“Would you like to play Cupid?” read the job post. Completely unqualified, I landed a job co-managing a 10-page section of the Philadelphia Weekly and more than 500 singles. From a cubicle high above Rittenhouse Square, I had a blast fielding snail mail and hard copy photos from a sea of self-declared Tom Cruise wannabes and Sharon Stone look-alikes to be forwarded to personals advertisers.
A (Brief) History of Sex on the Internet
It was the mid-'90s and Match had just launched its online dating service. But people were still willing to pick up the phone to buy a calling card and pay $3.99 a minute (gasp!) to respond to a personal ad. More often than not, they came into the office and paid cash in person to guard their anonymity. Little did they know of the digital trail that lay ahead or how the internet and technology would impact our sex lives.
Matt Diaz, founder and CEO of MoreThanSexToys.com, first experienced cyber sex as a junior in college – when chat rooms had no graphics, no camera interface and, depending on computer availability, a monochromatic screen font.
“After graduation, I continued to connect via open chat rooms such as ICQ,” he says. (ICQ was an instant messaging client launched in the mid-'90s.) “At that time, you had to be able to communicate effectively and explore your imagination. The progression was generally to pick out someone who seemed interesting, invite her to a private chat and if it worked out, exchange phone numbers.” He points out the efficiency in phone sex versus typing fast and furiously on a keyboard. “It frees up a hand,” he jokes. “This was years before mobile phones were in wide use let alone unlimited talk.”
A few years later, file-sharing services like LimeWire, Gnutella and Napster appeared on the scene. Online writer Morgan Mandriota recalls when porn was downloaded on such platforms. “You never knew what you were going to get – a real video or a virus,” she says. “It was an art to analyze the size of the file, the uploader, and the rating of the file to determine whether or not you should risk compromising the health of your computer for a pornographic video.”
In the end, many of these peer-to-peer services were shut down and became cyber casualties.
Sex educator and writer Callie Little recalls the first time she saw porn. “Like so many kids in the late '90s, I didn't have the internet at my house - luckily, my neighbor did,” she says. “And, in his free time, he'd discovered the website girls.com. We'd sneak into his garage-slash-recreation room and use the dial-up internet to log on and see the heavily nippled splash page before giggling and clearing the search history, grabbing Chewy granola bars on our way out to jump on the trampoline.”
As much as I geek out when my monthly subscription of Playboy arrives in all its plastic-wrapped glory, there’s no longer much of a need to wait for a monthly issue to get off. Porn is fast, portable and streamable from almost anywhere 24/7.
From the way we use apps like Tinder (whether it’s to source a dinner-date or a casual hook-up), to how frequently we exchange a once taboo "sext," - technology has changed the way we have sex.
“Technology today has an impact on nearly every aspect of our lives. You can meet your soulmate with the push of a button or learn about sex on your smartphone,” says Ida Tin, CEO and co-founder of female health app Clue.
According to Amanda Gesselman, research scientist at the Kinsey Institute, people are sexting more than ever. Research carried out in 2012 revealed that 21% of people had sexted; this number has since jumped to 67%. “This increase, and the large proportion of respondents, suggests that incorporating tech into our private lives is becoming normal – sexting may be becoming a new, but typical, step in a sexual or romantic relationship,” says Gesselman. (It’s also made it far too convenient and commonplace for men’s penises to pop up on a woman’s phone - without consent.)
Then there are visual apps like Skype and Facetime – two of my favorite platforms for cyber sex. Never underestimate the value of a dial-in date – it’s like phone sex or sexting on steroids. Think face-to-face, real-time interactions with anyone you want around the world, only you don’t need to clean your bedroom. Plus, it’s the safest sex you can have with zero risk of STDs.
Getting back to basics, searching for sex on the internet has never been easier. There are even porn search engines, like PornMD, Fabdu and Boodigo.
“One underappreciated tool is the usefulness of Tumblr and Google Image search,” shares Sally in Seattle. “When I’m in a mood for a specific kind of porn, Google images is invaluable, especially now with the Gif filter function,” she says. “What I really love, I save to my Tumblr. And now when I’m getting to know partners’ tastes/kinks, sharing Tumblrs is a great way to explore compatibility. In sexual tastes, Tumblr is my Pinterest for porn.”
The thing with virtual sex is that things just keep getting more, well, virtual - and more interesting. Now we live in a time where we can actually virtually touch our partners with interactive sex toys. “Technology will soon elevate anonymous sex to a previously unimaginable level,” says Diaz. There are interactive sex toys, there's interactive sex education and then, of course, there’s the whole wide world of virtual-reality (VR) porn that’s just unfolding - and fast. According to Pornhub, views of VR porn are up 275% since the summer of 2016.
According to Pornhub, views of VR porn are up 275% since the summer of 2016.
Companies like Kiiroo have advanced the concept of teledildonics, a technology that essentially allows you to have sex with another person in another place via the internet. Cool, right? Now imagine pairing that type of experience with a VR headset and the pornstar of your choice. That's a future that would have been hard to imagine even a few years ago.
“We are not far from that point where you will meet someone in a chat room online, connect your personal pleasure device and engage in virtual sex with someone on the other side of the planet via some anatomical avatar that replicates your partner’s movements in your corresponding apparatus,” says Diaz. Zero risk of STI transmission, zero physical contact and total anonymity, to boot. “Not even a walk – much less one of shame,” says Diaz.
It wasn't that long ago that people were sharing dirty messages in chat rooms, trying to get off with words alone. Could we even have imagined that we would come this far?
Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, WIRED, and Thrillist.
She adopted a pseudonym and was AVN’s (Adult Video Network) first female porn reviewer – while penning children’s books at the same time. More recently, she is the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says