Twilight Zone of the Id

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The joint is called #hottub (pronounced ``pound hot tub"), and it's open almost all the time. I've been soaking in it for two hours with ``Bubbles," ``Hard Charger" and ``Lush Lady." Charger and Lady are, shall we say, flirting heavily, while Bubbles is trying to get my attention. But s/he's a notorious transvestite, so I'm keeping my distance. People float in and out of this hot tub, which is open to all comers, but no one ever gets wet -- just a little damp sometimes. If you fancy someone, and he or she fancies you, it is possible to go private and exchange sexual fantasies until you're too exhausted, or bored, to continue.

This steamy place doesn't exist in the physical world. It is a ``channel" on Internet Relay Chat (called IRC among netheads). IRC consists of a series of real-time discussions on the Internet. Think of it as CB radio that you type instead of speak. Any number can play. And lots do.

A maze of steamy places that don't exist makes up the warp and the woof of sex on the Net today. The fact that virtual sex happens on the Net upsets a lot of people. Unfortunately, sex on the Net turns on a lot of people too. I know. I've been covering sex on the networks for nearly 10 years. Strictly as a professional, of course. I've seen things that would make William Burroughs blush and send Catharine MacKinnon into cardiac arrest. I've had a chance to order whips and chains by the gross, drop in on group sex and download more explicit pictures than are displayed in a decade's worth of Hustler. In one day, I've read more intimate confessions than are found in a year's worth of Penthouse letters. All this as an objective journalist, mind you. I report on cybersex, but I don't give it my essence.

Today online sex is as wild and far-ranging as the human imagination -- a real Twilight Zone of the Id, which causes one to reflect on whether or not the human race is indeed an evolutionary cul-de-sac, until you remember that cybersex has been going on since humans received the gift of imagination. Cybersex is, at bottom, simply old sexual fantasies in a new electronic bottle. As with all other new mediums, online draws its energy from the same two timeless topics: radical politics and sexual fantasy. They are the first uses made of any new means of communication when it becomes popular, widespread and affordable, and they recede as the medium matures. The printing press has a long history of revolutionary tracts, such as Tom Paine's The Rights of Man and Jefferson's Declaration of Independence -- along with what are now erotic classics, such as the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom.

In the 19th century, photography gave us historic images -- pictures of Abraham Lincoln -- and naughty photographs, sold under the counter. You can be sure that the first obscene telephone call was placed not long after the Bell Telephone Co. connected the first network. As for the first phone sex? That was probably the first obscene phone call in which the recipient didn't hang up. When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, the erotic film A Free Ride was circulating through the men's smoker circuit. The explosion of VCRs coincided with the release of videotaped versions of such porno classics as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door. Sales of video cameras didn't explode just because people wanted to tape their holiday celebrations and stupid pet tricks. As Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly recently reaffirmed, lots of videotape is recorded in bedrooms.

Now computer networks are the hot new medium, and, like all those launched before, they rely on radical politics and sex as primal energy sources. In cyberspace there is an ever-expanding menu of places to visit and sexual material from which to choose. Some people roam the networks collecting massive amounts of what, in its more sophisticated versions, is termed erotica. Most of it, frankly, is smut.

There are endless text files describing sex with strangers and strange sex. There are photos and films and sounds (Girl in Cage, Women in Wet Clothes) to download that are usually found behind the curtain in the back of mom-and-pop video stores. There are personal ads of the ilk published in the back of swingers' magazines: WANTED TOPLESS MAID CLEVELAND AREA. One can order sex toys of the inflatable and battery-driven varieties, available via 800 numbers and direct mail. There are costumes (men's black leather harness with silver studs) and condoms, leather and rubber goods, the full catalog of kink -- if, of course, you are a consenting adult with some room left on your credit card. The price of ordering the John Wayne Bobbitt video, Uncut: $49.95. Many people like to have this electronic sex in real time and become fixated on ``chat" -- a kind of phone sex pecked onto a keyboard. Chat on the major online systems has been a dependable cash cow for nearly a decade, and, at rates from $2 to $12 an hour, it is easy to understand why.

Others use the medium as a pickup bar and a place to set up real assignations in the no-tell motels of America. The real cybersex conquistadores employ the networks to seduce distant lovers and keep a kind of score of their ``hits." Not everyone who does this is male, by the way. Indeed, recently on America Online, a woman with the handle ``Stolen Kisses" became the object of many others' fancy after she wrote an article in Penthouse magazine titled ``Confessions of a Cyberslut." While it was once the case that women willing to engage in erotic give-and-take on the networks were in short supply, they are becoming much more prevalent as the medium expands.

Yes, it's also true that lots of people fall in love over the Net, meet, get married, have children and go on to live decent lives as upstanding members of their community. But most who venture into the explicitly sexual arenas of cyberspace do so for the freedom it affords them. One of the benefits of cybersex is that you get both to meet and to be new people every day. If you learn how to use the anonymous-posting programs that are proliferating, you don't even have to reveal your real name or location. You can be utterly untraceable. Another benefit is that since no one can see you, you certainly don't have to look your best. Yet another plus is that you can, to a certain degree, experience and understand life-styles that you would never dream of trying in real life. And, of course, the safety of virtual sex is unparalleled. The only viruses that can be transmitted in cyberspace are computer viruses. While annoying, they tend to let the users live.

The downside is that, especially on the Internet and the adult bulletin- board systems, many people are going to see, hear and read things that are intensely pornographic. Some are not going to like it. Just knowing that this is going on will drive lots of people, including ambitious public officials, to ``do something" about it. Another problem with cybersex is that it can be addictive and chew up large amounts of money. And it tends to leave a lot of things lying around in your computer that you surely wouldn't leave out on the coffee table. I mean, face it, how many people brag about the collection of X-rated videos in the back of their bedroom closets? There is no life- style, life-form or item of furniture in cyberspace that does not become -- sooner or later -- part of some cybernaut's sexual fantasy. Some of the most popular alt.sex groups carried on the Internet provide lascivious text, images and sounds for the wired world, all day every day. Three of these such groups are alt.personals.spanking.punishment, alt.sex.fetish.fashion and alt.sex.strip-clubs.

Is this kind of thing good or bad? That's an argument that's probably been going on since the first crude painting of a naked person was drawn on the wall of a cave. Does cybersex conform to community standards? The idea of community standards starts to evaporate when the ``community," like the Internet itself, is global. The large commercial online ``communities" like CompuServe and America Online expressly forbid the posting of any explicit sexual material. Since, by popular demand, they are providing increased access to the Internet, however, they do allow you (after many disclaimers) to add the alt.sex groups to your personal inventory of Usenet newsgroups. Besides, the ``private" chat rooms on both these services are notorious cyber-fleshpots. In fact, the most unnerving encounter I've ever had took place in the CompuServe adult-chat area. I won't go into it in these pages, and I shudder to think about it. To this day, I'm not even sure about the genders or species of the people involved. I dimly remember the names ``Michael," ``Lisa," ``Pee Wee," ``Jo Jo," ``the Bong" and ``Elvis," but after that, everything is a blur.