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What My Dialup Youth Taught Me About Intercourse and the Web

On the other hand, my gender middle school class offered a complete lack of information. I’ve heard of the literal pros and cons of sex – here’s the urethra, here’s the cervix, here’s how babies are made. The main goal of the training was to avoid pregnancy risks and sexually transmitted infections. Similarly, parental conversations over the internet focused on the danger posed by strangers and how I might inadvertently stumble upon “intrusive videos” (i.e., porn). What we never talked about in class and what I never heard about at home was sexual hunger, curiosity, and exploration. In 2013, a study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health found that “Adolescents want to know more about sexual experiences, not just sexual health,” and that “the Internet may better serve adolescents’ interests in sex education”.

This relates to what researchers have called the “lack of discourse of desire” in sex education for many decades, in which girls are viewed as potential victims rather than desired subjects. The same, of course, applies to narratives on the Internet, which often highlight threats while ignoring the possibility of positive experiences for girls with virtual sexual experiments. The authors of this Finnish study found that “respondents liked sharing online game play with their peers, generally breaking it down from ideas of harm and calling it fun flirting – a” harmless exploration of sexuality and release in writing “”.

Online, my younger self found that no discourse on desire was missing. It was alive and wild – alternately surprising, repulsive, arousing, hilarious and thrilling. Which version was a truer representation, better education? The internet seemed like the most honest teacher to me.

Around the same time, I started a website and a daily email newsletter for fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, who had just starred in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I collected Leo gossip, sightings, and fanfiction for the newsletter, which gained dozens, hundreds, and then over 1,000 subscribers. Here was a world I made myself, my own desire. I even downloaded audio clips from the Romeo + Juliet website so that whenever something went wrong on my computer, Leo would yell, “I’m the fool of happiness!” It was with this backdrop of obsessive romance that I started cybersex. This was the paradox of my growing up in the 90s: quoting Shakespeare by day, faking virtual orgasms by night.

It pains me to think about how early my sexuality merged with the performance of pleasure – even on the internet where you could supposedly be anyone you wanted to be. At the same time, while I began to observe my own physical reactions, I sensibly tried out various sexual roles. The pubescent girl who clattered on the keyboard slowly and indirectly found the way to her own desires. It would take decades before I got there in a meaningful way, but “the net”, as I unironically called it, cracked the back door. This is where I took a look for the first time.

Now I am the mother of a toddler. My child’s internet will be very different from the one that led me through puberty. Social media, tube sites, virtual reality! I could easily wring my hands over all this or grumble: “Back then …” All of this makes AOL chat rooms seem quaint. One thing remains true, however: Adults lose all credibility when they ignore young people’s desire for sexual information and exploration. This fact applies to both dial-up days and the OnlyFans era. Fortunately, this internet has resources that I could only dream of: robust educational websites like Scarleteen and AMAZE, virtual sex-ed classes with sex-positive, tech-savvy educators, and thriving online communities for LGBTQ teens, to name a few.