The rise of the digital-only lover
Mark, a 34-year-old student in Auckland, has what he describes as a “lifetime partner” — a girlfriend of eight years whom he plans to stay with for the rest of his life (the two don’t want to get married, but are “devoted to each other the way a married couple are”, he says). But Mark also has a handful of people with whom he regularly sexts and swaps nudes, something he does with the express permission of his partner, who knows about his online trysts. “They’re all in different cities,” Mark explains, “and there’s always an implicit understanding that it won’t turn physical.”
Mark has maintained online relationships of this sort since he was in his 20s, but they’ve ramped up in intensity since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “I started sexting more people during the first lockdown, and it’s continued pretty steadily after,” he says. “I think it was a combination of just having a lot more private time to fill and a little bit of encouragement from other people being horny, like a horny feedback loop.”
We can think of Mark’s online partners as “digital lovers”, and they seem to be on the rise, especially in a post-Covid world. As writer Ginger Gorman reported for the Guardian last year, the experience of being in lockdown has triggered a wave of sexting and nude-sharing, sometimes among complete strangers or people who are otherwise platonic friends. She puts this down to “feelings of isolation and fear [that cause] us to reach out and connect in a far more vulnerable way”, but others have pointed out that lockdown is simply boring, so anything that spices up the experience and makes it feel less like Groundhog Day is a welcome distraction.
But the difference between a digital lover and online dating more generally seems to be that, with the former, there’s a characteristic lack of intention to ever consummate the relationship in person — people with digital lovers are perfectly happy for the sexual component of the relationship to remain mediated by laptops and phones forever. Again, the pandemic helps explain why: until a vaccine is rolled out, we can expect to lurch in and out of lockdown without much prior warning, so digital lovers are a safe and enduring option whether we’re suffering under a Level 4 lockdown or enjoying the fleeting freedom of Alert Level 1.
But the socially distanced nature of these relationships isn’t their only appeal. For Mark, they’re much more titillating than simply looking at porn, which he says “kinda sucks” these days. “Unless you find a niche, worker-owned group that produces their own videos, your options are sort of dubious homemade stuff or that weirdly over-polished and made-up BangBros style,” he explains. “It’s probably been years since I’ve genuinely gotten anything from internet videos, but with this type of online relationship, maybe it began because you were both looking for something you liked but weren’t getting.” DIY porn, in other words, able to be customised to your specific tastes.
But there’s also an ease and simplicity to the digital-lover arrangement that doesn’t always hold true for in-person affairs. In Mark’s case, IRL (in-real-life) hookups are within the boundaries of his open relationship, but they don’t appeal to him nearly as much. “For me, [online relationships are] just far more within my comfort zone,” he says. “They’re easier to set up, easier to maintain, and much easier to end — wow, that’s a big one. There’s very little confusion or guessing to be had, I think because the stakes are way lower. People are more honest about what they want and what’s going on.”
There’s also a convenience that can’t be replicated in person — IRL, both parties need to be free at the same time to hook up, whereas with a digital lover you can send nudes or explicit messages at a time convenient to you, and your lover can, errr, enjoy them later. “Free time is a big factor,” Mark says. “With DMs [direct messages], it’s either instant gratification or you just go back to it when you actually have the time to knock one out.”
Still, Mark’s careful not to overstate how effortless it is to maintain a handful of digital lovers. Sometimes he’ll be sexting and swapping nudes all day long, and other times he’ll go a week without sending so much as a cheeky-devil emoji. “Even when there’s no physicality, you still need to be a bit energised to be in the mood,” he explains. “Life is kind of exhausting these days.”