Day 68 of the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ in Ireland. You have learned more than you ever needed to know about Joe Exotic, you have perfected your banana bread recipe, and you have worked your way through a litre of hand sanitiser. You’re bored, maybe lonely. You have not touched another human being since mid-March. Phone in hand, you are messaging someone that you are into – it could be a new Tinder match, someone you went on a date with before the world closed down, or your significant other. Texting heats up and evolves into sexting, and next thing you are being invited to upgrade your flirting level from typed to…more visual.
‘Want to send each other some pics?’
To some, the answer is always going to be a straightforward ‘no’, and that’s perfectly OK.
Sexting, phone sex, cam sex and exchanging sexually explicit photos or ‘nudes’, all of which I am going to group under the term ‘cyber sex’ for the purpose of conciseness within this article, are ways in which many people explore, nurture and satisfy their sexual needs and desires.
In the current climate – where we are unable to touch anyone outside of our household – cyber sex and dating have become more popular and important than ever!
Many couples who are apart are staying sexually and intimately connected through their phones, laptops, remotely controlled sex toys – you name it! Long-distance relationship veterans can attest to the importance of using what you can to maintain a healthy and happy sex life. There are also lots of virtual dates happening – dinner and drinks over Zoom, watching movies together…and we can’t forget all of the virtual ‘sex parties’ that have hit headlines recently!
Some have claimed that arranging such interactions surely has a dampening effect on the spontaneity and passion of sex. I would argue that planning to have sex, including cyber sex, simply means that you are prioritising sex. You are prioritising consent, pleasure, intimacy, fun - and each other!
When you think about it, many people ‘plan’ sex when they are single – this could include things like changing your sheets, tidying your room, buying condoms, grooming bits of our bodies that usually don’t see the light of day, lathering on the moisturiser or fake tan if you are partial to that sort of thing…so, why not plan sex when we are in a relationship with someone we adore?
People engage in cyber sex for many other reasons, pandemic-related limitations aside! It can be a safe way for people to explore their desires, fantasies, sexuality, relationship with their body and gender expression. It can be a fantastic option for people with disabilities to fulfill sexual needs and make connections.
Visual expressions of sexuality and nudity are not new concepts. Erotic art has a long and rich history and has appeared on everything from Paleolithic cave carvings to Egyptian papyrus vignettes to Ancient Greek and Roman pottery.
What is new is the speed and ease with which we can create erotic pictures and videos, and hit ‘send’. And of course, like with everything that seems wonderful and easy in life, there are risks and complications…
Below are some tips for having safe, healthy and fulfilling cyber sex experiences!
1. Beware the ‘catfish’!
If you are thinking of engaging in cyber sex (no prizes for erotic writing here) with someone you have not met in person and therefore you are not certain that the profile belongs to them, proceed with caution! Try and do a search online for the person to ensure they are real and legitimate, and that it is not a fake profile. Of course, as the MTV show ‘Catfish’ has illustrated over the years, fake profiles can be very convincing. You can ask the person to create an image or a video confirming it is them – e.g. holding three fingers up. A video is preferable as they are much harder to edit. Look out for any irregularities in a picture that looks like it might be Photoshop! You can only do your best here – it is not your responsibility to do cutting-edge detective work, but it is best to err on the side of caution if you are in any way suspicious! Don't be afraid of that blocking and reporting functions on sites and apps - they are there to be used and to protect you!
2. No surprises, please
The usual rules of consent apply to absolutely ALL areas of cyber sex. Never send an image or video without checking in with the person first! Unwanted and unsolicited sexual images can make someone very uncomfortable, and can even be triggering to some, especially people who have been victims of sexual assault.
Those ‘surprise’ 3am snaps of your jewels that no one asked for? Just don’t. You would not flash someone randomly in person (I sincerely hope), so why do it through a screen?! Always, always, always ask first!
3. Talk it out
Like with any kind of sex, establishing consent and boundaries is essential in having safe and enjoyable cyber sex. Express what you are comfortable with and what you are not comfortable with, and ask the same of your partner! For instance, you may be willing to exchange pictures, but not videos. Make sure both of your preferences are heard and respected. These preferences can change in a split second – so keep checking in!
4. If it feels wrong…
…it probably is. Trust your gut and do not engage in anything with which you are not fully comfortable. If anyone has to be persuaded to do something in cyber sex, then there is a problem. Anything but a straightforward ‘yes’ should be taken as a no – not a ‘convince me’. If you are not sure – step away from the screen, take some time alone and check in with yourself. Re-evaluate what kind of experience you are looking for, and then decide if this is the person you want to have that experience with!
5. Here’s one I prepared earlier…
Hopefully, consent will have been given and clearly negotiated before and during a cyber sex encounter. This does not apply to a later situation where you may meet up in person. Consent must look and sound like continuous, mutual, verbal and non-verbal communication – it is not a box you can only tick once!
There can be huge differences between what people want to do within the context of fantasy (i.e. what they may talk about during cyber sex) and what they are willing to do in person. Consent starts from scratch when you physically meet someone in reality, and you and your partner have the right to change your mind at ANY time.
6. Sober sex is good sex!
While alcohol may provide that kick of courage you are looking for if you want to have cyber sex and are feeling a wee bit shy about it– it is best that you are not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This will help to ensure that you make decisions that you are happy with, without any substances altering your critical-thinking processes. It is a good idea to make sure the person on the other side of the screen is similarly sober!
7. Silence is golden...
Please consider your housemates and neighbours - they may not wish to learn about your cyber sex adventures!
8. Touched by an angel (or an app)...
If you do choose to share sexually-explicit images or videos, there are some precautions you can take to minimise the risk of you being identified if someone decides to be a terrible person and share this content non-consensually.
Some tricks people use include omitting their faces from any pictures/videos, blurring out the background of the picture (e.g. bedroom details) and altering distinguishing features (tattoos, freckles). These can all be done easily and quickly with a smartphone. I have even heard of some clever cats watermarking their images using an app, and others including a well-known brand in their content (e.g. a movie poster on the wall) so that the company would help them to remove it from the internet if it was ever shared non-consensually! (I cannot confirm the effectiveness of the latter!)
Although these guidelines can make people feel a little more at ease, it still stands that you should not have to abide by them, as it is NEVER your fault if someone shares your content non-consensually - more on that later.
9. Gadgets and gizmos aplenty...
If you do choose to use any sexual aids, toys or products (such as lubricant), please make sure they are made from body-safe materials and ingredients, and that you follow all instructions carefully!
10. Lock it all up!
Store all content safely – it is easy to get caught up in the moment and then log off, not sparing a thought for the sexual images/videos that are now living in your device, or even on ‘the cloud’. Ask your cyber sex partner if they would like you to delete what they have sent, or how they would like it stored, and respect these wishes. There are a range of apps (that sort of act like little 'vaults' on your phone) and protection software available to store content in a safer way. If you lose your device, or get hacked, you will feel better knowing that the criminal does not have access to this content. Take a little time to do some research on your preferred apps and their policies – can they hold on to and use any of your data?
Again, this is a useful hack, but does not detract from the fact that you would be the victim in any case where your content is stolen or shared non-consensually. However, it is good practice to be protective of our private images and those of others – just in case! It can also buy you some peace of mind!
11. Pull a Walter White…
…and get a second phone! Many people opt for getting a second (cheaper) phone, that they only use for engaging in cyber sex. This allows the storage of content separate to all the other functions and apps on our beloved phones. No accidental sending to the wrong people, accidentally posting online, sweating when you show your mum a picture of a dog and she starts swiping through your camera roll, and little worry of it being stolen if it is stored safely at home (with a healthy serving of passcodes!).
12. What happens during cyber sex…
…should stay there. Although everyone should automatically assume that it is never OK to non-consensually share sexual content, it is a good idea to express this clearly. Either by sending a message like “these are for your eyes only” or “don’t worry, I will never share these with anyone”. If it has been communicated clearly, then both people may feel more comfortable and relaxed – something that is an essential ingredient for good sex!
Never, ever share a sexually explicit image or video of someone or intimate information about them without their consent. This includes forwarding on sexual content, screenshotting, capturing the content using a second device, or even talking about what happened between you to others. This is a huge breach of trust, privacy and respect. It can hugely affect people’s lives – please don’t be that person! This also applies to second-hand sharing.
If you are sent a sexually explicit image or video of a person which has been shared non-consensually – delete it straight away, do not pass it on, and alert the person immediately if possible. Victims of non-consensual porn need your empathy, respect, kindness and support, not shame, judgement or stigma.
At the end of this article, you will find a list of useful links and supports in relation to 'revenge porn', which is a widely-used term to describe the non-consensual sharing of sexual images and/or videos. However, many people feel that the term 'revenge porn' does not accurately reflect the seriousness and harmfulness of the offense, and can makes it sound like something that is almost thrilling, taboo or even sexy. Instead, I will use the term 'image based sexual abuse' - please click here for an informative post on this language from Dr. Caroline West.
If you have been a victim, please do not panic. There is help available and you are not the person at fault – the shame fully lies on the person who shared your images/videos without consent.
13. Now that I have taken all the fun out of it…
Enjoy! Only do what you are comfortable with, and do not worry about things getting awkward or silly! Like any kind of sex, trial and error is involved, and there will always be giggly moments where you just have to laugh it off! Be it a rogue pet jumping on to your keyboard or the internet connection failing (again).
Cyber sex is not for everyone, but can be a great source of pleasure, playfulness, fulfillment, excitement, and intimacy. Have fun, and stay safe!
Please note that these tips were written and compiled with adults in mind. Although some of these guidelines would apply to anyone considering engaging in any type of technology-based sexual activity and we understand that some adolescents will engage in this behaviour, it is important to note that it is illegal for anyone to create, possess or share any sexually explicit images or videos which depict people under 18 years of age. Some of these tips will also not be relevant to people who engage in cyber sex in a professional capacity, i.e. as a sex worker or as a consumer of sex work.
Useful links and supports in relation to image based sexual abuse: