pregnant women can find sites to satisfy them. There are pseudo-sophisticated, "artistic" sites for those who fancy themselves a higher breed of porn consumer. And then there are the real kinks, some merely bizarre, some deeply disturbing. Bestiality, hand-jobs, oral, anal, fisting, golden showers, orgies, dominance and submission, tattoos, piercings, tran-sexuals, even midgets: all are out there in copious quantities. Of course, endless combinations are possible, and well covered. If you like pierced teenage lesbians who enjoy urinating upon one another during the act, there are doubtless sites for you, provided you can pay. Another neat new wrinkle that would only be possible over the Internet is the interactive porn film. In these, paying customers can chat live with the stars of their fantasies, telling them what to show and do next, and in effect creating their own movie, just as they like it.
While everything I have so far described has followed the traditional porn model of active, professional sexual "stars" and passive, paying consumers, there are other types of sexual interaction available on the Internet. One of the oldest, predating even the Internet proper itself, is the sex chat. Here, two partners link up, generally through a commercial service of one sort or another, to tell each other their sexual fantasies and have interactive "intercourse" through text only. Sometimes, although rarely, such pairings lead to real world meetings. A more common source of real-world sex are the services which have sprung up that function somewhat like dating sites, but have no pretensions toward facilitating real relationships. They are, rather, clearinghouses for people to seek sex, of whatever sort they desire, with others of like mind and with no emotional strings attached. Services like these might seem to be somewhat more honest than simple porn consumption. They are at least active rather than passive, do force some degree of interaction with others, and therefore, presumably, require a degree of social skill as well.
For all of this bewildering variety, sex on the Internet is never remotely spontaneous. It operates according to the Amsterdam model of sexuality. One window shops for a while, then chooses a site that suits and makes a commercial exchange. When one does so, one knows exactly what one is getting. Even in the "interactive" mode of Internet sex, nothing ever happens that is really surprising. When one meets another in a chat room for cyber-sex, one knows exactly what will ensue. Some may be better at describing their actions than others, but the "conversation" always ends up in the same place. There will be no declarations of love, no sudden insights into the other’s character, and certainly no long, conversation-filled cuddle afterward. How can there be between two people who know nothing of one another other than their libidos, who have in effect just completed a transaction: I’ll help you get off if you’ll help me.
This represents a fundamental change in our cultural attitude toward sex. Commercial sex has always had its place, but it has never been so prominent. Visiting a prostitute is generally expensive and, in most places, illegal, and even renting a pornographic video can be embarrassing. Sex on the Internet, however, is accessible, anonymous, relatively inexpensive, and easy. Human beings have always been obsessed with their sexuality, but that obsession has been a part of other things, things that are not always, despite what some of the very cynical might say, mere euphemisms and disguises for what people really want. I speak of romance, relationships, marriage, families, and, of course, love. In this new world of Internet sex, all of that is stripped away, leaving only the act itself, available for a price. On the Internet, one can decide in the midst of something else that one would like some satisfaction, find what one is looking for, achieve orgasm, then clean up and return to the business at hand in fifteen minutes or less. Sex becomes little more than a bodily function to be taken care of. In some ways, this might be a good thing. The lonely, or those with partners who are unable or unwilling to have sex, now have an outlet to turn to for at least some sort of relief. It is even possible, although I have no knowledge or statistics whatsoever to back this statement up, that Internet sex has prevented rapes, by giving would-be rapists another outlet. Still, there is something tawdry and sad, not so much about Internet sex itself as about the way it bleeds back into our real world.
Anyone who has experienced sex in the context of a relationship knows that it bears very little resemblance to Internet sex. Most real world sex would probably not be particularly sexy at all to watch, full as it is of conversation, whispered requests, false starts, and the occasional gale of laughter. I find myself pitying those who gain their sexual education through the Internet, for there this special act of sharing is turned into something with no more inherent emotional or aesthetic value than a bowel movement.
Yet the sad reality is that Internet sex, different and distinct as it is from real world sex, nevertheless does not exist in a vacuum. It inevitably influences sexual mores in the real world. By turning sexuality into just another commodity, the Internet removes the sacredness from the act, even when it takes place as part of a real-world relationship. Sex becomes about sex alone, rather than just one aspect of the dance between the genders. By removing the sacredness from sex, we remove its value in relationships.
Many claim that indulging in pornography is wrong for moral or religious reasons. It is hard to argue this point, involving as it does the baggage of personal beliefs and spirituality. There is something else, though, that I think often goes under-discussed when outraged pundits focus on the moral degradation and familial toll of Internet sex. Simply put, too much porn leads to bad real-world sex. Naomi Wolf has written a fascinating article for the New York Metro, now available online at http://newyorkmetro.com/nymetro/news/trends/n_9437/index.html. Particularly interesting to me is her anecdote regarding her friend Ilana, an Orthodox Jew who goes about dressed in a long skirt and full head scarf at all times. Only her husband is allowed to see her hair. Our knee-jerk reaction as modern Westerners is to be shocked at such a Medieval practice, running contrary as it does to all of our cherished notions about equality between the sexes. Yet, I sense considerable validity to Wolf’s assertion that the practice brings an erotic charge into the couple’s sex life that has become completely alien to us in our allegedly sexually liberated Western world. I have noticed similar situations in my own travels. I will share a personal anecdote that may further illustrate Wolf’s point.
On a ferry between Syria and Egypt recently, I fell into conversation with a young Muslim man. Over the course of a long delay to our departure and a crossing which for some reason took twice as long as it was supposed to – the Middle East operates by its own timetable – we became comfortable enough with one another to discuss aspects of our cultures that are normally taboo subjects. The practice of women wearing veils, which varies from country to country in the Muslim world but is almost universal in Egypt, was eventually broached. My new friend was baffled by the Western notion that the practice of veiling is degrading toward women. He saw it as a sign of their respect for the institution of marriage in general and for the erotic aspect therein in particular. By allowing only her husband to see more than the vaguest outline of her body, a Muslim woman ensures that sex within marriage does not lose its erotic charge. Because virtually all the other women that he sees are covered, and because of the almost complete absence of pornography in Muslim cultures, a man sees his wife as the sole source of satisfaction for his every erotic desire. The result, my friend claimed, is not tepid, repressed sex solely for the purpose of making babies, but the most amazing sex in the world. The Koran explicitly states that it is the duty of both partners in a marriage to please the other sexually as completely as possible.
My purpose here is not to argue that the traditional Muslim approach to sexuality is the correct one. Interesting as I found my friend’s points, I have no desire to live in such a society, and I suspect most Western women would be even less interested. I do think it very possible, though, that these societies understand something that we have forgotten: the intrinsic value of sex is bound up with its scarcity. By creating this new world on the Internet where sex is universally available, all the time, we have created a real-world society that is much less erotically interesting. Good sex is not anonymous; good sex is marked by quality not quantity; and most of all, good sex cannot be shopped for with careful specifications for style and body type in hand. Its magic comes from its spontaneity, and the lack of same is the reason that sex on the Internet can never satisfy like the real thing. I feel for those who fail to understand this, and fear that their loss will also be our society’s.