I get this question a lot. Usually people ask it indirectly, like:
- If I’m in a relationship and have sex online, is that cheating?
- Is it unhealthy if all the sex I’m having is online?
- If I’m going online and having sex as a different gender, does that mean there’s something wrong with me?
All these questions and many others connect to this larger, central one; how does virtual sex fit into our other ways of understanding sex? Or is virtual sex real sex? The problem with this question is that most people ask it as if it’s a concrete question with a simple answer. They don’t recognize that it’s a philosophical question and that the answer reveals much more about the person answering than it does about the nature of sex in virtual spaces.
Confronting these philosophical questions about reality, identity, and consciousness is one of the things that’s so exciting about talking about virtual spaces. Unfortunately while there are lots of thoughtful people trying to address these issues in complicated ways (particularly on sites like Terra Nova) most of them remain silent or simplistic when they talk about sexuality.
What, for example, is the relationship between my sexual interactions in virtual spaces and my sexual fantasy life? For many sex educators and therapists the division between fantasy and reality is a crucial tool in helping people unpack their sexual desires and identities. People ask “does it make me X if I fantasize about Y?” And the response is often “well, if you’re fantasizing about it it doesn’t necessarily make you anything. It may just be a fantasy. If you want to bring this fantasy into real life it may have more significance.”
But what about when we want to bring a fantasy into virtual life? Should that be considered a move towards making it “real”? And if it’s happening with a real person and everyone involved is having real responses, isn’t that enough to make it real?
The future of interactive technologies is only going to lead to further blurring of the lines between virtual and real, fantasy and reality. What I hope is that sexuality doesn’t remain on the sidelines of interest to professionals who are thinking, writing, and talking about these issues. As long as it does the conversation will be left in the hands of the media and the courts; two systems that I’d argue are particularly ill suited to deal with sexuality.
As virtual sex (also called cybersex or "cybering") becomes easier for everyone to access, it's not surprising that many of us have questions about what it is and what it means for ourselves and our real life sexual interactions with others. The question "is virtual sex real sex?" gets asked a lot these days, although it isn't always worded this way. Here are some other ways that people ask this question:
- Does virtual sex constitute cheating?
- Is it OK if I'm going online and having sex as a different gender?
- If someone is having more sex online than off line, is that unhealthy?
All these questions relate back to the big one. Because if virtual sex isn't "real sex" then it wouldn't be cheating, would it? And if it isn't "real" then what could be wrong with doing it a lot, or in certain ways?
The trouble here isn't with the question. The trouble is that we expect there to be a single answer. We think this question is practical and concrete (like "is it risky to have unprotected sex?" or "if I eat too many peaches will I get a stomachache?") when in fact the question is more philosophical and abstract (like "If a tree has sex by itself in a forest, does it make a sound?" or "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"). With this distinction in mind let's look at the yes and the no answers.
Viewpoint 1: Virtual Sex Is Real Sex
Those who answer yes to the question point out that people have very "real" responses to things that happen online, and that sex is no different. We can feel joy and sorrow, arousal and disgust, anxiety and calm all while we sit in front of our computer. We also have physical responses (from butterflies in our stomach to physical arousal and orgasm and from full belly laughs to uncontrollable sobbing). We build meaningful relationships and break ups -- and these experiences have repercussions in our real life, thus crossing the line from virtual to real. So if "real sex" includes a psychological, emotional, and physical response to erotic stimulation, then virtual sex would have to count.
For those who argue that real sex requires a human connection or relationship, this too is present for many people who engage in virtual sex as part of their experiences online.
Researchers and therapists who talk about "problematic online sexual behaviors" (usually referred to as things such as watching "too much" internet pornography, engaging in erotic or sexual chat without their partner's knowledge, etc…) also seem to consider virtual sex to have real sex-like implications for relationships. In this case, they might not think virtual sex is "healthy" sex, but they treat it as real, or at least as a real problem.
Viewpoint 1: Virtual Sex Is Not Real Sex
Usually people who say that virtual sex isn't real sex point to the absence of physical contact in virtual sex. It's true that while virtual sex currently engages many senses it doesn't include immediate human touch. No matter how complicated and deeply felt the sexual communications are during virtual sex, if you want to feel touch you have to touch yourself. The field of teledildonics 2is beginning to address this, but so far the results have been disappointing.
Some people who engage in virtual sex while in relationships say that it's not the same as real sex, which would be cheating. A similar argument has been made in a very different arena by people who look at violent or coercive pornography (whether it involves real people pretending or computer generated images). These people have suggested that virtual interactions stop them from engaging in real interactions that would be harmful to others. This is a highly contentious point with researchers on both sides arguing that virtual experiences either relieve the desire to do something in real life or fuel that desire.
You Can't Compare Virtual Sex To Offline Sex
You may have noticed that both answers to this question are based on comparing "real sex" to virtual sex. There are problems with this approach.
First, it presumes a universally agreed upon understanding of "real sex". This doesn't exist. Indeed we not only lack a full understanding of online sexual interactions and what they mean for people, we don't fully understand offline sexual interactions and their meanings (it's hard to get into the bedrooms of the nation, the doors are usually closed and locked when researchers come knocking). If we are trying to answer this question by comparing off line sex to online sex we're still missing too many pieces to make a fair comparison.
We can also wonder about the logic of using offline sexuality as the standard of "real sex." It's possible that people who grow up with easy access to virtual spaces and new technologies may have a different experience of sexuality both on and offline than those who don't. In this case we aren't comparing apples to apples, and when we try to do so we may miss much of the richness and complexity of online sexual development.
The Bottom Line
If this question is ultimately about individual experience, the bottom line is that for many people virtual sex is real sex. These interactions are meaningful and can impact aspects of their whole lives. Like all sexual interactions, they can be both healthy and unhealthy. And for others, virtual sexual interactions may be more like playing a video game, a temporary amusement that doesn't carry deeper meaning or impact other aspects of their life.
If you are trying to come up with a social or cultural answer, the results will be less clear. Technologies, and our uses of them, are so new and most public discussion, even when framed by professionals, is far from objective. Media engagement with these issues tends to be superficial and sensationalist.
So where does this leave us? Well, we need to begin by acknowledging that the way we answer this question for ourselves has as much, if not more, to do with our values and beliefs about sexuality than it has to do with technology or what any individual is actually doing online. It also means we have to talk to each other and share those values and beliefs as well as live with the uncomfortable fact that some questions will never have neat answers.