Did The Internet Improve Our Sex Lives, Or Make Them Worse?

Emily Witt’s "Future Sex" explores the ways technology can free us – and limit us – sexually.

Chances are, you or someone you know has been on an online date. At this point in our collective chronology of courtship, it’s as ubiquitous as dowries once were. But these new rituals are more freeing than the conventions they’ve replaced — right?

Maybe you grabbed a drink after mutually right-swiping on Tinder, impressed by a profile absent of skydiving shots. Maybe the lack of personal information shrouded the exchange in mystery, granting it an air of romantic spontaneity, even though the action, if interpreted literally, is nothing but a connection through glass.

Maybe you prefer the ostensibly more old-fashioned approach touted by OkCupid, where mutual interests are considered a precursor to mutual attraction. Often ― if mine and my friends’ experiences are representative of anything broader ― the two don’t correlate. Three or four chaste dinner meet-ups with punk fans and sci-fi obsessives whose passions waned in the face of in-person communication was enough to turn me off to the whole endeavor, before meeting my now-partner for drinks we’d arranged when my account was still active. That we met online felt like a stroke of incredible luck, as if we’d laid eyes on each other from across a crowded room.

Emily Witt, author of Future Sex, a thorough, fresh look at how romantic and sexual relationships have changed in the past two decades or so, had a similar experience with OkCupid. She made a profile after an upsetting end to a partnership she’d been invested in, hoping to quickly move on to another monogamous commitment. But, she found that her encounters with men who sounded fun on paper were tepid in person.

She suspected that this had to do with the misconception that chemistry and practical compatibility were entangled. Witt had no problem with hookups initiated in person ― with men she knew little about. But when the stakes were raised, and a relationship was on the table, things changed. Eventually, she set a sort of challenge for herself: committing to celibacy until she could find a relationship like the one she had before.

It wasn’t that non-monogamy repelled her on principle; it just didn’t align with how she identified. Although friend-of-friend hook-ups and online dates left her cold, she wasn’t ready to dabble in alternatives, either. A momentary STD scare made her bristle at the thought of active experimentation, which seemed counter to her desire for commitment, anyway. Still, she was curious, for reasons both personal and journalistic, about how much sex and romance have changed in our age of apps.

Certainly, the internet put to bed the idea that some kinds of sex ― gay sex, trans sex, group sex, BDSM ― were taboo, while only a very vanilla, borderline-Puritanical variety abided. “On Google, all words were created equal, as all ways of choosing to live one’s life were equal,” Witt writes. “Google blurred the distinction between normal and abnormal.”

“It’s tempting to argue that this brave new world of sexuality — ushered in by the ambivalence of search engines, the proliferation of online porn and the anonymity granted by chat rooms and dating sites — can only be a good thing.”

One of the virtues of Witt’s writing is that she avoids making value judgments. It’s tempting to argue that this brave new world of sexuality ― ushered in by the ambivalence of search engines, the proliferation of online porn, and the anonymity granted by chat rooms and dating sites ― can only be a good thing for our sexually repressed society. But Witt’s approach to it all remains open yet skeptical. She admits to entering into different worlds of sexual experimentation as a voyeur, at least initially. Her aim is to discover who, if anyone, our 21st-century sexual explorations leave behind.

“Sexual freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did it,” she writes in the book’s opening chapter. “I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy.”

Throughout the book, Witt compares herself to women who’ve found happiness in unconventional sexual situations: a friend who has a business-like process for selecting one-night stands, a performer who not only consents to, but finds pleasure in, strangers’ degrading remarks and actions. Witt approaches these women with what’s best described as awe. She appreciates their ability to identify and prioritize their own physical needs, taboo and otherwise, but she can’t imagine doing the same herself.

The writing of the book landed her in San Francisco, where free love flourished in the ‘60s, and where its embers burn on. Instead of communes, those committed to non-commitment can be found today in organizations with the sheen and pep of startups. A focus on consent, self-empowerment, health and cleanliness reign over OneTaste, a group founded on a belief in the power of Orgasmic Meditation (OM), a practice that’s less vague than it sounds. OM involves a partner stimulating a woman’s clitoris methodically, for 15 minutes, in a comfortable environment where she’s encouraged to free herself of commitment-related expectation, making the act a physical, rather than an emotional, transaction. After an orientation and several interviews, Witt tried the practice herself and found herself feeling empty, the way she did after more regrettable hookups.

But she questioned the value of OM before that, when a man with alcohol on his breath stared at her unrelentingly during morning icebreaker activities, violating the comfortable space. She took issue with OneTaste’s rhetoric, too. One class leader asserted that women “love to fuck,” casting off misconceptions that the purpose of sex is male pleasure. But, this declaration didn’t feel right to Witt, either; it equated women’s desire for sexual expression with an invitation for any man to partake in it.

“Any woman who’s been catcalled — that is, most women who live in or have visited walkable cities — will tell you that this problem predates internet-era dating, but the ease of stranger-to-stranger communication in the internet era makes it that much more prevalent.”

Any woman who’s been catcalled ― that is, most women who live in or have visited walkable cities ― will tell you that this problem predates internet-era dating. But the ease of stranger-to-stranger communication in the internet era makes it that much more prevalent. If a woman expresses her sexuality, it’s because she wants any man who’s interested in engaging with her sexually, or so this line of thinking goes. But, as Witt saliently argues, “I liked to have more control about who I could be sexual with.”

How, then, can women exercise control over their bodies while opening themselves to sexual exploration? The internet, often characterized as seedy when it comes to sex, is one place to start, Witt writes.

Witt outlines the feminist opposition to porn and performance, which she says is frustratingly limited. Women who enjoy porn, the feminist argument goes, are adhering to patriarchal visions of pleasure, not discovering what’s genuinely pleasurable for themselves.

But, in her first deep forays into sites like PornHub, Witt feels liberated in spite of herself. She takes issues with the degrading categories ― why “MILF” instead of “woman > 30”? ― but finds the plethora of pleasures comforting. Someone, she concludes, will always want to have sex with her, despite what the dominant narrative about “aging women” will have you believe. On porn sites, “puffy nipples” is a desirable search term, along with “chubby,” “aged,” “big clit,” “small tits,” and “9 months pregnant.” The aspects of womanhood that are hidden on glossy magazines and advertisements are celebrated here. For Witt, this realization was a step towards shaking off sexual expectations, a move towards discovering her own personal preferences.

So, participating in porn and other modes of virtual sex as a consumer or voyeur could have “real-world” benefits, even for women. The problem arises when we fail to to acknowledge that many of these online communities have the potential to perpetuate oppressive power structures rather than challenging them. In order for there to be performances to view and consume, there must be performers ― professional porn stars, and their more amateur counterparts, cam girls. Witt talks to several of these women in Future Sex, and the consensus among them is that their line of work is pleasurable, a way of making a living that provides them an escape from convention or unhealthy familial relationships.

Witt wisely doesn’t suggest that these women are somehow deluded or disempowered. Instead, she tries to better understand the source of their pleasure. She visits a live shoot for a series run by an organization called Kink, during which a performer who goes by Penny Pax submits to being touched and hit by audience members before she reaches orgasm on camera, helped along by a pair of dominants who tie her up. The video series includes a debriefing with Pax, who says after the shoot, “I had a great time, it was amazing.”

Hoping for further insight, Witt signs up for a live webcam site, Chaturbate, and browses through popular channels, which include one belonging to “Edith,” a celibate 19-year-old who talks about Camus as often as she flashes her breasts to viewers, who return the favor with purchases from an Amazon wish list and small monetary tokens.

A cover story for The New York Observer argues that camming ― sex work that most often involves male viewers paying typically female cam girls for virtual sex acts ― could free up its socially isolated customers to better communicate in the “real world.” The alluring argument is that, because both parties are consenting to sex as a low-stakes transaction, the relationship could function as a sort of trial run for a “real” relationship, wherein both parties are equals.

The article glosses over the obvious fact that the cam girl-customer relationship involves an exchange of capital, reinforcing the long-existing power dynamic wherein a woman’s value is tied up in her body, a man’s in his money. Which isn’t to say such a relationship should be chastised; it just isn’t as revolutionary as the author of this article suggests.

“Already, the hulking power structures from the world of physical, in-person sex have taken root, making virtual sex as tricky for women to navigate as its mystical predecessors.”

Witt acknowledges this in Future Sex. While browsing, she notices that most of the female Chaturbate channels involved an exhibition of personality ― “cutting out paper hearts for Valentine’s Day or listening to the songs of Miley Cyrus” ― whereas the men who hosted channels “invariably positioned themselves in a black computer chair at a desk in ghastly desk-lamp illumination, dick in hand, making the usual motions.”

Even in this supposedly free environment, men could have virtual sex in a straightforwardly bodily manner, while women were expected to provide more of an experience. And, as Witt bluntly puts it, “the performers on Chaturbate had economic as well as sexual motivation.” Many of the women she interviewed used the site as a form of meager income while they lived at home, caring for sick relatives, putting off college, which they hoped was on the horizon.

Ultimately, Witt found that browsing mainstream porn and the fringes of cam sites could help women experiment without the risk of disease, violence or unwanted pregnancy. But for those providing the material ― even those who perform to express themselves rather than out of necessity ― there were still risks. One woman confided to Witt that a former classmate spotted her on Chaturbate, and told everyone else in her social circle, which resulted in an all-around negative experience. “The worry that the encounter would be recorded or that its data would be hacked punctured the serenity of the dream,” Witt wrote.

It seems, then, that the internet once promised sexual parity, an open, anonymous frontier where experimentation could run wild, with relatively few risks. But already, the hulking power structures from the world of physical, in-person sex have taken root, making virtual sex as tricky for women to navigate as its mystical predecessors.

Future Sex is out now from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

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