Thursday, August 18, 2005

Technology, Alienation, and Sex Chat

Er...no. We aren't going to sex chat, here.

Although I'm not typically heavy-handed on the delete-comment button, and conversations have a way of going where they will; so technically, I suppose it could happen...It just isn't really my intention or point.

Since we've been discussing online communities, general alienation, and the role of technology in interpersonal dynamics; I started wondering how all that plays out in the internet dating phenomena. We all know people--or know of people--who met current partners or spouses online. Maybe we make fun of it.

There's the whole proliferation of forums and rooms specifically devoted to sex-chat.

There's the occasional unsolicited IM from a stranger, wanting to know if you'd like to cyber with him/her.

What's up with that? Is it that hard to meet real people? Is it just way more fun when sex becomes an exercise of imagination, separated from a solo act of masturbation by the presence of a participant--who isn't in the room?

Is is about flirtation from a safe distance? Some combination of all of the above, with elements as yet undiscussed, here?

Do we make value judgements about it? Sure. What's the line? What's okay online, and what do we find distasteful--even while recognizing that a great number of consenting adults not only do not agree, but enthusiastically participate?

I've never participated in the whole cyber-sex thing, but I do know people who have experimented with it. I also know of one marriage that was destroyed, at least in part, by a woman's online "extra-curricular" activity.

That suggests to me that on some level, in some contexts, people view cyber-relationships as real; therefore, on some level, that interaction has a degree of power to be both fulfilling to some extent, and potentially threatening.

I think we can safely extend that "real" status to non-sexual relationships, as well.

14 comments:

Flash!topian said...

Okay, Mac, since I found you via Dr. Bitch's comments and I don't know you, I'll tell you a little story. When I was 15 or so, the internet came to my home for the first time. It was early in the internet days, when pretty much the only people in chatrooms at 3am were serious perverts. I was 15 and hard up, and, due to circumstances, a serious pervert. Plus, I was curious about sex and knew that I was unpopular enough that it might not happen to me for several years. So I logged on, found a stranger whom I immediately told I was a 15yo virgin, and there we were.

Yes, when I was 15 it was terribly exciting to have someone type words to me that no one had ever used to address me before. It was really erotic to know that a strange man somewhere probably knew things about me that I didn't. But I wasn't stupid enough to think it was a real emotional relationship. He wanted to exchange phone numbers. That was ridiculous.

Later, when I was 17 and in college, I began a correspondence with a man who was ten years my senior through a music fan listserve. But that didn't become erotic until we started talking on the phone. Again, it was a turn-on because I was really ignorant. But it served the purpose of teaching me what I wanted to know.

After losing my virginity at 19, the idea of telesexuality seemed kind of stupid. Aside from some hot phone chats with a few boyfriends since then, it's just seemed like a waste of energy because the physical presence thing is so wonderful.

What I don't get is why fully knowledgeable adults want to have cyber- or phone-sex. Is it because they don't like physical sex that much, and through making it non-physical they can idealize it? I don't know. But I have come to suspect that lots and lots of people don't really dig sex. Shopping is their sex, or work is their sex, or God is their sex. Physical sex doesn't do it for plenty of folks, and I don't know why. Is evolution trying to kill us off? Who will take over? Robots?

Mac said...

Hiya, flash--and thank you. I dig Dr. B's blog, rather a lot.

I wonder if it's a way for people to feel as if they remain in control of their own sexuality.

The whole issue of kids and internet sex scares the hell out of people--mostly because the idea of kids having any sex seems to make people quite uncomfortable--and rightfully so, in many cases.

I think you may be onto something with your observation that non-physical sex is perhaps about idealizing the act and the relationship.

Kira said...

Or the note of non-sexual real internet relationships, check out the blogher blog. Google brings it up.

Dawno said...

Dawno raises her hand, I met my SO via the computer. At the time I was recently divorced, living in a new town with not many friends and my kids were young. Didn't do the cyber thing, we met because we both participated in several different forums on this computer service (like GEnie or CompuServe), discovered in each other kindred souls and when we met in person at a "meet" for west coast members of the service we clicked. About a month later we decided to live together. So far, 14 years later (just celebrated our anniversary last weekend) it seems to be working out. :-)

I'm a reader. And let me explain that as it relates to me. I am a natural speed reader. I go through several (3+) mass market paperbacks and one or two hardback releases every week. If there aren't any hardbacks I read more mass markets or add a couple trade ppb. It's almost like being hooked on crack. Nearly as expensive too. :-)

On top of being a voracious consumer of books, I get completely absorbed by what I'm reading. I am truly transported into the book even if it's not a particularly good one. (I will admit that Atlanta Nights was a major exception)

So the concept of having friendships with people who I know as only their words on a screen doesn't seem so outrageous to me.

Cybersex tho, that I don't get. Maybe I'm old fashioned but I want to get to know a person, go out a few times before I jump into bed with them.

If I had to guess why it appeals to some, maybe there's an aspect of shyness and insecurity -or- that someone can be a completely different fantasy persona with less effort than it takes to become a fantasy persona in real life. I joke with friends on a forum I frequent that on Thursdays and Saturdays I'm Dawno the Dominatrix. And I could be that in a sex chat without having to invest in all that leather.

And I hope Mac will forgive me for making this pitch, but I blogged today about something I think is important and if you have a moment to spare please click my name and read about "The Committee to Protect Bloggers" if you're not familiar with this organization and what they do.

Flash!topian said...

"non-physical sex is perhaps about idealizing the act and the relationship"

Exactly, and that's precisely why internet dating is really bad news for people who enjoy the part where you look at profiles and flirt. Some of my friends see some cute pictures and clever writing and assume the best. They get to know the date through mutual idealization of flirty messages. Then, when the real live date has even a slightly odd voice or gait or laugh, it's all over. Even if that person would still be completely attractive if met outside the internet context, s/he's extra-repulsive for not living up to an ideal.

For those of us who rush to get to the face-to-face part, internet dating can be extremely fun, especially in a huge, well-educated city like New York. My first year here, I used Nerve.com to meet all kinds of wonderfully bizarre characters. Eventually, I met my current boyfriend (of 1.5 years). Neither of us are the type to prefer idealized constructs of people, so we both got far more than we expected. I like to think that happens every time we see each other.

Oh -- and I forgot to mention, I'm Carrie, with whom you've been responding on Dr. B's. I'm not normally an obsessive commenter. Just a little insomniac these days. New semester and all.

Mac said...

Carrie! How cool is that? :) I'm so glad you're here.

I'm a compulsive insomniac pretty much all the time--so I'm here more nights than not. It's one of the reasons I adore the whole online community phenomenon.

I feel much safer than I'd feel out wandering the streets in the middle of the night--plus, I'm more likely to encounter people who are awake and want to engage in interesting conversation.

Dawno, I read like you read--so I totally understand what you mean.

I'm thinking the cybersex thing has to do with performance and self-expression--Ms M just said some interesting things about it in the OnStar thread.

bugs said...

Is it just way more fun when sex becomes an exercise of imagination
Um, am I the only one who ever fantasizes during sex with a real live person in the same room?

So no, that can't possibly be the only explanation. :-)

I don't "get" cybersex, frankly. If I can't do it with a real live person in the same room, then I don't see the point of involving anyone else (authors of good sex scenes excepted).

Mac said...

I've been thinking about Carrie's speculation that people don't really dig sex all that much--but they know they're supposed to like it.

Couple that idea (heh, I crack myself up) with Bugs' aside at the end, there, about authors of good sex scenes...

We do, as a society, put a lot of focus on sex. We give the sexually appealing person quite a lot of power, overall--even as we like to punish or marginalize them, in some contexts.

We seem to want badly *gross generalization alert* to separate our perception of sexuality and sexual nature from intellectual pursuits, as well.

That just can't be healthy. It leaves us running around feeling like we were raised by apes and we're giving our animal nature free reign, if we're choosing to have sex--and if we, instead, choose to invest that energy in strictly intellectual pursuits, then we neuter ourselves.

Hmm. I'm not quite sure where I was taking that. I suppose I'm considering an artificial dichotomy of sex-as-intellectualized-exercise as opposed to sex-as-sweaty-sticky-physical, as a means of circumventing that culturalized perception in our own minds.

Tish Grier said...

What a great topic! Here's a perspective from a former on-line dater as well as former pro-dominatrix:

With the proliferation of easily accessible on-line porn, most of it clips without context (as opposed to the old-fashioned pornfilm, which tried to give the viewer a story, albeit a bad one), many people are, to a greater or lesser degree, desirous of interacting in the sort of "zipless fuck" scenarious they see.

However, they do not want to possibly catch a deadly disease, compromise their current relationship, or actually engage in the acts they see. They like to *think* about the acts, but are frightened to engage in them, as to connect would destroy the perfection of the fantasy (where one has absolute control).

Cybersex guarantees they will have all the control and on a very base level get the need met. For many who suffer from cases of the chicken-shits, this is all they really want.

Non-BDSM friends of mine who have entered into the on-line dating game have discovered a very interesting anomaly...many men (and some women) who run ads on a regular dating site will also run concurrent ads on kinky sites. The regular site may say the indivdual is looking for a long-term relationship, where the kinky ad may be stating the exact opposite. The information overload pushes some people to want to experience all and everything, but, when it comes down to it, lack the guts to do so, and even when they have ads, will cyber more than actually pursue a relationship in either realm.

When I worked pro, and someone approached me for a session, I would often ask if they had any real time experience. "oh, sure," was the answer...but when I dug a little deeper (and I always did) they would admit that their experiences were thru "cyber domming" and they considered their cyber experiences just as valid as if they were in real sessions.

However, IMHO, real sex, kinky or not, is a participation sport and cyber really doesn't count. The sound of one hand clapping, is, after all, no sound at all.

Mac said...

Tish, thanks! I'm so glad you decided to comment.

I think mostly people's kinks are going to be their kinks, regardless of the interface--

I DO wonder, though, if there's something about this particular medium that especially lends itself.

Tish Grier said...

Good comment Mac!

From knowing both "Old Guard" and "New Guard" BDSM people is something along the lines of perceived kink vs. actual kink. I have met many, many people who brand themselves "kinksters" but upon talking with them discover that the types of private games they play are do not actually fit the rubric of "kink"...the best example I can give is of people who are gamers who all of a sudden think there's a direct correlation between their fantasy-roleplaying and kinky sex. There is a belief that if they are playing games with dungeons and slaves that they *must* be kinky. When confronted though with the realities of kink, many head for the hills, or merely band within ther own little groups to say that their brand of kink is indeed kink. They refuse to speak to Old Guard kinksters and like to deny that there was a community before they became aware of fantasy/role-playing.

The off-line, Old Guard communities are where the realities of kink exist. There are layers one must peel away, and trust that must be earned before one learns the truth of most hardcore kink. And, once one knows the truth, one often has to stay mum as there are many, many people whose lives and professions would be compromised if their secrets were revealed.

And these secrets have little to do with tieing someone with silk scarves and playing a little slap and tickle with a bunny-fur flogger.

Perception is everything for some--people like to perceive themselves as something more and will go to great lenghts, including forming their own little groups, to maintain their perceptions. The realities, though, are often far more complex than than that group wants to deal with.

Mac said...

Tish said: "
Perception is everything for some--people like to perceive themselves as something more and will go to great lenghts, including forming their own little groups, to maintain their perceptions. The realities, though, are often far more complex than than that group wants to deal with."


Ah, but that's true outside of sexuality, as well--so we see the whole fluid-identity phenomenon on the internet, in a variety of situations: people get to pretend to be someone they are not, and it works--up to a point--because we can't see each other's faces.

That brings us back to something Carrie said earlier; to paraphrase, she suggested that for a certain set of people, internet dating is bad news, because they're way more into the fantasy of someone than the reality of them.

What I hear you saying, Tish, is essentially the same thing--someone may be into the fantasy of the darker or more violent side of sexuality, without being into the sometimes messy reality (blood and shit, for instance) of the physical follow-through.

Where it gets some people into trouble is when they coalesce the separate experiences in their minds as completely equivalent.

Flash!topian said...

Exactly. Lots of us are into situations in pornography or erotica that we would not be erotic for us in real life. I may be turned on by the thought of SM, which produces a sort of "comic analogue of fear" (to borrow from RS Crane). But in actually painful sexual scenarios in which I am powerless, I feel real terror and it ceases to be fun.

And I think people feel like they're supposed to get off on sex, but real intimacy creates real fear for many people. Cybersex, telesex, and other arrangements give them the appearance of intimacy without the scary physical part.

I'm thinking of my boyfriend's ex-wife here. After the first year, when she seemed gung-ho enough about sex, my boyfriend realized it was kind of a pose, not for him, but for her friends. She would talk to them about how great their sex was. Once that wore off, it became apparent that sex was a situation she did not truly enjoy. She forced him into less and less intimate intercourse, until, in the last years of their marriage, sex was a once-a-month endeavour in which she'd lie on her side, read a magazine, and count off 90 seconds. If he didn't finish, she'd walk away. She left him for man 15 years younger whom she met at work. She immediately began flaunting her infidelity in front of her friends, talking publicly about his "hot bod," etc. That's been going on for two years now. She won't give my boyfriend a divorce. To all appearances, she's stopped sleeping with her new dude. She has to keep up the illusion of being young and hot and desirable, but she can't abide the intimacy for long. Who's pressuring her?

Tish Grier said...

Mac, you've definitely got it. Alot of people develop an identity dysphoria that causes them to over-identify with groups whose practices and mores are not conguent with their realities. There is a desire to label and make certain what is uncertain to alleviate anxiety.

And, yes, this can be with non-sexual pursuits as well. I think of on-line gamers who have gone way too far with their on-line personnas.

So, as you mention, the big problem comes in when people begin to honestly believe their vitual experiences to be real. The way our world seems to work, which is to create more anxiety in order to sell people products to perfect themselves, ends up forcing many people further and further into virtual worlds. I wonder what the long-term effects of this will be.