As I was perusing my Facebook news feed this week, I stumbled across an image of a damsel disrobed. A jilted lover, out for revenge, posted a photograph that his ex had allegedly sent to him in the hopes of seducing him. The picture was not shocking in the novelty sense; it was a standard pose-before-a-mirror-in-the-skivvies kind of snap. The comments, although distasteful, were to be expected. The greatest surprise was my complete and utter lack thereof. It got me thinking about how much the Internet has changed the culture of sex, and whether it is for the better or worse.
The web has become a virtual Adult World where you can browse through images, video and toys to your lust’s content. There is just one difference – no one has to know. For the conservative, the curious, the creepy and the criminal, the Internet is a space where sex is never taboo.
The result is somewhat of a paradox; the web has created a forum where sex can be divulged and discussed in a positive way without judgement, but the absence thereof is perpetuating, and perhaps encouraging, a web of social ills and deviancy.
The value of sex
Part of a recent study published by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) explored the value that consumers place on the Internet. In South Africa, 22% of citizens are willing to give up sex instead of the Internet for a year (Japan topped the list of countries with 56%). In 2007 Durex’s Sexual Wellbeing Global Survey reported that 71% of South Africans have sex at least once a week.
That’s a considerable number of shakes between the sheets to give up – but it’s a sacrifice many are prepared to make. With the amount of sexually-orientated content available on the web, hours of session time might be enough to make up for the loss.
A Swedish Internet sexuality study explored the kinds of sexual activities that users engage in online. The study showed that men most frequently view erotica (69%) and women most often engage in online flirting (46%).
The online dating market in South Africa has shown significant growth in the past few years. UK-based platform White Label Dating hosts over 345 different online dating web sites in the country, reporting increases in membership and revenue.
The dark side of the web
In a space where rule number 34 always applies, footage can be found for every fetish. For people who depart from the horizontal hula, the web provides an opportunity for sexual ‘deviants’ to find and meet others who share the same acquired tastes. The British documentary Strangelove: My Car is My Lover sets up and follows the meeting of two ‘mecaphiles’ on a chat forum and then in real life.
The trouble here is when some of these sexual ‘deviants’ use forums and chat rooms to hunt for victims. A few weeks ago the state of New York launched “Operation: Game Over”. The initiative, in partnership with owners of gaming platforms such as Microsoft, Apple and Blizzard, aims to purge registered sex offenders from online gaming platforms. More than 3 500 registered sex offenders have already being purged and had their communication privileges suspended.
In South Africa, the circulation of a video of a girl being raped went viral, causing uproar in communities across the country. The matter was brought to the attention of the police only when a mother saw the video clip on her child’s phone. The problem of teenagers and children accessing pornography is growing. The Wireless Application Service Provider’s Association (WASPA) reported that 90% of eight to 16 year olds have viewed porn online via their cell phones.
The Russian chat room site Outoilet is hugely popular amongst South African schoolchildren. The site was set up for schools in disadvantaged areas and facilitated posts about members of the opposite sex, gossip about fellow learners and the solicitation of sex.
Service providers and government intervention shut down the site, but it is rumoured that it is up and running again under different auspices. What is most disturbing is that there are several Facebook groups set up by devoted ‘toilet users’ that advocate the site’s return.
The future of sex culture
In an ironic twist, convents are now making use of the Internet to recruit nuns. Counter to the culture of the web that promotes sex, social media networks are being used by convents in Canada to engage with those willing to take a vow of poverty and chastity.
In South Africa feminist organisation Women’s Net is also using the Internet to take on the social ills that it creates. The organisation aims to educate and support women to take control of their ICT use.
In New Zealand, researchers theorise that robot prostitutes are the future of sex tourism. In the paper Robots, Men and Sex Tourism a future is explored where sexual tourists pay $12 600 (R97 512) for services from lap dances to intercourse with sexbots (robots designed to have sexual intercourse with humans).
As the culture of Internet sex continues to evolve, it doesn’t appear to be getting any less strange. In fact, the web seems to capitalise on this sentiment, best expressed by Hunter S. Thompson: when the going gets weird, the weird turn professional.
Individuals and companies will continue to profit from the biggest market on the web. The question is: who is going to regulate an industry that blurs the line between basic human need and insatiable want?