“I WANT YOU,” he says. “Will you be mine for tonight?”
“That’s not very romantic,” she chides him.
There is a pause. His words emerge slowly. “I’ve never met anyone like you before,” he says, more truthfully than he realizes. “Nobody has ever talked to me with such insight before, and you’ve really turned me on.”
“That’s better. I’m unbuttoning my blouse. Do you want to see my breasts?”
His first night at the pickup scene, and he’s struck pay dirt! “Yes!” he says. “I do!”
“First you have to tell me more about yourself. I want the good stuff. How big is it, really?”
His measure of himself is changing. He’d almost come to believe that he was geeky as unkind classmates had said. But this!
This was being conducted at the terminal of his personal computer, in a private “conversation room” with an online presence called 42EEBABE who had responded to his own nickname – MR12INCH – by inviting him to talk in private. In this sense, talking means typing back and forth to one another. What MR12INCH would never know is that 42EEBABE was another man, a man who excited himself by luring “newbies” – newcomers to the network – into intimate sessions of mutual gratification conducted from terminals that could be tens or hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
Two sexual characteristics that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom are the ability to be in heat at any or all times, and a willingness to believe in an electronically-realized romance like the one detailed above, the like of which happens daily. Thanks to computers and the information superhighway, we now can virtualize our desires, suffusing ourselves with images of exciting-looking partners or pursuing them, probably using a phony name, through cyberspace. Not surprisingly, most of that activity is performed by men. And, although the format has changed, sexism still reigns. In fact, it’s virtually encouraged.
Take a game called “Astro-Tit.” This was introduced a few years ago, but you have to remember that computer years are like dog years. Astro-Tit showed up during the dark ages of the personal computer, when color monitors were a novelty and all four colors thus displayed were washed-out pastels. Screen resolution – the number of pixels, or colored dots used for display – was also lousy. Video games at the local mall looked better, but this was your own PC, in the privacy of your own home.
Astro-Tit was an arcade-style game in which you, the player, moved and fired an erect penis at attacking breasts – disembodied objects that descended from the sky. The ammo, of course, was a fat, wiggly sperm. Should you fire too rapidly, the erection sagged. As you succeeded in overcoming those bosoms, new items of attack were Bibles and birth-control pills, a truly odd combo. If you persevered, you were confronted by the most virulent enemy: a buck-toothed beaver.
The game was distributed electronically, via modem, available from bulletin board systems (BBSes) across the country. A modem converts computer characters into noises that can be carried over a phone line and reconstructed at the other end; a BBS includes a computer, modem, and appropriate software to allow callers to send and receive messages and files. The much vaunted term “information highway” is a catchall to describe the many variations of such communication that are being conducted. Not surprisingly, there are many red-light districts along the way.
But back to Astro-Tit. It was the perfect manifestation of the male computerist’s confused lust: lots of rude images to giggle at, the blatant (if artless) recognition of the phallus as weapon, and a vision of sexuality as a collection of parts of a woman. With the computer – better living through technology! – providing an outlet for the frustration of the unsocialized.
All new technologies that involve communication sooner or later also involve sex. From ribald storytelling to daguerreotype nudes, from early stag silents to today’s multimillion dollar porno industry, we love to watch. And listen.
It got better. Technology, that is. The number of displayable colors jumped from four to 16 to 256 to many millions of hues, much better-looking than a television screen. In the business world, this meant that full-color photographs could be edited electronically. Lonely guys made out even better. Inspirational photographs could be downloaded from BBSes that specialized in such things – and nothing made a BBS more popular than a good supply of what were once termed “art studies.” Although the wisdom (and discretion) of enjoying oneself in front of a computer monitor is doubtful, there being a known radiation hazard, it sure beat journeying to a newsstand and enduring the shame of buying the latest issue of Juggs from the female clerk.
It got better still. Those electronic images take up a lot of disk space, which meant that they required long hours at the modem. Modems got faster, disks got cheaper, the march of technology gave us the means to reduce the size of image files without too much loss of resolution – and those images started to move. And speak. Which brings us to “The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts.”
It’s a CD-ROM title, which means that it looks like an audio compact disc but contains information readable by a properly-equipped computer. It promises full-motion video, but CD-ROMs aren’t as smooth-looking as TV, which doesn’t have to worry about where to put all the information it needs. And so the action of “Seymore Butts” is played out on a small inset screen, with the stop-and-go jerkiness of an old 8-millimeter projector.
Based on the fantasy, vital to porno movies, that the flimsiest of compliments will get great-looking babes at your feet (and elsewhere), “Seymore Butts” watches the world through the video camera carried at all times by the title character. It’s interactive in the sense that you’re asked, now and then, to choose a comment or a destination, but each choice soon gets you a display of hardcore sex.
An even finer fantasy is played out in Penthouse magazine’s “Virtual Photo Shoot” series. You are a photographer with a choice of three women to shoot per disc. A variety of poses are offered; choose what you like and fire away. At the end of a session, your photos are scrutinized by Bob Guccione.
If your secret fears of insufficiency steer you away from such encounters, another CD-ROM asks if you’re man enough – and proceeds to taunt you with questions until you finally cough up enough acceptable answers to warrant some naughty pictures.
But why interact at all? There’s a computer program that offers a “virtual mate,” your ultimate woman, who knows your likes and dislikes, remembers your birthday, doesn’t sass you back ... you get the idea.
Who buys these things? I took an informal survey at a recent computer show, held in Albany once or twice a season, that features a couple of dozen tables of hardware and software for sale, with lots and lots of CD-ROM titles. Not as many as I’ve seen in the past, but that’s because, as one vendor explained, fewer show sites are allowing their display – “Connecticut, man. It’s rough there.”
My survey resulted in no easy conclusions. The profile of buyers was, simply, men, of all adult ages. Did they buy a CD-ROM player especially to look at this stuff? No. All of the 16 guys I spoke claimed to have purchased the player before even discovering the wealth of CD-ROM porn that’s available. I had hoped to forge a thesis that porno discs would fuel the spread of CD-ROM units in much the same way that dirty movies brought VCRs into our households, but the only people backing up that idea are the producers of the discs themselves.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to using the computer as your personal smut purveyor is the ease with which you can conceal your stash. Magazines and videotapes take up a lot of space, so if secrecy is required you can simply obscure your image files with boring names and cloak your CD-ROM discs with the wonderfully appropriate wrapper so many of them now boast: “wife-proof” labels that identify the disc as some manner of highly-technical utility program.
Enlightenment is the best alternative to sexism, and other points of view are emerging. Lisa Palac edits a San Francisco-based magazine called Future Sex that isn’t at all afraid of technology. Although she hasn’t moved completely into the computer-based interactive realm, it’s getting closer; her audio CD, titled “Cyborgasm,” gives a stereo tour of erotic sounds. “The link between sex and new technology is always going to be there,” says Palac, “and I think women should get involved. We need to create our own erotic titles that appeal to women.”
Coming of Age
According to Fordham University professor Walter Kendrick, “Pornography is always unsatisfied. It’s always a substitute for the contact between two bodies, so there’s a drive behind it that doesn’t exist in other genres.” Lynn Hunt, editor of the recent book The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800, suggests, “Pornography attaches itself to a new technological medium partly because it’s a genre that’s very interested in technological means.”
Interacting with the computer is the adolescence of cybersex. It’s the realm of boys getting that first taste of forbidden pleasures. In life, even the geekiest get the opportunity to dress up and go out, whether or not they choose to take advantage of it. The computer offers the opportunity to socialize without worrying about appearance or hygiene. In fact, you don’t even have to worry about identity.
A recent San Francisco Bay Guardian article suggested that computer sex could be the ultimate release for the abstinence advocates, or at least provide an outlet of undeniably safe sex – physically safe, that is. The image of a latex-covered computer screen is attractively risible, but a look at the style and substance of online sex shows that it’s the same game played in a different arena.
Two types of interaction are possible. E-mail requires a succession of messages, public or private, signed or anonymous, to build a conversation. Live chat lets you and your electronic quarry type at one another. Like many a peep-show parlor, these encounters can take place one-on-one or in a virtual room of like-minded people. And it costs far less, not to mention being much easier to clean up after.
One of the earliest online meeting styles was through Dial-Your-Mate BBS, which sported software that asked the caller a series of questions. Your ideal mate was assumed to be a person who shared your height, weight, age and interests, and the program simply tried to pair up similar listings in its database.
Not a recipe for romantic success, but it broke the ice. And the accompanying conversation areas allowed users to get to know each other better. Private BBSes are the little neighborhoods of cyberspace. They’re dwarfed by large services like CompuServe and Prodigy and America Online, which in turn are nothing compared to the size of the Internet. Any multi-line service, including the larger BBSes, allow real-time chatting. But until you wander through the Internet’s IRC (Internet Relay Chat), you’re a virtual virgin.
Here you’ll find hundreds of channels devoted to a vast range of topics, going way beyond sex – but sex remains the most popular item. It’s explored in #bdsm, where bondage is discussed; #erotica, for sex talk, and its cousins #netsex and #kinky and just plain #sex; #jack-off, specializing in gay sex talk, as well as channels like #bisex, #lesbos, and the popular #F.U.C.K.
But who actually is out there? Those conversation areas seem to feature predatory packs of guys who pounce on the first putative woman straying near. Is the person with whom you’re exchanging hot ‘n heavy fantasies actually the gender you expect?
Electronic cross-dressing is relatively simple, especially on services that allow or encourage the use of nicknames. Without pictures to back up their claims, MR12INCH and 42EEBABE could be just about anyone.
One thing you can be sure of is that somebody else is out there, any time of the day or night, real-time chatting or posting messages. Even if you don’t work yourself into a one-handed typing frenzy, you can at least be assured of the comfort of finding like-minded souls to commiserate with.
Wrong Arm of the Law
As sex-related talk and pictures proliferated on computer networks, rumors of worse nastiness started to fly. A BBS operator just south of Albany was targeted a few years ago by a wildly misinformed woman who concluded that some manner of pedophilia was being encouraged there. The sysop (short for system operator) had long encouraged users to be as frank as they liked while admirably keeping the stupidity level low; he was able to withstand the hysterical inquiry that followed.
Not so lucky are the operators of a BBS in California, victims of a sting operation that resulted in an obscenity conviction last July. A postal inspector in Memphis, Tennessee, subscribed to the Amateur Action BBS using a false name and downloaded images he judged to be obscene.
Robert and Carleen Thomas, who run Amateur Action, had been able to beat an attempted bust by the San Jose police, who seized the Thomas’ computers but were unable to find child pornography and were forced to return the equipment. The Memphis postal inspector was more persistent, however. With easy access to the U.S. Government’s stash of kiddie porn, he sent a package to the Thomases and immediately followed it with a search warrant.
Tried in Memphis before a doggedly conservative jury, the Thomases were found guilty of 11 counts of obscenity and face up to 55 years in jail. The case is being appealed, but its shock waves are spreading. Last November, Carnegie-Mellon University, one of the original Internet members, blocked all campus access to Internet areas that contain what the college officials judge to be pornographic images. As reported by Time magazine, one of the investigating faculty members acknowledged the Tennessee case as a precedent for fear.
The entrapment used in the Amateur Action bust throws suspicion on some of the other BBS-related incidents that have recently made the news. Cases have sprung up in Oklahoma, Texas, New Jersey and Connecticut, with a variety of charges centering around distribution of kiddie or violent pornography, leading Christianity Today to conclude that “pedophiles have used computer bulletin boards to contact children, learn their names and addresses, and set up meetings with them,” a phenomenon I’ve been unable to confirm from any other source.
Big Brother is definitely interested in what passes back and forth on our computers, something that has been predicted by cyber-pundits for years. Can government interests keep up with the growth? Internet use is exploding, and new nationwide networks from Microsoft and AT&T will debut soon. How far the user network will grow is largely a matter of how many people are buying and using computers – and those numbers are increasing exponentially. Net proponents see this growth as the best protection of their domain, attacks from proprietary agencies notwithstanding. The yardstick of “community standards” now used to define obscenity doesn’t easily apply, and even the otherwise bluenosed Memphis jury was able to recognize the entrapment used in trying to bring a kiddie porn conviction against Amateur Action.
See for yourself. Hitch a modem to your computer and fire up a communications program. Then use the computer to call any of the numbers in the accompanying sidebar. A good source of information on significant online services is the book Net Chat published by Random House, which lists not only good sites to visit but warns you of any peculiarities the service might have. It’s a Baedeker’s guide to the truly interesting information on the information highway, and it will help you plunge through the mystery of getting on the Internet in the first place.
There probably will always be a geeky side to cybersex. Men got there first and their fantasies tend to prevail. But the balance is shifting. Alongside all of those alt.sex.whatever Internet USENET groups are alt.romance gatherings, where the emphasis shifts from the obsessively carnal. Not surprisingly, that’s a place where women gather. Like it or not, guys, that’s still a civilizing influence.
– Metroland Magazine, 9 February 1995