Every other week Doing It Decent considers the ethics of a sexual situation from our readers. Grappling with a touchy sexual ethics issue? Here's how to send in a question to Doing It Decent. Send me an email and be sure to put DID in the subject line. All questions will be posted anonymously with identifying information removed.
Cyber Faking It
I regularly go online for sex and pretend to be someone I’m not. I change my age, my gender, my race, and my body. I figure everyone does this and have never seen a problem with it. I’ve had a few guys want to hook up in real life, but I cut them right off. But last week I got in a debate with two people on my floor who don’t do it and think it’s immoral. As far as I’m concerned a little bit of lying is OK, but now I’m not sure if I’ve gone too far, I don’t want to be doing something unethical, but I don’t want to stop going online for sex, either.
The first piece of good news I have is that there is no ethical reason to stop going online for sex. The second piece of good news is that once you think through these ethical questions for yourself, you may find it makes the sex even hotter and more interesting. To consider the ethics of a situation is to undress it in a way, to expose the hot pulsing personal truth that lies beneath the surface. Sometimes just knowing it’s there can be a thrill.
There are many ways to address your question, many angles worth exploring. I can’t be in any way exhaustive, but perhaps I can set out some questions for you to consider.
Let’s start with the issue of lying. You say a little lying is OK. But what precisely are the lies you’re telling? If you enter a virtual space where it’s understood (usually implicitly and sometimes explicitly) that online representations of the self are not the same as representations of the self in real life, are you in fact lying? To take a real life example, if you were at a Halloween party dressed as the Hamburgler and you hooked up with someone and had sex without ever taking off your costume (for the purposes of this example, let’s say you do a REALLY good Hamburgler impression), are you lying or misrepresenting yourself? I would say no. Also, I would say that I’m getting hungry.
Similarly, your options for self-representation in virtual spaces are understood to be broader and more flexible than in real life. You may play up or down parts of yourself online that feel more or less visible in real life. But these aren’t always deceptions. Quite the opposite, they are sometimes more intentional and thoughtful representations than those we don in real life.
Which is not to say that someone you have sex with online wouldn’t feel lied to if they found out that instead of a 35-year-old guy you’re actually an 18-year-old girl. They might. But it might be helpful to ask yourself what it is about doing this that makes the sex hot for you -- I’d suggest that there’s a difference between getting off because you’re allowing yourself to share parts of yourself you can’t in real life and getting off on a deception. If your reason for doing this is only to lie, you’re standing on shakier ethical ground.
Another aspect of the ethics of your sexual situation has to do with the nature of the relationships you're engaging in. On-line or off, your obligation to a sexual partner you never plan on knowing or even meeting again is quite different to your obligation to, say, a partner of 2, 5, or 20 years, or even a new partner who you have committed to in a more concrete way. Would you feel ethically obligated to disclose your complete sexual history the first time you have sex with someone new in real life? For that matter would you feel an ethical obligation to disclose your religion, ethnicity, or voting practices? If you’re a Democrat, and knowingly sleep with a Republican who hates Democrats but you don’t tell them, is that unethical? Have you caused them harm?
You have to ask yourself: What is the nature of these relationships? How much would I expect to know about the people behind the username or avatar? What is the extent of the harm that could result from my misrepresentation? The topic of unethical misrepresentation usually revolves around potential for harm. In a professional relationship (doctor/patient, student teacher) the potential for harm is considerable. In an anonymous sex chat, it is considerably less.
You still have an obligation to act ethically, but what does that look like in this situation? Here, your vigilance about not leading people on seems very ethical (providing that when you cut them off you do so in a respectful way). In fact, I might argue that given the rules of spaces like this, if you were to suddenly, and without asking, disclose your gender, race, age, etc… you may do more harm and be acting more unethically than if you maintain anonymity throughout the interaction. To suddenly change the rules of the game without getting their permission is, to my mind, far more unethical than engaging in consensual sex with someone inside a tightly prescribed series of cultural practices.
The fact is that you are not giving someone information that, if they had it, might influence their decision to have sex with you. If they never find out you might say, no harm, no foul. This is one for the philosophers though, as there’s an argument to be made that whether they know or not, they have been deceived and they are harmed by having acted under false pretenses.
Obviously there are no easy answers here. In my opinion you have precisely the same kind of ethical responsibility to your online interactions as you do to your real life interactions. But how you fulfill those responsibilities differs depending on the context (including the nature of the relationship, where and how it was formed, and what general understandings exist in the social setting where the relationship began). You may never know if and how much harm your actions, virtual or in real life, have caused. You need to act in accordance with your own ethical standards and this includes acting in a way that you can defend if you’re ever called to account.