Lockdown Love and the Future of Sex

The Issue

Just because we’re in lockdown, we don’t stop being human. And of course, sexuality is an important part of our humanity. So, given that erotic aspect of ourselves remains with us through the current crisis, it’s completely normal for us to be thinking (and feeling) sexually now, just as we did before the world changed and just as we surely will after things stabilise once again. The difference is, of course, that the sort of general lockdown challenges that we now face at home are likely to influence our sexuality, as much, if not even more than other aspects of our currently surreal lives.

COVID, Sexbots and Digisexuality:

I could, following Kinsey Institute practitioners such as Justin J. Lehmiller, offer general and useful suggestions on how to spice up your sex life. But in keeping with this blog’s theme, I would prefer to offer some brief reflections on the potential impact and meaning of the COVID-19 crisis for our future emotions and sexuality, and on aspects of digisexuality.  If sex is valuable, as it is to many of us, it’s likely to be seen as being at risk from the pressure of lockdown, along with many other things that we enjoy and want to maintain.

We ought to take this strange interval as an opportunity to think about the future, including the future of sexuality. Historically, new trends in technology and culture since the 1960s have led to new sexual possibilities. The legalization of homosexuality, followed by the gay rights movement, gay marriage and child adoption were not foreseen by many futurists and science fiction writers before the 1960s. It’s also possible, however, that some may have foreseen it, but didn’t dare speak its name. It was unusual for romantic partners to live together before the 1970s, and it is arguably the case that a wider variety of sexual preferences and practices are now seen as consensual across all sexual orientations. Something further is now well underway.  With the advent of new robotic and virtual reality technologies, to name just two of the main players, we have already entered an era of what has already been termed ‘digisexuality.’

For some, and possibly many, of us, technology will enhance, and in some cases, replace sex with our fellow human beings. Far more comprehensive than the now dated vibrator, sexbots currently cost in the thousands, but what will happen when supply and demand make them available for no more than the price of a new computer or widescreen television set? That reduction in price, in addition to what is likely to be greater social acceptance, can only make them more common objects of desire and consumption. Should they be seen as sex aids, conducive to inhibited or waning desire, or as an illicit objectification of the body, which should be human, even if flawed?

Increasingly realistic sexbots are being produced, and the range of customised options for sex with robots may well be seen as the ultimate mechanical concretisation of our sensual fantasies. It may also be an expression of our quest for a technological fix to the problems of isolation and failed relationships with our fellow humans. Technology has solved or at least mitigated so many problems; why not add perennial sexual and romantic difficulties to the list? This will very likely be a hot—if you will pardon the term—debate in the near future. The ethical and philosophical questions raised by these changes are going to be fundamental to the future of sexuality.

The Liberty to Try Something New:

How many of us have been motivated by the current crisis to explore new dimensions of sexuality involving technology? Nobody knows, although it might well be of sociological interest to conduct surveys to find out, along with survey data on other personal and interpersonal changes. What are these new dimensions?

Consider the example of pornographic technology. Historically, pornography is at least as old as Pompei–you can still see the archaeological remnants of it there in form of explicit Roman frescoes. They even survived the volcanic eruption! For many years porn was completely underground and illegal, in the realm of the obscene and the taboo. Pornographic drawings were circulated in early modern Europe, and the rise of photography in the 19th century and the cinema in the 20th century added to both of them and to obscene literature. For a while, between the widespread liberalization of anti-obscenity laws in the early 1970s, and the world wide web, pornography was legal and widespread but, for some at least, potentially embarrassing.

Standard internet pornography is now becoming a bit old fashioned. When it began in the 1990s, it offered a degree of privacy previously unheard of. One didn’t have to face an embarrassing video store or X-rated theatre moment. It was, for some, difficult enough to avoid eye contact with the cashier; being caught red-handed by a friend or relative would have been much worse. Especially when the crazy titles were read out loud by the cashier—much worse than The English Patient. But I digress….The internet changed it all. Sure, you could be caught online by a housemate. But for just under thirty years now, it has been much easier to avoid a sense of shame or embarrassment while indulging in just about any fantasy that you like.

Porn addiction is a large problem, and there is every reason to believe that the internet has worsened an old problem, due to internet privacy. This may be compounded by the recent advent of virtual porn, in which virtual reality is used to enhance the realism of represented sexual encounters. There is a clear increase in technological sophistication and realism at work here. What next—holographic immersion?

Experimentation, Desire and Choices:

Sex, under the best of circumstances, is not something that we readily separate from our emotional and intimate lives. It is a potentially reproductive urge that is equally expressive of complex emotions and projections such as affection, ego states, and hedonistic gratification. That helps to explain the obvious fact that we are hardly identical in how we do it, and in what we consistently want.

It does mean that any emotional challenges that we are faced with are not likely to be confined to any one room—or activity—in the home. If we are stressed, frightened, or apprehensive about the future, that may well affect our sexuality. This is why current events are potentially powerful in this realm of desire.

We would do well to pause to consider the meaning of the sex that we’re getting now that we are in COVID-19 lockdown. It’s not just frequency. To quote John Updike: “sex is like money; only too much is enough” (source: BrainlyQuote.com).  That isn’t always at stake, and it’s important to realize that we are likely to be concerned about quality as much, if not more than quantity. This is where sexuality gets subtle, because one person’s ideal may be a complete turn-off for another.

The main thing to bear in mind is the fact that just having more time on your hands does not guarantee more sexual energy. On the contrary: you may want to make use of your energy in different ways, such as more homeworking, more time with family (possibly including energy-draining kids!), more time online with friends.

So, although for some people—likely highly sexual to begin with— the time flexibility increase of lockdown may well have led to a sexual dividend, for others it’s been just business as usual, or even, a sex-inhibitor. Added to all of this are the day-to-day pressures of what I have described in the EthicScan blog “The Family Pressure Cooker (May 23, 2020).” If you’re constantly cramped in the same space with people, even people whom you love in various ways, latent tensions and unresolved conflicts are likely to be amplified and may well lead to a corresponding draining of your energy—including your sexual energy.

You don’t have to accept Sigmund Freud’s early to middle career view that sexual energy is fundamental to life in order to see how it can be important to our definition of ourselves. A new genie is out of the bottle. Given that this is true, it will be interesting to see how our new and pressurized sexuality will emerge from lockdown, and how it will develop across the 21st century.

Further Reading: (Explicit Content for Adults Only)

EthicScan Blog – Family Pressure Cooker:

Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Martino Fine Books: Eastford, CT, 2011 (originally published in 1905).

Katz, Leslie. ‘Welcome to your future sex life: Birds do it, bees do it, robots do it. Turned On, a CNET special report, explores the fascinating intersection of technology and sex.’ 10 August, 2017. Available at: https://www.cnet.com/news/abyss-creations-ai-sex-robots-headed-to-  your-bed-and-heart/  

Knapdon, Sarah. ‘Rise of the ‘Digisexual’ as Virtual Reality Bypasses Need for Human Intimacy.’ The Telegraph, 26 November, 2017.

Lehmiller, Justin L. ‘4 Tips for Improving Your Sex and Love Life During Lockdown: New research helps explain how to get the spark back—and keep it.’ Psychology Today. Posted May 05, 2020

Thompson, Bill. ‘Falling Out of Love with Robots’. BBC Bill Board, 15 April,   2008.

Eric Litwack
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