The Ins and Outs of Sex & Social Media
Since 2011, social media has been the number one use for the internet. One out of every seven minutes spent online is spent on Facebook. Links regarding sex are shared more than 90% more than anything else. There are 1 billion websites online right now, and 3 billion internet users in the world to visit them. 137 billion emails were sent today, 3 billion google searches conducted. 5.6 billion youtube videos were watched, and 550 million tweets sent.
These numbers are so vastly beyond comprehension that trying to visualize them will make you go mad. Don’t try it. All you need to know is that in the time it takes you to say ‘twitter’, 12,000 tweets were sent. So what does it mean to be a human in this cacophonous mess of invisible digits? Is there room for intimacy – maybe even love – out there in the virtual ether? What effect has social media had on our love lives? We ask the experts…
Social media brings news from all over the world to our pockets with such immediacy that we already take it for granted, even though it’s still just a few years old. Old media seems sluggish and meandering by comparison. Newspapers resort to opinion and speculation to keep up, and TV news relies on reactionary sensationalism to prop its numbers up.
Twitter, Facebook and others all connect you instantly to people and events on the other side of the planet instantly and in real time. As a news gathering medium, social media has changed everything. But, as the most essential expressions of human connections, the most fundamental changes have been in our perception of love and sex.
A New Sexual Revolution?
“The internet has enabled a new era of sane permissiveness,” says Technology Journalist Dan Cooper. “Now, more than ever, people are able to make new friends through shared interests and beliefs, as opposed to chancing on a kindred spirit within the people you happen to live and work with.”
Social media, then, is taking the scattershot approach out of dating, and encouraging people of like minds to gravitate towards each other more naturally.
Dan continues, “[social media] also helps to connect people from otherwise marginal groups: there’s a reason that the acronym has grown to LGBT+ to encompass the incalculable number of people who would otherwise think their feelings were entirely their own.”
Sunny Megatron, respected sexuality educator and host of the Showtime original series Sex with Sunny Megatron, would agree with Dan. “Facebook is helping normalize many forms of sexuality and gender expression. The #1 concern I hear from people about their sexuality is ‘am I normal?’” says Sunny. “There are specialized communities like Fetlife dedicated to building a learning and sharing community around BDSM and other alternative sexual practices. That helps us all feel more accepted and normal.”
The Downsides of Sex & Social Media
But, when it comes to love and sex on the net, is it all good news and sex positivity? Possibly not.
Lorrae Bradbury is the founder of Slutty Girl Problems, the popular sex and dating advice site for young women, recently featured in Cosmo and elsewhere. Her use of social media (SGP’s twitter account is particularly popular), as well as her studies in psychology and women’s studies, have given her a uniquely valuable insight into how social media is shaping the landscape of sexual and romantic culture.
“Social media allows us to meet new people, explore our fantasies and connect with others who share our desires,” says Lorrae. “But, it can also give us false hope that the “perfect” person exists, and that if we just search hard enough, we’ll find them out there somewhere. It’s up to us to use social media to connect with others in positive ways, rather than shut out potential good-fit partners because they don’t meet strict criteria… social media’s impact on our dating and sex lives is as good or bad as we, as individuals, allow it to be.”
A Tale As Old As Time?
One of the most disconcerting downsides of social media, with regards to romance, is the sometimes jarring difference between the representation of a person online and the reality of that person in person. It’s so incredibly easy for someone to project themselves in the way that they want to be perceived rather than the way they should be perceived, and through social media it’s not (yet) possible to get a fully rounded and accurate impression of a person, because social media is essentially self promotion.
Sunny Megatron is profoundly aware of this. She tells us, “we tend to forget that not only do our online personas need to have some depth and substance, but that needs to carry through offline as well. We still need to put the work in when it comes to meeting people and cultivating relationships just as we did before social media existed.”
People broadcast themselves in the best possible light, and it’s unavoidable because it’s an inherently human thing to do and it’s not always deliberately deceptive – though it often is.
What Does History Tell Us?
As John Lane, Editor-in-Chief at Badoink Magazine, recognizes, as soon as painting was developed it was used for self-aggrandizing and flattering portraiture.
“Social media has helped push sex out even more into the open than ever before. Mainly because people can’t help themselves. Almost everyone loves a bit of salaciousness… and the immediacy of social media plays into that spontaneous desire to share.”
John continues, “social media interaction actually runs pretty parallel with our sexuality. Look at any ancient sexual scroll or tapestry or sculpture. We humans have been up to some pretty raunchy stuff basically forever.”
So then, maybe our sexuality is not being so drastically altered by the proliferation of social media. Maybe it’s not the medium at all, but the use of the medium. Badoink runs a social media discussion forum called #sextechtalk, and as such John Lane is well qualified to discuss the sexual use and abuse of digital technology.
“Like every innovation, there are positive impacts and negative impacts, and of course, as in most cases, those factors do not depend on the innovation itself but the psychology of those who choose to implement it.
“For example, I think things like the celebrity Fappening or the Snapchat leaks, where all those private images were released on to the Internet, showed that there was a need to understand the power of social media and the importance of educating yourself about how the new ways we have to approach the concept of privacy in the social media age. But even then, as an offshoot of that, is a lesson about how we learn to trust one another, especially when it comes to sharing our sexuality.”
John is certainly right. Humanity has a history of subverting new innovations for sexual purposes as soon as they’re available. Check out this guide to cybersex from the very early days of the internet.
Is Social Media Good or Bad?
So to the crux of the issue: is social media a positive or negative influence on our sex lives? It’s a complex question full of subtleties and intricacy.
“In many ways, the digital and technological world is a reflection of our “real life” experience,” argues Lorrae Bradbury. “Many online communities, sites, and dating apps built off of our fantasies and desires – the technology fills a gap, and gives us what we’re looking for. For instance, the widely popular Tinder app is super fast-paced and allows you to judge potential partners in a few seconds based on their best picture and possibly a small bio, if you care to read it. Yes, it’s incredibly fast paced. But, it’s meeting our demand for quick, looks-based connections and mutual matching in the blink of an eye… social media allows us to have a much wider variety of romantic and sexual options than before.”
But Lorrae recognizes a flip side too. “Social media can also make us more picky about our partners”, she says. “If you get caught up looking for someone better, hotter, smarter, or who’s interests perfectly match yours… you might be endlessly seeking for someone who just doesn’t exist. Dating sites often suggest that you can find someone truly perfect, but we have to remember that “perfect” in itself is a fantasy.”
Sex & Shopping
Dan Cooper has watched the technology evolve into its current state, and with it he’s observed the shift in people’s expectations. He says, “we expect everything from our TV show choice to our banking to be arranged in the microsecond after we push a button. It’s the same with relationships, and we’re now at a point where numerous stages of courtship can play out within a matter of minutes, no matter where the people are in the world.
“You can compare the rise in internet shopping and internet dating and see that as people have a wider range of choice, they’re much more informed. It’s also made people a lot choosier, since the range of potential partners has expanded from their friend circle and local community through to every other person connected to the internet. That’s why there’s been an increase in instant-connection apps like Tinder, since there are so many people to choose from, it’s easy to treat these early interactions as disposable.”
Is Social Media Safe?
It seems it’s not possible to qualify a question as inflected as ‘is social media a good place to meet people’. So perhaps there is an underlying and more important question: is social media a safe place to meet people?
It takes some common sense and some patience, but it can work, according to Sunny Megatron. “I fumbled with dating a lot before social media was an option,” she says. “I sometimes get anxious when meeting new people and safety is also an important consideration when I meet a stranger. I much prefer getting to know someone online a bit before meeting in person. I also like interacting on social media so I can check out their friends. The company someone keeps and the quality of relationships they have with people says a lot about someone’s character in my opinion.
“I met my husband online – on Fetlife. We met in real life after messaging and talking on the phone for a few weeks. It’s been 7 years and we’ve been inseparable ever since. Did I fall in love with him before we had our first date? Not exactly. But I did know before we met that the potential for love was there, we simply needed time to see if that spark would lead to a fire down the road.”
John Lane perhaps puts it best.
Whether social media is better or worse for love and sex I think is an intellectual cul-de-sac, because however you actually meet a person, whether through a dating app, a classified ad, falling over them in a bar or whatever, it’ll be actual human chemistry that decides on those two aspects of our nature.
Donna is a Volonté contributor and freelancer who lives in San Francisco with her understanding husband and not-so-understanding teenage sons. Her work has been published in The Journal of Sexology and she is currently writing a book on love languages.