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By Debra Littlejohn Shinder
Contrary to what some keepers of the public morals would have us believe,there is much more to the Internet than dirty pictures waiting to be downloaded and sexual predators looking for victims. The web and other online forums provide a wealth of knowledge, information and entertainment -- most of it inoffensive. You can find everyone, from the Pope to Mary Poppins, on the net. Sexually oriented content makes up only a small fraction of the data available.
But we can't deny that just as most large cities have their red light districts, adult bookstores and "gentlemen's clubs," there are places in the virtual world where nice, upstanding girls and boys don't hang out. Or if they do, it's something they do in secret, often disguising their identities, something they probably don't talk about to their families and friends.
For those who want or need the titillation of a never-ending parade of brand-new bodies, or the curiously disembodied sexual thrill of "dirty talk" with strangers, it's all out there, just a mouse click away. Often, though, it doesn't come free -- participation in sex forums often comes only with a valid major credit card number.
Sex is one of the biggest businesses on the net. The ads on the back pages of national computer magazines say it all:
"Sexy hot naked
"Thousands of XXX adult video clips"
"Hot realtime chat with men, women, couples, straight, bi and gay"
"Interactive video sex in living color"
One advertisement proclaims that "it's the safest sex you'll ever have." Some political, religious and community leaders, on the other hand, point to such solicitations as evidence that the Internet is an evil and dangerous place, where perverts gather and wait to pounce on any innocents who wander in unaware.
What is cybersex? What are people doing out there over the modem lines that arouses (no pun intended) so many diverse emotions? What's going on that's worth the big bucks being shelled out? Are these computer-dependent "adult entertainment" services destroying marriages and corrupting children or only emptying a lot of pocketbooks? Curious, I went in search of answers.
The first thing I found out is that not all sexually oriented Internet sites are created equal. A quick web search for "sex" will bring back pages devoted to everything from scholarly discussion to medical advice, from debate over Senate bills to Jim Bob's private collection of obscene .gifs. You'll find mailing lists and newsgroups devoted to serious literary study of classic erotica and you'll find others full of badly-written, plotless, unrealistic "fuck stories." You'll find lonely, desparate people looking for love (or at least for attention) in all the wrong places and you'll find coldhearted, calculated sociopaths searching for potential victims to add to their collections.
But mostly, you'll find hundreds of hopeful entrepreneurs, out to strike it rich by exploiting the All-American obsession with all things sexual. Computer users can view and download digital photos of naked women, men and every imaginable combination, caught by the camera in the graphic performance of any act you can think of -- and some you might not have. But these electronic versions of Hustler magazine are tame compared to the more "interactive" services.
Some are not satisfied with still photographs or even with the "moving pictures" of the many audio/video movie files available. Wanting at least the illusion of "contact," they move up to two-way interaction with someone on the other end of the network line. This can take the form of "hot chat," similar to phone sex except that parties type their sexually explicit messages back and forth to one another on the keyboard. Or if their computers are better equipped, they can communicate by voice with "web phone" technology.
The next step is live sight and sound; the videoconferencing software so useful for business meetings has given the sex-sellers a means to provide what their ads call "the next best thing to being there." Participants can see and hear one another, pose for each other, and even masturbate together. This is the ultimate (and most expensive) form of online sex, at least for now. When holographic communication becomes reality, there's little doubt that it will be eagerly embraced by those who are forever searching for new thrills -- and by those who make a living by taking advantage of their weaknesses.
Like real-world prostitutes, the sex service providers will give you whatever you want -- for a price. And also like in real life, some of these "professionals" deliver exactly what they promise, and others screw the customer in a way that he (or sometimes she) hadn't bargained for.
Paying to play can be outrageously expensive. Some sites charge every time you access them, even though you may have thought the "membership" fee that you agreed to pay when you signed up and gave them your credit card number was a one-time thing. Once they have that number on file, your user name and password identifies you to them each time you sign on. They can charge you again each time you access the site -- and sometimes even when you don't. One man found that one brief foray into an X-rated online forum brought multiple charges to his credit card. At $29.95 per visit, it adds up fast.
Unscrupulous site operators can get away with overcharging because in many cases, when credit cards are billed or bank accounts electronically debited, users overlook the extra amounts since they don't keep track of the number of times they used the service. And even if they do notice the discrepancies, they may be reluctant to protest for fear that a spouse or employer will find out how they spend their online time. Even assuming no "funny money shenanigans," what are customers getting for their money? Why do people turn to their computers for sexual pleasure in the first place?
Perhaps there's a clue in the answer to another question: why has the "world's oldest profession" been a thriving one since the beginning of civilization? The thing most women wonder is why these guys spend money on something of lesser quality than what they could get for free. Bought-and-paid-for sex is almost always loveless and impersonal. Why do so many men waste their hard-earned dollars on it? Is it because that's exactly the kind of sex they want?
If the real-world prostitute is a depersonalized "thing" in the mind of the average "john," how further removed from reality must cybersex-for-hire be? Surveys and studies in the newly emerging field of cyberpsychology show that many of those who use the Internet and online services are unable to appropriately separate reality from fantasy in the nebulous land of electronic communication. To many, the people on the other end of the modem line are not quite "real," but more like characters in an interactive game, the product of some sophisticated program.
Many of the men who surf the net looking for "hot chat" and sexually-oriented interaction don't seem to realize that they're conversing with human beings. Prostitution has always been a means of objectifying the sex partner, turning her into a commodity rather than a person. The nature of net communications, for some people, does the same -- providing an emotionally "safe" way to get sexual thrills with no commitment or personal involvement required. This may be true even when there is no upfront "sex for sale" understanding, even when engaging in online interactivity with individuals who don't share the sense of unreality.
Many women have been hurt when the cyber relationship they thought was real turns out to have been just a game to the other "player." The men involved -- usually married and not interested in leaving their wives or having a physical affair -- profess to be surprised that their "just for fun" talk was taken seriously. In their minds, they paid their money (in the form of access fees and computer equipment) and wanted to have a little fun in return. From their perspectives, they weren't having a "relationship" at all.
Women in this situation may end up feeling confused and used. In this "worst of both worlds" scenario, they've been treated like common prostitutes, but didn't even get paid for their services.
At least those who bare their bodies for the porn photographers or talk dirty for the advertised sex services know that they're being bought and sold -- and probably receive some portion of that hefty credit card membership fee in renumeration.
Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a former police sergeant and police academy staff member, a certified defensive tactics and weapons control instructor, and a nationally recognized law enforcement writer and consultant. She specializes in the physical and psychological aspects of police work and civilian survival skills, and has published articles in criminal justice journals and self-help psychology magazines, as well as two law enforcement textbooks. She conducts training courses at regional and departme ntal police academies, and in college level criminal justice programs. Along with her husband, Thomas W. Shinder, M.D., she presents motivational and informational seminars based on accepted principles of psychophysiology and neurobiology. She is deeply involved in the internet community, and manages two mailing lists, publishes an electronic newsletter called "coptalk," and actively participates in a variety of online forums. Comments can be sent to Debra Littlejohn Shinder at email@example.com. You can also visit her Web Site (http://www.dallas.net/~shinder).
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