Even though we have only known each other for three and a half years, I can hardly remember a life without my best friend, Steve. Our friendship is one of overly saccharine fondness, one that has our mutual friends referring to us as one entity. I don’t blame them. We talk nearly every day for hours at a time, even when we are too busy. We use that time unwisely: most is spent procrastinating, whining about our days, sending each other links to the far corners of the Internet, geeking out and rambling about our most recent obsessions.
Steve also happens to be my pen pal. I have been lucky enough to meet her in person and spend time lazing around on her couch, and we hope to make the most out of my finally being in the same geographical region as her. But the fact remains that the breadth of our friendship can be found in our mutual chat histories and the rare text, and I adore Steve’s presence in my life.
It is with this appreciation for our friendship that I believe that cyber relationships—sexual and/or romantic—are not only possible, but can be ultimately extremely fulfilling.
Cyber relationships are not new. Along with the premature finale of Family Matters and the North American release of Pokemon Red/Blue, 1998 brought the world You’ve Got Mail, a romantic comedy about how Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fell in love through a chat room. In the movie, many of the characters wonder if it is possible to find true intimacy online.
Fifteen years later, we still question the validity of cyber relationships. Many joke about, judge, scorn or hide our use of sites like Grindr, Match.com, Cupid.com, Missed Connections or Craigslist. Part of the resistance comes from the unfair stereotypes created against people who look online for relationships, describing them as dateless, misanthropic, shy or desperate.
What these stereotypes ignore is that people enjoy different ways of interacting with one another. An extreme introvert, for example, may be drained by going out on dates irl (in real life) but could shine in chat rooms. Someone who has too tight of a schedule to meet up regularly might succeed in a relationship based on a flexible exchange of emails.
And just as the exact manifestation of irl sex and/or romance differs depending on the partners involved, cyber relationships vary greatly. There are long-term partnerships, short-term arrangements, one-time hook-ups, drawn-out courtships and crushes that never seem to end. People may be looking for sex, romance, companionship, fantasy, play or a combination of them all. They say that if you think it, the Internet has it, and this is certainly so for cyber relationships.
That said, cyber relationships are not for everyone. Even for someone like me who has found great success online, it would be naïve to think that cyber relationships always work. Technology enables a brave new world of possibilities, but it depends on what you and your partners are looking for and are capable of committing to. Texting, skyping, commenting on each others’ posts, chatting and calling can only bring you so far if physical distance exasperates feelings of insecurity, jealousy, loneliness and apathy within you or your partners. These emotions can wear down a person’s psyche over time, and pushing forward with a relationship model that isn’t working is not only unhealthy, but not fair to everyone involved.
You should not enter a cyber exchange thinking that it will be an unwelcome replacement for an irl relationship. I understand that some cyber relationships are forced onto partners because you are studying in different colleges, states, or countries; in these circumstances, a cyber relationship may not be ideal and is begrudgingly taken on. But in the end, in order for a cyber relationship to work, you must accept that the foundation of irl and cyber relationships are different and you have to expect different things from them both.
Intimacy can no longer be measured in sharing food, the warmth of the others’ touch, manually bringing the other to orgasm or whatever else you and your partners choose to do. Instead, it can be found in sending your partners memes you know will make them laugh, or asking how their day was and reading their response as you do research. It’s sexting, a technique that picks up on the long tradition of erotica and the seductive power of words on a page or screen. It’s staying logged in on chat just in case your partner finds time to jump on for a quick hello.
In these ways and more, cyber relationships depend on the redefinition of normative forms of sexual and/or romantic expression. They require thinking outside the (in)box and embodying pleasure outside the constraints of our physical selves. I may be biased, but I feel cyber relationships hold a great wealth of potential for new ways of engaging ourselves, sex, romance, our partners and sex positivity. And hopefully, 15 years from now, we will have a firmer acceptance of cyber relationships (although there is still a space for You’ve Got Mail, because that movie is a classic).