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“I think I probably was truthful about my species, but beyond that I just fed everyone lies.” More often than not, these lies would backfire in absurd, hilarious ways: One of my best friends, for instance, once sent an image of Mandy Moore from her desktop when she was asked for a photo by a chatroom paramour, at which point he “politely informed me there was a copyright notice at the bottom of the photo.” Without Skype, Facebook, or any identity verification system to speak of, the adult AOL chatrooms made up a universe that was almost completely void of accountability.Even if someone didn’t believe that you were, say, Stone Cold Steve Austin or Mandy Moore, it almost didn’t matter; you might have been lying, and your partner likely knew you were lying, but because he or she was probably lying too, no one seemed to care.

I only have vague memories about the first time I had sex.

(I was 15, and it was the intermission of my camp’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; I was Helena, he was Lysander, and that’s all you need to know.) I do, however, have a very clear memory of the first time I had cybersex. His AIM handle was Frank Zappy, and I believe he claimed to be a married man from Queens.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about Frank Zappy, who would later become one of a string of anonymous strangers I would cyber with online.

He was just the first man online who gave me the most attention, and as a knotty-haired, awkward 10-year-old who desperately craved male attention, that was good enough reason to be excited whenever the AIM chime symbol sounded, signaling that he’d signed on.

Rob Weiss, an expert on porn and cybersex addiction, attributes the cybersex boom of the mid-’90s to what he referred to as the three A’s: “accessibility, affordability, and anonymity.” First and foremost, cybersex allowed people to get off without the effort required to obtain pornographic material or find a new partner IRL (in real life), especially if you were taken to begin with.

“It was incredibly powerful for people to be able to go into chat and talk about sex and be sexual without risking their marriages, or their relationships,” noted Weiss, who estimates this practice started exploding around 1996, when AOL was first gaining steam.Most teens of the early AOL chatroom era, or the mid-to-late-1990s, experimented with cybersex or had their sexual initiations online, in chatrooms with names like “Bored housewives over 30” or “Naughty wellhung surfer boys 18 .” In 1996, AOL had 5 million subscribers; by 2002, it had 25 million and was the biggest dial-up service in the country.Chat had never been more expedient or accessible, so it was only a matter of time before people started using it for sex.“Emotional arousal and fantasy are incredibly powerful instruments,” Weiss said.“The idea that you could play out your kinky fantasies and ideas with these strangers across the country who you’d never met, and have them be excited and responsive and engaged, was incredibly exciting to people.” When I surveyed my friends to see if they had had cybersex in AOL chatrooms, nearly all of them remembered having similar experiences, usually with friends.“I do remember someone once telling me he wanted me to shove marshmallows up by butt while I touched myself,” she told me in a follow-up email, “and I felt a little bit confused about whether this was ‘normal’ or not.” Eventually, though, curiosity would take hold, and those who had started venturing into chatrooms playfully started ducking in in earnest—and alone.

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