We all know what it means to have sexual fantasies play out on the Technicolor screen inside our head. We know that sharing some of our erotic images can add pizzazz to a relationship, while sharing others might be like sprinkling garlic on ice cream. But fantasies aren’t confined to our inner movie theater anymore. Now that sexual imagery has spread to computer screens and PDA’s, the line between private thought and engaged action, between what constitutes a personal vision to be shared, or not, and a breach of our relationship vows is growing muddier by the day.
I wrote an article called Online Affairs: Are They Real? Are They Wrong? in which I talked about some of the problems couples face when one of them develops a relationship in cyber villages like chat rooms, MMORPGs, Second Life, and other tech-mediated locales. In the end I concluded:
It takes only one person to create distance for two, and only one to alter the essence and durability of a marriage. For all these reasons, online hook-ups need to be entertained with great caution. Better yet, they should be recognized for what they are: completely real and potentially life-changing affairs.
While I stand by that statement, there are circumstances in which sex-tech between nameless, faceless players doesn’t even come close to being a “relationship.” Maybe the same two players don’t engage more than once, and the person with the online fantasy life is careful to keep it from becoming a time-consuming intrusion on his or her real-life intimacies. Here, it can be argued that playing with others is just like ordinary masturbation – except with more lively counterparts. It brings into question whether there is a genuine ethical difference between letting your online avatar get frisky with a half dozen toons and secretly gripping your joystick behind a locked bathroom door.
Perhaps one clear-cut difference is that partners are less likely to say, “I don’t want you touching yourself and thinking about other women/men,” than to say, “I don’t want you going into chatrooms online and playing with other women/men.” To anyone with a reasonably progressive attitude about sex, trying to legislate a partner’s self-stimulation seems kind of archaic. But, nixing online sex-gaming? Now, that falls into the newly expanding grey area where nobody knows the rules, but everybody knows what makes them uneasy. And most of us, if we’re honest, will admit that we wouldn’t mind tweaking the playbook so that everything that makes us uncomfortable is excluded – at least for our own partners, if not everybody else. That’s why, if you like exploring an alter-ego online, you’ll eventually face the sticky question of whether your partner has the right to dictate what you do there. And if you think she/he shouldn’t get to vote, ask yourself: are you willing to go to the mats over the matter?
Ask yourself this, too: how important is it to you to become somebody you’re not (a different gender, different species, different type) or try on different sex trips or power-dynamics than you do in real life? Maybe it’s not a big deal at all, or you’re happy to bring your partner along for the ride. For some of you, online play is an enhancement to your real life that you aren’t anxious to give up to assuage someone else’s moral anxieties. Maybe you’ve been married for many years, faithful and loving – a “by the rules” kind of person who, nevertheless, believes you have a right to pretend you’re a dominant pink princess a few times a month, even if your spouse thinks that online sex play is tantamount to adultery. Given such disparity, do you fight it out? See a therapist? Or follow the lead of another well-known advice columnist, who wrote: You do what spouses have done since spouses were invented: Tell ‘em what they want to hear and go right on doing what you're doing.
That is, do you lie with a poker face?
Normally I’d be concerned about a professional advisor telling partners to lie to each other, especially given that marital secrets are like nitroglycerine; shake ‘em up and they explode. However, the suggestion he makes does force us to address some core questions about marriage. Does marriage mean that your spouse owns your thoughts or has a right to constrain your sexuality to match his/hers? Does marriage obligate you to hash out every difference in belief or desire and come to a consensus? Or is there a place where private and personal means just that
– where there are gradations of necessity to reveal one’s self?
I imagine that anybody who has ever been married or in a long-term relationship is familiar with the classic pairing of one partner’s question, “What are you thinking?” with the other’s answer, “nothing.” We accept that sometimes, “nothing” may mean “something” and we make that OK,; we accept it as an aspect of being two unique individuals joined in a relationship. But…how about when your partner says “Don’t!” to your online erotic play and you say deceitfully, “OK, honey.”
Is that the same as saying “nothing?” Let’s explore that question and see where it takes us.
From my point of view, the deepest issue here is not about online play or what levels of fantasy and action constitute so-called infidelity – it’s about whether a couple yearns to be two people or one; whether it’s their goal to be of distinct minds or one entity. Different couples will approach this queston differently. But if a couple wishes to become “one,” they’d better ask themselves if they are willing to give up on the idea of keeping any sexy fire alive between them, too, because they are sure to lose it.
Here’s why: all good outdoorsmen and women know that to build a fire in the woods, you have to rub two dry branches together. One little twiglet standing alone can’t ignite itself. Likewise, people need separation and friction to create a flame. They need “twoness.” The living spark in a marriage or committed relationship – the very thing that most couples say they seek like a holy grail – gets snuffed out when sexual energy is forcibly made uniform. Lying about sexual urges cloaks both partners in a pretense of uniformity that has to be sustained thereafter, leading to more lies. Oneness thrives at the expense of twoness. That – not an hour or two making out with a cartoon, vampire, or girl next door – is the problem with “doing what spouses have done since spouses were invented.”
Faithfulness to the heart of a relationship means being honest about the nature of twoness. Instead of lying about desires, partners can choose to tell the truth about what they want and what they intend to do online, even if they know their partner will disapprove. If standing up for an occasional foray into the world of erotic avatars honors distinctions between two partners that keep real sparks flying, then perhaps it’s a stand worth taking after all.
About the Author:
psychologist and sex therapist based in New York City, Dr. Joy Davidson has been involved in the development of internet-based sexuality education for much of her career. Convinced that the internet has the capacity to revolutionize intimate connections, she has been actively researching and writing about the internet as a vehicle for sexual expression, education, and therapy for nearly a decade.
Dr. Davidson was a key contributor to MSN’s pioneering online magazine for women, Underwire, as well as a sex and relationships columnist for MSN’s WomenCentral.com, SexualHealth.com, and SavvyMiss.com. Offline, she was for 8 years the sex columnist for Playgirl magazine and Men’s Fitness magazine. In addition to her current articles on LoveandHealth.info, she hosts a sexual enhancement video series, The Joy Spot, which can be viewed on other major video sites as well. Dr. Davidson’s personal website is www.joydavidson.com
Dr. Davidson is the author of Fearless Sex: A Babe's Guide to Overcoming Your Romantic Obsessions and Getting the Sex Life You Deserve (2004, Fairwinds Press), which, in hardcover, was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Venus Book Club. As an expert on sexual issues in popular media and culture, she is also a contributor to four of Benbella Books’ acclaimed “Smart Pop” anthologies and the editor of an upcoming fifth release.
Her astute insights and warm, vivacious personal style have made Dr. Davidson a sought-after speaker at seminars and conferences, and a guest on hundreds of national television and radio shows, including Oprah, 20/20, CNN News, Entertainment Tonight, Montel, and Bill O'Reilly. She was the host of 36 episodes of the Playboy channel’s series, “Secret Confessions and Fantasies,” and the writer/creator of the Playboy/Sharper Image home video series, “Secrets of Making Love to the Same Person Forever.”
Dr. Davidson is a frequently featured expert in national magazines and press, including USA Today, Salon.com, Redbook, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Marie Claire, Men's Health, and Cosmopolitan. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, an AASECT certified Sex Therapist, and a member of AASECT’s Board of Directors.
Article by Dr. Davidson © CollarNcuffs.com