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The Internet Has Always Been, and Will Always Be, About Sex

The Internet Has Always Been and Will Always Be About Sex
Date Posted: Wednesday, November 16th, 2022

In her new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex, tech journalist Samantha Cole traces the origins of our modern internet back not to the Silicon Valley bros—but the communities of sex workers, adult-content creators, and horny normies forced to continuously reinvent their place online.


The first form of pornography shared online was likely via ASCII art. Before computer graphics went mainstream, early users of the internet in the ’70s and ’80s figured out how to arrange slashes, dots, and lines on a screen into images of body parts far more intricate than the average “(.)(.)” one might have dashed off in an AIM chat back in the third grade. As tech journalist Samantha Cole writes in her new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected History, “Anyone could do a crude ASCII of boobs or stick-figure pinups—but it took a patient artist to craft something in realistic detail, line by line, like weaving on the loom of a keyboard.” Which is to say: Throughout every stage of the internet’s history, people have only gotten progressively more creative about being horny on main.

When I called Cole up a few weeks ago to chat, Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover had just been made final, and we spoke about how her book’s thesis—that we owe some of our greatest innovations on the internet to the enduring yet ever-evolving needs of adult content—already carries major implications for at least one of Musk’s reported schemes: to create a paywalled video service on Twitter. Also relevant: the ensuing exodus of Twitter users who have started searching for a new place to roost, which Cole pointed out is perhaps the only predictable feature of life online for anyone on the internet, but especially for the sex workers and adult-content creators whose digital migrations so often revolutionize everyone’s technology along the way.

Below, Cole talks with Vanity Fair about the internet’s long and uneasy relationship with sex—and how, for all of our technological advancements today, we’re still left in want of faster, better, truer connectivity.

Vanity Fair: Your book starts with all these stories of the proto-internet—a time of bulletin board systems and Geocities and ASCII porn. How was it to research that era when the internet is so ephemeral? Like, how back does the Wayback Machine go?

Samantha Cole: Not as far back as I would like; I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Internet Archive. It's tough because a lot of it is falling away. Link rot is very real even from week to week. Then you're looking at like, 30 years ago and trying to find conversations people were having on forums.

Is there anything from all that internet archaeology that stood out to you?

There's one story that I really loved on Usenet, where people were talking about how to have sex during scuba diving. That conversation went from 1997 until 2020, and maybe is still going on on Google Groups. I thought that was really funny because it was something people kept picking it up like year over year.

Stacy Horn, who actually founded the Echo New York BBS in 1989, told me about how users of Echo would become really close friends. People would use it kind of like a dating pool, because it was all New Yorkers. Some of them got married and had kids, but others would break up. And then they wouldn't be able to use Echo anymore, because it was just too sad to see their ex posting. There was no way to mute or block people. So she was like, I had to remove people a lot of the times who asked me, saying, “I'm too heartbroken to see so and so’s post.”

Seeing your ex online: a problem since the dawn of the internet!

A very foundational part of the internet.

There have been some big recent developments that could carry implications for the future of online connection. The first one I want to ask you about, of course, is Twitter. Amongst the many, many things Elon Musk is reportedly toying with for the platform’s future, one of them is the possibility of a paid adult video feature. Basically OnlyFans, but on Twitter. Could that actually happen?

That’s certainly something I'm keeping an eye on. I don't think that anyone proposing those ideas has seen through the extreme difficulty that adult websites have even just staying up as adult websites without involving the mainstream under-18 public.

If they are going to try it, they're going to realize very quickly that things like discrimination from banks and Square all of these payment processors that people take advantage of on the mainstream aren't friendly to adult transactions. They're gonna have to think about, like, FOSTA/SESTA [the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which became law in 2018 and amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, making websites liable for hosting content that facilitates or promotes prostitution]. They're gonna have the anti-trafficking people all over them. It's just such a Pandora's box that people in the adult industry have been thinking about and working on, and advocating for and solving these problems for a really long time. Unless Elon miraculously decides to hire and commission advice from people in the adult industry, which like, I doubt it, maybe it would stand a shot.

But you know, Twitter is already under attack from people who hate porn and hate sex on the internet in general. That's a real risk for him. And it's a real shame to open people who are using Twitter up to that risk—people who use Twitter to advertise their OnlyFans or their clip sites and meet clients, stuff like that. Twitter is one of the last places where you can just post adult content where you're in it with everybody else; It's not like the adult section of Twitter. Your exposure is to everybody, with the caveat that Twitter down ranks porn pretty severely. Like 13% of the site is porn or something, so it makes sense that he wants to monetize that. He's in for a world of issues that I don't think he's ready for. But that’s applicable to everything he's doing.

The other big story in the news is that perhaps fortuitously timed announcement that Tumblr is bringing back nudity—though not necessarily all NSFW content. Are these two shifts related in any way?

If they're related, that would be brilliant. Tumblr got a lot of shit for that change back in 2018 when they got rid of porn, and it just started bleeding users. It turned out that everyone was on Tumblr to look at porn, and anyone on Tumblr knew this, but I guess Tumblr staff did not.

They ran into the same problem—the CEO of Automatic, which owns Tumblr now, was writing about how porn can't come back because of all these issues with payment processing, banks, age gates, and stuff like that. But nudity is a different story in the eyes of the finance world, I guess.

Zooming out a bit, your book made me think about how the relationship between sex and the internet/technology has always been a kind of cultural boogeyman. We’re constantly finding reasons to panic about everything from dating apps to cybersex. What do you think is at the heart of our anxieties around all of this?

I feel like a whole other book could be written about that particular question. Like you said, there's always been this panic about porn. It’s always been kind of like, save the children! That’s the rhetoric that comes from groups that don't want people to access information about their sexuality at all.

Is it a uniquely American thing?

It’s definitely the tension between these things, because free speech is a huge part of American society. We see this with Elon Musk. All he wants to do is talk about free speech, but what he means is free speech that I want to hear, and that I can make money off of.

It's probably an American phenomenon that we've exported to other countries for sure. We've always been a little afraid of that kind of freedom to access information about yourself, about what you might be into. The internet opens that up! It democratizes, it normalizes it. That's scary for people whose game is social control.

It’s a push and pull between what people really want and this big openness that has happened in the last 10 years, where people are realizing that there are a lot more people out there like them, that they can explore things outside of the norm with their gender or with their sexuality. Those explorations complicate structures in a way that computers don't handle and people in power don't handle.

It’s so ironic, this disconnect between what the powers that be talk about what we use the internet, versus how people actually use it. Like they love picturing this civil marketplace of ideas (or a town square), and it’s always going to turn into something else.

Yeah. People in the early days of the internet thought these places were somehow going to be better and more suited to people being nice and communicative to each other. And that's really never been the case. Or maybe it was very, very early on, and then quickly, once you get enough people involved, it becomes total chaos. If you're trying to solve human nature with technology, you're gonna end up with a total circus.

They thought that the internet was going to solve racism and gender disparity and things like that because people would be able to show up as something other than their physical selves. But then people just replicated all of those issues, right? And those kinds of things get codified into the systems that we see today.

It’s like the moral of an ancient myth. We humans got this amazing gift and then…

We totally fumbled it.

You’ve talked about how the finance world plays a big role in curbing access to adult content online, along with the government, of course. There are countless examples where there’s this conflation between this one broad category where there’s porn, sex work, and sex speech—say, adults just wanting to have kinky Animal Crossing experiences, or posting on Craigslist Personals—and the category of actual trafficking and exploitation. Platforms frequently end up shutting down all adult content because they don’t want to deal with the latter.

I’m curious if you think it’s more of an issue of willful conflation, or there’s truly a technological/logistical barrier that comes with differentiating out harmful content?

It’s tough to not see it as willful when it comes to trafficking and things like that, because the total lack of ability to see gray areas or the ways in which many things can be true at once. Like Backpage got shut down, and that was a huge, huge blow to people who were using it to survive. At the same time, Backpage was helping to find and report trafficking victims. There were all these reports that came out about the government being like, Yeah, it was not good when Backpage got shut down because now they're even further underground.

From groups that want to fix or help prevent trafficking, I don't know how you ignore that for that long and not call it willful. People who want to solve sex trafficking or exploitation but aren't looking at things like housing insecurity and precarity in jobs and reproductive rights aren't really interested in solving the problem. The roots of the problems are very clear, but instead they're spending their time trying to get Pornhub taken off of Instagram.

As you say in the book, the story of sex work in the U.S. is “partly one of a constantly migrating community.” There’s this cycle in the history of the internet that repeats when a new innovation—the CD Rom, web-cams, the personals format—is so often popularized first by sex workers, before it quickly gets adopted by the mainstream (and corporate interests), or becomes obsolete. And then sex workers have to move and find the new “thing” elsewhere online. Is it fair to say that those forces are inextricable—we have the internet we have today because sex workers have been forced to innovate?

I think that's definitely true. Because, you know, it's not always just because people are just so horny that they can't help but create a new technology. It's like, people had to pay the bills and that's how they did it. They found the fastest way to get the most views on something and the smartest, safest way to get it out into the world. The webcam is definitely one of those things.

The migration of sex workers to new websites that they build is something that I would like to see more of, and I think has been happening in a lot of ways in the last few years.The trouble comes when you're trying to do that innovation on a site like Facebook or Instagram or these very hostile places. We saw it happen with OnlyFans. They tried to get rid of explicit content because they couldn't take the heat from the financial sector. It was a really cool moment to see people recognize that and say, No, you can't do this. This is who built your website. It's why you have millions and millions of dollars—that force of necessity to keep innovating and keep making things better for that community.

So it’s thanks to the Puritans and our inherited cultural attitudes about sex that we have the modern internet?

It's like a butterfly effect! Maybe that's a mindfuck. I would love to have a time machine to go back and tell them that.

On a philosophical endnote, I did think it was amazing that throughout all of these innovations in the history of the internet, we’re still not heading into a direction where we just want to have cybersex with some bot. For the most part, we keep using new platforms and new formats just to connect with other humans. But there’s still no magic code that lets us do that perfectly. Is that just the human condition? That we’re always going to be in pursuit of a way to connect better, faster.

Yeah, I think so. It's a need to feel authentically seen and see other people, and the degree to which you can do that depends on how much you want to put out there. We're not real on BeReal Right? You're still kind of curating a self that you aspire to or that you think is your true self.

I think that maybe that's the deeper kind of need within people to find that kind of connection. And it’s why it's so heartbreaking when a website dies and that community gets lost, like with Tumblr. People were building real communities of care and connection. And then when you get rid of all sexual expression, it's like, where does that go? You lose a lot.

Source: Delia Cat/Vanityfair.com

Date Posted: Wednesday, November 16th, 2022 , Total Page Views: 2752

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