Searching For Intimacy Online

"Welcome..." Canned voice. Like the computer in Star Trek. "You've got mail." Your electronic mailbox is overflowing with mostly dirty pictures. You'll download them later. Click quickly past the headlines, newsstand, software forum, bulletin boards. Float to the chat areas. Cruising. People Connection. Lobby. Flirt Nook. Small talk, small talk, small talk. Cruising. Back in your secret life. Here you're more comfortable; it fits you better than your real life. You feel connected instantly, intimate in the dark. Lobbing gibberish in the chat rooms, but whispering to others, reaching out, eavesdropping. Check the names: HotJill4U, SxyGal123, BiDeb4fem. The profiles. Hobbies include "cheerleading, going to the mall, talking on the phone, sex with girls, sex with guys." Looking for clues. Does she or doesn't she? Doesn't she "put out"? Who's really a girls, who's really a guy? Sometimes you find yourself wondering if it really matters. It's all part of the turn-on.In your cyberworld, your so-called life, you're a cyberswinger, cyberstud, and all the girls are 16, 18, 21 and are all bi-curious (which sounds cuter somehow than bisexual); they are coeds who work as models on the side or as strippers in the dark blue night, or they are lonely housewives, or teen virgins or sly Lolitas, or leatherdom's leather-bound, pierced and wrathful, and all the men are 6 feet tall, square-jawed and hung like John Holmes. And the funny thing is that it all may be true. Or not. Doesn't matter. In the void, you can be whoever you want to be. It's as real as your mind can make it. Suspend your disbelief.Have Any Pets? I knew I was nearing the end of my cyberlife, my dubious semi-journalistic adventures online, when somebody, some stranger in the void, sent me, unexpected and unencouraged, a Tijuana sideshow on-line picture of a woman sucking on the penis of a horse. Not a horse, really. More like a pony. Neither the woman nor the pony appeared to be having a particularly enjoyable time. I didn't know whether to be disgusted or to laugh out loud. The sender included only a brief note, which read, "Do you have any pets?" Welcome to the virtual community. I am new to America Online, to cyberspace. I've stumbled into the cyberhood singles bar. And tonight is disco night ... What are you wearing? What do you look like? What are you wearing? 38-24-34. 38-24-34. What do you look like? What are you wearing? Pulling you close. What are you wearing? Leather and lace. Silk. Nothing at all. Kissing you. Touching you. What do you look like? 38-24-34. Silk, leather and lace. Feeling you. Touching you. Feel me. Touch me. What do you look like? Wearing? Pulling you closer, closer. Want you. Need you. Need you. Need you ... Yes, online we are a nation sitting up late in the dark alone in our rooms, shades drawn, lights dimmed, pants around our ankles, naked in front of the computer, our pale flesh cast blue and dead in the flickering glow of the computer screen. Stripped of flesh, of touch, of taste, sweet bitter tang, a sense of heat and cold, hot skin and goose-bump flesh, seduction is a game of mental Twister, a crossword puzzle. Grease up your vocabulary and get ready. Find the right combination of words, get them just right, and maybe you'll turn the conversation dirty. The pull is seductive. You are whoever you want to be. Your best version of yourself. Sex, or what passes for sex, is free and easy and safe, without consequences. Everybody is beautiful. Healthy. No AIDS. No flabby stomachs, no VD, no crooked dicks. No date rape, no pregnancy, no morning after question marks. No specter of AIDS. We can play out our brightest desires and darkest fantasies. Best of all, we never have to worry about tomorrow; never have to worry about AIDS. Wade in, feel the undertow. (1) Called a woman in the South whom I arranged to interview for this story because she said she enjoyed phone sex but couldn't get off on it. "I just like hearing the guys gettin' off on me," she explained. When I first called her, though, she was momentarily confused. She said she had a scheduling conflict. "I thought you was going to call tonight," she said. "I'm the journalist, remember?" I asked. I tried to explain it all again--the story, my questions, we'd scheduled the interview for now, not tonight. I realized she assumed I had been lying. Two young children screamed and ranted in the background. "Where you at?" she finally asked, after barking at the kids. (Don't be carrying on so! she screamed.) "My office ..." "All you guys," she said, voice smiling, sardonic, "you all seem to work in offices ..." (2) One night, wandering through the chat rooms, spying on everyone, I discovered a woman, a real entrepreneur, who will, for a mere $10, send me--safe and secure and fresh in a Ziploc bag, a pair of her panties in which she has recently masturbated. (3) Cyber-granny: Brian, a young college kid from the Midwest finally admitted to me during an impromptu discussion of embarrassing cybermoments, that he engaged in frantic, fast and sweaty one-handed typing, sans pants, with a woman he understood was a young, hot bi-curious coed. As they neared the end--the part with all the 'ohhhhhhhhhhs' and 'ahhhhhhs,' CAPITAL LETTERS and !!!!!!!!!!!--she suddenly dropped an information bomb on him: She was, in fact, not a young and nubile nymphet with Gumby-like flexibility as she had previously said; rather, she was a 79-year-old grandmother who had sneaked into the rec room of the nursing home for a little AOL cyberfling, something to brag to the ladies over breakfast. "You loved it, admit," she typed. "I got you off, young man ..." Then the screen erupted in a flurry of giggles. Brian: "She just kept typing 'heeeheee heeeheee heeeheee ...." (4) A young girl, brazen onscreen, was nervous when I called her for our interview. Her sweet, lilting Southern accent made her sound younger than she actually was, at least that's what I told myself. The echo and clink of dishes being put away followed our conversation around the room. I asked her questions, but mostly there was only the sound of her putting the dishes away. "Look," she said finally. "I know that I said I'd answer some of your questions ..." She paused. "But you sound old." "I am old," I said. And I felt it as I heard her young, wavering voice. Again, it dawned on me that she didn't believe I was a legitimate writer. "Look, I'm sorry," she said, presumably putting the last dish away, "but my boyfriend just showed up, so I gotta go." (5) I arranged to talk over the phone to another woman I'd met online. I asked if she was alone. "No," she said. "My daddy's down in front of the TV; the game is on." I asked her to explain her $1,000 AOL bill. She wouldn't. (6) One night, a woman whispered to me that she saw from my profile that I was a writer. She said she would like to call me up and read me some of her erotic stories, which she wrote under the name "O." I think she was the only one in the void to believe that I was truly a writer.(Cyber) Affair To Remember I met "John" in the void a few months ago, lurking in a chat room called "M4hotf4phx." He's a 35-year-old marketing professional in San Francisco; he married his college sweetheart 10 years ago. John: "At first you feel awkward, embarrassed, like, 'this can't be real ... can it be this easy?' Then it's, like, cool--there are so many uninhibited, sexually adventurous people. You quickly begin to feel like Don Juan or somebody. This great seducer of women. This great lover. My wife had no idea. It was like I had this secret life. It was a real blast of confidence. I felt great, sexy even. Sex with my wife improved. "Online, there is this feeling of distance, of safety. At the same time, there is an instant intimacy. As the words appear on your screen, they are like whispers. You are like co-conspirators. I'd always talk a little first. Tell them I was unhappily married. It was easy. "I was just playing around. Meeting people and doing it online. Late-night seductions and lunch-time quickie nooners. Then I met Jane, a 25-year-old medical student in New York who lives with her boyfriend. "She was sweet. I met her one night just cruising around as usual. We talked about all sorts of things. Mindless chatter, our lives, our spouses. Just talked for hours. We seduced each other and later began having phone sex. We'd meet and chat online, arrange a time to call. She'd send me these hot little notes. It was great. I felt wanted. The situation felt dangerous. "Don't get me wrong. I met some really sweet girls online. Began to feel very emotional about a few of them, especially Jane. But sooner or later, you lose perspective. I mean, when I wouldn't hear from Jane for a day or two, I'd actually get worried. When she told me she was doing this with other guys online, I got jealous." John laughs here, then the tape is quiet for several heavy moments. "One night she sends me this message ... her brother had been in a car accident and was in the hospital. She said she wanted me to call her. That she couldn't stop crying and didn't know what to do. She said she needed someone to hold her. And my first thought was like, 'What do I do? What can I do?' I felt helpless, totally unable to help this poor woman. "But, though I hate to admit it, my second reaction was stronger--it surprised me how strong it was. It was like, 'Why the fuck are you calling me?' I mean, come on, I'm really a goddamn stranger, aren't I? "That's when I decided to pull the plug on the thing. It was getting boring anyway. You start to get paranoid. At first it's fun trying to figure out who's telling the truth and who's pulling your chain. But after a while it becomes a drag. It starts to feel stupid. It's like suddenly you realize that this fantasy world doesn't really exist, that you are alone in front of the computer or on the phone jacking off. "I was having other doubts, too. Was I really having an affair? My wife never had any idea. I started thinking, 'Why am I doing this? This isn't my life.' "When I wrote Jane to tell her that I was breaking it off, canceling my America Online account, she started sending me these psycho messages. 'Don't ignore me! I won't let you ignore me. I love you!' "It got scary, stupid, ridiculous." He pulled the plug on the relationship, but not on AOL. Then there's Jane's side of the story. Jane: "I was a newbie (newcomer online). I'd met a couple of guys and had cybersex before I met John. One of them even talked me into phone sex. It wasn't great, but I liked the sense of anticipation. The attention. John was sweet, articulate, older. We talked about things other than just sex. He was having problems with his marriage. We talked a lot. The phone sex was great--great voice, John, if you're out there. I guess I kinda fell in love with him. "I met other guys online after I met him. But he was, like, my first. You know, special. I'm afraid now I'm becoming a cyberslut. I sleep with guys online who I'd never even approach in real life. It's like I'm addicted. Besides, it's fun and safe. How many other things can you say that about these days? I even arranged to meet a couple of guys in real life. One of them was this total nerdy freak ... nothing like he was online. But the other one was really cool. I was really nervous. Like a blind date, only with all these expectations. He turned out to be really cute and really sweet. I felt like I already knew him. We had this great, really hot sex. But we haven't been able to get together since. "After that, I told John that I wanted to meet him for real. I think this must have really freaked him out. He agreed, but said he couldn't do it until the springtime. At the time, I didn't think that anything was wrong. I pictured, like, this wonderful, sexy, romantic weekend. "But then he got weird, withdrawn. I guess he couldn't handle it. I guess you could say he dumped me." So is this the relationship for the '90s? Sex for the end of the millennium?Operation Sex Change Sex is undergoing a change in America. We've passed through the free love '60s, through the sexfest '70s, and the sex-is-death '80s. Now we're hip to be turned on again. But this time we want to make it safe. In the cyber void, we're protected. Anonymity and distance are the safest sex. We can't get hurt in cyberspace, because cyberspace is really nowhere. Many I talked to online think I'm a killjoy. They think this is all just a kick, fun. Killing time. Beats sitting around the TV. They tell me I've overreacted, misunderstood. Say I've overlooked the turn-on, the spirit of play. I have to ask myself, can so many be so wrong? We want to feel naughty; we want to feel hip. Have a secret underground life. It is the flip side to our Puritan impulse. And it seems safe. The world today is a dangerous place, especially for giddy young lovers. Sex can mean death. Sex kills. Close the distance between us, and you take a big risk. People kill each other all the time. We know it. We see it every night on the TV. Our world is a dangerous place, and distance protects us. But remember, it separates us, too. "We are a generation," writes David Black, author of "The Plague Years," one of the first in-depth magazine pieces on AIDS, "whose rallying cry was, 'Make love, not war! Life not death!' Because of AIDS--or rather because of our attitude toward AIDS--we have deprived ourselves of that alternative. Now there is only death ... before AIDS, the sexual instinct was a force for life. It was a specific against all the horrors--political and personal--we endured. It allowed a last refuge of hope. After AIDS, we have allowed ourselves to surrender that last refuge. We no longer have the power to deny death by an act of love. Even making love is tinged with doom." Is sex in the void really an act of defiance, our last remaining refuge against death? Maybe. The problem is that it isn't real. In the face of AIDS and death, technology and alienation, we've traded making love--if not making love, then actual human contact, skin on skin, body heat--and cashed it in for relentless masturbation. Instead of having sex, making love, we talk about it to each other, chatting across this distance we have created between us to protect ourselves. And we are already a nation that talks too much. Talk radio, daytime TV, the evening news. Our culture is voyeuristic, our experiences vicariously lived, our lives filled and filled and filled with onanistic chatter. We are audience participants. We've got Sally Jesse and Ricki Lake and Jenny Jones and Hard Copy and Cops and Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and all those talking heads on Entertainment Tonight and A Current Affair. Talk, talk, talk. Maybe we should just shut up. Sign off. Go outside and feel the wind on our faces. Smell the autumn leaves drifting and tumbling along the gutter. Remember how it feels when a woman smiles at us with her eyes. Feel the thrill of sitting next to someone, barely touching. Go listen to the sound of children playing. Go wave to our neighbors across the back fence. Go sit on the toilet with the sports page. Go to the library. Because sex flying across the screen becomes nothing but a desperate try for connection, arousal across the cold wasteland we have created for ourselves. Sex in the void becomes a sad, nostalgic tale, a bittersweet script for what might have been. Want to meet a potential lover? Go to the supermarket.

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