What Does Online Sex Mean?

QUESTION: I'm wondering what to make of the phenomenon of people relating sexually on the computer -- making friends online, sharing sexual fantasies, talking about sexual problems, engaging in what I've heard called "cybersex" or "compusex." I'd like to hear comments from a professional, preferably a psychiatrist, who knows this medium.

ANSWER: Your question was referred to David E. Nutter, M.D., of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a psychiatrist and sex therapist with a special interest in the uses and forms of fantasy. Here are his observations:

It's Revolutionary

This is a revolutionary development in sexuality and relationships.

In cyberspace, you can be almost totally anonymous. You can govern your rate of self-disclosure, thus can become more and more familiar with another human being at a pace that's comfortable for you.

You can build up relationships in a mature way. Offline, so much is governed by a person's appearance. Promising friends can be dismissed on the basis of first impressions. Here you're connected by personality.

People who've developed social phobias because of past rejections over appearance are helped in making their initial contacts.

Safe Place for Contact

You can make contact with people you'd otherwise shy away from. I've seen women who've been traumatized sexually and are frightened of men. They use online interactive places as a safe haven where they can talk about their experiences.

They're elated -- and much helped -- by getting support from men.

Geography Irrelevant

Geographic location is irrelevant. So even though you're in a small community or otherwise physically isolated, boundaries fall away and you can reach out socially. I know singles who don't like going to bars and don't wish to be pressured to have sex. Here they can meet, but not in a context of sex and alcohol.

Similarly, gays and other stigmatized minorities benefit from being able to make contact while protecting their privacy.

A Learning Experience

Writing back and forth online is a form of mind-to-mind contact. You learn how others have experimented. You find out what works sexually, and what doesn't. You also become better able to express sexual aspects of yourself.

You learn what you are thinking. Writing for your online friends offers you a window into your own mind, and is a boon to self exploration. You can capture what is being said so you can look back over it later. This reinforces the value of the exchange.

Cross-Cultural Experience

This medium gives you access to many different kinds of people, and you learn about their sexual behavior. You have a cross-cultural experience. With instant communication, you find out what people of many different backgrounds are interested in sexually.

In this anonymous, global cyberspace, you gain a better understanding of the universality of all sorts of sexual feelings and thoughts. In cyberspace you learn to understand that many people are similar to you, you're not a freak, you don't have to feel weird or anxious about what you think or do sexually.

Promotes Exploring Fantasies

Cyberspace promotes the exploration of sexual fantasies, which are a normal part of everyone's sexuality.

You don't have to be ashamed of sharing your private thoughts. Online friends are not in a specific relationship with you, so you needn't be concerned with their criticizing you, making fun of you, becoming jealous, withdrawing.

By sharing fantasies, you can increase the range and depth of your own fantasy life. You can enrich your fantasies, add more color to them. If you're stuck on a certain fantasy, by being exposed to lots of other fantasies you may be able to overcome a fantasy that may be troubling to you. You learn to respond to more and more stimuli.

Fantasy Differs From Reality

Like your dreams, your fantasies are independent of your conscious control. There's a world of difference between your fantasies and your ACTIONS -- which you can consciously control and are responsible for.

Online adult-oriented erotica is an expression of fantasy. It's generally a healthy outlet. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that there's no connection between erotica and sexual offenses. Sexual fantasy in and of itself does not cause people to act out.

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