Has the Internet Really Changed Anything About Sexuality?

Nothing could be more modern than the rise and fall of Ashley Madison: millions of world-wide members linked by a single website, the central promise of cyber-confidentiality, millions of phony profiles generated by algorithm, and the whole thing brought down by hackers—exposing not just the criminal business behavior, but the email addresses and IP information for millions of accounts, both real and fake.

This ultra-modern story is also a reminder that the human heart hasn’t changed. I’m not talking about the good old-fashioned greed of unethical businessmen. I’m talking about the customers. People still want to connect. People still find it difficult. People still have trouble talking to their mates about sex. 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.

Most of all, people still lie about sex.

As a 30-year resident of (and therapist in) Silicon Valley, I hear every single day that the internet has changed everything. And 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 yes, Ashley Madison. I know about meetups, flash mobs, and Group-on. I know people continents apart masturbate together on Skype, and I seem to hear about sexting every week. There’s an amazing amount of information on line about everything from clitorises to sexual side effects of drugs to the number of calories in semen to whether olive oil is a good lubricant.

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…

  • People are still wondering if they’re 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 join Ashley Madison–because they want to feel young.
  • People still regret what they see in the mirror, and lose their appetite for something 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 all-compelling than it used to be. We actually have to remember to pay attention during sex now—since it doesn’t grab us like colorful, noisy websites do, and since it doesn’t promise us the entire world every moment the way our smartphones do.

Actually, sex does make that promise. It can even deliver on that promise—but only if we pay attention. And in the age of the internet, that’s a big if.

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