Technology and the Changing Face of Relationships
Modern technology affects virtually every aspect of human existence. For starters, the world is rapidly becoming a much smaller place. This is not to say that our planet is physically shrinking, it’s just that we can now travel from place to place more easily and affordably than ever before. And even if we’re not willing to hop into a car or onto an airplane we can still communicate almost instantly, IRL (in real time), with practically anyone, anywhere, at any time thanks to ever-evolving digital tools like computers, laptops, pads, smartphones, e-readers, and the like. Not surprisingly, this relatively recent and ever quickening onslaught of new technology has drastically changed the ways in which we view and value intimacy with our significant other, and even our ideas about what a “significant other” actually is.
Once upon a time, being in a serious relationship meant there was one person, often of the opposite gender, to whom you were physically and emotionally committed. Open relationships, casual sex, fetish sex, gay sex, and the like certainly existed, but these things were so far out of the mainstream that hardly anyone could grasp them as being healthy forms of intimacy, let along meaningful. Yes, the social liberalism movements of the 1960s and ’70s opened a lot of minds (and bedroom doors). But by the early 1980s free love more or less disappeared—banished by HIV and AIDS—as most folks scuttled like hermit crabs back into the safety of traditional, monogamous, hetero-normative partnerships.
Then we got the Internet.
With digital interconnectivity came chat rooms, dating sites, prostitution sites, and online pornography of every ilk imaginable. Suddenly fetishes, role-playing, homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestitism, prostitution, and many other sexual behaviors were out of the shadows and into the limelight—for people who were interested in those things, anyway. (And a surprising number of people were!) Nowadays, these and many other previously marginalized sexual and romantic activities are both more viable and more socially acceptable than ever—especially among young people. Prostitution is an obvious example. In today’s world, as long as the “meeting and greeting” takes place online rather than on a street corner, nobody seems too bothered by sex for pay. Exhibitionism is following a similar path. While it is still illegal and socially unacceptable to drive around in your car or hang out in public parks exhibiting your genitalia, that same behavior carried out via webcam is not only not illegal, it is commonplace and oftentimes even encouraged. (If you’re skeptical about that statement, log onto Chatroulette or any number of other video chat sites and see what happens.) So the “new” prostitute and the “new” exhibitionist are online. And why not, when they can engage in the exact same behaviors much more efficiently and with much less chance of arrest? In similar fashion, people predisposed to all sorts of other atypical sexual behaviors (some legal, some not) are finding their “place” online in ways they wouldn’t (or can’t) in the real world.
Polyamory: It’s Not Just for Mormons Anymore
One behavior that is quietly on the rise is polyamory—the experience of multiple people living, loving, and being sexual together. Young people, aware of safer sex practices and turned off by the concept of traditional marriage and divorce, are turning away from the old-school relationship models they see failing on an everyday basis—finding it easier and more realistic to meet their needs through alternative relationships. Gary, a bisexual 26-year-old, explains:
I moved in with Emma after college, even though I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted. I figured moving in was easier and more reasonable than getting married. As it turns out, we really love living together. About two years into our relationship I met Kenny at my gym, and we started up a sexual relationship. I told Emma about it. And she took it really well. Honestly, she wasn’t surprised since I’d told her on our first date that I’m bisexual. (Her response was to laugh and say, “Me too.”) What came out of my affair with Kenny was that Emma and I decided to open up our relationship. We could both be sexual outside the partnership as long as we were safe and didn’t keep what we were doing a secret. Since that time, both of us have fallen in love more than once, and a couple of times we’ve actually had another person living with us. When Megan, our daughter, was born last year we were actually a foursome—three women and myself, all of us bisexual. One of those women has moved on, so now we’re back to three, and this feels like a good arrangement.
Certainly polyamory is not without its problems. For starters, there is the complicated relationship dynamic to deal with. Occasionally either Gary or Emma has wanted to bring a third (or fourth) party into the relationship that the other did not like. A couple of times they tried it, with poor results, so now they both have to “sign off” on someone moving in, and this solution seems to work for them. They also worry that their daughter Megan might be treated differently at school and elsewhere because of the lifestyle her parents have chosen. They further worry that they will be left out of traditional parental socialization and that their family unit will be frowned upon in the community. Yet despite these and other concerns, living and loving “commune style” has come back into, if not vogue, at least sporadic acceptance.
So Should We All Just Move In Together?
The fact that today’s young people have never known a world without HIV or the Internet means they are educated about safe ways to engage in sex, and they are adept at finding people with similar interests, such as polyamory, through the use of digital technology. And it’s not just polyamory that’s on the rise. Whatever digital natives are into, they’re finding it online—everything from chubby chasers to cigar lovers to “infants” to standard BDSM enthusiasts. Because of this, they are engaging in all sorts of digital and in-person relationships, both short- and long-term. Mostly, however, they are enthusiastic about the burgeoning digital hookup culture—built on smartphone apps like Skout and Blendr—which takes the hard work (and much of the mystery) out of meeting and wooing potential partners. Get in, get off, get out, and get on with your life.
Obviously, polyamory, fetish cultures, and casual hookups are not for everyone. Nevertheless, human sexuality and relationship formation cuts a wide swath in the wilderness of life. There have always been many paths to follow, and the Internet is not inventing or presenting anything new. Instead, it is simply illuminating a few of the roads less traveled. And for reasons far too numerous to list many people, especially younger individuals, are at least temporarily checking out these potentially more scenic paths. This is neither right nor wrong. It’s just different. The short- and long-term effects of this new, tech-driven attitude toward non-traditional relationships and evolving forms intimacy are at this point unknown. It seems likely that intimacy is still intimacy, but the way we get there, and who we get there with, may well be changing with advancements in modern digital technology.