Discussions about online sex often make it sound like the “dark side” of the internet.
But this isn’t the whole story. Our new study looks at how Australians use technology in their sex lives and the many benefits of this.
A regular part of life
We recently conducted a survey of Australian adults (ages 18 years or older).
The study involved 445 people, with an average age of 42. More than half were women (58.5 per cent), and 61 per cent identified as heterosexual.
We found digital media was a common part of people’s sex lives.
60 per cent had watched porn online35 per cent had used dating apps34 per cent had sent sexual texts or naked selfies to another person.
People also reported how digital technology benefited their sex lives and relationships.
38 per cent felt more emotionally connected to their partners27 per cent felt more sexually connected with their partners31 per cent said they found it sexually gratifying to share or receive sexual text messages with someone they met online.
Others reported using the internet to find information about relationships or sexual health.
54 per cent said information they found online had helped them feel more comfortable about sex49 per cent said the internet had enabled them to explore new or different sexual cultures.
Yes, there are risks
That being said, while reporting many benefits, participants were also aware of risks of sexual activity or communication online.
59 per cent agreed sharing naked or explicit images or videos could cause them embarrassment51 per cent agreed online sexual engagement could cause them problems in the workplace51 per cent were worried their search history could be seen by others if they searched for pornography24 per cent were worried about providing personal contact details when shopping for sex products online.
What is happening in Australia?
In 2021, federal Parliament passed the Online Safety Act, expanding the eSafety Commissioner’s powers to combat cyberbullying and image-based abuse.
The commissioner can now demand that social media services, hosting services providers and individuals remove online material deemed to be harmful, dangerous or abusive within as little as 24 hours.
This is an important step in improving digital safety given the global, unregulated nature of the internet.
However, there are serious concerns these expanded powers will lead to restrictive acts, prohibiting consensual online sexual activity or information.
It could also make safe sex education material more difficult to access.
Current eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says she will use the new powers to target child exploitation material and is not interested in policing the sexual interests of consenting adults.
Nevertheless, the potential exists for such assurances to shift over time, or as a new appointee fills the position.
Why does this matter?
Decades of research show sexual health education is most effective if it teaches sex should be pleasurable.
The same can be said for digital sexual literacy. Education about online safety will be most effective if discussions about risk occur in the context of sex in the digital world being a broadly positive thing.
How do we balance risk and pleasure?
Our findings add to the growing body of research that shows how the internet and digital technologies can benefit relationships and sex lives.
These are places where people explore their sexuality, learn about sex, and engage with diverse communities.
It can also be a space to facilitate conversations about consent, safety and sexual health.
Managing digital risk should not be about sanitising the internet but supporting people’s choices.
Nicole Shackleton, PhD candidate; Research Officer, Australian Research Centre for Sex Health and Society, La Trobe University; Anne-Maree Farrell, Professor of Law and Director of the Mason Institute, University of Edinburgh, and Jennifer Power, Associate Professor and Principal Research Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University