How '90s Cybersex Pioneers Looked for Action and Found Community

How '90s Cybersex Pioneers Looked for Action and Found Community
Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)
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If you take a peek at the back pages of 1990s computer magazines, you’ll find plenty of ads for data recovery services, toner cartridges, and bulk shipments of computer disks. Look even closer, and you’ll discover a now-almost-forgotten world of early digital erotica and sexual chat services.

Dialup bulletin boards with names like “Sexy Modem” and “Cyberlust” enticed readers of MacUser and PC Magazine to log on and chat with singles or download pornography. At the same time, erotic game makers offered CD-ROM titles like Penthouse Select a Pet and The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts. One, simply called Girlfriend, was advertised by Sexy Software as the “first virtual woman” and naturally retailed for an introductory price of $69.

“Now You Can Have Your Own GIRLFRIEND,” boasted an ad in PC Magazine, “a sensuous woman living in your computer!”

Image for article titled How '90s Cybersex Pioneers Looked for Action and Found Community
Image: PC Magazine (Google Books)

While some of these offerings are cringeworthy by today’s standards, experts and participants say the primitive digital media of the late 1980s and early 1990s gave people access to sexual information, connections with new friends and partners—and, yes, the ability to see dirty pictures—of a sort previously hard to find outside of the largest cities.

“It was really difficult to connect with the written word or pictures or just communities of people” to explore sexuality before online systems, said Lisa Palac, a Los Angeles psychotherapist and sex therapist who is also the former editor of Future Sex, a tech-centric erotic magazine of the early 1990s.

Adult bulletin board systems did offer pornography, often geared towards the solo fantasies of straight men, starting with erotic ASCII art in the 1980s and expanding to images and animated porn as modems got fast enough to transfer image files in the next decade. But they also provided a haven for people who would struggle—or even be physically endangered—finding acceptance in the offline world.

“The GLBT folks, you saw this new opportunity for them to build their identity and a sense of community—kind of get people together that would have been isolated,” said Keith Durkin, a sociology professor at Ohio Northern University who has been studying sex and digital technology since the 1990s. “In retrospect, I think nearly everyone would say that was positive.”

Image for article titled How '90s Cybersex Pioneers Looked for Action and Found Community
Image: PC Magazine (Google Books)

A book published in 1993, titled The Joy of Cybersex, captures the dichotomy between titillating imagery and the search for community on the early adult internet: The cover image depicts a woman in a low-cut top, visible only from the neck down, clutching a floppy disk in her manicured hand. But between the covers lies a frank and sympathetic exploration of erotic bulletin boards, including the San Francisco-based gay community “Eye Contact,” a woman-led Missouri board called “Laura’s Lair” and the “Pleasure Dome,” a Virginia Beach bulletin board system (BBS) then run by self-proclaimed swinger Tom McElvy.

According to McElvy, he launched the service in 1985 with a single Commodore computer after he and his then-partner had trouble meeting other polyamorous people in their relatively conservative area.

“That was mainly what we were going after, to be able to meet other people and help other people meet other people,” whether they were swingers, gay, or had other sexual interests, he said. “There was some serious S&M and other things I can’t even fathom at this point in my life, but if that’s their kink, I’m cool with it.”

The system let its paying subscribers access a digital collection of pornographic GIFs and erotic stories, but the virtual library’s doors were locked at 7 p.m. each night to encourage users to actually chat with each other. According to McElvy, that was critical to attracting women to the board, as was offering dedicated message boards for women and even one dialup line exclusively for their use. At the time, modem users were accustomed to getting busy signals from overloaded online services. If men dialed in to the ladies-only line, they’d get a 30-day ban, McElvy said.

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Image: The Joy of Cybersex (Internet Archive)

In general, since users were paying customers who had to provide identification to register and prove they were of age—“Besides being a perv, I’m also a parent,” McElvy quipped—it was also easy to ban anyone who proved abusive. Subscribers sometimes met in person for official events like hot tub parties or cocktail cruises, usually near McElvy’s Virginia Beach home, or connected for one-on-one dates and small group events through the service’s message board and chat systems. Later on, a bundle of complex code enabled McElvy’s “Pleasure Dome” servers to swap files with other regional bulletin boards in networks with names like Throbnet and KinkNet. That let users exchange messages with likeminded people across the country without having to pay high long-distance phone charges to do so.

“I think over time it helped people open up more, become more comfortable with themselves,” McElvy said. “My getting online and in these conversations and meeting other likeminded people, it opened me up quite a bit.”

Especially early on, few people had scanners, and images were slow to transfer. A 1993 Future Sex article described a Bay Area lesbian and bisexual board called “Back Door for Women,” which featured areas for discussing topics from addiction recovery to the arts, along with a digital version of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Other sections included erotic chat and pictures. The image catalog was apparently well-stocked, but the article reported downloading a single photo could take close to half an hour on the dialup modems of the day. So while some BBS users did share pictures—“Particularly the guys: you gotta show off how big it is,” McElvy said—many face-to-face meetings were truly blind dates.

Images would quickly become more readily available when CD-ROMs became prevalent, and pornographic discs emerged alongside multimedia programs like Myst and Microsoft Encarta. Earlier erotic games did exist—there was the text-based 1981 game Softporn Adventure and later cartoonish point-and-click adventures like the Leisure Suit Larry series—but CD-ROMs quickly brought actual pornographic video to home computer users.

“I would say most young people today have no clue what a CD-ROM was,” said Lawrence Miller, who in 1993 co-founded the now-defunct Southern California company Interotica, which specialized in CD-ROM porn. “Back then, when we started, nobody knew what a CD-ROM is either except for our target demographic, which was nerdy computer men.”

Miller said he and his colleagues initially operated in classic tech startup fashion out of a spare room in another Interotica co-founder’s family home, where the group developed its first title.

“I lived in the front yard in my Volkswagen van while we created this first interactive CD-ROM called Nightwatch Interactive,” Miller said.

In it, players controlled an apparently voyeuristic security guard who could click between TV monitors in her guard station to see what was going on in different sections of a building. The video clips were mostly licensed from existing porno movies, with the exception of a final scene where the player could direct the action after the protagonist was caught by her boss.

“The video got chopped up into little three-minute clips or whatever and put into the interactive storyline digitized,” Miller said. “It was just a shitshow trying to get this thing made, but because it was porn, you could get away with the fact that the interactivity was terrible, the video was horrible.”

The Interotica team later built more sophisticated titles with greater interactivity, including a choose-your-own-adventure-style series where players guide performer Seymore Butts, a faux pickup artist with a strong New York accent, as he meets and tries to woo women. The company sold its titles through computer hobbyist swap meets and magazine ads, even demonstrating its wares at mainstream trade shows like Macworld.

“We were like the only booth that had porn,” Miller recalled. “We had really loud speakers. We were blaring porn into the concourse.”

The mostly male crowds would often snatch up the raunchy CD-ROMs, though some shows did insist on shutting down the explicit displays, recalled Rob, a former sales executive at the company who asked that his last name not be used since he’s moved on to tamer work.

“We would have so money stuffed in our pockets in cash from people buying discs that when we got to the hotel room, we would just pull it out of our pockets and throw it on the bed, and then start sorting 20s and ones and 100s,” he said.

Interotica, which later merged with another company to form New Machine Publishing before its founders departed for other careers, drew mentions in major publications like the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. Miller appeared on talk shows like The Joan Rivers Show and Donahue. At the time, many people still found the idea of combining sex and computers to be almost absurd, said Durkin, recalling befuddled peer reviews of his early work in the field.

“Somebody said, ‘This has to be a joke paper,’” he said. “‘What type of human being thinks computer technology could be used for sexuality?’”

But soon, the internet would make digital pornography and online dating mainstream. By the late ‘90s, home DSL and cable lines were making chat and video available without busy signals, and accessing digital porn no longer required calling mail order hotlines in search of raunchy CD-ROMs. Some early networks also found out the hard way that while online society could be more permissive than the real world, it wasn’t wise to completely flout the law.

In 1993, a pair of BBSes found themselves sued for allowing users to upload images taken from Playboy, with courts at the time generally holding the board operators liable for copyright infringement on their systems. More disturbingly, the operator of an anything-goes Chicago-area board called the “Windy City Freedom Fortress” pleaded guilty to distributing child pornography in 1995.

According to a screenshot featured in The Joy of Cybersex, Windy City Freedom Fortress, founded by onetime Rand McNally R&D executive Robert A. Copella, explicitly told users not to upload “kiddie porn or pirated software,” though it did feature open calls from users for content like bestiality material. But federal prosecutors said a second bulletin board operated by Copella out of Tijuana, Mexico offered the illegal material. According to the L.A. Times, authorities said at least 2,000 subscribers paid to access child pornography.

Pedophiles did indeed quickly use online systems to find each other, discuss their interests, and “trade rationales” on specialized forums like the Usenet message board, said Durkin. He recalls being “speechless” to discover such communities online, and still seems astounded by some of the discussions he came across in his research.

In some cases, he said, forum members offered support when one member was discovered by the parents of a boy he was victimizing or, in another case, when a court ordered a forum member to attend therapy.

“Everyone just piled on attacking the psychological community, and [saying] the police are bad, psychologists are bad,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait, the court’s trying to rehabilitate an offender here and help other people.’”

Even for users who stuck to legal explicit material, online erotic content has proven addictive and damaging to some people, said Palac.

“It felt at the time that this was a revolution and that people were going to have access to all kinds of sexual information and expand their sexual education in ways that were not possible before,” she said. “That is true and I believe that did happen, and we’ve also had some unforeseen negative consequences about the pure proliferation of porn in particular online.”

With the wealth of sexual information and supportive communities online today, it can be difficult for young people to search for sexually themed content without being bombarded by links to intense pornography, she said.

Tumblr, the blogging platform popular with teens and young adults, has for years been such a haven for many people, known for being welcoming to sexual minorities and people exploring their identities. It’s also been one of the few mainstream social networks to welcome pornography and eroticism, including amateur posts focusing on niche interests and user-created, erotically themed art.

But after Tumblr was removed from Apple’s app store in November—apparently after child pornography found its way past the company’s filters—the site announced it would ban “adult content” from the platform, to the dismay of many users who say it’s hard to find similar communities anywhere else online. While some users have vowed to copy their Tumblr posts elsewhere, the network may prove as ephemeral as the early bulletin boards, which are mostly not archived in any publicly available place.

Palac, who frequently points people to online resources in her own practice, remains optimistic about the power of technology for communicating about sex.

“I do believe that even though there have been many bumps in the road and some black holes along the way that technology has created that we’ve fallen into, I ultimately believe that the sharing of information is always a positive thing,” she said. “There’s no other way to go except forward, because to shut it down and suppress and repress, well, that’s what we’ve done for centuries.”

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.