What My Dialup Youth Taught Me About Sex and the Internet

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I took an excited sip of my after-school Coke before clacking away on my clunky keyboard. Everyone wanted to know “a/s/l” (age, sex, and location), and I lied: 21/f/Florida. Then I entered into a private chat with RedSoxxx72, who promptly typed these words: “Hey sweetheart.” Eek. I pushed myself back from the computer desk, traveling a few feet in my roller chair before coming to a stop. Then I spun myself around a few times, as if to embrace the roiling of my stomach, and scooted back to the keyboard, summoning the women I’d seen in late-night phone sex commercials. “Hey big boy,” I wrote as goose bumps spread across my forearms. Next came that ubiquitous question: “Whatchu wearin?” I looked down at my Dr. Seuss T-shirt and wrote, “Red lace stockings.” He did not delay. “I’m taking those red stockings off right now and slowly licking up those long, luscious legs.” That is as far as I let it go before hammering out, “IM 12!!!!!!” It was 1996, and AOL chatrooms were where I spent most of my afternoons.

All these years later, it’s unsettling to revisit this adolescent experimentation; it triggers my protective impulse around the early influx of “adult” information, as well as the very real threat of online predation. But at the same time, I understand that those (fortunately harmless) cybersex sessions were the result of natural adolescent curiosity and yearning around sex—the kind that is unsatisfied by bare-basics parental “sex talks” and rote health-class dictums. When it comes to sex, the internet underscores the gap between what young people want to know and experience, and what adults are comfortable with them knowing and experiencing. That gap is never bridged through parental locks and over-the-top warnings, which heighten young people’s sense of being coddled at best and lied to at worst. It’s addressed through acceptance of teenage wanting, not just for information, but also exploration. On that front, parents often falter, while the internet always delivers. Only in recognizing, and valuing, young people’s sexual interest can adults meaningfully help them navigate sex—online or off.

Those early chatrooms were a virtual landscape dominated by the graphic and sometimes alarming desires of boys and men, but they were also the source of the first inklings of my own insistent desire. The internet introduced me to a thrilling world of possibility, the fact of sex as not just a biological event but a broader social phenomenon, one filled with play and creativity. I’m not alone in this: A 2015 survey of Finnish girls found that respondents associated sending “sexual messages” online—including during what some called “pervy roleplay”—with “the freedom of exploration.” The researchers cast it as an extension of the common forms of real-life sexual experimentation that children engage in, like playing “house” or “doctor,” which can be an exploration of “adult interaction, normative social roles, the bodies of others, as well as emotions connected to sexual settings.”

My dad, a computer programmer at a startup in Berkeley, brought us online at the beginning of the internet boom—and just as I slid toward puberty. The dining room had recently been converted into “the computer room,” as we called it, which tells you something about the size of these machines and just how excited our family was about this new technology. While my friends were still stuck parsing women’s magazines like YM and Cosmopolitan for intel on sex, I had seemingly limitless knowledge right at my fingertips. This meant discovering a version of what would become Rule 34 of the internet: If you can think of it, someone is into it. Plenty of chat partners described cliché scenes of vanilla romance—beds strewn with rose petals or candle-lit bubble baths—but there were also mentions of everything from threesomes to spankings to golden showers. It was too much information with too little context.

On the other hand, my middle school sex-ed class offered a total paucity of information. I heard about the literal ins and outs of sex—here is the urethra, here is the cervix, here’s how babies are made. The chief educational aim was avoiding the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Similarly, parental talks about the internet focused on stranger danger and how I might unwittingly stumble across “disturbing videos” (i.e., porn). What we never talked about in class, and what I never heard about at home, was sexual hunger, curiosity, and exploration. In 2013, a study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health found that “adolescents want to learn about sexual experiences, not just sexual health,” and that “the Internet may cater better to adolescents’ sex education interests.”

This relates to what researchers have for many decades called the “missing discourse of desire” in sex education, in which girls are cast as potential victims rather than desiring subjects. Of course, the same happens with narratives around the internet, which often emphasize threats while ignoring the possibility of girls’ positive experiences with virtual sexual experimentation. The authors of that Finnish study found that “survey respondents recounted online sexual peer play with fondness, generally detached it from notions of harm, and described it as fun flirtation–as ‘harmless exploration of sexuality and release in writing.’”

Online, my younger self found, there was no missing discourse of desire. It was alive and wild—at turns surprising, revolting, arousing, hilarious, and thrilling. Which version was a truer representation, a better education? The internet seemed the most honest teacher available to me.

Around the same time, I started a website and daily email newsletter for fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, who had just starred in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I gathered Leo gossip, sightings, and fan fiction for the newsletter, which gained dozens, hundreds, and then over 1,000 subscribers. Here was a world of my own making, my own desire. I even downloaded audio clips from the Romeo + Juliet website so that whenever an error on my computer occurred, Leo yelled, “I am fortune’s fool!” Against this backdrop of obsessive romanticism, I ramped up the cybersex. This was the paradox of my coming of age in the ’90s: Quoting Shakespeare by day, faking virtual orgasms by night.

It pains me to think of just how early my sexuality coalesced around performing pleasure—even on the internet, where you could, ostensibly, be anyone you wanted to be. At the same time, I was meaningfully trying on different sexual roles while beginning to observe my own bodily responses. That pubescent girl clacking on the keyboard was slowly and indirectly finding the way to her own desires. It would take decades for me to arrive there in any meaningful sense, but “the net,” as I unironically called it, cracked the back door. It’s where I first caught a glimpse inside.

Now I’m a mom of a toddler. My child’s internet will be vastly different from the one that ushered me into puberty. Social media, tube sites, virtual reality! About all this, I could easily wring my hands or grumble, “Back in my day …” It all makes AOL chatrooms seem quaint. One thing remains persistently true, though: Adults lose all credibility when they start from a point of ignoring young people’s desire for sexual information and exploration. That fact applies to the dialup days as much as to the OnlyFans era. Luckily, this internet has resources of which I could have only dreamed: robust educational websites like Scarleteen and AMAZE, virtual sex-ed classes with sex-positive, tech-literate educators, and thriving online communities for LGBTQ teens, to name just a few.

Even more crucially, the next generation is being raised by parents who are themselves digital natives and therefore less liable to fall for fear-mongering about kids on the internet. Some of these parents know firsthand what young people want to know and experience when it comes to sex online—the harder part is accepting it. Ironically, the worst of parental fears about the influence of the internet are counterbalanced by this acceptance. It normalizes sexual curiosity while paving the way for ongoing talks that contextualize what young people will find online. This casts the internet as just one source of information for teenagers, rather than the only seemingly honest sex educator available to them. I’m most encouraged by knowing that many parents now share my fraught, giddy nostalgia about their own early encounters with sex online—because that common ground is where meaningful understanding and conversation can begin.


Adapted from: Want Me, by Tracy Clark-Flory. Copyright © 2021 by Tracy Clark-Flory. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group/Random House/The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


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