While the world of virtual sex isn’t exactly new, experts say the unique conditions of a global pandemic are leading many people to seek out counterfeit human connections that aren’t always safe or healthy.
With roughly a third of the worldwide population in lockdown from March to May, it’s no surprise that a record number of people were consuming porn then. But a trend perhaps no one saw coming is the resulting spike in sextortion and nonconsensual porn cases, including so-called “revenge porn.”
Porn replacing real human connections
Before now, it may have been difficult for some to picture a life separated from those they love—starving for connection and resorting to swapping out real human touch and face-to-face interactions for a screen.
Except when you consider this is the type of world porn has been constructing for decades.
With a vast sea of porn available at anyone’s fingertips, consider how many people have long since been practicing a form of “social distancing” by engaging in virtual sex instead of connecting with someone real. Add the increased loneliness, boredom, stress, anxiety, and financial struggles many are experiencing during quarantine, and you get a recipe for what some describe as a “diminished capacity” for sexual decision-making.
Millions of people worldwide are alone in isolation, desperate from weeks without human touch, and many are seeking a virtual connection through porn, sexting, or webcamming.
Pornhub alone reported an 18% increase in worldwide traffic during the peak pandemic months this year. A record number of people engaged in group “digital sex parties” via Zoom or Instagram. OnlyFans, a site where subscribers pay money often in exchange for nude content from webcammers or adult models, has reported 75% growth and 3.7 million new sign-ups during COVID-19—with 60,000 of them being from new creators.
And many people have been doing more than passively consuming explicit content. A growing number of people are actually creating explicit images and videos of themselves or distributing private content of others without consent.
The spike in virtual sex is making people easier targets for exploitation and revenge porn, with experts saying they’ve seen a 60% increase in reports of nonconsensual porn since the quarantine began.
These connections clearly aren’t as private as people think they are. Any image can be screenshotted or video captured without a person’s knowledge, and even the argument that nudes are a way to “keep the spark alive” for separated couples comes with inherent risk.
A surge of sextortion and revenge porn during quarantine
Whatever sense of normalcy or connection people experience from sexting or sending nudes is often false and fleeting—and can come at a significant cost.
Security breaches like Zoom porn bombings and the circulation of revenge porn and hijacked images and videos proves that no connection is guaranteed safe. While tools like facial recognition software are being developed in an effort to combat revenge porn, the porn industry clearly fails to address it and all forms of exploitation and sextortion—including deepfakes, cam piracy, webcam blackmail, and more.
A growing number of victims, advocacy groups, and online reputation managers are seeing an alarming surge in these sextortion and nonconsensual porn incidents and believe the desperate conditions of quarantine are to blame.
Sophie Mortimer, manager of the U.K.’s Revenge Porn Helpline says the organization has seen a rise in cases upwards of 60% since lockdown began. According to Mortimer, the unique loneliness of lockdown is what’s driving the trend and many callers are having their nude images and videos leveraged against them for control or cash.
“More people are spending more time alone and trying to alleviate that online… That may be leading to online connections that aren’t always safe or healthy,” he said.
Mortimer also says that individuals in relationships are feeling more pressure to send nudes to their significant other and that the stress of lockdown may be aggravating manipulative and coercive dynamics that often characterize instances of domestic abuse. The organization has received twice as many calls about this type of coercion—with half of these reports coming from people with a history of abusive relationships.
Kate Isaacs, founder of the revenge porn victim’s rights campaign #NotYourPorn has noticed a similar trend emerge during quarantine—reporting that “it’s happening more because of the circumstances separating couples and lovers.”
Recently, a woman who had been isolated from her boyfriend reached out to Isaacs via Twitter—explaining she’d been sending him nude images and videos of herself to “keep the flame alive” but that the quarantine was putting “serious pressure” on their relationship.
After realizing she wasn’t getting the emotional support she needed and suggesting they take a break, she said her boyfriend “took it really badly” and threatened to upload her videos to Pornhub.
According to Isaacs, these “pleas for help” have been on the rise during lockdown, and that while couples may exchange nudes as a way to maintain a sense of normalcy or passion in the relationship, many fail to consider the inherent risk that only increases as this content is in circulation.
There are also many individuals who express little concern for the risks when it comes to exchanging their nude images with strangers.
According to Jennifer, a 29-year-old bartender in L.A., “There’s a certain desperation and nonchalance to the kind of conversations I’ve been having with people while in quarantine… I’m pretty lonely, and I haven’t been touched in weeks…I really miss having someone to talk to.”
Jennifer expressed a noticeable shift in her sexual decision making—desperately sexting her exes, freely sending nude videos at will with men she’s never met and “probably never will,” and has even considered getting into webcamming sheerly for human connection and money. She even says that “9 times out of 10” she doesn’t bother to verify if the person she’s talking to is real or hide her own identity.
Jennifer admits she’s sexted with “multiple randos” during quarantine out of “horny boredom.” Jennifer describes the risks as “well worth the reward.”
“If I lose my sexuality, I’ll lose my mind… I think the thrill is what’s keeping me going—it makes me feel human and connected, which, living alone, I’m really lacking.”
Jack, a 38-year-old TV producer in L.A., says he was recently blackmailed by a match named Ayomi on a hookup app for threesomes. “Looking back on it, there were so many obvious signs that I was talking to a scammer.”
Jack says that in “less trying times” he would have heeded the obvious red flags, but after weeks of isolation with only his roommates for social interaction, the nudes from Ayomi made his brain “horny short-circuit.”
He shared both his phone number and Instagram handle with Ayomi. “I still can’t believe I did that…No face in the frame and no personal information is rule number one for video sex with a stranger. I don’t think there’s any way I would have done that had it not been for quarantine—the excitement of everything totally outweighed what would have been a normal risk assessment.”
Ayomi later blackmailed Jack with screenshots of their explicit conversations, collages of his nude images, and his Instagram contact list—threatening to send his photos to all of his followers unless he gave her $500.
Jack said what most alarmed him is that he went back to their conversation after the incident to revisit the photos, even though he knew it could likely be the images of a victim.
“I knew the person in those nudes wasn’t even her—it was probably some poor woman whose boyfriend posted her pics—but that’s the crazy thing about being quarantine horny. It makes you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.”
People desperate to improve their online reputations
Another surprising trend is the number of people searching for themselves online during lockdown. More people are finding nonconsensual porn circulating online and worry it might damage their relationships or future job prospects.
Todd William, founder and CEO of reputation management company Reputation Rhino with the job of finding and removing content posted online without owner’s consent, says clients have been swarming to him in recent months.
“While I initially expected interest in online reputation management to wane during the current crisis, we’re seeing a surge of interest in people wanting to improve their online image….People who have more time on their hands are Googling themselves and discovering content online that they are concerned about.”
Williams also believes that the looming possibility of being without work in the future due to COVID-19 is causing more people to seek help in making sure their online reputation is porn-free.
Fight for human connection
The porn industry capitalizes on people’s pain and discomfort—even during a time of global crisis.
If one thing is glaringly clear, it’s that people need real human connection. Porn has always contributed to a social-distanced, disconnected world that only feeds the loneliness and insecurity many consumers are trying to find relief from. The challenging circumstances of COVID-19 shine a spotlight on this reality even more.
Consuming porn and settling for virtual sex won’t bring long-term happiness or satisfaction, and the risks simply aren’t worth it. An explicit image or video shared online is one you can never get back, and for many people, something they never consented to in the first place.
Just as we can get through the challenges of a global pandemic together by being reminded of our humanity, dignity, and the importance of human connection, we can fight to put an end to the exploitation of people worldwide who are hurting. Together, we can choose each other over the wedge porn puts between us.