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Lithium Prude in the sheets, slut on the screen

Dec. 15, 2020
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Maybe it’s because I’m such a God-honoring Christian woman, but I’ve always been averse to sex. Not that I didn’t want it or that I thought it was immoral, like I’d been taught—but when it came around to Doing It, my legs would shut so tightly no guy could ever undo it, not even if their dick was a crowbar. 

Being raised in a conservative country (and attending a school named after a saint, no less), porn was the closest we had to sex education. And because it was only socially acceptable to watch if you were a man, it was men who became the authorities on sex. For years I thought of my pleasure as merely supplementary to men’s impulses, that my desires could not be exercised unless it was for the benefit of someone else. 

All attempts to give myself some sort of sexual agency proved futile. The night before what would turn out to be a seven-month (and counting!) quarantine, I was with some guy who we’ll call Danny the Asshole. I’d known him for a few months then and we weren’t really friends, but I had the biggest, stupidest crush on him—so big and so stupid that I decided to message him and invite him to my dorm. I’d never really done that before, and I’m not going to lie, those moments—sliding into his DMs, inviting him over, having him adjust to my schedule—made me feel amazing. I wasn’t planning on having sex with Danny the Asshole that night, and perhaps I just was on a high from being a Sex-Positive Liberated Boss Lady Nasty Woman, because I was convinced he would respect it. “What are we waiting for?” he asked bashfully when I refused his eloquent offer to stick it in. I asked myself the same thing. Isn’t the way to reclaim my sexuality in this patriarchal, suppressive society to have sex, as frequently as I want and with whomever I want?

For the record, this essay isn’t anti-casual sex. What it’s against is the neoliberal agenda of monopolizing feminism, of declaring that the only way to reclaim female sexuality is to overcompensate for suppression and just have all the sex all the time. Not having sex is not inherently un-feminist; in fact, true reclamation is letting women make their own choices when it comes to sex, regardless of whether their body count is too high or too low (whatever that means). 

Danny the Asshole couldn’t understand why I wanted to make out but not have sex, so he just slept. I stayed up, feeling guilty that I led him on with my invitation. Of course staying over means having sex, I thought to myself. But why should it? Couldn’t I just invite a boy to make out and then not do anything after that? Why was he expecting something I never explicitly promised? Any semblance of control I had earlier that night evaporated the moment he laid on my bed uninvited. “Every single one of my sexual experiences ends with me feeling dirty,” I texted my best friend on my way to my parents’ house for the lockdown. “Why? What kind of freaky stuff are you into?” He replied. 

When my country’s lockdown kept being extended, I began to accept the fact that it might be a while before I have sex (or almost-sex, as my encounter with Danny the Asshole proved). Naturally, nudes and sexting were off the table for me; I was still coming to terms with my sexual desires, so leaving a digital footprint of my carnality wasn’t something I was ready to do. Pre-quarantine, I wasn’t alone in this––cyber sex was already getting a bad rap, both from researchers and nerds who read research papers. Scientific articles are often very critical of it, disproportionately depicting cyber sex as a source of addiction. The internet, they believe, gives us the unrestricted power of anonymity and access (both to sexual materials and sexual partners), and that will cause the “moral decay of society.” This paints cyber sex as a deviant act—The Guardian called it “gauche, even pathetic.” 22-year-old Zoe said it was unappealing: “My ex had suggested it once while we were long-distance but in a way that felt forced and entitled, which turned me off to it.”

Of course this was all before COVID, when the world was bigger than my childhood bedroom and I could lead on as many Danny the Assholes as I wanted. “Quarantine not only encourages, but forces, the prosperity of sexual exploration; of experimenting with nudes, thirst traps, camming, and sexting, mostly without IRL repercussions,” reads that same Guardian article. In fact, 1 in 5 people reported exploring other sexual activities during lockdown, including integrating the internet into their sex lives. Subreddits dedicated to posting personal nudes, like r/GoneWild and the newer r/QuarantineGoneWild, have all seen a rise in posts since February. “I’ve never seen so many people be so openly sexual, and not just [through] one-on-one cyber sex, [but also] posting nudes or being open about the fact that they’re horny. It’s great,” said Trisha O’Bannon, co-founder of sex education platform Now Open PH. Even Zoe had a change of heart: “When I first did it myself, it just sort of happened! One night when I was messaging a guy from Tinder, I sent him a selfie, [then] one thing led to another and eventually our clothes came off. We were both home from school and I think we were just looking for some excitement.” 

I started testing the waters myself when, like Zoe, I was desperate to break the monotony of lockdown. I was passing time on Bumble, amused by the chutzpah people begin to adopt when making advances is not only allowed, but expected. I found a sense of freedom in the fact that I would literally never see the guy I was sexting IRL. “Cyber sex gives you way more control over your sexual experience, so I think it can be very handy for somebody who’s trying to reconnect with their sexual self,” Trisha said. “It’s a more controlled environment; you’re more confident that you can pull out of that experience whenever it gets too uncomfortable.” As someone who looked for this kind of autonomy in all my failed hookups, I didn’t want to let go of this feeling.

Trisha also said cyber sex was how she started figuring out what she enjoyed sexually, which is incredibly helpful in such a repressive culture. “One of the biggest things about growing up [in the Philippines] is that you feel like you can’t talk about sex with anybody. I didn’t particularly feel shame within myself, but I was ashamed of how other people would see me. You’re basically left to your own devices; no one’s there to help you figure out which of your desires are healthy or not.” This causes people to bloom a little later, which can be dangerous. When you’re open about sex earlier, you get to process and understand your own desires before you have a chance to act on them, and that informs the choices you make later. “But when you’re older and you can act on [your sexual desires] pretty much immediately because you have the means and opportunity, you can get into situations that you’re not mentally or emotionally prepared for.” 

She adds that cyber sex gives us the confidence to articulate how we’re feeling, but I think it’s also a matter of necessity. Nonverbal cues and social scripts are lost in pure text, so clear communication has to be established before cyber sex even happens. Because of this, trust is cultivated and boundaries are more easily set and followed. “Of course right now I miss close human contact, but it’s also nice to be in control and be able to get yourself off in a way that works for you while still enjoying time with a partner,” Zoe said. It’s difficult to directly communicate what you want if you don’t really know what it is, so in a sense, engaging in cyber sex encourages you to not only explore but also validate your own desires. You reaffirm it by explicitly saying, “This is what I want.” There’s also value in hearing your partner directly express their desire. Zoe adds: “Your partner has to be really verbal, and it’s a boost to hear someone keep telling you how hot you are.” Trisha says cyber sex builds anticipation because communication—and consequently, expressing desire—is more consistent. “It makes me feel more in tune [with my partner], and that in the relationship we have, even if it’s just purely sexual, we genuinely have interest.”

What surprised me the most, however, was how liberating it was to see myself on camera, to recognize myself as a sexual being, doing only the things I wanted to do. “That’s actually what we want to happen: people becoming comfortable seeing themselves naked and doing things they want with their bodies, because they are in charge of their own pleasure,” explained Dr. Rica Cruz, licensed psychologist, sex and relationships therapist, and sex educator. Suddenly my female carnality wasn’t this scary taboo, and my body wasn’t just someone else’s masturbatory tool. 

This isn’t to say cyber sex is without its risks. Dr. Rica acknowledges that while cyber sex can reduce the risks associated with hookup culture, it has its own downsides. “It can lead to broken relationships [instead of] making the relationship stronger, because affairs can also happen through cyber sex.” It can also be a source of compulsive sexual behavior because of its ease. “As with anything, cyber sex should be done in moderation.”

Security is also among the primary concerns, with Dr. Rica saying some people have been abused or blackmailed through cyber sex. This is especially critical for people with sexual trauma who look to cyber sex for healing—their trauma can be exacerbated by such an experience. Trisha agrees: “Sometimes people don’t treat [cyber sex] with the same gravitas as in-person sex, but it can be just as fulfilling and just as traumatizing, so it’s something you need to discuss with your partner beforehand.” She also advises watermarking your nudes with the name of the person you’re sending it to, and to only send it to people you trust. 

Cyber sex continues to get scientifically torn to shreds, but it’s a good thing I’m not a scientist. I’m just a girl, standing in front of my laptop screen, eagerly participating in what is being hailed as the Gen-Z sexual renaissance. Besides, the reinforcement of archaic value systems that restrict sexual exploration is so Old Testament, and frankly the Bible is one of the few books that never really made me cum.

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun