Sex

From Coming Out To Getting It On: How The Internet Is Transforming Sex and Sexuality

For young New Zealanders, the internet is making up for what sex education lacks.
September 28, 2017, 1:52am
Illustration by Ashley Goodall

This article is supported by Durex's Sexual Health Education Month. In this series, we explore Kiwi sexual behaviour.

Gone are the days of getting your sex education from the sealed section of Dolly or those embarrassing (yet oddly arousing?) books your mum left by your bed. The internet has changed the way we interact with sex and sexuality, from apps that let us hook up with strangers to online safe spaces.

The internet can be a fantastic tool that gives us access to a bunch of information about sex and sexuality we might not have otherwise been provided with, says Dr Pani Farvid, an expert in contemporary intimate relationships and a senior psychology lecturer at AUT.

"Because of a lack of adequate sex education in schools and our general unwillingness as a culture to talk openly and frankly about sex and sexuality, the internet has provided young Kiwis with an alternative source of information."

It's likely the internet has given most of us a literal and/or figurative helping hand when it comes to sex, but it's been instrumental to one particular community.

"The internet defines the social scene for queer young people in Aotearoa right now," says Breaking Boundaries co-founder Joni Nelson.

"I met queer people online before I knew queer people even existed around me. That's where I found my first sense of community."

Through Breaking Boundaries, Joni runs creative events for young queer people. She says although the internet isn't a perfect place, it has been invaluable in giving young people a safe space for discussion around sexuality and gender, and opportunities to socialise beyond gay club nights.

"I'm constantly amazed by queer people younger than me. They have so much knowledge and language for these things, which is largely due to the increasing accessibility of the online world."

For Tash, 24, who identifies as non-binary, the internet is essentially a bible for queer sex education.

"There was literally nowhere to find information about sex for people like me before the internet existed, and practically no visible models for healthy attitudes towards sex and relationships for queer people."

Tash started using the internet as a teenager, not only as a source of information, but as a safe space to explore and come to terms with their sexual identity. "I think internet culture holds a very important place in the hearts of anyone who identifies as LGBTQIA+. When I was growing up it was definitely a safe haven where I could interact with other people of similar sexualites."

Tash met their first group of queer friends, as well as their high school girlfriend, through a network of teen bloggers in Auckland, and got most of their sex education from sites like Autostraddle and Tumblr. "At the ripe old age of 24, I still use Tumblr to source my collection of porny GIFs. Eight years of smutty blogs and I've never looked back."

Although online information about queer sex culture was somewhat limited when they started having sex, Tash says this contributed to a more natural sexual awakening—learning through exploration, rather than what they had read on the internet.

"I feel that I learned to have sex in a very pleasurable and organic way, compared to some of my straight peers who were able to access all these sex-laden internet resources—especially concerning porn."

The online culture around queer sexualities is, in Tash's opinion "one of the most significant tools of visibility that gives the queer community confidence to express and explore who we are and what we would like to do with our partners."

There are downsides as well. For Molly, 28, who would technically refer to herself as pansexual but prefers not to put a label on it, the internet can sometimes do more harm than good.

"I think that, despite a lot of productivity and inclusion and exposure, a lot of the discourse I see about gender identity out there is really harmful. Overzealous and very finite. I see people being forced to come out to participate in conversations, and that just really fucks me up. I hate it," she says.

"I think we all need to be about 5000 percent more understanding of each other, particularly online, where everything lives forever and all kinds of monstrosities can be inferred. It's just not the "safe space" we say we're creating at all."

But for Jesse, 23, the internet has made it safer and easier to come out and live as a young gay man.

"When I told my older sister I was gay, she was so happy that she sent me all these links to videos of people coming out to their parents and friends, which made me realise that there was this whole community around it. Like, watching Tom Daley coming out on YouTube was such a boost of confidence because he was one of my idols."

When Jesse began exploring his sexuality in his teens, he relied on the internet for information about how to deal with the emotional side of things, but it was gay porn that taught him about sex. "I was still trying to be straight but it allowed me to explore my fantasies in a safe way."

Now out, Jesse uses Grindr and Squirt on a regular basis. He's glad social media wasn't as prominent when he was in high school—the bullying was bad enough—but says for gay men, the social implications of the internet have been mostly positive.

Before dating apps were a thing, Jesse found it difficult to hook up. "I only had one gay experience as a teenager where me and another guy just wanked each other off, but I felt so dirty and bad about it afterwards. It wasn't until I started using the internet properly that I realised it was okay to want to do those things with other guys."

Jesse still remembers the feeling of hope he had while streaming Parliament TV to watch the marriage equality bill pass in 2014.

"The internet has definitely made it easier to have sex, but, for me, it has also amplified the LGBTQIA+ rights movement."

Toni Duder, Communications Manager at Rainbow Youth, knows what it's like to struggle with your sexual identity in isolation. She grew up in the small Northland town of Dargaville, where it was pretty lonely to be a questioning kid, and has made it her mission to help kids in rural communities.

"If you're stuck [out there] all the time and the only connection and identity formation you can do is on the internet, then you need to have that because it can honestly save lives."

This was the experience for Madeleine*, 29, who grew up in a small town and felt like a total outsider.

"About 10 years ago, when I was fresh out of high school, I felt queer and kinky, but didn't know anyone else who was queer and kinky."

She started reading sex blogs, and came to understand her sexuality through online erotic fiction and BDSM porn. Madeleine later started exploring these things IRL and writing about it on an anonymous blog. "Sharing my experiences online, particularly of BDSM, connected me with an international kink community and was the most useful sounding board and educator I found."

"Our school sex ed was all about disease and pregnancy prevention, and nothing about masturbating, pleasure or communication."

A decade on, it seems not much has changed. "Our sexual health education in New Zealand is pretty average," says Dr Farvid. "It's late, it's brief, and so a lot of young people are turning to pornography to learn the ins and outs of sex, the practicalities of it."

Sex education should be about giving young people the information they need to make positive choices when the time comes, says Dr Farvid, who believes the government is not prioritising sexual health as much as it should.

"There are so many organisations in New Zealand doing great work in this area, but it's the government's responsibility to feed that information through the school system."

The internet has proved to be a handy tool for cis heteros too. Think Tinder, OMGYes, and articles like 'Sex Positions for Small Penises'.

Scott*, 18, says signing up to Tinder earlier this year has definitely helped him get laid more often than he used to. "It's definitely made it easier to seek out casual sex as a single, that's for sure. And there's heaps of lol as memes on Facebook about being single that remind you you're not alone in your singledom."

He watches porn occasionally, but only if it's not "the overacted sexist stuff".

"Ironically, I think it's actually through the internet, like social media, that dudes have come to realise that sort of porn is not realistic and is pretty degrading to chicks."

For the most part, mainstream heterosexual porn is misogynist, racist, and sexist, says Dr Farvid, and while the internet has been helpful in highlighting gender and power issues around sexuality, she says it's crucial that young New Zealanders get the education they need to navigate pornography in an ethical and healthy way.

A 2013 study by the Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication, The Internet in New Zealand, found a much higher proportion of men than women look at sites containing sexual content, especially within the 16-30 age group. But for Kim*, 26, porn has been an integral part of learning to love herself and her body.

With a lack of sex education at school, Kim was left to do her own research. "I was subjected to Catholic schooling and thus my only sex ed was abstinence, abstinence, abstinence."

The internet has allowed her to harness her own sexuality—"straightish"—with the help of sex education blogs and sites like PornHub. "They have this great category called 'For Women' where I'm less at risk of being confronted by women being sexually degraded. I definitely found myself trying to emulate the cheesy moans and sultry moves when I was younger and eager to please."

We're in a slow transition towards accepting women as sexual subjects—and not in a way that's passive or only responsive to male sexuality, says Dr Farvid.

"The movement towards an understanding that women have a sexual desire and a right to sexual pleasure and to have sex in whatever form that may take is a really positive one, and the internet has helped that diversification, we just have to be careful that this idea is not co-opted by sexist ideals that end up prioritising men's desires."

The internet is by no means a perfect place but for young New Zealanders it has become an empowering tool for embracing sex and sexuality, so let's celebrate that.

If you relate to any of the issues raised in this article, know that help is out there. If you are in New Zealand you can call nationwide organisation OUTLine on 0800 688 5463 (weekdays 10am-9pm, weekends and holidays 6-9pm).

This article is supported by Durex's Sexual Health Education Month. You can find out more info about it here .

*Names changed on request