The author of The Joy of Cybersex, Deborah Levine, had spent several years counseling college undergraduates at the Columbia University Health Education program. Like earlier safe-sex activists, Levine used bullet-point lists to introduce the sites her readers should know and to teach them the language that they would need to thrive on them.
Levine encouraged them to use their computers to flirt, start online relationships, and explore their farthest-fetched fantasies without taking real-world risk. The pages she cited ran the gamut from tutorials for geeks, like to resources for free lovers like the Open Hearts Project and
The cyberlove of your life could turn out to be little more than a mirage or a private psychosis.
“When internet lovers leave the computer to go to other activities,” Gwinnell reported, “they may feel as though the other person is ‘inside’ them.” Finding your soul mate online could also leave you feeling dissatisfied in real life.
Without family and friends hovering over you, you could be yourself and frankly express your feelings. Early on, mental health professionals started observing that meeting strangers online often had a similar effect.
The psychiatrist Esther Gwinnell decided to write a book about “computer love” after a string of patients came to her office reporting that they or their partners had fallen for a stranger online.
To talk (or type) about sex constituted its own kind of intimacy.
“When I first asked her about this, she initially put it down to ‘just fooling around on the wires.’” “It’s just a hobby,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll get some dates out of it.” Yet under the spell of her dirty-talking alter ego, the Naked Lady began to undergo a metamorphosis.
*** In 1990, only 200,000 households in the United States had Internet connections. (The upward climb has continued to 43 million in 2000 and 85 million in 2013.) When the price of personal computers dropped dramatically in the mid-1990s, many families acquired more computers and moved them out of their living rooms into bedrooms and private places. In many ways, the liaisons between early online boyfriends or girlfriends followed the pattern set by earlier generations of daters. After crossing paths in a chat room, if you hit it off, you could start making appointments to come online at the same time and talk together. In some chat rooms, disabled singles who found it physically challenging to go out or hook up in real life, connected and fell in love.
In others, gay teens who felt isolated in the homes they were growing up in could do the same. By the time he graduated, one in six gay kids who went to high school in the late 1990s would get beaten up so badly he needed medical attention at least once.