CYBERSEX: How does the online, virtual experience of ‘space’ transform our conceptualisation and experience of sex, sexuality and sexual interaction?
Sex is more than just ‘physical activity in which people touch each other’s bodies, kiss each other, etc.: physical activity that is related to and often includes sexual intercourse’ (Merriam-Webster 2016). It is also more than what other more comprehensive definitions may offer e.g. an individual experience (masturbation), an activity that may lead to reproduction, or a pleasurable experience intended to reach orgasm (Planned Parenthood 2014). Sex should be redefined to include sexual activities and expression which is digitally redefined to shake off the constraints of the physical world and be conducted in digital environments (Huffpost Love + Sex 2015). There are many benefits to be had by de-emphasising ‘coital sex’ (reproductive), such as increased communication, satisfaction and a greater emphasis on safer sexual practices (McPhillips et al. 2001, Giddens 1992). The transformation of sex, sexuality and sexual interactions is occurring in the digital environment increasingly as a result of cyberculture and the potential of the internet to augment human behaviour and society.
Through the lens of the three pillars of ‘Language, Space, and Body’, I can narrow down how my research to demonstrate this transformation in a more effective way. In this report, specific research and attention will be devoted to how sex is reconceptualised in online ‘spaces’. This transformation will be analysed through an exploration of cyber-culture, cyber-sexual practices, and case studies in which the cyber environment facilitates new and transformative sexual experiences.
The cybercultural lens
Since the internet became a civilian playground and information sharing medium, we have recognised its power to transform societal ideals and behaviours. In 1965 Marshall McLuhan recognised this potential when he suggested that new communications technologies would transform cultural behaviours, individualise our media experiences, and augment how our bodies and minds react to stimuli (2015).
Cyberculture is the key to the transformation that sex, sexuality and sexual interaction has been moving through since the internet began. While the traditional concept of society relies on physicality, status, and differences, the internet frees us from these concepts to generate a society ‘without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,’ (Barlow 1996). Phone phreaking culture pioneered these ideals by creating a safe space for subcultures and niche perspectives, while also offering lower barriers to participation than traditional cultural and elite spaces, and encouraging self exploration and discovery (Baraniuk 2013). Furthermore, hacker and maker spaces which emerged from these phone phreaking roots into the digital space extended these ideals to form cyberspace into an open environment characterised by information sharing, inclusivity, freedom and learning (Schrock 2014).
We can see these cybercultural ideals and behaviours reflected in the early sexual experiences people engaged in inside the early digital spaces of the 1980s and 1990s. Before Second Life and Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) came digital spaces like MUDs (Multi-User Domains, also called MOOs after the MOOcow server on which some originally ran) where users entered into virtual environments in which they would role-play, chat and engage in textual interactions with other players in ways which freed participants from gender, race, class, and status, in the same way that cyberculture de-emphasised these factors in other digital spaces. Users were afforded more agency in sexual interactions and expression than they may have in their offline lives i.e. a woman who is constrained by gender in her offline life played an ambiguously gendered spiritual figure in a MUD called LambdaMOO (Dibbell 1998). Physical acts of sexual expression would also be de-emphasised in this environment, leading to a greater range of sexual experiences which were also not necessarily about orgasm, coital sex or ‘normophilic’ (mainstream) desires, but also about expression of ‘paraphilic’ (fringe) desires (which are experienced by up to 60% of the population) (Joyal 2015). Emotionally, these cybercultural norms generate transformative effects, by creating a shared experience that can lead to decreased shame around feelings and increased empathy for others’ desires and needs (Holden 2015).
While cyberculture is overwhelmingly a positive experience and cyberspace has the potential for endless new experiences, it is also important to acknowledge that there is also negative transformative potential due to the characteristic freedom and opportunity of the internet. While self-expression is increased, so is the ability of aggressors and trolls to violate and harass participants in the online environment (Dibbell 1998). Additionally, the disinhibition experienced by cyber-citizens as a result of the freeing effects of cyberculture can lead to addictive behaviour resulting in the destruction of families, the loss of identity and unhealthy levels of certain activities e.g. pornography consumption (Griffiths 2001, Underwood 2005).
Information access at all ages in the digital space
The only limitation and qualifier for individual sexual expression in the online space is internet access (Ferris & Roper 1995), thus leaving us open to new and varied sexual learning, experiences and interactions in both a one-sided (individual) or multi-directional way (in situations generating feedback from others i.e. cybersex) within digital spaces.
No longer limited by the social constraints of modesty around sex, and shame about being curious, we can explore our collective human sexuality in an anonymous capacity in the digital space. At both ends of the age spectrum we can see that both young and old are enabled by internet access and knowledge of internet navigation to explore new concepts of sexuality and desire.
In a 2008 report the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that out of a sample of young people aged between 8-17 years, of the large amount of time spent on the internet, 72% of this time online is spent alone, providing ample time and space for exploration of their sexuality with other young people in social media settings across online spaces. Saleh et al. suggest that children typically tend to display sexual urges and interests pre-puberty and before adults and schools allow children to learn about sex, despite what adults may think (2014). Digital spaces, while not without peril for younger individuals, provide much greater access to explorative and individualised experiences which may afford these younger audiences new opportunities for development, such as through engagement with interactive media spaces, fan fiction, blogs and gamescapes (Jackson 2015). Lower financial barriers to participation have allowed young people to create self-made spaces where comprehensive and unrestricted access to sex education and discussion is created without judgement and with the inclusion of authentic teenage experiences of life and love (Sex etc. 2016).
Despite the fact that only 37% of Australians aged over 65 were online in 2010-11, the 55-64 year old age group also shows some of the biggest growth for internet usage out of all age demographics (Ryan 2013). Lack of education from service providers of aged care and ignorance to the prevalence of sexual activity in older demographics shows that the internet can be a key source of satisfaction and development for people at the other end of the age spectrum too (Silver 2014). Increasingly the internet is inhabited by ‘age friendly’ digital spaces, and offering new opportunities for isolated and misunderstood individuals. Simple websites offer customised advice on sex and intimacy for older people (Price 2016) and online interactive content helps families of older people assist their relatives with access to safe sex while also providing advice on how to assist older individuals with sexual satisfaction, especially those with disabilities such as dementia and fragility (Savage Lovecast 2015).
Digital spaces (platforms) and case studies
Content Hosting and Curation
New models of distribution and funding are transforming the spaces in which individuals can access sexual content and education, resulting in transformed behaviour. Advertising revenue drawn from selling data (site visitors are the product) and virtual real estate lowers financial barriers to participation and allows somewhat anonymous access (Hallam 2015), minimising factors that may have prevented individuals from accessing pornographic material and sexual education prior to the internet. This model maximises access to spaces which have the potential to radically augment sexual interests and normalise sex and sexuality for individuals, where niche interests and experimentation with content can lead to private and partnered self-exploration and education (Daneback et al. 2012).
Crowdfunding sites like Patreon also allow amateurs and professionals alike to continuously fund valuable projects which are freely accessible via sites like YouTube, continuing in the spirit of early cyberculture e.g. the importance of freedom of information and low barriers to access (Schrock 2014). This models allows for a continuous dialogue between producers and audiences about the digital space being created, and also encourages close interaction between both parties inside the space.
A great example of this model is the YouTube channel ‘Sexplanations with Dr. Doe’, a fully Patreon funded sex-positive sex education channel filled with video content created by clinical sexologist and psychologist Dr Lindsey Doe. The channel has covered over 150 topic areas, been viewed in over 100 nations, and has over 26 million views as of June 2016. A key aspect of the channel is the ‘Discussion’ tab and comments sections on videos, where the audience freely discusses sex and sexuality, and directly contributes to the nomination of future topics for Doe’s research and videos (Sexplanations with Dr. Doe 2016). The channel reflects this new revenue model by having a patreon link in video descriptions and a ‘Support Channel’ button, while also reflecting cybercultural ideals by offering free information, participatory culture and creating a safe space for minorities.
Social networks, applications and forums
Social networks, applications and forums have huge potential to transform sex, sexuality and forms of sexual interaction. These digital spaces cater increasingly to sexual and social minorities, creating safe, empowering and fun spaces where participants can be free to express themselves.
Sexual minorities like the LGBTQ community are one of the prime examples of how these digital spaces enable sexual empowerment and change. Young same-sex attracted people find a sense of community and safety in online environments, with 86% of respondents in a 2001 study reporting that they use the internet for sexually-related leisure and two-thirds of respondents suggesting that they use the internet to access sexual health information (Hillier et al.). Sites such as itgetsbetter.org act as virtual spaces for support of young queer teens who are experiencing bullying or negative responses to their sexual identification as queer. Cyber literacy across diverse cross sections of the sexual spectrum allow sexual and emotional minorities to create inclusive communities and relatively low-cost resources and forums, which transform our ability as a society to understand ourselves and empower individuals to identify their own sexualities more clearly while also finding acceptance.
Social networks are particularly powerful examples of how cyberculture is changing sexual culture and acceptance of minorities. Sex workers use platforms such as Twitter to take control of their public image, share empowering perspectives and information, and discuss daily life and work arrangements with clients and colleagues alike. This leads to a reduction in the stigma around sex work through the efforts of global and varied participants in a shared space, with the noted exception of marginalised or economically disadvantaged workers without internet access or privilege (Alptraum 2015, Berlatsky 2014). Social networks which cater to more niche interests such as fetlife.com (boasting 3.5 million users) create new spaces for fringe communities that require extra privacy while also welcoming newcomers through easy access and an encouraging culture. However they also have negatives which reflect the downsides of wider social media use and the internet’s reflection of human societal flaws e.g. easier access of predators and aggressors, difficult and often impossible to prove complaints cases and reports of abuse being disregarded (Morris 2015).
Social applications are also creating big debates about changes in sex, sexuality and in particular, sexual interaction, as a result of a maturing cyberculture e.g. Grindr, Tindr, 3nder etc. Unfortunately the statistics on the long term effects on human behaviour and sexual interaction in these evolving spaces are not yet extensive or conclusive enough to actually make any claims about how they are transforming behaviour (Howard 2015).
A better substantiated argument about the effect of cyberspaces on sexual behaviour is possible based on some of the findings generated by researchers and journalists on blogging sites. Tumblr in particular is a ripe for discussion in regards to the way in which the Tumblr community and format is empowering minorities. Instead of pandering to the male cis-gendered and straight identified gaze, as much of mainstream pornography and porn sites tend to (Brehas 2014), independent authors use Tumblr to catalogue sexual material and generate discussion around different kinds of porn, such as feminist porn, porn which features varied body types, erotica, amateur porn, and porn which does not exploit sexual and racial minorities (Gray 2016). However, Gray suggests that the potential transformative power that exists in Tumblr is not so much about its emphasis on alternative fantasies and desires, but the normative effect that increased participation in sexual content curation and creation has on women and other minorities’ sexual agency and ownership over their sexuality (2016).
We are without doubt in an era of cyberculture where we are beginning to see many and varied transformative impacts upon sex, sexuality and sexual interaction through actions and developments in cyber ‘space’. This broad take on the research, media and content which gives evidence for this change is only the beginning in showing how sex is augmented by cyberculture, and concepts of ‘body’ and ‘language’ are instrumental in discovering how digital experiences will change human sexuality and behaviour for better and for worse. This will be particularly evident when researching virtual worlds like Second Life, which already have documented transformative effects on concepts of the ‘sexual body’ (BBC 2008), as well as concepts of sexuality and artificial intelligence (Baraniuk 2014), virtual reality and sex industries (VICE 2014), and language and expression in online sexual interaction.
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 Sex-positive is defined as: ‘having positive attitudes about sex and feeling comfortable with one’s own sexual identity and with the sexual behaviours of others.’ (International Society for Sexual Medicine 2016) AND ‘an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation,’ (Gabosch 2008).