wanna cyber? a look at sex online in 2016

Sex in the digital world has come a long way from talking dirty in chat rooms. i-D asks how it improves, and hinders our IRL experience.

by Paul Gregoire
18 January 2016, 5:00am

Image via Flickr

In the early days of the Internet, cybersex was a dirty word that usually referred to anonymous, smutty conversations in chat rooms. But as technology developed, so did the way people interacted sexually online. Now all you need is WiFi connection to create a sex avatar, check if there's anyone hook-up worthy within 100 meters, or work through your deepest sexual desires with a stranger on the other side of the world.

Isabella Rose has been a cam girl for four years, she's one of the many, many individuals at the centre of this online sexual revolution. For those who aren't familiar, camming involves a client paying to watch the live webcam feed of a girl (or boy) over the net. They might have an intimate conversation, explore the punter's fantasies, or perform sexual acts. Isabella estimates that ninety percent of private shows involve nudity and she advertises her cybersex service on Twitter and Instagram. It's a remarkably simple set up that's seen the camming industry valued at over a billion US dollars.

According to Brett McCann, president of the Australian Society of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therapists (NSW), the majority of online sexual activity now consists of watching people like Isabelle perform over webcams. But cybersex is technically anything that involves "a person getting sexual gratification through the use of a computer". So yes, looking at porn counts. 

McCann explains that our increased access to free sexual material is changing more than how we view explicit content: it's changing what we're watching too. He theorises that thanks to the anonymity of chat rooms and avatars, users have more freedom to explore their sexuality than ever before. "They can go into quite a lot of fantasy about who or what they want to be," he notes. Isabelle agrees, she described her usual sessions as, "Lots of teasing, definitely lots of teasing. And indulging in their fantasies."

Recent years have seen the lines between cybersex and actual sex blur.

It's not a huge surprise that the anonymity of the Internet makes people feel more uninhibited. But recent years have seen the lines between cybersex and actual sex blur. "It's just so much more sophisticated than we all thought it was a while ago," said Madison Missina, a sex worker, sex therapist, and Internet porn performer.

As the sex industry has moved online over the past decade, she's observed other aspects of cybersex evolving. For many sex workers, social media and hook up apps mean online encounters can be transferred into real-world bookings. Fantasy and reality collide when Twitter flirtations can be pursued, and apps like Tinder and Grindr mean you can "order casual sex to your door", Maddison adds.

But while the evolution of cybersex means greater freedom to explore, and the possibility of more sex offline, the progress isn't foolproof.

Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Dr Marcus Squirrell completed his doctoral thesis on sex addiction with a focus on cybersex in 2012. Of the 1325 users he surveyed, he found that the majority who took part in cybersex were either married or had a partner. Additionally those who spent more than 12 hours a week engaging in cybersex tended to be prone to higher levels of depression, anxiety and emotional loneliness. "My clinic's full of people who have problematic relationships with cybersex," Squirrell told i-D. "It can cost them their jobs, and frequently costs them their relationship—particularly when it leads to offline meetings."

As the digital sexual world explodes, many see it as a possible threat to the IRL experience.

Furthermore, many of the men he spoke to have developed sexual problems like erectile dysfunction or an inability to orgasm, as they're no longer stimulated by their real-life partners. Certainly, the impact porn has on our expectations of sex is something that's been debated for as long as porn has existed. But as the digital sexual world explodes, more and more people are seeing the URL as a possible threat to the IRL experience.

Heide McConkey, the director of Sex Addiction Australia, explained to i-D that if people looking at Internet pornography are "unprepared for it," they may believe the fantasy world is how sex actually works. "Sexual behaviour, particularly of younger people, tends to change when looking at porn," she said, adding that it can lead them to expect this online behaviour from their partners.

As someone whose works in the sex industry on and offline, Madison understands the work she does may have negative consequences, but stresses that a lot of couples "use porn and cybersex as a way to spice up their love life." The online and offline worlds will always influence each other, so she focuses on the importance in finding a way cybersex can work as a healthy part of existing sexual relationships.

Rather than going straight to camming, many couples are using interactive sex questionnaires on sites like Mojo Upgrade to expand the physical and emotional parts of their lives. These sites allow partners to individually answer questions about their sexual fantasies, but only the activities they both respond to positively are shared in the results. "That's a really healthy way that couples are using the Internet to try and push and explore their sexual boundaries together in a safe way," Madison notes.

After all, as in so many situations, the Internet is at its best when making IRL better.


Text Paul Gregoire
Image via Flickr user powtac

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