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The Online Erogenous Zone

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This is the fourth in a series of four. See Euro RSCG Worldwide PR's latest white paper, "Love (and Sex) in the Age of Social Media," for more analysis about how Americans think about online romance.

Whether or not, like Woody Allen, you've experienced sex as the most fun you've ever had without laughing, some days I can't help but think that the online erogenous zone deserves another one of the comic's lines: "When it comes to sex, there are certain things that should always be left unknown, and with my luck, they probably will be."

I've been looking this week at how e-seekers of romance, love and eroticism feel about the new possibilities of the Internet and social media. Cutting to the chase, how are Americans' sex lives changing thanks to online interactions? At Euro RSCG Worldwide, the company I work for, we polled 1,000 U.S. consumers in January to find out.

While the muddy mosh pit of 1968's Summer of Love might be a dim memory, a pretty substantial public (and 40 percent of Prosumers, the über-consumers who proactively seek out products and services and engage in trialogues about them, leading other consumers to them, too) said in our survey that "looking to spice things up" is one of their feelings about their current relationship situation--whether married, living together or single.

Is it because, collectively, we're having less sex? (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been predicting "Sleep is the new sex" for a couple of years, so it's time to check hours spent sleeping.) Maybe so. Almost 60 percent of single 18- to 24-year-old men and 51 percent of single women in that age group didn't have sex even once in the past year, according to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior.

Married couples still enjoy the most bedroom confidential. But it can be rather, well, rote, as described by blogger Stephanie Elliot on Betty Confidential (about sex with her husband): "Sex now is like parking in the tow-away zone, running into McDonald's, having only a couple bucks and choosing something from the Dollar Menu."

Still, it appears that the love-the-one-you're-with attitude might be prevailing, physically speaking. Only 20 percent of our survey respondents say they consider themselves good at meeting up offline with people with whom they've interacted online. (By contrast, 63 percent consider themselves good at avoiding undesirable people online.)

How and where, precisely, the 20 percent hooking up in real life after meeting online do so can't be generalized any more than which spice is anybody's spice of choice.

Watchers of the classifieds marketplace noted that when Craigslist stopped posting sex ads on its sites last year, a $37 million drop in revenue was predicted for the commercial sex industry. Nobody was crying, though. Even First Amendment stalwarts agreed that anything that counteracted human trafficking, and especially potential abuse of children, was a welcome tradeoff for the loss of those ads.

In our survey, Craigslist ranked the lowest in places where respondents imagined a possible e-romance or erotic relationship coming from. (And although Facebook ranked first, I feel as if Match.com was everywhere last weekend, trying to sell us fantastic first dates. But maybe that's online dating versus socializing on the Web. Brave next world.) Although only last week, after Gawker outed up-and-coming New York Congressman Christopher Lee, he resigned--demonstrating just how quick-acting the career poison of public revelations of sexual motives is, still today. The one irony of the Lee volleyball was his artful banter with the unnamed woman who hooked up with him courtesy of Craig; he definitely had his rap down pat, until it was clear that he wasn't quite the 39-year-old lobbyist he represented himself to be.

We also saw in our survey that many Americans believe it's possible to cheat online, even without hooking up. But are the e-opportunities for virtual pleasures or just virtual browsing also making us, possibly, more open and tolerant as a culture?

We asked people to describe how "socially acceptable" they considered different types of online dating. Homophobia is still higher than you might expect, with 40 percent of respondents answering that they see same-sex relationships as unacceptable, compared with 36 percent who think gay relationships are fine. Age differences in partners didn't generate nearly as much "unacceptable" disapproval, with only 23 percent objecting to either gender out-wising the other. But robbing the relationship cradle (dating somebody in another relationship) still came in high for public disapproval at almost 80 percent.

Meanwhile, friends-with-benefits relationships were judged acceptable by 34 percent of our survey, and one-night stands "with appropriate precautions" at 31 percent. (Interestingly, even in light of all this, a full 77 percent of the public report they're all for marriage in a faith-based ceremony.)

Maybe because culturally, sex, like money, is an area that avoids responding to direct questions (for people of my generation, the hilarious "SNL" skit: "How are the children doing in school? Are we having sexual intercourse after dinner?"), some of these questions that get right to the point actually wind up skirting the point as to when hookups go into asterisks.

And the rate at which things change but stay the same remains pretty astonishing: A new dating site, Lovely Faces, scraped a quarter of a million user photos and profiles off Facebook recently without people's permission. Facebook has threatened to sue the creators--an Italian media artist and a media critic, who say they were merely trying to demonstrate everybody's vulnerability in this era of mass virtual knowing.

Still, lack of privacy or vulnerability to stolen identity doesn't seem to be deterring new daters. As Time reported in January, new dating apps such as SNAP Interactive and Zoosk have Facebook utilities, and AreYouInterested.com, the largest Facebook dating app, has 13 million monthly users. It might seem slightly antiquated to recall that when Clay Shirky coined the term "social software" to mean apps for networking, at least one blogger took to the e-waves complaining that Facebook needed to get better at getting you laid. Now, as one commenter to the Time article posted, "Facebook has radically changed dating, not only because it supplants social networking sites, but because the effort and interest that you have to apply in order to show interest in the opposite sex is so much lower."

When it comes to love and sex in the age of social media, there are certain things we learned in our survey that were once unknown but are becoming more clear. What we do know now is that the e-channels are answering a big problem for many: They're offering the right place and the right time to see if you can find the one you love.

Previously:
"Love in the Time of Connectivity"
"Prosumers in E-Love"
"Breaking the E-Love Code"

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