A History of the Horny Side of the Internet

From the very beginning, people on the internet have been obsessed with sex.

That’s the argument laid out in a new book by journalist Samantha Cole, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex. Cole digs through early internet history to show how sexual content and communities were part of the internet from its earliest days and had a profound effect on how the online space deals with identity, community and consent. From identity play on early bulletin board sites to the rise of online pornography as an industry in its own right, Cole argues that you can’t understand the internet without sex — even if today’s big platform companies wanted to.

Substantive note: This interview describes multiple sexual practices in plain language. Readers who are uncomfortable with these topics should exercise discretion.

The book states that sex has been a fundamental part of the internet from the beginning. Why do you think that is?

It’s just such a part of human nature to want to connect as deeply as possible with other people, whether online or not – and the internet opened up a new place for that. Suddenly people could be who they wanted to be. They could take on these personas that were different from who they were away from the keyboard. They could express themselves in a way they never had before. For many people, that branches out to sexuality almost immediately.

“What level of reality do you want to experience through the internet?”

It’s interesting reading those old bulletin boards where people describe themselves as mythological creators or blobs or whatever they wanted to be. Then they would have these really deep, interesting, philosophical conversations about love and sex and relationships. In many cases, they would meet and then go on a date. Sometimes they married and had children. I say in the book that there are real people out there who only exist because these message board systems linked their parents together.

There is an immediate security problem because you have people using pseudonyms to share information that is otherwise truly private. But it seems the internet didn’t have many tools at this stage to keep your identity private.

Right – to get into a BBS like this you had to call someone on the phone and give them your name and credit card information. So it was palpably personal between you and the administrator. Once you got in, many of them let you use whatever name you wanted, but there were other communities asking you to use your name. Others want you to put your email address at the end of every post so people can contact you directly. It’s an interesting gap: what level of reality do you want to experience through the internet? But the more sexualized communities emerged when people used the Internet to pretend to be something they wanted or wanted to try.

How much does this change when you enter today’s internet, built on companies like Google and Facebook that can treat sexual content very differently?

It gets really complicated when you go from a single person running their hobbyist bulletin board and scanning Playboy photos, to this massive machine of moderators making decisions. People can get really frustrated if they don’t have a central person to talk to about what’s happening on this platform that’s a big part of their lives. So that has certainly been a huge shift. We’ve got these massive monopolies that just run the show for us now, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re out of that control.

“The conversation is getting fiercer because everyone has an interest in it.”

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At the same time, these companies are now obligated to payment processors and banks, and so they have to push all these things off their platform, in many cases because of those financial obligations. So when you see that change, it’s hard to imagine the internet getting cleaner and less sexual.

You describe many early moments of sex panic in a way very similar to what we see now – but in other places the internet seems to have given people more acceptance. Do you think the conversation about moderating sexual content is changing?

People are clearly more aware of the legal landscape. If you asked the average person in the late ’90s if they knew anything like the Communications Decency Act, they’d have no idea what you were talking about. But now a lot of people have real opinions about Section 230 and are really well aware of these things. It’s all much more visible and the conversation is getting fiercer because everyone has an interest in it. There are so many more people who depend on the internet for work, sexual or not. So people are now paying attention in a way that they haven’t for decades

What about the second part of the title, how the internet has changed gender? Throughout the book you can see people discovering new things or discovering themselves in ways that would not have been possible offline. Do you think the internet has made our sex life more specific or more extreme?

I think having access to communities of like-minded people can be truly world-changing. I’ve done a lot of research on fetish and kink communities, and for a lot of people, before they found those communities, they thought they were the only ones. So it was really interesting to see how that grew up with the internet. Suddenly you have thousands and thousands of people reading forums about their particular fetish and talking about what they like and why they are interested in it.

One thing that really surprised me was these forums on how to suck your own dick. People just exchanged tips and advice on how to do it, exercises to do. Without the internet, you would never have access to that kind of information because you would never say it out loud to someone in the first place, hoping that he or she felt like it. But suddenly you have access to all these people all over the world saying, “Yeah, I want to exchange advice on how to suck my own dick.”

It was actually too vulgar for the book.

Do you think the internet creates these desires or just makes it safe to express them?

It can be hard to say. You can definitely discover something new that you didn’t know you were into. Or you might realize you were on it all along, and you didn’t know it.

One of the stories I recently wrote was about people who liked blueberries and blueberries

. Many of them were interested in this because they had watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when they were kids and said, “Oh, that gave me a feeling,” and carried that with me for years without telling anyone. Then they go online, and they see that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. That is a transformational change. It’s not just, “I found something I didn’t know I liked,” but also, “Now I can really express myself and buy a blueberry suit because I see other people doing it too.”

Having that community makes you feel less weird. It is less insulating. I think that’s a big part of why people have so much shame about their sexuality and their porn use. They feel like they are the only ones who want this. Finding out you’re not alone can be revolutionary.

How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: A History goes on sale November 15.

Jacky

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