Cybersex: Eroticism Without Bodies
By: Douglas Groothuis

Cornerstone, vol. 26, issue 113 (1997), p. 10-12, 15-17
ISSN 0275-2743


American culture at the end of the millennium is close to sexually insane. At a minimum, it is sexually profligate, confused, and unable to draw wise ethical boundaries around sexual practices or to stay within those boundaries. Sexuality is taken as a right to be exercised according to one’s preferences, not as a sacred trust to be governed with wisdom according to the soul’s best interests. Restraint is the price of civilization, and we are casting off restraint. The sexual scene in America today exhibits the relentless logic of a venerable Latin phrase: corruptio optimi pessima: “there is nothing worse than the corruption of the best.”[1] To put it another way, the higher something is, the farther it can fall. Sexual intimacy is rooted in God’s good creation and was divinely established for the joyful union of a man and woman within a covenant of trust, fidelity, and love, and for the propagation of the human family. When sexual expression splits apart this providential framework, the splinters fly out in all directions, injuring soul, body, and society. G. K. Chesterton highlighted this.

The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of bad psychology.[2]

SEX OUT OF CONTROL

Many today are sexually displaced, disoriented, even devastated— victims of a very bad psychology. The evidence of this sexual displacement litters the cultural landscape. Since 1960, births out of wedlock have skyrocketed by more than 400 percent.[3] Some estimate that by the year 2000, 40 percent of all births in America will be illegitimate.[4] Approximately thirty million human lives that were conceived in intimacy have been destroyed through abortion. One in four pregnancies is aborted in America today.[5] The divorce rate has more than doubled since 1960,[6] and the United States has the highest divorce rate on the planet.[7]

In the wake of widespread divorce, the percentage of single-parent families has increased threefold since 1960.[8] The fraying of the family has crippled the souls of many children bereft of intact families. These children are more likely than children from stable homes to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as failing in school, becoming pregnant as teenagers, committing suicide, abusing drugs, and engaging in criminality.[9] A frightening wave of juvenile crime assaults us almost every day in the newspaper—or closer to home. It is expected to get worse.[10] Sexually transmitted diseases, spread largely through promiscuity, are rampant. AIDS terrorizes the sexual scene with its death sentences, and people scramble for “safe sex” through technologies instead of moral restraint within established standards.

Into this maelstrom of sexual mismanagement is thrown the exotic potentialities of cyberspace. We argue that cyberspace is a medium (or condition of sentience) that shapes whatever messages invade our souls; its forms and potentialities tend to reorient our sensibilities. It has great promise, but also holds great (and often invisible) pitfalls. Cyberspace makes a decentered self both possible and probable. The anonymity of on-line communication allows for the display of many selves and is endorsed by many postmodernist philosophers. Disembodied existence in a digital world connects us with others but only by leaving our physicality behind the screen, and at the expense of contiguity. When the screen replaces the book, words may lose their weight and become ephemeral, as may our attention. Truth itself may become elusive in the digital domain when distractions overwhelm our senses and simulated realities eclipse reality itself. What happens when a sexually untethered culture enters this data-flow of cyberspace?

In a world estranged from Eden, sexuality often fails where it should flourish and intrudes where it should not. In cyberspace, sexuality must present itself without the details of actual bodies in spatial, visual, olfactory, and tactile proximity. In this, we find an anomaly: the physical sexual desires must be digitally dematerialized and distributed in the quest to find a silicon surrogate for skin. What drives this new mode of disembodied sex?

SEX WITHOUT SKIN

First, as sexual intimacy is progressively separated from its covenantal responsibilities and reciprocities, it tends to degenerate into the quest for private erotic satisfaction, whatever the means. The orgasmatron of Woody Allen’s futuristic spoof, Sleeper, offered orgasm for the isolated individual in its virtual sex booth. This notion, claims Mark Dery, “lurks beneath the surface of cyberspace.”[11] When Paul condemns those whose “god is their stomach,” he has something very similar in mind (Phil. 3:19).

Second, when the demand for sexual stimulation escalates, the consequences of sexual promiscuity become increasingly severe. In a world of AIDS, venereal diseases, and unwanted pregnancies, the ultimate prophylactic may be disembodiment, where “dalliances [are] conducted in virtual worlds.”[12] Our fragile flesh is not always the best mode for satisfying a boundless thirst for erotic gratification, since it is so subject to the corruptions of overindulgence. In cyberspace, lust finds several ways of transcending the body while trashing the soul.

Those trysting at “text-sex” contact each other through entering a variety of group “chat rooms” where the messages of various participants appear on-screen along with the other “posts” that have accumulated. These chat rooms may have names such as “Romance Connection,” “Naughty Negligees,” “Gay Room,” “Naughty Girls,” or “Women Who Obey Women.”[13] Although I have never darkened the screen of a text-sex room, one chat room I was involved in moved in that direction when I was attempting to defend the institution of monogamy in a fast-paced forum. After one gratuitously salacious message was posted, I fled. Who knows what followed after my speedy departure.

Because these rooms are policed by “guides” on some on-line services, those desiring more explicit eroticism find participants that strike their fancy by using a “private message” command, which allows a one-on-one, private interaction on screen. Text-sex can be as varied as the sensual imagination and writing skills of the participants, with every aspect of real-world sexual contact being described textually on-screen. Dery describes a rendezvous where an “on-line prostitute” offered to have text-sex with someone if he would provide her (or was it him?) with a pirated copy of a computer game.[14] He also reports that some cybernauts augment their textual stimulations with their own private accompaniment, and type with one hand.[15] To enhance the situation, the participants may download each others’ photographs to aid their imaginative endeavors.[16] These images are supposedly of the participants, but who knows?

Such encounters are not limited to one-on-one situations. The virtual environments of MUDs (multiuser domain “chat rooms”) and MOOs (MUDS that exist as virtual fantasy worlds) may be used as sexual playgrounds—or battlefields. “Increasingly, unbridled lust is intruding on the sword-and-sorcery scenarios of these Tolkienesque worlds,” notes Dery.[17] These cyberfantasies often include “net.sleazing,” which science writer Howard Rheingold describes as “the practice of aggressively soliciting mutual narrative stimulation”; it is “an unsavory but perennially popular behavior in MUDland.”[18] He also claims that “there are MUDs in which outright orgiastic scenarios are the dominant reality,” although this is not true for all of them.[19] But things get worse. Just as there are virtual prostitutes, there are virtual rapes.

VIRTUAL SEXUAL ABUSE

Author Sherry Turkle explains that virtual rape may occur when a MUD player devises a way to textually possess another character and to become its on-line ventriloquist, as it were. Such a perpetrator is then the only one typing out messages for both his character and the one normally played by another person. The real world player at the other end sits at the screen in amazement and then disgust when she finds her on-screen character submitting to sexual acts she neither instigated nor consented to have.[20] She has lost control of her on-line persona to another on-line persona who is a sexual predator. Feminist cultural critic Anne Balsamo claims that “the anonymity offered by the computer screen empowers anti-social behavior such as . . . MUD-rape (an unwanted, aggressive, sexual-textual encounter in a multi-user domain).”[21]

Things do not get much stranger than this—technologically created virtual environments, populated by artificial personae who devise ways to ravish each other, with or without the other’s consent. Even more surreal—or hyperreal—are the discussions that attempt to sort all this out ethically. Turkle claims that “the issue of MUD rape and violence has become a focal point of conversation on discussion lists, bulletin boards, and newsgroups to which MUD players regularly post.”[22] The argument concerns whether this activity is real enough to be wrong or hyperreal enough to be permissible, with disputants coming down hard on both sides. The same issue is raised concerning “virtual adultery.” Is it really unfaithfulness? After all, nothing was touched; it was a game, however sexually charged. Wasn’t it?

The unreality defense of cybersex is complicated by the confession of one on-line experiencer named Julian Dibbell:

Netsex is possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described [sexual activity], the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation—sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies.[23]

In an on-line interview, Turkle responded to a question about virtual adultery by saying that some couples find such extramarital experimentation to be natural because partners “continue to have a sexual curiosity about other people” and this “is kind of a harmless way to work that through.” However, other people feel betrayed because emotional closeness is so tied to language, which is what the on-line affair is all about. Turkle’s advice rings of relativism: “This issue of cybersex is something that different couples really need to work out between them. Different people make very different decisions about it.”[24] Given the present divorce rate, we may question the wisdom of her counsel.

Before rendering some less relativistic responses, we need to assess three more cybersex modalities: sex in virtual reality, on-line pornography, and pornographic CD-ROMs.

SEX IN VIRTUAL REALITY

The term virtual reality is sometimes used broadly to refer to any communication or experience pertaining to cyberspace. More specifically, it refers to the immersion of a person’s senses into artificial environments through technological replacements for the normal operations of sense. One dons a helmet or head-mounted display equipped with two computer-driven screens, which give a three-dimensional effect. One can also wear data gloves that control one’s navigation through the virtual world.

Virtual-reality technologies have a broad variety of possible applications—in medicine, scientific experimentation, and elsewhere —and the limits of simulation are not yet known. On the bright side, virtual reality therapy has been used to help people suffering from certain phobias such as fear of heights.[25] However, it did not take long for cyberspace enthusiasts to consider the strictly erotic possibilities. One scene from the popular horror/science fiction movie Lawnmower Man sparked the imagination of many. Jobe, who went from dullard to genius through virtual-reality therapy and drug treatments, puts the technology to a more hedonistic use as he and his girl friend jump into their data suits to experience disembodied but ecstatic hyper-sex. Dery describes the scene, “In cyberspace, they appear featureless, quicksilver creatures, their faces flowing together and oozing apart in a mystical communion that dissolves body boundaries.”[26] Such computer-enhanced images of computer-enhanced encounters have helped trigger a desire to bring this cyberunion from cinema into the market of available cyberspace technologies.

Howard Rheingold imagines a full-body “smart suit” that registers all the body’s external responses, converts them to digital data, and transmits them through the phone lines where another smart-suited partner receives and in turn transmits her own sex-data.[27] Rheingold spells this out rather gleefully:

Now, imagine plugging your whole sound-sight-touch telepresence system into the telephone network. You see a lifelike but totally artificial visual representation of your own body and of your partner’s. Depending on what numbers you dial and which passwords you know and what you are willing to pay (or trade or do), you can find one partner, a dozen, a thousand, in various cyberspaces that are no farther than a telephone number.[28]

This scenario tends to boggle the mind, but the idea behind it is to simulate accurately the response of each physically absent partner such that a new virtual environment is created. (This is an especially peculiar combination of virtual presence and literal absence, since so many perceptual functions are simulated.)

The virtual-reality sex just described aims at verisimilitude, whereby people simulate their actual physical bodies on the screen. In this model, there is no deception per se, only simulation. Cyberspace theorists, however, have already gone far beyond these as-yet-nonexistent cyber-sex technologies. Since each partner is not physically present with the other, deception is possible and could not be ruled out. Who or what exactly is on the other end of cyberspace in the smart suit? Two levels of simulation come into play here, two removals from reality. The first simulation is the virtuality itself. The second is the impersonation of the supposed partner at the other end. Jude’s image of the false teachers who are like trees “without fruit and uprooted—twice dead” comes to mind (Jude 12).

Dery speculates that the simulations could be as wide-ranging as the erotic imagination. One’s virtual appearance could be enhanced by removing years and adding sexual endowments. Beyond the cosmetic, participants could switch genders or even create new hybrid beings too perverse to describe.[29] Some envision virtual sex with virtual objects that have no personal identity but are objects of sexual attraction, such as the long-dead but photographically omnipresent Marilyn Monroe. These sexual specters would be worked up through computer generation using photos, recordings, and animation. The simulation would be projected into the sex-suit of those willing to engage in pseudo-intimacy with an erotic nonentity wearing a (virtual) human body. Call it a case of high-tech, no touch, and low life.

This is a case of hyperreality, to use Baudrillard’s term, if there ever was one—all image and no referent. It may presage the possibilities of hyperreal sexual stimulation. Cultural critic Guy Ballard’s prediction in a 1970 interview may capture the mentality of many:

I believe that organic sex, body against body, skin against skin, is becoming no longer possible simply because if anything is to have any meaning for us it must take place in terms of the values and experiences of the media landscape.[30]

VIRTUAL VALERIE IN CD-ROM

The explosion of CD-ROM multimedia is providing another possibility for “interactive” sexual activities without personal relationship. Pornographic video clips, text, animation, and still shots are incorporated into environments that allow participants to set their own pace and orchestrate the goings-on by pointing and clicking through a variety of salacious scenarios. A best-selling CD-ROM in this genre is “Virtual Valerie,” on the market since 1990. The interaction of this forum aims at seducing Valerie, which is virtually assured.[31]

Virtual Valerie has several competitors, including a character called Donna Matrix, a “21st century Pleasure Droid,” who has been called “a cross between Madonna and Arnold Schwarzenegger.”[32] Again, we find a double-removal from reality. The image of Donna Matrix is that of a nonhuman, a “droid” or android; this is a simulation of a simulation with no original. Baudrillard’s “era of simulation” has arrived, accompanied by “a liquidation of all referentials.” This “is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”[33]

Another advertisement pulls no erotic punches. It needs to be quoted in full to be believed (and condemned).

Now You Can Have Your Own GIRLFRIEND(TM) . . . a sensual woman living in your computer! . . . You can watch her, talk to her, ask her questions, and relate to her. Over 100 actual VGA photographs allow you to see your girlfriend as you ask her to wear different outfits and guide her into different sexual activities. An artificial intelligence program with a 3,000 word vocabulary that GROWS the more you use it. She will remember your name, your likes and dislikes.[34]

Feminist critic Karen Coyle comments that “this is the ‘artificial intelligence’ version of the plastic blowup doll. A full relationship without having to involve another human being.” Computers become “the soulless companions that women are unable to be—obedient and unquestioning.”[35] There is more than a trace of misogyny creating the market for such a game. It offers a virtually perfect solution for the man who wants a woman with no mind and no life of her own. We should pity the men whose loneliness and desperation drive them to engage in a sexual game of virtual relationship, but we should also denounce the debauchery of sexual “interaction” with no one at home.

PORNOGRAPHY GOES ON-LINE

This brief tour of the cybersex possibilities brings a whole new technological meaning to Freud’s notion of polymorphic perversity. Perversity can morph (to use a popular computer term) into any number of forms through the medium of cyberspace. By contrast, the simple transmission of pornographic images over the Internet may seem tame. However, this (unlike virtual-reality sex) is already on the Net, provoking intense debate and triggering national legislation.

The cover of the July 3, 1995, issue of Time brought the issue of “cyberporn” into national view. A startled child about six years old is shown in front of a keyboard, his wide-eyed face eerily illuminated by the unseen screen. The article generated a firestorm of controversy, particularly concerning its mention of an eighteen-month study by Carnegie Mellon University that claimed 83.5 percent of the digitized images stored on Usenet newsgroups are pornographic and driven largely by a demand for images dealing with pedophilia, bestiality, sadomasochism, ad nauseum.[36] An article in the New York Times challenged the study as essentially bogus and estimated that pornographic images constitute only one half of 1 percent of the available images.[37] Others have also challenged the veracity of the statistics.[38]

Whatever the percentage of pornographic images might be, it is no surprise that our sex-crazed culture would traffic in on-line pornography. Wired magazine reports that of “the 10 most accessed links from the Whole Internet Catalog’s GNN Select,” seven are expressly sexual in nature.[39] A recent issue of Internet Underground prominently features advertisements for sexually-charged web pages where one can watch live strip shows, “access fetish films,” and interact with top “adult stars.”[40] Another site hawks such items as “hot pictures” and the “history of erotica.”[41]

Regardless of how prevalent on-line pornography may be, its acquisition is far simpler than in precyberspace days when voyeurs had to purchase or sample material from pornographic stores located in plain view in the real world. The fear of being exposed almost disappears when the material is available on-screen. These cyberporn sites are supposedly for “adults only,” but given the anonymity and deceptive possibilities of cyberspace, enterprising youths can and do make their way in.

This ease of access was sadly highlighted by the pseudonymous confessions of “the Flogmaster” in Internet Underground. This man rejoiced in the opportunities cyberspace afforded him to engage in the sadomasochistic (the word was never used, of course) fantasies that he formerly had to hide: “After years of guilty hiding I was now part of an anonymous society openly sharing interests and secrets that could not be expressed in any other forum.”[42] Notice the weird wording he uses: “an anonymous society” that “shares.” This poor soul is relieved that he can freely indulge his perverse desires without guilt; yet the only “society” in which it can be done must be anonymous. Self-deception drops to new depths, thanks to the on-line “community.”

Political debates rage over whether the distribution of erotic material should be criminalized. As of this writing, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which banned the distribution of indecent materials to minors, has been challenged in court as violating the First Amendment. Cyberlibertarians want unrestricted “free speech” on line, while cultural conservatives argue that pornography is dangerous, especially to children, and should be controlled just as any other hazardous substance should. Whatever the fate of the Telecommunications Act, cyberpornographers have, at times, been caught and prosecuted under existing laws. Robert Thomas, operator of the Amateur Action Bulletin Board Service in Milpitas, California, was convicted of sending images of women having sex with animals across the Internet to paying customers. Pulling in eight hundred thousand dollars in 1994, Thompson and his wife sold pornographic images from his stock of twenty-five thousand kinky photos. He was sentenced to three years in prison—presumably without benefit of a modem.[43] Thompson is hoping, though, that his case will make it to the Supreme Court.

In her newspaper column, Arianna Huffington rightly argues that the problem goes “far beyond indecency—and descends into barbarism,” because the indecent images offered in cyberspace include depictions of child molestation, bestiality, sadomasochism, and how to find sexual enjoyment by killing children.[44] Even if prudent restrictions on cyberpornography were in place (which I favor), they might be difficult to enforce. Yet, such prohibitions would make an important statement for decency. However, as with drug abuse, both the supply side and the demand side of the equation need to be addressed wisely.

WHAT CYBERSEX SAYS ABOUT THE SOUL

The cultural meaning of cybersex must be understood if we are to have any hope of addressing the tidal waves of change. Cybersex in its many forms ironically combines a Gnostic lust for disembodiment with a very earthy immersion in the flesh. Physical appetites seek gratification unencumbered by the drag of the physical body. Cybersex thus combines two defining aspects of pagan spirituality: the desire to transcend the material creation through mystical experience and the worship of sexual energies. This unstable alliance between the rejection of the body and the deification of erotic urges puts cybersex enthusiasts into a hopelessly conflicted dynamic. To use biblical language, they “worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25) while depreciating the physical world (1 Tim. 4:1-4; Col. 2:23).

By exalting one aspect of creation—the sex drive—and severing it from the rest of reality and God Himself, people end up debasing what they seek to worship. This is the perennial pattern of all idolatry: the simulated gods are not divine and are thus powerless to fulfill the deepest spiritual desires of their benighted creators. The prophet Jeremiah knew it all too well: “Can mortals make for themselves gods? Such are no gods!”(Jer. 16:20 NRSV). “They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves” (Jer. 2:5). While the technologies change, the impetus of idolatry remains constant.

If our culture’s sexual practices are already out of control, catapulting them into cyberspace will hardly bring order and prudence to the situation. Instead of learning to live responsibly as embodied persons with sexual identities, cyberspace beckons us to experiment in an artificial world of stimulation, simulation, and seduction. Cybersex is the erotic equivalent of playing “air guitar”—plenty of motion, passion, and pretense . . . but no music.

Michael Heim observes that “the computer network simply brackets the physical presence of the participants, by either omitting or simulating corporeal immediacy.” The “stand-in body reveals only as much of ourselves as we mentally want to reveal.” It “lacks the vulnerability and fragility of our primary identity. The stand-in self can never fully represent us. The more we mistake the cyberbodies for ourselves, the more the machine twists ourselves into the prostheses we are wearing.”[45]

Heim’s observation applies directly to the sexual posturings we have discussed. Two equally dangerous effects loom large. The first is a disorientation of one’s identity through becoming “the prostheses we are wearing.” Sexual identities assumed on-line may easily work their way into the real world. Those who dismiss on-line sexual activity as merely “a game” fail to take this seriously. Our thoughts shape our behavior, and an overstimulated imagination is a powerful impetus in everyday life. The imagination, like every one of our faculties, must be disciplined and directed by the good, the true, and the beautiful. This is especially crucial in the sexual dimension, where governance of one’s thoughts is an integral aspect of wisdom.

This criticism does not apply to the responsible use of e-mail, chat rooms, or bulletin boards to initiate relationships that do not terminate at the terminal or become reckless. One hears stories of people who connected (I cannot bring myself to say “met”) on-line, developed a more in-depth, written relationship, and finally met face-to-face for romantic purposes. In these cases, cyberspace is not a substitute for full-blooded and embodied real life, but contributes to it.

Just as romance has been cultivated through letters, so it can be pursued legitimately through cyberspace as well—as long as virtuality does not replace and usurp reality. For those who are awkward or shy in person, textual exchange on-line might serve as a warm-up for embodied encounter. Time reports that a reserved man named Dave Marsh spent four years communicating on-line with a woman named Audrey. He says, “Even though I’m the most private person you’d ever want to meet, I let my guard down right away [on-line].” In 1993, two years after meeting Audrey face-to-face, the two married.[46]

SEXUALITY: THE YES AND NO OF THE GOSPEL

In a category entirely different from cyberspace “pen pals” are cases of “virtual rape,” “virtual adultery” “virtual prostitution,” and so forth. The wrongness of these activities is plain if we heed the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ’Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:21-28). The disembodied sexual exchange practiced in cyberspace is even closer to physical sex than the activity of the solitary imagination described by Jesus. Our sensory field is more fully occupied and engaged and (at least in some cases) another person is actively involved, even if not bodily present. Furthermore, one might indulge illicit sexual predilections in the anonymity of cyberspace that one would be hesitant to act on in real life. This could serve as a bridge to more embodied immorality down the road.[47]

The essence of freedom, according to Christ, is the consecration of the entire self—heart, soul, and mind—to the love of God (Matt.22:37; John 8:31-32). The titillating exploration of sexual fantasies (in cyberspace or otherwise) fails to honor God; it diverts and dissipates energies meant for other purposes. The imagination, when undisciplined, can become a tyrannical ruler, overwhelming reason and restraint. This is why Pascal called it “the master of error and falsehood.”[48] James amplifies the principle of guarding the imagination: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15).

Paul has very much the same idea in mind when he presents himself as one who takes “captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In a justly famous passage on the stewardship of our awareness, Paul exhorts us to attend earnestly to matters of objective value and verity:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you (Phil. 4:8-9, NRSV).

The peace of God from the God of peace is promised to those who guard their minds from sensual immorality and focus instead on things worthy of sustained attention. In Proverbs we are exhorted, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23). David confessed, “I will set before my eyes no vile thing” (Ps. 101:3). Because of the perverted propensities of our fallen natures and the manifold temptations to “love the world and the things of the world” (1 John 2:15), we must learn to say “No” with authority, recognizing God as the Author of life and sexuality but not the author of sin. As Paul said to his friend Titus: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all [people]. It teaches us to say ’No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12).

The “No” of gospel obedience always presupposes the deeper “Yes” of Jesus Christ Himself: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). E. Stanley Jones, a prolific author and effective missionary to the East, understood this well: “Christianity means to say Yes to [Jesus’] Yes. Surrender to his will and you will be saying Yes to his Yes. The whole universe is behind it. You will walk the earth a conqueror, afraid of nothing.”[49]

The Yes to God is a Yes to being one flesh with one partner, a Yes to heterosexual exclusivity, a Yes to fidelity, and a Yes to chastity outside of marriage. Within the echo chamber of these resounding affirmations, their corresponding denials become both possible and desirable. Reflecting on his own long marriage, Christian social critic Jacques Ellul testifies in this way.

I believe that throughout life, in spite of descents and setbacks, only one love resists the wasting of time and the diversity of our desires. How poor and unhappy are those who have not been able to grasp it or live it out because they have not given their whole selves to this venture which is so much more uplifting than all the foolish passions and accommodations of sleeping around. Love of a single person is marvelously exclusive. This is the point of God’s statement in the Decalogue “I am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5) —not through weakness or in the sense of human jealousy, but because of his fullness which includes all things in itself.[50]

The hyperrealities of cybersex may seem heavenly in a twisted techno-Gnostic sense (at least for a time), yet, because they are detached from God’s ethical pattern for His creatures they are much more akin to hell. Simone Weil put it this way in a suggestive fragment: “Two conceptions of hell: the ordinary one (suffering without consolation); mine (false beatitude, mistakenly thinking oneself to be in paradise).”[51] Both conceptions of hell are true. Hell may begin with earth’s errant ecstasies (electronic or otherwise), but it does not end there for the unrepentant. One may gain much of what this cursed earth has to offer and lose one’s soul in the transaction. Jesus’ unanswerable question should reverberate throughout all of cyberspace:

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matt. 16:25-26, NRSV).

This article is excerpted from The Soul in Cyberspace (Baker Books), copyright 1997 by Douglas Groothuis.

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

NOTES:

1. This translation is taken from Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 2. [return]

2. G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954), 41. [return]

3. William J. Bennett, The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 46. [return]

4. Ibid., 47. [return]

5. Ibid., 68. [return]

6. Ibid., 58. [return]

7. Ibid., 59. [return]

8. Ibid., 50. [return]

9. Ibid., 52-54. [return]

10. See Ted Guest with Victoria Pope, “Crime Time Bomb,” U.S. News and World Report, 25 Mar. 1996, 28-36. [return]

11. Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 199. [return]

12. Ibid. [return]

13. Ibid., 200. I have never visited such places, so I take Dery’s and others’ word for the descriptions that follow. [return]

14. Ibid., 200. [return]

15. Ibid., 200-201. [return]

16. Ibid., 207-8. [return]

17. Ibid., 205. [return]

18. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993), 150. [return]

19. Ibid. [return]

20. Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 251. [return]

21. Anne Balsamo, “Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), 139. [return]

22. Turkle, 252. [return]

23. Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Village Voice, 2 Dec. 1993, 38; quoted in Dery, 206. [return]

24. On-line interview with Sherry Turkle on “Live! With Derek McGinty,” 2 May 1996 <http://www.discovery.com/DCO/doc/1012/world/tlive/chat5-2-96/turkle_trans.html>. [return]

25. Susan Margolis, “Virtual Reality Offers New Treatment of Phobias,” One Source, spring 1996, 11-12. [return]

26. Dery, 211. [return]

27. Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (New York: Summit Books, 1991), 346. [return]

28. Ibid. [return]

29. See Dery, 212. Paul’s statement “For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (Eph. 5:12) applies to these speculations. [return]

30. Quoted in Re/Search 8/9, 157; quoted in Dery, 192. [return]

31. See Dery, 209-10. [return]

32. Ibid., 210. [return]

33. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2. [return]

34. Quoted in Karen Coyle, “How Hard Can It Be?” Working Woman, July 1996, no page; book excerpt from Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace (Seattle: Seal Press, 1996). [return]

35. Ibid. [return]

36. Philip Elmer-Dewitt, “Cyberporn,” Time, 3 July 1995, 38-39. [return]

37. Peter H. Lewis, “New Concerns Raised Over a Computer Smut Study,” New York Times, 16 July 1995, National section, 22; cited in Dery, 207. [return]

38. See Thomas J. DeLoughry, “The ‘Data Geeks’ of the Internet,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 March 1996, 21ff. [return]

39. Garreth Branwyn, “Wired Top 10,” Wired, June 1996, 72. This list was compiled 12 March 1996. [return]

40. Internet Underground, July 1995, 79. [return]

41. Ibid., 77. [return]

42. The Flogmaster, “About Spanking,” Internet Underground, June 1996, 68. [return]

43. Wendy Cole, “The Marquis de Cyberspace,” Time, 3 July 1995, 43. [return]

44. Arianna Huffington, “Cyberspace Porn Diminishes Society,” Rocky Mountain News, 14 March 1996, 45A. [return]

45. Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 100-101. [return]

46. Jill Smolowe, “Intimate Strangers,” Time, spring 1995 (special issue), 21. [return]

47. See Turkle, Life on the Screen, 225-26. Turkle remains amoral on these implications. [return]

48. On the perverse powers of the imagination see Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 44/82, pp. 38-42. [return]

49. E. Stanley Jones, The Divine Yes (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1975), 22. [return]

50. Jacques Ellul, What I Believe (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 82. The essay from which this quotation comes, “Life Long Love,” is quite insightful in many places. [return]

51. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford (New York: Routledge, 1992), 72. [return]


original filename: CSM1134A.TXT
“Cybersex: Eroticism Without Bodies”
Release A, 11 November 1997

Copyright 1997 by Douglas Groothuis. This file may be reproduced on electronic media and communications services without charge or permission from the author(s), so long as the wording of the text remains unaltered. For additional information about our publications, please contact <http://www.cornerstonemag.com/> or write to: Cornerstone, 939 W. Wilson Ave., Chicago, IL 60640-5706, U.S.A.