Sex in the Time of Cholera

Virtual Hookups: Yea or Nay?

According to Forbes Magazine, a venue which presumably take its numbers seriously, 71% of single adults have not had sex during the pandemic. Which is terrifying, frankly - talk about pent-up demand! But, hey, at least you’re not alone.

We should note that this only applies to sex with another person. Plenty of people have been having plenty of sex with themselves. PornHub traffic increased by 57% during the month of March 2020 alone, which was only to be expected. (Much of that increase is due to a change in their pricing structure, by the way, but I know how to write a grabby headline as well as the next guy.) What’s newer than online porn is the phenomenon of people having sex with their imaginary friends… and the imaginary friends cooperating. 

So let’s talk about OnlyFans, a hybrid of social media and adult film. They have seen a 70% increase in users every month since March 2020. According to founder Timothy Stokely, it’s growing by half a million users a day.

OnlyFans is site where creators (read: hot girls) monetize NSFW content (read: nudity) for subscribers. Fans are able to DM with the content producers — or, in the case of celebrity accounts, the content producers’ assistants — and buy custom content (read: porn) for additional fees. Most content creators make very little money, but some make a lot. Most fans spend very little money, but some spend a lot. 

And that’s the point: 20% of subscribers account for 80% of revenue. It’s about the same ratio as alcohol sales: the top 10% of drinkers account for more than half of all alcohol sales. This is not a coincidence.

Whatever your opinions on stan culture — and yes, I have opinions — there’s no indication that “parasocial relationships,” as these imaginary friendships are called, are intrinsically unhealthy.  Never devalue your parasocial  relationship with the warm and comforting Mr. Rogers! When a parasocial relationship is sexualized, however, it’s called Fantasy, and some people get addicted to it. Not all people; best estimates are that about 6% are prone to these behavioral addictions. But it’s higher in some populations (college students, for example), and sexualized social media is thrusting the phenomenon into hyperdrive.

Yes, I was aware of the pun. Thank you.

In theory, this is nothing new. Pop idols and movie stars have been leaving lip prints on glossy photos for their fans since WW2. Strippers and waitresses are brilliant at cultivating parasocial relationship, and every big tipper is convinced that they have something special and real. Hell, there’s a part of me that has a deep and meaningful relationship with This American Life’s Ira Glass. 

Luckily, I’m well aware that Ira Glass has no knowledge of this (unless he happens to read this column - hi, Ira!) The patrons who once followed me home from the bar, however, were apparently not aware that our relationship existed only their fantasy. Nor did the fan who was arrested for breaking into talk show host David Letterman’s home, or the one who shot and killed actress Rebecca Shaeffer.

Don’t worry, OnlyFans creators. Not trying to scare you, here. Most of the time, fantasy addicts are harmless to everyone but themselves. Just like alcoholism or compulsive gambling, Sex and Love Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease… and it sucks. Withdrawal is so painful that the addict feels they will die if they don’t get their drug of choice — and when that drug is only a click away, it’s damn hard to stay clean. There are no bouncers at the door to 86 the obsessed, the underage, or the obviously suicidal. There is no barrier to entry to OnlyFans. You don’t even have to leave a credit card.

Now, I’m not sex-negative; I love the stuff, myself. I also don’t judge sex workers, who have played a role in every society throughout history. (I have some opinions about what it does to self-esteem, but that’s another column.) What I am saying to OnlyFans creators is this: Sometimes, you are serving alcohol to drunks. Occasionally, you are selling fentanyl to junkies. Frequently, you are doing things you couldn’t or wouldn’t do in public, but there’s no one to monitor you or stop you in the privacy of the internet… except yourself.