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 posted to a virtual community where she hangs out under the name Ravenqueen: "I have shining jet-black hair that falls midway down my back in a soft are and my emerald green eyes sparkle. My skin is the color of freshly fallen snow. I wear a pair of form fitting black Levis and a cropped black T-shirt that sits just above my navel. I smell faintly of roses which have just bloomed."
In real life Laura is a pudgy, verbal girl with braces and a well-worn X-Files cap ("I'm the only one in town with one," she declares proudly). She lives in a single-parent home headed by her mother. After just a half-dozen E-mail contacts and two phone calls, she agreed to meet me in a park in her suburban town. She came alone, without telling her mother. This is not the only meeting she neglected to mention to her family.
Sometime soon Laura's mother will drive her to Connecticut to visit a friend. Her mother believes the friend is a teenage girl; in fact, Laura is planning to see the man she describes as the love of her life: a 21-year-old University of Hartford student named Josh, whom she met during an on-line game of truth or dare. "My feelings for him surfaced then," she says. "I love him for who he is." But who exactly is Josh? Laura doesn't know - she has never heard his voice. "People can transform themselves over the computer," Laura admits. "But love is hard to explain. You're an adult; you ought to know that."
According to Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the number of on-line meetings between underage individuals and adults leading to physical contact remains small, perhaps a dozen a year. Still, to help parents minimize the risk, the center publishes a pamphlet called "Child Safety on the Information Highway." Its basic recommendation: Parents should keep track of what their children are doing. "Our feeling is, this is a commonsense issue," Allen says. Commonsense, maybe, but not common knowledge. In truth, the Internet has largely left parents behind. "My folks had no idea that when they authorized opening up all boards and access to me, they were also opening up all the sex areas," Francesca says. "They were too busy to read the warnings."
Spurred by several highly publicized incidents of teens rendezvousing with men they met on-line, 11 states have passed laws or have bills pending that make it illegal for adults to engage in sexual conversations with children using a computer. Congress is considering a law that makes transmitting "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" material a felony. Most Internet experts view such regulations as out of step with the reality of the Internet, where no one knows who's who, and teenagers, at ease in the computer milieu, are perhaps as often the initiators of provocative contact. "I think children here pretty much know what they're getting into," says Francesca. She adds that she would never meet "f2f" (online lingo for face-to- face) with someone attracted by her erotic stories.
Laura, too, is convinced she's playing it safe. When she visits Josh, she says, she'll take precautions - meeting him in a public place, checking him out first. As our interview winds down, I offer to drive her home. I drop her off at the end of the block, because she doesn't want her mother to catch us. Through the brush I see her make her way to the front door. Her mother is waiting. Laura picks up her four-year-old nephew and carries him in. But I can tell that, in Laura's mind, this is not her real home. Her real home is somewhere out there, in the ether between two computers.