The future of sex for Irish women

The internet and advances in technology are enabling Irish women to explore their sexuality, but what does this mean for sexual equality, and what does the future hold?

 

Here is a brief sampling of things that have happened to me while on dates with people I met on dating sites and hook-up apps:

  • One date abandoned me by a canal at 1am because I was on crutches with torn ligaments and thus “walking too slowly”.
  • Another decided he didn’t like the play we were watching and so he left the theatre and me without a word, and did not return.
  • One didn’t make a move, but then set up a fake Instagram account to ask me why nothing had happened.
  • One showed me photos of his ex-wife in a swimsuit, told me he had paid for her breast augmentation and then complained he didn’t get to “benefit” from them.
  • Another drove us into the mountains to a place I didn’t know, then casually mentioned he had a gun in the car.

And then there were the silences. The awkward, painful, countless silences of those who did not know what to do with themselves without the winking emoji.

This is not the fault of OkCupid or Tinder. It’s ours. All of ours. (Well, those men in particular, but generally ours.) Though technology has advanced and the internet offers us a smorgasbord of mediums through which to meet people to date, to find love or to have one-night-stands, the platforms don’t teach us anything about romance, love or sex.

Indeed, society itself didn’t tell us what to do with ourselves or each other after the most major development in sexual technology, contraception, completely altered how we relate to one another.

Before contraception was widely available, the act of sex was perceived as a reliable indicator of (if not a direct path to) your place in the social order.

Sex was more likely to lead to pregnancy, which meant – if not intimacy and love – at least commitment. The epitome of commitment was marriage, which denoted adulthood, respectability, social success and overall, normalcy. But the course of normalcy never did run smooth, and when sex did not result in commitment or marriage, it was accompanied by judgment and shame – borne mostly by the woman.

But the wide accessibility of contraception today plus increasingly accepting attitudes towards sex, as well as the accessibility of sexually-oriented media and technology, are allowing us to explore sexuality in an entirely new way. However, this technology still exists within a society where sexism, rape culture and sexual shaming still exist, and woman must navigate the dichotomy between technological progress and social realties.

Apps such as Tinder have made having casual sex easier and more efficient than ever – though, women’s experiences of so-called “hook-up apps” and approach to casual sex pose a radically different set of concerns than men’s. This gender divide was perfectly summarised in HBO’s 2011 documentary series When Strangers Click: Stories From The Internet. “Surveys show that in the online dating world, women are afraid of meeting a serial killer,” the show cites. “Men are afraid of meeting someone fat.”

And as Emily Witt observes in her book Future Sex, “the technology itself promised nothing. It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.”

What’s fascinating about this oft-misaligned relationship between our desire to connect with others online and our reliance on dating apps to do the work for us, is the ways technology can allow us to explore and experience our sexuality when harnessed effectively. And Irish women are leading the way when it comes to creating and utilising alternative online spaces to find some sexual fulfilment and empowerment.

Having experienced all the terrible dates above, and understanding the wariness that’s necessary for a woman looking for casual sex, I wasn’t surprised to learn that many women are garnering some of their sexual fulfilment not from real people, but fictional romance or fan fiction. In fan fiction, women take pop culture characters and existing stories and then invent erotic scenes. They engage with the material and also rewrite it to fulfil their fantasies and express their desires.

This is not a new phenomenon and these online spaces have enabled women to express their sexuality and fantasies for almost as long as the internet has been accessible to the public. Fanfiction.net, for example, was founded in 1998, and since then other sites have become almost Amazonian in nature; largely populated by women and standing in defiance of male-run publishing worlds and overwhelmingly heteronormative stories.

Most fan fiction is written by straight women, yet a huge percentage of them queer or romantic sexual pairings, as amateur authors rewrite seemingly heterosexual characters as lovers. This indicates that there’s a demand for gay, lesbian and bisexual narratives which is not being fulfilled by mainstream media, and that online spaces allow women to explore their sexually-fluid desires and fantasies in a way that they do not in their daily lives.

Author Sarah Maria Griffin believes that these spaces are empowering. “The women who write fan fiction are charging the canon: they’re building the narratives they want to see, when they don’t see them,” she says.

“Because of the severe lack of diverse romantic representation on screen, fan fiction is a permissive tool that allows consumers of these texts to build the representation they want to see in the world, to fulfil something and share it with like-minded readers.

“There’s more words of Harry Potter Loves Draco Malfoy fan fiction written than in all of Rowling’s original series – more Sherlock Holmes and John Watson than Conan Doyle ever wrote. There’s such rebellion there: it’s like saying, ‘Here’s the love I want to see in the world, and I’ve conjured it up where the establishment won’t.’”

The community aspect of sexual expression is incredibly important online, as people who are into particular fantasies or kinks find each other. This allows for the possibility of having their unique desires fulfilled, but for many the value of being able to connect with like-minded people online is simply having their desires acknowledged, shared and normalised.

Irish people, who have traditionally experienced so much shame around sexuality, can find acceptance and validation at the click of a button.

As Witt writes, “Google blurred the distinction between normal and abnormal. The answers its algorithms harvested assured each person of the presence of the like-minded: no one need be alone with aberrant desires, and no desires were aberrant.”

And online, no identity is aberrant either. Trans woman Aoife Martin knows all too well how a lack of information and public role models can affect a person’s sense of confidence and self-worth, and how the internet can help fill that void. Working in IT, she has observed and experienced how the internet and technology can educate and empower individuals about sexuality and gender.

“I can remember the pre-internet days when there was no information readily available,” says Martin. “Everything I knew about being trans came from reading shock headlines in various red top newspapers. Then the internet came along and it was both a blessing and a curse. Sites like GeoCities (remember that?) allowed people to build their own pages and upload photographs. It was here and on similar sites that I started to gather information about make-up tips, what clothes to wear for my build, how to tuck, how to walk, etc and the scourge of trans people everywhere, how to pass [as a man or woman].”

Martin also cites Twitter as being a huge source of inspiration and comfort to her, allowing her to connect with friends and allies who support her. However, she has discovered the dangers and limitations of the internet, too. Many women experience vicious trolling and abuse online, but trans women are at the receiving end of transphobia – bigotry that also makes dating online far more difficult.

“There are negative sides to social media, like unwanted attention from trolls,” says Martin, “so you need to keep a level head and step away from the keyboard if necessary. I’ve never used any dating apps or sites. Dating for trans women is fraught with difficulty and danger. I’m a trans lesbian and finding women who are interested in dating a trans woman is, I’m guessing, no easy thing. . . The internet is a wonderful tool, but like all tools it should be used carefully.”

Then there are tools that are just meant to be enjoyed (ahem). Times have moved on since British physician Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville invented the electromechanical vibrator, which was used by doctors to “cure” women of “hysteria” by bringing them to orgasm in their local GP’s office. Now, we can do it ourselves with little gadgets that fit into the bedside drawer – and we don’t even have to brave walking into a sex shop if we don’t want to.

Shawna Scott, founder of Ireland’s award-winning online sex toy store SexSiopa.ie, says the internet has allowed Irish women to explore their sexuality in a myriad of ways – and sexual technology has had to evolve with the increasing demand for satisfaction.

“More than anything,” says Scott, “the internet, through blogs and forums, has allowed women to talk to each other and share ideas about sex and sexuality. We’ve been able to learn about our bodies and about feminism from peers around the world. Because we’ve been sharing that knowledge at a much faster rate than ever before, the sex toy industry in particular has had to make a major shift from being a male-dominated industry that primarily used cheap, dodgy materials, to one where many of the best brands are either founded by women or have women on their design teams.”

However, having women as founders and active participants in sexual media online does not always result in acclaim, awards or even acceptance. In Witt’s book Future Sex, the author explores polyamory, orgasm meditation and webcam sex shows – yet the one sexual medium that truly troubles her is the most popular and accessible: online porn.

Witt, who is well-versed in feminist theory and aware of anti-pornography arguments, admits feeling very conflicted about pornography, fearing that enjoying it contributes to the objectification of women. Even when she feels physically aroused by pornography, Witt intellectually prevents herself from enjoying the fantasy, writing that she does “not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex I wanted to have”.

Witt’s inner conflict is emblematic of a burden that women are shouldering when it comes to exploring and experiencing their sexuality in modern times; the need to sexually enjoy the “right” thing. Though many people across all genders experience this worry when it comes to enjoying particular kinks or fetishes, women are disproportionately worried about the morality of their consumption of pornography.

Feminist communities are divided on whether one can be a “good feminist” if you enjoy porn, though increasingly many feminist scholars assert that defining pornography as purely oppressive ignores the agency women have as performers and as consumers.

Celine Shimizu, a professor of cinema and sexuality studies in San Francisco State University, acted as an editor of The Feminist Porn Book, a book of research by feminist porn scholars as well as feminists within the industry. Shimizu rejects the idea that all pornography is inherently damaging, or that women who consume pornography can be easily labelled as bad feminists.

“Pornography is inherently complicated and does not easily fit into good or bad values or conduct,” says Shimizu. “So it is important to talk specifically about why women are watching porn, what they are getting out of it. Many times, it is a matter of sexual curiosity. What feminist porn scholarship challenges in terms of existing frameworks is to define sexuality as not simply oppressive to women but as a creative force women also use and explore.”

Porn performer Lorelei Lee uses stronger language to object to how women are policing their own, and each other’s, sexual expression in the name of “good feminism”. A graduate of San Francisco State University and currently applying to law school, Lee points out that arguments surrounding whether porn can be feminist not only predominately target women – but women who are already stigmatised within society.

“To be honest, the idea that there is a feminist justification for criminalising the actions of consenting adults and/or for failing to support a labour movement of the most marginalised workers just astonishes and disgusts me,” says Lee.

“That this idea is so frequently touted by wealthy white actresses who’ve made their livings performing with their bodies in a profession that only a century ago was vilified in exactly the way sex work is today is just such obvious shortsightedness and respectability politics. ”

It’s clear that the internet and technology has had a huge impact on women’s experience of sexuality, and that this relationship will continue to evolve with our understanding of gender, sexuality and feminism. But looking to the future, perhaps the most influential and egalitarian development of sexual technology will involve one of its first and most basic iterations: contraception.

Since contraception became fully legalised and widely available in Ireland in 1992, there have been huge advancements in the forms of contraception designed to be used by women, including the pill, IUDs, vaginal rings and contraceptive injections.

Meanwhile, there has been little or no change or addition to contraceptive options for men (despite reports earlier this week of the success in trials of a male contraceptive, Vasalgel).

Women thus not only pay financially for most birth control, but they also pay with their bodies.

It is women who endure not only the insertion of most forms of long-term birth control, but who also deal with side effects that alter their moods, hormones, menstrual cycles and weight.

Women also must deal with the consequences should these forms of contraception fail; just as women must shoulder the burden when it comes to dating within a rape culture, the political discourse and debates surrounding pornography, and the misogyny that can affect all women who explore and enjoy their sexuality.

Advancements in technology may offer us opportunities to explore our sexuality, but it’s our attitudes and commitment to gender equality that will dictate how helpful and empowering they prove to be. Until we become more aware of how sexism and inequality affect our experience of sex, most of the disappointments and dissatisfaction that we have from sexual technology will simply be diagnosed as user error.

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