1. Health
Send to a Friend via Email

Is Virtual Sex Real Sex?

Arguments for and Against Considering Virtual Sex to be Real Sex

By

Updated March 05, 2013

As more of us spend an increasing number of hours in the day online and in virtual spaces it should come as no surprise that the practice of engaging in virtual sex (also called "cybersex," "cybering," and by some researchers "online sexual activities") has become more common and more commonly discussed.

Yet it remains a relatively new mode of sexual interaction, and understandably people have questions. As a sex educator the questions I receive are worded in a variety of ways:

"Is virtual sex cheating?"

"Is it weird if I'm going online and having sex as a different gender?"

"How much cybersex is too much cybersex?"

I read these questions as all being variations on a fundamental question: Is virtual sex the same as real sex? Because if virtual sex isn't "real sex" then it wouldn't be cheating, would it? And if it isn't "real" then what could be wrong with doing it a lot, or in certain ways?

The trouble people have isn't so much that they are asking the wrong question. The trouble is that we expect a single answer. We think this question is practical and concrete (like "is it risky to have unprotected sex?" or "if I eat too many peaches will I get a stomach ache?") when in fact the question is more philosophical and abstract (like "If a tree has sex by itself in a forest, does it make a sound?" or "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"). With this distinction in mind let's look at the yes and the no answers.

Viewpoint 1: Virtual Sex Is Real Sex

Those who answer yes to the question point out that people have very "real" responses to things that happen online, and that 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, from full belly laughs to uncontrollable sobbing). We build meaningful relationships that can last for days, months, and years. And we break up from those relationships. All these experiences have repercussions in our real life (inevitably if you are spending more time with online relationships you have less time for off line ones). This fact connects our virtual and real lives. So if "real sex" includes a psychological, emotional, and physical response to erotic stimulation, then virtual sex would have to count.

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

Researchers and therapists who talk about "problematic online sexual behaviors" (usually referred to as things such as watching "too much" internet pornography, engaging in erotic or sexual chat without their partner's knowledge, etc…) also seem to consider virtual sex to have real sex-like implications for relationships. In this case, they might not think virtual sex is "healthy" sex, but they treat it as real, or at least as a real problem.

Viewpoint 2: Virtual Sex Is Not Real Sex

Usually people who say that virtual sex isn't real sex point to the absence of physical contact in virtual sex. It's true that while virtual sex currently engages many senses it doesn't include skin to skin human touch. No matter how complicated and deeply felt the sexual communications are during virtual sex, if you want to feel touch you have to touch yourself. The field of teledildonics is beginning to address this, but it's early days.

Some people who engage in virtual sex while in off line relationships say that it's not the same as real sex, which would be cheating. A similar argument has been made in a very different arena by people who look at violent or coercive pornography (whether it involves real people pretending or computer generated images). These people say that watching something online stops them from engaging in such behaviors in real life. It's an argument that isn't well proven and it remains highly contentious among researchers on both sides arguing that virtual experiences either relieve the desire to do something in real life or fuel that desire.

Viewpoint 3: You Can't Compare Virtual Sex To Offline Sex

You may have noticed that both answers to this question are based on comparing "real sex" to virtual sex. There are problems with this approach.

First, it presumes a universally agreed upon understanding of "real sex". This doesn't exist. Indeed we not only lack a full understanding of online sexual interactions and what they mean for people, we don't fully understand offline sexual interactions and their meanings (it's hard to get into the bedrooms of the nation, the doors are usually closed and locked when researchers come knocking). If we are trying to answer this question by comparing off line sex to online sex we're still missing too many pieces to make a fair comparison.

We can also wonder about the logic of using offline sexuality as the standard of "real sex." It's possible that people who grow up with easy access to virtual spaces and new technologies may have a different experience of sexuality both on and offline than those who don't. In this case we aren't comparing apples to apples, and when we try to do so we may miss much of the richness and complexity of online sexual development.

The Bottom Line

If this question is ultimately about individual experience, the bottom line is that for many people virtual sex is real sex. These interactions are meaningful and can impact aspects of their whole lives. Like all sexual interactions, they can be both healthy and unhealthy. And 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 you are trying to come up with a social or cultural answer, the results will be less clear. Technologies, and our uses of them, are so new and most public discussion, even when framed by professionals, is far from objective. Media engagement with these issues tends to be superficial and sensationalist.

So where does this leave us? Well, we need to begin by acknowledging that the way we answer this question for ourselves has as much, if not more, to do with our values and beliefs about sexuality than it has to do with technology or what any individual is actually doing online. It also means we have to talk to each other and share those values and beliefs as well as live with the uncomfortable fact that some questions will never have neat answers.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.