Marshall, J  (2003)  'The Sexual Life of Cyber-Savants', in The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol 15, No 2: 229 - 48.

This is an ethnographic study of participants using a MOO ostensibly to discuss postmodernism, who occasionally went off into a private room and did Net sex. There were mostly 'middle-class intellectuals, primarily from the US, Australia and the UK' (229). MOOs permit group interaction and are designed using a model of rooms. Administrators can allocate extra programming power and also censor contributions. When doing Net sex, participants can input descriptions  'describing sexual activity to each other in text, together with their responses to those descriptions' (230). Curiously, they can also script other people's inputs, as the transcription included on pages 231 - 4 indicates.  [That transcription also shows some of the technical problems, including the ways in which particular inputs can be interrupted by other inputs, producing a delay. Participants can also delete inputs halfway through, and interrupt their interaction with requests such as  '@ who' which produces a list of people who are in the particular room. The selected transcription indicates that people propose particular kinds of sexual activity, described pretty explicitly -- a kind of online porno movie.]

The action consists of 'sex dialogue', and it is clear that boundaries between fantasy and reality are blurred. There is no indication whether actual sexual activity, such as masturbation, is taking place [but see below]. The fantasies on offer can be directed by others. This may be why some participants describe it as  'intense and overwhelming' (234), compared to solitary masturbation.

There is an underlying agenda concerning authenticity. This is sometimes related to discussions about whether Net sex is liberating, especially where dialogues covering sado-masochism [or any other kind of  'perversion', presumably] are concerned. Even the delays introduced by the technology can increase the pleasure. Some participants experience the MOO as offering a chance to be free with safety, to be playful, especially if they also subscribe to the view that straight society represses sexual exploration and play.  'It is perhaps worth noting that sex is liberatory is a standard part of left - liberal discourse' (235). Some participants found it unsatisfactory, as a  'shadow' of real sex. The pleasures may diminish over time  [no doubt as the cliches proliferate].

Marshall found a constant  'movement between involvement and uninvolvement' (236). This was continued in debates about whether or not to meet partners off line. Some respondents who had had such a meeting found them less fulfilling than the fantasy, and suggested that  'you can only be yourself online, without physical markers' (236): yet an authentic relationship can only take place offline. There was much speculation about the authentic or real motives of others engaging in Net sex, leading to a 'play of revealing and concealing' [including those tests of sincerity that I speculated about in my 2004 book]. Some people felt that you could tell an authentic reaction: '"as the exchange becomes more heated and the actors get closer to orgasm, typing speed decreases while the number of typographical errors increase"' (quoting Hamann 1996)  [no doubt because respondents are typing one-handed?]. Some participants did mention the problem of representing an orgasm in typing, and confessed sometimes that they had faked them [not unknown offline, of course]. However,  'a genital focus is not always the primary aim of netsex' (237). Participants vary in terms of whether they tend to describe what they do, or whether they attempt to script reactions for others. Not everyone liked being scripted, and one woman suggested that this 'verged on rape' (237).

There was some anxiety about falling for a fantasy, and  'being uncertain of your partner's gender, being subject to electronic harassment or to discredit in one's online life' (237). Emotions may also be affected, and people may become addicted. Online lovers may be better than real ones, especially in inducing fantasy . Net sex can be 'as complicated as off-line sex' (237). Participants  'seem both keen to separate the virtual and the real and to blend them simultaneously' (238).

A common view is that women are excluded by sex talk, and some women report being constantly propositioned and harassed. However, this particular group disapproved of harassment, and the female members were able to participate  'with as much enthusiasm and ambiguity as men' (238), although newcomers sometimes broken the rules. Few seem to want to conceal their gender [there is a possibility of using ungendered pronouns, apparently, which is known in Net speak as making oneself  'spivak' (239). I wonder if  Spivak knows?]. Most participants suggested it is easy to accurately gender people, probably because gender characteristics are exaggerated, almost stereotyped, in Net sex.

Net sex takes place away from the ostensible purpose of the MOO, and this additional capability is known as  'list aura' [!]. It includes all kinds of communication between participants 'offlist'. The activity is not noticed by everybody, often because is  'largely dyadic' (239). It is correspondingly difficult to research, and inquiries attracted few replies, including one that asked about whether permanent relationships were developed. Personal contacts revealed some of the offlist activity as well, but the data may be atypical and much remains unknown. Most of those revealed they had tried off-line relationships, although lasting relationships seem less common. Those who require casual sex through initial online activity tend to go for dedicated sex MOOs. There is some evidence to suggest that participants are really seeking to generate intimacy, which may be  'increasingly problematic and precarious for... middle-class intellectuals' (241).

Establishing the presence of others is difficult in Net sex, because people may be present without actually communicating. This combination of absence and presence can be termed  'ascence' (241). The peculiarities of typing and interruptions add to the problems, by disrupting an intimate conversation, for example. Participants do not know if they are sharing silence, experiencing net lag, or simply not co-present. There is no social ritual available. As a result,  'people used sex, as a framing convention, to sustain the mutuality of mood... people might need to  "fall in love"  to prove that a relationship actually exists' (242), especially given that romantic love is the usual pretext for intimacy, especially between the sexes. Interaction is correspondingly excessively gendered, where 'women [and men] are beautiful and well-endowed' (242). This exaggeration can enhance a sense of presence, but also raise doubts about authenticity.

Some people feel that their bodies are extended online, and that this disembodiment brings liberation. This may be a peculiarity of using machines to communicate instead of bodies. Net sex offers  'asence' again, a playful notion of the body, a way of sexualising it to guarantee its presence. Some notion of an authentic self seems to be necessary, involving the body but also evidence of emotions, gender, and sincerity. The latter can sometimes be indicated by breaking the rules, and 'expressions of sex and anger' can be important  [again the suggestion that Net sex really is about choosing a mode that makes it easier to achieve authentic communication]. In particular,  'sex... establishes the importance of  [the] gender [of a respondent] as a truth' (243). Sincerity can be increased by disclosure of  the fullest information, and there is a convention that  'the more unpleasant the information the more likely it is taken to be true' (243), as a guarantee against self-aggrandizing fantasizing. Just as with face-to-face encounters, participants assume they can read these signs. At the same time, participants know that they are online specifically to engage in fantasy, not to be their real selves. This is an inherent contradiction which has to be managed.

In conclusion, there are no other forms of interconnection between participants online, such as economic corporation, shared conflict, struggles over resources, kinship, force and so on. It is all about personal relations and the need to cultivate them. Those relationships 'continually shift from anonymity to intimacy' (244), and the particular form of communication increases ambiguities. Some form of framing is needed to manage this ambiguity, and this is largely provided through  'the idea of authenticity -- of there being an inner truth which can be indicated' (244). This is far from easy, however, and depends on ambiguous matters such as judging sincerity [as above]. Online and off-line life are interwoven, in contradictory ways, as above. In particular,  'Net sex is overtly powered by mutual fantasy and can lead to closeness, but at the same time its fantasy can detract from the authenticity that sex supposedly indicates' (244). People can assume a real existence, but at the price of gender exaggeration, and the risk of falseness. No-one knows if they are talking to one other or to several, despite the assumption that it is a pair that is communicating. Net sex shows clearly  'the paradoxes of Western relationships' (245): in real life too, the requirements of intimacy lead to increasing disclosure, but that disclosure can also offend the other; but refusing to disclose is also offensive. Authenticity seems to require predictability, but this can also diminish passion. In the end, Marshall believes,  'part of the excitement of netsex precisely arises in being caught between these contradictions and using them' (245).

back to key concepts