Why have virtual sex? Because it's fun, and people are different

That's the question posed this week by a judgmental New York Times Op-Ed. We set out to answer it

Published August 3, 2013 10:31PM (EDT)

   (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-325834p1.html'>conrado</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(conrado via Shutterstock)

I'll admit it. I privately make some judgments about a woman who would want to sext with Anthony Weiner. I mean, really, with the waxed chest? But that's a personal aesthetic bias and my judgment is about as serious as the kind I would make against a woman dating a man wearing a polo and plaid shorts. I couldn't stand it, but to each their own. That's kind of the thing about sexuality: People are different.

But a New York Times Op-Ed this week failed to appreciate that. Susan Jacoby, who is typically a brilliant writer and thinker, argued that when it comes to the Weiner scandal not enough attention has been paid to "the role of women in a coarse and creepy Internet culture dedicated to the fulfillment of both male and female desires for virtual carnal knowledge." (I guess the unabashed slut-shaming directed at these women doesn't count as attention?) In addition, she wondered "why hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women apparently derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers."

It struck me as a classic example of defensive sexuality in which any desires that are not one's own are seen as a threat that needs to be neutralized. Most people engage in this to a degree, including myself. (See: Polo judgments.) But, more important, it occurred to me that her piece presented an opportunity for education. Sure, I could hammer out a snarky takedown of her piece, and that might be fun, but why not instead make an earnest attempt at actually answering her question. Why do some women (::puts on robot voice::) "derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers"?

Well, here's the short answer: "For the same reason men do, doye," says Anna Pulley, 30, an Oakland-based writer and a friend of mine. That is perhaps the most important point to be made here -- but she adds, obligingly, "It's risk-free, titillating, provides masturbation fodder and you can control the terms of exchange."

You might wonder, though: Why not just look at porn? "A lot of the draw comes from the knowledge, or at least illusion, that someone out there is creating this photo expressly for you," says Lux Alptraum, CEO of the sex blog Fleshbot. "Sexted photos might be blurry or poorly lit, but there's something appealing about knowing that they were taken just for you." Jacoby denigrates this as "just a form of one-on-one pornography," but Alptraum sees this as "actually a pretty awesome concept." Why wouldn't you want sexual content that is, as she puts it, "being created for, and transmitted directly to, you"? That's why she has occasionally sexted with people she knows, as well as "people who I don't know but am flirting with," she says.

Of course, sexy selfies don't just excite the recipient -- they can also be validating for the sender. "Jacoby couched this in really negative terms," says Alptraum, "but for me, if you're approaching it with an awareness of what the extent of the relationship is, I don't really see why there's any problem with having fun sending and receiving naked photos."

"Carol," 34, from Long Island City, has regularly exchanged emails and texts for the last few months with someone she met on the Internet. They exchange photos -- sometimes shots from commercial porn that turn them on -- and share "sexual messages while taking turns masturbating," she says. "There's no physical interaction, so there's less of a limitation as far as fantasies can go," she says. "Because of that awareness, it is easier for me to get off on sexual ideas that may be more ridiculous if they played out physically." (She gives an example: "having one's eyes taped shut during sex.") There's also little chance of awkwardly running into this person in real life, which is so often guaranteed with someone you meet in the course of your "real" day-to-day life.

Apltraum agrees that a major draw is the freedom of fantasy."I think online sex is, in many ways, a form of enhanced masturbation," says Alptraum. "It's driven more by your fantasies than by the presence of an actual person, there's an ability to be more focused on your own pleasure than you might be in physical sex, and the distance -- and, at times, anonymity -- can make it easier to explore things you might feel nervous about discussing during an in-person encounter."

It may be fashionable to lament the ways in which technology is taking over our lives, but I found very little sympathy for Jacoby's assertion that online sex "resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends." Pulley, who has turned to online sex talk with "plenty of people" that she has just met or started dating, argues, "That's the same line of thinking as those who believe casual sex leads to the depletion of one's ability to emotionally bond with people," she says. "One's sexual sense of self-worth doesn't hinge on whether fantasies are expressed in one's head, in a journal or through digital means." She compares it to all kind of real-world flirting that couples engage in. "Technologically enhanced, consensual foreplay is no more 'scandalous' than other non-electronic kinds," she says. It's just one of the many ways that we now have to relate to one another.

Besides, sex isn't any one thing.  As Alptraum puts it, "sex can be fun in a variety of iterations, for a variety of reasons," she says. "The sex you have because you're in love is different from the sex you have because you're horny is different from the sex you have over the Internet." She adds, "They're all valid and worthwhile forms of sexual experience."

What she said.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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