What My Dialup Youth Taught Me About Sex and the Internet

I took an excited sip of my after-school Coke before clacking away on my clunky keyboard. Everyone wanted to know “a/s/l” (age, sex, and location), and I lied: 21/f/Florida. Then I entered into a private chat with RedSoxxx72, who promptly typed these words: “Hey sweetheart.” Eek. I pushed myself back from the computer desk, traveling a few feet in my roller chair before coming to a stop. Then I spun myself around a few times, as if to embrace the roiling of my stomach, and scooted back to the keyboard, summoning the women I’d seen in late-night phone sex commercials. “Hey big boy,” I wrote as goose bumps spread across my forearms. Next came that ubiquitous question: “Whatchu wearin?” I looked down at my Dr. Seuss T-shirt and wrote, “Red lace stockings.” He did not delay. “I'm taking those red stockings off right now and slowly licking up those long, luscious legs.” That is as far as I let it go before hammering out, “IM 12!!!!!!” It was 1996, and AOL chatrooms were where I spent most of my afternoons.

All these years later, it’s unsettling to revisit this adolescent experimentation; it triggers my protective impulse around the early influx of “adult” information, as well as the very real threat of online predation. But at the same time, I understand that those (fortunately harmless) cybersex sessions were the result of natural adolescent curiosity and yearning around sex—the kind that is unsatisfied by bare-basics parental “sex talks” and rote health-class dictums. When it comes to sex, the internet underscores the gap between what young people want to know and experience, and what adults are comfortable with them knowing and experiencing. That gap is never bridged through parental locks and over-the-top warnings, which heighten young people’s sense of being coddled at best and lied to at worst. It’s addressed through acceptance of teenage wanting, not just for information, but also exploration. On that front, parents often falter, while the internet always delivers. Only in recognizing, and valuing, young people’s sexual interest can adults meaningfully help them navigate sex—online or off.

Those early chatrooms were a virtual landscape dominated by the graphic and sometimes alarming desires of boys and men, but they were also the source of the first inklings of my own insistent desire. The internet introduced me to a thrilling world of possibility, the fact of sex as not just a biological event but a broader social phenomenon, one filled with play and creativity. I’m not alone in this: A 2015 survey of Finnish girls found that respondents associated sending “sexual messages” online—including during what some called “pervy roleplay”—with “the freedom of exploration.” The researchers cast it as an extension of the common forms of real-life sexual experimentation that children engage in, like playing “house” or “doctor,” which can be an exploration of “adult interaction, normative social roles, the bodies of others, as well as emotions connected to sexual settings.”My dad, a computer programmer at a startup in Berkeley, brought us online at the beginning of the internet boom—and just as I slid toward puberty. The dining room had recently been converted into “the computer room,” as we called it, which tells you something about the size of these machines and just how excited our family was about this new technology. While my friends were still stuck parsing women’s magazines like YM and Cosmopolitan for intel on sex, I had seemingly limitless knowledge right at my fingertips. This meant discovering a version of what would become Rule 34 of the internet: If you can think of it, someone is into it. Plenty of chat partners described cliché scenes of vanilla romance—beds strewn with rose petals or candle-lit bubble baths—but there were also mentions of everything from threesomes to spankings to golden showers. It was too much information with too little context.