Has the Internet Really Changed Anything About Sexuality?

There’re dating apps, digital sex toys, and 24/7 porn. But is any of it profound?

Marty Klein Ph.D.

Like Facebook, Google, and our phones increasingly guide our choices and dominate our lives, it’s become a given that “the internet has changed everything.” 

Except for one area in which the internet has changed almost nothing: sex.

Sure, there are surface changes: dating apps; 24/7 porn; tracking devices and software for suspicious spouses; websites with contraceptive and sexual health information (and terrible misinformation); passionate (and often hate-filled) forums to discuss every sexual subject from trans kids to molested kids to sexting kids; and the validation that whatever you’re into—BDSM, golden showers, mommy-ism, threesomes—you’re not the only one. 

As important as any of those might be to some isolated Kentucky bisexual or burned-out-on-polyamory Chicago Millennial, they don’t represent systemic change. They’re just the latest version of how people have been dealing with the same sexual issues for centuries. 

Because while the speed and range of communication have changed, the human heart hasn’t changed. People still want to connect. People still find it difficult. People still have trouble talking to their mates about sex. People still worry that they’re not sexually attractive or adequate. People still want what they can’t have.

People still fantasize about infidelity; some pursue it, and some indeed do it. Some do it out of lust, some out of anger, some out of despair. Some do it because they want what comes after the sex: a hug; a note that says “you’re great;” the feeling of belonging, or of being desired. Some do it, as Olympia Dukakis told Cher in the film Moonstruck because they know that one day they’re going to die.

And of course, people still lie about sex.

As a 35-year resident of Silicon Valley, I hear every single day that the internet has changed everything. As a therapist for the people who make the software and devices we all use, I have a front-row seat for the latest ways that people use technology as part of dating, mating, and long-term coupling.

I hear about Grindr, Tinder, Match.com, and Ashley Madison. I know people continents apart masturbate together on Skype, and now plug their sex toys into their computers for their lover’s remote control. You can buy Viagra online without bothering to talk to a doctor about your health profile or other medication–which can render Viagra dangerous.

And the stories, oh the stories. Caitlin Jenner’s story—which many people find personally liberating—would be just private gossip without the internet. So would Miley Cyrus’s self-declared “pan-sexuality”—which, again, many people find personally meaningful. 

And yet, while people are triumphantly marinating in Jenner’s or Cyrus’s journey…

People are still wondering if they’re sexually normal.
People are still getting pregnant unintentionally.
People are still inhibited talking about what they like in bed, and hesitant to say what they don’t like.
People still insist on sex, or withhold sex, as part of marital politics.
People still have sex when they’d rather hug.
People still lie about their past experience.
People still want sex to be “natural and spontaneous,” even though nothing else in their lives is.
People still look at porn. For the same reasons they always did.
People still think men and women are “opposite” sexes, whose perspectives are inevitably different.
People still have sex because they’re lonely. Many people still feel lonely during and after sex.
People still have sex—or cruise Match.com–because they want to feel young.
People still regret what they see in the mirror and lose their appetite for the sex that could soothe them.

So has the internet changed anything about sexuality?

Only this: our obsession with the constant, intense, novel stimulation of the internet has rendered real sex with an actual person a bit less compelling than it used to be. We actually have to remember to pay attention during sex now—since it doesn’t grab us as colorful, noisy websites do, and since it doesn’t promise us the entire world every moment the way our phones do.

In fact, that’s the only real way that the internet has truly changed sex for us moderns. While the internet and social media pouring through our phone now promise exquisite rewards without us having to do anything, sex is now the only thing in our lives that really requires our attention in order to be extraordinary. Sex can be quite amazing, but only if you slow down, focus on it, and stop paying attention to anything else.

And in the age of the internet, that’s a big, big if.

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