Subcultures: Killer Sex

It was the perfect tabloid story: a former Penn Ph.D. student caught up in a violent S&M love triangle. But the really shocking part may be how much the Internet is changing our sex lives

According to the New York Post, Krieg paid Maa as much as $5,000 per month for her services, although her attorney has denied it. Maa worked with Krieg for about two years before the relationship took a turn this past November: Krieg started ranting about Maa on his MySpace page, praising and castigating her in turns. He published her phone number, under her real name.

His rage apparently stemmed from Maa’s burgeoning relationship with Anthony Ottaviano, a 40-year-old attorney from New York. Ottaviano served as a foil to Krieg’s character, in many ways: The slender man spoke fluent Italian, traveled, and enjoyed fine wines. He also, it happened, shared Maa’s interest in leather and high heels. He accompanied her to fetish parties in Manhattan, apparently not as a paying customer, but as a boyfriend.

“David is pissed off!” Krieg wrote on his MySpace page one night, and signed off.

A HALF-CENTURY AGO, the renowned philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in his most enduring book, The Art of Loving, that in modern times, love has become an endangered ideal. That is, busy people have turned it into a commodity to be traded. “Love is often nothing but a favorable exchange,” he wrote elsewhere, “between two people who get the most of what they can expect, considering their value on the personality market.”

I visited sex therapist Alex Robboy at her office in Center City, hoping to find clarity and a glint of hope. Are people really fading into self-regard, fixated by their ever more specific desires? Are 21-year-olds so blistered by their exposure to online sex that mere sex — the human give-and-take — no longer satisfies, driving them to purveyors like Jade Vixen and Veronica Bound? On whose plastic sheets, of course, there is only take: no actual sex at all?

“But that is the act of sex itself,” Robboy said.

“Is it?” I said. “She doesn’t actually — ”

The therapist shrugged. “If it turns you on.”

With her shrug, clarity arrived: Erich Fromm did get it right. We’re in danger of becoming a people for whom there is only take. Self-soothing automatons.

Robboy went on to confirm this by making a thoughtful point: The tragedy of Jade Vixen’s and Veronica Bound’s clients isn’t that they like to be beaten a certain way, but that they’re paying for it. People pay dominatrices to service their one-way, narcissistic privations, afraid or unable to face the challenge of actual intimacy. And the dominatrices exploit that fear.

The tragedy stopped there, for Robboy. But I thought of my first meeting with Veronica Bound, at the coffeehouse where all those college students silently tapped their computers, networking alone. I wondered whether this new sex — electric sex, itemized and specific sex — undermines relationships beyond the city’s sexual dungeons. So I met with Kathleen Wright, a professor of philosophy at Haverford College who teaches a course called “Love, Friendship, and the Ethical Life.” It’s easy to see why America’s oldest Quaker-rooted college would hold Wright in esteem: She exudes smartness and motherliness in equal parts; she spoke as easily of Aristotle as she did of her teenage daughter.