Sex, Love, and 700,000 Strangers
A dive into Reddit’s mass discussion of sexuality and intimacy by Britney Summit-Gil.
Some children never get “The Talk.” Some schools believe good sex education means getting a group of embarrassed adolescents in a gender-segregated space to say, “Don’t do it.” Some adults reach their 30th birthday without ever having had an orgasm. And some folks want to know if people are weirded out by foreskin. Sex is mysterious, mundane, frightening, confusing, and blissful all at once. While many people are entirely comfortable with their bodies and sex lives, others are desperately trying to resolve the most intimate — and often distressing — quandaries all by themselves, stumbling through the dark.
In many ways, our society is quite sexually repressed. In other ways, it is less repressed than ever. Pornography is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Erotic literature is just a few clicks away. Scientifically, we know more about the biological workings of genitals and sex than ever before. And yet, we live in a culture that, by and large, restricts sex to the bedroom. Conversations about sex are everywhere and nowhere; mass media has become a central mode of sexual education — particularly pornography, many young people’s first significant exposure to sex — and yet we often find it impossible to talk about sex with close friends and family. The extent to which these taboos and repressions affect individuals varies widely; family upbringing, cultural norms, personal experiences, and the material reality of bodies in all their variety each play a role in our comfort level when it comes to exploring and understanding sex through dialogue with others.
Anonymous spaces online offer a unique opportunity to delve into some of our most personal questions and problems that we cannot figure out on our own, and that we are too uncomfortable to confront with those we know and love. One such space, Reddit’s r/sex community, consists of over 700,000 subscribers. The r/sex subreddit is a place for “civil discussions about all facets of sexuality and sexual relationships. It is a sex-positive community and a safe space for people of all genders and orientations” (r/sex sidebar description). Pornography, objectification, hate speech, and personal attacks are strictly prohibited. It is a well-moderated community that is largely polite and welcoming — those who are not usually get downvoted and chastised by other users. Overall, it’s a pretty friendly place for discussing any-and-everything related to sex.
For instance, one woman is wondering if partners like being “face-fucked” and grinded on during oral sex. Commenters gave a near unanimous, enthusiastic “Yes. Yes please.” Another man plans to take his girlfriend to a strip club at her request to receive a lap dance, but he is unsure how to make the experience as enjoyable as possible for her. He is unfamiliar with strip clubs: how much money should he bring? What should he expect? What are the rules? Commenters were excited for the young couple, and gave basic advice on how much they might spend, how different clubs have different prices and rules, and how to prepare for the experience emotionally through open and honest conversation.
Open communication is a key trope on r/sex. Because so much of the content is about deeply intimate problems or situations, particularly in monogamous relationships, the go-to advice for redditors is to tell their partner exactly how they feel, what they want, or what they are struggling with. The fact that so many users come to r/sex with problems that begin with a lack of communication, demonstrates just how difficult it is for many sexual partners to discuss their fears and desires, even when their partnership is otherwise healthy and happy. Further, the fact that so many members of the r/sex community emphasize communication as a foundational solution to issues of love and sex, reveals our ever-increasing understanding that sex is not merely a physical and emotional connection during the act, but a connection that precedes and follows the act itself.
The majority of popular pornography presents unrealistic sexual acts and environments: gorgeous apartments with starched white sheets, little to no conversation, perfectly made-up actors whose hair never gets mussed, men with enormous penises and unending stamina, and women who are up for anything, regardless of how degrading or potentially painful. This is true not only for cisgender heterosexual pornography, but for many other genres as well. While there are smaller markets for more artistic or realistic porn, such as “women friendly” porn or amateur porn, the majority of easily available and free porn sets unreasonable expectations for sex, and for many young people this is the first — perhaps the only — model of sex they are presented with during the most critical years of their sexual development.
r/sex is “sex positive” in the sense that it considers any sexual act, regardless of how deviant, healthy and enjoyable so long as all parties enthusiastically consent and no other parties are physically or emotionally harmed. Engaging in a sexual act with someone else while in a monogamous relationship and without informing your partner is largely condemned in the community. Having a cuckhold fetish is not. And when a fetish goes wrong — that threesome you were so excited about left you feeling devastated — the community is understanding and generous with advice. The fundamental ingredient to a healthy sex life that is missing from pornography — communication — is the thread that weaves together much of the discourse on r/sex.
While sex is obviously the central topic in this community, further examination reveals that love is almost as significant, if not more so, than individual sex acts, kinks, or health problems. So many of the posts on r/sex can be boiled down to “How do I show my partner that I love them and want them to be happy?” or, “How do I tell my partner that I love them but I am unsatisfied with our current sex life?” Of course, there are posts that are not about committed relationships or emotional intimacy. Questions about grooming habits, sharing experiences about the best lubricant, and the early explorations of fetishes that posters may find disturbing are also prominent on the subreddit.
In a world where the answer to nearly any question imaginable is a mere Google away, the very existence of r/sex, and other digital spaces like it, indicates something important about how we value interpersonal communication and human feedback. Questions about fetishes or marital problems in the bedroom are easily searched for, and hundreds of articles, Quora threads, and even past forum conversations are waiting to be found across the internet. The questions on r/sex are rarely so obscure or unique that an internet search would prove fruitless, and yet this impersonal mode of knowledge transmission can be deeply unsatisfying. Turning to a community of anonymous individuals who are experienced and caring resolves the dilemma of not being able to turn to those you know for advice, especially when you need a personal, human interaction that cannot be found through a search bar.
A smaller sex-related subreddit, r/DeadBedrooms, shares many of the characteristics of r/sex, but with a problem-solution oriented approach. This community, which is smaller than r/sex with just under 50,000 subscribers, is for people who are in committed relationships that are sexless and, often as a result or a contributing factor, are becoming loveless as well. These tend to be marriages, often with children involved, as other relationships are easier to leave when major sexual incompatibilities arise. Given the topic, r/DeadBedrooms contains some bitterness and negativity lacking from r/sex, as those seeking advice from r/DeadBedrooms are often desperate, angry, depressed, or otherwise suffering. The loss of sex, and the intimacy that accompanies that loss, may feel like a betrayal or a testimony to their personal failures as a romantic partner.
Because an entirely sexless, monogamous relationship that leaves a person miserable is often past the point of effective communication, many are advised to end the relationship. Once other means have been exhausted there is little left to salvage the partnership. This may result in extreme emotional stress, particularly when an unsatisfied partner has fond memories of a time when sex was plentiful and satisfying. Frequently the people who come to r/DeadBedrooms still love their partner and the notion of ending the relationship over sex seems unimaginable.
But what makes both communities similar and so important in a culture that continues to relegate sex to the screen or the bedroom is the free exchange of advice and support among compassionate human beings. One of the key elements of a community is this free exchange without the expectation of compensation or reward. This is how a forum of hundreds of thousands of users can behave like a community. When time and resources are contributed solely for the betterment of the community, an intimacy and sense of trust develops that rivals any offline social network. Anonymity, a state with the potential to bring out the worst in us, can also bring out the best in us. When we are free to make ourselves vulnerable without the fear of judgement or stigma, the rewards can be life changing. Both r/sex and r/DeadBedrooms are full of success stories, accompanied by sincere gratitude to the community for helping them overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. When a user comes to embrace their fetish without self-judgement and shame, or saves their marriage with the advice of a few anonymous people on the internet, a unique form of gratitude emerges. This is not the gratitude you feel toward a friend who helps you out of a tight spot, but a gratitude to a nebulous other who helps for no other reason than the betterment of the community and individual people’s lives.
Too often, we consider people more selfish than giving — more individualist than cooperative — but communities like these and many others show how willing we are to aid others simply for the sake of it, challenging the narrative of an innately selfish human nature. From users who contribute to wikis about a favorite book series to those who volunteer as suicide counselors, positive online communities demonstrate our capacity and desire to offer a great deal of time and resources to a cause without any expectation of material benefit. For topics like sex and love, these contributions become incredibly important given the shame and silence so often imposed on these basic human needs. Internet scholars such as Nancy Baym and Mary Chayko have written extensively on the significance of digital communities for finding a sense of belonging that often cannot be recreated offline.
Anonymity is often derided for its capacity to incite hatefulness, but it has just as much power to create intense human connections that can influence every aspect of our lives. For a 15-year-old young woman afraid of her attraction to much older men, anonymous advice from internet strangers can potentially save her life. “You are not a freak, this is perfectly normal. It is also unsafe to pursue relationships with men much older than yourself at this age. See if you can find a counselor, and never put yourself in a situation where you can be emotionally or physically harmed.” Where would this young woman turn for advice 20 years ago? She may not be able to rely on family or friends given the sensitivity of the topic and the risk of ridicule, or worse.
It is easy to demonize the internet for interfering with our offline social lives or creating echo chambers that have negative effects on our political discourse. In the wake of a massive, ongoing misinformation campaign online that has had enormous consequences around the globe, and two decades of fear of alienation and changing cognition caused by the internet, it is important to remember the anonymous 15-year-old who received potentially life-saving advice. And the 50-year-old-man who turned his marriage around. And the couple who decided, after receiving copious advice, that communication was the only thing that could prepare them to pursue a sexual fantasy without destroying their relationship. Not to mention the revelation that you should never put anything in your butt that can’t easily be removed.
Like any technology, there is the capacity for good and evil through digital communication. Both are often overstated: the internet is the savior of democracy, the sole cause of liberatory social movements, the threat that will make us all thoughtless sheep who can’t even read books, and the force behind the election of a dangerous and incompetent governing body. Just as Plato feared that writing would destroy the ancient Greek’s ability to learn, we have our own fears regarding changing sociality in an age of digitally mediated communication. These communities serve as a check on our cynicism, a reminder of the good in us, and the potential of the internet to make us better, kinder, and more loving.
Britney Summit-Gil is a writer living in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to the blog Cyborgology and her work has been featured in Real Life, Refinery 29, and The New Inquiry.