When the Internet Is Better Than People
Cyber erotica: Can pixels alleviate an evolutionary yearning?
Scott Adams, the genius behind "Dilbert," recently wrote a piece called The Digital Crossover. Here's an excerpt,
As soon as sex and marriage in the simulated world ... become better than the real thing, no one will bother with the expense, stress, and inconvenience.... Humans aren't becoming any more enjoyable whereas the Internet is getting more addictive. The crossover for some folks has already arrived.... As the Internet learns to anticipate and feed your desires with increasing accuracy, your addiction will deepen.
He's right that the crossover is already happening—though not by conscious choice. This guy's story is becoming quite common:
I'm in my mid twenties and a sufferer of this apparent new-fangled 21st Century broadband-driven ED disorder. I've had three chances to lose my virginity with real flesh and blood women and I've failed every time (as in, these women were in my bed and ready to go, clothes off, but I couldn't do it. I've had other chances, and even other girls sleeping in my bed, but I didn't make the move because I knew I wouldn't be able to do it... even between the ages of 18 to 22). I won't go into the details but each time felt incredibly embarrassing, depressing and emasculating. I'm not gay in the slightest (I am in fact a raging heterosexual,) but I simply could not have sex with these women.
If I could choose one word to describe what it felt like when I tried to have sex with them, I'd use the word 'alien.' It felt artificial and foreign to me. It's like I've gotten so conditioned to sitting in front of a screen and jerking it with the death-grip all these years that my mind considers that to be normal sex instead of real actual sex. I can get hard for porn, no problem, but not for the life of me can I get hard for a real woman.
For many users, today's cyber erotica proves far more stimulating than fantasizing about the girls in tight sweaters who sit next to them in algebra. Yet, are simulated and real sex as interchangeable as, say, chocolate and strawberry? Maybe not—particularly when one opts for synthetic sexual stimulation from puberty onward. Pubescent/adolescent brains evolved to wire strongly to whatever is sexually arousing. By the early twenties the brain has pruned back unused circuits.
In effect, the youthful heavy porn user who wants to have real sex someday is training for the wrong sport. He or she can innocently end up with a mismatch between what the brain expects and what a real mate offers. After years spent using Internet porn as a primary source of sexual input, some users require a major effort, and months, to make the switch to real mates. This increases the odds that some will settle for cybersex.
Adams' commentary also suggests that physical attractiveness is so tightly linked to sexual satisfaction that 2-D hotties are better than 3-D not-so-hotties. Pursuing this logic, he concludes that if you're not an attractive guy, 2-D hotties are better options than any real women you're likely to have sex with. Moreover, he predicts that, in time, even the people with the best social and sexual options will abandon human contact in favor of Internet inspired sexual thrills.
Exclusive, or very heavy, Internet use can naturally lead users to the conclusion that hotter is better. First, the heavy porn user tends to measure satisfaction only in terms of intensity and quantity—not overall satisfaction. Yet some users notice big differences after porn use as compared with real sex:
I’m a straight guy who enjoys seeing nude and pornographic images and videos of women posing and having sex, as many of my male friends do. However, I'm not sure they do it for up to 3 hours at a time. Anyway, mentally and physically I feel good for a few hours. But then I feel so worn out mentally, sometimes like my IQ has been cut in half and I can’t think straight. If I do this late at night, the effects the next day are much worse. This never happens if I simply masturbate without looking at porn at the same time, or after I have intercourse with my girlfriend. It does NOT happen even if I do oral sex on my girlfriend and spend a lot of time staring at her private parts either. (It also happens to some extent if I look at the porn and do not masturbate that day).
Comparative hotness isn't the only reason 2-D hotties outshine real partners. There's a more insidious reason. Brains evolved to (re)wire rather tightly to whatever they associate with peak experiences. This natural process gradually narrows future focus and responsiveness, helping humans to adapt to their environments.
Obviously, it backfires when synthetic stimuli are compelling enough to override the brain's innate "I'm done" mechanisms, and dysregulate appetite mechanisms. (See Why Do I Find Porn More Exciting Than A Partner?) Some users even suffer miserable symptoms:
[First guy, age 23] I was heading in a pretty bad direction with mood-disorders, feelings of being empty and such a bad case of ED that I would have to masturbate with both hands while watching porn to get semi-hard, which at 23 is not good.
[Second guy, age 20s] My ED started creeping slowly 2 – 3 years ago. And it has gotten significantly worse in the last year. I got to the point where I would rarely see morning wood and most parts of porn wouldn’t do anything for me. Half the time I would fap with a limp dick. I would spend hours surfing for the model that was “hot” enough. And what was “hot” today was unattractive tomorrow.
Adams may be right about where we're headed, but the ride could be a lot bumpier and the destination less sexually satisfying than he indicated.
What, buy a real cow?
In a hook-up/digital environment, moderation and stable relationships aren't highly valued. Why not get all the action you can, right? In fact, Adams points out that to compete with cyber vixens young women are already "stepping up their game," which he defines as having more casual sex. There's an implicit assumption that casual sex is delivering everything worth having, perhaps because it so closely imitates the climaxes-on-demand the Internet delivers.
Yet courtship/intimate relationship may ultimately help to protect brains against the risks of excess. In fact, it may well turn out that we're better off having a bit less sex than we think we want (but lots of affectionate touch), than we are risking chronic overconsumption.
The "inconvenience" of courtship behavior may also contribute to successful, satisfying long-term pair bonding, which potentially benefits both offspring and lovers themselves. This probably has a lot to do with the neurochemical effects of regular affectionate touch and close, trusted companionship. For more:
- Is Long-Term Love More Than A Rare Phenomenon? If So, What Are Its Correlates?
- Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity
- Interpersonal factors in insomnia: A model for integrating bed partners into cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia
- Sexual Satisfaction and Relationship Happiness in Midlife and Older Couples in Five Countries
Lured by hotness, we often overlook the fact that our brains evolved to reward us with feelings of wellbeing for exchanging affectionate touch and the companionship we need. These experiences act as anti-anxiety meds. In contrast, sexual stimulation alone offers only a short-term buzz at best, and too much can leave us feeling rotten:
[Age 29] Only 2 years ago I always had loads of friends. Used to go out. I remember how I felt when I simply saw a girl on the street. I never needed substances to make myself happy. It was a internal feeling...that energy...raw energy, which kept me ahead on all fronts. Masturbation was my daily habit. And I never felt any bad effects because of it. Exercise...work...flirting...confidence. Everything was perfect.
When I slipped into this porno habit 2 years ago, it was not addiction; it was just an aid for masturbation. But soon it escalated to rape scenes, animals, violent sex. No need to imagine sex scenes with my girlfriend from long ago. I felt very proud that I didn't need any girl. I thought, "I am in control of myself. People are really fools to go for committed relationships. Marriages...!!! Look at me! I am the ultimate human being!!! I can live alone."
But it was totally wrong. Porn was eating me from inside. Soon I felt depressed...brain fog...social anxiety...digestion problems. My primitive brain was hooked. I did not grow up with porn. That's why I can see the difference vividly.
Are we meeting our evolved needs?
Despite appearances, humans are a pair-bonding species. Unlike 97% of mammal species we have the physical brain machinery that lets us fall in love. (See Why Bonobos Make Bad Role Models.) Pair-bonding mammals generally engage in frequent bonding behaviors with occasional sex—not constant sex in lieu of bonding behaviors. (See Staying in Love Monkey-Style.)
Our somewhat unique pair-bonder machinery apparently dictates that the highs from sex ideally come from a mixture of arousal and warm feelings from touch, mutual trust, romance, etc. These frequent "bonding behaviors" soothe the brain (which aids the formation of emotional ties), thus naturally increasing our sense of wellbeing.
So here's the interesting question: Without supernormal sexual stimulation, would our built-in sexual limitations complement our innate pair-bonding program more effectively, leaving us more satisfied overall? That is, has a workable balance evolved to help keep us (more or less) attached to a mate using a mix of sexual and bonding behaviors?
Could overdoing the sexual stimulation be contributing to distrust and dissatisfaction in relationships because our evolved needs for more than "just sex" aren't being met? This hypothesis may sound outlandish, but, in fact, a substantial percentage of women report chronic irritability and tears after sex. Men, too, may face mood deterioration after too much ejaculation. These responses may be signals that we are exceeding our ideal amount of sexual stimulation and/or not doing an adequate job of meeting our needs for affectionate human touch in our relationships.
Happily, if someone unhooks from today's ever novel cyber erotica and sex toys, exclusive relationships may once again become a workable option for many adults. Of course, this step could entail the discomfort of unhooking from the dopamine-cranking, "novelty-as-aphrodisiac" strategy learned on the Web, as well as the willingness to set aside some popular assumptions.
Incidentally, greater harmony doesn't necessarily mean less sex, but it may mean exploring lovemaking approaches that maximize the satisfaction available via bonding behaviors without overtaxing our neuroendocrine balance with too frequent jollies.
Is such an adjustment worth it? Depends on how appealing you find "The Digital Crossover" as a final destination. Incidentally, our culture may be there sooner than it thinks. According to Adams if people,
continue their trend of getting fatter and more argumentative ... the Digital Crossover is less than ten years away.