Love Bytes (Australian Playboy - March 1995)

Geoff Thompson delves into the world of the Internet, where "safe sex" takes on a whole new meaning.

With quiet but determined strokes she aroused him. He felt the tension rising inside. Returning her touch he marvelled at how soft and smooth her presence felt under his fingertips. "Take me" was her silent message. He moved his hand down, slowly, raising his fingers to lighten his touch, to tease. Finally, with both of them aching for each other he ... punched the return key.

Skeeve Stevens doesn't have any complaints about the intrusion of the silicon chip into our lives. For a start, his love life would be considerably more desolate if it wasn't for his artificially intelligent friends.

While other lonely souls spend the wee hours wandering through smoky clubs and pubs in search of friendship, love and sex, Skeeve is also on the prowl but he hasn't left the comfort of his dusty old couch - the brown throne he has affectionately dubbed his "Star Trek chair". From his humble Bondi abode, perched before $20,000 of computer hardware, this 22-year-old "Internet" consultant feels very much in control. And like Captain Kirk, he too is doing his best to boldly go where no man has been before - straight onto the computer screens of girls he has yet to meet.

"I've met my last five girlfriends either on the Internet or through friends I've met on the Internet," he proudly declares.

Lounging back with bare feet and spraying the odd burst of deodorant into the air above his shoes, Skeeve makes an unlikely playboy. But there he is, keyboard in his lap, a Coke one side and a tub of Homer Hudson ice cream on the other, his fingers drumming one-liners to his Internet "babes".

For those ostriches out there who still don't yet what the Internet (or "the net") is, a short lesson is probably in order.

The net is an electronically mediated vast communications web that links, via modems, computers and telephone lines, over 30 million users in 33 different countries. Indeed some estimate that the number of people who have access to the net may be closer to 60 million. Similarly, it is thought that over one million Australians have access to the net, although only 70 per cent may be regular users.

And the number of users is growing by 20 to 30 per cent worldwide each year. In Australia the larger modem companies all doubled their business last financial year, and most of these sales went to people and companies seeking to hop on-line.

The net was built on the electronic foundations laid first by the United States military, and then by the universities. Even today, most net users have access through university computers even though they may be dialling in from a computer at home.

Users have an account that gives them access to the net, and some Australian universities provide access to their students for free. But just in the past year, commercial interest in the net has gone ballistic. It is estimated that about 80 per cent of the net access providers in the United States are now commercial operators, and at the beginning of last year, commercial net companies serviced about 5 per cent of the Australian market - that figure is now closer to 60 per cent. Either way you look at it, the number of on-line "babes" that Skeeve Stevens has to chase is growing out of control. But even his antics are small time when compared with others.

Just recently, Skeeve got one helluva surprise when he "logged on" to his favourite cyberspace destination Internet Relay Chat (IRC). IRC is an online, worldwide, text-based, nonstop, meeting place where "netheads" from all over the world gather to chat day and night. (When it's peak IRC hour in Australia, it's quiet in the United States so bleary eyed Internet junkies always have someone to rave with.)

The floating population of IRC overall is estimated at around 100,000, but at any one time there will be about 6500 people nattering away on it from all around the globe. On average there are about 350 Australians tuned in at any one time, and users often go by a nickname or a "nick" as they like to call it.

There are hundreds of channels on IRC, both public and private. They range from the very popular social channel "#Aussies" through to the more specialised, such as channel "#Jackoff'.

If someone with an IRC link knows a channel name, they can dial in from anywhere in the world.

One night, while surfing about on channel #Aussies, Skeeve was happy to see the name of his friend Ian, from the Bondi Junction CES, pop into view. But something was not quite right - Ian was dialling in from Alaska.

"What are you doing, Ian?" he asked. "You're not in Alaska!"
Ian replied that yes, indeed, he was.
"What are you doing there?" enquired Skeeve.

To his shock and pleasure, he was told that Ian, a Bondi boy, had fallen for an Alaskan girl he met on IRC. He flew over to meet her and they were married two days later.

And this is by no means an uncommon phenomenon.

Skeeve knows of at least four other married couples whose flirting and courting days were spent on the net. Glancing across a crowded computer screen, can it be love at first type?

No, its not that simple, according to the IRC aficionados. They say the IRC crowd are an intimate bunch and many of them are in daily communication with each other. They even scan pictures of themselves into their computers and send them down the phone-line.

A woman called Lorraine recently flew over from California and is now engaged to a guy in Wollongong. And Halley, also from California, is already married to net-friend Jason from Sydney.

The Sydney IRC scene is "very promiscuous" according to Skeeve. He says their relationships are "a combination between the net and real life". And with a "real-life" floating population of about 150, members tend to meet up at least once a week.

"Now, I'd be fairly unlikely to get together with anyone who wasn't on the net or who didn't have knowledge of it," says Kirrily from the Melbourne IRC scene. She boasts that owing to her online connections, she never has to pay for accommodation if she travels within Australia or in the United States.

"I get about 200 pieces of electronic mail (email) a day, but I'd be lucky to get one phone call. My father recently complained that I didn't ring him enough and I said, 'get an email account and I'll be in touch'."
Kirrily, or "Skud" as she is known on the net, runs a bondage and discipline, sadomasochism (BDSM) on-line mail and news service. This basically means she presides over a forum that acts as a place to exchange ideas and information on bondage and S&M. She says similar on-line support and chat groups are very popular among gays, bisexuals and lesbians.

According to Kirrily, these sort of online support groups provide an invaluable service to people with sexual interests that make them feel isolated. In addition to the openly gay participants, it's thought that many young people who may have gay inclinations but haven't openly come to terms with their sexuality can access these resources to receive support, help and advice.

Also, older people, who haven't "come out" yet in "real life", can explore their sexuality in these groups.

But there is also on-line sex-related interaction between people that is much more direct.

One type is called "netsex". This phenomenon involves people basically meeting somewhere like on a public channel such as IRC, getting to know each other and then retiring to a private channel to fondle each other with words. It also takes place in what are known as MOOS and MUDS - they're like IRC, but rather than be themselves, people take on characters in a role playing game.

Josh, another Sydney based IRC enthusiast, estimates that at any one time there would be up to 300 people netsexing around the world. There are even channels such as "#hottub", where netsex enthusiasts can take a dip if they like.

The system is not without its problems however, and one netsex problem that Josh has encountered is when the time-lag between entries is too long. Some IRC connections are not too fast, and that well worded foreplay might have completely lost its spice by the time it connects with the eyes of your netsex partner. In other words, the timing is everything. Some people take it seriously, others do not. Kirrily for example takes it all : with a grain of salt. "Some people really get into it - I distance myself from it, knowing it's something else," she says. "But I've watched some people who really get into it."

The problem is that netsex can be misleading or uninvited - a situation exacerbated by people gender switching, that is, coming on-line pretending to be a woman rather than a man, and vice versa. Kirrily explains: "Stupid guys come into lesbian channels pretending to he women and they'll say things like, 'Any hot babes here?' The women know what they're up to straight away, and they soon sort them out."

But there have been occasions when the sex of someone on the net has not been so transparent.

The American cyberspace theorist Allucquere Rosanne Stone has written about a person she met on a computer conference in New York in the mid-'80s. The net user, whom she calls "Julie", was a "totally disabled older woman" who could only just manage to push the keys of her computer.

Julie, whose disability was invisible and irrelevant on the net, gained the confidence of many other women who shared their deepest intimacies with her. This went on until the day when one of her admirers tracked her down in "real life" and it was revealed that Julie was in tact a middle-aged male psychiatrist. The news shook the on-line female friends of "Julie", with one woman saying she felt raped.

Apparently, once he had begun, "Julie" couldn't resist. According to Stone he later said:
"I was stunned at the conversation ... I hadn't known that women talked among themselves that way. There was so much vulnerability, so much more depth and complexity. Men's conversations on the nets were much more guarded and superficial, even among intimates. It was fascinating and I wanted more."

But this curious fellow's intentions are fairly innocent compared with many men on the net. Blatant and open sexual harassment happens regularly. One British woman told the British newspaper The Independent that: "The mere fact that I'm a woman makes me fair game in the eyes of many. I can't tell you how many times I've been harassed, asked for 'phone sex' and badgered for what is known as a 'hot chat', until I've finally logged off in disgust."

Indeed, in the United States there are moves towards having the same anti-stalking laws that cover obscene telephone calls and harassment by mail apply to on-line lechers.

A large part of the problem is the demographics of the on-line community. Worldwide, some estimates suggest that the on-line population consists of 20 males to every female.

According to Skeeve Stevens, however, the situation is no longer so bleak in Australia (much to his delight), and from a population that was about 90 per cent male a few years ago, Stevens estimates channel #Aussies has now balanced out to be around 60/40 male to female. Part of making the net more attractive to women has been to control some of the excesses of male behaviour, and while it's nearly impossible to control the net from the outside, through censorship and government regulation, it does have its own high priests of discipline.

People who have been part of an online community for a while get awarded what is known as "ops". An abbreviation of "channel operator" (also called "chanops" or "chops"), they have the power to "kick" other people off the channel if they believe they are being unduly disruptive, nasty or offensive. This power is granted by the "sysops" or "opers" (for example, the actual IRC operators), who are affectionately known as "gods". The sysops have the power to "KILL" users by breaking the link that connects them to the IRC.

This is not a cut and dry hierarchy, and rampaging politics are rife. In the spirit of procedural fairness, operators are usually required to give reasons for their actions - and they don't always agree with others.

"Op wars" between operators occasionally occur, but there is a "netiquette" governing on-line behaviour and those who are disrespectful of the social codes and taboos will be booted off. It follows that any "newbies" looking for some online rape and pillage should keep their fingers well under control if they want to survive.

It's a piece of advice that some Sydney pub dwellers may have already found out about. The spread of the net is no longer restricted to those who own their own hardware, and a business called the Speakeasy Public Access Network has installed coin-operated computer terminals, with links to the Internet, in four Sydney pubs. They include the Great Northern Hotel in Chatswood, Albert's Tavern in North Sydney, The Fortune of War Hotel in the Rocks and Norths Rugby Club in St Leonards.

If you look hard enough, you'll find these terminals nestled in among the computer card machines. For two bucks for 10 minutes you can dial into IRC and chat to people around Australia and all over the world. There are over 10 countries to choose from. When I was at Albert's Tavern, a girl dialled up France and chatted to some mystery French boys for about half an hour. But, surprisingly, the Internet connection is not the main focus of this venture. Rather, they are trying to drum up interest in their own bulletin board system (BBS) called "Matchmaker". This program is only linked between the other pubs that have a terminal installed, and the idea is that some lonely creature can leave their personal details on the bulletin board and hope that the love of their life might, by chance, wander into one of the other pubs and do the same.

Players can also chat between the pubs, but in the two hours I was at Albert's Tavern, late on Thursday night, not a single person logged on from another hotel. Not that the system doesn't have its uses. Peter Moon, one of the technical controllers for the online pub network, delighted in showing me that even his publicly accessible machine could dig deep into the networked nether worlds.

He demonstrated how anyone with the necessary technical know-how could pull up on the screen some pretty seriously ribald pictures from the vast services offered by many other bulletin board services. All this in a demure little pub like North Sydney's Albert's Tavern!

Dear me, I thought, this must be what Kirrily calls the "complete wank material" that people can subscribe to. These type of services offer a range of on-line still photographs ranging from the very soft to the very hardcore porn. The services are available to anyone who has access to the technology and the money to subscribe. If it's available somewhere, somehow, there's a very good chance that it's also available on the net. After all, Australians are the second biggest users of bulletin boards after the United States.

It's just this type of freedom of information, however, that is generating some problems for "the net", because anyone with the right technology and know-how (including kids) can pull up on-screen pictures involving anything from bestiality through to paedophilia.

The federal government, under pressure over this issue, formed a Bulletin Board Task Force in an attempt to find ways of policing access to the X-rated material. In its report released in October last year, however, Attorney General Michael Lavarch all but admitted that controlling access to these services was impossible. He also admitted that "rapid improvements in technology and falling hardware prices have the potential to make access to bulletin boards far more widespread". It should not be forgotten, however, that the net offers some really useful services. For instance, how many Australian Playboy readers know that American Playboy has an on-line service that can be accessed through a userfriendly piece of net software called World Wide Web? The service, called "Playboy: An electronic catalogue for Internet", (http://www.playboy.com) lets you read about American Playboy's goals and aspirations as well as offering subscriptions to the magazine and the on-line Playboy Electronic Notebook as well as Playboy videos, posters and books.

Even considering the infinite possibilities offered up by the computer networks, however, "the net" is just a portion of how computer technology is involving itself in our love and sex lives. And there are now those who believe that people can even have a kind of sexual connection with their computers and what they have to offer.

The American academic Claudia Springer believes that the pleasure we feel when we are at our computer terminals has a deeper meaning, and she says this "desire" cannot be automatically dismissed as a nonsexual feeling. She claims, invoking psychoanalysis, that the sense of abandonment and disembodiment we feel while getting lost in the cyberspace is reminiscent of the way we felt when we were in the womb! Hence it follows for Springer that "the pleasure of the interface" involves an invocation of motherly comfort!

Norie Neumark of University of Technology Sydney believes that computers can make up for feelings of sexual inadequacy or work to improve sexual prowess in the eyes of others. She says the computer can operate "as a sort of phallic fetish" so that "the bigger your machine, the bigger you are; the bigger and harder the drive, the better you feel". She recalls the story of one woman who told a group of male computer buffs that she had upgraded her machine. The woman said that, "Suddenly they treated me differently, like I had the biggest prick in the room."

Indeed, while there are fairy tale stories of love on the net, disappointment can also be real. Some on-line dating services in Britain have had their fair share of disappointments. One disgruntled woman recalled her experience.

"His on-line personality was totally different from the reality. It could have been a different man. He was ineffectual and frankly, very boring. The fact that we met in real life ruined our on-line relationship."

This distinction between "on-line" people and "real-life" people works both ways. Indeed the art of deception and its intricacies are part of life on the net. According to an IRC study by Elizabeth Reid of Melbourne, users do pretend to be something they're not, in order to be perceived as "attractive, impressive and popular". One user said:
"Well, I gotta admit, I shave a few pounds off my weight, when I tell the guys on IRC what I look like ..."

So the system is far from perfect, and it doesn't always sound too appealing, but try telling Skeeve Stevens that.


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