Comes Naturally #72 (July 3, 1998):
Cybersex Access: Power to the People

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COMES NATURALLY #72 (July 3, 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 David Steinberg



Someone has begun to collect information about sexual uses of the Internet and the news, although not exactly scientific, is at least encouraging. People, it seems, use the Internet for sexual purposes. Lots of people. But, generally speaking, not in the compulsive, destructive, dangerous ways that keep grabbing newspaper headlines, especially when some new bill to regulate cybersex is up before Congress.

What people do want in terms of sex online is what survey co-author Alvin Cooper of the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Center calls "arousal, entertainment, and information." Cooper and psychologist Coralie Scherer tabulated some 9,000 responses to an extensive survey of cybersex practices posted on the MSNBC website. They found that fully 80% of combined male and female respondents used their home computers to access erotic material of some sort. Male respondents, they found, tended toward sexually explicit material more than female respondents (half the men as compared to a quarter of the women), while female respondents were more likely than males to spend time in online chat rooms (half the women but only a quarter of the men). Only a small percentage (8%) of respondents qualified as web compulsives by spending more than 11 hours a week online (for sexual and non-sexual purposes combined), compared to three to six percent of the general population considered sexually compulsive.

As any halfway decent sociologist will tell you, self-selected groups of people responding to surveys are not scientifically reliable indicators of what is going on in the general population. Still, surveys of this sort do offer better insight into what may be going on than individual anecdotes, and what this survey indicates is that people have rather innocent, if extensive, appetites for sexual stimulation and information. What they want is recreation rather than pathological outlets, amusement rather than a chance to prey on young innocents. What people tend to give each other through online sexual contact is companionship and support much more than manipulation and abuse.


For decades, people of various political, religious, and sexual persuasions have been concerned about the effects of explicit sexual material on (variously) men, women, adolescents, children, marriage, gender roles, gender relations, social morality, sexual ethics, sexual practice, and the general state of the nation. And, to some extent, properly so. Whether your general take on the expanding availability of graphic sexual material is positive, negative, or some combination of the two, widespread sexual imagery certainly influences how people relate to such significant issues as what it means to be masculine and feminine, how they think and feel about themselves as sexual people, and how they conceptualize and practice sex itself.

Increasingly available sexual depiction in words, photographs, and films undoubtedly colors people's sexual imaginations -- their fantasies and their desires -- as well as affecting the ways in which people actually express themselves sexually, and with what sexual partners. Given that there is precious little socially respected art, film, and literature that deals directly and unapologetically with sex, commercial pornography is left by default to substantially shape the ethics, aesthetics, and psychological landscape of the out-of-control media phenomenon that pop sex culture has become. By the sheer volume of their consumption, it is pornographic films, videos, magazines, and books that perform the function of documenting and implicitly promoting both new and familiar ways for people to be sexual, whether that be in terms of specific sexual acts, tools and props that can be incorporated into sexual experience, or the general emotional and relational contexts within which sex takes place.

Inevitably, if somewhat sadly, pornography has its obvious and oft-discussed biases about sex. Pornographic culture, while anything but uniform, does offer a unique slant with regard to what makes people sexually attractive or unattractive, what people should and should not do sexually to please their partners and themselves, what's hot, what's not, what's proper, what's weird. Like all forms mass-oriented media, it invents norms of how people do and should behave, and to some extent the real people it reaches end up defining themselves in relation to those norms. To people with a well-defined and generally positive sense of their sexuality, pornography offers a broad spectrum of new and intriguing sexual possibilities to be investigated or ignored, an opportunity to expand the boundaries of one's sexual expression, imagination, and creativity. For people who are more uncertain about who they are or who they want to be sexually, pornography probably also has the negative effect of setting unrealistic and intimidating expectations of sexual performance that will make it more difficult for people to accept and appreciate their sexual selves.

The inherent values and tastes of pornography are expressions of the particular, definitely atypical, sexual outlooks of the people who choose, for whatever reasons, to become producers of sexually explicit material. Mainstream literature inevitably expresses the atypical worldviews of the those who choose, for whatever reasons, to become authors, bookstore owners, publishers, book distributors, and reviewers. Theater expresses the perspectives of a different group of people who choose to become playwrights, directors, actors, theater owners, producers, and (again) reviewers. Pornography, similarly, expresses the atypical sexual attitudes of that odd breed of social outcasts who choose, for whatever reasons, to sacrifice social respectability in order to produce, distribute, and market sexually explicit material through the pornographic netherworld -- generally speaking, for fun, profit, and the perverse satisfaction of rebelling against social regulation in general and sexual hypocrisy in particular.

If one blindly accepts the subtext of the pornographic mainstream, being sexually attractive means having large, firm, surgically-enhanced breasts, large perpetually hard penises, unlimited sexual energy and desire, a curiosity about anything that is sexually new and exciting, and no sexual inhibitions or fears whatsoever. Practically speaking, porn does little to encourage people to pay attention to, or successfully eroticize, the safe sex necessities of today's world, and according to pornography, of course, sex has nothing whatsoever to do with conception. Pornography certainly does nothing to help people understand the essential connection between deeply satisfying sexual experience and the complexities of love, tenderness, and emotional vulnerability.

One would hope that most people are able to keep what they see in pornography in perspective, to know the difference between dramatized, mythified sex and the realities of sex in daily life, even as they presumably do with regard to non-sexual films, television, and advertising in general. Still, given how easy it is to feel bad about ourselves sexually, one has to wonder whether people end up feeling worse about themselves as a result of comparing their sexual realities, intentionally or subconsciously, with what they see in porn.

Personally, I would like to see widely distributed sexual material reflect quite a different set of values about sex, about what it means to be sexually desirable, and about what it takes to feel sexually fulfilled. Indeed, over the past ten years or so, a new and growing breed of socially conscious writers, photographers, publishers, and filmmakers -- myself included -- have begun to produce sexually explicit material that reflects a very different set of sexual experiences, attitudes, and values from those of mainstream porn. While this alternative porn and erotica market has grown rapidly and gained a substantial foothold in the worlds of respectable publishing and film- production, this alternative sexual material still represents only a tiny fraction of the sexual material that is generally available to the public.

Mainstream porn, like other mass market enterprises, is defined largely by a lowest-common-denominator mentality. Few producers of sexually explicit material have as their primary goal influencing sexual culture in a socially useful direction. They want, rather, what most good businessmen want, which is to sell as much of their product as they can. This means giving the public whatever it is the public wants most. Unfortunately, but not exactly surprisingly, the sexually explicit material that consistently appeals to the largest audience seems to involve images of exaggeratedly glamorous, young, buffed people having exaggeratedly boisterous, naughty, or somehow outrageous, sex with each other -- the more graphic the better.

It doesn't matter whether I am happy with that direction. It doesn't matter whether you or Jesse Helms is happy with that direction. It doesn't matter whether Andrea Dworkin or Larry Flynt is happy with that direction. That's just the way thing work in this consumer-driven, dollar-chasing, opportunistic democracy. The buck is mightier than the sword, the Bible, and the National Organization of Women combined. Wherever the market leads, there the nation shall follow.


Despite its limitations and distortions, pornography does serve the useful function of broadening the sexual horizons of its audience. The pornographic marketplace is the one aspect of mass culture that asserts the legitimacy and importance of sexual pleasure unapologetically pursued for its own sake, and pursued in ways that transgress the narrow boundaries of socially defined propriety. At a time when oral sex was considered a dubious form of sexual activity, it was heterosexual pornography that advertised to the general public that oral sex is normal, popular, and positively delightful -- men going down on women as well as women giving head to men. Not coincidentally, public acceptance and practice of oral sex increased dramatically at the same time.

It was also pornography that preached to dubious men the gospel of female genitals as beautiful, exotic, intriguing, tasty gateways to wonder and mystery, in stark contrast to the once-general belief (among women as well as men) that vulvas and vaginas were ugly, smelly, dirty, and generally unappealing.

More recently, heterosexual porn has become positively infatuated with the wonders of anal sex, during a time when discussion of the HIV epidemic has brought anal sex -- once thought to appeal to only the most twisted of souls -- into everyone^Rs big-city and small-town living rooms. Bondage, spanking, and other light s/m play, another sexual subculture once defined as perverse that has become increasingly mainstream, is now available for people to veritably study in mainstream porn. More elaborate s/m scenes are the subject of a wide variety of specialty videos directed to more selected viewers.

Sexual play between women -- glamorized and exaggerated, to be sure -- has long been a staple of porn directed to heterosexual males. Bisexual videos, showing interactions between men and men, and between more than two people at a time, is a porn specialty that is increasingly popular. Other genres that appeal to their own specialized audiences, and in the process provide confirmation and information to those with more eclectic sexual tastes, include videos of male-to-female transsexuals, interracial couples, pregnant women, and people who are dramatically heavier and older than porn^Rs usual icons. Gay pornography, produced and distributed to its own, largely separate audience, provides the same positive function as heterosexual porn by documenting and publicizing wide varieties of sexual practice that "proper" culture defines as marginal at best, and pathologically or morally perverted at worst.


Whatever influence pornography has had up until now on people^Rs notions of sexuality, and on society in general, is in the process now of being dwarfed by the advent of the Internet. Defenders and critics of pornography alike have thought for some time that pornography has pretty much been available to anyone who wanted it. With porn magazines on sale at seemingly every supermarket and liquor store, with adult bookstores and peep shows in even the smallest of cities, with adult videos occupying extensive sections in most video rental outlets, it has long seemed that everyone who had any interest in sexually explicit material already had access to whatever they might want to see or read. Porn, it has seemed to both the delighted and the horrified, has long found its way everywhere, and a long list of social ills ranging from the destruction of family values to the social oppression of women has been laid at its ubiquitous doorstep.

But the stampede for sexual material on the Internet that has occurred in the past few years suggests otherwise. It is not surprising that sexual material is popular on the Internet. Every technological advance in communications -- from the printing press to still photography to motion pictures to videos has been quickly and extensively put to the service of providing sexual titillation and entertainment to widening circles of people. What is astounding is just how popular cyberporn seems to be. According to one recent report, there are now over 70,000 sex-related websites. In one month alone, according to one market research organization, just under 10 million computer users visited just the ten most popular of these 70,000 sites. Of the 100 most popular websites, according to a report on sex and the Internet given at a recent conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, all but a handful are sex sites.

If pornography has long been available to most everyone who wanted it, why is there such a massive flood to sex-related services on the web? Apparently there is a lot to be said for the opportunity to look at sexually explicit images in complete privacy and anonymity without even having to go out in public to purchase it. No need to show your face at the local magazine shop or video outlet and feel embarrassed to let the checkout person know that you are buying Playboy, Hustler, or Big-Breasted Mommas. No need to sign your name to the receipt that announces you are renting Dirty Debutantes #46, Backdoor Annie, or Blondes in Bondage. No need to explain what you're up to to your husband, your wife, your roommate, or the kids. Just you and your libido and your computer screen having fun, getting turned on, learning about stuff you never even imagined before, or thought you were the only person in the world to be excited by anything so twisted.

No need even to have anyone like a publisher or filmmaker choose to offer the particular material you want to see. All that's needed is for someone out there to scan a photo and anonymously post it to some bulletin board and, voila', anyone with a computer who knows the basic rules of the game -- whether it's old men in Oshkosh, young wives in Seattle, clever teenagers in Waco, or amazed university students in Beijing -- can have access to that very image.

As with all the earlier technological leaps forward, sexually explicit material on the Internet means that a wider variety of material is becoming available to a wider range of people, dramatically loosening the control over access to sexual stimulation and information exercised by people in positions of political, economic, and religious authority. To those in the power elite, always afraid of the influence of sex in general, and the sexual energy of the underclasses in particular, this is a social nightmare. But for the sexually curious and adventurous, this is a glorious opportunity. Pandora's box has been opened; the only question that's left is whether it contains demons or angels.

My own guess is that the box of sexual desire set free from the constraints of moral and social regulation contains a whole lot of angels with a few noteworthy demons around the edges. My guess is that what's going to happen, for the most part, is that people are going to get to feel better about their individual sexual tastes and desires just from having contact with other people whose sexual tastes are close to their own. It's so much easier to trust your lust if you know that you're not some kind of psycho, and knowing that there are lots of other people out there just like you goes a long way toward providing that kind of confirmation. Talking one-to-one with other people who share your basic sexual outlook, as is also possible through the Internet, takes that confirmation a big step farther.

As with all sweeping social changes, some people are going to suffer damage along the way. There will be people too young to understand what they are seeing who are going to stumble on images that confuse and upset them. Some overly trusting people, young and old alike, are going to be taken advantage of through the Internet by people who do not have their best interests at heart.

But my guess is that for every young boy who is lured by some man into coerced sex via the Internet there will be a hundred young gay boys saved from self- loathing and even suicide because through the Internet they are able to talk to other men who have felt as confused and alone as they feel, and who can therefore help them survive the traumatic emotional situation created for them by a severely homophobic culture.

My guess is that for every girl who stumbles on a picture of a huge erection and is so frightened that she is traumatized for life there will be a hundred young girls who learn via the Internet that it's all right for them to have sexual feelings and desires of their own, no matter how much their parents, preachers, and school abstinence programs try to tell them otherwise.

Sex is a powerful force, and there is more to liberation from sexual repression than just taking the lid off the pressure cooker and encouraging everyone to do whatever they please. Real sexual damage does occur and will continue occur for real people, just as in all the other aspects of being alive. Thousand of people are killed every year on the highways, but we don't respond by telling everyone to stay out their cars or to only drive between 2:00 and 3:30 in the afternoon. The Danish experiment with open access to sexual material has resulted in Denmark suffering significantly less sexual abuse and coercion than other comparable European countries. Freely available sexual material and information is, all in all, a positive social advance. Whatever the distortions of porn images on the Internet, they pale beside the distortions being promulgated every day by the hundreds of well-financed antisexual abstinence programs that are flooding the nation's schools.

In any case, the deed is done -- across all boundaries of nation-states, genders, ages, and social classes. Who ever thought the nerds would find themselves leading a sexual revolution?

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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Santa Cruz, CA 95063
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