An early fear with the emergence of the internet was that it would debase its users to their crudest, most virulent impulses, specifically with regards to their sexual appetites. Over the course of the intervening decades, the evidence that has emerged to vindicate this fear is substantial. User anonymity combined with lack of regulation loosened whatever reins remained fastened to the collective libido and invited the darkest fantasies from the deep recesses of the imagination into the familiarity and comfort of the living room. We need not trawl the shadows of the dark web to encounter examples of hardcore porn once relegated to the top shelves of adult bookstores; nor need we lurk in the backrooms of clubs and bars to find interlocutors willing to indulge our most explicit chatter.
Consider “NSFW Twitter,” made up of many men releasing their sexual inhibitions upon likely fake female accounts; consider, too, the popularity of OnlyFans, which allows users to seek out tailored pornographic experiences based on subscription and entertain wholly parasocial relationships with a broad range of freelance creators. These formats involve a deeper depravity than most brick-and-mortar porn purveyors ever aspired to curate. And yet they are widely accessible, basically free, and nearly limitless in content.
The question of whether this phenomenon harms the social fabric or intensifies the ongoing tension between the sexes seems needlessly rhetorical. Loosening sexual restraint via the internet has certainly blurred lines of decorum – of the private and the public – that were once, however prudishly, clearly drawn. We can rue the pervasiveness of pornography and rail Andrea Dworkin-style against its demoralizing effects but this tactic smacks of futility, if not outright delusion: temperance activists shutting down the fronts of liquor stores while moonshiners file through the back. The masses have spoken, and they want unbridled access to mindless self-indulgence. Meanwhile an entire economy mushrooming around purveying tailored sexual experiences on the internet is happy to oblige.
A more interesting question to interrogate beyond pornography’s ubiquity is its impact on the collective psychology of the users who participate in it. Less remarked upon in the age of pornographic omnipresence and the extremes it entails is the search for some form of para-sexual intimacy. Before the internet became our primary forum for community interaction, the search for intimacy that accompanied public displays of sexuality might once have resulted in phenomena like the “cuddle puddle:” frenzies of non-sexual group contact that originated at raves in the nineties. These spirals of vulnerability and unarticulated fear were as lurid as they were chaste, a reversion to a childlike state of confusion and dependence that often characterizes sexual immaturity.
In the absence of physicality, the way that we conceive of intimacy has taken on a similar sort of collective pathos. What, if anything, might we name the online corollary of the “cuddle puddle”? Is it the infantile chatter that crops up in certain online spaces, a sort of post-Dionysian sob in the wilderness of the metaverse? Does it fuel the amorphous, misogynistic rage of the incel? Can we read it in the puerile prescriptiveness of self-help gurus tilting at the windmill of the ever-present narcissist? Of the priestesses of the cults of wellness sunning their holes amid the ambivalent assent of their congregations?
It seems apposite here, in a discussion of virtual intimacy, to define our operative term as well as to draw a clear distinction between its different modes – physical versus emotional. Few will disagree that physical intimacy tends to denote an elevated category of sex that transcends mere fucking. Thornier is the issue of emotional intimacy; is it the sum of pejorative sentimentality that many heterosexual women are accused of foisting on their reluctant partners post-coitally? Or is it a form of tenderness that strengthens monogamous relationships? I am taking the liberty of discarding the distinction between emotional and physical intimacies in this context because I believe that the feelings of being close, connected, and supported – essential to the definition of intimacy – are ultimately chimeric when we displace them to the virtual.
Nor do I wish to claim that there is any correspondence between the forms of intimacy we seek to encounter online and the mundane forms of physical and emotional intimacy we encounter in the material world. When I speak about virtual intimacy, I do not mean to imply that its adherents are seeking to replicate feelings of love and tenderness that they might experience with a physical partner in the bedroom. I would argue, to the contrary, that virtual intimacy involves the search for something that is at once far more transcendent and solipsistic: an outlet for our awe at the evolutionary mechanism that has rewarded us with the flood of dopamine and oxytocin that attends sexual release. The gratification of our most virulent impulses is a euphoria that temporarily relieves us of the burden that our conscious minds in stasis oblige us to shoulder. And because we are unburdened, we are able to take a dispassionate view of its underpinnings.
When we deconstruct sexual pleasure, what we encounter is the abyss. At the risk of sounding like a one-line character in a Woody Allen movie, allow me to recall that one French term for orgasm – la petite morte, or the small death – attempts to convey the minor moment of existential lucidity that some report in the wake of a particularly earth-shattering sexual experience. A moment of nirvana-like reflection in which we have so thoroughly conflated Eros and Thanatos that we are sent reeling through the depths of the Freudian subconscious, unmoored from our familiar trappings.
Pragmatic readers will accuse me of melodrama. Of course, I realize many people view regular sexual release as a practical hygienic necessity on par with brushing one’s teeth, and the ubiquity of pornography as a democratizing force akin to the advent of running water or the wide availability of vaccines. While I sympathize with this perspective, I cannot help nonetheless wonder what will become of our souls if we are routinely obliged to face down the existential paradox of la petite morte in the absence of a physical partner whose presence might be grounding enough to connect us to a reality that is as immediate as it is corporeal.
Decoupling intimacy from sexual pleasure is not a new phenomenon, and certainly not one that originated with the internet. What is new, however, is the illusion that we are undertaking intimate experiences in the company of others. The everywhereness of pornography in the age of the internet provides us with newer and ever more believable ways of convincing ourselves that we are not gradually becoming isolated and atomized in the self-indulgent search for newer and ever more bespoke forms of pleasure. And the attainment of these pleasures leaves us perplexed as to the meaning of pleasure – of its role in our lives – writ large.
What is new, moreover, is the trail of virtual receipts we leave in our wake like some unwitting fairytale children wandering through primordial woods oblivious to danger. What does our search for virtual intimacy say about us and how might it be instrumentalized to unscrupulous ends? If there is one thing that is certain about the prerogatives of surveillance capitalism and its ruthless exploitation of human desire, it’s that the algorithm is indifferent to the subtleties of intimacy that I am attempting however haphazardly to parse. It is designed to hunt down the objects of our desire before we know we want them and sell them back to us at the highest price.
Perhaps our search for intimacy is far too embarrassing to exploit. But I believe it is already being exploited by the emotionality of the discourses that we hold in online spaces. You might consider our chimeric search for intimacy another casualty of the internet’s tendency to dumb things down, to reduce the nuance of complex experiences to a childish grey, and to mire us ever further in spirals of unarticulated fear and vulnerability that render us defenseless and passive consumers.
Meanwhile, the gratification of our most virulent impulses divides us further from each other. Ultimately, the spirit of intimacy involves closeness with another person, and confronting the essentially unknown of that other person, an uncertainty that has no place in our heavily controlled, self-referential fantasies. If it is the depravity of our sexual appetites that debases us, what mechanism will redeem us to ourselves? When we bask post-coitally in the pale blue glow of our computer screens, what forms of intimacy, chimeric or otherwise, will soothe the amorphous sense of fear and vulnerability that the age of pornographic ubiquity has released?