Comes Naturally #34 (June 2, 1995):
Sex on the Net: Thoughts on a Culture Being Born

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Spectator Magazine - June 2, 1995
(c) David Steinberg

Sex on the Net: Thoughts on a Culture Being Born

It started among a small coterie of computer nerds employed by the Defense Department, this mushrooming piece of popular technology called the Internet. Then it expanded to include the various institutions, corporations, and organizations that deal with the Defense Department, which, as you might not be surprised to learn, involves a very broad swath of the American landscape. Most significantly, it involves most every college and university in the country, which is to say, an awful lot of people between the ages of 18 and 25. A system of information availability, totally ungoverned and (some would say) ungovernable. Anyone able to post any information at all, available to anyone else, easily and at minimal or no cost, with the poster either identifiable or anonymous, poster's choice. It is the ultimate in democratic information access: no editing, no rules to speak of, no enforceable standards, almost no accountability.

Not surprisingly, sex immediately became part of the picture. Dozens of bulletin boards were established on the Internet with specifically sexual agendas: sharing information, thoughts, and harangues; meeting new people; promoting products. On the Internet, anyone can create and operate a bulletin board about anything they want. Anyone.

We now have tens of millions of people free to talk about sex with each other, while those who normally control the ebb and flow of this sort of dialogue have been taken completely out of the picture. No book publishers to convince that what you want to say has enough economic potential to make it worthwhile for their company to invest in the cost of physically producing and promoting a book. No magazine editors to convince that what you want to say will sell lots of copies of their rag. No radio or tv producers who have to worry about how both the Good People and the FCC will react when the subject of sex is raised. Tens of millions of people, with thousands of newcomers to the system every day. It is an anarchist's dream; a totalitarian's nightmare.

Direct, unregulated access to each other's sexual thoughts, experiences, and feelings -- the ultimate nightmare for a social system that runs on the premise that social order requires the continuous suppression of seductive, seditious sexuality. In order to enforce grossly and unnaturally narrow moralities of dictated sexual normalcy, a sex-phobic proscriptive culture requires that all those who find themselves outside socially enforced normalcy be seen, and see themselves, as isolated deviates. Once everyone knows what everyone else is thinking about, dreaming about, and doing, the cat is out of the bag, the sexual genie sprung from the claustrophobic bottle s/he had been compressed and repressed into for a millennium or two.

Control of the means of sexual information dispersal results in control of the ability to tell people who they are supposed to be, and the ability to ostracize and otherwise punish those who refuse to play by the sexual rules. This control of information flow has always been centralized and therefore in the hands of those at the center. Thanks to the Internet -- and to the more popularized versions of computer information access like America On Line, CompuServe, and Prodigy -- this centralized control has, for the moment at least, been exploded. There are those who believe that people will never be able to be so completely controlled ever again.

Anyone can start and run a bulletin board on the Internet; it's a democratic, free market process based in the simplicity of what interests people enough to organize a subject topic and then to post messages on the subject. And what does it turn out that people are interested in? Well one of the major topics of interest on the entire Internet just happens to be sex, and not just talk about how often people are having sex in the missionary position, or how to prevent teenage pregnancy. People want to know about the sexual material that no one else seems to want to talk about -- the repressed, forbidden heart of the matter.

The original bulletin board designation for this kind of sex talk was (that's "alt dot sex"), which in the Internet format means a bulletin board talking about alternatives, and alternatives that pertain to sex. As interest in became overwhelming, more specific designations became necessary. No one wanted to sort through thousands of messages, looking for a particular topic they were interested in, so people initiated a panoply of more narrowly defined bulletin boards that addressed specific sexual subjects. People who initiated bulletin boards discovered that almost no matter how eccentric the subject, they were not alone in their interest. Sexual bulletin boards mushroomed, and quickly became some of the most numerous and frequently used facilities of the net. The people on the net, computer nerds though many of them certainly were, did indeed have wide-ranging sexual imaginations and curiosities. When it comes to sex, people do want to know. On the Internet, they get to ask and find out.

Here are just a few of the bulletin boards currently available to anyone who plugs into the Internet:;;;;;;;;;;; [men of the same sex];;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;[erational];

That's just within the world. Beyond, there are such interesting bulletin boards as; alt.nudism; alt.pantyhose; alt.polyamory; alt.transgendered; and rec.arts.bodyart.

Sounds pretty fringy, doesn't it. Are there really that many people interested in such exotic subjects? Probably just a few oddballs, you may say. Well, according to my computer, which only stores postings less than three weeks old, in the last three weeks, there were (choosing a few groups at random) 5228 postings to, 3497 to, 1812 to, 726 to, 2743 to, 416 to, 49 to, and 2087 to rec.arts.bodyart. In other words, there are more than a few geeks interested in the more arcane nooks and crannies of the sexual otherworld. So much for monolithic sexual normalcy.

Now many of the postings are simply goofy, but many others are from seriously curious people seeking and giving substantial useful information to each other, and discussing significant issues related to the various sexual predilections. Once upon a time, people who didn't fit into the assumed sexual mainstream assumed they were simply perverted, that there must be something wrong with them to want what they wanted, do what they did, get turned on by the things that turned them on. One glance at the Internet, and people can find out that it just ain't so. Of course there are people who are seriously contorted sexually, and who are causing either themselves or the people around them great pain and possibly great damage as a result. But having unconventional sexual thoughts doesn't make you weird by definition, and with the Internet, having unusual sexual thoughts or desires doesn't mean that you have to feel alienated and alone. There are people out there, people you can talk to, people who probably share a lot of your feelings, people who may be able to offer advice or perspective you could not or would not arrive at yourself, people who may help you find resources -- places to buy equipment, books to read, partners who share your unusual tastes -- and you can contact these people without publicly exposing yourself to anyone at all. In other words, you don't have to find your way through the great grey wilderness on your own. Not any more.

Enter Politics

Now what's a good government to do about all this free-floating, unimpeded information flow? Try to shut it down, of course. Thus we have what Senators James Exon (D-Nev) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash) call the "Communications Decency Act," an attempt to keep communications that are (all together now, class) "indecent, lewd, lascivious, or filthy" from being transmitted over the net.

Initially, the Exon bill proposed to do this by making everyone involved in transmitting "indecent" messages -- the sender, the receiver, and the operator of any bulletin board or mailing list -- criminally liable and subjecting all such parties to jail and fines of up to $100,000. This was patently ridiculous, as bulletin board operators have no way of even knowing what messages are posted on their boards. Even if they could monitor postings, they would have to check dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of postings a day. People operating bulletin boards having nothing to do with sex, boards focusing on computer software, or astrophysics for that matter, would have to screen postings in case anyone was covertly sticking something lewd among the scientific notices. The whole point of the Internet would be undermined; the system would become simply and entirely unworkable.

Civil libertarians, computer buffs, commercial interests, and journalists all rallied to criticize and ridicule the Exon proposal. The preservers of moral decency, in complete ignorance of how the Internet functioned, had overreached themselves. The good senators retired to the legislative drawing boards and reworked their wording to take the bulletin board operators out of the penalty loop, but maintain severe criminal penalties for anyone originating a message deemed indecent or lascivious. What was the definition of lewd and lascivious? Well of course no one has ever been able to make that very clear in U.S. jurisprudence, so now everyone would have to suffer the same erotic ambiguity that porn producers and erotica publishers have grappled with for years. The new wording was attached by the Senate Commerce Committee to a much broader and more significant bill, the Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995, by a vote of 17-2, late in March.

The legal questions as to what can and cannot be controlled on the Internet and on other computer-related telecommunications systems involve a number of issues that have yet to be addressed by the judicial system. The transmission of messages and images via computer is essentially a form of telephone communication, and therefore not subject to governmental scrutiny without cause. You can, after all, be as obscene as you want on the telephone, as long as both/all parties consent to the conversation. In states where oral sex is a crime (and there are many), it is still perfectly legal to talk about or describe oral sex over the phone. It's legal to talk about sex with people of the same gender, with animals, with corpses, or even with two-year-olds on the phone, if that's what you want to do. Telephone is simply speech, after all, and online networking is nothing more than telephonic communication with thousands of people at a time.

Blurring the Line Between Speech and Action, or When Does Sex Talk Become Sex?

Once you enter the world of cybersex, the line between having sex and talking about having sex gets a little blurry, as blurry as the line between existence and non-existence (take a look at the abortion debate), the line between good and evil, or the once-sacrosanct line between male and female. I'm talking about the curious and I dare say intriguing little (actually not so little) world of online sexual chat rooms.

Chat rooms are places where people can gather online to have immediate back and forth conversation on any of a variety of topics. Unlike the bulletin boards -- where people read other people's messages some time after they're posted, and then write responses that are posted later and read still later -- chatroom conversations are immediate and spontaneous. I type my message and send it immediately to you, with the flick of a computer key. You receive it instantaneously via the Internet or an online service like America On Line. You type your answer, and immediately send it back to me, and so it goes, a typewritten telephone conversation without voices, punctuated by brief pauses to allow each person to compose his or her response.

There are chatrooms to talk about movies, to talk about Star Trek, to talk about the O.J. Simpson trial, to talk about the 49ers, to talk about Howard Stern, to talk about Christian values, and of course to talk about sex. In fact, on a mass market service like America On Line, most of the member generated chatrooms are about sex.

Anyone who goes online with a service like AOL can set up a public (or a private) chatroom on any topic they desire. It's like setting up a bulletin board, only much easier. You start a new room, give it a name, and wait to see who shows up. Your room goes on a list of membergenerated rooms, to be purused by the thousands of people who cruise the chatrooms at any given moment of the day or night.

Early in the morning, mid-afternoon, or in the dead of night, there are dozens upon dozens of open chatrooms available to online cruisers, almost all of them sexual in nature. Some are general in scope, like "The Flirts Nook" or "Romance Connection." Others are more specific like "Bi Moms," "Girls 4 Cowboys," "Le Chateau Dungeon," "Men in Tights," "Alone in Office," "Bi curious married f," "Hot bi f 4 anything," "Hubbys who show off wife," or "mental domination." Some are very specific indeed like "BiM4AsianM N Texas" or "Huge M4 GrkF Boston."

Anyone online can go into any room and join the conversation there, unless the room is full. (On America On Line, there is a maximum of 23 people to a room at any one time. How this number was arrived at must be an interesting story in its own right....) The result is up to 23 people throwing typed conversation into the collective pot, presumably conversation related to the title of the room. In addition, anyone can send private "Instant Messages" to other people in the room, messages that are seen only by sender and receiver. Anyone can also create a private room, not open to the public, and invite specific people to go off together for more (and more sexually explicit) talk.

A service like America On Line establishes its own rules of behavior, rules about what people can and can't say. The rules on AOL (the service I happen to subscribe to) are pretty loose, though they are getting tighter all the time. In public rooms, people supposedly to refrain from obscene language and from specifically sexual talk. There are no restrictions on what takes place in private rooms, rooms that are supposedly unmonitored by AOL. Once you "go private" with someone, you can get as graphically descriptive as you want without interference from anyone. (If the person doesn't like the conversation, they can always leave, either gracefully or abruptly.)

Participants who violate what AOL calls its Terms of Service can, at worst, have their AOL service terminated. In fact it is not uncommon for public rooms to get pretty graphically sexual. If an online spotter shows up in the room (they identify themselves as Guides to let everyone know who they are), people generally whistle and talk nice until the Guide leaves, and then pick up with whatever they were doing before.

The point is that in both public and private rooms, of which there are dozens if not hundreds to choose from at any given time, people are gathering, meeting each other and engaging in various forms of typed sexual talk, mutual fantasizing, guided masturbations, and simulations of sexual encounters of all sorts. Thousands and thousands of people are, at this very minute, getting off together via keyboard, computer, modem, and telephone wires. They're paying $3.50 an hour, not $2.98 a minute, to do it, and they're doing it with people who want to be there for other than financial reasons.

So, tell me, dear readers, for $64,000, is this sex or not? Is a person who is married, who shares an online sexual fantasy with someone they will never see, hear or meet, being unfaithful to their spouse? Is a person who anonymously types her way through a mutual masturbation scene with another anonymous person online having sex with that stranger? If they make a date to meet online every Thursday night, are they having a relationship? An affair? A little hard to tell. Most people who took part in a recent discussion of this subject online said they would not want their partners to know what they were doing. They felt guilty, so they concluded they must be having sex -- an interesting way to define sex.

I don't know if I think of online sex chat as sex exactly, but one thing does seems clear to me: the days when people necessarily masturbated alone are over. I mean, why masturbate alone when you can masturbate with another spontaneous person via modem? Masturbating alone is, after all, kind of lonely. Why make up solitary fantasies, when you can collaborate on a fantasy with another imaginative mind, with two other people, or with 22 other people? Why limit your imaginary sexual horizons to the limits of your own mind when there are so many other minds to pick? If some people's fantasies will inevitably be silly, boring, or distinctly unsexy to you, other's are sure to be enlightening, perhaps even delicious.

A Plastic Reality, Like It or Not

Now, there is one level of mindbending transcendence available online that offline reality simply does not have, and that is that online you can be anybody you want to be. A subscription to AOL, for example, allows you to have up to five online names at any one time, and to post a "personal profile" for each name, giving for each (if you wish) age, gender, marital status, occupation, hobbies, and a favorite quote. You can give your real name too, but only if you want to.

In other words, you can go online as yourself, or as the persona of your choice. You can be a 50-year-old man, as a 16-year-old boy, or as a 28- year-old woman. You can be tall and blond, or short and dark. You can be dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, in a short leather skirt and tank top, in fishnets and heels, or in nothing at all. You can be strong and muscular, soft and paunchy, stocky, trim, voluptuous, or plain. You can be heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bi. Of course, so can all the people you encounter online. The result is a distinctly plastic reality which can be either disturbing or intriguing, depending on your frame of mind or your basic perception of reality. I used to say in jest that reality is just a crutch for people who can't handle drugs. I've also been known to say, why settle for reality when you can have art. Or theatre. but that's just me, of course.

Is the person who acts as if they are sucking your cock so sweetly the curvaceous 25-year-old San Francisco wild woman she claims to be, or is she actually a middle-aged salesman in Tampa indulging a fantasy he would never dare act out in person? Does it matter? Is the 16-year-old boy who claims to be a virgin really an ingenue, or is he actually a guy turning 30 reliving an adolescent fantasy he never got to fulfill? Is it deceptive to claim to be someone other than who you really are online, or is it fair to expect that anyone online should understand that in this virtual world people cannot be assumed to be who they claim to be? Ethical questions for an expanded reality to be answered by each person for him/herself. A new subject for undergraduate philosophy students to ponder.

Personally, I try to pay careful attention to basic respect and courtesy for others, and to treat people I encounter online with care. Beyond that, I consider the details of age, appearance, and gender legitimately malleable. I love theatre, what can I say. And I have had some absolutely delightful and enlightening times gendersurfing the chatrooms. Walking into a room full of horny, frustrated guys and coming on to them in full, no-risk, high female slutitude is a mindblowing experience every man should get to have. The power of it! How ridiculously stupid the guys get! How hungry they are. How touchingly grateful for whatever attention, whatever sexual playfulness, whatever unabashed sexual heat you choose to throw their way. I daresay I've learned as much about the dynamics of gender sexplay from a few hours of gender posing online as I have from dozens of conversations with women about what it feels like to be sexual with men in various circumstances. And I daresay I've taught more than a few guys a thing or two about sexual respect for women by holding my own sexually and reserving my sexual attention for the guys who know how to not be dumb jerks.

I have had the experience of being jumped by three men at once because no one could wait his turn, each wanting nothing more than to stick his cock in the most available hole he could find. I have had the experience of getting bored with a sexual interaction, wanting to leave and go do something else, yet not wanting to hurt a guy's feelings (he thought he was being such a magnificent lover even though he was being entirely self-centered), and so pretending to be having a good time while trying to think of what I could do to get him to come so it would be over at last and I could say goodbye. (Stroking his balls lightly did the trick.) I've received the devoted attention of guys who want nothing more than to make me very, very happy, some of whom knew something of how this might actually occur, and some of whom were totally without a clue. I've learned that most guys are in a terrible hurry from start to finish, going through the entire sexual experience with such hectic urgency that they barely seem to hear or feel anything that's going on. I've learned that sweet, tender guys can get positively nasty and mean once they're seriously turned on.

I've seen how absolutely mundane and predictable people's sexual imaginations often are, both men and women (though by and large the women seem to be more imaginative and attentive to detail than the men). And I've had some delightful connections with both men and women that have been sweet, tender, vulnerable, playful, sensual, and surprisingly steamy, given that we were (after all) doing nothing more than typing at each other over a fluorescent screen.

I've been topped and topped others, both men and women. I've done threesomes with two men, with a man and his wife, with a master and his slave. I've typed my way through several ongoing one-on-one scenes simultaneously, feeling like I was Bobby Fischer playing multiple games of chess, relishing the challenge of remembering which cock was whose, which cunt shy, which hungry for hard thrusting, which nipples liked to be brushed lightly, which pinched hard, who was coming, who not yet there. And I've had sweet, friendly conversations after coming that seemed to have some of the flavor of post-passionate moments of easy peace with live partners.

I certainly don't believe I've done anyone any harm, playing out these little games. If the guys I play with are homophobic, they never need to know that the hot young woman who just delighted in squeezing every last drop of come out of them is really just me. And the experience of teasing a bisexual young woman to orgasm as she pretends to finger me doesn't really lose any of its charge from the knowledge that this person may well have no more of a wet cunt than I do.

It is, I think a marvelous time, when something as fundamental as the way people masturbate -- in all likelihood a uniquely solitary experience since the beginning of time -- may be going through a most fundamental change, under thanks to computer technology. Perhaps this is the most significant innovation in masturbation since the invention of the vibrator.

Is it a change for the better? Hard to say. Masturbating with someone online, like phone sex, is certainly a lot less lonely than masturbating alone. Of course nothing substitutes for the healing warmth of honestto -god, flesh-to-flesh, skin-to-skin touch. But something is gained, I think, when masturbatory fantasy becomes mutual, unpredictable, and multipersonal. At least it's another possibility to add to the sexual palette for those who can appreciate the odd form of it.

If shy, timid people turn to their computers for cybersex in place of leaving their rooms and meeting someone new, sex by computer will be one more step toward interpersonal alienation in a culture that already is frighteningly isolating. But I doubt that this is what's happening with the current wave of online sexuality. I think it's more likely that people who are alone are taking the edge off their aloneness via modem sexplay until some live partner sex comes their way, and that people with partners are using computer sex to supplement their live sex without all the complications of secret affairs. I see online sex as a world of relatively nonjudgmental imaginative possibility, where women can be sexual without risk of punishment (physical or emotional), where men can be vulnerable and shy without risk of embarrassment, where sex talk of many different flavors is readily available and entertaining, where people can play with fantasies of being sexual with people of the same gender, or trying out some form of s/m, or crossdressing in ways that may help them sort out whether they want to enact these sexual expressions more powerfully in the flesh. Seems like a plus to me. Senators Exon and Gorton would probably disagree.

In the end I guess I'm just an incurable optimist about these sorts of things. I believe that information, even when mixed with rumor and misinformation, is basically good to pass around. I believe that experience and exploration, even with the risk of hurt and confusion, are things to be encouraged as well. Most of all, I believe that creative imagination, diversity, and the spirit of play, sexual and otherwise, are essential to rich existence, and anything that provides an arena for the development of these faculties is a step forward.

As Chairman Mao used to say, during one of his better phases: let a hundred cocks bloom; let a hundred cunts flow.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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