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Cybersex: Is it real sex or not?

On February 15, 2012

Dear Sex Matters,

My girlfriend and I are wondering if you would solve an argument we are having. Can you please tell us your opinion about whether cybersex is the same thing as real sex? One of us thinks that cybersex shouldn't be categorized as real sex, and the other of thinks that it is the same as real sex. Thanks!

Not Agreeing

Dear Not Agreeing,

This debate has been getting a lot of attention lately! As cybersex (also called virtual sex) becomes easier for everyone to access, it's not surprising that many of us have questions about what it is and what it means in our real life and our sexual and relationship interactions with others.

There are many ways that people are questioning this topic — for example, I have also been asked "If I am in a relationship and also cybersexing, am I cheating?" and "Is it unhealthy if I am having more sex online than I am in my real life?" and "Is cybersex even the same thing as sex?"

Let's take a moment to define cybersex. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines cybersex as "online sex-oriented conversations or exchanges." PC Magazine offers the following definition: "an erotic communication between two people online via text, audio or video chat."

So, in both definitions, there is an active engagement and communication with another person, albeit online. This active engagement differentiates the activity from, say, pornography, which is more passive than active, more about viewing than interacting.

With that said, the answer to your question is still not that simple.

Unlike more practical and concrete questions (like "Is it risky to have unprotected sex?" or "Should a person always obtain consent from a partner before initiating sex?"), this question becomes more philosophical and abstract as we have to already know our physical, emotional and spiritual definitions of sex itself ("Does sex only mean intercourse or does it include other areas of the body/mind/spirit/heart?" "Can a person have sex without a partner or without physical contact?").

So, it's kind of hard to define cybersex if we don't already have a good working definition of sex.

Because different people have different definitions of sex, there are also different understandings of where cybersex falls within the realm of off-line relationship.

Those that believe that cybersex is real sex often point out that people have very "real" responses to things that happen online, so sex is no different.

We can feel joy and sorrow, arousal and disgust, anxiety and calm all while we sit in front of our computer.

We also have physical responses (from butterflies in our stomach to physical arousal and orgasm and from full belly laughs to uncontrollable sobbing).

We build meaningful relationships and breakups — and these experiences have repercussions in our real life, thus crossing the line from virtual to real. So if "real sex" includes a psychological, emotional and physical response to erotic stimulation, then cybersex would have to count.

Too, for those that argue that "real sex" requires a human connection or relationship, this, too, is present for people who engage in cybersex as part of their online experiences.

Usually, the argument that cybersex is not "real sex" is centered on the belief that there must be physical contact for sex to occur.

It's true that while cybersex engages many senses, it does not include immediate human touch.

No matter how complicated and deeply felt the sexual communications are during cybersex, if you want to feel touch, you have to touch yourself.

For many people, cybersex is real sex. The interactions are meaningful and impact many aspects of a person's life.

Like all sexual interactions, they can be both healthy and unhealthy.

For others, virtual sexual interactions may be more like playing a video game, a temporary amusement that doesn't carry deeper meaning or impact other aspects of their life.

If this question is ultimately about individual definitions and experience, then it is important for you and your partner to engage in conversation about how you each define and experience "real sex" and then move into the conversation of cybersex.

Acknowledge that the way you each answer these questions has more to do with your values and beliefs about sexuality and relationship than technology.

You may need to share those values and beliefs with each other as well as become more comfortable with the idea that some questions will never have neat answers.

Whether you ultimately agree or disagree on these definitions, it can be helpful to explore the following questions when creating a partnership agreement around the topic of cybersex — "Is there such a thing as too much cybersex in our relationship?" and "Does cybersex bring our relationship closer together or create distance?" and "Will there be an agreement to cybersex with my partner's knowledge and consent, or will I hide my online relationships and activities?"

The answers to these questions can guide you both towards conversations about creating a healthy relationship based on mutual safety, trust and respect, whether or not cybersexing is part of your life together.


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