I do, however, have a very clear memory of the first time I had cybersex. Dana was 19, an aspiring veterinarian, and everyone told her she looked like Britney Spears. While technology like group video conferencing existed, it was painfully slow and not readily available.
This veil of anonymity let an entire generation of young women like myself experience their sexual initiations in AIM chatrooms. It was easier to be anonymous on the Internet back then, to flirt and wink and experiment behind purposefully misspelled, sexually charged screennames like seksikittee69 and bigboi For the first few weeks or so, my relationship with FrankZappy skirted the lines of PG respectability.
Of course, I had no idea what I was saying; much of what I said was based on what I had seen on General Hospital and read in Jackie Collins paperbacks. I probably got a similar thrill from watching my Sims family make woo-hoo. For me, cybersex with FrankZappy was nothing short of a full-blown sexual awakening.
Chat had never been more expedient or accessible, so it was only a matter of time before people started using it for sex. And for those who were too nervous to put themselves out there in real life, cybersex was a conduit for experiencing the pulse-racing high of anonymous sex. The fact that you had no idea what the person you were typing with even looked like in some ways heightened the thrill. I did speak with some men who had early cybersex experiences, also with friends, but women were far and away more likely to report doing it in isolation.
Even still, for many of the people I spoke with, feelings of guilt and shame were part and parcel with the cybersex experience, especially considering how young and ignorant of our sexuality we truly were. Maya, for instance, stopped soliciting naked pictures from her cybersex partners because she was ashamed of her voyeuristic tendencies. And Amy, who credits cybersex with helping her discover early twinges of erotic feelings, says she stopped because she felt too guilty about lying to her partners.
In , for instance, one St. Paul man was found guilty of having cybersex with a year-old boy , an offense punishable by up to three years in prison, despite the fact that the boy in question told him he was 16—the legal age of consent in his state. It was these feelings of guilt that led me to ultimately break off my relationship with FrankZappy. It ended in much the same way other online relationships do: He wanted to meet up, and I freaked out. At one point, I thought about telling him the truth—that I was actually a very precocious, very sexually curious, very strange year-old girl—but I ended up only revealing a version of it.
Then I apologized and wished him the best. I never heard from him again. Now, I write about it professionally, and I regularly comes across news stories about children doing exactly what I did—of learning about the dangers of sexuality too fast and too soon, of leaping headfirst into the red-light districts of Craigslist, Snapchat, Tinder, Facebook and Skype. The stories are endless, and endlessly depressing. When I read these stories about underage girls sexting on Snapchat, or being assaulted by older men they met on Facebook, I think about how lucky I was to have had my sexual awakening at a time when technology was limited, when there was only one digital platform available for a young girl to be exploited, rather than dozens.
Without Skype, Facebook, or any identity verification system to speak of, the adult AOL chatrooms made up a universe that was almost completely void of accountability. There are too many tools at our disposal to verify or refute such claims. I think about what would have happened to me had I done the same thing today. I think about Amanda Todd , the year-old Canadian girl who committed suicide following years of blackmail and cyberbullying after flashing a stranger online when she was Had webcams and capper culture existed back then, I like to think I would have had the wisdom and moral fortitude to withstand such pressure.
The only difference was, there were fewer of them. Most everyone seems to have migrated to Grindr, Tinder, and AdultFriendFinder, services that offer real sex with real people revealing the truth about themselves—or at least, some version of the truth.
But the appeal of anonymous, text-based chatting still lingers, even in the era of Tinder hookups and instant gratification. I hope, for your own safety, that you will be smarter than I was at navigating these treacherous waters. And to FrankZappy, wherever you are, whoever you are, I would like to thank you, and leave you with one final admonition: Watch out where the huskies go.
Names in this story have been changed where noted. Illustration by Max Fleishman.