I met Clay about a year ago in the basement of a smoky club down on 6th
St. in New York City's East Village. I had brought a bizarre multi-tonal
guitar to play at one of the club's weekly open-microphone sessions. After
I finished, Clay asked me if he could borrow the instrument. I said sure,
assuming that like everyone else before he'd give up after a few tortured
moments trying to navigate around the tiny frets. But his hands moved gracefully
and he immediately began to play a gorgeous blues tune on the awkward instrument.
We spent the rest of the night talking and playing music together next
to a pile of beer bottles and a pool table. He looked about 21 years old
and wore black. He said he had grown up in Canada, someplace near Toronto
that I'd never heard of. He had sex with lots of people, men and women.
He loved the blues and he didn't want to talk about his life before New
York. He was keeping some stuff on the floor of a couple of friends' apartments
but many nights he just looked for a sexual partner and stayed with him,
her, or them.
I never figured out Clay's whole life story and I never saw him again.
But it seemed that he was just following the path of thousands of men and
women who have drifted to the big cities to fulfill their dreams and to
escape home communities where the woman at the drugstore knows everybody's
name. Some become enraptured with the shadows of the city and stay there
forever. Others just go for a short trip. Still others do something in
between and look back either fondly or regretfully on their "youthful experiment."
Most of us, at one point or another, long to be like Clay. We want to
fulfill our primal desires, be anonymous, make up a world and a history
if we have to, and wander in the bright lights and the musty corners. But
of course we generally don't. The bus trip's too long; we've got a real
life to live; other desires and goals are more important.
Now, however, it's easy to be like Clay. Lots of people are making up
their own worlds, having sex with dozens of people a day, shifting their
identities every half an hour. How? By going online. Men and women who
would never have made it to New York with Clay have found their own cities
on the Internet and they're replacing their real worlds, and the authentic,
complex relationships that organized their lives, with the Internet. And
many are discovering that they just don't want to leave these digital cities
or, more dangerously, that they can't.
You've got Tail!
Sex on the Net goes far beyond the pornographic images that blanket
the Web. Porn has been around for millennia and the Internet has merely
increased its scope and availability. The real change brought by the Net
is the innovation in sexual conversation between real people typing at
different machines; this is the most potent side of the new sexual revolution,
created by the crossing of our animal drives with one of the most powerful
communication technologies ever invented. This interaction is at the core
of what is becoming known among a growing circle of psychologists as the
crack cocaine of sex addiction, and it's the foundation of the new bustling
city that the Internet has brought into our homes.
If you've never been to this city or if you've never even been on the
Internet, America Online makes it simple for you. They've created a system
that is almost effortless to load and easy to use. According to spokeswoman
Tricia Primrose, the system was set up in part to "appeal to people who
remember manual typewriters." All you've got to do is press "enter" on
your keyboard, listen for your modem, and look for the innocuous image
of waving people labeled "Chat" that appears on your screen. Click twice
and you'll be transported into the sweltering labyrinth of chat rooms on
which AOL has built much of its business. As millions and millions of people
have figured out, if you want erotic excitement, anonymity, and a fantasy
life, this is much easier than taking a Greyhound to New York.
The public chat groups on AOL are divided into categories--some created
by AOL's staff and some by AOL's members. They range from general meeting
places to discussions about rock stars to rooms for crossdressers. But
in almost all of them, users mainly flirt or talk about sex. The chat rooms
aren't much more than a sprawling singles bar with sections for every sexual
fetish known to humanity--and, it often seems, a few others that must have
just been dreamed up.
Researching this article, I put in dozens of room hours, saving conversations
to my hard drive. On five separate evenings, I logged chat rooms for the
entire night and found that at least two-thirds of the chat is flirtatious
or sex-related. Here's a random selection, culled from the bottom of the
first page of my printed transcript of five groups selected randomly in
the "Town Square," "Arts and Entertainment," and "Romance" sections. "Ever
been with a guy my age?" "I'm about to bang on my dick," "I'd just like
Britney sitting on my face" [from the Britney Spears fan club chat room],
"Babe, lets go chat personally," and "Any ladies with self pics want to
trade? I also have a videophone." In the rooms created by members, "Dominatrix
4 sub m" for example, things get even more interesting. There are also
rooms that fill up nightly like "xprexteexnxgixrls" in which every visitor
is entered onto lists where members privately swap pictures of naked pre-teenage
When members meet in any of these rooms, their common pattern is to
talk about sex for a while and then proceed to AOL's Instant Messenger,
a program that allows you to communicate with someone else privately in
real time--going from the virtual bar to the virtual hotel room. In the
many hours that we spent online at the Monthly researching this
piece, approximately 90 percent of all the Instant Messages received were
attempted pickups. No wonder Ted Leonsis, president of the AOL Interactive
Properties Group, once quipped to the Internet magazine ZDNet that
99 percent of Instant Messages began "Hi, Male or Female?"
One Hand Typing
AOL didn't invent sexual banter, but the Internet and AOL have brought
sex one giant step closer to everybody. Few people feel truly comfortable
buying a pornographic magazine in a grocery store. Over the Internet, however,
all of these social anxieties are washed away. Anyone can find porn within
seconds on the Net, and it's easy to hit on someone in a chat room; there's
little fear of rejection since you can just bounce away, or even change
your name. In the real world, it's hard to meet someone; it's difficult
to match up sexually, and there are a thousand things to worry about--from
STDs to pregnancy to embarrassment in your home community. This is particularly
true for groups that have been stigmatized sexually, like the homosexual
community. If you are gay, you can just log onto AOL and enter one of the
numerous "m4m" chat rooms or the slightly less common "f4f" ones; if you
are a hairy gay man, you can join "bears4bears." Hermaphrodites even have
their own series of "shemale4male" groups. If AOL's too tame, switch over
to gay.com, a site which leaves even less unsaid. Users creating member
profiles are asked to check their "best attribute" from the following:
"Body, Butt, Checkbook, Face, Intelligence, Legs, Personality, Sense of
Humor, or Shoe Size." Shoe size, of course, doesn't refer to the size of
Chat on the Net has brought sex into a middle ground between fantasy
and reality. You aren't reading a dirty magazine alone in a barn and you
aren't actually having sex with someone. You aren't just thinking what
it would be like to follow Clay's path; and you aren't actually standing
on a street corner looking for partners, with a cigarette dangling from
The other strong appeal of sexual discussion on the Internet is the
opportunity to fill in the blanks about your partners. If the woman of
your dreams has red hair and is young and lithe, log onto AOL, enter the
chat room, and describe your fantasy partner. Someone will respond with
basic details that match your ideal--red hair, 5'8'', 130 pounds--and you
fill in the details. You can imagine them as anyone. You can pretend that
she looks just like the woman you fell in love with years ago, or maybe
that she just looks like the gorgeous young woman buying a half-gallon
of milk in the grocery store yesterday morning. And she, no doubt, is doing
the same thing with you.
Once they've chatted a few times, people can begin to develop a pseudo
life online and get caught in the same trap as the ancient Chinese philosopher
who dreamt he was a butterfly and then spent the rest of his life wondering
if he wasn't just a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Here is a conversation
between a woman named Kara and a man named Jason (not their real names)
on AOL who logged on with the screen names Emeraldeyzs and Cobalt4. They
met in a chat group, gave each other sketches of their lives and their
careers, and began to flirt in the Internet's peculiar language where emotions
are expressed by symbols and letters: means "I'm grinning" and
smiley faces--like :) or the slightly cooler ;D --mean you're happy. You
show laughter by typing "LOL" (laughing out loud), "ROFL" (rolling on the
floor laughing), or even "OTFFLMAO" (on the floor f***ing laughing my ass
EmeraldEyzs: Do you like Natalie Merchant?
EmeraldEyzs: She has this one song ............
Cobalt4: Yes ...
EmeraldEyzs: There is a line in the refrain about Fate smiles And Destiny?
EmeraldEyzs: It's a nice thought at least =)
Cobalt4: < -- Hoping that Fate and Destiny will smile at me. :-)
Cobalt4: Hey in 15 days I have a b-day! "Major hmmm" EmeraldEyzs: Oooo a birthday? . .. :::smiles:::
Cobalt4: <-- Loves "unwrapping" B-day presents
Soon Cobalt4 and EmeraldEyzs started to seduce each other over the Internet
and moved into a sexual relationship:
EmeraldEyzs: :::pressing up against
you. Loving the feel of your skin against mine...
Cobalt4: sliding my hand down your
back ... caressing ...
EmeraldEyzs: :::::wiggling into your
Cobalt4: :::rolling you over onto
your stomach... taking your arms and raising them above your head.
Their relationship moved from the tame into the sadomasochistic:
Cobalt4: :::smiles::: Oh, and just
what were you thinking about?
EmeraldEyzs: May I be forward?
Cobalt4: Please do, I expect nothing
EmeraldEyzs: I was thinking how nice
it would be to be tied up by you... ...
On and on it went. They had sex repeatedly over the Internet; they tied
each other's ankles to the bedboards with silk scarves; Kara acted out
scenes as Jason's slave; and they even had an online breakup and makeup
Cobalt4: :::looking into your eyes
as you look into mine:::
Cobalt4: What do you see Kara?
EmeraldEyzs: Hurt... forgiveness...
Cobalt4: and I see the same.
Cobalt4: holding you close and tight...
EmeraldEyzs: :::::::wrapping my arms
around you...softly crying into your shoulder::::
Eventually Kara and Jason decided to meet in person and set up a trip.
EmeraldEyzs: I'm leaving for the airport
now love, I can NOT wait to see you!!!!!!
::::::kissing you long and slow as
But when Jason showed up at the airport, Kara wasn't there. He got an
email a day later from her account saying it was her brother and that Kara
had gotten in a car accident on the way to the airport. "She is okay though,
just a broken leg, some bruised ribs, and a concussion. We expect they
will release her later today or early tomorrow."
But none of it was true. Kara wasn't Kara; her brother wasn't her brother;
and she wasn't in a car crash. Kara was in fact a woman named Deana, one
of Jason's ex-girlfriends who had broken up with him because of his obsession
with the Internet and addiction to the virtual world. She'd had a son with
him during their real-world relationship, before he left to pursue trysts
online. Creating her screen name of "EmeraldEyzs" was just her way of getting
back at him for hurting her. Soon, Deana sent her last false message to
Jason and deleted the EmeraldEyzs account from AOL.
Sex Without A Face
Sometimes a cyber-relationship works when people move offline, like
the one between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail. The Internet
can open communication between people who wouldn't have talked before,
and it has created another form of communication that combines some of
the spontaneity of personal communication with some of the intimacy of
letters. It's a wonderful way for couples to stay in touch long distance,
and there are few people with access to computers in the past five years
who haven't had a relationship at least somewhat enhanced by email.
But relationships that work are usually built upon a real-world base,
and a set of shared experiences away from the keyboard. Relationships that
develop without this background on the Net tend to quickly fall apart.
Online, users build fantasies about the partners from sparse details. When
you meet someone online, you're meeting them with almost no context and
your perception of them has been boxed into a single scripted dimension.
In the real world, no matter where you are, relationships usually have
layers. If you court someone in a small town, you may have gone to nursery
school with her brother and you might have a friend who works for her father.
If you court her in a big city, there's more mystery; but you still can
sketch in important details just by meeting her friends and finding out
where she likes to spend her time and what she really hangs on the walls
of her apartment. You learn if she's kind and thoughtful to others--qualities
that just don't easily come across a digital screen. You get to know each
other by absorbing information that bounces toward you from different directions,
both when you're together and when you're apart.
But in cyberspace, everything comes from one direction, nothing is real
for sure, and there are almost no reference points. People become the people
they've always wanted to be, and it's terribly difficult to figure out
someone's true essence from printed lines scrolling across your screen.
There's also a distance at the core of any online relationship. One longtime
AOL user I spoke to had an affair over the Internet with a man she found
incredibly interesting and considered to be very attractive. After a while,
he mailed her a diamond ring and she agreed to fly to Colorado to meet
him in person. But it didn't work out. "He was the ugliest, hairiest person
I'd ever met in my life," she said. "I faked being sick and went home."
In part this failure shows how complicated attraction can be. But it
also shows the coarseness and unreality of online relationships. It's easy
to build up an intimacy that seems to be worth a diamond ring; it's hard
to make the relationship strong enough to get past body hair.
The other problem with online relationships is that it's devilishly
easy to deceive. Almost everyone in every chat room I met claimed to be
somewhere between 18 and 25, and very good-looking. People frequently pretend
they are a different race, and changing sex is a relatively well-known
phenomenon called "gender bending" that 40 percent of all users have engaged
in, according to a recent study published in Information, Communication
and Society. One man I met in a chat room said that a close friend
of his had seduced another man online by pretending that he was a woman.
After cybersex, he revealed his own identity and his partner responded,
"that's OK, I'm a woman." In 1998, a couple who married after meeting on
AOL divorced four months later when the bride realized that she had actually
married another woman who had covered her chest with bandages and said
they needed to avoid intimacy for fear of HIV.
People lie in the real world--on street corners, on the telephone, everywhere.
But there are ways to figure them out, and it's much easier to track down
a real-life person than an onscreen address that can be deleted in a second.
It's possible that the man in the gay chat room who told me the story about
gender-bending was making it up. I'm pretty certain Deana was telling me
the truth since she sent me heaps of transcripts, dated files, and images--and
we talked about it on the phone. But it's hard to be absolutely positive
anything when you're on the Net.
Sex in the Digital City
The biggest problem with these fantasy worlds is that they can become
so alluring that they are, quite literally, addictive. According to a study
done by Al Cooper, a psychologist at Stanford, one percent of all Internet
users can be classified as "cybersex compulsives," those whose sexual Internet
use is enough to lead to negative consequences at home and at work; another
eight percent of all users, or about two million people, spend more than
11 hours a week pursuing online sex--about the same number of people who
are addicted to cocaine in this country. According to Dr. James Fearing,
president of the National Counseling Intervention Services, "We are having
a real hard time clinically trying to get our arms around this problem.
It has come on so fast that we don't know how big it is ... What we do
know is that families are breaking up, young people are flunking out of
school, and people are being fired from their jobs." Last summer, for example,
Kelli Michetti, a 29-year-old Cleveland housewife, attacked her husband's
computer with a meat cleaver when she decided that he had been spending
just a bit too much time pursuing sex online.
To most people the thrill of such trysts does not lie in the consummation,
online or off. According to Robert Weiss, clinical director of the Sexual
Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, "Sex addiction is not about sex. It
is not about orgasm... It's about looking for sex. Your heart is racing.
Your endorphins are pumping. You are in a drug-induced narcotic state."
Weiss makes a comparison to gambling where the thrill really isn't about
winning, but about the rush of watching the dice roll or the slots spin.
In fact, some people develop a Pavlovian response to their sexual chat.
As soon as they sit down at the computer, they need to be online; they
begin to get a rush when they turn on the machine, and, by the time they
are cruising the chat rooms, they are in a virtually hypnotic state, bouncing
from room to room and person to person. According to Dr. Dana Putnam, director
of onlinesexaddict.org: "Their blood flow changes. Their heart rate goes
up. They're in a more alert state, more focused. They shut out external
The problems of addiction cut across gender, even though many more men
are online and men enjoy pornography more than women. But chat, according
to numerous studies, is just as popular among women, who are more drawn
to interactive sexual fantasy. According to Dr. Kimberly Young, executive
director of the Center for Online Addiction, men are more "hard-wired"
to like pornography, but chat rooms "become a safe forum for women. And
they can find it addictive to explore sexuality in different ways."
Skeptics counter that people who become hooked on online sex are just
people with addictive personalities: If they weren't spending 16 hours
a day online, they'd be dialing 1-900 numbers or chain-smoking on a park
bench next to a quart of gin in a brown paper bag. To some extent this
is true, but there is also evidence that a great many Internet sex-addicts
are new to addiction. According to Mark Schwartz, clinical director of
the Masters and Johnson treatment center in St. Louis, Internet sex addiction
is spreading the way that cocaine spread in the early 1980s in white-collar
society. Because of the ease of access, "A lot of people are finding themselves
addicted to something for the first time."
In other words, people who would never have gotten on that bus to New
York with Clay are eagerly buying their tickets, finding their seats, and
getting drawn into the world of cybersex. And many can't get out.
The spread of sex on the Net was almost inevitable. Every time a technology
develops that can break down one of our sexual barriers, someone figures
out a way to market it--from the first pornographic novel, the classic
Hill, just a few years after the invention of the modern form with
Samuel Richardson's Pamela, to the pornographic peddlers of daguerreotypes
in mid-19th century France, to the pornographic videocassette industry
in the United States which was responsible for approximately three-fourths
of all rentals and sales in the technology's early years. As Gerard van
der Leun, a user of The Source, one of the very first online services to allow sexual chat,
presciently wrote in Wired in the very first issue of Wired : "All media, if they are to
get a jump-start in the market and become successful, must address themselves
to mass drives--those things we hold in common as basic human needs. But
of all these: food, shelter, sex and money; sex is the one drive that can
elicit immediate consumer response."
Another of the early users of The Source was none other than AOL's future
CEO, Steve Case, who was working for Pizza Hut and logging on at night
with a painfully slow Kaypro computer. And Case learned this lesson too: He
recognized that a technology had been developed that broke down a sexual
barrier and he marketed it. Sex didn't move into the core of AOL as a result of any corporate perversion--in
fact the company has now developed one of the very best systems for keeping
children away from online porn. It moved into the core of AOL because the
company wanted to get customers.
The power of sex chat became clear in the early and mid-1990s as AOL,
CompuServe, and Prodigy battled to control the market for Internet service
providers. AOL was the smallest of the three, but it began to gain rapidly
in no small part because it was also the raciest: the first company to
heavily market its chat groups, the only one to allow private rooms, and
the first company to have unregulated message boards. Prodigy didn't even
develop chat rooms until it had already started to fade and CompuServe's
somewhat similar "conference rooms" were heavily patrolled. Prodigy's closest
equivalent was boards where, originally, staff members scanned every message
and, later, a filtering system was developed to weed out messages containing
sexual content or vulgarity. AOL also heavily promoted its policy of allowing
accounts with multiple screen names--helping families, but also allowing
users to instantly switch to code names like "hotlegs49" for trolling the
chat groups anonymously.
At the time, Prodigy was owned by Sears and IBM, and CompuServe was
owned by H&R Block, and the parent companies were terrified for their
reputations and worried about potential liability. According to Jenny Ambrozek,
Prodigy's manager for Bulletin Board Communications, "It became clear very
quickly that IBM and Sears had major problems with being associated with
a product that was sexual." Another senior Prodigy employee once told Kara
Swisher of The Wall Street Journal that sex chat is "why AOL has
eight million members and Prodigy has faded to a shadow of its former self."
Yes, there were many reasons why AOL eventually buried its competitors,
but sex appeal was a major one. According to a former AOL employee I spoke
with: "If they were going to get rid of all of the people who are perverts
or pedophiles, their numbers would go down by the millions."
You Make Me Real
There's nothing legally wrong with sexual chat. If someone wants to
risk a divorce so that they can spend their life playing S&M games
on a computer screen, they do and should have the right. But there is something
unnerving about this. When I asked Deana what society would be like in
a future with high-speed broadband Internet connections, she merrily typed
back: "Everyone will be fat and online 24/7 ;x." It doesn't necessarily
make you a prude or a stooge for Big Brother if you think that maybe this
isn't such a good thing.
The Internet provides an illusion of attractiveness, of intimacy, and
of self-confidence. It allows you to have a relationship or an affair without
having to get to really know the person you're with; and it lets you end
the relationship just by pressing the delete key. It allows you to become
blond or honest by simply saying you are. It allows you to play the role
of Clay without having to wake up in a strange bed with a hangover. On
the Internet, we can all live Life Lite. And when that happens, it becomes
impossible to access the complexities of relationships that really make
Moreover, the digital city shows no pity for those whom it traps. In
the real world, we get less attractive, money grows tight, expectations
begin to catch up to us, and we have networks of flesh and blood friends
who notice the extra lines on our faces and help pull us back from the
mire. Soon enough, we take the bus back home and look for a lasting relationship
with someone; at the least, we get an apartment and settle into a community.
But when you're on the Internet, friends are just names on screens, there's
always another kind of chat to explore, and the technology just gets faster,
cheaper, and more seductive.
The cities created by the Internet are no longer just easy to get to,
and they're no longer just breaking down barriers: With the advent of broadband
access and free connections, they're actually coming to look for us. And
it's hard not to think that, for all the wonders of the Internet, there
aren't going to be more and more people ending up like Jason: stuck in
the dark corners of their carefully constructed cyberworlds, bouncing from
relationship to relationship and person to person--letting their eyes blur
and the distance between themselves and their computer screen shrink.
Research assistance provided by Rachel Marcus, Joshua L. Shapiro,
and Aaron Tracy.