Deep down, almost all of us are voyeurs, obsessed with the things that other people get up to when they're in private. The biggest thing we're all fascinated by is—of course—sex. I'm not just talking the obvious stuff here, like online porn, cruising Chatroulette, or whatever you own personal poison is.
I'm talking actual, human sex. The type of sex your neighbors, that cute guy in your office, or (god forbid) your parents, are having. Real intercourse, with wet patches and faked orgasms and skid marks on the sheets.
Now you can read about the sex lives of regular, ordinary people online. Call it online exhibitionism, crowdsourced confessionalism, or just plain humblebragging; new websites like The Casual Sex Project, Slop Sandwich and How To Make Me Come (HTMMC) let visitors read about the sex other people are having, as well as sharing their own experiences anonymously. We reached out to their founders to find out what the turn-on is for their followers, which number in the hundreds of thousands.
In the case of HTMMC, each Tumblr post is a personal essay explaining how one woman reaches orgasm. The anonymous founder of HTMMC, Sylvia, told me that she set up the site " to create a platform for women to discuss all the things they wanted to say about orgasm and sex and dating, but could not. Things that are difficult to say to a partner or even a trusted friend."
On The Casual Sex Project, people write about their casual sex experiences by answering questions (How long ago did this hook-up happen? How/where did the hook-up begin? What led to it? Was planning involved? Who instigated it?), while their responses are sorted into categories (short fling/group sex/sex with an ex/other). Founder Dr Zhana Vrangalova set up the site to consolidate her academic research—she's a professor at New York University, where she teaches human sexuality.
"We wanted to provide a space for people to have honest conversations about casual sex. We talk about casual sex a lot, and it's always very black and white. 'Don't do it, it's terrible,' or, 'It's the greatest thing ever, and everyone should be on Tinder.' From my academic research, it was becoming clear to me that there's so much diversity in what casual sex is. We wanted to create a space where people could showcase that."
Slop Sandwich, whilst not exclusively a website about sex, invites contributors to write nonfiction personal essays based on humiliating and bizarre episodes in their lives. Which means you're going to get a lot of sex stories, as nothing is more inherently humiliating or bizarre than the act of fucking.
Although women's magazines have been giving us sex tips since before the Internet was a thing, the level of explicit detail and diversity of experiences on both HTMMC and TCSP would probably shock your average woman's mag reader.
Despite all of these sites having been launched in the last six months, they are already hugely popular. Dr Vrangalova told me that The Casual Sex Project receives around 100,000 unique visitors and 700,000 unique views a month, with a total of 1300 stories submitted from over 100 countries in the five months since it launched. HTMMC reports over 1.5 million page views since its August launch, and Sylvia told me she's struggling to keep up with the volume of email submissions.
Our cardinal rule is that you don't cheapen or humiliate other people.
All the sites have editorial policies. "Our cardinal rule is that you don't cheapen or humiliate other people," says Spencer, the co-founder of Slop Sandwich. Fellow co-founder Meghan added, "We're not looking to feature stories that are about that hot chick you totally scored with and now you're writing about her in a way that makes her look like the fool for going home with you. There's nothing interesting or compelling about that, and also that's not a story about you, that's a story about what you think about that woman."
Over at The Casual Sex Project, Dr Vrangalova says that "there seems to be a community of guys out there [who keep] posting rape fantasies. It's always the same kind of story, so the girl's not into it, and then the guy keeps pushing her, either verbally or with force, and then the girl starts having these crazy orgasms and has anal sex for the first time and has anal orgasms and comes like twenty times. And we're like, 'This isn't okay, and we're not going to post this online.'"
Dr Vrangalova recently surveyed her readers to find out why they visited her site. Unsurprisingly, the most common reason is that people want to know what sort of sex other people are having. Another factor was that reading about other people's sex lives helped people make sense of their own sex lives—the whole, "oh, so other people like that too, it's not just me" aspect.
"A few thrusts in the beginning were great, but it quickly fell sour. He got sooooo tired and gave up. Did he not know how to have sex from this position??? What was he tiring so quickly from? Perhaps he needs to get his metabolism levels checked out...He got back on his back and we finished with me on top, as we had countless of times before. I did not come. Right before we fell asleep, he started playing with my breasts. 'Ahhh, look at your little titties!'" — We Hadn't Even Started Having Sex Yet and I Was Already Exhausted from HTMMC
If you're nervous about telling your fuck buddy that you don't like their technique, visiting HTMMC can reassure you that you're not alone. If nothing else, it's a good way for people to pick up sex tips to try at home—something Sylvia is more than aware of. "There are a lot of possible takeaways for the reader, and if a tip from an essay leads to an exciting, satisfying sexual experience, then that's fantastic! Often they [magazine articles] lack the range of perspectives and comprehensiveness I crave. HTMMC is more information from more women."
Beyond sex tips, many stories are great reads: Heartbreaking, funny, erotic, or all three. "Our ultimate mission is to help people lighten up, unwind, and be able to laugh at themselves in a healthy way," Spencer said. It's basically impossible not to cry-laugh when reading "I Lost My Virginity to a Cat" (note to animal rights activists: no cats were harmed.)
But the question of why people would share their messiest, most vulnerable, fucked-up shit online for a community of strangers to unpick is a good one. Bragging about your sexual encounter with a hot nurse—I get that. What was surprising about HTTMC in particular, and The Casual Sex Project to a lesser extent, was how many people were sharing experiences of abuse. Of rape, or at least coercion. Of truly terrible sex; of long-term relationships turned abusive, of long-term relationships that were always abusive, or of partners either indifferent to or actively antagonized by the sexual needs of their female partners.
People don't feel comfortable sharing things with others, especially certain types of sex. But a lot of people really cherish and love those sexual experiences.
Occasionally abusive stories can end positively. In one HTMMC entry, we meet a 16-year-old girl whose boyfriend tells her that he will dump her unless she has sex with him. She acquiesces. The abuse degenerates further. "Eighteen and my boyfriend grabs my arm hard and yanks and pulls my hair into places I don't want to go," she writes. After the relationship ends, she meets a "boy who thinks I am wonderful... When we touch, I don't hurt, I don't fear, I don't worry about what will happen after. I can relax, soften, melt down all the jagged edges of my psyche into something that lets tremors run through me when I orgasm."
Confessionalism is said to be one of the truly distinct American literary traditions. The new sex confessionalism online fits into a tradition of poets like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman—authors who "removed the mask", in the words of critic ML Rosenthal, to expose painful and personal experiences that were often taboo. In doing so, they made sense of them. It's also a newer, crowdsourced relation of websites like Nerve.com and, more recently, Adult (which is also a print magazine) that prioritize the depiction of real-life sex in all its gloriously messy forms.
According to HTMMC founder Sylvia, writing about a significant sexual experience in your life can be therapeutic. "People are itching to talk about the highs and lows of their sexual life because it can often feel like there's never a totally appropriate forum to voice these feelings and experiences. I've been thinking a lot about how sometimes the hardest person to talk to about sex can be the person you're having sex with."
Most guys normally try to pleasure their partner but like honestly he just wanted to put his dick in me. Acted like it was great, kept asking if I was ready before he'd go at it. It was just a bit creepy, like he tried to make it sexy but it just didn't work. — I Don't Know What Happened from The Casual Sex Project
Another factor is social isolation, Dr Vrangalova explains. "Say if you're having an affair, or you come from a conservative community, there might not be anyone to share your stories with who isn't going to be judgmental. So [posting anonymously online] is a way to write about your experiences, and in the act of doing so, make sense of them."
"It's being driven by the fact that it's so easy to share things anonymously online now. And sex is still this big taboo. People don't feel comfortable sharing things with others, especially certain types of sex. But a lot of people really cherish and love those sexual experiences—and if they are negative, feel traumatized still by them. So we need to talk about them. To make sense of the experiences."
I wanted to start a dialogue about how women achieve sexual pleasure, and I wanted to display the spectrum of desire.
Of course, not everything you read online is true. Almost every major psychological survey of people's sex lives finds women and men lie about sex to match gender expectations. One 2015 study from Texas State University found that 60 percent of participants had, at some point, lied about their previous number of sexual partners. "There is something unique about sexuality that led people to care more about matching the stereotypes for their gender," said Terri Fisher, a psychology expert at Ohio State University. In her 2013 study, women were found more likely to under-report their total number of sexual partners out of fears of social acceptability. Men, however, typically over-report their number of conquests.
Given that people lie about sex, we might ask ourselves how much of the new sex confessionalism we read online is true. While acknowledging she has to trust what she is given is true, Sylvia says, "I have never received a piece that struck me as fake." Dr Vrangalova agrees. "I'm sure there are stories there that aren't true, but we have no way to verify that. So take everything with a grain of salt!"
I climbed on top of Lena (literally climbed), steadily aimed my ship's trajectory and then, like that harrowing scene from Apollo 13, slowly docked my Command Ship into her Lunar Module. We made contact! ... In and out, we slowly began having sex. Wow, so this is it? I briefly peeked out of one eyelid and looked down. Lena was visibly bored." — I Lost My Virginity to a Cat from Slop Sandwich
Perhaps the fact that these sites are anonymous can help counterbalance the tendency for men and women to lie about sex. When reading the stories on HTMMC or TCSP, it's possible that they are bogus—but they don't feel "off". Maybe it's because the level of detail is pitched just right—a stray phone rings just as a couple are getting down to it, which "just absolutely ruined the entire moment." Or a guy agrees to a "pity fuck" then, at the moment of penetration, "I lost my erection. This was distressing for both of us as we both wondered what was wrong with us for that to happen. Looking back, I see that it's just because I didn't want it to happen."
Talking openly and honestly about sex—even if it is anonymously—has a feminist aspect, too. As Dr Vrangalova explains, "There is no one experience of casual sex, it really depends on a lot of different things. People often think for example that women don't like it or can't have sex without getting emotionally attached. But there are so many stories on here from women describing experiences that are often mind-blowing, or life-changing. And I'm really glad to see that positive representation of casual sex from women, to help challenge some of the myths [around casual sex]."
Read More: Pulling Out Is as Effective as Using Condoms
Even talking about female orgasm is itself a political act. Between 1998 and 2007, over $1.5 billion in state and federal US government funds have been spent on abstinence-only education, even though studies have shown that comprehensive sex education doesn't encourage people to start having sex younger, or more frequently. Meanwhile, Advocates for Youth reports that one in five teens experience some kind of abuse in a romantic relationship, with girls who experience dating violence being are "having sex earlier than their peers, less likely to use to birth control and more likely to engage in a wide variety of high-risk behaviors." Female sexual desire has historically been ignored or devalued systematically in our society, but sites like HTMMC and its associates may help change this.
"I wanted to delve into the real female orgasm experience," Sylvia says. "I wanted to start a dialogue about how women achieve sexual pleasure, and I wanted to display the spectrum of desire...[And] I've been really moved, myself, to read these stories. My heart breaks for the women who experience abuse, something that can manifest itself in many ways. And I so appreciate the candour and rawness that is expressed in these essays."
"If HTMMC has any message, it's, 'Speak up.' Speak up when things are good. Speak up when things are bad. Sometimes, voicing how you feel can seem next to impossible, but I want people to feel empowered to start communicating."