Let’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.”
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.
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.