[From the “My Back Pages” folder on my hard drive comes this early meditation on the darker parts of the Net that I wrote for Time in their “Cyberspace” issue back in the Stoned Age of the Internet in 1995.]
CYBERSEX: The Same Thing, Only Different
“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” — mnemonic
You gotta be tough to cover the cybersex beat on-line. It’s a tough and dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. I’ve been telecommuting down these mean virtual streets for almost a decade now, and I’ve seen things that would make William Burroughs blush and send Catherine McKinnon into cardiac arrest. Strictly as an observer, mind you. I like cybersex, but I don’t give it my essence. Still, it’s a wild scene. One that makes a person reflect on whether or not the human race is an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Until you remember that cybersex, in all its manifestations, has been going on since humans received the gift of imagination.
The great pop philosopher John Lennon once observed, “It’s all in the mind, you know.” This is true in any medium, but with cybersex, sex is in the mind almost completely. Like all other new mediums, computer networking deals in two immense subject areas before any others: unpopular political ideas and sexual fantasies. This happens whenever a new medium becomes popular, widespread, and affordable.
VCRs began to appear in homes around the time people got the idea that you could watch X-rated films without appearing publicly in the local seedy movie house. Nor were the immense sales of video recorders achieved just so people could tape their holiday celebrations and stupid pet tricks. Lots of tape is recorded in bedrooms. Some of the earliest movies ever made were shown only at men’s smokers. Photography gave us many admirable images, adorable family snapshots, and Tiajuana postcards. Printing presses were popular not just to print Gutenberg Bibles, but to make copies of such subversive documents such as Fanny Hill, the writings of the Marquis de Sade, bawdy ballads, The Rights of Man, and The Declaration of Independence. The telephone also has its uses when it comes to sex. Indeed, viewed in this light, the content of Morse’s very first telephone call, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” is highly suspect.
On the cybersex beat, you have, shall we say, a large menu of things to choose from and places to visit. Some people can’t resist and end up collecting massive amounts of what, in its more sophisticated versions, can be called “erotica” but is, frankly, mostly smut. Other people become fixated on “chat” which is a kind of phone-sex that’s typed in real-time. Still, others use the medium to set up real assignations in the real world of the No Tell Motels of America.
Many use the medium to attract people by describing themselves in a more “heroic” way than a subsequent meeting in the flesh reveals. Some use the networks to seduce distant lovers and keep a kind of score of their “hits”. Not everyone who does this is male, by the way. Some even, yes, fall in love, meet, get married, have children or houses and go on to live decent lives as upstanding members of their community.
One of the benefits of cybersex is that you get to both meet and be new people every day. Indeed, if you learn how to use the anonymous posting computer in Finland, you don’t even have to reveal your real name or location. You can be utterly anonymous. Another benefit is that, since no one can see you, you certainly don’t have to look your best. Yet another benefit is that you can, to a certain degree experience and understand lifestyles that you would never dream of trying in real life. And, of course, the safety of virtual sex is unparalleled. The only viruses that can be transmitted in cyberspace are computer viruses. While annoying, they tend to let the users live.
The downside is that, especially on the Internet and the Adult Bulletin Board Systems, many people are going to see, hear, and read things that are intensely pornographic. Just knowing that this is going on will drive lots of people, including the ambitious in authority, to “do something” about it. Another strong negative aspect of cybersex is that it can be addictive and chew up large amounts of money. A third problem is that it tends to leave a lot of things lying around on your computer that you wouldn’t want out on the coffee table in most rec rooms.
I mean, face it, how many people brag about their X-rated collection of videos?
This is a family magazine, so I won’t get into the gritty details of what happens sexually in cyberspace. Suffice it to say that no lifestyle, lifeform or item of furniture exists there without being made — sooner or later — part of someone’s sexual fantasy. Some of the most popular groups on the Internet are those that make text and images and even sounds with sexual content available to the world. The large commercial services such as CompuServe and America On-line make a point of disallowing any explicit sexual material to be publicly posted, but their “private” chat rooms are notorious cyber-fleshpots. In fact, the most unnerving encounter I’ve ever had took place in the CompuServe adult chat area. I won’t go into it here. I shudder to think about it. To this day, I’m not even sure about the genders or species of the people involved. I dimly remember the names Michael, Lisa, Pee Wee, Jo Jo, Squeedle86 from Alpha Centauri, and Elvis, but after that everything is a blur.