CYBERSEX: Better than IRL?
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Cybersexuality is defined as an online activity in which people gratify their sexual needs. It has been a feature of the internet since its conception; however, with increased discussion on gender and sexuality in recent years, it has become much more openly talked about.
When Doja Cat released her song Cyber Sex in November 2019, it quickly became an internet sensation, marking a powerful departure from conservative ideals about sex and bodies. Doja Cat is what internet users describe as ‘thicc’, and her body confidence is refreshingly sexy to watch. She is owning it in her music video, and it is no surprise that she took TikTok by storm. However, reading into the lyrics is a wake-up call to the loneliness and addictive nature of internet sex. She repeats ‘Wish you were here right now,’ to highlight the disconnect that remote romance creates. She describes an obsessional man using social media for pleasure: ‘he don't even scroll through Insta/ 'less he going through my pictures’. With its catchy and yearnful beat, the song expresses desire on both parts and prompts contemplation about why we seek pleasure on the internet (dopamine, damn!). It also poses questions about how far cybersex can replicate the real connection of physical intimacy.
During the pandemic, on the 20th March 2020, Tinder reported ‘its highest number of swipes on a single day: 3 billion— a figure which, no doubt, has been topped since then. More than ever before, the internet became a go-to source for romance. It outshone letters, magazines, and books as substitutes for real interaction. It has become a factory for romantic literature where a Tinder bio or a provocative text are often used to arouse the attention of a love interest. Internet communication is one of fantasy and hope and has taken us back to the tradition of medieval courtship. Humour, literacy, typing skills, use of emojis… there’s a whole language to internet love. Social media is an exciting and liberating tool for constructing narratives about ourselves. It allows us all to be the authors and actors of our own metafictional creations, but is it misleading when it comes to love?
A key difference between cybersexuality and sex IRL is that the former is psychological and the latter is based off a physical need to connect on a deeper, spiritual level. Whilst these phenomena are closely linked, there is a marked discrepancy in what they can do for people looking for pleasure and gratification. There are so many ways in which we can explore our sexuality online. It enables people to find like-minded people and gain the confidence to ‘come out’; Social media allows many in the LBGT+ community to identify with their peers and experiment with dress and identity. Some major benefits also include a reduced fear of rape, transmitted diseases or, during a pandemic, contracting covid. In its safe space, people can easily experiment with sexual behaviour that carries with it shame and stigma IRL. This is empowering and progressive for the world of sex, yet it also has the potential to nurture perverse tendencies and addictive behaviour. The internet can certainly be a means of satisfying lust; sexting and porn have high statistics— ‘Up to 65 percent of young adult men and 18 percent of young women report watching porn at least once a week’ —and this figure could well be higher due to many people not admitting the truth due to stigma. However, sex therapists have also reported high levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction owing to high expectations and low self-esteem. A 2013 study found that 86% felt that porn hurt their relationships and 90% had seen an increase in relationship troubles due to porn use. If the internet can enhance the meaning of real sex, it can also cause disappointment in its fracturing of fantasy. It might be better to regard it as an intermediate step between private fantasy and actual behaviour, so long as love fails to blossom in its spiritless vacuum.
In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), a man attempts to have a relationship with an AI, only to discover how incompatible they are physically and intellectually. Before his realisation however, the film does an excellent job of convincing us of the plausibility of AI romance; its pink tones are dreamy and inviting. It’s true that one can relate to the internet (after all, it functions as a man-made mirror to what happens in real life), but the speed at which it can transmit and learn information is beyond human capacity, highlighting a fundamental disconnect between robot and human in relation to time-perception, memory, nostalgia, work, and death; not least of all, love. Her proves that cyber-relationships can be complicated and deeply hurtful when fantasy falls short of the material. It reveals the internet’s vast ability in its promotion as a heroic and seemingly immortal force; for these reasons, it is easy to love and admire the internet, as we might superheroes or Ancient Gods, but it’s worth keeping a realistic perspective about our physical ability as human beings.
Cybersex clearly has a future; it is an important outlet, especially in a pandemic, but how do we monitor desire? Should we monitor desire? Other than the use of Parent Control, the internet currently knows no bounds as it offers endless streaming platforms which people can access. I find the internet, as a space for interconnectivity and diversity, a fascinating vacuum because it so vast and prolific; there is so much to be celebrated about it. However, to make sure that humans don’t lose real connection, I believe we must give greater importance to physical intimacy IRL. Physical touch has been proven to have several physiological health benefits, including boosting confidence and promoting emotional intelligence; merely having strong platonic relationships (such as showing regular affection between friends) can expand your ability to connect with different people and become more empathetic. With increased physical connection, people might resort less to porn and internet entertainment, and thus find greater happiness and satisfaction in their everyday relationships. There is nothing more life-affirming than receiving hugs from a friend or giving them a cheeky elbow when they’re drifting and creating a queue in the supermarket. After all, physicality is what makes us human.