As soon as the internet appeared in American homes, parents began to worry that their children were using it to masturbate. They were right. We were. To a child approaching adolescence in the mid-1990s, the internet was the perfect stone against which to sharpen one’s sexuality. Offline looked meager by comparison. You could steal a smut mag from a corner store, or locate your friend’s father’s stash of old porn tapes—and these were fun, for sure—but when it came to sheer sexual intensity, nothing could compete with the internet.
One night, I came across a naked photograph of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on Seinfeld. It must’ve taken fifteen minutes to load: one painstaking row of pixels at a time, 28.8 kilobits per second. Julia Louis-Dreyfus had never posed nude, so the photograph was a fake: some meticulous pervert somewhere had spent hours using software to fasten her head onto a naked body, the skin an unearthly shade of orange, the breasts cartoonishly big. It was kind of gruesome, but I found it intensely erotic. I was a devoted Seinfeld fan, but had never thought of Elaine sexually. After that photograph, I couldn’t think of her any other way. It would be the first of many perversions implanted in my mind by the internet.
Fifteen-odd years before I found naked Elaine, the writer George W. S. Trow published an essay in The New Yorker called “Within the Context of No-Context.” It filled nearly the entire November 17, 1980 issue, and later appeared as a book. Trow was a strange figure: a high-WASP product of Greenwich, Exeter, and Harvard who got weird in the bohemian paradise of 1960s and 1970s New York, and had the good fortune to join The New Yorker at a time when it indulged, even celebrated, weirdness.
One of Trow’s obsessions was television. The world created by television, he wrote, had formed two “grids”: the “grid of one” and “the grid of two hundred million.” The grid of one was the single human, alone in her room—“intimate life.” The grid of two hundred million was the entire country—“national life,” or rather, “a shimmer of national life,” produced by television. The distance between these two grids, Trow said, was very large. So people split their lives between them. They lived both as one and as two hundred million—as both a solitary individual and as a cog in the enormous collective hallucination induced by mass media.
Celebrities were the exception, explained Trow. “Celebrities have an intimate life and a life in the grid of two hundred million,” he wrote. This was what made them extraordinary: they fused the grids. They lived their intimate lives, but on a national stage. “Of all Americans, only they are complete.”
The internet annihilated the distance between Trow’s two grids. It closed the gap between the intimate and the collective, the solitary and the mass. It made us all celebrities—and not only in the typical sense of the term, in the way that Andy Warhol and Marshal McLuhan had foreseen a future where everyone could be a little bit famous, but as Trow understood the idea. It made us all complete.
On the internet, media didn’t feel mediated. It felt like a spontaneous collaboration, a game of improv. We could live in the grid of one and the grid of two hundred million. We could be alone and together at the same time. We could expose ourselves to total strangers, and have them expose themselves to us.
My sexual imagination soon filled up with far weirder fare than could be harvested from the pages of a Penthouse. Elaine was only the beginning—before long, the internet had provided me with a very diverse portfolio of libidinal investments. In the middle of the night, I gazed into the cathode ray tube of our family’s enormous IBM, my fingers moving carefully to minimize the clack of the keyboard, my ears scanning for sounds of my parents stirring in the next room—this was where I discovered my sexuality. Goethe went to Italy; I went online.
A Catalog of Kink
Because he was a pain in the ass, Henry David Thoreau once argued that there’s no point in making it easier for people to talk to one another if they have nothing to talk about. In Walden, he wrote:
We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas, but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say.
Yet somehow, people have always found plenty to say. And much of what they’ve said, using one technology or another, has been dirty. Indeed, as soon as humans build new tools for transmitting words, sounds, and images, they start using those tools to get each other off. From erotic daguerreotypes to Skinemax, “blue films” to phone sex, successive generations have shown extraordinary resourcefulness in unlocking the sexual potential of each new technology.
The internet, however, marked a significant advance. It’s hard to imagine a more accommodating medium for human sexuality. Not only is it infinite in its form—its packets can carry anything that can be encoded as information, from text to video to VR—but it’s limitless in its content, since that content can so easily be created and circulated by users. This latter aspect has always been a defining feature of the internet, ever since its earliest incarnation as a military research network called ARPANET. In contrast to something like television, where a few people produce the content and the rest of us consume it, the internet is both produced and consumed by its users. It is, in a very real sense, a group effort.
That’s also why the internet reflects such an endless catalog of kink. It offers a space for fetishists to find one another, and make new recruits. Who among us hasn’t stumbled across a perversity that would never have occurred to us, but that, upon reflection, is actually kind of hot?
I spent a decent portion of my youth making such discoveries. They happened more frequently in an era when the internet was wilder, before search engines and social platforms banished most of the randomness from our online lives, and the market hadn’t yet conquered every last crevice of the digital sphere. There was no Pornhub, just a bunch of degenerates trafficking fantasies in AOL chatrooms and Usenet newsgroups—not “amateurs” in today’s pornified sense, but actual laypeople, exploring their vernacular with all the awkwardness and exhilaration of a 16th-century German peasant trying to read the Bible for the first time.
The Great Cyberporn Scare
On July 3, 1995, a creepy image appeared on the cover of Time. It showed a young boy sitting at a keyboard, his eyes wide, his mouth open. Clearly he was looking at something he wasn’t supposed to see. And that something was “CYBERPORN,” emblazoned across his torso in large block letters. Then, in smaller text, the kicker: “Exclusive: A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids—and free speech?”
Those were the days before “clickbait” and “fake news,” but the Time cover story embodied the spirit of both. The “new study” was a paper by a thirty-year-old undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon named Marty Rimm, who had somehow leveraged the fear and incomprehension around the internet—which, in 1995, was just becoming mainstream—to get himself into the Georgetown Law Journal. Rimm’s article was an unhinged bit of bad science, with a truly bonkers title: “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway: A Survey of 917,410 Images, Descriptions, Short Stories, and Animations Downloaded 8.5 Million Times by Consumers in Over 2,000 Cities in 40 Countries, Provinces and Territories.” The argument was simple: the internet had become saturated with smut, especially the kind that couldn’t be easily obtained at your neighborhood porn shop, like bestiality and pedophilia and other extreme or illegal proclivities.
Catapulted by Time to national prominence, Rimm’s study ignited a moral panic about internet porn. Rimm was soon spouting inflammatory nonsense on ABC’s Nightline and giving interviews to The New York Times. Predictably, the religious right seized on the study to claim that the internet was corrupting American children, and pressed their allies in Congress to crack down. Senator Chuck Grassley obliged, reading Rimm’s report into the Congressional record. And legislative consequences weren’t far behind—the media frenzy helped mobilize bipartisan support for the Communications Decency Act, a draconian effort to suppress online obscenity and indecency. Bill Clinton signed the law into 1996. A year later, the Supreme Court struck down its key provisions as unconstitutional.
By then, Rimm had disappeared. A counterattack by scholars and activists had discredited his research, and succeeded in making the media more skeptical of the idea that the internet was packed to the rafters with pedophiles and horse-fuckers. Digital civil libertarians had organized to defend the internet from Christian fundamentalists and Congressional cretins, and had mostly won. Meanwhile, the journalist who wrote the Time story, Philip Elmer-DeWitt, claims he became “the most hated man on the Internet,” even suffering a denial-of-service attack that took down his ISP’s email servers.
Twenty years later, in 2015, Elmer-DeWitt wrote a mea culpa about the saga for Fortune which involved, among other things, raising $1,656 on Kickstarter to hire a private investigator to track down Rimm. He knocked on Rimm’s door, but Rimm wouldn’t open it.
A House With Many Rooms
The cyberporn crusaders were flatly wrong. You could certainly find photographs of people having sex with animals on the internet in 1995, and you could certainly find them now. But such content has never dominated the internet—and neither has porn. In their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam determined that porn makes up about ten percent of the internet. That’s a very rough estimate, given the methodological difficulties involved. Even so, it offers an important counterpoint to the caricature, often promoted by conservatives, of an internet drenched in sex.
But the crusaders were right to be afraid. The internet may never have been quite as depraved as they imagined, but it did weaken their ability to define and to discipline people’s sexuality. It made certain kinds of censorship more difficult, and vastly expanded the variety of material available to masturbators of all ages. My own experience would presumably strike them as a nightmare scenario: a child quietly mainlining a diverse stream of filth, unimpeded by parents, teachers, or senators.
It would be naive to suggest the internet is always and everywhere an instrument of sexual liberation. It is also a space for abuse and exploitation, for patriarchy and heterosexism, and for much toxic mythmaking about masculinity. But one doesn’t have to be deliriously techno-utopian to acknowledge that the internet has enlarged the possibilities for erotic pleasure.
The most important lesson the internet taught me as a kid was how big sexuality could be—it was, to borrow a Biblical metaphor, a house with many rooms. Some doors I opened and slammed shut; some spaces I entered and never left. There were always more rooms; I could never hope to see the whole house. What a beautiful realization, that sex might mean more than one thing, that it might be even more multiple and elastic than the internet itself.