Virtual sex: The internet is inspiring a new type of literary love affair
Rise of the online Anna Kareninas: Turned On is the story of a married woman's addiction to virtual sex that crosses the line into real-life adultery
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Wednesday 03 April 2013
The book's title, Turned On, does not just refer, rather explicitly, to the fact that its pages chart a real and intimate first-person account of an adulterous affair. It has a double meaning.
A married woman pseudonymously writing as Lucy Dent enters into a "harmless flirtation" with a man who calls himself "paranoidandroid" on the internet that then develops into infidelity, obsession and beyond. What gives the book its other meaning and distinguishes its story of marital disappointment, sexual desire and betrayal from the classic literary trajectory of middle-class infidelity, is that this particular affair takes place virtually.
Dent's story of her affair, published in her new book, Turned On, begins with the "turning on" of a laptop, and proceeds in the solitude of her bedroom. So Dent finds herself exhilarated as she opens up her computer. "A couple of messages were waiting from me… My breath caught in my throat as I opened them.
"Paranoidandroid: "I'm here… and thinking of you, in case you need distracting, now or later...'"
As the interaction proceeds, so the passion becomes more explicit.
"Paranoidandroid: 'If I put my finger *here*, and trace it all the way to *here*, what does that do for you?'…Lucy: 'It feels good. Don't stop. Please don't stop.'"
Such a relationship, which takes place in a virtual space, leads us to question the boundary line between "fidelity" and "infidelity".
Where literature has, in the past, captured the adulterous affair with such classic tropes of hotel bedrooms, furtive trysts and guilt-laden meetings, as in the case of Gustav Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, this book could mark the birth of a new literary love affair in which the unfaithful are, in their physical lives at least, living faithfully.
If a relationship takes place solely as online dialogue, has any marital vow actually been broken? This question is, in large part, one that torments the 40-year-old author, long before she finally crosses the line and enters into a physical relationship in the last quarter of the book.
For the most part though, the affair is fuelled by internet-inspired fantasy. Dent says she found that the question of infidelity and its precise definition plagued the users of the internet sites she browsed. "It is widely debated in internet forums. Some people think [a virtual relationship] doesn't count because physical sex is not involved, but others think even if you're not having sex, you are fantasising about it.
"I felt really guilty, which means that I thought I was doing something wrong, yet I weirdly justified it [when it wasn't a physical affair]".
Dent also found that such sites drew people in through a language of erotic literature, especially with references to the bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has a large female fanbase. Just as is the case in EL James's book in which the young S&M heroine, Anastasia, receives explicit emails from her lover, Christian Grey, several of these sites use the same reference points to simulate similar fantasies, says Dent.
"These affair websites have really taken off and some blog posts are tied in with the Fifty Shades effect. They are using it to say 'this is what you can do' and 'do you want to find your Christian Grey?'"
Moreover, a relationship that takes place virtually is in its essence a literary act, rather than a flesh-and-blood reality, and so it can take the same imaginative licence. By writing out a relationship, one might effectively be creating a "virtual" self, suggests Dent.
In some cases, this virtual self can vastly differ from the real, as the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary, Catfish, showed us. The film traced the journey of a New Yorker who decided to seek out his Facebook girlfriend who he had only ever met virtually. He found her not to be the single, sexy young woman on his computer screen but a plump middle-aged mother who had created an alluring and elaborate fantasy alter-ego online. The television offshoot of the film, Catfish: The TV Show, which is a reality-based docudrama currently on MTV, exposes just how wide the gap between the real self and the virtual self can get.
Dent says that the creation of a misbehaving "virtual" self can also spawn the self-justifying belief that the "real" self is distinct and faithful: "There is an online 'disinhibition' effect. People say things online to eachother that they wouldn't say in real life, and you are not always yourself. It's easier to lie online as you are freed from the conventions of face-to-face interaction. You can be your 'other', your alter-ego. Because of this online intensity, it also has the effect of accelerating intimacy."
To think it a safe medium – a safety valve that keeps a marriage "technically" faithful – might also be a mistake, thinks Dent. Admittedly, those involved in a purely virtual fling don't necessarily suffer the same levels of guilt and despair that led Anna Karenina to throw herself under a train. But at the same time, Dent believes these relationships can be dangerous, and dangerously addictive. And they can lead to a tipping point in which the virtual eventually leads to the real – as was the case for her with her virtual lover, when the reality turned into disappointment and an end to the relationship. "Once the fantasy becomes reality," says Dent, "it changes everything."
'Turned On' is published later this month by Doubleday (£14.99)
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