Despite horror stories splashed across the news on the evils of sexting and the life-ruining capacity of naked pictures, Swarthmore students who use technology such as Skype and texting to have sexual interactions or exchange sexual content say they aren’t worried. Virtual sex is a normal part of long-distance relationships for some students, though they don’t believe that sexting is necessarily widespread.
Over winter break, Mary* was chatting on Facebook with another Swarthmore student, John, with whom she’d been having casual sex for the majority of fall semester.
John requested to video chat with Mary and she accepted the call. The conversation grew sexual when John asked if Mary missed having sex with him and took his shirt off.
“Then we both started masturbating, and then it progressed from there,” Mary recounted.
Video chat sex with John was not the first of Mary’s use of technology in a sexual capacity: during high school, she would send naked pictures of herself to boyfriends or those with whom she had hooked up.
“There are lots of naked pictures of me on people’s phones and computers,” Mary acknowledged, adding that she would often have phone sex with her boyfriend during high school.
Similarly to Mary and John, Sarah and her Swarthmore girlfriend, separated by a long distance, used Skype to have sex during breaks from school.
“We’d be Skyping, just normal video-chatting and talking because we were far away, and then eventually, because it’s someone you’re used to having sex with a lot, just talking to them makes you really horny, so I’d just say really forward things like, ‘I want to fuck you,’ and I’d bring my laptop upstairs to my room,” Sarah recounted.
Another — a sophomore — used Skype for sex with her long-distance boyfriend, who graduated from Swarthmore last year. She said that mostly, she would engage in sex over Skype in Kohlberg classrooms.
“I’d be studying and Skyping him, and then…” Lorelai trailed off. Sometimes, she said, her boyfriend would begin watching pornography while the two Skyped, making his desire for sex obvious, but other times, sex would result from Lorelai’s attraction to her boyfriend.
For Mary, Sarah and Lorelai, deciding to sexually engage with someone via technology is all a matter of comfort and trust, which eliminates the need to worry about sexual content going public.
Mary said that while she thought a boy might show a friend a photograph on his phone, she was never worried that her photograph would be sent to someone else’s phone or computer, even if she eventually had a messy breakup. “I knew that no one would actually do that,” Mary said.
For Sarah, Skype seemed to be a relatively safe form of having virtual sex.
“I feel like on Skype, the other person is more involved, and less likely to take a snapshot,” she said. “If I sent something via text, if someone has an iPhone they could just click ‘save’.”
Sarah said she had never exchanged naked pictures of herself, and didn’t plan on ever doing so. While Sarah said she trusted her girlfriend, she would still worry about a naked picture in the hands of an ex.
“I’d feel weird with that, because what if, one day, she was horribly mad at me?” Sarah explained. “That would make me really paranoid.”
Lorelai echoed Sarah’s feeling of security with sticking exclusively to Skype.
“Skype is different from Snapchat or text,” she said (Snapchat is a photo messaging service). “You assume that you can’t really record on Skype, unless you have some sort of special program, so in general it’s a safer thing. It’s not like your phone, where anyone can get onto it and look at the contents.”
Lorelai said she had once sent a naked picture to her (now ex) boyfriend, and regretted it after their breakup. Later, she wished she had not sent the picture, partially because she included her face in the photo. “The one rule for dirty pictures is that they should not have your face in them, and I completely forgot that,” she said.
Lorelai also realized she had not trusted her boyfriend enough to send him the photo. “It comes back when you review the relationship,” she said. “You can’t actually trust someone that much.”
Though Sarah feels safe using Skype, she will not have virtual sex with just anyone — her willingness depends upon the relationship. “It requires a certain level of intimacy and trust,” Sarah explained. While she had Skype sex with her girlfriend after only a few months of dating, she never did so with her boyfriend in high school, whom she dated for over a year.
Mary agreed with Sarah’s assessment.
“There are people that I just don’t ever send pictures to,” she explained. While Mary hooks up regularly with a boy from her hometown, she has never sent him a picture before. “I don’t feel like I want him to see it. I’m not comfortable with it,” she said.
For Mary, exchanging sexual content through technology depends upon trust and comfort rather than upon the length of a relationship. “There’s another guy who I’ve never dated — we’ve only hooked up a few times — but I find myself able to send him a picture, and not this other guy,” Mary explained. “It’s not like I can be pressured — some, I’ll say sure, and others, I’ll say no.”
Mary added that she wasn’t at all worried about having photographs or text messages made public, or being arrested on child pornography charges. Laws vary from state to state, but teenagers who have sent or received photos of themselves or others have been charged with distribution and possession of child pornography.
Instead, Mary said, she was most worried about being caught in the act by a parent or a friend. “I’d be worried that my parents would walk in while I was taking a picture, or while I was having Skype sex, or that they would hear [me having phone sex] or something,” Mary said.
Mary, Sarah and Lorelai don’t believe that using technology for sexual interactions is abnormal — in fact, Sarah said she was surprised at how normal Skype sex felt — though they agreed that it was not necessarily widespread among college students.
Mary does not think she is the only person who engages in virtual forms of sex, though she believes that sexting is less prevalent than media portrays it to be. Sexting requires some degree of sexual liberation, she explained.
“I think some people do it, but I consider myself a fairly sexually uninhibited person,” Mary said. “All the people I’ve dated are the same. I’ve dated horny-out-of-their-mind guys, so we would do things that other couples may or may not have. It didn’t ever bother me or make me feel violated,” she explained.
Ultimately, Sarah believes there is no way of knowing how many people engage in virtual forms of sex. “Looking at me or [my ex-girlfriend] you would never expect that we had Skype sex all the time,” Sarah said. “I’d be surprised to hear that anyone does it, because you never know how other people like to have sex.”
*Mary, John Sarah and Lorelai are pseudonyms.