Media & Culture, Myth vs Fact

Are Sexting And Cybersex Signs of Loneliness And Low Self-Esteem?

August 12, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

find it infinitely sad to imagine a vibrant young woman sitting alone at her
computer and turning herself into a sex object for a man (or a dog) she does
not know — even if she is also turning him into a sex object… A willingness to
engage in Internet sex with strangers… expresses not sexual empowerment but its
opposite — a loneliness and low opinion of oneself that leads to the conclusion
that any sexual contact is better than no contact at all.” – Susan
Jacoby in the NYT


In a recent New York Times editorial, author Susan Jacoby laments the increasingly popularity of “sexting,” cybersex, and other such virtual connections. Jacoby argues that virtual sex lacks the sensuality inherent in an in-person sexual encounter and that people who have sex online are settling for a much lesser experience. She also implies that the people who are drawn to such behavior suffer from low self-esteem. Indeed, she (judgmentally) ponders “what does a man really think of himself when he must feed his ego with phony gasps of erotic pleasure from strangers in a digital vastness? What does a woman think of herself in the same arid zone of sex without sensuality?” However, she goes further and argues that virtual sex represents an even more problematic behavior for women than for men. Indeed, she claims that “women who settle for digital pornography are lowering their expectations and hopes even more drastically than their male collaborators are.” So are sexting and cybersex really so terrible and are the people who engage in these behaviors as pathetic as Jacoby suggests?

If Jacoby had attempted to substantiate her claims with scientific research, she would have come up short. First and foremost, let’s address Jacoby’s insinuation that there’s something pathological about people who seek out social and sexual connections online. The research in this area has shown that, by and large, men and women who use the Internet for such purposes have very similar psychological profiles when compared to general samples [1]. In fact, at least among women, those who chat online (e.g., those who have cybersex, phone sex, or other online interactions) actually report lower levels of neuroticism, which means that they have somewhat greater emotional stability [1]. Thus, it does not seem to be the case that there is something inherently wrong with people who are drawn to digital hookups.

So what about the quality of those online interactions? Do they fail to meet people’s needs, as Jacoby argues? To the contrary, online chatters report that their virtual relationships fully satisfy their needs for emotional and social fulfillment [1]. But those aren’t the only needs that online interactions can meet. For example, in a recent study of over 1,600 people who have had cybersex, 80% of participants said that cybersex fulfills their sexual desires too [2].

People’s online relationships can also be incredibly meaningful. Not only do most online chatters report that their virtual relationships are just as valid and important as their in-person relationships [1], but research has also shown that repeated online interactions with anonymous partners decreases feelings of loneliness and enhances self-esteem [3].

In addition, there are certain benefits that online sexual relationships offer over in-person relationships. For example, in an online interaction, there is no risk of contracting and spreading sexually transmitted infections. Virtual sex may also allow people to act out certain sexual fantasies in safer ways that provide them with greater control over the event, including the direction it takes and when it ends.

Of course, this should not be taken to mean that virtual sex is as good or better in all ways than in-person sex, or that all online relationships are positive and healthy. For example, someone in a monogamous relationship who engages in cybersex behind their partner’s back may hurt the quality of their relationship by eroding trust and intimacy with their primary partner. Additionally, there are some people who compulsively use the Internet for sexual purposes to the point where it interferes with their ability to form in-person relationships. Thus, there are certainly cases where cybersex can have negative effects; however, it’s no different from any other sexual behavior in that regard.

Cybersex may not be your cup of tea, but I would caution against denigrating and publicly shaming the people who practice it. Keep in mind that it wasn’t that long ago that people were talking about how awful masturbation is, claiming that touching yourself is a sign of psychopathology that interferes with one’s ability to develop real relationships. However, the research has been pretty clear that neither masturbation nor cybersex has lived up to the hype about their negative effects.

Also, we should be glad to live in an age where women feel empowered to fulfill their sexual desires, whether that entails some form of virtual, solo, or in-person sexual activity. Shaming women who receive fulfillment from cybersex and suggesting that women cannot become sexually fulfilled unless they have the “sensuality” of a man in the flesh is offensive and strikes me as rather anti-feminist.

The point here is not that virtual sex is superior to in-person sex or that everyone should start having their sex online. When it comes to sex, to each their own (assuming, of course, that the behavior is consensual and nobody is being hurt). We all have our own personal opinions and preferences, but ask yourself this: what makes your sexual attitudes and behaviors more valid than someone else’s? I know this is nothing but a pipe dream, but it would be nice if everyone could stop perpetuating this age-old notion that every new and different sexual behavior is bad and spells the end of sex and love as we know it.

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[1] Peris, R., Gimeno, M. A., Pinazo, D., Ortet, G., Carrero, V., Sanchiz, M., & Ibanez, I. (2002). Online chat rooms: Virtual spaces of interaction for socially oriented people. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5, 43-51.

[2] Daneback, K., Sevcikova, A., Månsson, S. A., & Ross, M. W. (2012). Outcomes of using the internet for sexual purposes: fulfillment of sexual desires. Sexual Health, 10, 26-31.

[3] Shaw, L. H., & Gant, L. M. (2002). In defense of the Internet: The relationship between Internet communication and depression, loneliness, self-esteem, and perceived social support. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 5, 157-171.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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