Chapter eleven image

The Night Thoreau Had Cybersex

Or, Once You’re On, How Do You Get Off?

Late one evening, as I was nearing the end of my one-year journey into the Internet’s deep, uncharted electronic woods, Thoreau came to me in a dream. He had dark, tousled hair and one of those beards that rings the bottom of the jaw, and his mouth was drawn into a scowl. He looked surprisingly like Abe Lincoln, only shorter.

“We are conscious of an animal in us,” he said out of nowhere, his voice soft and deep. “It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled.”

“What?” I asked.

“An animal in us,” he repeated. “Reptile and sensual.”

It was only then I noticed that Thoreau was carrying a dead otter, tethered on a rope. The otter was wet, and there was an unpleasant smell. “I don’t know what you’re asking me,” I said.

“What is chastity?” Thoreau grunted back. “How shall a man know if he is chaste?”

“I don’t know,” I insisted, “but that otter has to go.”

It was only a dream, of course, but he had a good point. Here I was, close to finishing this book, with only the barest mention of sex and the Net. Why?

I’m basically a shy person, easily embarrassed. My idea of a good, long discussion about sex is saying, “I want to, do you want to?” Yet it seems like most everyone else on the planet would rather discuss sex than any other topic available. People talk about sex on television. People pay to talk about sex with strangers on the telephone. Senators from Utah talk about sex at hearings of the Judiciary Committee. People cannot get enough, it seems, so why should the Information Superhighway be any different?

Well, it isn’t.

Net users have devised countless ways to talk about sex, and even a few ways to have sex (assuming actual bodily contact is not a high priority). The proliferation of sex discussion groups on the Net has been a source of amusement for some and outrage for others, but none of this has slowed it down. At last count, there were 42 separate sex discussion groups within Usenet, including such oddities as:

And I have left out the ones that I’m too embarrassed to even mention. For instance,, which I hope is someone’s idea of a joke, and, which has nothing at all to do with swim meets. Frankly, I’m having trouble even thinking of a topic that isn’t covered.

The assortment is not only one of the raciest neighborhoods on the Net, it is also one of the most popular. Computer wizards with fancy software and lots of free time compile statistics on how many people send messages to a particular newsgroup and how many people read those messages. Near the top of the monthly Top 40, consistently, are,,, rec.arts.movies, and

This seems, perhaps, to be a fairly representative illustration of what people want to do with their lives: talk about sex, go to the movies, and if there is any time left over, find a good-paying job.

Thoreau returned the next night, and the night after that. In some of the dreams, he had a fishing pole and a lopsided grin; in others he was holding a quill pen to his temple, looking quite the studious author. His jacket was always black, but needed a good dry cleaning. He wanted to know more than I could tell him.

“I fear,” he rumbled, “that we are such gods or demigods only as fawns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to some extent, our very life is our disgrace.”

“What?” I asked again.

He shook his head, as if I had disappointed him. “I would fain know,” he repeated, “how shall a man know if he is chaste?”

The easiest way to shame a writer is to accuse him of insufficient research, and Thoreau was writer enough to know that. His words did not make total sense to me, but I think he was suggesting I had ducked the issue, that I had not probed deeply enough. I had no choice but to meet his challenge.

So I went, notebook at my side, read the main sex group thoroughly, recorded my field observations, and here is what I found: is fairly docile. A typical evening’s sample of subjects might include condom use, various methods of female birth control, breast size preference, the importance of male magnitude, the perpetual “What Do Women Really Want?” query, and assorted helpful little tips to improve one’s performance, duration, or accuracy.

For instance, one nervous novice posted a question to about basic boudoir technique. How, he wondered, if the situation should ever present itself, would he know if he was doing it right? He specifically wanted to “make her go crazy.”

A presumably more experienced practitioner responded with this advice, “There is no one way to do it, so instructions wouldn’t help. The main thing to keep in mind is simply how she reacts to what you do. Listen for changes in her breathing, or the sudden contraction of muscles.”

Notwithstanding the fact that this advice applies just as well to cardiopulmonary resuscitation as lovemaking, I thought the guy did a pretty good job of explaining a fairly complicated subject in simple, basic terms. He might, in fact, do very well in a technical writing class. Most everyone else responded with fanciful boasts about how they did it, and how deliciously insane they managed to drive their sex partner. I believed none of them.

People post fiction to the group as well, but most of the stories seem to be little more than the endlessly banal fantasies of desperate young men (more men than women post here)—the types of “true” stories that get published in Penthouse Forum: “I was hot, I was ready, and my landlady didn’t seem to mind.”

A few—very few— posters have read their Anaïs Nin, however, and try, at least, for metaphor. Let me quote from one, in which the female has been mysteriously transformed into a white horse:

“He looked about for a saddle. There was none. He heard a soft, feminine voice whisper, ‘Ride me. Ride me till morning.’ He became suddenly aware of an erection. He cleared his throat.”

It was about that time I cleared my screen.

“My gratitude for that,” Thoreau said on his next visit. He looked long and hard at my bedroom curtains, picked at his teeth with a twig he had carried into my dream, then turned in my direction and smiled. “The generative energy invigorates and inspires us.”


He smiled again, nodded cheerfully, insistently. He clearly wanted to know more.

To be honest, I started to suspect old Thoreau of something beyond simple intellectual curiosity here, but that is just conjecture. I do know that he spent an awful lot of time alone in that cabin.

In any case, I tried to locate some less-traveled corner of the woods for him, something to further invigorate and inspire him, and I found that it was but a short walk from to

Oddly, or at least to my naive surprise, the people seemed more serious than the plain old people. The amateurs had been left behind, perhaps. There was an immediately apparent urgency to the postings on Topics on the night I visited included a foot fetish quiz and discussions of leather shoes; of high heels; of toenails (painted and unpainted); of leg fetishes, shoe catalogs, voyeurism, and “celebrity feet.”

The hot question while I was reading this male-dominated group was voiced thusly, “If a man has dorky feet, we can still develop a business or social relationship. With a woman on the other hand, I might have a business or semisocial relationship, but it is doubtful a sensual attraction would develop. I wonder if this fetish of ours is replicated in the female species?”

The messages that followed seemed to share the original poster’s sentiments, but no women came forward to offer their opinion, so the question was ultimately unresolved.

Then there is bondage.

I was raised Catholic, attended Catholic school for twelve interminable years. My educational background perhaps explains my discomfort with all aspects of sex talk, and many aspects of sex, and given this, the mere idea of a sadomasochistic or bondage relationship is extremely difficult for me to fathom. At this stage of my life, bondage is just not a personal priority. When I go shopping, I shop for pants that fit more loosely around the waist, not ones that bind. The only thing tying me down right now is too much work and my daughter’s kindergarten schedule. If I wish to be lightly flogged, I have an editor.

But is certainly impressive. These people are immeasurably brave. I wouldn’t even think some of this stuff, much less type it onto a computer screen and send it to a worldwide newsgroup where potentially thousands might read it and figure out who I am. Nicknames are the norm here, but accounts can sometimes be traced.

Topics on range from the technical, as in “Cleaning procedures for whips,” to shopping queries such as “Looking for locking buckles,” to information on bondage clubs and private parties, and on to people’s own stories of S&M encounters, real and imagined.

In a message titled “Essences of Spanking,” a person who did not reveal his or her gender wrote about the proper use of a frame and block. “I kneel naked on the bench and place my hands and head in a stock at the front of the frame. My body is hinged over the rear block and my waist is strapped down. Then my legs are spread and strapped. This forces me to arch my back and stick my bottom out in the air.” The message goes on awhile to describe the actual spanking, with a British cane. The description is offered in all seriousness.

Another writer, again with no hint of irony or wit, posted a message titled “50 Ways to Tie Your Lover.” He listed all fifty, in cold detail, with no further comment. “Arms crossed behind” one read, “wrists bound to each other by a tether.” Oddly enough, that was how Thoreau had tied the otter, the one he carried into my room that first night.

But when I came across a long, thoughtful discussion on gagging, and the suggestion that a golf ball with eye screws in opposite sides and a raw-hide strap might work well as a muzzle, giving a “durable, and playful texture,” I figured it was time for me to go.

By the end of the week, Thoreau was coming into my dreams more and more often, seeming more and more agitated. He shuffled his big boots nervously on my bedroom floor (I would check in the mornings, but there were never any scuff marks or other outward proof). He bit nervously at his nails, all ashen-faced and disheveled, scowled repeatedly but didn’t speak.

He just kept blinking his eyes, open and shut, open and shut, as if it were some signal. I could only guess, but I eventually surmised what the man wanted were pictures, something to look at.

And yes, there are pictures on the Net, plenty of them, from the suggestive, to the erotic, to the obscene. The technology to scan photographs into electronic form, transmit them across phone lines, and download them into our homes is fast becoming widespread. On the Net, these pictures are called binaries, referring to the basic logical “on-off” language of computers. (The more usual definition of binary is “something made up of two parts,” but the joke here is too obvious.) The other Internet term is GIF, short for Graphic Interchange Format—more of that jargon that keeps technoids from actually making sense. The pictures come across the electronic lace doily as numbers—ones and zeros—and special software is needed to transform them back into recognizable shapes.

Within Usenet, there is,,, and many more. A good number of the photos found on these groups are scanned in illegally from popular skin magazines, and the sophistication of your computer’s graphics card and software will determine whether what you see is erotic or just fuzzy.

Many people are truly upset, though, about the very real possibility that an eleven-year-old could conceivably search, find, and stare at these pictures. But I look at it this way—any kid with enough technical savvy to hook up a modem, find an Internet connection, dial in, negotiate the software, download binary files, decode them, and make them appear as intended on the screen, could probably figure out how to come up with five dollars and locate a magazine rack. Sure, kids could potentially find some pretty raw stuff here, but they would find it much faster under their older brother’s mattress. Mom and Pop should probably just keep an eye on the computer room.

And there is another sexual outlet on the Net—cybersex, the evil twin of cyberspace. Cybersex is sex without touching, sex without seeing, sex without even hearing the other person’s voice. It is sex by typing, and reading, and lots of folks are all hot up about it.

People tried to explain cybersex to me back when I was unacquainted with the term, and I ended up just staring at them blankly. Then, after imagining that perhaps I understood, I tried to explain cybersex to others, and they ended up just staring at me blankly. Cybersex, admittedly, is hard to describe, but get your blank stares ready, because I am going to try.

Cybersex is talking dirty in real time, describing various sexual acts in chronological and intimate detail, with a partner who could be anything or anyone you could possibly imagine. Here is how it is done:

1. Two people sit alone in front of their respective computers, anywhere in the world.

2. They type onto the screen a description of what they might be doing to one another if they were not separated by three thousand miles, marriage, total lack of acquaintance, and the fact that one of them is really just a thirteen-year-old boy pretending to be a voluptuous blonde woman of twenty-five.

3. When they type these descriptions, such as “I am ripping off your blouse in a passionate frenzy,” the description is read almost immediately by the other person and that person types a response. “Careful, it’s faux silk.”

4. They sometimes do things in the privacy of their own homes that would embarrass me, but maybe not Jocelyn Elders.

I just reread that step-by-step description, and now I have that blank stare again.

Let me try to clear this up by example.

I noticed that a woman named Martha was posting to the group frequently, often discussing the positive aspects of her cybersexual interludes. I sent Martha an electronic mail message and asked her to tell me what she found so attractive about computer sex.

“Some may consider it adultery? she wrote back. “Others, like me, see it as a means of release, and pure innocent sexual gratification, for both involved. In fact, if anything, it stops me from having an affair in the physical sense.”

Martha is a twenty-nine-year-old graphic artist from Chicago, and she is married. I asked her to explain how a cybersex relationship develops.

“Although Cybersex allows one to have ‘sex’ with whomever they please,” she told me, “I’ve found that I can’t just ‘jump’ into sex with just anyone. That’s too unfeeling, and not at all satisfying. How can I imagine the person if I don’t know anything about him? I have to develop a mental image of him, by knowing what his general appearance is … hair, eye color, height, build … just a general portrait. Then, through hours of conversation, I allow my instincts to take over.”

She explained that her “most satisfying scenario” is corresponding with someone for weeks or months before anything happens. She met one fellow that way, began to chat quite casually, and eventually felt a strong attraction. “Night after night we’d talk—learning everything there was to know about each other. Every secret, every thought, every detail was revealed. We’d tell each other things that we could barely tell ourselves, let alone anyone else!”

Then, despite embarrassment and reservations, they tried it. They joked around, pretending to be having sex in a burning house, or during a cyclone. But eventually, she wrote, “our crazy sex began to calm down. It began to grow more sensuous, more tender, more real. Each occasion, we became closer and closer, and when it was over, we’d hold each other in our arms, whispering and touching each other softly. These became magical moments for us both.”

Understand, they’ve never met.

She even sent me a transcript of a cybersex encounter, but first—first, so relax for a moment—I have to explain yet another technical marvel—Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, or just Chat. Usenet postings and E-mail both have certain time lags. While the mail or bulletin board message you type and send may reach its destination in seconds or minutes, it will usually then sit there for anywhere from hours to days to weeks before it is read. Usenet messages are stored on a machine somewhere until you and I retrieve the message. Electronic mail sits on the hard disk of your access provider in what is known as an E-mail queue, until you decide to read your E-mail.

But Chat messages don’t sit anywhere. When you log into a Chat system (and how you do it differs widely, depending on software and who you have chosen for an access provider, so I will spare you the technical details), you type in a certain command to join a “channel.” Every IRC channel has a name, like “chatzone,” or “wasteland,” or “hottub,” and depending on the channel and the time of day, there might be ten or twenty other people hooked in. When you type, “Hello, how are you wild and crazy guys?” onto your screen, that message appears on the screens of the ten or twenty others on the channel almost at once, whether they are three blocks away or in Oulu, Finland. If the guy in Finland, a guy named Heikki, types back, “I’m just fine, thanks,” that will appear on everyone’s screen as well. Of course, if Heikki were that polite, he wouldn’t be on IRC.

There are two sides to the IRC. To its credit, the relay chat system was used to dramatic effect during the 1993 coup attempt against Russian president Boris Yeltsin, keeping the world instantaneously updated on troop movements and Stolichnaya shipments. To its discredit, IRC is used much of the rest of the time by college students, geeks, weirdos, and bores who have nothing to say and can’t stop saying it.

But IRC is where cybersex happens, because cybersex needs to be spontaneous and instantaneous, not remote and sporadic. Cybersex happens on IRC because when a man rips away a woman’s faux silk blouse, he wants her to know it, and he wants her to know it right away.

So, without further ado, here is the transcript Martha sent me of her cybersexual interlude with Guy (name changed). It is none of our business really, but here it is:

okay-light the fire

throwing kindling on newspapers … striking match … Poof! Blaze.

You’re wearing a sheer negligee-a present from your hubby which you’ve saved to two-time him.

Of course …he’s never seen me in it. …

it’s a teddy, with G-string

Yes, and that string is starting to rub against me … turning me on …

a long one would catch fire from the fire lapping at our feet. I’m just wearing a towel, after a long, hot shower

You smell so so good, as I nuzzle your neck and kiss your ear

you put your hands on my shoulders, my hands go to your hips

Looking up at you … into your amazing green eyes, I kiss you … deeply …

I bring my face around to kiss your neck, you lift your head & pull it back

my hand kneads your hip, playing with the string

fingering my string, I place my hands on your ass, and pull you into me … then I rip off your towel

you press against me, feeling me through the thick towel

No, the towel is gone now … but I feel your rock hard penis against me

my hardness is up against you, you press into it. You bring your hands down to take it all

Martha herself did some editing here before sending the transcript along to me, explaining that matters had gotten too graphic. We pick up some moments later:

I can feel you begin to slow … our mouths together … our sweaty bodies rubbing against each other

I can smell your sweet, musky smell between us and breathe it in deeply

So can I! and we lay down together, still breathing heavily … and kiss, and look at each other, and giggle! oh how sweet you are!!!!!!

It’s quite an amazing sight

we hold each other tenderly, and holding each other, drift gently off to sleep.

You are, without a doubt, the most amazing person. You turn me on so much, its scary!

it’s all in the mind, darling

Sweet, tender, electronic, unreal. That’s cybersex. But Martha swears by it, and she and Guy stay in touch, even though she tells me the affair is over. “Seeing his sweet name on my E-mail list always brings a smile to my face,” she writes. “And now, here we are, two lovers, painfully separated by a half of a country, and marriages, kids, lifestyles. The fact that we’ve never physically met or have never spoken to each other orally is insignificant. We fell in love with our minds, not our physical bodies. But oh, how frustrating it can be! Just to have him hold me for real, to make love to him and his body would probably ruin me for sex for the rest of my life.”

She doesn’t even know the man’s name, just the name he has chosen for Internet correspondence. They will probably never meet, yet it seems obvious she is carrying a big torch for him. For some, at least, cybersex is a tangible thing.

But Thoreau? Well the old philosopher, it turns out, surely did spend too much time alone in that small cabin, reading Homer, staring out at the ever-frozen pond, contemplating lives of quiet desperation, because the next thing I knew, he was standing over my bed again.

“I care not how obscene my words are,” he shouted, jumping up and down like a schoolboy. “We discourse freely without shame of one form of sensuality, and are silent about another. From exertion comes wisdom and purity.”

It took me a moment to get his meaning, but I eventually did. “You want me to try it?” I shouted back. “You want me to actually try this stuff?”

He quieted down, nodded, then gave me a wink. “It is neither the quality nor the quantity, but the devotion to sensual savors,” he whispered. “I would fain know.”

I awoke at that moment, and of course there was no one there. The dream had gone poof. Thoreau was conveniently gone, but not my writerly guilt. He was eager to know, and perhaps my readers would be as well.

So I found my way into Chat and typed the commands to enter a channel called Netsex, which seemed promising enough.

When you log into the IRC system, by the way, the first thing you do is choose a nickname (by typing nick=.) I considered the nickname but doubted that would elicit much sensual interest, so I opted instead for the nickname , presuming that would make my intentions perfectly clear.

What follows is a transcript of my first cybersexual experience, with a woman named , and numerous interruptions from a guy named :

Is everyone having a cigarette? Where’s all the sex?

How about you?


Oh well

Is this the sex channel?


Are you m or f Chris?


How old?


I jumped in here, realizing that there was an alleged female on the channel, and feeling a strong urge to complete my research. I will explain the alleged part later.

Can you tell me how to have cybersex?

Okay, first go and find a girl …

Will a blow up doll do?

No a blow up doll is too passive.

Can we have cybersex?

You don’t even know me.

I know, but I’m really interested in learning how cybersex works.

I know how it works. I’ve done it nine or ten times.

How is it done?

Have you ever masturbated in front of another person?

That is too embarrassing to even think about answering.

Why? Are you fat?

No, I play lots of tennis.

Then you’d have nothing to be embarrassed about. Or is your penis too small?

Are we going to have cybersex, or are you just teasing me?

Let’s start again, but don’t rush. Go slowly.

Okay. I think you are nice.

Thank you.

I am six foot tall, sandy hair. You?

I am 5’10”, brown hair, 36C breasts, and a cute butt.

You sound pretty.

But, unfortunately, immediately at the mention of Chris’s posterior, something strange happened. A crowd of Chat types whose nicknames were , , , and hurriedly joined the channel and began the Chat-channel equivalent of wolf whistling. Perhaps they had been listening in all along; I don’t fully understand how they would do that, but I know enough to know that clever computer users can do a lot that the normal user cannot. In any case, , understandably put off by such an assembly, began to insist that the only way we could really have sex was if I drove to Cincinnati. The other men started to harass her, saying they wanted sex, too, and demanding information on other parts of her anatomy.

Seconds later, this message showed up at the bottom of my screen:

*** parts channel #Netsex

She was gone, and who could blame her?

Sad, really. Perhaps was a woman with whom I might have found happiness. Perhaps we were destined for one another’s arms. Perhaps we might have had something very, very special.

Or perhaps she was a guy.

For all I know, may have been logging in somehow under twin nicknames. might have been anything, or anyone, but chances are she was not actually a woman. You see, there is a well-documented dearth of females on IRC, for two reasons. One is that there are still more male computer whizbangs in the world than there are female computer whizbangs, though that is changing. The second reason is that any woman who does show up to Chat is immediately surrounded by a large crowd of men asking her rude and insensitive questions. Women tend to have two intelligent reactions to this onslaught of unwanted notice: they leave, or they adopt a new nickname like and never tell a soul.

In response to this, countless men have pretended to be women on IRC, just as some of them do in the other areas of the Internet. There is often no way to tell, and it is an excellent way to get attention.

My first attempt at cybersex frustrated, Thoreau’s words still ringing in my ears, I had no alternative it seemed but to gender-switch myself. Heck, they do it in Shakespeare’s plays all the time. It is almost a literary tradition.

Since a clever computer navigator could probably find out my university account number, and thus my initials, I chose as my new nickname. Soon after that, my Deb persona wandered onto the Netsex channel of IRC, just to see what was happening.

I felt almost immediately like a bright light in a field of mosquitoes. I could hardly keep up with the high number of greetings blinking on my monochrome monitor. I had countless suitors within minutes, but I chose a fellow nicknamed to be my sex partner. He came on to me like a barrel of beer-drunk monkeys, and gosh, he sounded kinda cute.

He even persuaded me to leave the Netsex channel and, through the wizardry of IRC, created a whole new channel on which we could meet in privacy. He called it Lovechild.

Here, then, is our complete encounter, in all its ludicrous glory:

undresses Deb

My button is stuck

pulls button off


pulls deb’s dress? blouse? off


What are you wearing now?

Just my jeans

unzippers your jeans with his teeth


caresses your supple breasts

With what?

notices the erect nipples

Good observation skills

licks in circles around the erect nipples

Don’t make yourself dizzy!

grabs the massage oil and turns down the lights

Yikes. I can’t see. That oil is hot.

thinks you’ll grow to like it. He puts on soft music.

Is that Barry Manilow I hear?

Yes, Barry baby.

By-tor you big, wild boy you.

whispers sweet nothings in your ear

Like what, for instance?

pops open the best bottle of champagne

Can’t drink. Allergies.

The champagne is for me then

Are you just telling me these things to get sex?

would never do that

I’m totally naked and running around the room screaming.

notices your heavy breathing

I think I’m freaking out

grabs you and licks your hot spot

My parents are home! My parents are home!

No they aren’t

They’re coming up the stairs. Hide, By-tor, under the bed.

hides under the bed

Hi, Ma!

is scared

No, Ma, no one was here. That was the radio.

At this point, by typing the chat command “nick=,” I instantaneously switch my nickname to . remains huddled under the bed, understandably confused.

You little whore! Slap!

I switch back to .

Ssssssh, By-tor, if Ma hears you she will kill you.

I switch back to .

Who’s under the bed, Deb?

I switch back to .

No one, Ma. I was reading the Bible.

eats some soap

Ohmigod, Ma has the belt!


Swack! Swack! Swack!

streaks from the room, naked.

Swack! Swack! Swack!

*** parts channel #Lovechild

I don’t really blame him for leaving in such a rush. Frankly, I was amazed that young stuck around as long as he did. Personally, I was having a wonderful time, but I’m not sure I would compare it to sex.

Perhaps I was not compliant enough.

Here, in any case, is what I think this episode reveals:

1) Male cybersex partners don’t care how obviously sarcastic the female becomes, because they are just too lust-driven to notice, and

2) I would probably have made a very histrionic female.

I don’t really know why put up with all of my silliness and smart-aleck remarks. Perhaps he thought I was just living out my sexual fantasy.

Perhaps I was.

I will get professional help soon.

But I have done it now, Mr. Thoreau. I have lived deep and sucked all the marrow of cyberlife. I have experienced cybersex, and you have, too, I suppose, by proxy. I didn’t like it much, as a replacement for sex, but it did make me giggle.

A fair number of people, though, such as Martha, seem to like it quite a bit.

Why? Well, the most obvious answer would be safety. Net sex is the ultimate in safe sex, and I don’t just mean safety from HIV and other transmitted diseases. Net sex leaves us safe from commitment, from entanglement, from having others witness our embarrassment. Sure, there are weirdos, but they are thousands of electronic miles away, they can’t hurt us. They can’t even see us, they can only type words, and words are easy to ignore.

If we choose to talk about sex on the Net, or even engage in a sort of sex, we can do it without fear. No one really knows who we are, no one but ourselves needs to know that we are doing it, and if anything goes wrong, if an affair turns ugly or inconvenient, we can just switch it off. The perfect answer in a society that is increasingly busy, and increasingly unsafe.

Easy in, easy out, no regrets in the morning.

I have seen the future.

I already miss the past.

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