Can online sex bridge the connection gap?

Social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for people keen to explore physical intimacy. Is virtual sex enough – or do we need to be touched?

About three months into lockdown in the UK, 26-year-old student Emma signed into a Zoom meeting with a group of people she’d only ever met through online chats. Organised by Killing Kittens, a company that, pre-Covid-19, hosted in-person sex parties with an emphasis on women’s empowerment, the “virtual house party” kicked off with drinking games. It was unlike anything she’d ever attended.

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“We played ‘Never Have I Ever’,” she says, “and [the organisers] asked us questions like, ‘Which celebrity would you most like to see at a Killing Kittens party?’.” It got attendees talking about their fantasies and preferences – a smooth segue into the less structured part of the evening, during which some participants “removed clothing”, says Emma. “It was just a really good, quite sexy interaction with other people.”

It was the kind of connection Emma had been craving. With her one housemate staying with family, and having lost her job in March, Emma has spent much of the pandemic physically isolated. “There were points at which it got quite lonely,” she says.

Though she’d attended sex parties in the past, Emma had only just joined Killing Kittens in November 2019. “I was a little nervous to get properly involved,” she says, and when the pandemic hit, she worried she’d missed her chance. Instead, she joined one of Killing Kittens’s singles chat groups and started making close friends, which made her feel comfortable enough to try a virtual party on for size.

During the pandemic, social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for both individuals and couples hoping to explore physical intimacy. While recreating the tactile experience of sex online isn’t straightforward, virtual experiences – from dirty-talk Zoom workshops to sex parties like the one Emma attended – have helped fill the intimacy-shaped void felt by so many. To a certain extent, at least. For attendees and organisers, online sexual encounters can ‘mimic’ in-person experiences and offer much-need psychological relief, but there’s no direct replacement for physical touch.

However, beyond just acting as a stand-in for sex during the pandemic, these virtual experiences may also be showing us what’s important in intimacy writ large – both while we’re in isolation and once we can touch each other again.

Discovering digital intimacy

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Many people have found ways to date and form relationships online almost a year into the pandemic. Dating apps like Bumble now allow users to specify whether they prefer “virtual only” or “socially distanced” dating. According to a Bumble representative, in-app video calls increased by 42% in May 2020 compared to March before the lockdown.

However, simulating a first date via video chat is a far cry from simulating sexual experiences via the internet. Key elements, most notably physical touch, do not have a simple online substitute.

People are still getting almost intimate. In October, the hard-seltzer company Basic polled 2,000 single under 35-year-olds in the United States and discovered that 58% had engaged in virtual sex during the pandemic. 77% did so with someone they’d never had sex with before. Per a Bumble survey of 5,000 UK singles, 32% said “digital intimacy” was important in a relationship “both during lockdown and when measures lifted”.

There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched – Emma

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Virtual sex parties, educational Zoom workshops, remotely controlled sex toys, and simply engaging in sex-positive communities have proven to be both sexually fulfilling and antidotes to physical intimacy for Emma and others who have dabbled in online sexual encounters in the last year. “There’s a lot of sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched,” Emma, a “exhibitionist,” says.

Furthermore, watching real couples have sex is not the same as watching pornography. It’s personal, and so are the connections Emma’s made in these sex-positive spaces. She and the other single attendees have formed “tight bonds” because “we all shared this experience on a very similar level,” she says.

David owns and operates the adult lifestyle club Le Boudoir in London. The month of October When he began hosting virtual sex parties alongside other London lifestyle clubs such as Purple Mamba, he noticed first-time attendees behaving similarly to how they would in physical spaces. They’re initially hesitant to virtually chat with others instead of huddling in the corner, but “you can literally see them warm throughout the evening,” says David.

These events, like Killing Kittens, begin with icebreakers and performances (such as erotic dancers) to get people in the mood. The progression of the parties appears to be very realistic. “That’s technology imitating real life,” he continues.

The element of safety

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The online nature of these events also expands attendee demographics, so they span more locations, age ranges and experience levels.

People attend Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s events from Israel, South Korea, Australia and the US. A party that starts on Saturday evening, UK time can roll into evening on the US’s East Coast and across America. Killing Kittens’ founder and CEO Emma Sayle has also noticed virtual events attracting younger attendees – not only because they’re more online and “that’s how they communicate”, says Sayle, but also because online events remove the financial barrier to showing up at a physical party. Online Killing Kittens parties cost £20 ($27), while in-person ones can cost £350 ($480).

Emma, who doesn’t live in a major city, likes that she doesn’t have to spend money on travelling to an event in London, which would include putting up for a hotel, meals and new clothes. “As a student, that’s quite nice,” she says.

Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s virtual sex parties now attract around 150 attendees on a given Saturday. About half are first timers. Sayle sees a similar split at Killing Kittens’ events. “A lot of [attendees] are totally new people who would never have thought about [attending a sex party] before,” says Sayle. There’s a “safety element” to showing up via video chat, she adds: “You can close the screen at any point.”

That’s exactly what made UK-based couple Matt, 31, and Emily, 29, feel comfortable about going to their first-ever sex party during the pandemic, with Boudoir and Purple Mamba, online. “You’re in your own house,” says Matt. “It’s the safety of it.” Though they would have likely gone to an in-person event eventually, “it would have taken longer,” says Emily.