Lessons from lockdown
Everything you’re embarrassed to google on the ethical and environmental footprint of digital dating, sex toys, and porn - the second part to the amazing Part 1.
by Abi Larner
What’s the past year been like for your sex life?
Weird? Me too.
Maybe you feel like you’ve had more interaction with your vibrator this year than with real people. Maybe you’re newly single, and not sure how to navigate getting over your old boo without the extravagant nights out and rebound sex you previously would’ve relied on to boost your mood.
Maybe you’re dating someone you’ve only ever seen through Zoom, or you and your sex-buddy-turned-flatmate (or flatmate-turned-sex-buddy!) are bored because, by now, you’ve already tried having sex in every room.
'If the first instalment was all about getting nifty, lippy, and, well, slippy, today I’m here to take you through the trends that have exploded during COVID-19'
That’s why I thought it might be time to bring you the ‘lessons from lockdown’ edition of this guide. If the first instalment was all about getting nifty, lippy, and, well, slippy, today I’m here to take you through the trends that have exploded during COVID-19: digital dating, porn, and sex toys.
Part 1: Digital Dating
The turmoil of the past year has been more than enough to knock even seasoned digital daters off their feet. From those just looking for something casual to those in long-distance partnerships, digital dating isn't going anywhere, so let’s get down to it.
If your personal definition of dating includes sex, these can be a fun way to add a little spice.
Build up the intensity of your texts gradually (think: foreplay). What is it you would like to do to this person (or have them do to you)? Don’t be afraid to talk dirty - it is, after all, the whole point.
My top tip if you get stuck? Be honest! Sexting is, well, just like sex - awkward moments happen! It’s all about how you both respond. You can use humour to highlight your awkward blip and effortlessly move on. If you're still at loss for what to say, simply try complimenting them: you can’t go wrong with ‘you’re good at this,’ or ‘bet you look good right now’.
Another common reason couples get stuck is lack of specificity. Open-ended questions can be so vague that they leave you feeling tongue-tied and self-conscious. So, instead of the too-general ‘what would you like me to do to you’, try presenting your partner with a scenario (or a choice of two options), and then ask them what they’d like. Bonus point? You’ll come across as confident, which is always sexy.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Consent. Is. Sexy.
This means checking with someone before you send them explicit pictures of yourself. When’s the last time you appreciated an unwarranted dick pic?
You should also check with your partner before you share, or save, anything. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve known the person for 5 minutes on tinder or you’ve slept in the same bed as them for years. It’s not up to you if it’s not your body.
Note: whatever medium you chose, it’s never a bad idea to check that your partner is in a private place (unless, of course, that’s your thing), before sending titillating texts. You never know who might be looking over their shoulder - and nothing kills desire faster than knowing their boss or grandma knows about your secret fetish.
Unfortunately, those horror stories you heard in school are kind of true: private files get leaked.
Traditional advice tends to go along the lines of a) only share photos with someone you trust, or b) don’t take saucy snaps in the first place.
I think that’s stupid advice. First-up, people have been taking raunchy pics since technology allowed for it.
Second, suggesting that the victim of leaked footage suffered a ‘lapse in judgement’ places the responsibility on the wrong person. If you consensually send someone a photo, and they non-consensually share it with a third party, they’re in the wrong. Not you.
In other words, telling people not to take sexy selfies is akin to advising women not to jog with headphones in. And, just so we're clear, leaking private files can be tried as a crime.
That being said, stress is an instant mood-killer, so it’s worth knowing your way around different messaging services so you can pick a level of security you’re comfortable with.
Apps & That
For starters, there are the messaging services you already use: texting, messenger, etc… which provide the lowest level of security.
Marginally more secure are ones that allow you to send messages that will disappear a few seconds after they’ve been opened (think Snapchat and Instagram Vanish). Though it’s great if you want to keep a little bit of mystery, it doesn’t do all that much to reinforce privacy:
Though both apps will notify you if a screenshot has been taken, that doesn’t stop a) people from screenshotting in the first place, or b) taking a photo of your photo on another device.
The next level up is to use encrypted messaging services (think WhatsApp).
If you’re really concerned, it’s also worth learning how to wipe an image file’s location data. This differs from device to device, but a quick online search will yield plenty of how-to guides.
Note: did you know that a cluttered inbox actually increases your carbon footprint? So here’s that final push to delete messages from your ex or block those creeps you leave unread in your DMs.
Learning to Like Long-Distance
Alright, so long-distance is never gonna be loads of fun. It’s been even harder this year, with travel bans lasting an indeterminate amount of time.
A lot of couples report feeling like they’re slowly falling into a pattern of just being best buds. That’s obviously lovely, but it can make it harder to keep that romantic flame lit.
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as being overly connected. You shouldn’t (and, realistically, can’t) know every single detail about their day.
Building on this, I’d also caution against getting a little too comfortable around each other. Feeling uninhibited is great, but the only time you check in with each other during the workday should not coincide with your respective toilet breaks.
Finally, a routine of calls and texts can get a little monotonous. Look for online events, talks, and webinars you can attend together – it’s a nice alternative to Facetime and it’ll remind you of all the shared interests that brought you together in the first place!
Part 2: Toys, Toys, Toys
I hope that, by now, we can all agree that it’s time to destigmatise sex toys.
For many LGBTQ+ folk, women and anyone for whom the standard missionary position won’t cut it, sex toys are a godsend. Need further convincing? Research is starting to suggest that the introduction of sex toys into hetero relationships is beginning to close the orgasm gap.
'Though the sex toy industry is yet another cog in the capitalist machine, this one, at least, might make you climax.'
Now, it goes without saying that buying toys online means shipping and packaging, which isn’t super great.
And though the sex toy industry is yet another cog in the capitalist machine, this one, at least, might make you climax.
So if a one-time purchase saves you from unsatisfying sex for the rest of your life, I’d say it’s worth it.
Sustainability: 2/10. Though great at rocking your world, it won’t come as a shock to learn that they’re not so great for the planet: disposable batteries are toxic, and only about 50% can be properly recycled (assuming they’ve been disposed of safely in the first place).
Practicality: 8/10. Two points docked because it’s a serious buzzkill (pun intended) when the batteries randomly die halfway through your fun.
Affordability: 7/10. A basic bullet will usually set you back about a tenner.
Sustainability: 4/10. The advantage here is that you’re not binning dud batteries every few weeks. That being said, the toys themselves will still break eventually and end up in a landfill.
Practicality: 9/10. If you remember to charge it after use, it won’t run out of juice just when you get yours flowing.
My top tip? Opt for toys that use pin/2mm charging cables as opposed to the ones that come with custom charging stands. If you misplace or damage the charger, you can easily replace it, instead of having to buy a whole new toy.
Affordability: 4/10. Dearer than your average battery toy, you can easily find decent ones for under £20.
Sustainability: 3/10. It might seem like a perfect compromise between the first two options. After all, reusable batteries are about 28 times better for the planet. However, unless you’ve got spare ones lying around, I would side-step these and opt for the toy you can recharge directly.
Practicality: 1/10. Not only could your toy run out mid-session, but you could even end up having to wait for your batteries to recharge. To add insult to injury, most manufacturers insist sex toys aren’t compatible with rechargeable batteries, citing fire hazards.
Affordability: 5/10. This one depends on a) the price of your toy, and b) the price of your batteries (in the U.K., a set of rechargeable batteries with the charging dock starts around £20).
Ah, good ole’ fashioned dildos and butt plugs.
These toys tend to do exactly what’s advertised on the box. Sure, it’s not as exciting as having ten different pulsation settings, but sometimes it’s better to do just one thing – and do it well.
Before we jump in, a quick word on shape: if you are planning on using it for anal activities, make sure it has a stopper. You don’t want to find yourself explaining to a doctor how that got stuck in there.
I haven’t given this category its own score because it comes down to the materials. Let’s take a look.
Hard Plastic Toys
Sustainability: 1/10. Most toys, both motorised and old-school, are made from hard plastic. I’ve awarded it 1 point because it’s incredibly durable and low-maintenance, so one of these will last a lifetime, but it’s also going to stick around on earth for much, much longer than that.
Recycled plastic is marginally better, but it doesn’t reduce the manufacturing footprint by much, nor does it solve the issue that hard plastic ultimately won’t fully decompose.
Practicality: 9/10. These toys are compatible with any kind of lubricant, and they’re also among the hardest to break. -1 point because the microscopic particles in certain plastics (think BPA and phthalates) are considered unsafe by some.
Affordability: 8/10. Prices start in the single digits.
Sustainability: 4/10. Silicone is often touted as an eco-friendlier option, and that’s true – sort of. It’s less toxic to manufacture, more durable, and much more widely recycled – but it won’t completely decompose. It’s also worth pointing out that silicone toys still tend to contain a fair amount of hard plastic components.
Practicality: 8/10. Toys made of medical-grade silicone rubber have a delightfully soft, velvet-touch finish.
The trouble? Silicone toys can be broken down by silicone-based lubes (think pjur, durex perfect glide…) causing cosmetic damage to toys which can occasionally lead to safety concerns.
Affordability: 6/10. Silicone toys are more expensive than plastic ones, but you can still find reasonably priced options.
Jelly (Soft Plastic) Toys
Sustainability: 0/10. Jelly is an umbrella term for various kinds of PVC rubber (polyvinyl chloride), which is exactly as bad for the planet as it sounds.
Toys made of jelly are easy to spot, as they are generally wiggly and tacky (both to the touch and in appearance – think sparkly butt plugs and veiny suction dildos).
Practicality: 1/10. Toys made from soft plastic are notoriously unhygienic. Jelly is both porous and sticky, meaning that the toy won’t only trap dust (and lots of other things) on its surface, but bacteria from your body will also absorb into the toy like a sponge.
Because it’s soft, it’s an especially popular material for butt-plugs. Unfortunately, since the skin lining your rectum is particularly fragile and prone to infection, it’s the absolute last place you want to insert the sex-toy equivalent of a sticky fly-trap.
If you own one of these, you’re better off repurposing it as a lint-roller.
Affordability: 9/10. I’m pretty sure I’ve come across them in pound shops and dollar stores.
Sustainability: 9/10. This is probably the eco-friendliest option on the list, both to make and recycle. I’ve docked a point because they tend to require lots of plastic packaging during shipping and handling.
Practicality: 5/10. Compatible with all kinds of lubricant, a well-made glass toy poses no immediate safety concerns, and some people enjoy the unique sensations it provides.
However, it’s not for clumsy people: if you drop it, it’s time to replace it. Even a toy that looks fine could have microfractures which could lead it to shatter unexpectedly down the line.
Note: make sure your toy is made from thermalized glass (think Pyrex and Borosilicate). Why? Glass is prone to exploding when exposed to a sudden shift in temperature – like between a cold room and a very warm body part.
Affordability: 3/10. Glass toys tend to be pricey upfront, and, to be honest, you really don’t want to skimp on quality here.
Unfortunately, because they need to be replaced if they are ever dropped onto a hard surface (which is easy to do if you are using lubricant), the price can add up over the years.
Got a dropped toy you’re not ready to part with? I’ve come across bold friends who have repurposed them as eye-catching paperweights.
Sustainability: 7/10. Recycled and biodegradable materials (like bamboo polymers) are starting to become available in the sex toy market. Arguably better for the environment, it’s too early to tell if it’s going to make much of a difference long-term.
Practicality: 4/10. Between you and me, the fact that manufacturers discourage washing these kinds of toys with soap and water (recommending instead you wipe them clean), is not a good sign: it probably means the material is porous (see the section on jelly toys if you need a refresher as to why that’s a no-no).
If you want to use one, I would advise using it with a condom.
Affordability: 4/10. Prices usually start around £20, but they tend to skew more expensive (think £50-100).
Other Fun Bits
Anything you’re planning to insert internally should be purpose-built. However, when it comes to accessories, you can definitely get a little more creative. Repurposing household items is easy to do, generally safe (just be sensible), and much easier on your wallet and the planet.
Instead of spending your money on bondage gear and other kinky things, a quick tour around the house will usually yield enough impromptu toys to fuel your wildest dreams. We’re talking wooden spoons, ice cubes, candles, clothes pegs, ties and scarves, feathers… you get the idea.
Part 3: Porn
'With porn, it’s more complicated than simply assessing whether something is accessible, cheap or green'
Last but not least, there’s always porn.
With porn, it’s more complicated than simply assessing whether something is accessible and cheap (a lot of it is), or green (that depends on everything from your individual device to your bandwidth speed).
Because of the amount of abuse, trafficking, and law-breaking involved in the porn industry, I’ve included a fourth marker in this category: ethics.
Sustainability: 9/10. Erotic literature is, from an ecological perspective, the best option of the bunch.
Practicality: 9/10. From your aunt’s copy of 50 Shades to internet forums, it’s really easy to find. Besides, you’d be surprised by how erotic leaving a certain amount up to the imagination can get.
Affordability: 9/10. Most of it is free.
Ethics: 9/10. Smut writers usually do it for income, out of a love of writing, or because it gets them all hot and bothered (I’m looking at you, fanfiction writers).
Some people write stories about real people in imagined scenarios. The laws around this are super woolly: does it count as fantasy, or not? I’d say don’t risk it: chances are you wouldn’t want someone writing dirty stories about you behind your back, so extend others that same courtesy.
Sustainability: 6/10. This includes things like recordings and narrated erotic stories. Since they’re generally just audio files, they take less waste to produce and downloading them is easier on mother nature.
Practicality: 8/10. Audio porn has boomed in popularity over the pandemic – it’s now available from everywhere from OnlyFans to Spotify.
Affordability: 7/10. Once again, you can pay for it, or you can find it free.
Ethics: 7/10. Obviously, someone somewhere is going to have recorded something that they shouldn’t have. Recording acts without consent (whether the act itself was consented to or not) is obviously inadmissible. However, on the whole, it’s a format much less prone to abuse than video porn. Most people who produce these kinds of recordings do it for a) extra income, b) sexy fun or c) creative expression.
Sustainability: 2/10. First up is your ecological footprint as the viewer: the electricity and bandwidth used for high resolution streaming and/or downloading, for instance.
But more importantly, there’s the carbon footprint of producing video porn. For instance, laws surrounding the filming and production of explicit material differ drastically from one country to the next, so there is often a lot more travel involved than meets the eye.
Practicality: 9/10. If it’s somebody’s fetish, you can definitely find footage of it online. Plus point? Watching it doesn’t break social distancing guidelines.
Affordability: 5/10. From free tube sites to exorbitant one-to-one subscription services, there’s an option for every price point.
Ethics: 3/10. Some video porn gets a 10/10, other scores so low -100 doesn’t even cut it. How can you tell? Here’s a few pointers:
Is it legal in your country? Some things are downright illegal to do, others are illegal to film, and yet others are illegal to distribute for profit (ad-revenue counts as profit).
All three matter: even if an act is legal to do, if it’s illegal to film or distribute, then the cast and crew involved will not be afforded basic rights and protection. In the U.K.? Take a look here.
Is it free? Not all free porn is bad porn. But if it is free, you should be able to find a satisfactory explanation as to why. Maybe it’s somebody’s passion project, or maybe the site offers a selection material for free as a sample of what’s available to paying members.
Note: a ‘satisfactory explanation’ does NOT include adverts and pop-ups that look like they’ll give you more viruses than unprotected sex with the dude selling pills in the toilets at a rave.
Who made it? Explanations of how the content you are viewing came to be (who made it, when, where, how, etc…) should be clearly signposted on the website. If it’s not, it’s a huge red flag.
Who uploads to the site? The problem with tube sites is that so many people are uploading so many different things from so many different locations, that even with the best intentions it’s impossible to monitor it all. As a result, tube sites are breeding grounds for a) stolen material, b) revenge porn, c) coerced porn, and d) outright rape and sex trafficking (including of minors).
What are the titles like? It’s no secret that porn titles rarely beat around the bush. That said, there is a big difference between a matter-of-fact title and one that uses abusive, racist, or sexist language or that makes you feel queasy. If it sounds bad, it probably is.
Is there a story? No one’s handing out Pulitzer’s for porno plots. But if filming began halfway through the main event, or if it was filmed in a damp garage on a Nokia, you are probably watching stolen footage – or something much worse.
Well, that’s a wrap. I hope this has shed some light on a little silver lining of lockdown: more time to check in with yourself and connect with your imagination.
Before I leave you, let me just remind you that repurposing any kind of fruit or vegetable for that kind of personal use is a bad idea. But if desperate times truly call for desperate measures, then please put a condom on it. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.
Abi Larner (she/her) is a writer and researcher based in both the UK and France. Passionate about social justice and women’s rights, she’s committed to building a sustainable and fairer future, one small daily step at a time. When she's not writing, you can find her testing recipes, hiking, or grumbling about the patriarchy. Interested in collaborating? You can find her here: abilarner.com. Read her first part of this article: A Guide to Greener Sex, and Towards a Fairer Future.