Secret Sex Lives by Suzy SpencerLet’s face it, I wouldn’t be following the Anthony Weiner sex scandal so closely if I hadn’t written Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality and spent nearly eight years interviewing women and men, single and married, about their online sex lives. As I’ve stated before, Mr. Weiner’s behavior isn’t a practice limited to politicians. Millions of Americans – yes, millions – do the same thing. As proof, 30 million Americans are members of just one casual sex meet-up site, AdultFriendFinder.com.

So when feminist author Susan Jacoby wrote in the New York Times about “the coarse and creepy Internet culture dedicated to the fulfillment of … virtual carnal knowledge and asked why “women apparently derive gratification from exchanging sexual talk and pictures with strangers,” I wanted to say, “Step into the world of the Internet and ask them – as I did. And if you, Ms. Jacoby, feel that such online sex research is beneath you, then walk into a PTA meeting or a doctor’s office or sit down in a chain restaurant and talk to people about their sex fantasies and practices.”

Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby

If Ms. Jacoby dared, she’d find argument with her judgment that Web sex “has nothing to do with pride in one’s body or mind” and her beliefs that there is no “recognition of their specialness as individuals” and their encounters have nothing to do with who they really are. And many of the women — and men — of the Web sex world would find insult in Ms. Jacoby comparing them to the New Yorker cartoon captioned, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

I offer an example: “Amanda,” a woman who earned a master’s degree from Ohio state and owned a successful consulting firm, in other words, a woman who is far from a dog, told me, “Some [women] golf, some collect antiques—I explore my sexual boundaries as a ‘hobby.’”

As part of that exploration, Amanda visited sites like AFF and Craiglist’s casual encounters to meet men. Some of the men were married. Some weren’t. Some she rejected. Some she met for sex. Some she limited to phone sex. Some she developed a relationship with. And through her hobby, she met the man she now loves and lives with.

I’ll give you another example: “Jessica,” a young chef, had recently broken up with her long-term lover, when Jessica and I met over the Internet. The last thing Jessica wanted was another emotional relationship that required long, involved conversations. There would be plenty of time for that later in life, she believed.

So Jessica placed an ad on Craigslist’s casual encounters, received well more than 100 messages from men, selected a few men to meet, and had sex with a few of them. She eventually realized that she did want an emotional, as well as sexual, relationship after all and dropped all of her online men after she met – through Craigslist’s – “Wynn.”

Why did Jessica like Wynn? Because before they ever met in person, he wrote her “shamelessly hot pornography.” So when Ms. Jacoby wrote that “erotic play without context becomes just one-on-one pornography” and “that women who settle for digital pornography are lowering their expectations and hopes,” she may want to talk to Jessica. Jessica and Wynn are now married.

Obviously, Ms. Jacoby’s declaration that “sex with strangers online mounts to a diminution, close to an absolute negation, of the context that gives human interaction genuine content” does not apply to Amanda and Jessica and many, many other Americans I interviewed.

Fused glass artwork: Kim Brill; Photo: Larry Brill

Yes, online sex with strangers can be all that Ms. Jacoby stated, but so can sex with one’s marital partner, especially when one has sexual desires and fantasies that she wants to share with the person she loves most, but doesn’t out of fear of shame, judgment, and rejection – the very same type of shame, judgment and rejection expressed by Ms. Jacoby. And because of that, women tuck those secrets inside their souls and build up walls of protection at home … and at the PTA, the doctor’s office, and the chain restaurant … which makes them lonely, just as Ms. Jacoby suggested. But it also makes them feel that their “specialness as an individual” is unacceptable. And when that pain of loneliness and that hiding of their specialness gets unbearable, they jump on the allegedly anonymous Internet where they can find like-minded strangers who appreciate them and accept them – fantasies and all.

Does that mean women searching for Internet sex have a low opinion of themselves, as purported by Ms. Jacoby? No. They simply have desires and fantasies. Let me rephrase that. They wouldn’t have a low opinion of themselves, if people like Ms. Jacoby didn’t judge them for their desires and fantasies and make them feel bad about themselves. And that’s sad.

It’s especially sad, because if there’s one thing I learned in nearly eight years of interviewing Americans about their sex lives, it’s that as a nation we’re shockingly liberal in our sex practices and equally shockingly conservative in our freedom to talk about sex. And that’s what fuels the so-called “coarse and creepy Internet culture dedicated to the fulfillment of … virtual carnal knowledge” – Americans’ inability to openly talk about their sexual desires and fantasies.

I say it’s time to change that.

Suzy Spencer is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist.
  1. madalo Reply
    Well said, Suzy. The big secret is that online sex is basically like non-online sex. It can be soulless. Or wonderful. Or degrading. Or elevating. It can even be boring--depends on what you bring to it!
  2. Angela Reply
    You know I had to respond to this blog lol. I met my husband online. What was intended to be a casual fling turned into the love relationship of my life. We are still going strong 9+ years later. Without the internet we would not ever crossed paths even though we lived only an hour apart. I met other amazing people online also of all genders and walks of life. I used the same criteria to sort through the posers, the HNGs, the ones with fantasties so removed from reality that it was not worth wasting my time trying to bring them down to a semblance of realization. I made friends with all of my recurrent lovers. I had initial interactions, occasional steamy emails, exchange of erotica and amazing phone sex all courtesy of online hook up sites. Because I used the internet as part of my screening process the majority of the time when I did meet in person things clicked and a beautiful connection of varying durations resulted. Of course sometimes things went awry but I don't think meeting online was the cause of that. I believe using the internet wisely can open the doors to people that using conventional dating/hook up methods cannot. It can be an excellent screening process and a safe way to meet initially. For those of us who don't meet the standards of conventional beauty the internet can be an awesome tool to break the ice without the distraction of pre conceived notions of "my type" interfering. I never felt it was sordid or souless or tawdry. Internet sex was exactly what I wanted because it was totally under my control. Don't like what person writes or says to me? Delete the email, text, IM or block the call. If a real time encounter goes bad it can be much much more difficult to escape. To sum up I did all the following things because of online sex and sex hook up sites: spent a week in Sturgis with a real outlaw biker gang, made a porn video, had fetish photography done which was offered for sale by the artist, met a handful of local and national celebrities (yes I had sex with them lol), became better educated about my kinky side and met the man of my dreams. I don't consider any of those things course and creepy. I consider them awesome as heck and I am grateful to have had the experiences, the friendships and the memories.
  3. Neil Reply
    I am in total agreement with Suzy.
  4. skjoldur Reply
    Ms. Jacoby isn't talking about personal choices involving our secret fantasies, or noi private adventures, or even tawdry encounters. She's talking about a pervasive culture of creepy secrecy that gets accidentally revealed from time to time. False morality and hypocritical condemnation, as opposed to private decisions. Our society being waaay over-charged sexually, while denying it loudly with a petulant stamp of the foot - revealed by millions of Americans' preoccupation with celebrity "wardrobe malfunctions" and crotch shots, preachers and politicians getting caught. Our collective pervy voyeurism, all the while screaming that we don't like sex. Everybody could just shut up and live and let live.

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