It’s sometimes hard to say whether sex stimulates technology or technology stimulates sex, but it often seems as though the simplest way to encourage individuals to focus their attention on solving technological problems is to frame those problems in a way that makes them think of orgasm.
Across history it has been shown time and time again that the best way to ensure a new technology’s success is to have sexual explorers exploit it. Reading became popular when the printing press switched over from religious and legal tracts to wholesale porn. Photography went from high concept to highly exciting when, during the Civil War, people realized they could take some decidedly un-civil photographs. And parents everywhere might have been deprived the joy of endless viewings of the Teletubbies were it not for the phenomenal levels of interest in the pornographic titles that made up more than three quarters of all videos sold in the early days of the VCR.
Whether you’re looking at the way that condom manufacturing helped popularize novel technological advances in manufacturing, or how the desire to program realistic breast movement helped make computer game graphics so impressive today, one thing is clear. Progress is so exciting... and nothing excites further progress like figuring out how to use it for sex.
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have at least a mild fascination with sex. Even asexuals, those individuals who have little to no interest in actual sexual encounters, often cannot help but spend a lot of time thinking about, explaining, and justifying their lack of sexual desire. Even those people who aren’t comfortable talking about the sexual act themselves, can often barely resist the urge to listen to salacious details or glance at naughty pictures when they think that no one will ever find out. That is one of the major lures of sexual exploration on the Internet – the illusion of privacy.
It’s no secret that sex is great bait, but even as “polite” society acknowledges its power – most notably in advertising – it still usually keeps discussion of sexuality tightly under wrap. Ironically, it is probably just this deliciously impolite nature of sexual exploration—physical, textual, or visual—that explains its constant place at the forefront of so many technological movements. Because it is so often impossible to discuss sex in public, sexually driven people must constantly look for new ways to explore it in private. And since, as of yet, no one has come up with a technological sexual substitute that is anywhere near as pleasurable and exciting as the real thing… there is a never ending drive to find something new, something better, and something for everyone. These days, much of that innovation is fueled by, and directed at, the Internet.
The Intersection of Sex and the Internet
From Usenet to YouTube, sex has long had a place on the Web. From the early days when people could go to the Mining Company (now About.com) to find instructional material on BDSM or download binary encoded dirty pictures from the alt.sex hierarchy, to today’s live webcam shows where women and men take off their clothes at the click of the mouse and a check of a credit card, the thought of sex has driven people online.
These days, going online is also driving people’s sex. Adventurous souls can purchase a vibrator along with a control device that allows strangers to manipulate their sexual experiences over the Internet. There is even an adaptor that allows a man on one side of the world to masturbate and have his thrusts control the intensity of the vibrations his girlfriend experiences in her apartment six time zones away.
Men can also finally experience the long held dream of actually interacting with the porn stars they’re getting off too… at least in simulation. One company is marketing an electronic male masturbation sleeve that is controlled by special encoding present in certain pornographic videos. All the man needs to do is put on the sleeve and turn on the film, Then as he watches the porn star going down on someone else’s penis, he feels the sensations on his own.
As for the future of sexual technology? Well, it gives a whole new meaning to the word “holistic”. As early as next year, companies will be selling virtual-reality, whole-body sex suits that allow people to touch and stimulate their partners over the web. It may seem an impossible dream, but it, and you, will be coming soon. Early prototypes for such devices already exist.
The Internet is for Porn
One area in which the Internet has found unqualified success is in the distribution and access of highly specialized porn. If a person is looking for graphic representations of a particularly steamy, or seamy, act of sex, the Internet is the place to go. Although dirty magazines and adult bookstores will probably never go fully out of style, many have discovered that there is no substitute for being able to access the images and words that turn them on from safe within the privacy of their own home.
It’s hard for young people to imagine that there was ever a time that it might have been difficult to find naked pictures, salacious imagery, and even videos of explicit and unusual sexual acts. When it comes to pornography, today’s Internet is capable of providing whatever someone might want, whenever they want it. All it takes is a computer and an Internet connection to find images depicting just about any sex act imaginable… or so the pornographers would like you to think.
The thing is this – what you see is not always what you get. The production of false or misleading pornographic images is, forgive the expression, rampant. Digitally manipulated images, “fake” child pornography, and staged scenes that would be difficult or impossible to safely enact during real life are all over the Internet, and they may actually be having a negative effect on people’s sex lives. Not only can such products, and even un-enhanced pornography, create unrealistic expectations for an individual’s sexual performance, people who get their sex education from pornography may end up believing that impractical, uncomfortable, or even socially unacceptable sex acts are not only expected but routine.
One example of this that is both humorous and slightly horrifying recently showed up on an Internet discussion forum where a bunch of young women were discussing a new and disturbing trend in their sex lives: more and more men were giving them “facials” as a routine part of sex. Although some people might be shocked that any woman could resist the cool touch of a cucumber on her eyelids and a nice mud mask after a good strong orgasm, the facials in question involved their male partners ejaculating on their face … and semen isn’t nearly as good for the skin. Apparently, this second sort of facial is such a staple of the pornographic film industry that many young men now think it is expected of them. It isn’t. Even those women who are perfectly willing to agree to an act that much of society finds degrading or humiliating prefer their partners to negotiate it first.
No One Is Alone
On the other hand, the diversity and frequently fetishistic nature of Internet pornography is also one of its virtues. It has often been said that if you can think of a fetish you can probably find porn about it online. Although this is mostly a useful paradigm for the entertainment value inherent in spending hours doing bizarre searches and staring at their mind-boggling results (Naked women and pigs? Check. Cereal porn? Check.) the diversity of porn on the Internet also serves a useful societal purpose. No one ever needs to feel like they are a freak simply because they have an odd sexual fetish, and pornography can also provide a safe way for individuals to explore sexual fetishes that would not be legal, practical, or ethical to explore in the real world.
Porn can also offer a valuable educational experience, as long as individuals are sensible about the content they choose to learn from, and take everything they see with a grain of salt. There are, in fact, several adult film producers who specialize in porn with educational content designed to make individuals better and more aware lovers. Sex education, as it turns out, can be incredibly hot.
In addition, there are more practical, less prurient sources of sexuality education on the Internet. From safer sex guidelines written by trained professionals to social support groups for young gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning individuals who need to find a virtual community that can provide them the love and support they need in times of crisis, the diversity of the Internet can provide a voice for communities that would otherwise have none.
Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff
One of the perpetual problems with accessing information on the Internet is that it is often difficult to determine its quality. There is often no way to check an author’s credentials, their sources, or even their motivations for putting their words out there for everyone to read. Still, if you know where to look for it, there is a great deal of high-quality educational sexual content available on the Internet, and there has been for years.
Before the age of the Internet, individuals who were members of sexual minorities, or who were interested in particularly unusual sexual acts, would often have difficulty figuring out how to engage in the activities they desired safely, or even determining if such longings could be enacted at all. On the Internet, however, the low cost of entry for providing information has meant that even the most niche fetishes have their proponents, and sometimes those individuals have a calling to educate.
One sexual minority for whom the Internet has often provided a forum for debate and education, as well as a medium to promote real life interaction, is the BDSM community. For example, the early USENET groups devoted to BDSM—including alt.sex.bondage and its successor soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm—stimulated the growth of real-life communities that often long outlived the useful lives of the Internet communities in which they were born. Conversations on those communities also informed the creation of numerous online and offline educational resources that many people continued to use years after the communities themselves went dormant.
These days, it’s more true than ever that if someone is interested in finding out whether or not any sexual activity is theoretically and practically feasible, they can almost certainly uncover information about it on the Internet. Whether the information is accurate or not, however, may be more difficult to assess.
Fortunately, one of the ways in which the power of the Internet is most often harnessed is in the formation of communities, and an intelligent, informed, and active community can be a very effective tool for screening the quality of content. One of the differences between writing on the Internet and more “traditional” content sources is the fact that on the Internet the consumers of the material are generally encouraged to talk back… and talk they do, particularly when it comes to polarizing topics such as sexual health.
The word Internet was actually devised as a short hand for the term internetworking—the description for how a developing new technology was forming connections between machines to enable a new form of communication. That new form of virtual communication has, in turn, promoted the creation of novel real-life networks, both social and sexual.
The Internet is not only a place for people explore and investigate their deepest and darkest sexual fantasies in the privacy and safety of their own homes. It is, after all, fundamentally a tool of communication, and its social networking capabilities are not uncommonly used for the acquisition of sex. From personal ad sites where individuals can advertise for anything from a lifelong relationship to a quick and dirty hook-up, to specialized networking sites for just about every imaginable prurient interest, the Internet is full of websites designed for the purpose of finding sex… and some that people have simply figured out how to use in that way.
The online classified site Craigslist has, in recent years, become at least as well known for its sexual service ads as for its more traditional classifieds. There is certainly something to be said for a place where you can both find a person to have sex with and an apartment to have it in, but the site’s inherently unregulated nature has caused it some problems. Recently, for example, police departments in several jurisdictions cracked down on prostitutes who were using the site to find clients. Fortunately it’s still possible for thousands of people a day to advertise themselves for quick sexual hookups, as long as they don’t ask for money in exchange.
Advertise they do, because two of the main advantages of seeking sex on the Internet are the sense of anonymity and the ability to search for people who are interested in a particular sexual act. Where else could you find a partner willing to get you off in a Starbucks’ bathroom without ever asking for your name… or an iced venti mocha latte with extra whipped cream?
Still, the fact that it is possible to meet individuals on the Internet, have sex with them, and then never see them again is not without its downsides. Such behaviors may, for example, also lead to increases in other forms of sexual risk taking. Several recent studies of gay men have shown that people who look for sex on the Internet may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors than those who seek out sex by other, more traditional means. This can lead to a greater danger of exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases for both their online and offline partners.
On the other end of the risk spectrum, the Internet can also help people explore activities that are the ultimate in safe sex. Web cam encounters, text-based sex chats, and even naughty encounters in the virtual reality world of Second Life can provide tech-savvy hedonists with a way to enhance their sex lives that puts them at little to no risk. Although some would contend that such activities are as much cheating as having an affair or seeing a prostitute, they at least carry no physical risk for the participant’s real-world sexual partner. Often, in fact, the main danger of such virtual sexcapades is the possibility that electronic records of an encounter could fall into the wrong hands. Some of the most fervent students of Internet history have been those with the compelling need to erase it.
From the development of new technologies to facilitate sexual interaction, to the distribution of controversial educational content, to simply providing an alternate way of hooking up with the cute guy or girl next door, the history of sex on the Internet has been closely intertwined with the history of the Internet itself. It’s not surprising, really. After all, innovations in both sex and the Internet are about exactly the same thing—finding, forging and exploring new connections.