Virtual Sex

Everything you’ve been afraid to ask about sex in cyberspace

I was having sex with a Dutch girl when my wife walked in. “What do you think about this?” I asked.

“Um,” she said. “It’s a little weird.”

The Dutch girl wasn’t real. Well, not really real? She was an avatar in Second Life, the online, 3D, digital world developed by San Francisco company Linden Labs. But there was a real person on a computer somewhere in the world making her avatar have sex with my avatar by clicking a pink ball on the ground. I don’t know where the real user was located, but our virtual meeting space within Second Life was called “The Netherlands.” Or maybe “she” was really a he, controlling a female avatar. Impossible to say for sure.

If it’s not clear already, “virtual sex” can be a little complicated.

Virtual sex, teledildonics, and real life

“It’s not sex but it is sex,” says Regina Lynn, author of The Sexual Revolution 2.0 and a columnist on sex and technology for Wired.com. “I don’t like the phrase ‘virtual sex,’” Lynn says, “because it trivializes the experience. There are many ways to share sex with people in virtual spaces, and you still have to communicate to the other person what you like and don’t like. It’s such a mental and emotional experience. That’s part of what turns people on.”

From adult video games to instant messaging and chat rooms to web cams to online interactive worlds to Internet-enabled sex toys, the means for enjoying erotic experience via a remote connection seem to be multiplying faster than you can say “teledildonics.”

For the uninitiated, teledildonics (or cyberdildonics) refers to sex toys that can be controlled with a computer. The “Sinulator,” for example, produced by Sinulate Entertainment in Sunnyvale, California, is a wireless vibrator that connects to any computer with an Internet hookup and a Windows operating system.

The Sinulator’s counterpart is the “Interactive Fleshlight,” a penis sleeve for men that transmits in-and-out action into vibrations for the Sinulator on the other end. “Just install the software,” says Sinulate’s web site, “plug in your Interactive Fleshlight, and pick a partner!”

Technology and long-distance sex

Kyle Machulis, operator of slashdong.org, a Web site about the combination of sex and technology and a self-described “tinkerer/hacker/pioneer/visionary in the realm of sex technology,” is a major proponent of open-source teledildonics. But, he says, the real-world functionality of computer-enabled sex toys hasn’t really caught up with its potential. “There are some cool ideas that just don’t work in implementation,” he says. Still, says Machulis, teledildonics are “changing long-distance relationships for the better,” allowing couples to “finally be physical over the wire.” And, he argues, we “haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg” in the field of virtual sex toys.

Allowing separated couples to stay in touch, almost literally, is only one of the many positive aspects that virtual-sex advocates see in the refinement of — and increasingly widespread access to — cyber-sex technologies. “One of the huge benefits is safety,” says Brenda Brathwaite, a veteran video game developer (whose credits include Playboy: The Mansion) and author of Sex in Video Games. In addition to STD-free interactions, Brathwaite says virtual worlds offer users the ability to explore sexuality in an anonymous environment. “There’s no safer place to meet,” she says, “than in a virtual world.”

The Internet can also be a boon for busy adults, Brathwaite says, allowing people to have social and romantic encounters online that they simply don’t have time for in conventional space. “For a busy single mom or dad whose life is packed with activity,” she says, “at the end of the day virtual worlds can allow them to socialize.”

Sex therapy and sex education via computer

Brathwaite, who is also a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, says cybersex holds tremendous potential for education on sexual health topics for youth and at-risk populations as well as untapped potential for sex therapy for couples. “You could walk a couple through a facilitated session,” she says, “while they are in the privacy of their own bedroom.”

Cory Silverberg, a sexual health educator and founding member of Come As You Are, an education-based sex store in Toronto, says, “What’s good about cybersex is that it allows people to conceive of new possibilities,” whether that means a disabled person gaining greater access to the sexual sphere or someone “fulfilling their fetish fantasies beyond anything that we could have imagined.”

The keys to healthy virtual sex, he says, include consent of all partners, a “sense of good will” (not going out and “trolling and stalking online”), and a respect for boundaries — “making sure that you’re not exposing more real information about yourself than you’re really comfortable with.”

Virtual sex, not without risks

Like any technology, though, virtual sex comes with its risks. Kimberly Young, PhD, who is the founder and director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pennsylvania, agrees that virtual worlds can allow individuals to explore new types of sexual behavior. But problems arise, she says, when users “lose their ability to control” that behavior.

Young says addictive cybersex behavior appears more common among males. She estimates that men comprise 60% of the clients who come to her center seeking help for sexual online compulsivity issues.

Moreover, Young says, the sheer variety of sexual experiences offered by the Internet can present a challenge to monogamous relationships. “Having sex with the same person can become routine, boring,” she says. “Online sex adds a certain level of variety. But if you’re married and keeping it a secret, it’s a problem.”

Regina Lynn defines the issue this way: “Does your partner know, and does your partner consent? Lying is cheating.”

“Everyone’s always interested in where the line [with cheating] lies,” says Cory Silverberg. “An interest in what constitutes infidelity isn’t new. It’s been on people’s minds forever in real life. In virtual life, everyone wants to push those boundaries a little bit.”

Which brings me back to my wife. I click over to virtuallyjenna.com, “the official videogame of Jenna Jameson,” where paying users can have their way with a digital embodiment of the porn star. “Would you consider this cheating if I were playing this game?” I ask, pointing to the trailer on the home page, where Jameson’s digital image appears to be competing in some kind of timed, multi-partner sex decathlon. This is a little unfair, I realize, this testing of my spouse’s reactions to my exploration of Internet sex, all in the name of journalism.

My wife looks back at digital Jenna. “Yeah. I’m not so sure,” she says. “But we can talk about it more over dinner.” And with that we’re back in the “real” world, leaving a vast population in the virtual universe to chat and caress their way into the night.

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