A History of Cybersex: Dirty Talk, Chat Rooms, and Addictions

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The cybersex manual <i>Virtual Spaces: Sex and the Cyber Citizen</i>, published in 1997.
The cybersex manual Virtual Spaces: Sex and the Cyber Citizen, published in 1997.Photo: Gretchen Achilles

I cannot have been the only child of the Clinton era to have stumbled on the porn site www.whitehouse.com while doing social-studies homework. I remember furtively clicking on thumbnail after thumbnail in an “Interns of the Month” gallery, watching spray-tanned haunches and balloon-taut breasts of girls posed around faux Oval Office interiors materialize, bit by it. When my sister, searching for images of her favorite British pop stars, accidentally typed “Spicy Girls” into Yahoo, the search results made her run, shrieking, from the family computer. Still, cybering was the safest sex around.

“It is probably no coincidence that this sea change comes on us at a time when AIDS lurks in the alleyways of our lives,” a writer for The Nation mused in 1993. Months later, the New York Times reiterated the point. “Computer erotica appears to provide many people with a ‘safe’ alternative to real, personal relationships in a world where HIV is deadlier than computer viruses.” This was in a book review. The book, The Joy of Cybersex, argued that the World Wide Web was a godsend for this reason.

The author of The Joy of Cybersex, Deborah Levine, had spent several years counseling college undergraduates at the Columbia University Health Education program. Levine encouraged them to use their computers to flirt, start online relationships, and explore their farthest-fetched fantasies without taking real-world risk. “The driving source behind sex in the 1990s, whether you’re partnered or single, is the human imagination,” Levine declared. “Enter the world of cybersex. The place where imaginations go wild, anonymity is the rule, and desire runs amok.”

Like earlier safe-sex educators, Levine used multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires to help readers take stock of what they wanted. She placed more emphasis on expanding your horizons than on safety. Online you had no body to protect. But the format looked almost the same. The chapter “Overcoming Sexual Inhibitions,” for instance, started with a quiz intended to help you assess how uptight you are.

“Are you ready to embark on a mission to learn about the expansive range of sexual expression?” Levine asked. “Answer a few questions and find out:

1. If your best friend started unexpectedly talking about his or her sex life over coffee one day, you would:
a. Start choking and try not to spit up your drink.
b. Nod enthusiastically, and change the subject.
c. Ask lots of questions.
d. Feel relieved, and share your own experiences.

2. If a partner asked you (while undressed in the bedroom) to pretend to be something you’re not, say a cashier at a grocery store or a famous astronaut, you would:
a. Say: ‘Sure, honey, but I’d actually rather be a rocket scientist, okay?’
b. Hop to it, and get into role.
c. Think he or she had totally lost his or her mind, and suggest a visit to the therapist.
d. Think about it for a few minutes, fix yourself a drink, and succumb to the unknown.

Like earlier safe-sex activists, Levine used bullet-point lists to introduce the sites her readers should know and to teach them the language that they would need to thrive on them. The pages she cited ran the gamut from tutorials for geeks, like www.getgirls.com, to resources for free lovers like the Open Hearts Project and www.lovemore.com. A service called TriEss connected heterosexual couples who were into cross-dressing.

The chat abbreviations that Levine lists — like ASAP and LOL — now seem so obvious that it is hard to remember that they once needed defining. But mastering them was critical. Decent webcam technology and the bandwidth needed to transmit high-quality images were still a few years off. In the interim, using the right expression at the right time was the only way to flirt and bond.

Like The Joy of Cybersex, the first issue of Wired magazine came out in 1993. It contained an article about a woman whose prolific activity in “hot chats” transformed her from a “paragon of shy and retiring womanhood” into a bona fide “man-eater.” The author describes a female friend who spent hours a day in the 1980s on a service called the Source. He calls her by her handle: “This Is a Naked Lady.”

“The Naked Lady egged on her digital admirers with leading questions larded with copious amounts of double entendre,” the piece began. “When I first asked her about this, she initially put it down to ‘just fooling around on the wires.’”

“It’s just a hobby,” she said. “Maybe I’ll get some dates out of it.”

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Online Seductions: Falling in Love With Strangers on the Internet, published in 1998.Photo: Gretchen Achilles

Yet under the spell of her dirty-talking alter ego, the Naked Lady began to undergo a metamorphosis. She ceased to be “a rather mousy person — the type who favored gray clothing of a conservative cut … She became (through the dint of her blazing typing speed) the kind of person that could keep a dozen or more online sessions of hot chat going at a time.” The effects carried over into real life. “She began regaling me with descriptions of her expanding lingerie collection. Her speech became bawdier, her jokes naughtier. In short, she was becoming her online personality.”

Surfing was the new cruising, and it could change lives. In “health” class, the point of our endless discussions was to scare us off of sex for at least a few years. But the safer substitutes for sex to be found online offered whole new kinds of titillation. To talk (or type) about sex constituted its own kind of intimacy. As more and more Americans got online in the early 1990s, they learned how to enjoy relationships that were text-only. Pioneering “cybercitizens” developed forms of dating that were all talk.

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In 1990, only 200,000 households in the United States had Internet connections. By 1993, that number was 5 million. (The upward climb has continued to 43 million in 2000 and 85 million in 2013.) When the price of personal computers dropped dramatically in the mid-1990s, many families acquired more computers and moved them out of their living rooms into bedrooms and private places. There, the experimentation could really begin.

In many ways, the liaisons between early online boyfriends or girlfriends followed the pattern set by earlier generations of daters. You met by chance. After crossing paths in a chat room, if you hit it off, you could start making appointments to come online at the same time and talk together.

This opportunity could be life-changing. In some chat rooms, disabled singles who found it physically challenging to go out or hook up in real life, connected and fell in love. In others, gay teens who felt isolated in the homes they were growing up in could do the same. This was no small thing. By the time he graduated, one in six gay kids who went to high school in the late 1990s would get beaten up so badly he needed medical attention at least once. But the ambiguous setting of these cyberdates made many people nervous.

At the turn of the twentieth century, “tough girls,” “charity cunts,” and other early daters upset their parents and the police by taking a process that had always been conducted in private to the streets. For the first time in history, dating let young people seek mates and life partners on their own behalf, in public places. Spaces like bars and boardwalks shared many features in common with chat rooms. Both were enticing despite being slightly dangerous. Or because they were dangerous. Risk was part of their appeal.

Sure, people worried about other people misrepresenting themselves. A cyberlover might say he was tall and strong when in fact he was short and skinny, or thin when she was fat. This was the price of freedom. Back in the day, in your parents’ parlor, or at a church- or synagogue-sponsored dance, any other young person you met would have been screened in advance. A penny arcade or nickelodeon was anonymous. The man who held your hand as you shuddered through the dark of the Tunnel of Love might be anyone. But daters soon discovered that the anonymity of being out in public offered its own kind of intimacy. Without family and friends hovering over you, you could be yourself and frankly express your feelings. It was the strangers-on-a-train thing. If she wasn’t into it, who cared? You never had to see a girl you had picked up at the dance hall again.

Early on, mental health professionals started observing that meeting strangers online often had a similar effect. The psychiatrist Esther Gwinnell decided to write a book about “computer love” after a string of patients came to her office reporting that they or their partners had fallen for a stranger online. In Online Seductions, she coined a phrase for the kinds of relationships that her patients struck up. They were “uniquely intimate” because they “grew from the inside out.”

Gwinnell’s patients said some version of the same thing again and again. “The relationship is all about what is happening inside of the soul and the mind, and the body doesn’t get in the way.” “We met our souls first.” This was the benefit of cyberdating, especially for singles who felt insecure in the flesh. The downside was that in the absence of visual cues or social context, it was often difficult to tell your interlocutor from the person you hoped he or she might be. The cyberlove of your life could turn out to be little more than a mirage or a private psychosis.

“When internet lovers leave the computer to go to other activities,” Gwinnell reported, “they may feel as though the other person is ‘inside’ them.”

Finding your soul mate online could also leave you feeling dissatisfied in real life. The psychiatrists warned that cybersex addiction would mess up your preexisting relationships by giving you unrealistic standards and stimulating insatiable appetites.

Your husband will never understand you as well as your online husband understands you, if the online one lives mostly in your head. Even the lithest and gamest wife will not be able to help you realize all the pornographic scenarios that alt.sex.bondage.golden.showers.sheep offers at a glance. What’s more, the rapid-fire pace of online love raises the stakes of every communication. Gwinnell observed that her patients who were in computer love seemed to vacillate between paralyzing anxiety (when waiting to hear from their online lovers) and exuberance beyond all proportion (when they did hear back). We all know this cycle. Compose, write, revise, send, wait, fret, read, reread, repeat.

It is easier than ever now to spend hours poring over the online ephemera of a new crush or partner. Who has not attached operatic levels of hope and fear to the details of status updates and old photographs? Look at that guitar he is holding! We knew he had a good job, but he must also be artistic. The picture with his niece proves how good he is with kids. The problem of interpretation rarely occurs to us until later, when we realize that the guitar belonged to his ex-girlfriend and the child is his, from a previous relationship.

Love in this new medium trained people to let out sighs of ecstasy at every email. The age of Online Seductions left many computer users less in love with this or that particular partner than with the Internet itself.

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You've Got Male: The Internet Dating Game, published in 1999.Photo: Madelene Sabol

Excerpted from LABOR OF LOVE: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Moira Weigel. All rights reserved.

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Labor of Love by Moira Weigel.