What’s So Wrong About Virtual Sex?

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I was glad to read Susan Jacoby’s op-ed today, pushing back against the Brown-Quinn thesis that women are somehow victims of sexting culture and not full, eager participants. She makes some of the points I did last week:

There is no force involved here; people of both sexes are able to block unwanted advances. Women are certainly safer on the Web than they would be going home with strangers they meet in bars.

But then she veers off into this diatribe:

The morality of virtual sex, as long as no one is cheating on a real partner, is not what bothers me. What’s truly troubling about the whole business is that it resembles the substitution of texting for extended, face-to-face time with friends. Virtual sex is to sex as virtual food is to food: you can’t taste, touch or smell it, and you don’t have to do any preparation or work. Sex with strangers online amounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content. Erotic play without context becomes just a form of one-on-one pornography.

Bingo: “one-on-one pornography”. That’s the most concise description of sexting at its best that I have yet read. And it prompts me to ask: what, pray, is so wrong with that? Sex has always been about fantasy and reality and the sometimes ridiculous and sometimes incredibly hot experiences that mix can engender. The most fundamental sexual organ is the brain, as my shrink often points out to me. And masturbation – which is solitary sex based on fantasy (sometimes from pornography, sometimes from real life, sometimes from an Old Spice commercial) – is as old as human beings’ brains.

That’s why virtual sex is not like virtual food. You can have an orgasm in your body as well as your mind without any actual “work” in a way you cannot eat or taste something virtually. In fact, your sexual experiences through masturbatory fantasy can be far more satisfying and intense than the actual thing – you know, when one of you has come and the other hasn’t, when the dog jumps on the bed in the middle of it, when one of you farts or queefs, when the word “ow” occasionally surfaces, or when your mind wanders for a bit and your already sated spouse has to look at the ceiling for a while and think of the skim milk that needs buying, as you plug away to get it over with.

Nothing is as over-rated as bad actual sex or as under-rated as good virtual sex. And, yes, it isn’t real in the way that a loving, physical fuck-fest with a loved partner is real. But so what? Since when is the ideal the enemy of the good? And the fact that it isn’t real – that it’s a fantasy deriving from a sexual avatar – means it’s less perilous. It’s a form of play, the kind of activity that marks intelligent beings from those with less developed frontal cortexes. It’s play between two fantasy partners; it victimizes no-one; it transmits no diseases; it risks no pregnancy; it renders both partners radically more equal than they would be in the actual sack; and, as long as it is kosher with your partner, if you have one, it is much more moral than actual adultery, precisely because it isn’t real.

And women would be the most likely to gain sexual pleasure from this without all the attendant headaches and dangers of an actual physical, real-life sexual encounter.

Men, for their part, love showing off their sexual prowess. There’s a reason why Chatroulette – remember that? – started as a free-wheeling chance for anyone to say anything, and ended up as a dizzying parade of jerking dick pics. Anthony Weiner may be a loser but he is not mentally ill; he is a classic high-testosteroned male of the species, maximizing his sexual pleasure while minimizing the chances of actually having sex with someone other than his wife. His fault was not telling his wife up-front and running for fricking mayor of New York. But single guys and women – or those whose entire sexual needs cannot be completely fulfilled by fucking one person for the rest of their lives (i.e. everyone) – rightly see virtual sex as the best of all possible worlds if you want to get off without getting it on.

All this is is personal, interactive porn. On the web, it’s everywhere. In our national discourse, especially among those who came of age before the web, it is somehow necessarily foul and disgusting. It isn’t. It’s just embarrassing if your sex talk and body pics end up being perused by the whole world (which is why a new sexting app can automatically cause your pics to evaporate after a fixed amount of time).

Instead of ranting about dickmanship, feminists should be cheering this avenue for female sexual liberation on. It isn’t what sex can be at its best. But it sure is victimless, non-coercive, often exciting sexual play. I’m sorry, but that does not equate either with the near-negation of sex, as Jacoby would have it, or with mental illness. As a culture, we’re just not ready to admit that. But soon enough, we will.

(Photo by Mathieu Grac, from a collection of “Amusing and Poignant Photos of Social Media Self-Portraits in Progress.”)