Sex, Lies and the Internet

“Deviant behavior is nothing new,” says Assistant Professor of Sociology Jason Kaufman ’93. “As individuals, we all crave opportunities for fantasy play, identity transformation and sexual release. The Internet is simply the newest, cheapest, most convenient venue for it.”

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.”