Respond to this Article July/August 2000

Sex in the Digital City

Why it's so alluring on AOL and the Internet--and why it's so addictive

By Nicholas Thompson

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 girls.

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, 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 one's shoes.

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 your mouth.

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 off).

EmeraldEyzs: Do you like Natalie Merchant?
Cobalt4: Singer?
EmeraldEyzs: Yes!
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 hands:::::
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 less.
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 session:

Cobalt4: :::looking into your eyes as you look into mine:::
Cobalt4: What do you see Kara?
EmeraldEyzs: Hurt... forgiveness... love.
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 I go:::::::::

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 of 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 "Their blood flow changes. Their heart rate goes up. They're in a more alert state, more focused. They shut out external events."

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. 

Innovative Sex

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 Fanny 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 them worthwhile.

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

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him by clicking here or read his other articles by clicking here

Resources: Online Sexual Disorder Screening for Men Online Sexual Disorder Screening for Women
Center for Online Addiction Sexual Recovery Institute Sexual Recovery Links Sexaholics anonymous
LOVE @ AOL AOL: Online Safety AOL Watch AOL
ICQ Chats Prodigy

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