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The tools we use for dating and intimacy — apps like Tinder and Grindr, video-chat platforms like Zoom — have existed long before the pandemic started, but their usage has shifted drastically. Bumble has experienced an 84 percent increase in video call volume and longevity, and the adult platform OnlyFans has reported a 75 percent increase in sign-ups, a number likely to grow as more people turn to cybersex work in the wake of COVID-19 layoffs. 

In the wake of these increases, we need to have a conversation about how we can make our digital sex lives safer. 

From a general perspective, the shift towards virtual interactions seems pretty great. You can flirt and engage in cybersex from the comfort of your own home (which sounds futuristic, even though cybersex has existed since the dawn of the internet). 

No more awkward dates at bad restaurants; no more endlessly swiping left only to be disappointed by them IRL; no more having to head back to your date’s crusty, shoebox-sized dorm room (if they happen to live in Craige). 

Finally, you can lounge around and feel sexy in peace, without all of the anxiety, sweat or having to Uber home the next day. 

However, as more people put their bodies online, users are at an increased risk of harassment and sexploitation. Cybersex trafficking, and hotlines like the UK-based Revenge Porn Helpline, have experienced a documented rise in cases. 

Sex workers in particular, some of whom rely on platforms like OnlyFans for their livelihoods, are at an increased risk of harm, like being doxxed or harassed. To make matters worse, there's only been one government-sponsored COVID-19 sexual health memo explicitly directed towards sex work at all. 

Cybersex is real sex, but navigating the waters can be tricky. As we reimagine intimacy and sex during the pandemic, below are a few strategies to keep in mind based off of comprehensive sexual health and safety resources.

Learn some netiquette. 

It’s not just about double-texting or sending that risky 2 a.m. “you up?” message. Make sure the person you’re talking to is who they say they are. Otherwise, you could be at the risk of blackmail, trafficking, exploitation or worse. Look out for red flags: a lack of profile information, unclear photos or text that seems pushy or possessive.

A quick reverse image search of their profile picture might prove that they’re not telling the truth (like when I was 11 and thought Robert Pattinson was texting me). And if someone wants to pay you, make sure it’s through a secure platform like OnlyFans or ManyVids. Never give out your PayPal, credit card or banking information, and don’t fall for scams like your partner asking for an Amazon card. 

Negotiate consent. 

Nobody should send nudes without affirmed consent from their partner. If you’re wanting to experiment with other forms of cybersex — like over video chat — lay out ground rules about what, where, for how long or anything else that seems pertinent (maybe you’d feel more comfortable doing things over FaceTime instead of Zoom). 

Err on the side of caution. 

Now, I’m not your mom, so I’d never tell you not to send someone a (consensual) nude. Sexting is an intimate act that underpins many healthy relationships — especially when you’re far apart. But as revenge porn cases rise, it’s important to make identifying your nudes as hard as navigating ConnectCarolina. 

That means not letting your nudes contain any identifying scars, tattoos or specific background details. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get creative, but taking photos against a nondescript background is key — if your Crocs somehow make it into the picture, crop them out. 

Make sure to never take a nude with your face in it, either. 

Identify and report sexual offenses. 

When a person is threatening you, blackmailing you or exploiting your body, know that there are ways to report and protect yourself. The best thing to do is block the offender, and make sure sensitive information, like your phone number or address, isn’t accessible. If it is on a social app, report the user. 

If you are a victim of nonconsensual pornography, aka revenge porn, recorded sexual assault or extortion, call the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative's Crisis Helpline, where 24/7 trained responders can provide information, support, referrals and non-legal advice.

Sexual health does not exist in a vacuum — we must ensure that the way we engage with each other is as safe and consensual online as it is offline. As the pandemic rolls on, so does the frequency of digital sex. 

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Stay safe, stay vigilant and stay sexy.

opinion@dailytarheel.com