Loving a lie
A new book tells the story of online relationships.
A new book by philosophy academic Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, Love Online: Emotions on the Internet, provides a glimpse of the steamy world of internet chatrooms, cyber-love and cyber-sex.
Devotees claim that love online is far superior to the offline version. Ben-Ze’ev, who is professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa, Israel, says that an online relationship ‘enables people to reap most of the benefits associated with offline relationships without investing significant resources’. You can logoff if you’ve had enough of somebody, and it’s not such a blow if they have had enough of you.
Online encounters are presented as far more open and passionate than realworld relationships. One of Ben-Ze’ev’s interviewees said: ‘Just as in personal fantasy, you don’t have to worry about mechanics – your legs stretch as wide open as you wish, there are no unseemly smells or tastes or textures, and your partner looks precisely as good as you want him or her to look.’ Online partners are free to present themselves, and imagine each other, as they wish: it is ‘just pure pleasure’, said one online respondent, without the ‘noise’ of a real encounter. ‘I have never felt this way for anyone’, said one married woman having an online affair. ‘We both knew what our hearts were feeling at the time without having to say a word. I feel like I’ve known Rob all my life’, said another.
That people prefer partners at the other end of a computer rather than in their bedroom suggests a retreat from reality into personal fantasy. Indeed, Ben-Ze’ev’s interviewees tell him that online relationships can have their downsides – such as leading to the breakdown of existing relationships, or discouraging a shy individual from getting out and meeting people. He quotes one woman’s complaints that her husband’s online affair ‘is using sexual energy that should be used with me’. And many of those engaged in online affairs feel that there is something lacking, and try to meet the person face-to-face. ‘Everything with him was great. But it wasn’t enough to sustain me’, said one woman: ‘I needed more, I needed a real flesh and blood person who wasn’t 800 miles away.’
But Love Online seems to take all these individual testimonies at face value, and so can only conclude that online relationships make some people feel good and others feel bad. Ben-Ze’ev doesn’t really ask why people are seeking intimacy over email – nor does he question whether this is a healthy model for human relationships.
In fact, the book documents a disturbing trend. An individuated society is using the internet as a kind of imaginary social realm, to create mythical relationships between people. People who search out online partners clearly want more than pornography. They want to know that there is a real person reading and responding to their words, but at the same time they want to be alone. They want to imagine being with the other person; they don’t want to be with them. ‘Online communication can be characterised as a social activity performed alone…communication is a social activity, but online communication is conducted through the privacy of one’s own computer’, observes Ben-Ze’ev.
All the passion of online love comes from the fact that it is a lie. People feel an extreme love and closeness to an online partner, only because this partner is largely a creation of their own imagination. And they feel free to disclose all their personal fantasies only because they don’t really feel another person’s scrutinising gaze, and so can type out thoughts that would normally only be whispered to themselves. It is the heady seduction of love online that makes it so dangerous; and because Ben-Ze’ev doesn’t interrogate personal testimonies, this is what he misses.
Internet relationships allow people to overcome their estrangement in fantasy, while confirming it in reality. People end up investing their emotional and sexual energies in others they will never meet, getting off while sitting in front of their home computer. What could be a more troubling and depressing symbol of our age, than the thought of thousands of individuals emailing each other and masturbating? They are clearly looking for meaningful contact with others, but remain stuck alone in their bedrooms.
Ben-Ze’ev’s interviewees would do better to turn away from their screens, and back to the people around them, with all their smells, blemishes and different viewpoints. They may be more trouble, but they’re also real. Love online isn’t really love at all – it’s like Narcissus gazing into a pool and falling for his own reflection. And look what happened to him.
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