Online Sex: My Space or Yours?
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We all know that men are pigs -- when they're not busy being dogs. We also know, from meticulous research conducted by our efficient, delicious and highly suggestible Edge interns, that what separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to use sex as a means of pioneering technological advances. From the printing press to photography to motion pictures to VCRs and DVDs -- every new form of mass media has smut to thank for its initial success and subsequent development. But those were mere warm-ups for how sex sold the world on a little thing called the Internet.
What began as a twinkle in Al Gore's eye and a networking tool among academics quickly blossomed into the most prolific titty and prick show the world has ever known. Just Google the word "sex" and you'll see the pursuit of happiness easily dwarfs the quest for reasonably priced airline tickets as the most popular on-line pastime. But how did the Internet change the face of hooking up; and what does the future hold? Edge spoke, sans our yummy interns, with a few pundits, entrepreneurs and academics to get the skinny on online sex.
Before there was Cyberspace, gay men were compelled to get out of the house if they wanted to get laid. Long before a bar and an event called Stonewall, public spaces were repurposed as clandestine places to hook up.
"Back in the 50s, as an oppressed community that did not have access to spaces to meet, we created spaces for social and sexual reasons." says Michael Reece, Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. "Lots of older men who identify as gay today report that some of their earliest sexual experiences were in public places -- locker rooms and rest rooms."
With the advent of the Internet, the need for hooking up in public diminished. "When we talk to young guys on campus today about cruising, many would never have felt a need to go looking in a public space for sex, because they grew up with the Internet."
But even though the forum has changed, the song remains the same. Reece sees clear parallels in how the visual and verbal language of public cruising has been adapted by on-line hook-ups: "At the end of the day, the behaviors are the same. In earlier generations, men managed their identities in by clothing. Today, they do it by the profiles and screen names they put up. They are very selective about the photos they might put in a profile; photos chosen to portray a certain image or persona."
Hooking Up Online
When John Edward Campbell, currently a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communications (U of PA), went back to grad school in the late 90s and began doing research on the online experiences of gay men, the existing literature on cyber cultural studies "was all based on heterosexuals. Sexual minorities were almost completely omitted. This was glaring oversight, considering gay men seemed to be early adopters of this technology."
Around the fall of 1997, Campbell launched a study that would become the basis for his book: Getting It on Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity . The study was inspired by Campbell's frustration at the disconnect between generalizations made about the purpose of going online and how gay men were actually using the Internet. Early research quickly shattered "the popular notion that people were going online to escape their bodies; this notion of this disembodied experience of cyberspace."
The same year he began his study, MCI came out with its famous Anthem commercial; which, Campbell recalls, showed "flashing images of different people saying 'no race, no gender, only minds. Utopia? No, the Internet.' There was this excitement that people were going online to escape gender or race; but gay men were going online for exactly the opposite reason -- to find people who shared their erotic desires, that were the type of people they were attracted to."
That search for partners with the same interests, fetishes, body types and quirks soon led to the formation of online communities, many of which were dedicated to specific body types and served as a means of establishing identity: Campbell: "Online venues, from IRC to AOL to Gay.com to MySpace and video chats, all seem to have replaced the function of the gay bar as a way for gay men to connect with other gay men ... A channel called Gay Tub was for overweight gay men; others catered to muscular men; these communities identified body type as the way men defined their erotic desires. Cyberspace was not about entering to escape the physical world; it was about supplementing real world experiences. Offline needs informed or shaped online interactions."
Campbell's book also looks at how IRC (Internet Relay Chat) "ultimately evolved into forums like the AOL chatrooms; now, you have a vast variety of online venues for chatting; Gay.com, instant messaging, java based chatrooms and even video chat." IRC, which originally was purely textual, did not allow users to see the bodies of those they were communicating with. Demand for visual communication helped develop new technology: "We wanted to see bodies; we wanted to see who we were chatting with." Campbell cites this early drive to put a face on impersonal verbal communication as further evidence that, when we log on, "We're not looking for a break from our physical reality. We're trying to make cyberspace more like our physical reality."
Patrick H. Perrine, MA, CEO and Founder of myPartner.com, has worked in the field of human sexuality since 1997, concentrating his studies on the development and cultivation of relationships for LGBT people. Perrine: "Gay daters were some of the earliest, if not the first, to utilize the web for meeting potential partners. In the initial days of on online dating, users searched for profiles that looked interesting and eligible to them, whether that be for a relationship of a short-term encounter. Online dating in its earliest years helped niche daters find each other. Much of that is still the same today; however, there are more sites that have implemented compatibility or personality matching systems to help facilitate matches for users."
Perrine dispels the popular notion that "online dating is deceiving or inundated with false profiles. What we are seeing, largely in part to the massive growth of social networking sites, is that misrepresentation of oneself in the online dating space is becoming less and less prevalent. People have social networking sites to live their alter egos, but use dating sites to find someone that is going to want them for them. Additionally, users can now have sections of their profiles 'private' or 'hidden' in a way that didn't exist a decade ago. So users are more incentivized to have their profile represent themselves in true form to those that they actually want to pursue a relationship with."
Phil Henricks, Director of Marketing for Manhunt.com, says that although "the sexuality of Manhunt is a core part of our identity and we always want to be a non judgmental zone where members can be as dirty and direct as they'd like to be, many gay men are looking for relationships. Statistically speaking, slightly over thirty percent of members say they are interested in a long term relationship."
Campbell backs up this assertion: "In the 1990s, the primary characteristic of online interaction was anonymity; nobody knows you're black, a woman, or gay. One undeniable trend is that we've progressively moved from anonymous interactions to ones where we want to know more. People now are mini-celebs, people are willing to open their lives online." As a result, he cites the decline of venues like Gay.com and online chatrooms as more people flock to social networking sites where they can divulge information about themselves. Campbell also notes the generational shift that occurred as men embraced going online "not there to enter a fantasy world, but to look for meaningful social interactions that will carry over into the offline world." He cites, as anecdotal evidence, "how many gay men have gone online to find romantic partners; it's almost clichÃ© that people say, when asked how you found your partner, gay men will say we met online."
According to the findings of research, Reece observes that "identity drives behaviors. Once men create an identity in a physical or online space, they tend to participate in behaviors that help them support the maintenance of that identity. If a man portrays himself as being heterosexual on the DL, they participate in behaviors that support that identity. They may only fuck, not get fucked. The unfortunate thing is that the research community has not done justice trying to understand how gay men are using the Internet as a sexual outlet. They're only asking questions about having sex without condoms, meeting partners and using drugs. It's been unfortunate in our understanding of contemporary gay men. Our behaviors, when studied, have primarily been studied for their potential contributions to disease."
The Virtual Future
Online hookups won't go out of style any time soon -- unless (or, more likely, until) we invent a robot lifelike, limber and skilled enough to both serve and service mankind (makers of Roomba and the nation of Japan, are you listening?). For now, though, Cyberspace sill has emerging technology that could effectively tide you over until Mr. Roboto can do his thing.
Reece sees a greater prevalence of "sex via camera, phone and chatting", and notes the emerging technology of Teledildonics (which is pretty much what it sounds like; sex toys hooked up to equipment that allows one to use a toy being manipulated by their online partner.) He also cites "the whole phenomenon of Second Life; virtual realities and worlds are quickly becoming understood as important sexual spaces for people whose characters participate in sexual activates. These activities are ultimate forms of safer sex; do some of these activities represent, unfortunately, many researchers look to these behaviors to say are they pathological. Do they indicate addiction to cybersex? How is this invaluable outlet for men who want to be having sexual relationships in this way other than actually meeting a partner?"
Campbell points out that "As more people have broadband connections and download is less of an issue, cyberspace is going to become an increasingly visually intense experience. We're going to want it to be more like our offline interactions. Video online conferencing technologies are going to become increasingly immersive. Look at online games like World of Warcraft, and Second Life; these are complete immersive online environments. Although they are games, people go there to form online communities within these spaces." But even online, LGBTs can't seem to escape the reality of mistreatment based on gender prejudices.
Campbell: "There was transsexual living in Tennessee who started playing Warcraft as a way of escaping the homophobia she encountered every day. She found that people were still saying demeaning things, saying that's gay as a derogatory term. She formed a guild within the game of sexual minorities. Blizzard entertainment, who owned World of Warcraft, sanctioned her." Proof that even as technology continues to exert its power to better our lives, it ultimately lacks the ability to make us better people.