Since the very beginning, Internet users have been obsessed with sex.
That’s the argument made in a new book by journalist Samantha Cole, How sex changed the internet and the internet changed sex. Cole explores the early history of the internet to show how sexual content and communities have been part of the internet since its inception and have had a profound effect on how the online space deals with identity, community and consent. From identity play on early message board sites to the rise of online pornography as an industry in its own right, Cole argues that you can’t understand the internet without sex – even though major platform companies of today want it.
Content note: This interview describes several sexual practices in simple language. Readers who are not comfortable with these topics should exercise discretion.
The book shows that sex was a fundamental part of the Internet from the very beginning. Why do you think that is?
It’s so inherently human nature to want to connect as deeply as possible with others, whether online or not – and the internet has opened up a new venue for that. Suddenly people could be whoever they wanted to be. They could assume these personas who were different from those they were away from the keyboard. They could express themselves in a way they never had before. For many people, this almost immediately turns into sexuality.
“What level of reality do you wish to experience via the Internet?”
It’s interesting to read those old message boards where people describe themselves as mythological creators or blobs or whatever they wanted to be. Then they would have these really deep and interesting philosophical conversations about love, sex, and relationships. In many cases, they met and went on dates after that. Sometimes they married and had children. I say in the book, there are real people walking around who only exist because these billboard systems connected their parents.
There is an immediate security concern here because people are adopting pseudonyms to share information that is otherwise very private. But it seems that at this point the internet didn’t have a ton of tools to keep your identity private.
That’s right – just to get into a BBS like this you had to call someone on the phone and give them your name and credit card information. So it was concretely personal between you and the administrator. Once inside, many of them allowed you to use whatever name you wanted, but there were other communities that required you to use your name. Others would like you to put your email address at the end of every message so people can contact you directly. It’s an interesting split: what level of reality do you want to experience via the Internet? But the most sexualized communities really emerged when people used the internet to pretend to be something they wanted or wanted to try.
How does that change when you enter the contemporary internet, built on companies like Google and Facebook that are able to treat sexual content very differently?
It gets really complicated when you go from one person running their amateur bulletin board scanning Playboy images to this huge machine of moderators making decisions. People can get really frustrated that they don’t have a central person to talk to about what’s going on on this platform that’s so big in their lives. So that was definitely a huge change. We have these huge monopolies that just run the show for us now, and it’s hard not to feel like we don’t have that control anymore.
“The conversation is getting more and more heated because everyone is interested in it.”
At the same time, these companies are now indebted to payment processors and banks, and so they have to remove all of this from their platform, in many cases, because of these financial obligations. So, just seeing this change, it’s hard not to imagine that the internet will continue to be increasingly sanitized and less sexual.
You describe a lot of early moments of sexual panic in a way that seems very similar to what we see now – but then, in other places, the internet seems to have made people more tolerant. Do you think the conversation about moderating sexual content is changing?
People are certainly more aware of the legal landscape. If you asked the average person in the late 90s if they knew about something like the Communications Decency Act, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about. But now a lot of people have real opinions about Section 230 and really know about it. It’s all much more visible and the conversation gets heated because everyone is interested in it. You have so many more people who depend on the internet for their work, sexual or not. So people are now paying attention in a way they haven’t been in previous decades.
What about the second part of the title, how the internet changed sex? Throughout the book, you can see people getting interested in new things or exploring themselves in ways that wouldn’t have been possible offline. Do you think the internet has made our sex lives more specific or extreme?
I think having access to communities of like-minded people can really change the world. I did a lot of research on fetish and kinky communities, and for many people, before finding these communities, they thought they were the only ones. So it’s been really interesting to see that grow with the internet. Suddenly thousands and thousands of people are reading forums about their specific fetish and talking about what they like and why they are there.
One thing that really surprised me were these forums about how to suck your own dick. People were just exchanging tips and advice on how to do it, exercises to do. You would never have access to this kind of information without the internet because, first of all, you would never say it out loud to someone, just hoping they were in on it. But suddenly you have access to all these people all over the world who are like, “Yeah, I want to swap tips on how to suck my dick.”
That one was actually too vulgar for the book.
Do you think that the Internet creates these desires or simply allows them to be expressed in complete safety?
It can be hard to tell. You can definitely discover something new that you didn’t know you were into. Or you might realize you were in it all along and didn’t know it.
One of the stories I wrote recently was about people who loved blueberries and bilberries. Many of them were in because they watched Charlie and the chocolate factory when they were kids and said, “Oh, that made me feel bad,” and they carried that with them for years without telling anyone. Then they connect and see that there are many people who feel the same way. It is transformational change. It’s not just “I found this thing I didn’t know I was into” but also “Now I can really express myself and buy a blueberry costume because I see other do too.”
Having this community makes you feel less weird. It’s less insulating. I think that’s a big part of why people are so ashamed of their sexuality and porn use. They feel like they’re the only ones who want that. When you find out you’re not alone, it can be game-changing.
How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: A Story goes on sale November 15.