Harper's Bazaar, September, 1995.
Should adolescents be protected from sex on the Net? A lot of teenage girls think cyberspace is great just the way it is.
Jill, a precocious 15-year-old from Seattle, likes to post her stories on the Internet's sex boards. This is how a typical one begins: "Though I was too young to have a boyfriend to please me, I was interested in trying new things myself. I would go out in the woods and end up shuddering in ecstasy on a stump or a blanket on the forest floor...."
Jill (some names in this article have been changed) wrote to me because I'd put out a request on the Internet for teenagers who engage in erotic conversations on-line. I was motivated by the growing controversy over whether cyberspace is "safe" for the underage. Are teenagers really just passive victims of predatory adults?
The combination of adolescence and daring is hardly new, of course. But with the explosion of activity on the Internet and commercial on-line services such as America Online and Prodigy, the number of kids in cyberspace will continue to grow, and with it, the sort of often-juvenile, boundary-testing communications once limited to notes passed between students in class.
Jill's stories, accessible to an estimated 40 million computer users, are clearly written from the viewpoint of a teenager. In that sense, she is something of an exception. Many teenagers on-line conceal their age. "Since I was 15, my friends and I have pretended to be adults," read the E-mail from Francesca, a chatty correspondent from Illinois whose real age is 13. "We cruise the Net and meet men who are into all kinds of weird things." She goes on to give several lurid examples. "We get a laugh out of what they say and what turns them on."
On any given night, the virtual chat-rooms of cyberspace are filled with young men and women flirting and teasing and verbally caressing in this manner, exploring usually private behavior in a public way. In cyberspace there is no physical contact, just the ephemeral flicker of electronic pulses. It feels safe. That's what leads to trust and to quick friendships between teenagers - and sometimes, more problematically, between teenagers and adults as well.
I posted my requests for sexual confessions to Internet teen discussion groups with names like alt.kids-talk and k12.junior.chat, as well as to the theoretically all-adult alt.sex.pedophilia and alt.sex.stories. Off-line I'd already interviewed Allison, a 15-year-old at a prestigious New England boarding school, who spent a weekend in Washington, DC, with an older man she'd met by computer. After she and I talked by telephone, she checked me out with mutual acquaintances. That's how she knew I was who I claimed to be. But what of the world of cyberspace, where it's hard to say whether people online are lying or simply discovering another part of themselves? Would I be trusted there? Should I be?
I received 130 electronic responses to my queries - a barrage of adolescent stories of erotic cyberchat and love on-line. Only two people, both apparently male, doubted my identity. "Good thinking. That's a pretty Clever way to get kids to write to you," someone named Frank Vegas responded. More typical was Laura, a 14-year-old from a town north of Toronto. Here's her description of herself pos