Baring the Cyber Soul

"I am addicted to used panties. Their smell and taste are just exquisite," writes one giddy cyber confessor. "When I go to a pal's house, I always make for the wash basket. Finding a pair of his wife's or daughter's really makes my day. I have tried to stop, but I can't seem to."

Cyber confession has become a growing method of secular absolution. Marrying soul-searching to the convenience of the Net, electronic tell-all parallels today's push for the quick fix, providing armchair confessors with instant release. As a venue for confession, the Internet -- as dozens of websites devoted to airing dirty laundry attest -- is becoming the perfect space to admit sin sans judgment.

"I look at myself in the mirror. Way too often," writes a confessor on Notproud.com. The site, which has been running for over a year, contains 7,000 archived confessions running the gamut from "intriguing, illuminating and enlightening to disturbing and unsettling," according to one of its founders, Gary Brazier. "The idea of redemption is not the pushing point behind the site," says Brazier, who comes from a Catholic background but doesn't practice. "It's about recognition and participation -- there are thousands of eyes viewing your contribution. This is a way to clean your plate while cleaning your soul."

What 'sinners' confess to online ranges as widely as their experience -- from innocuous declarations of peeing in the shower or sporting lusher eyebrows than Elvis Presley, to increasingly salacious ones, such as coveting thy sister's wife or one man's pithy statement, "I once traded my wedding ring to a woman for sexual favors and told my wife I lost my ring." Some are troubling: "Why did Jesus have to redefine adultery? Every time I'm 'alone', it isn't my wife that I visualize making love too, but my gorgeous nudist stepdaughter," writes one frustrated confessor. "If she ever makes a move or even opens the door, I don't know how I could resist."

Unlike traditional confessions made to one person across a porous grille, in the cyber realm, feckless misdeeds, obsessions and weaknesses receive much wider airplay. While the upshot is the same -- confession eases the mind -- airing it all online guarantees an enormous audience. As Brazier has discovered, it's also one that is voraciously voyeuristic, eager to take a surreptitious peek at Sin, if not cough up to it. Notproud.com, he says, gets nearly 10,000 hits a day.

The volume of surfers on Dailyconfession.com is even greater. According to its founder Greg Fox, the site receives three million hits a month, with an average of 150-250 confessions flowing in each day. "The Internet is an amazing place for exchange," Fox says. "Some of the confessions coming in here are amazingly pure and honest, and others are just nuts!" A former director for live shows at Disney World who says he was weary of wading in pixie dust, Fox launched the site two years ago, hoping to create something that was cutting-edge. And as a Jew, he was intrigued with confession. Unwittingly, though, he tapped directly into the guilt-tripper zeitgeist.

Like Brazier, Fox has received a number of confessions to murders and rapes -- which never make it onto the web site -- and even an open threat to President Bush, which was later investigated by the Secret Service. "But it's all truly anonymous, I never know where the confessions are coming from," he says.

For some in the Catholic Church, Internet confession raises other issues. Mainly, that the Net will allow confessions to be conducted from a distance -- a concern first generated by the invention of the telephone. Jesus, says online advice giver Father Gary Jacobson, preferred the up-close-and-personal approach when forgiving personal sin. "Jesus was always physically present to that person," he writes on Catholic.net. Over email, Jacobson expands on this idea. "Lots of people, I suspect, have a deep need to be listened to ... non-judgmentally (even in confession it is the penitent who makes the judgment about her/his personal sinfulness) ... it is psychologically easier to do this online than go to someone in person." Jacobson also has qualms about anonymous listeners doing damage with quack advice.

I know what he means. For the sake of research, I went online to several chat rooms to publicly, and interactively, confess. Initially, I joined a "current issues" chat room, where, after being repeatedly flashed with "ASL?" (age/sex/location) and queried on the size of my breasts, I found a relatively mature cyber pal to confess to. He commented that while his views were free and impartial, "a specialist could do a better job."

Next, I entered a Christian chat room and was accused of Catholic bashing until I "confessed" that I was a journalist. During my "dialogue," I was told that true confession was between the sinner and God, much along the lines of Oscar Wilde's quote that "It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution." And the general consensus was that confession wasn't any different in cyberspace than in private. "It's just like going to a psychiatrist, you're not going to get judged," one pal wrote. This sentiment is loudly echoed by Notproud.com's Brazier. "Beneath the cloak of anonymity, you can be as candid as you like without fear of being discovered," he says. "You can't walk up to your boss and say what you really think but anonymously, by posting it to thousands, you get this sense of justice."

And in some cases, Internet confessionals -- even religious ones -- are far more effective at allowing people to achieve a higher level of faith. Jade Catherine Devlin, a Christian cross-dresser, initially used the anonymity of chat rooms to reach out to others in the transgender community. Eventually he gained the confidence to use his real name, dress openly as a woman and finally, he declared his faith -- while sporting a flowery dress -- to God online.

"I don't see the Internet as fundamentally a spiritual place," he says, suddenly dropping his feminine voice. "I feel that faith demands a whole, full-bodied, emotional encounter. But I think the Internet presents us with an unprecedented opportunity. When someone is pouring out their life online, and it's along the lines of 'yeah, me too,' it's like 'I'm alright.' I've found my herd."

Fox agrees. "This is real life you're picking up on," he says, referring to the explicitness of the cyber realm. "You discover you're not the only one, and when it comes to certain confessions, you're not as unique as you think."

One visitor to confessional sites puts it more bluntly. "Whenever I feel like the world's a great place with wonderful people, I feel the need to stop by (a confession site) and remind myself of the depth of human idiocy," he writes. "Then I go away for six months until I feel the need to do the same again."

With an estimated 700 million users online, there's no dearth of such idiocy. But that's really only a mirror of the real world, where -- face it -- we are fascinated with sexual peccadilloes, interpersonal foibles and freaks who light their nose hairs on fire. Basically, we're nosy. "Peering into others trials and tribulations is comforting," Brazier says. "When you match yourself against a compulsive overeater, your late night snacks don't seem so bad anymore -- misery loves company, especially when it's more miserable."

As Fox sees it, cyber confession is an efficient case of unloading what's been niggling the conscience. "To say, 'I'm a guy wearing girl's panties' at the office and no one knows, it's bound to make you feel better."

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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