Sex, Lies and the Internet
Michael Lewis would disagree. In his 2001 book Next: The Future Just Happened, Lewis argues that individuals wear masks to respond to different social situations. By creating new social situations, he says, the Internet encourages people to unveil new masks.
So is the Internet just another stage for acting out the same old stories? Does its existence manufacture entirely new desires? Or does it encourage impulses that otherwise might not find an outlet? On a mundane level, the last hypothesis seems true. As is often pointed out, most people who have illegally pirated songs off Napster or borrowed a copy of Microsoft Word would never walk into a store and physically steal merchandise.
But, as the following stories illustrate, the Internet—by protecting online users through anonymity and distance—can encourage behaviors and actions far more “deviant” and consequential than simply downloading an MP3. Just ask the sophomores who repeatedly had cybersex with each other prior to their first year or the junior who confirmed his homosexuality when he lost his virginity to a local veterinarian he met on America Online, years before acknowledging it to family or friends. From plagiarism to pornography, from sexual identification to sexual degeneration, Harvard is plugged in.
Naughty By Nature
As a young girl, Lillian—who spoke to FM on the condition that her real name not be revealed—enjoyed being tied up. The sophomore blushes as she recalls her early experiences playing video games in her cousin’s basement. “Sometimes they would tie me up with belts and I would like getting out of them,” she says. “I thought it was a really fun game.” Lillian’s childhood pastime grew into an adult fantasy by the time she reached adolescence. She began running Internet searches to find sadomasochistic material. But the Internet became more than a means to sexual gratification for Lillian. A three-month online romance with a fellow Harvard student eventually convinced her she had found love.
Lillian was initially skeptical of Internet love connections. Her close friend in ninth grade had an online boyfriend and encouraged Lillian to get one as well. “I had my suspicions,” she remembers. “How could someone fall in love through a monitor?”
Pretty easily, according to Peter Kollock, a UCLA professor of sociology who specializes in the Internet. Although cyberlove connotes images of computer geeks and aging spinsters, Kollock claims that digital dalliances follow in the grand literary tradition of Cyrano de Bergerac, Lord Byron and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Those people were truly in love,” he says of the letter-writers of bygone eras.
During her first foray into cyberspace, Lillian eschewed intimacy and sought excitement. “I didn’t see any danger in it,” she says. “The Internet access at home was pretty slow, so I went into a chat room at my high school’s computer lab.” Lillian quickly learned the e-ropes and within an hour was involved in erotic conversation. “This guy started making sexual innuendo and I just went along with it,” she says. “By the time I logged off we were having a pretty raunchy conversation about licking stuff. I liked it.”
Lillian’s online chatting continued when she went home. Using a PC in her bedroom, she began entering chat rooms regularly to act like the sexual animal she never was in real life. “My friends and I made sex jokes all the time,” she says, “but it was never directed in a ‘let me do this to you’ kind of way. It was always very abstract. Playing online was the first time I made that sort of innuendo with a take-me-seriously attitude.”
Online users started propositioning Lillian for cybersex and she eagerly accepted. “I felt like I could be sexy, whereas in everyday life people wouldn’t have taken me seriously because I was a big nerd,” she says. “I played the role of a raunchy sex goddess but in real life I was a smelly chemistry dork.”
The anonymity of the Internet helped her lose all inhibition. Lillian began giving out her phone number without worrying the phone sex would turn into something more. “Why would there be any implication that I wanted to get to know these people?” she asks. “They were just guys I got off.”
She had phone sex with about 10 men (“All of them were probably, like, trailer trash,” she recalls) during a four-month period during 10th grade. “The first time a guy called he asked me how I was feeling,” she says, giggling, “and I told him I was naked. I kept thinking ‘Ew, this is obviously wrong,’” she continues, “‘but it feels so right.’”
By her senior year of high school, Lillian was bored with non-physical forms of sex. “I realized that I never talked to a guy more than once,” she says sullenly. “And as far as the sex, it was never as good as the first time.” Her interest in virtual sex dwindled away.
Until she got accepted to Harvard. After receiving her admissions letter in April, Lillian joined an e-group for the Class of 2004. She began her frequent postings with a message confessing her fear of drinking. “I’ll teach you to drink,” responded Eli, who is now a sophomore in Pforzheimer House. “Then we just started talking through personal e-mails,” Lillian remembers.
“He was quite charming,” she says of her crush. “We talked about what we did during the day and how excited we were to come to Harvard. We had compatible sexual fantasies and similar academic interests. I thought about his messages a lot.”
Kollock cautions that e-mail can often be misleading. “No one stutters in text,” he explains. “You’ve got time. You can sit down and compose your response.”
Lillian talked with Eli through e-mail and America Online’s Instant Messenger for about a month and a half before propositioning him for phone sex. “It felt different than with the others because it was about more than just getting off,” she says. “I thought I was in love. I was definitely going to lose my virginity to him.” A more reticent Eli confirms the reciprocity of the feelings. “It’s true,” he wrote in an e-mail. (Eli declined to be interviewed in person for this story, though he did answer some questions via e-mail. Like Lillian, he also refused to be identified by his real name—as did every other source for this story who is quoted only with a first name.) “[We] did get along very well over e-mail and on the phone.”
“He was this mysterious guy who drank and partied and had sex with women,” Lillian says. “He thought he was hot shit. I was totally fascinated by him. He really turned me on.” She says the two had phone sex about 15 times over the course of the summer.
Lillian’s constant phone use tipped her parents off about the online affair near the end of summer. They were vehemently opposed to Lillian’s interaction with Eli. “My parents and I had huge fights about this,” she says, “and how I shouldn’t go into a relationship with this guy until I knew him in real life.” In retrospect, though, Lillian says she thinks her parents were right. “Even though I felt there was no way I didn’t want to be with him, my parents were able to recognize the false nature of our online connection—whereas I was not,” she says.
Eager to meet the man she loved, Lillian agreed to pick Eli up at the airport on the first day of college. “The last things I e-mailed him were ‘I can’t wait to see you’ and ‘I can’t wait to lose my virginity to you,’” she says. “He told me he would be wearing a red shirt.”
When Lillian saw a red-shirted Eli approaching her at the terminal, she was devastated. All the romantic feelings she associated with him seemed to drain out of her and onto the Logan Airport floor. “It was really shocking,” she recounts. “I found him repulsive.”
During the cab ride to Harvard, a disappointed Lillian told Eli things were not going to work out. Lillian helped him unpack, but she describes their interaction as awkward. “What was supposed to be true love turned out to not even be an attraction,” she says mournfully. “There was no way I was having sex with him.”
Kollock assigns blame for Lillian’s romantic disappointment to the sequence of Internet relationships. “It’s very different from traditional relationships,” he says. “Normally, you see the person, pass a physical judgment, and then you decide whether or not to get to know them.” But online, Pollock says, “You get to know them first and eventually you swap pictures. People usually don’t get into relationships until they have a picture.” Though Lillian had received a snapshot of her Internet beau, she claims it bore little resemblance to the real Eli.
“Although you may think that hearing a person’s voice or reading what they write is enough to get to know who they really are,” Eli warns future cybersurfers, “there are things that simply cannot come across in those media.”
Lillian says she feels her online love disconnection is a typical encounter of strangers in cyberspace. “No one else I talked to [on the pre-frosh e-group] before I came here turned out to be what I expected either,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t think anyone that I’ve met in real life has been what I expected them to be. If you don’t know something about someone else, you make it up. We all fill in the blanks differently.”
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Michael, a sophomore from a religious family, never seemed like a likely candidate for pornography addiction. And he would never have become one, were it not for his 28.8KB modem connection. He started looking at cyberporn in seventh grade. “I was at a friend’s house and he had the Internet set up,” he recounts with a slight smirk. “There was a message that said ‘Don’t click here if you’re not 18.’ So of course I did.”
Michael’s middle school sleepover quickly transformed into a digital anatomy lesson as naked women flashed across the monitor. For the first time in Michael’s life, sex was accessible through a few simple clicks. Although intrigued, he shut down the computer within three hours out of an overwhelming since of guilt—the online escapade deviated from his family’s stringent values. “We went to church every Sunday and we didn’t talk about sex,” he says. “It was pretty clear where the Bible stood with that.”
Regardless of where the Bible stood, Michael’s sexual curiosity was piqued, even after he transferred to a Catholic all-boys school in ninth grade. Whenever his father brought home a laptop from work, Michael would sneak it out of his father’s office to search for pornography. “It was just so easy,” he says. “The Internet was the only medium for me to find that kind of stuff and it would have been too hard to hide magazines.” Michael entered a cycle of succumbing to the computer’s temptation and then to his own guilt. Every few days he would download porn, and every few days he would delete it.
After talking to his youth pastor and to his father about what he called his “compulsion,” Michael installed Surfwatch—a popular Internet filter—to avoid sex-filled websites. “I knew if I was a good Christian then I shouldn’t look at it, especially four times a week” he says. His mantra became a verse from the New Testament: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:30).
The filter didn’t help—it only slowed down the process of searching for porn. “I felt like I didn’t have control over it,” he remembers. “I wouldn’t do it for days and then I’d see the computer and do it for 5 days straight.” For Michael, God was in constant competition with the Internet, and the Internet usually won.
Michael has seen his religious devotion weaken over the course of his first four semesters at Harvard. “First semester I went to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship a good amount,” he recalls. “This year I’ve been to one HRCF meeting and that has been it. The closest I come to anything religious is when I eat next to one of my blockmates and they pray before they eat their food.” While his church visits ground to a halt, his downloading of pornography did not. With a faster ethernet connection, Michael spends less time searching for porn but still considers it a regular part of his week. “I have a fair amount of stuff on my hard drive—Internet pictures and videos that I’ve downloaded,” he says. “But I probably do it a little bit less, maybe like once a week tops.”
Getting To Be Gay
In elementary school, Adam, a junior in Mather House, remembers staring at Ted, the character played by David Lascher on the Nickelodeon TV series “Hey Dude.” “I had no broader notion of sexuality, but I knew I liked looking at him,” he recalls. “If you’re seven years old and you’re already attracted to guys, there probably isn’t much hope you’ll turn out straight.”
Adam’s family purchased a new computer when he entered eighth grade. Among the new system’s perks: a free year-long subscription to AOL. After his parents had gone to sleep, Adam would sneak into the family’s computer room to speak with gay men in chat rooms. He asked them questions like “How do you know you’re gay?” as he tried to unravel his own pubescent confusion. Soon after, Adam began exchanging gay pornography. “I didn’t really use search engines. I got pictures from other people. They were usually my age and in a similar situation,” he says, referring to his burgeoning fear that his homosexuality wasn’t just a phase. Nonetheless, he retained the hope that he was straight. “Masturbating to gay porn on the Net was confirmation that I liked guys, but it wasn’t confirmation that I didn’t like girls,” he says.
Adam’s parents decided not to renew the AOL subscription the following year, and Adam felt his sexual curiosity diminish. “In the absence of the Internet it was like I lost the need to explore my sexuality,” he says. “I didn’t masturbate to gay porn. I just went to school and did my work.”
For marginalized groups like gay high school students, the Internet is often the only place to turn to find others like themselves, Kollock says. “The odds are that it would be easier to find them on the Internet. The search costs of seeking them out in real life would be too great.” For Adam, whose high school clique was, he says, unabashedly homophobic, the search cost would have been social humiliation.
In 10th grade, Adam’s parents re-installed AOL. “They thought it would help me go online and do research for school,” he says. “They wanted me to use it as an educational resource.” Instead, Adam resumed downloading gay pornography and forging online relationships.
America Online chat rooms are divided into two categories: AOL-created chat and member-created chat. The former variety are intended for a general audience and are divided into large, unthreatening categories like “Architecture” and “Canada.” Member-created chat rooms revolve around topics that are generally of a more explicit nature. Among the room names: “College Jocks for College Jocks,” “Foot Fetish” and “Str8 men for gay guys.” Adam soon discovered “Connecticut m4m”—“m” standing for men—where meeting up and hooking up were common practices.
Adam entered the chat rooms with a set agenda. “In all honesty, I was looking for someone to have sex with,” he says. “I had been saving up years of sexual tension and I wanted final confirmation that I was gay, but I didn’t want the person to be too young.” Adam feared a partner his age might have connections within his own social circles. “I also wanted someone with a car,” he adds in light of the fact that he needed someone else’s wheels to go anywhere.
“AOL works wonders,” Adam says. During his junior year in high school, while chatting in “Connecticut m4m,” Adam received an Instant Message from M4V6D—a 31-year-old veterinarian with a car who lived in his town. M4V6D decided to Instant Message Adam after reading his profile. “In it I labeled myself as bi-curious. It’s fairly common,” Adam explains. “I talked about my hobbies—the trumpet and musical theater—and I listed my stats—age, height, weight, etcetera.”
Before meeting M4V6D, Adam vowed to get to know him first. For weeks the two men talked every night via computer. “I was not going off with some guy who was a pervert,” Adam says. “I made it clear I was looking to do something, but he knew it was my first time and he was sensitive to that fact,” he says. “He was very understanding. I wanted to call him to hear his voice.”
After establishing trust through their online conversations, Adam began calling M4V6D on the phone late at night. “He wasn’t opposed to sex,” Adam says. “He flirted with me like he did online. He’d describe his body and I’d describe mine. We planned a meeting to do stuff. It was very businesslike.”
During his spring break, Adam walked toward the city park a few minutes from his house to meet M4V6D. “He was supposed to pick me up in his car and take me back to his place,” he recalls. As Adam approached the car, he felt palpitations in his throat. “It was like that feeling you get before giving a big presentation,” he says. Finally, the online world Adam inhabited as a “bi-curious” man was encroaching on the outside world where he had always presented himself as a heterosexual.
M4V6D drove Adam to his house. Several hours later he dropped him off back at the park—without his virginity. At home, Adam immediately changed his profile from “bi-curious” to “gay.” Long before he told anyone in person, long before he told his parents, Adam declared himself homosexual on the Internet.
Looking back, Adam remembers his first sexual experience fondly. “It was really positive,” he says. “He asked me how I liked it. I couldn’t get this support from my family. I couldn’t even say ‘gay’ to them.” Adam credits his online experience with opening the door to his sexuality. “I would have come to terms with myself eventually,” he says, “but I’d probably be dealing with that stuff right now as opposed to at 16.”
Adam’s positive coming-of-age online experiences did not end even after he came to Harvard and told friends that he was gay. He began to rely on chat rooms as a sexual release that led to what he considers a moderate degree of promiscuity. “Even if I have work to do, when I’m bored and horny I sign on,” he says. “The summer after freshman year I met one guy and we had sex. I can’t remember his name, though.”
“Older gay men always tell me I am so lucky,” Adam says. “People who grew up without online access had it tough. If you don’t have anyone else to identify with and the Internet isn’t there, who can you talk to? You’d develop insular feelings and you’d have to cope alone.”
During the summer before her first year, Ashley was just anxious to receive her housing notification. “I was so excited about meeting my roommates,” the current sophomore recalls fondly. “I asked for geographical diversity because I thought it would make things interesting.” When her letter arrived in August, Ashley learned she would be living in a four-person suite. Among her future roommates: Jane, who is now a sophomore in Eliot House.
Jane’s excitement mirrored Ashley’s. “I’m from a small farm town in Michigan,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to get here.” Jane recollects seeing her roommate’s names for the first time. “One of them was from New Jersey and another [Ashley] from Park Avenue in New York City. I remember thinking, ‘One of them is rich!’ It’s not like I thought I was going to hate her. I just realized she was well-off.”
The roommates communicated via phone and e-mail until they moved arrived in September. While Ashley says her friends were hesitant about meeting their college roommates, Ashley experienced little anxiety. “I had been waiting for college for so long. How bad could they be? I was psyched.” She says that when the girls finally met on Sept. 9, 2000, she thought Jane seemed like “a nice girl.”
Jane’s impression of Ashley wasn’t as rosy. “Before I even had a chance to move in,” Jane says, “she’d already decided who she was living with and what room she was taking—the bigger one.” Additionally, Jane claims Ashley’s parents rearranged Jane’s belongings, relegating her to a desk directly by the suite’s door. “Ashley took the desk in the snug corner,” she says. “She had the most privacy.”
At the beginning, the roommates maintained civility. “Everything was fine for months,” Ashley claims. “It’s not like we stayed up eating ice cream and playing ‘Never Have I Ever,’ but we all seemed comfortable.” Ashley, who describes herself as “effusive,” suspected something was amiss when she found Jane sitting silently in their common room. “She started sitting on the couch each morning and would just stare,” she remembers. “I just felt like she was sad.”
Secretly, Jane was frustrated with Ashley. “I never really hated her,” Jane says, “I just thought she was irritating and self-involved.”
Jane was uncomfortable communicating her feelings to Ashley. She says that beyond being innately introverted and shy, she saw no purpose in confronting an annoying roommate. “It could only serve to make things worse,” she says. The longer she remained silent, the more her discontent grew. According to Jane, Ashley’s mother brought her 10 expensive dresses to choose from for the First-Year Formal. “She asked all of the roommates their opinions except for me,” Jane says. “What was I supposed to say? ‘Your mother thinks I’m white trash?’”
Unwilling to express herself directly, Jane turned to the Internet. She created an account on www.diaryland.com, a free website where users can post their personal diaries and receive feedback from other users. Having kept a diary since she was a child, Jane was eager to create one digitally. “At first I just wrote about general things,” she says, “but then I just fell into it. The anonymity made me more and more honest as time went along.”
After winter break, Jane began writing in the diary every day for several months. “It was so intriguing,” she says. “It became a part of my daily routine and I looked forward to it.” Users from around the country followed Jane’s diary regularly, often giving her positive feedback. “I had a guestbook and people would write supportive messages in it,” she says. “It was like they were getting to know me.” Jane says that one week 60 users read her diary. “It sounds really vain, but it felt so good to know people were interested in my life,” she says.
Sometimes Jane would mock Ashley. “If I was in my room, I’d describe my roommates,” she says. “I made fun of her ridiculous outfits and the ridiculous things she would say: ‘Oh, I want to major in English because in 10 years when I’m at a cocktail party, I want to sound educated.’” Jane says she felt comfortable venting because she didn’t suspect Ashley would find the diary. The infinite size of cyberspace was supposed to protect her. “This was one diary on a site with tens of thousands of them,” she says. “It wasn’t like it said ‘[Jane’s] diary about [Ashley].’ I really never thought she’d see it.”
But Ashley did. One day, a friend approached her and directed her to the website. That evening, Ashley tearfully read the approximately 45 diary entries, including the ones that mentioned her. “I was shocked,” she says. “She would just rip into me and I was trying so hard to make her feel comfortable with my friends and to think of her when there was a social opportunity, just to be sensitive. I was absolutely crestfallen.”
In addition to what Ashley calls “lies” about her friends, Jane attacked Ashley’s physical appearance. The following is an entry from Jane’s second online diary:
“While lying on my back, waiting for sleep, I composed this short poem in honor of Saggy-boobs:
O how I hate you,
Your body, which seems to be
Squeezed from a tube,
Your eyelashes, gloopy
And never well-kept,
And your ridiculous hair
In the shape of a helmet.
One day while you’re planning
Some charity ball,
You’ll slip on some money
And take a great fall.
While you lie there alone
Clutching your Coach brand purse
You’ll remember the roommate
Who gave you this curse:
May your outfits be ugly,
May your lipstick be smudged,
May you lose that figure
From eating heaps of fudge.
Oh wait, you’re already hideous,
You fat piece of shit.
So why don’t you wake up,
Give up now, and quit?”
Ashley waited three weeks to confront Jane about the diary. “I’d look over at her desk and see her typing,” Ashley says, “and then I would read what she wrote after she went to bed. I was distraught.” Everyday life proceeded normally as Jane remained unaware of what was going on; Ashley never signed the guest book.
Kaitlin, a sophomore in Pforzheimer House who was referred to pejoratively in the diary, also found out about the online journal. “I was just aghast,” she says. “Apart from the insults, it was just strange, because I’d see [Jane] in the dining hall and ask her about her [spring] break, but I already knew. I was addicted to her diary. I would come home, and this would be a daily ritual of her saying things about me.”
After three weeks of reading the diary, Ashley confronted Jane, who apologized and agreed to take down the entries. “My stomach just flipped over. I felt really bad,” Jane says. “I made the last entry and wrote ‘I’m sorry.’” Still, Jane felt Ashley was overreacting. “It’s not like we knew the people reading my entries,” she says. “You’re never going to meet them so it doesn’t matter.”
But the fact that a friend had somehow found the diaries was enough to convince Ashley otherwise. “I was very well-identified,” she says. “She used my name, my dorm, and said I was from New York City.” Ashley says she felt students at Harvard could easily identify her.
And Jane even acknowledges in retrospect that she should have known that Ashley’s friends were reading her diary entries. She says she remembers a suspicious message left in her guest book that read, “Pudgy is watching you.” Pudgy—a recurring reference in Jane’s entries—was her moniker for one of Ashley’s friends.
While the Internet is vast, Kollock says that does not necessarily mean it is private. “In the past, what was talked about in discussion groups was unlikely to be seen,” he says. With the advent of Google and Yahoo, however, such privacy is no longer a guarantee. “Powerful search engines aggregate information and make it practical and discoverable,” he says. “In a sense, search engines have ended the formal boundaries that once existed in online communities.”
Strangely enough, Jane is convinced that her privacy was actually violated by Ashley. “She read my entries for three weeks,” she says, still surprised that Ashley didn’t confront her sooner. While she admits some of her comments about Ashley could have been considered offensive, she believes most of the embarrassing passages were about herself. Her diary entries discussed people she was attracted to, people in her classes and people she “would be mortified to talk to in real life.”
After Jane’s insults, Ashley says she never regained the trust she once had in her roommate. “I felt betrayed,” she says. “It wasn’t as if she was just leaving dirty dishes on the floor. She invaded my privacy and made me worry about my safety. I had to leave [our room].” After a psychologist at the Bureau of Study Counsel analyzed the online entries, the Freshman Dean’s Office granted Ashley a single last April for the remaining month of the school year.
Online transformations are particularly easy for young people, according to Michael Lewis. “Children enjoy one big advantage over adults: they haven’t decided who they are. They haven’t sunk a lot of psychological capital into a particular self,” he writes. Less invested, they can adjust their masks without feeling exposed. But reinvention is not always an improvement. A few of the subjects of this story might have benefited from the constraints imposed by more traditional methods of communication. For Lillian, Michael, Adam, Ashley and Jane, Lewis’ hypothesis that the Internet encourages exploration of new identities holds true—though the process was not always smooth and the results were not always what they hoped for. For better or worse, the Internet allowed each of them to change their masks.