Love and sex in the digital age: Are two actual people still required for a relationship?

[From Psychology Today’s Love and Sex in the Digital Age blog]

"Her" movie poster

Are Two Actual People Still Required For a Relationship?

Does a “relationship” still need actual people to provide sex and love?

Published on February 19, 2014 by Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S in Love and Sex in the Digital Age

Recapping Her

If you don’t know, the much lauded Spike Jonze film Her is the tale of Theodore, a very lonely man in the final stages of a sad, ugly divorce. Feeling down, he decides to treat himself to the new OS1, advertised as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness.” Almost immediately, Theodore finds himself enjoying the company and personality of Samantha, the voice behind his OS1. He begins interacting with her on a personal level, and before he knows it, he and the OS1’s digital consciousness have fallen in love, which, needless to say, presents him with more than a few existential issues. The film recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, despite the fact that one of the main characters is heard but never seen.

I found this movie beyond fascinating, one of my favorites for 2013, not just because it’s good entertainment, but because, thematically, it correlates directly with material in my new book, Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider. One of the main points Dr. Schneider and I make in CTFA is that for some people, especially digital natives (younger individuals who’ve never known life without computers and the Internet), the line between virtual reality and actual reality is increasingly blurry. And while some older folks (digital immigrants) might find this bizarre, younger people typically do not. For them, digital life and real-world life are merely two sides of the same coin, each to be enjoyed, nurtured, and cherished, with neither side more real, more important, or more meaningful than the other. So interacting on an emotional level with a perfectly matched digital creation, as occurs in Her, may not be as far-fetched as many people might think. Nevertheless, Theodore, who sits on the cusp of the digital native/digital immigrant divide, wrestles mightily with the “What is real?” dilemma. In fact, his internal debate on this topic forms the crux of movie.

Her is Happening Already!

Some readers may remember the Manti Te’o “scandal” from last year. The well-known Notre Dame football star—by all accounts an incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, and responsible human being—met a young woman online and fell deeply in love with her, despite their never meeting IRL (in real-life). As it turns out, the “girl” was in fact a disturbed young man who was merely posing as an attractive young woman in the digital universe. But Te’o had fallen so hard and so fast that even after telltale signs of the deception began to surface he held tightly to the version of reality that meant so much to him. Eventually, of course, the ruse became public knowledge and Te’o was forced to deal with the real-world truth, but until that point his completely digital romantic relationship was every bit as heartfelt and meaningful to him as one undertaken with the girl next door.

And the Te’o story is hardly an isolated incident. In fact, a large number of people across the world are already growing more interested in virtual and/or robotic partners than real-life versions of the same. In Japan, virtual (avatar) girlfriends and to a lesser extent boyfriends are actually quite popular. One man even held a live commitment ceremony with his virtual fiancée—an avatar he created, romanced, and fell in love with on the “dating simulation” game Love Plus. And let’s face it, this man’s avatar-wife is basically Samantha from Her represented two-dimensionally on a high-definition touchscreen, though maybe not quite as emotionally advanced.

The next logical step, of course, is robot romance. Scientists have already created robots that can wash your hair, serve you tea, vacuum your house, mow your lawn, and even interact with you socially. With each successive generation these robots become more and more human in appearance and behavior. And they’re already pretty darn real. In fact, studies have shown that troubled children often respond more readily to therapeutic contact with a robot than a human caregiver. These well-programmed therapy robots are able improve almost any child’s mood, and they can nearly always get antisocial children to interact more willingly with other children and also with adults. Plus, these robots don’t get annoyed, impatient, or disappointed when children are challenging, unresponsive, or just plain difficult, so what’s not to love? And if children can have healthy emotional responses to non-organic beings, why can’t adults?

How much longer will it be before Rosie, the walking, talking, emoting robot maid from The Jetsons is real? And what will happen when Rosie’s manufacturer decides she’ll sell better if she looks like a supermodel and has realistic sex-toy genitalia? Will we suddenly prefer sexual activity with robots to real people? And if these ultra-sexy robots can be programmed to behave as if they adore their owner, as Samantha does in Her, it’s pretty easy to visualize humans bonding with these “beings” every bit as fully and intimately as they might with a real person. This could actually happen sooner than you might expect. According to scientist David Levy, an expert on artificial intelligence, by 2050 technology will advance to the point where humans will have sex with robots, fall in love with robots, and even marry robots—all as part of what will then be regarded as normal sexual and romantic interaction.

Simply put, some people are now totally out-of-sync with in-the-flesh relationships and sexuality. According to the results of two large-scale surveys in Japan, one in 2008, the other in 2010, this is not only more prevalent than one might expect, but increasingly common. For instance, the 2008 survey found that 17.5 percent of males aged 16 to 19 stated they had no interest in or an outright aversion to sex with another person. Two years later, this percentage had more than doubled, to 36.1 percent. For males aged 20 to 24 the percentage increase was similar, up from 11.8 percent in 2008 to 21.5 percent in 2010. Females also displayed a growing disinterest in real-world sex. Please note: This loss of interest in actual physical intimacy coincides directly with the online sexnology explosion, which began in earnest right around 2008. Some participants in the Japan studies called sex with a real person a bother. Others said they prefer anime characters to the real thing. Still others said that online sex is less unpleasant than actual sexual contact (which involves smells, secretions, and the like). And a very large number admitted to extremely frequent masturbation with porn, thereby satisfying all their sexual needs themselves.

Are Virtual Relationships Healthy?

For a lot of people, especially older people, the concept of virtual relationships can be rather disturbing. But for younger people, those who increasingly live their lives half in the digital universe and half in the real world, it’s not upsetting at all. That said, younger folks do seem to be aware of how many older people feel. In fact, Manti Te’o has said the thing he regrets most about being duped into an online relationship is that he lied to his father, telling him he’d actually met his paramour in person. After Te’o made that statement a lot of older people wondered why he would tell such a lie to his loving, trusting father. Meanwhile, younger people understood his motivations completely. They got it that Te’o thought his father would struggle to understand the depth of feeling he’d developed for a woman he’d only interacted with in the digital universe.

And this is the rub, really. For younger people digital interactions can and often do feel every bit as real and meaningful as meeting someone in-person, whereas for older people this is simply not the case. And who’s to say digital natives are wrong to feel what they feel? For Manti Te’o, even though his girlfriend turned out to be a male perpetrating a hoax, the feelings he had for “her” were quite real. And the feelings that other young people now experience and express to their digital lovers and friends are equally real. The fact that most digital immigrants don’t understand this doesn’t make it any less true. So we see that what defines a “relationship” in today’s tech-driven world may well depend on one’s age and comfort-level with technology.

Right about now some readers may be wondering about the future of humanity, thinking that if we’re all running around being sexual with avatars and robots and operating systems instead of each other, not much actual procreation will take place. That, of course, is a rather extreme viewpoint. In actuality, no matter how real technology becomes most emotionally healthy people will eventually find digital/robotic relationships unfulfilling, growing bored with them and longing for the pairing of emotional intimacy with physical intimacy that (as of now) can only be found in the real world with real people. And we should definitely not forget that today, thanks to technological advances, people are able to meet and to develop relationships in new and exciting ways, which actually makes real-world romances more rather than less likely. That said, at least a few folks have already opted for tech-sex over IRL encounters, preferring the reduction in emotional challenges and the increase in control that digital interactions provide. And as sexnology improves and proliferates, our expectations of sex and romance will also evolve. Is it possible that at some point real people may not be able to keep pace? Maybe, but only time will tell.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. Currently he is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others.


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