The mechanical age is ending and the virtual age is unfolding. Stone (1995) indicated that "electronic communication networks--radio, television, computer networks-accompany the discourse networks and social formations now coming into being" (p. 20). These are characterized, according to Stone, by increasing awareness of self, increasing isolation of individuals in Western societies, less sharing of physical space, and by textuality and prosthetic communication. Sexuality, too, is in a state of flux, and one of the domains where this is particularly apparent is that of the internet. Simon (1996) argued that "all discourses of sexuality are inherently discourses about something else" (p. xvii). Sexuality in the unfolding of the virtual age is also a discourse about human interaction at the closing of the mechanical age. Indeed, what Stone called the unfolding of the virtual age is contemporary with what Simon called late modernity: even the most familiar aspects of social (and sexual) life become sites for conflicting or alternative options, and consensual meanings begin to dissolve. The internet becomes a new form of the expression of the self (or selves), and a non-traditional social and sexual setting.
The changing contexts of sexual behavior, including the internet, challenge the essentializing of the self and of sexuality. In social science, the internet itself has become a new methodology for seeing and an occasion for discussing or thinking out loud about the world (Simon, 1996). A contrary view is that the internet reflects the same old issues in a new space. Moore (1995) argued that "what is done on the internet simply mirrors what is done off the internet, the only difference being that on the internet it all happens electronically, and very, very fast" (p. 5).
This article reviews the social literature in an attempt to assess where internet sexuality fits within social theory and which social theories offer useful directions for exploration. Secondly, it seeks to position internet sexual research as a potential method for approaching the study of sexuality in a social context; and thirdly, it questions whether the internet may have created a new domain of sexuality, cybersexuality.
Cybersex has been variously defined. Blair (1998) referred to it as erotic interactions through cyber discourse and also made the point that "net sex" does have its sensory limitations. The sexual discourse of the net may be combined with autostimulation or expand to an offline physical relationship. As she observed, offline physical coupling has in many cases been enhanced by online exchanges, and many couples have met and assumed real-time relationships as a result of net-sex encounters. There are three internet possibilities: embellishment of real-world circumstances, creation of a pure fantasy scenario, and "computer sex," where one party describes online what he would like the other party to do and may achieve orgasm. Ross and Kauth (2002) more specifically defined it as "carrying on via computer proxy sexual activity through rich description with accompanying sexual arousal, often to orgasm."
Intimacy and the Internet
The internet has brought a new dimension to intimacy, both by permitting intimate contact electronically over a distance and by, through that same contact, permitting intimate discussion shorn of most of the social cues present in face-to-face interactions. This electronic dimension appears to have led to a transfiguration of intimacy. Giddens (1992) argued that sex now speaks the language of revolution: it is de-centered, freed of reproductive needs, and thus transformed. I argue that the internet, while not transforming sexuality, has transfigured it: it has illuminated certain aspects of it so that they stand out from their equivalent social sexual interactions.
The internet has sheared away many of the emotional and physical attributes of the physical individual--perhaps the ultimate removal from reproduction--and allowed emotional and physical fulfillment to occur with an electronic partner who may or may not bear much resemblance to the physical partner who is typing at the keyboard. …