American Polyintimacy in the 90s and the Internet

by Green Onions

The Dawn of Free Love?

Despite the fears articulated by many social conservatives, the internet will probably not lead to dramatic changes in the manner in which middle class Americans interact in the physical realm. I believe this will be the case even in the highly unlikely event that the problems of satisfactory birth control and those of sexually transmitted diseases are adequately addressed by scientific advances in the next few decades. My view is that the traditional institution of (monogamous) marriage will be strengthened rather than weakened by the internet.

Most interactions between members of the opposite gender on the internet are relatively simple. People meet in a chat room or via a personals ad, and then they start conversing. They might eventually enjoy sharing a number of intimate details of one another's lives. Perhaps they might trade erotic material or emotional insight of various sorts. Or their libidos may be so heightened by the pursuit of `cybersex' that they subsequently seek out the attention of their spouse. Alternatively the experience of talking candidly with members of the opposite gender may promote a deeper understanding of their relationship with their spouse.

Polyintimacy in the 90s often amounts to the sharing of intimate matters, affection, and the ability to frankly discuss questions of gender, sexuality and relationships in a context free from the prying ears and judgmental attitudes of onlookers as well other myriad risks associated with physical interactions. Very few people actually end up forming alliances (or engaging in dalliances) that play themselves out in the physical realm. But unlike other forms of polyintimacy, the explicit consent of everyone who might be consulted is rarely obtained. My impression is that a large number of married people with on-line lovers or intimate "'netfriends" have not disclosed the existence of these relationships to their spouses.

Of course a few instances of virtual social intercourse ultimately lead to physical sexual contact. Frankly this doesn't worry me because I am not at all certain that such events are--on balance--harmful to the fabric of society. In some instances these rare physical interactions resulting from virtual contact might provide a kind of `spillway' that keeps marriages together. In other cases perhaps a better analogy might be to a hole in a dike that was doomed to burst in any event.

But socially-prohibited adultery is as old as socially-enforced monogamy and I have no reason to believe that there is a significantly greater amount of the former due to the internet. It is interesting to observe that the frequency of divorce in the U.S. appears to be slowly dropping, despite the fact that internet usage continues to rise at a remarkable rate. (However both these trends are influenced by so many factors that it is difficult to make the case for any significant causal linkage.)

Even if one views the small fraction of extramarital (physical) sexual interactions resulting from the internet as a significant harm, there is an important countervailing benefit. Men and women who have always been traditionally unable to share intimate conversation except in the rarest of circumstances now have the opportunity to learn a great deal more about their own sexual and emotional makeup, their spouses and their marriages, as well as gain valuable experience in interacting with members of the opposite gender outside of the traditional social environments in which there are strong penalties for violating certain norms.

Rather than facilitating the advent of `free love,' I might describe the internet as heralding the dawn of relatively risk-free communication about sex, love, and relationships. In the overwhelming majority of cases what occurs is nonphysical and/or nonsexual contact that satisfies critical needs that the institution of marriage often leaves unfulfilled.

The internet allows American middle class men and women to exchange support, affection and gain mutual understanding in a manner that could never be even crudely approximated via other forms of interaction. In doing so it strengthens rather than weakens most marriages by increasing the sexual and emotional sophistication of one or both partners. Perhaps the internet--along with other laudable improvements in American society--may also eventually have a significant positive impact on the manner in which the genders conceptualize themselves and each other.

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