As technology expands at a breakneck pace, new issues test the boundaries of our morality and aesthetics. One such issue is cybersex.
Cybersex occurs when two or more people have online sexual activity. That is, they connect via computer network and share sexual thoughts or images. This is relevant to the boundaries of adultery, statutory rape, and perversion. The Times sex columnist Suzi Godson notes that people can get addicted to it.
Cybersex occurs in two main types. The first type, virtual-reality cybersex, involves people directly using their own bodies. In a current version, people expose themselves to a live camera in order to arouse each other. In a future version of this type, participants wear a bodysuit and helmet that give someone the actual experience of having sex with another.
On a second type, text-based cybersex, people engage in sex by typing commands into a computer. This might result in an online character (virtual character) acting out the commands. For example, based on the commands of the computer users, various characters might have online coitus. Text-based cybersex also might occur via a chat room. This is similar to phone sex.
As computer technology expands into every crevice of our lives, cybersex will become increasingly frequent. For example, consider how common it will be when people can engage in cybersex from technology that runs off their eyeglasses, tracks their thoughts, and is easily arranged and difficult to track. Just think about the number of high school and college students who would like an outlet for their sexual thoughts.
This raises the issue of whether the people engaging in cybersex are having real sex. There have been cases in which people have found their spouses engaging in cybersex with third parties. Is this adulterous? There might also be issues of whether an adult who has cybersex with a 13-year-old girl has sex with a minor. That is, does he commit statutory rape?
The argument for some cybersex being sex is straightforward. When people engage in a joint activity that is intended to satisfy sexual desires and tends to do so, then it is sex. Cybersex does so. Hence, it is sex.
The main objection to this argument is that sex involves physical contact and cybersex doesn't. However, as University of Indiana professor Louise Collins points out, in the bodysuit case, the couple arguably does engage in physical contact. As Collins points out, people have sex wearing condoms and latex suits and thus, in some sense, have sex without bodily contact
Still, it is not clear that physical contact is occurring because a couple is not contacting one another at a single location. Their computers are in different locations and, other than the server, there is no one place where they or their computers physically interact. It is hard to see how two people can have sex if there is no one place where it occurs.
In addition, just as simulated airplane flying on a computer is not the same as really flying an airplane, simulated sex intuitively seems not to be the same as really having sex. Rather, it appears to be collaborative pornography or, perhaps, an artistic game. This likely explains why many people do not take it seriously.
Also, there appears to be an error in the notion that cybersex is really sex. Collins and others argue that just as it is an error to think that Shakespeare killed Macduff (Macbeth does so), it is an error to think that the computer user has sex with an online character rather than his character doing so. If this were not the case, then there could be cases of online rape if, for example, the person controlling one character hijacks another character and stages an online rape scene. There might also be cases of inadvertent homosexuality if, for example, the person controlling a female character were to be, unbeknownst to other character's controller, a man. Online rape and inadvertent homosexuality are not the real thing.
Perhaps this shows that our focus on adulterous sex is mistaken and that morality and the law should focus on something else. The focus might be on a spouse's diverted attention or affection, whether via sex or cybersex. A similar thing might be true for underage teens who participate in cybersex. There are also concerns about people who substitute cybersex for real relationships or who get addicted to it.
It is not obvious, however, that cybersex and related computer pornography is morally bad or bad for participants. That participants enjoy it is obvious, that's why they participate in it. Bonnie Ruberg, writing in The Village Voice, argues that cybersex has other benefits. It allows participants to branch out sexually (testing the waters in virtual reality before trying the real thing), gain sexual confidence, and become more creative. For single people, it might provide for a sexual activity when the next best option is none. It might even reduce violence.
While the studies here are mixed and controversial, at least one study (by Clemson University economist Todd Kendall) found that increasing use of pornography decreased the frequency of rape.
Cybersex does sound alien and creepy to many people (I think this and have never tried it), but this concern is likely aesthetic rather than one that is resting on morality or self-interest. It likely is not sex, but simulated sex. It is not clear that this distinction should matter to us when considering things like adultery and sex with underage teens. As computer technology rapidly expands into our lives, we can expect cybersex to become ever more popular and rocket into the mainstream.
Stephen Kershnar is a Fredonia State philosophy professor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org