A History of How the Internet Shaped Our Sex Lives
Samantha Cole on the ways in which sex and technology are inextricably linked
I can’t remember the first time I went online, but I can remember the first time something happened online. It was during the summer holidays, and I was 12 years old. Seated at my software engineer uncle’s home computer—the first dial-up I’d ever experienced—I noticed little grey boxes popping up every so often to say, “Hello Sir”. With my heart beating as loudly as the pop-up tone, I nervously typed back into a few of them. To my delight, several conversations sprung forth. These mysterious strangers liked me! I felt tingly and joyful, and a little flirtatious. Though frustrated that they kept calling me Sir. I was a girl! Why would no one, seemingly either offline or online, recognize this?
I had no idea, of course, what MSN messenger was. Or that I was talking to young adults at the college where my uncle was a professor. And only many years down the line did I recognize how awkward this must have been for him (I took at least one conversation too far, resulting in the student typing a “fuck you” in return). All I knew was that a whole world had opened up before my eyes, and I would be lying if I said it hadn’t felt a tiny bit sexual.
Many people’s early experiences of the internet, particularly before smartphones brought the internet everywhere, were fueled by sparks of sexual desire—that’s often what made this new space exciting and full of possibility. Perhaps that’s because the internet’s own early experiences—including, sometimes, the foundations on which it was built—were sexual too.
In her book How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected History, Samantha Cole traces the entangled stories of sex and technology, revealing them to be inextricably linked. From early Bulletin Board Services to digital data collection to webcam technology, Cole explores how, “[l]ike the source code of all computing creation, eroticism is embedded everywhere in the…internet.” This history, however, has been erased by governments and internet corporations alike; and it’s present (and presence) is being actively stamped out by them too.
What might it mean to reclaim the knowledge that sex and internet technology are intimately linked? Cole deep dives this question, bringing surprising, delightful and sometimes difficult answers back up to the surface.
Richa Kaul Padte: I’d love to start by talking about porn addiction. Despite being totally unsubstantiated by data, it continues to be a prevalent fear and belief. When I was researching my own book on internet sex in South Asia, I found so many men were worried they were addicted to porn and masturbation—because they got themselves off once or twice a day (such a small number!). You talk abut these “high levels of shame [in]…self-proclaimed porn addicts,” but you also highlight a broader danger of the porn addiction myth: it’s used by men to justify violence against women. Could you talk a bit about this?
Samantha Cole: Porn addiction as a concept is such a late 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. People didn’t know what to make of this incredibly powerful tool in their homes when the internet arrived. [This] combined with a moral panic about porn that had already been brewing for decades. The internet brought it to a head in porn addiction. To psychologists before the internet, getting out the old Playboy or keeping a smutty VHS collection was considered a victimless behavior. But once people could access it on the computer, and upload their own—or more scandalously yet, have long “cybersex” sessions with strangers on the computer—it became a social health concern.
The internet made porn and sex easier to access, and of course, some people struggle with that ease of access, even at the expense of their offline lives. But studies show that shame makes it so much worse in many cases. And I think that shame drives people to seek out help from the wrong places, like extremist or “men’s rights” forums. The internet’s ability to connect people is a double-edged sword: some people find acceptance for who they are, and others find rabbit holes of hate and shame. The outlet for that anger is too frequently violent acts toward women. There have been multiple mass shootings in the U.S. just in the last 10 years where the gunman blamed sex, porn, or sexual rejection for his actions. That’s such an unfair, and unfounded, scapegoat. To a less extreme but still important degree, we’re seeing legislation in the U.S. enacted now that blames porn addiction for every ill in society and forces huge adult sites to put up more barriers to entry. I think that’s a very scary trend that will probably get worse if people don’t start pushing back.
I don’t want to discount the real struggles that people who feel out of control in their behaviors go through. But I think so much of it is contextual. Like you said, there are people who really feel they’re hopelessly “addicted” to porn or masturbating, when in reality, they have pretty normal sex lives. Somewhere along the way, they’ve internalized this idea—which in Western society often comes from a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian tradition, even if they don’t identify that way—that they should be ashamed of their sexuality.
RKP: It’s my dream to own an internet-connected sex toy, but I’m absolutely terrified of its possible consequences. Not only are Indian culture and law deeply intolerant of sex (thanks, colonialism), but the current regime has swerved into violent fascism. What does the data generated and stored by such sex toys mean for people living under sexually-intolerant regimes? Not to mention that any government could, in theory (and practice!), turn intolerant towards marginalized communities. The rise of homophobic governments in some Eastern European countries—or the future of queer rights in Italy—immediately comes to mind for me.
SC: People have had this desire for long-distance tech-enabled sex for such a long time, way before the internet. In the 1970’s, an inventor filed a patent for an “audiotactile stimulation and communications system” and called it the Radio Dildo, and there’s this quote from Howard Reingold that I love from his essay Mondo 2000 where he predicts, “You will not use erotic telepresence technology in order to have sex with machines. Twenty years from now, when portable telediddlers are ubiquitous, people will use them to have sexual experiences with other people, at a distance, in combinations and configurations undreamt of by precybernetic voluptuaries.” Sex across distance is something we’ve always wanted out of the internet. People roleplaying and “cybering” in MUDs, for example, were breaking that boundary in interesting, creative ways.
Fast forward 30+ years and the internet has made that more realistic—more people can order a sex toy online discreetly and safely, and a lot of those toys make the dream of distance-connected sex real. But of course that comes with some risk. The concerns about data privacy and our sex lives are real! A lot of sex toy makers skate by without strong regulations because, at least in the U.S., they’re considered “novelty” items and are made by companies that are entering the game for the first time, without a lot of experience, to try to cash in on a trend. I don’t have a ton of expertise in how this could impact marginalized people in places where queer rights are under attack, but I hope more sex toy makers take privacy policies and data storage seriously for their sake. The data privacy leakage in sexual wellness apps as it relates to Roe v. Wade here in the States comes to mind; messy privacy practices can have serious consequences.
RKP: So many (sexual) revolutions contain paradoxes, and “the camgirl revolution” is no different. Camsites allow sex workers a greater degree of safety, not only from clients (who sometimes respond to sex workers setting boundaries with violence), but also from physical threats by police and sex work abolitionists. You write: “But it’s also had a splintering effect on groups that formerly relied on close, trusting relationships with other workers”—relationships that were based in brick-and-mortar shared spaces.
To what extent have the online community forums you explore mitigated the losses of physical community? I realize there’s no cut-and-dried way to weigh this up (when really what’s needed is a societal overhaul around sex work!), but I’m still curious as to how offline vs online communities for sex workers played out in the course of your research.
The arrival of the internet changed so much for sex workers and safety. For this book I talked to people like Kristen DiAngelo, who has seen this massive evolution in the internet and sex work: she told me about a time when working in brothels or doing other in-person work came with an expectation of physical risk that people working primarily online today sometimes can’t relate to on the same level. Being able to work independently, post your own ads, get your own clients, and vet those clients online before meeting them in person was a revolutionary shift that came with the internet. But that doesn’t mean online-only workers, like OnlyFans or Pornhub models, don’t also face risks. They’re up against things like doxxing, harassment, deplatforming, censorship, the list goes on. And this is while working 50 different roles: social media manager, booking agent, marketer, videographer, accountant, on-camera talent. It’s endless, exhausting work. Having a community of care is so important.
There are definitely unique safety concerns for workers online and off, which is why it’s important to remind people who might not be familiar with these nuances that sex work isn’t a monolith: cam models face different challenges than escorts, than dominatrixes, than strippers, and while each of these occupations have a lot of crossover (someone who dances in a club might also have an OnlyFans or see clients, for example) they’re also made up of individuals. Worker solidarity is so crucial within any workplace, but also across professions, and it’s a huge way that organizing and labor justice happens.
But when you have platforms that don’t allow people to talk about their work—like Facebook and Instagram for example, which will ban you for talking about sex work, and Twitter, which frequently deplatforms and downranks content from sex workers—it gets really, really hard to share safety information and harm reduction resources, let alone organize in a meaningful way.
But they do it! Sex workers are some of the most resilient and creative people out there. They shouldn’t be forced to constantly migrate from platform to platform online, though, and lose peer communities (not to mention clients and fan bases, which = income) along the way.
I think a lot of non-sex workers got their first taste of this recently when it seemed like Elon Musk might actually destroy Twitter. People panicked, closed their accounts preemptively, moved to other, less popular sites like Mastodon, and begged followers to find them elsewhere if Twitter went down. That’s reality for online sex workers every day they log on. It’s that precarious all the time, for a lot of people. It can be taken away at any moment.
You do such a fantastic job of exploring and explaining deepfakes, and it’s incredible how you, as a journalist, were leading the reporting on this from the very outset! I was especially interested in how debates around deepfakes largely center on “politics, global powers, and hypothetical three-dimensional chess games about whether deepfakes of politicians could start wars.” But, as you go on to say, 96 percent of all deepfakes are still “nonconsensual, face-swapped porn” — ie, sexual violations of (predominantly) women. Given that absolutely overwhelming percentage point, how do we urgently shift the conversation to “consent, bodily autonomy, and sexuality online”? Why is there such a resistance to doing so?
With AI-generated art, text, and voice getting better than ever these days, and all of the pushback from AI ethicists and artists who object to work being used without their consent, I think this is a topic we’ll keep seeing. But for reasons that have to do with stigma and shame (and all of the censorship we just talked about), sexuality still gets left behind in those conversations. I think it’s at the heart of a lot of what we’re dealing with, with deepfakes and beyond: if you can grasp the concept of consent online and the ways bodily autonomy can extend beyond the corporeal, untangling these ethical issues gets easier.
Even when people talk or think about deepfakes used to make nonconsensual porn, what often gets overlooked is the theft of the performer’s work whose body is in the videos. But socially, we’ve internalized this very problematic idea of “asking for it”: that if they put their nudes online, they themselves must be for public consumption and manipulation, and must deal with the consequences without complaining. We saw this happen long before deepfakes, like with Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s leaked sex tapes online (a story that recently got made into a popular TV show, allegedly without their consent — we never learn!). So it’s not a new problem, and that makes it even more frustrating, to see something like nonconsensual, sexual deepfakes continue to be an ethical quandary for people. The resistance I think comes from not dealing with basic bodily autonomy, misunderstandings about consent, and deep stigma against sex work and sexuality.
RKP: The internet often seems to me to be powered by a deep desire for authenticity. Jennifer Ringley’s 24-hour webcam feed from her dorm room, set up in 1996, was perhaps the first instance of “everyday life on display”. Today, sites like Pornhub maintain an amateurish look (despite being massively wealthy) to hold “on to [the] allure of homemade ‘authenticity’.” And it’s not just sex—even if sex was leading the way. Instagram’s massive continuing success is based on precisely this: the everyday on display, the veneer of the authentic. Why are we so enchanted by the “real”, even when we know that on sites like Pornhub and Instagram, what we’re seeing isn’t reality at all?
SC: Our craving for connection and authenticity while hesitating to be fully authentic online—whatever that may mean—is endlessly interesting to me. The popularity of the app BeReal comes to mind, too. I don’t know anyone who is really “real” on that app, but I love it. Of course, for a lot of people, being fully yourself online can be dangerous. But in a lot of cases, people just want to feel seen, so they try to get as close to that expression as they can within the limits of being on the internet.
As for adult sites and social media like Instagram, there’s a certain suspension of belief that comes with consuming media online, that’s risen from this “content creator” industry of the last decade or so. That includes sex. For example, sex workers sell a fantasy, but they also often provide a meaningful connection with their clients and audience as part of that service. I went long on this idea of authenticity in cam modeling specifically a few years ago, and found that while live streamers like Ringley and camgirls delving into more explicit streaming on the internet proved the demand for “uncensored” content (at a time when The Real World and reality TV was just getting going), performers working online today continue that tradition in a similar spirit. People love an unscripted dildo slip, but they also show up just to talk to the model or others in the audience.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the internet as a force for disengagement or dislocation, like we’re losing parts of ourselves the more online we become. And we do miss a lot of basic human social cues online—nodding, leaning forward, crossing arms, even nearly imperceptible things like a quicker heart rate or faster blinking can help us communicate in-person, in real time. But we strengthen other ties. If [people] are willing to be authentic in a vulnerable way with each other online, maybe they find other[s] like them and feel less alone. That goes a long way to dispel the shame and anger we talked about earlier. Even if they’re into, like, fart porn, or self-suck, or cosplaying as sexy airplanes. Even with all the social media monopolies and censorship, the internet can still be a wonderfully weird place if you know where to look.