21st century sex
From polyamorous relationships and orgasmic meditation, to 'internet sexuals' and those who only desire animated characters, our sexual tastes are becoming ever more fractured. Suzanne Harrington explores how the rules of intimacy have changed and asks what the future holds…
Meet Edith, a student from the American Midwest. Edith is 19, and "internet sexual". She is celibate, has never had sex with anyone in real life - she is, to use that quaint phrase, a virgin - but spends a lot of time performing online on Chaturbate.
You may not have heard of Chaturbate. Don't worry, neither have most people. It's a live webcam chat room site that features what its name suggests.
Chaturbate differs from other sexual webcam feeds because it is free to watch, and anyone can upload anything, from naked cupcake baking, to a young couple presenting "Wayne's World with t**s" from makeshift locations. The site is moderated by dedicated viewers known as 'mods', so that baseline rules - no violence, underage, etc - are rigorously enforced on a voluntary basis. Beyond those baselines, anything goes.
You can tip performers in tokens, and interact with them, sexually but respectfully. Edith, a literary waif who name drops people like RD Laing, JD Salinger and Michel Foucault, does sexual things to camera; she has a loyal following of men who want to rescue her, who suggest she reads David Foster Wallace, who think of her as a rare cultural discovery. Edith - her username a literary pseudonym - is as much unscripted performance art as live webcam sex.
In Japan, where birth rates are falling, young men known as otaku are also internet sexual - a 2010 government survey showed how 36pc of 16- to 19-year-old males had no interest in real-life sex, preferring instead online interaction with anime and manga avatars. The Japanese Family Planning Association, concerned about falling birth rates, terms these internet sexual young men as "herbivores", lacking desire for flesh-to-flesh connection. They live largely solitary lives in the Tokyo sprawl, connected online, in a manner predicted by William Gibson's seminal 1984 cyber novel Neuromancer.
Yet rather than an indication of social and cultural decline, could being internet sexual be, in many cases, a practical solution to physical isolation? A feminist take-charge option less hazardous than risky real-life encounters? Or what if you don't want a steady relationship, marriage, babies, a picket fence? Are we applying outmoded moral codes to a post-digital generation for whom monogamous coupling up may not always be the end goal? Or does it signal end times?
In the US, Wendy Bird is another Chaturbate regular. Caring for an elderly relative in a remote location, she was in a "hermit phase" of her life, until she discovered the "mass intimacy" of her Chaturbate chat room. She found it intensely liberating.
"There's this freedom, in that you don't have to meet any of these people and they don't actually know you," she explains. "You can be whoever you want to be. You can be totally open and bare and share everything without having to worry about people rejecting you, or you can totally make up a new self and be someone different."
Another woman, Doxie, says sites like Chaturbate are an "introvert's paradise". Which sounds odd. How can broadcasting her sexual image to thousands of people online be an act of introversion? "I have complete control over the situation," she says. "I don't have to worry about it escalating physically. I can turn it off whenever I want. I can kick people out. I make my own rules, nobody's telling me what to do."
Edith, Wendy Bird, and Doxie, are just three of the many fascinating individuals that populate Emily Witt's book Future Sex: A New Kind Of Free Love. Witt, an American journalist, fully involves herself in the exploration of contemporary sexual frontiers, simultaneously an immersive participant and a scholarly observer in the brave new world of internet dating, orgasmic meditation, live webcams, polyamory, and adventures at the Burning Man festival.
"I was single, straight and female," she writes. "When I turned 30 in 2011, I still envisioned my sexual experience reaching a terminus… I would disembark, find myself face to face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future."
As this traditional happily ever after narrative remained elusive - a relationship had ended in 2011 - Witt decided to explore how modern love and sex is evolving, how the internet has changed how we interact sexually, and how to detach her own sexuality from cultural expectation. Influenced by Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote in 1949's The Second Sex how "it is agonising for a woman to assume responsibility for her one life", Witt decided to emulate de Beauvoir, to declare herself sexually autonomous, "to treat sexual desire as a force that gave life meaning rather than a means to a structural end".
She began in familiar territory, with internet dating, offering a potted history of the way most of us now meet our partners and lovers. In 1992, a Stanford computer scientist, Gary Kremen, was, in his own words, "kind of a loser" when it came to women. If only there were a database of single women, so that he would know who was unattached. He set one up, modelled on newspaper classified ads, and registered the domain name match.com. But how to entice women to sign up?
"A clean well-lighted place" was the motto of feminist sex toy shop Good Vibrations in San Francisco - the opposite of shifty, predatory environments traditionally dominated by men seeking sex. Kremen translated this idea to his site, to attract women, with a clean bright interface and no mention of sex; recruiting men, says Witt, had never been a problem.
Following Match came sites like OK Cupid, an early gay site called Manhunt, then in 2009 Grindr was launched by New Yorker Joel Simkhai, followed unsuccessfully in 2011 by a straight equivalent called Blendr, and its rather more successful follow up in 2012, Tinder. Hook-up culture was upon us. Emily Witt, describing herself as "sexually cautious", was not enamoured by the internet marketplace. Technology, she wrote, "brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them".
To explore beneath the online surface, Witt relocated from New York to San Francisco, traditionally America's sexual Wild West; a place where young professional tech workers consume wholefoods and talk of "coregasms" - spontaneous orgasms during yoga. It is home of 1960s free love and gay rights.
Except these days it's no longer called free love, but polyamory - another book exploring this idea on a far more personal basis is 2015's The Wild Oats Project, by Robin Rinaldi, a married woman who spent Monday to Friday exploring her sexuality with others, and weekends at home with her husband. She did not, she reasoned, wish to reach her death bed without broadening her sexual experience; she was lambasted by (mostly male) critics for her "self indulgence".
Polyamory first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, but was coined in 1990 to describe managing the logistics of an open marriage. (Other naming options included polyfidelity, omnigamy, panfidelity and non-monogamy). A self-help book, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures - which seeks to reclaim the word 'slut' in the same manner as 'queer' - posits that for many people, long-term monogamy is neither "normal" nor "natural". (If it were, there would be no such thing as infidelity, adultery or affairs).
Instead of having secret trysts, polyamorous people draw up codes of ethics, regulations and expectations to navigate their private lives, so that everything is discussed and overt. This is emphatically not the car keys-in-the-ashtray of 1970s swinging, but free-thinking sexually active young professionals wishing to explore human relationships. Or "responsible hedonism", as it is wryly termed in San Francisco.
As in Rinaldi's book, Witt explores a very San Franciscan pursuit called Orgasmic Meditation, or OMing - 15 minutes of clitoral massage carried out in a therapeutic environment , described by a practitioner, Nicole Daedone, as "a neutral space in which focus on the body could happen without the interference of romantic stories or behavioural conditioning". Witt "was not transported by rapture," as much as quite far outside her own comfort zone. Another San Franciscan idea making its way east - there are now studios in London - is naked yoga, which the San Francisco Chronicle described over a decade ago as "transforming, not titillating". Yikes.
Emily Witt finished her exploration of future sex at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, enjoying some responsible hedonism in a polyamorous setting. An 'orgy', as it used to be known. Amidst her explorations, she points out how contraception has not caught up with changes in sexual behaviour. We have "more partners on average, longer periods of sexual activity outside marriage… the [contraceptive] technologies we use today were invented for a different era of sexual morals".
And the happily ever after narrative - did she pursue it? She describes her current committed relationship as "monogamish" - she and her partner don't want to confine themselves to not trying new things, she says. "A lot of married people lead sexually open lives," she told the BBC recently. "I'm just looking for authenticity and honesty."
Future Sex: A new kind of Free Love by Emily Witt, published by Faber, is out now