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A Brief History of Sex on the Internet

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It was hard to envision its enormity.

At the Webs inception, few outside the tech world realized it would be seen as one of the signal
events in computer science. Or that it would ignite an information revolution. Or that it would
make it possible for an individual or a group or a government to communicate with billions.

Even fewer foresaw that the Web would become the largest wank-off machine in creation.
Though there were inklings.
Excerpted from The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido, by David Friend
Grand Central Publishing

People browsing for sexual content, like those searching for illicit love, guarded their anonymity
and frequented hard-to-find addresses, often at night. Like those caught up in affairs, they could
become obsessive, protective of their time in the zone. Like those donning drag, they assumed
new names and created parallel identities. The tech writer (and self-described nethead) J. C. Herz
would make the point in her 1995 book Surfing on the Internet that the wired universe offered
gender options that dont physically exist. For instance, the LambdaMOO virtual world gives
users a choice of male, female, neutral, neither, royal (the royal we), and the natty, insouciant
splat (*) option. Women and men would assume cross identities: a member of one sex,
disguised as another, would engage in cybersex with Net partners of either gender, or both,
depending on the mood and circumstance. This elasticity unleashed a new freedom to
experiment, fantasize, and role-play.

As the digital age bloomed, sexual variety reigned. In the late 80s and early 90s, cybersex had a
limited connotation: virtual-reality kink. VR sex, theoretically, involved people in proximity or in
distant locations donning special suits and/or cybergloves and/or headgear, festooned with wires,
and then remotely diddling their partners and sharing a simulated sexual experience, sometimes
accompanied by SFX audiovisuals. (CGIcomputer-generated imagerywas a huge gaming
and cinematic breakthrough in the 1990s.) Cybersex was sim stim. For a time it went by the
cringe-worthy name teledildonics. And at the time, it was pure hokum. (In 1997, Mike Myers,
with a debt to Wilhelm Reichand to films such as Barbarella, Putney Swope, Sleeper, and
Liquid Skyintroduced fembots to explore the concept of robo-shagging in his Swinging
Sixties spoof Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. But for a species that now got its
babies from test tubes, why shouldnt a geek try to get his ya-yas out by way of Alpha Centauri?)

Back then, it was called cybersex. Or virtual sex. Or netsex. And much of it was emerging from
Usenet and newsgroups. In the fantasy forums called MUDs, it was sometimes called TinySex, as
Sherry Turkle would note in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet,
discussing early computer-mediated screen communications for sexual encounters. An Internet
list of Frequently Asked Questions describes the latter activity . . . as people typing messages
with erotic content to each other, sometimes with one hand on the keyset, sometimes with two.

Along came CD-ROMs and DVDsinteractive discs that could be slipped into a disk drive or
game consolewhich allowed users to issue simple commands and choose various options or
outcomes in their sexual entertainment. There were Internet forums where people could post
erotic stories (or add to others stories)many of which would evolve into multipart seriesthat
would attract tremendous followings. There were hatchling websites that stole printed porn
pictures and posted them as their own; sites that featured virtual strip blackjack; sites where
online models popped up in tiny matchbook-size peep-holes, responding to keyboard commands
(How about removing those fish-nets?). The Internet began to micropander to every type of
sexual connoisseur.

about the author

David Friend is a Vanity Fair editor, journalist, and Emmy-winning documentary producer.
According to Forbes, by the end of the 90s there were half a million sex sites, with one hundred
fresh ones popping up each week, many of them very profitable very quickly due to the sales of
ads, products, and links to spicier paywall-protected areas. Come 2000, the porn industrys total
yearly take was some $2 billion in Web business alone.

The Web, by definition, offered virtual sex. Much of it was literally autoerotic. The solitary
online sexual encounter, for many men and women, came to be regarded as noncommittal, less
emotionally taxing, and less trouble. Why deal with the challenges or rewards of anothers needs,
when one could satisfy ones ownand so efficiently? For many online users, the synthetic
actually replaced the actual: online sex became not an expression of mutual connection but of
selfish release. But this was only half the picture.

For millions of others, the earliest forms of cybersex brought the promise of genuine engagement,
not alienation. Strangers typing words to one anotherdigitally stimulating a partner by writing
on a keyboardcould experience real-time interaction on an entirely new plane. Online sex
brought InstaGrat. It boosted the ego. It offered a number and variety of potential partners that
were theoretically limitless. It allowed for a semisanctioned embrace of new taboos, which was
arousing in and of itself. Its virtual nature made online cheating arguably more acceptable to
ones real-life partner or ones conscience. Its attendant anonymity could be exhilarating and
often emancipating. Its seamless utility (from the comfort of ones home) was liberating. Its
relative safety, to many users, beat its real-world equivalent hands down, because electronic
transmission came with zero risk of STDs.

Enter the Con Man

One of the earliest Net-sex horror stories involved an online skeeve who turned out to be a con
artist. Susie Bright remembers it vividly. One of the West Coast leaders of sex-positive feminism,
Bright in the early 1990s had left her job editing On Our Backs. Bright recalls that she had first
gone online because shed heard that on a computer bulletin board called The WELL a
community of people was engaged in a discussion thread labeled Why I Love Susie Bright.

Bright now says, in a series of interviews and emails, The WELL was like the shiny new toy
that everyone in the media was fascinated with. Soon, of course, came the con man. The first time
there was a sex hoax on the Internetat least that I am aware ofit happened at The WELL.
There was a private womens conference that only [female] members could be part of. There
were quite a lot of women on The WELLfor an Internet group, it was a shocking number. That
was part of what made The WELL so cool. It didnt even occur to me that computers were
supposed to be a guy-only space. [As part of ] this private womens conferenceit was more
gossipy and talking about our private lives and things you didnt necessarily want everyone else
to see in publicsomeone started a topic called That Son-of-a-Bitch. She laughs. Sounds
promising, right?

This woman told a story about how shed met this wonderful man on The WELL and it just all
seemed so incredibly touching and poignant and like a match made in heaven. Its hard to capture
how innocent we all were. So we were listening to her describe how sexy it was. By the end of
the story, as you can imagine, he turned out to be a con artist. He [had seemed] really, sincerely
interested in herWere going to have dates and so onand then he had these emergencies
where she had to send him money. That was when the worm turned. But by then she was so in
love with him, so infatuated with their virtual affair: theyd had phone sex; theyd done so much
[online]. So when he started extorting money from her, she didnt even see it [coming].

"Along comes the Web, and I dropped into this world in which I believed my body would be
accepted."

Bright remembers that one of the other WELL participants chimed in. The woman stopped her
and said, This same thing is happening to me and I havent told anyone because Im so
embarrassed and ashamed and Im starting to feel like a chump. And here we are, were both
these ultra-smarty-pants, computer-genius womenhow can this be happening to us? They
compared notesand it was the same man. When they floated his name to the wider community
of The WELL, Bright recalls, there was complete pandemonium. They outed him. And he had
been doing this with so many other chicks, it was just [crazy].

Bright recalls her reaction: Im sitting there at my keyboard and I just dropped my cup of coffee,
because I had just fucked this guy in New York City a couple of weeks earlier. In real life. And I
felt really embarrassed because, unlike the others, I had not given him money. I had merely had
sex with him. I wasnt that attracted to him. I was on a book tour. It was proximity. Yes, he had
been a big fanboy and told me how much he just loved-loved-loved the idea of seeing me and he
would do anything for me when I came to New York. Then I said, Well, we can meet. He was
based in New Jersey. This guy has all these super-brainy women dangling on a string. [He] was,
as far as I knew, the first Internet cad.

More Freedom

There were downsides, there were upsides. My friend Stephen Mayes, a respected photo editor
and champion of photojournalists, insists that the Web had a largely salutary effect on the sex
lives and love lives of many gay men. I had had an incredible disability in the gay world of
never having picked up a man in a bar, Mayes confides over drinks at a speakeasy in
Manhattans East Village. What the Internet did was give me a new awareness of myself.
Previously, the gay bar scene revolved around a body fascism: a prescriptive sense of muscles,
tight abs, shoulders that you had to have. And I am less of a physical specimen in that way. So in
a bar, my eyes had always been filled with fearthe fear of rejection. Along comes the Web, and
I dropped into this world in which I believed my body would be accepted. The Internet released
me from all that fear. It suddenly gave me a freedom to meet with men in a way that Id never
experienced before.

Mayes believes that when it came to the stereotypical sexual aesthetic of the gay man, the digital
realm had much to recommend it. The gay world seems to lend itself to this idea of sharing
stuff, he insists. Its open-source, like the Web. It has that reputation: open relationships,
sharing partners, etcetera. It has, historically, a sense of being furtivepushed into the
underground for centuriesbut once outside social constraints, it was a lot freer within a private,
underground context. In many ways, these were also the hallmarks of the early digital space: a
private, members-only society with its own language and codes and libertine ethos that existed
under the radar.

At the same time, Mayes recalls, the digital photography revolution of the 1990s served to
enhance the sex lives of those who were drawn to the visual, to exchanging private pictures, and
to creating homespun erotica that might invite and satisfy the fellow male gaze. In previous
decades, many gay men, he says, had relied on Polaroids (which required no processing) since
they were concerned about bringing their undeveloped film to the corner drugstore or one-hour
photo shop. There was a social stigma, says Mayes, and, more importantly, legal issues in
taking your film to the lab. Sodomy was illegal in places like Texas until the 2000s. So the digital
camera freed up people. And those intimate digital photos could be easily traded electronically.
In the early days of the Web, Mayes notes, the digital sexual image is very privateyou take it,
put it up on your computer, share it just with the people you want to see it. No lab technician! In
the late 90s this changed. If you wanted to, you could place an explicit photo online to attract
partners, and you felt it was private. You had to register under a screen name. You were
addressing members like yourself. But it was a misguided belief that you were addressing a
private club. In fact, anyone could register and, more than that, you could download the image
and suddenly your own photo [would be] feral, animal, developing a life of its own. For all the
benefits that these websites brought usgay and straight and otherwiselittle did we know the
extent to which our personal images would become public commodities that had the potential to
spin out of control.

Online Dating

The Internet, for many, was a virtual singles bar. On the largest dating sites, chemistry (both
sexual and interpersonal) would be replaced by algebra. Algorithms that had been designed to sift
through a voluminous database of attributes listed in members profiles would sort and rank
potential partners likelihood of attraction and relationship longevity. Individual subscribers
would then be presented with a slate of possible dates who, in time, might be possible mates.

Social media would not only help define ones persona and sexual expressiveness, but would also
have long-term effects on social interaction, free speech, and political change.

Matchmaking services, of course, had been around for decades. But the Web brought a new level
of respectability to such artificially induced interaction. Little by little, the fix-up began to lose its
total-loser stigma. In the digital age, the unattached, no matter what age, came to see e-dating as
socially acceptable, safe, and efficient. In fact, the algorithms and the screening process conferred
a certain authority. (At the time, columnist Michael Wolff would describe online dating as a new
and rather vanilla way of mating: a perfectly decent, unremarkable, squaresville thing to do.)
By comparison, the singles scene, the bar scene began to be regarded as crass.

Dating sites took off. And this 90s phenomenon so revolutionized the way urbanites coupled up
and settled down that today, according to the New Yorkers Nick Paumgarten, fee-based dating
Web sites take in more than a billion dollars annually and have become the third most common
way for people to meet. (The most common are through work/school and through
friends/family.) As the dating dot-coms grew, so did a new set of online meeting places that
turned ones wider net of contacts into their own raison dtre. These were the start-up social
networks. And in terms of the wider culture they would become far more influential than the
dating sites. Social media would not only help define ones persona and sexual expressiveness
(shaping ones real-world reputation and online demeanor in the eyes of potential suitors, friends,
strangers, and even potential employers), but would also have long-term effects on social
interaction, free speech, and political change. Services like TheGlobe.com and SixDegrees.com
(well before Friendster or LinkedIn, before MySpace or Facebook) were the online hubs where
communities of users gathered to converse and exchange information about shared interests,
pastimes, or backgrounds.

Sex, of course, was central to the origin story of social media. We often forget that social
networking, early on, was really all about sexual stereotyping, says my friend Rachel Winter,
the film producer. Facebook was founded as a way of rating womens looks. From that
nucleusdevised by male students at Harvardcame everything that followed, including the
trolling and shaming. At this stage I would say: lets all take a breather and ban social media for
five years. Wed all be better off.

From the book THE NAUGHTY NINETIES. Copyright (c) 2017 by David Friend. Reprinted by
permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.