Image by Anthony Koeslag.
This week’s SF Chronicle column explores the limits of monogamy in the digital era — thought not as much as I’d like to, as I did need to keep the column under 1500 words! And I have a lot more material on the subject: in fact, after the jump please do read the entire, unedited interview between myself and psychotherapist Dr. Keely Kolmes. What she has to say about cybersex in relationships is eye-opening. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t read my column, because I also have some very choice back-and-forth with well-known sex blogger Ellie Lumpesse about her cybersex trysts and relationships from *within* her committed long-term real life relationship — very interesting stuff, and she has great advice, too. Snip:
“Hey. Baby. I know you like to have some fun. You. Know. Where to find me,” burbles Kari, the Virtual Girlfriend in a halting, female Stephen Hawking voice through my G4’s speakers. But while Kari might be the most advanced commercially available artificial intelligence pleasure model online, if I walked in on a boyfriend having an 8-bit roll in the hay with her, I’d be fighting the urge to laugh, not the urge to throw dishes. Cybersex , it seems, might just be in the eye of the beholder.
Right now there are more ways to have cybersex than ever thought possible, and it’s making modern couples reconfigure their relationships’ Terms of Service. Cybersex makes it easy to cheat; you don’t have to meet anyone, so the risk factor is low on all fronts — except maybe emotionally. Cybersex is also a more creative form of masturbation, so in many ways it’s not too terribly different than enjoying porn or fantasy. But that cybersex often involves another human gives it a twist; walking in on a boyfriend with an actual human female on the other side of the screen, having a hot and heavy text or cam session — I don’t need to consult our ToS to know that wouldn’t feel good, at all.
But if it’s really just masturbation, then is cybersex “real” sex? Dr. Keely Kolmes, Psy.D., a San Francisco psychotherapist for individuals and couples, tells me, “I would say that whether or not it is ‘real’ sex depends upon how the interaction is experienced by the participants. It may even feel ‘real’ for one person in the encounter, and not for the other person with whom they are having cybersex. On the other hand, you may have two people having cybersex where neither of them considers it ‘real,’ despite arousal, a feeling of intimacy, and even mutual orgasm — and yet their real-life partners may beg to differ.” Kolmes adds, “But it’s fascinating that two people can be having an experience and one person may compartmentalize it in a way that feels ‘not real,’ while the other person is feeling much more integrated about it.”
From my email exchange with Dr. Kolmes, republished with permission:
VB: is cybersex “real” sex?
Dr. Kolmes: This is a great question. We are dealing with the intersection of
fantasy and the mingling of psyches. I would say that whether or not
it is “real” sex depends upon how the interaction is experienced by
the participants. It may even feel “real” for one person in the
encounter, and not for the other person with whom they are having
cybersex! On the other hand, you may have two people having cybersex
where neither of them considers it “real,” despite arousal, a feeling
of intimacy, and even mutual orgasm–and yet their real-life partners
may beg to differ. It depends upon your definitions of sex and whether
sharing or co-creating fantasies (or building arousal) is in and of
itself a real enough sexual experience for you. But it’s fascinating
that two people can be having an experience and one person may
compartmentalize it in a way that feels “not real,” while the other
person is feeling much more integrated about it.
VB: if someone is in a relationship and they have cybersex, are they cheating?
Dr. Kolmes: Again, I really think this depends upon what the person and their
partner(s) thinks. In our current climate, with all of these
possibilities, if partners are at a point in which they are
negotiating monogamy and outside sexual experiences, they also may
need to consider working the topic of cybersex into these
negotiations. It is a real potential source of conflict since one
partner may define it as real while the other may think of it as pure
fantasy. But these kinds of different conceptions of the same sexual
acts are not new for poly couples who may have very different feelings
about various sensual, emotional, or sexual activities (i.e, the
relative intimacy of kissing vs. more genital-specific touching vs.
BDSM play, etc.). However, I think it can become dangerous for
partners to focus on the conversation on who is “right.”. A more
productive focus might be understanding one another’s perspectives on
the significance of the interactions and coming to understandings
about what kinds of online exchanges are acceptable and how much
information people need or want to have about it.
Some people may draw the line at cybersex with known people, saying
that this would feel like too much of a violation, and that it’s only
okay if their partner plays with (presumed) strangers. Others may feel
better having clear rules about sharing the logs of the activity. Some
may want to watch or supervise. Some may prefer that the cybersex be
around particular acts that are less appealing to them (forms of
fantasy play, perhaps, that the partner may not enjoy as much). Others
may feel more comfortable if their partner has cybersex with some
other identity (gender role switching or avatar or whatever).
VB: what’s different about infidelity online versus traditional
infidelity? do we need to make more distinctions between physical
infidelity vs. emotional infidelity?
Dr. Kolmes: Again, this gets to definitions of sex and whether it’s the act of
touching, in the same room that makes something real. I think it also
gets to what feels intimate to someone….is it being naked? Being
touched? Having someone see/hear/feel your orgasm? Or having someone
know what really gets you off? Is it having sex as yourself (since
some people use cybersex to play with other roles/identities)?
But what is also different about “infidelity” (I don’t like using that
term since it presumes that cybersex *is* cheating) or “intimacy,”
online is that it also doesn’t have to take place in real time. People
can exchange intimate stories over days/weeks/months. Or have a sexual
exchange over IM. They can be sitting at their desks in plain view
having these intimate exchanges. They can be multitasking and on the
phones with their bosses or spouses while this is occurring. They can
check in and out or come back later and finish an exchange or leave in
the middle of it without being “rude.” These interactions can be
troubling to some because they can be so immediate and yet so
VB: how does someone know (or determine) that they’ve crossed a line
with cybersex and infidelity? then what do they do?
Dr. Kolmes: Signs that you may be crossing a line would include things like
feeling guilty about it or feeling the need to keep it a secret. Or if
you find that you’re using cybersex as a safe way to express specific
fantasies with someone else that you are afraid to share with your
relationship partner(s). If you find yourself complaining about your
to the person you’re engaging in cybersex with or using it in some other
way to devalue your relationship, this would also be a sign that you
are crossing significant boundaries. If you find ourself canceling out on
face-to-face dates with your partner or others in your life in order to have
cybersex, that *could* be a bad sign.
I think it’s important that people understand the role that the
cybersex/cyber-relationship is playing in their life. What exactly is
it satisfying? Is it a way to explore a specific fantasy? Does it feel
like a creative writing endeavor? Is it developing a relationship that
feels exciting? Is it seeking out a kind of emotional intimacy? I’m
interested in seeing the people I work with feeling integrated, whole,
and happy about their choices. If someone is not feeling these things,
it may be a clue that it would be good to find someone to talk to who
can help them sort out what part of it is feeling wrong. If it is hard
to unravel what feels wrong, or to understand what part of the
encounters is especially compelling, talking to an individual
therapist may help to uncover and express some of those deeper needs.
If you’re already in a communicative relationship with a partner and
you want to start talking about cybersex after you may have crossed
some boundaries, good starting points for remedies to violations would
be to simply bring up the topic of cybersex with your partner. It
might be good to start by talking about fantasies and other erotic
supplements to your fantasy life (such as pictures, videos, written
erotica, toys). That would be a good launching point for acknowledging
that there haven’t been conversations about using more interactive
media or involving other live people. If these types of conversations
feel too intimidating, or they are not going well, it might be useful
to consider getting help from a sex positive therapist who works with
people in relationships. It is also important to find a therapist who
directly to assuming that this is a case of porn addiction or internet
addiction–but to find someone who can help you and your partner
explicitly about fantasy, desires and about how to talk about these
VB: bonus question: if someone’s avatar has sex with another avatar in a
game, is it cheating? it it even sex?
Dr. Kolmes: Putting aside all humorous first responses, I’d be awfully curious if
someone uses the idea of the avatar in order to experience it as “not
me,” and, if so, why that works for them. This would be really
interesting information in part of understanding how they conceive of
it. But otherwise, all other comments above apply!