How the Internet Changed Sex

The digital world is hyperconnected and completely unfiltered. That’s exactly why it has become an indispensable resource

cutout of four purple on a blue backdrop
Natalie Vineberg / The Walrus

As long as people have had access to the World Wide Web, we’ve been using it for sex. By 1991, soon after the launch of the modern internet, the Oxford English Dictionary had recorded the first use of the term cybersex. AOL chat rooms, where strangers often logged on to partake in libidinous conversations, went public not long after, and, one of the first porn websites, launched in the mid-1990s. These developments soon prompted a moral panic. Time and Maclean’s covers warned about the dangers of children accessing inappropriate content, while major television stations ran PSAs about online sexual predators. Looking at popular media of the early 1990s, one would be forgiven for assuming the digital world was populated with hackers, sex offenders, and no one else.

Flash forward a few decades—and a great many incarnations of search engines, video-streaming platforms, and social-media celebrities—and it’s widely acknowledged that all kinds of people go online to find sexual gratification, research answers to sexual questions, and even meet their soulmates. Tinder, the mobile dating app frequently used for hooking up, is available in 196 countries, has an estimated 50 million monthly users, and has been called “the free-market economy come to sex.” Discussion-forum titan Reddit is the eighteenth most popular website in the world, according to Amazon, with thousands of subforums dedicated to sex, relationships, and every conceivable kink. Online-only sex-education sites and sex stores have also sprung up so that shoppers can comfortably browse sex toys and learn how to use them without leaving their homes.

The old panics of the early web have also coalesced into broader anxieties; headlines today tell us that the internet has ruined our sex lives. A whole new host of misconducts has arisen, from catfishing to revenge porn. The consumption of internet pornography has been likened to an epidemic, and countless commentators have posited that online hookups result in less-satisfying sex and that couples ignore each other in bed in favour of scrolling through their phones. The tyranny of choice brought forth by the internet has caused a new generation to be increasingly picky and less satisfied with their partners.

And yet so much of this narrative romanticizes our preplugged in lives, imagining a mythical era when every relationship was meaningful and everyone was having exactly the type of sex they wanted. I was born in 1990, making me almost exactly as old as our modern conception of the internet. My early sexual experiences were awkward and fumbling, as I imagine they are for people of every era. I spent those first encounters stuck in my own head, too concerned that I was doing something wrong instead of focusing on having a good time. In my midtwenties, I started to use the internet as a tool to actively seek out better sex: visiting increasingly niche dating websites to find people with whom I could connect, sharing porn clips with my lovers to better vocalize my desires, researching different sex toys late at night. I am pleased to report, to the chagrin of my mother reading this now, that my sex life did get markedly more awesome.

Gone are the days when many kids had only their parents or their classrooms to depend on for sex education. In our tech-saturated age, questions that were once at the mercy of being answered by other kids on the playground—How does a person get pregnant? What is the G spot? How does anal sex even work?—are now being asked en masse on Google, on Tumblr, in Reddit forums, or on whatever new platform may have popped up this week. Misinformation is still rampant—the phrase “pee is stored in the balls” has become a satirical meme with nearly 700,000 search results—and the most common adult videos prioritize straight male desires. But, while the internet is not a substitute for comprehensive sex education, it’s precisely because digital spaces are so accessible and unfiltered that they have become an indispensable sexual resource. Communities have formed around marginalized identities online, where people can speak openly about their intimate experiences or ask questions without shame. The internet has given people the freedom to understand their sexualities on a scale that simply wasn’t possible before. This goes against the conventional wisdom: What if, instead of being a dangerous tool, the internet is a gateway to pleasure?

When Elly Smallwood started attending a private, girls-only high school in Ottawa, in 2002, all the students were required to purchase laptops—still a relatively new technology at the time. “It was freedom,” Smallwood says. Inevitably, she happened upon porn. Smallwood was attracted to other girls at school, but she identified as straight, and she never talked about her sexuality. “I thought there was something really shameful about it,” she says. The books she read and the movies she watched were filled with heterosexual relationships—and the rare gay characters were often relegated to stereotypes or punchlines, which didn’t fit with how she saw herself. “I only ever slept with women until I was eighteen,” she says. “But I never saw myself as gay.”

The early internet porn she watched with her new computer did nothing to help with her confusion. Yes, there was an abundance of videos of women having sex with other women, but it was porn made for straight men: all the women were toned, their bodies hairless and bleached, and the way they approached sex was completely different from the way Smallwood was interacting with her female partners. “These bodies don’t look like mine, they don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves, and”—here she leans in close—“they had really long nails! That’s not practical.” But Smallwood began to mimic what she saw in porn, because she thought that’s what sex was supposed to be. “That was the sex I ended up having—sex that looked good, for someone else’s enjoyment.”

After graduating, Smallwood moved to Toronto to study painting at OCAD, and she made an account on Tumblr, the popular microblogging platform, to share photos of her creative inspirations and find film stills, fashion editorials, and amateur photography from other users. She soon learned the website could serve another function as well: “There was porn everywhere!” But the content she saw on Tumblr, where users can roam freely to discover new content, was different from what she found through search engines in high school. “It was mostly soft-core porn, made by women.” The people Smallwood followed in her new scene were sharing erotic images they found to be genuinely arousing, frequently uploading pictures of themselves in real-life sexual situations. There were gay women and trans women, women with different body types, and women with disabilities. Body hair was visible, and fingernails were trimmed. Most importantly, the women seemed to be truly enjoying themselves. For the first time, Smallwood learned it was possible to have sex that prioritized pleasure over aesthetics.

Today, Smallwood is a well-known artist, and she incorporates sex into the pictures she posts to her nearly half a million followers on Instagram. She’s equally open about identifying as queer. A 1.8 metre by 1.2 metre oil painting of her girlfriend masturbating has received tens of thousands of likes; Smallwood frequently puts her own naked self in her art, and she sometimes posts reference photos of nudes that inspire her artwork on Tumblr.

“I feel like my relationship to porn has been so different because it was very detrimental to how I came to see sexuality,” she says. “And then, later, it completely liberated me from that view.” The pockets of the internet that many find isolating are so often just around the corner from swathes of the internet that bring communities together. It’s something that Smallwood found on her own but that researchers and activists have also been studying for decades. The internet has a reputation for exposing people to too much before they’re ready, but it has also enabled those who might previously have been marginalized to find a means of self-expression and acceptance. It has allowed for a wide variety of preferences not found or supported in mainstream culture to flourish.

“Queer sexuality happens in ways that have a very complicated relationship to the dominant culture, sometimes allowed but only in certain kinds of spaces,” says Patrick Keilty, a professor at the University of Toronto who researches different facets of online porn. Heterosexual relationships have long had the support of mainstream media, institutions such as marriage, and legal structures, he says. But LGBTQ relationships have been stigmatized and even criminalized. In the past, private spaces such as public toilets, bathhouses, and designated bars doubled as spaces of intimacy for those groups. Today, Keilty says, much of that function has expanded to the internet and its dating apps, forums, and other websites.

“Sexuality’s such a personal thing, and it varies from person to person,” says Angie Fazekas, a PhD student who has worked with Keilty. “In order to genuinely figure out what you are and what you desire, that’s something you have to explore.” Her research encompasses the intersection of gender and media studies, specifically focusing on fanfiction, the phenomenon when fans of a movie, book, or TV series write new original fiction based on existing characters, in the vein of potential deleted scenes from The Avengers or unofficial Harry Potter sequels. It might go without saying that fanfiction is frequently sexual; writers can go wild with expanding on scenes that could only be hinted at in CW shows.

When Fazekas was a teen, she would venture to fanfiction websites to find people who shared her obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Today, fandoms also convene on Tumblr, under Twitter and Instagram hashtags, and on thousands of Reddit subforums. Erotic fanfiction is a creative medium favoured by many teenagers, especially girls, which means it’s often met with backlash. (In 2007, LiveJournal notoriously suspended several major fanfiction accounts—a decision that many commentators blamed on pressure from religious conservatives.) But, despite its reputation for smuttiness, it maintains a wholesome quality. A recent fanfic entry on the popular website Archive of Our Own for the show Riverdale, for example, features lesbian couple Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz at a strip club, but the typo-ridden prose focuses on Topaz’s shy blushes and awkward banter. It reads like an inexperienced person’s vision of what a sexual relationship looks like, written for the rest of the world to enjoy.

Keilty’s and Fazekas’s research both cover major communities that have thrived on the internet, which can offer an outlet for people at wildly different stages of their sexual development: those who are simply curious can find erotica or porn to satiate their burgeoning tastes, while those with more experience can use the internet as a networking or professional tool.

Andrew Gurza, thirty-four, identifies as a “crippled content creator” and hosts DisabilityAfterDark, a weekly podcast that focuses on the sex lives of people with disabilities. Gurza says he knew queer people “tangentially” growing up, but he didn’t feel part of any community. He started having sex at nineteen but says he had been experiencing sexual desire since his early teens with few people to talk to about it. In university, though Gurza studied law, he was more interested in “stuff around social justice—the queer stuff and the disability stuff—but everybody told me it wasn’t a real job.” So he started blogging, podcasting, and building his online disability consultant business after “sitting at home kind of depressed, looking for something to do.”

“There’s a big misconception that disability and sex can’t go together,” Gurza says. “No one’s really asking, ‘How does sex feel? How do you as a disabled person receive pleasure?’” Episodes of DisabilityAfterDark include titles such as “Wheelchairs, Slings & Other Things: Can My Mobility Device Be Sexy?” and “Gimps on Grindr.” His online work has connected him to other disability activists, whom he frequently features as guests to talk about their own experiences, and he is currently crowdfunding to create the first line of sex toys specifically for people with physical disabilities.

Gurza believes the internet can “change the world of sexuality”—just as it did for him. “It’s where I’ve met people for sex,” he says. “It’s where I talk about sex, where I write about sex, it’s how I get my podcast out about sex….It really creates a community for people who can’t get out, who can’t go to bars, who can’t do all this stuff. It allows for us to build friendship and community.”

In many ways, online porn has become the epitome of sex’s rocky relationship with the internet—full of blurred lines and the potential to either help or harm, depending on the user and the platform. Explicit videos of sexual acts have long been contentious, uniting the religious right and certain radical feminist communities long before anyone knew what a URL was. Still today, there is little room for nuance in our conversations.

Of course, the ease with which information is disseminated online comes with downsides. Nearly 10 million Americans have been victims of nonconsensual image sharing, or “revenge porn,” a problem to which the legal system is just starting to adapt—and that is still omitted from most sex-ed courses in Canada. And access to misinformation has become more widespread: even reputable-seeming sites can post content that confuses more than it helps. A quick Google search for “how to have sex,” for example, leads to a piece from the Times of India warning about “biting before your partner’s ready,” a BuzzFeed listicle featuring libido-boosting foods, and a Youtube video with tips on “how to bring a girl home” on the first date. For a young person who is curious about sex and encountering the freedom of the internet for the first time, it can be overwhelming to distinguish legitimate results from those that will further confuse or harm. (In a contentious move just this week, Tumblr announced a permanent ban on “adult content”; Apple recently removed the Tumblr app from its app store after the platform’s filters mistakenly allowed child pornography to appear on the site.)

Because of growing fear that mainstream content has affected young people’s understanding of sex—exposing them to the most extreme of sexual acts before they’ve had the chance to learn the basics themselves—select high schools in America have started to offer porn-literacy programs. The courses offer students an opportunity to express their anxieties around sex: they discuss lubrication and clitoral stimulation, STIs, and negotiating consent—crucial aspects of sex that, according to researchers, are often relegated to behind the scenes of porn.

These lessons are helpful tools against harmful online influence. But there still doesn’t seem to be a way to address the risks of porn consumption without also acknowledging that the content isn’t necessarily negative. Many researchers assume that less conventional sexual desires among young people (such as anal sex or BDSM) are informed by the videos they’re consuming online, but they should also consider that young people could be driven by an earnest desire to try certain acts. In fact, even in classrooms where porn literacy is taught, sexual orientation is not necessarily discussed comprehensively.

Caitlin Roberts, a Victoria-based sex educator, is skeptical that porn is responsible for shaping people’s sexual desires. But she agrees that using mainstream porn as an educational tool without context can be harmful. “You don’t teach someone to drive by showing them The Fast and the Furious,” she says. Like Smallwood, Roberts identifies as queer, and she remembers being nine years old when she first watched the teen sex comedy American Pie, which features the angsty first experiences of a crew of high-schoolers—and, in one scene, masturbation with a literal pie. “That movie was a truckload of information,” she recalls. “I was so curious [about sex] and wanted to know more but was really feeling so separated from it.”

As an adult, Roberts realized she still wasn’t seeing enough of the sex she liked to have being represented in mainstream porn, so she cofounded Spit, a subscription-based queer porn company that centres on ethically produced, diverse content, in 2012. Roberts leads college workshops on porn literacy, emphasizing the difference between viewing porn as entertainment and translating those desires to real-life situations. “With young people who are developing pretty consistent porn habits, there’s the struggle to figure out how to bring that pleasure into an intimate interaction with another human,” she says.

Roberts’s workshops acknowledge the enjoyable aspects of sex, explaining the importance of “tapping in and paying attention to the pleasurable experiences and sensations in your body.” She is far from the only person who turned from consumer of porn to creator. Jiz Lee, thirty-eight, is a nonbinary performer who uses they/them pronouns. They work behind and in front of the camera at Pink & White Productions, a queer porn production company in San Francisco that was founded by Shine Louise Houston in 2005. Although Lee occasionally caught scrambled Skinemax screenings on late-night TV in high school, they were much more interested in the porn they watched online during college. In 2000, the Roxie Theater in San Francisco screened the double feature Hard Love & How to Fuck in High Heels by lesbian porn pioneers SIR Productions. “This was on a big screen,” Lee recalls. “It was celebrated. There was a community there, going, ‘This is the hottest shit ever!’” That experience inspired them to enter the industry.

Lee’s story is a reminder of how wildly personal porn consumption (and sexual tastes) can be: what is offensive for one person can be empowering for another. Assuming straight men are the only viewers allows for an oversimplified criticism of porn that isn’t always accurate. Acknowledging diversity of experience and preference complicates any conversation, but it also leads to better understanding—and, in the end, more productive conclusions. When it comes to porn, that approach means acknowledging that, when consumed responsibly, it can exist as a relatively safe way for someone to explore their tastes and fantasies.

Roberts and Lee stress that teaching people to look at online content with a critical eye is especially important and that all sex education should incorporate some version of porn literacy. Some of this would look a lot like the courses in some American high schools, which analyze how scenes are shot, discuss what takes place behind the scenes, and mention how often performers are tested for STIs. Internet-savvy sex education would also honestly incorporate LGBTQ identities in curricula rather than giving them a shout-out. It would not ignore the lived experiences of people with disabilities. It would recognize that students will find other ways to seek out answers to questions they can’t ask in class, and that they will run the risk of running into misinformation online. It would equip students with the language to express their desires and their boundaries so that the people who partake in BDSM and anal sex do so because they want to, not because they feel pressured.

“Someone asked me recently if I thought porn was inherently good or bad for culture at large,” Roberts says. “The answer I gave them is, well, is food good or bad? I think it’s how you choose to interact with it that will ultimately decide whether or not it can be a positive or negative influence in your life.” The analogy can be applied to the internet as a whole. Our ability to log on with the click of a mouse is intertwined with the rest of our lives, from how we work to how we entertain ourselves to, yes, how we have sex. For many people, this has been a source of liberation, sometimes the only difference between having a healthy sex life and not having sex at all. For others, especially the newly initiated, it can be an overwhelming tool. The consensus among many academics, educators, and porn producers, or as close as we can get to one, is that we need comprehensive sex education now more than ever—the kind that wasn’t put in place before the internet even existed.

Anna Fitzpatrick
Anna Fitzpatrick has written for The Hairpin , Hazlitt , and the Globe and Mail.