Cybersex Amongst Multiple-Selves and Cyborgs in the Narrow-Bandwidth Space of America Online Chat Rooms


MA Dissertation by Robin B. Hamman

Department of Sociology

University of Essex, Colchester, UK

30 September, 1996

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Cybersoc | Cybersociology Magazine

1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman. All materials here may be used for academic purposes, but I do ask that you obtain permission before disseminating copies or quoting extensively from any of my work. Use of this material for reasons other than academic research is allowed only with my express permission obtainable by email: robin @ cybersoc . com


Cybersex in online chat rooms is defined here as having two forms: 1) computer mediated interactive masturbation in real time and, 2) computer mediated telling of interactive sexual stories (in real time) with the intent of arousal. Both of these forms of cybersex are found on America Online. Ethnographic methods are used in researching and writing this paper. There are several key theoretical arguments made here. Computer-mediated-communication is narrow-bandwidth. Much of the information we obtain in face to face interaction is from body language and other physical cues. In narrow-bandwidth communications, this information is not transmitted, making misinterpretations frequent. This has led to the emergence of a new language which helps users to avoid misinterpretations. Because AOL chat rooms are a narrow-bandwidth space, users are anonymous there. This anonymity allows users to safely and freely experiment with their multiplicity of selves. The multiple selves that users of online chat rooms experiment with online are part of a whole self. Experimentation with these selves is possible, at present, only within the narrow-bandwidth space on online chat rooms. People become cyborgs when two boundaries become problematic, 1) the boundary between animal and human and, 2) the boundary between human and machine. The people presented in this paper are cyborgs because pieces of them are undeniably tied to the computer, a prosthesis. Cyborg theory is a powerful tool for looking at sexuality and gender issues in wider society. In the conclusion of this paper, it is argued that we can only resist becoming cyborgs if we can fix the repressive `real world' society that keeps us from experimenting with our multiplicity of selves. Until we live in a society where it is safe to freely experiment with sexuality, and with gender (a social construct), we will be forced to become cyborgs.

In this paper, all names, user names, names of chat rooms where observations are made, geographic locations, and any other identifying information have been changed.

Table of Contents

Chapter One Turning On: An Introduction to Virtual Worlds, Cybersex in Online Chat Rooms, and America Online.

Chapter Two Research Methodology: Applications in Cyberspace.

Chapter Three Rebecca: Misinterpretations in Text Based Communication, The Narrow-Bandwidth Effect, And the Multiplicity of Selves.

Chapter Four Alison and Rob: Losing Inhibitions Online, Experimenting with the Self, Online Abuse, and Virtual Transsexuality

Chapter Five Cyborg Theory: Concepts and Applications

Conclusion Using The Knowledge We Have Gained in Cyberspace to Improve "Real Life"


Appendices (individual files):
1. AOL Screens: A Picture Tour of America Online
2. Sample Pre-Interview
Questionnaire (Completed)
3. Sample Online Interview
4. Sample Cybersex
Four Other Forms of Cybersex
6. An Email to Readers: Computer Use in My History
America Online Access Software (PC and Macintosh Included)*
8. This Paper on Disk (Saved on PC Disk, MS Word 6.0, Type "All Files")

Robin Hamman's Home Page

Chapter One

Turning On: An Introduction to Virtual Worlds, Cybersex in Online Chat Rooms, and America Online

In recent years journalists and academic researchers have been writing extensively about human interaction with computers and comp uter mediated communication. Most of the present literature concentrates on the World Wide Web, Hypertext systems, Multiple User Domains, Usenet news groups, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Surprisingly little is written about on-line chat rooms, virtual rooms within on-line services such as America On-line and CompuServe. In online chat rooms, remote users may "talk" with other users of the same service in real time, and they pay to do so. This is not unlike paying to become a member of a social organisation or club. Users of online services often create close knit communities centred around a specific online chat room. These communities defy the physical distance between users and are growing rapidly in size and number. Online communities play an increasingly important role in the lives of their `netizens.'


"Work there, play there, love there -- but if you have sex in cyberspace, be sure to always use a modem." (Stone, 1995b, 405)


This paper is the result of a study I am conducting on cybersex in online chat rooms. There are two forms 1 of cybersex which originate 2 in online chat rooms. The first form is computer mediated interactive 3 masturbation in real time. In this form of cybersex, users type instructions and descriptions of what they are "doing" to each other and to themselves while masturbating. They often type using one hand 4 while masturbating with the other. The second form of cybersex i dentified here is the computer mediated telling of interactive sexual stories (in real time) with the intent of arousal 5. Users who take part in this form of cybersex tell each other sexual stories online with the intent of arousing themselves and other users. Nguyen and Alexander state that cybersex of the two types defined above is satisfying enough that it can often "evoke physical orgasm" in the participants. (Nguyen & Alexander, 1996, 116)

Writing about a divorce case caused by an on-line extramarital affair, Ian Katz states that on-line services "have become the singles bars of the 1990's" (Katz, 1996) Online chat rooms where people engage in cybersex, as defined above, are found on most online services as well as on the internet 6 . Nguyen and Alexander note that, according to Jack Richard of Boardwatch magazine, "50,000 now engage in daily cybersex using up to 700 real-time chat lines [chat rooms]". (Nguyen & Alexander, 1996, 116) To limit the scope of this study to manageable proportions, I have concentrated my fieldwork on the "People Connection" of America Online (AOL).

According to their own press releases, America Online, popularly called AOL, is the "largest and fastest-growing provider of online services in the world, with more than 6 million members world-wide." (AOL press release, 25 June 1996) AOL escapes definition as one specific thing or place because of it's vast diversity. It is a news and information service, an arena for political speeches and a forum for political discussion, a giant software store, and a computer advice centre. AOL is also an e-mail service, and an internet access provider (IAP). Because AOL acts as an IAP, users can send e-mail over the internet to distant friends and family, and can browse the much talked about World Wide Web (WWW). AOL is also, according to Lichty and those who use the service, "a community" that has many aspects of a physical community. (Lichty, 1994, 3) These aspects of community include the use of group specific language, a virtual proximity to other members of the community and, in some cases, a common purpose for using online technologies.

When computer users in North America or Europe first decide to join an online service, the most readily ava ilable one is usually AOL. This is because of AOL's network of access numbers that are a local call for most of these users, and the packaging of AOL software with magazines and computer equipment. AOL also uses television and magazine advertisements to make a toll-free telephone number available to people who want to order AOL software for free. Most of these marketing strategies, and direct mailings which AOL frequently uses, employ give-away offers of not just free software, but also ten to twenty free hours of online time. Many potential customers of AOL use the free software and the free trial period and then decide that they do not want an online service. David, whom I met in a chat room on AOL says "I only use AOL when they send me [a] free disk. I use up the [free trial] hours then cancel my membership." This is a way of saving money because David, and other users like him, never get charged the hourly fee of US $2.95 7. However, this method is time consuming because the user has to change their username and alert all of their online friends of this change each time they re-sign on as a new member.

I have asked some users why they choose to use AOL instead of one of the other online se rvices available such as CompuServe, The Microsoft Network, or Prodigy. AOL users overwhelmingly agree that AOL is the most readily available online service, and many find that it is the easiest to use. The number of users who tell me that speed when web browsing is a primary concern of theirs when choosing between online services surprises me. "AOL offers quick accessibility to different [WWW] sites" says Reggie, who likes AOL the best out of the several online services he has used in his two years online. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -] Another user, Rob, uses AOL because the other online services he has tried are too slow, especially when browsing the web. Most access only providers are faster and cheaper than AOL. Reggie and Rob would be better off subscribing to a flat rate internet access provider 8 if they only want to browse the Web. But Reggie and Rob, like most other users of AOL, do not just use AOL for internet access. They use the content of AOL, which non-members cannot access. The content of AOL includes such things as online magazines and newspapers, stock market quotes, free downloadable software, and of course, chat rooms.< /span>

America Online has a lot to offer diverse types of users, and this is part of the reason that AOL is the largest and fastest growing online service. Another reason that so many people use AOL is for cybersex.

Late one Wednesday night I logged on to AOL and went into the People Connection, which is the chat area of AOL. Wednesday night
9 is a busy night on AOL, and on weekends it gets even busier. Users of the People Connection can call up a list of chat room names to help them in selecting a room to enter. This list includes both public chat rooms, which are created and mediated by AOL staff, and member rooms, which are member created rooms where the topic and the way of speaking about it are mediated only by the participants. I counted six-hundred and sixty public rooms, and seven-hundred and eighty-two member rooms in ten different categories. 10

Each room has a name that is meant to attract certain types of people to come chat there. Most users select which room to enter by looking at these lists of room names. Personally, my favourite room is usually called "Ravers," although the name of the room occasionally changes to other rave music related names 11. I first went into the Ravers room to ask people which English House DJ's are well known in the United States. Once in the Ravers room, I found that the people there shared many of the same interests as I do. Through the mail, my online friends and me trade tapes of our favourite music and occasiona lly send each other greeting cards. It is rare for me not to spend at least a few moments a day in this room now that I have become friends with some of the other users there.

Some people who use chat rooms on AOL do so with sex as a primary goal, and the names of chat rooms reflect this. Because AOL staff create them, none of the public chat rooms has a name that is sexual in nature or openly soliciting partners for cybersex or physical sex. Uncensored by AOL, just under half 12 of the member rooms have a name that is sex related. Although I identify almost half of the member's chat rooms as being sex related or solicitations for partners or for sex, I do not believe that every person in every one of those rooms is talking about these topics. As far as I have been able to observe, most of t he people in chat rooms with even the most explicit sex related names are not talking about sex. Instead, they talk about their jobs, family, and other interests or hobbies.


Chapter Summary & Preview:

There are two forms of cybersex seen in AOL chat rooms. These are identified at the beginning of this chapter as 1) computer mediated interactive masturbation in real time and, 2) computer mediated telling of interactive sexual stories (in real time) with the intent of arousal. AOL is the location of focus for the research presented here. AOL is the largest and most accessible online service in the world. Almost half of the member created chat rooms on AOL have names that can be considered to be sex or cybersex related. Most users use lists of the available chat rooms t o decide which room to enter. Many AOL users engage in the above forms of cybersex in AOL chat rooms, or using IMs. Although many AOL users engage in cybersex in chat rooms, most users talk about other topics of common interest while there.

The next chapter is on methodology. Sociology is nearing a crisis point unless we begin to explore and incorporate other disciplines. Ethnography is the appropriate method for researching and writing about cybersex in AOL chat rooms. Researching in cyberspace poses unique problems. Doing sociological fieldwork in cyberspace is interesting and challenging. Cyberspace is a good place for new students of sociological methodology to begin to practice and refine their fieldwork methods.


Chapter Two

Research Methodology: Applications in Cyberspace

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach

If sociology is to meet the challenge set forth by new research problems, such as virtual communities, it must move towards fully embracing a multi-disciplinary approach. Doing this research, I find myself looking not only to sociology for guidance, but at the work of researchers in many diverse fields. Some of these fields are closely related to sociology. These include the social sciences of psychology, linguistics, history, philosophy, and media/communication studies. On the other hand, I often find myself working in disciplines which are not especially close in outlook or methodology to sociology. These fields include computing, literary criticism, science fiction, and journalism to name a few. Whether I can still call what I do sociology when it is actually a blend of many diverse disciplines is debatable, but I see this distinction between fields as far less important than the utilisation by sociologists of all the best tools which have been given to us. This may mean the death of sociology as a distinct and separate discipline. Despite this, it is naive for sociologist to believe that we can continue to make meaningful contributions to the growing body of knowledge about the world around us and our own selves without embracing a multi-disciplinary approach.

Fie ld Work In Cyberspace: Looking at Past Research For Methodological Instruction

In deciding how best to go about researching for this paper, I look to previous studies of cyberspace for instruction. Sherry Turkle notes that, "virtual reality poses a new methodological challenge for the researcher: what to make of online interviews and indeed, whether and how to use them." (Turkle, 1995, 324) Turkle chooses not to use online interviews in her published work unless she has additionally met that person in real life. Turkle maintains that her choice not to use online interviews is based on the focus of her work, not for fear of fundamental flaw in the method. (Turkle, 1995, 324) "With many people,' instruct Hammersley and Atkinson, `interviewing them on their own territory... is the best strategy. It allows them to relax much more than they would in less familiar surroundings." (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, 150) After trying several other sampling and interviewing strategies 13 and failing in them, I have found that the only way to talk with people about cybersex is to do so online. In many cases, respondents admit that they would not speak of cybersex (and the other issues it brings up such as solitary masturbation) if I were to interview them face to face. It is easier, they feel, to talk about sensitive issues, such as cybersex, online. For this research, online interviews are a necessity because there is no other readily available way to get data on this phenomena.

Turkle uses ethnographic methods in much of her work, blending it with psychoanalytic methods. Allucquere Rosanne Stone uses ethnography in her work to reveal as much about her own life history as she does about those she researches. Nancy Baym writes that, "Rather than focusing on building predictive models of CMC [Computer Mediated Communication], more naturalistic, ethnographic, and microanalytic research should be done to refine our understanding of both influences and outcomes." (Baym, 1996, 161) I have chosen to follow the precedent and suggestions of these researchers in my own work, which I consider to be ethnographic.


Ethnography is defined as "the acts of both observing directly the behaviour of a social group and producing a written description thereof." (Marshall, 1994, 158 ) In ethnography the "description of cultures becomes the primary goal... the search for universal laws is downplayed in favour of detailed accounts of the concrete experience of life within a particular culture and the beliefs and social rules that are used as resources within it." (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995, 10) The research presented here is such a description of activities in online chat rooms. No "universal laws" are presented here at any time, although this is not to say that there is no theoretical arguments. The theoretical arguments made here play a very important descriptive role. The study of cybersex in AOL chat rooms is important because it gives us new ways in which to talk about wider society.

Methods Employed Here

In the course of this research, I have interviewed and sent email questionnaires to about forty AOL users. I use availability sampling techniques, to meet these people in a variety of ways. Some I meet in the chat rooms on AOL as I observe interactions there. Others I send email requests to do an interview with after seeing their posts on various AOL message boards. Many have sought me out after reading my posts on AOL message boards requesting interviews with people. The rooms I do my investigations in primarily have names which seem interesting to me. This surely has an effect o n what types of people I come in contact with. I do not know how my gender, race, or class has effected this research other than through researcher subjectivity.

In order for me to proceed wit h an interview or to speak with anyone online other than informally, I first electronically send them an agreement which they must look over and agree to. It states that they will remain anonymous in everything I write, and that I will not have cybersex with them at any time before, during, or after the interview. The part of the agreement about anonymity helps to relieve any fears of exposure the respondent may have. I remind them of anonymity at several stages during the interview, and have noticed that doing this makes them less hesitant to disclose intimate details. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]The second part of the agreement, stating that I will not have cybersex with them, helps to set the tone of the interview. It makes it clear to the respondent that I am asking the questions I do for research purposes, not for my own arousal. In addition, I am more able to keep focused on the interview when I feel that there is no chance of me having cybersex with that respondent. This second part of the agreement also appears to limit the amount of flirting respondents do with me, which helps both of us to stay focused on the research.

I give bac k as much as I can to the people who so graciously give me information. During the interview, and especially during the parts where I am asking very intimate questions, I openly share my own experiences with the person I am speaking with. Once I expose myself, respondents realise that I can relate to the feelings they have, and this makes it easier for them to tell me their most intimate details. I feel that it is wrong to ask details about some of the most intimate aspects of peoples behaviour without revealing myself to them. It puts us on a more level playing field, and transforms the interview into a discussion where eac h person discloses themselves. As respondents tell me things, I make sure they know that I understand their feelings and fears about cybersex. I understand because I have some of the same feelings and fears myself.

At the end of the interview, I answer any questions they may have about my research. Often times, this is uncomfortable for me because I am unable to answer the specific questions they ask because they are not part of the focus of this study. I leave everyone I speak with my name, email addresses, and the snail mail address for the Department of Sociology at Essex. I also inform them of the URL (WWW address) for the site where this dissertation is electronically available. I have had several people ask me to send them paper copies of this dissertation but, after explaining the potential cost of this, they understand that I can not do so. I want the people presented in this paper to read this work and to make me aware of any disagreements they may have with my findings. I am trying to give them a voice that is accurate and fair. I would like to know if I fail to do so.

Challenges and Difficulties in Research

Doing sociological field work in cyberspace is full of challenges and difficulties, some of them entirely new to sociology. I do my fieldwork in a place that does not physically exist. The computers that create America Online are near Washington DC, but the place I am really researching here is in the mind of AOL's users in what Gibson calls the "consensual hallucination" that is cyberspace. (Gibson, 1984, 51) The rooms where I meet people and conduct interviews d isappear without notice and new rooms are created. Since most of the people I talk with on AOL do not live there 14 , the available population to research changes almost continuously. Someone I meet one day may not come back for several days. When they do come back, I may not be aware of it unless I am specifically looking for that person or they go to the chat room that I am in.

I have great difficulties defining the parameters of this population. AOL will not provide me with any demographic data. The three difficulties above, which are indefinable geographic place, unreliable access to specific members of the population, and AOL's refusal to grant me access to demographic data, make it possible for me to only make an educated guess at the parameters of this population. I do know that AOL has approximately six million members. I also realise that the cost of computing equipment makes it an expensive hobby and that this limits the use of AOL and other online services to those with higher than average financial resources. Nearly all of the people I speak with on AOL are physically located in the United States or in Canada. All are between fourteen and fifty years old. Almost all of the AOL users I speak with work with computers at school or in their job. Elsewhere in this paper there is an estimate of how many people participate in cybersex daily, but I am not aware of any published estimates of the percentage of online service users who have had cybersex at any time in the past. From the evidence I have seen, I believe that a large number of AOL users, but not a majority of them, have at least experimented with having cybersex in AOL chat rooms. In addition to difficulties in describing the parameters of the population being studied here, there are other problems which I encounter while doing field work in cyberspace.

I have found that peop le in cyberspace are very open to my research topic, and I am allowed access to just about everyone I ask. This willingness to share information keeps me from resorting to covert observation, which I find to be an ethically questionable practise. Most people using online services or the Internet believe in the universal right to uncensored access to information. The willingness of users to share information with me is not inconsistent with this belief which is an important aspect of online culture. In contrast to this openness, the Gay and Lesbian communities on AOL deny me access. A heterosexual myself, I am told to leave the room as soon as I enter a Gay or Lesbian chat room, and my message b oard posts asking for Gay and Lesbian interviewees are ignored. Because I am unable to gain any access to this community, I am left without any ideas as to what goes on there or why I am not welcome there as a researcher.

Yet another difficulty I have when doing this research is locating people who will allow me to observe them having cybersex or who will send me electronic transcripts of them doing it. One side effect of me asking to observe or see transcripts of cybersex is for me to be called a "pervert" by one respondent and a "weirdo" by another respondent 15 . After a few times asking unsuccessful to be granted access to live cybersex or transcripts of it, I have reassessed the importance of this access to the research presented here. Through speaking with my advisor at Essex about other research done on sexual activities, I have been able to drawn the conclusion that direct observation is not necessary. Only a small handful of sex researchers have been allowed to observe people having sex, so most findings in the area of sexual research are based on data obtained from methods other than direct observation.

The main problem I encounter during this research is one of cost. Access to AOL is expensive. The monthly fee of around US $20 includes 10 hours of usage, but there is a surcharge of US $2.95 per hour for each additional hour. Having spent hundreds of hours online in the course of this research, I can honestly say that my AOL bill qualifies me to participate in the online addiction seminars 16 which appear on AOL from time to time. My phone bill is even higher still since AOL's closest access number to me is in Manchester, a long distance telephone call away. The computer equipment I use, a Macintosh PowerBook 520c with a 14400 baud modem and CD ROM drive, a 100 Mega-Byte iomega Zip Drive for data storage, and an Apple Color StyleWriter printer, is more than sufficient for doing research of this type but costs around US $3000. I am able to download for free 17 most of the software I use since I am a student using it for educational purposes. Researchers on a small budget may be able to find a used computer with everything needed to log onto AOL for around US $200, but they will be limited in what they can access online by the lesser capabilities of an outdated machine. The issue of cost is also a factor for the population being studied here, and this was briefly discussed earlier in this chapter.

Positive Aspects of Researching in Cyberspace

Researching in cyberspace, like doing research anywhere, not only has it's difficulties, but has it's good points as well. When I speak with someon e on AOL, I can save a transcript of everything which is said between us to an electronic file. These transcripts are one hundred percent accurate every time. Stone points out that "The floppy disk has become the cyberanthropologist's field notebook; in virtual social environments nothing escapes it's panoptic gaze." (Stone, 1995, 190) Using a word processor I can open the transcript file, search it for key words, and print it out as many times as I wish. Searching by key words is not a substitute for carefully reading and rereading complete transcripts, but is still helpful for analysis. I can electronically copy what has been said and later electronically paste it into place in this paper as a quotation. This saves time and reduces the danger that someone may be misquoted here.

Another positive aspect of researching in cyberspace is that users often feel that they are relatively anonymous. In the research presented here, AOL users speak openly about their most intimate sexual activities without having any fear of being exposed. I have made an agreement about anonymity with each of the people who appear in this paper. However, I feel that it is the anonymity of the medium, not my assurances, which allows people to speak with me openly and without fear. Anonymity plays it's effect on the researcher as well. I am too em barrassed to ask many of the questions I do here to someone face to face. I openly share more intimate details of myself when I am online than I feel comfortable with sharing in real life. In the physical World I feel dejected when I am refused an interview. Online it feels different to be turned away, less bad. It is very easy to approach someone online to ask for an interview. If they refuse my request for an interview, I can easily shrug it off and move to another chat room to ask someone else for an interview. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]For myself, and for many of the people presented in this paper, being online takes away the fear and apprehension that we sometimes feel when talking face to face with a complete stranger.

Doing field work in cyberspace, I do not have to worry about the effects of my appearance or the setting in which an interview takes place. I have access to potential respondents twenty four hours a day regardless of my location, so interviews need not always be scheduled in advance.

Thinking About Methodology in Cyberspace

The positive and negative aspects of doing sociological research in cyberspace make it an interesting place in which to think about methodology. I feel that field work based in cyberspace is an excellent starting point for new students of qualitative research methods. Easy access to sample populations and anonymity for both researcher and respondent can help ease the legitimate fears of those new to qualitative field work. Transcripts that are fully accurate demonstrate the importance of accuracy in transcribing when they are used by new students of research methodology to improve their interviewing technique. Doing this research, I am now much more confident in my own interviewing and observational skills. I expect that other students will also find that researching in cyberspace is an interesting and revealing way to learn and refine sociological researc h methods for application in both the virtual world and the real world.

Writing Up

Writing up my research findings is one of the hardest, but most rewarding, part of the research process for me. I have a lot more data than I can present in a paper of limited length. I analyse all of the data I collect, and select interesting cases from these. For this paper, I made ten case studies, of which only three I have been able to use. After selecting which cases to use, I go back to the original data for review. Following this step, I tie the data to theories for analysis. I then write an ethnographic story incorporating both the data and the analysis. Then comes revision. Most of the chapters here have been revised upwards of twenty times each. I then cut several of these chapters from this, the final product of my work.


Chapter Summary & Preview

Sociology may be at a crisis point. Sociologists must move to embrace a multi-disciplinary approach or we may lose our ability to continue to contribute to the body of knowledge about the world around us and ourselves. Ethnography is the mos t appropriate method of researching and writing about cybersex in AOL chat rooms. Online interviews are used here because it is the only way I have found to locate and interview people who engage in cybersex in online chat rooms. I have spoken formally with about forty AOL users, some by email and some in chat areas, and have spent hundreds of hours online doing informal research. I make an agreement with each respondent in order to protect them and to ease any fears they may have. I disclose as much about myself to the people I interview as they disclose to me. This is a way of giving back to them while once again easing their fears.

Doing fieldwork in cyberspace presents us with several methodological difficulties and these are discussed in detail in this chapter. The main difficulty i n doing this field work is one of cost. There are also some good points about doing field work in cyberspace. The one that stands out most is the ability to make electronic transcripts. Doing field work in cyberspace is a good way for new students of sociological research methods to learn and practise new researching skills.

The process of writing up and an explanation for my liberal use of footnotes in this text are presented in summary form above.

The following chapter describes Rebecca, who engages in cybersex in AOL chat rooms. This chapter also brings up several issues which we will then follow throughout this paper. These issues include the narrow-bandwidth of computer mediated communication, anonymity in the narrow-bandwidth space of AOL and the loss of inhibitions due to this anonymity, and finally, the issue of multiple selves within a single self.

Chapter Three

Rebecca: Misinterpretations in Text Based Communication, The Narrow-Bandwidth Effect, and the Multiplicity of Selves

Shagging the Interviewee: An Introduction to Narrow-bandwidth and the Is
sue of Misinterpretation in Online Communication

Sometimes in cyberspace the slightest misinterpretation of text can lead to major misunderstandings. One night after four hours spent interviewing people online, I decided to venture into my personal favourite chat room on AOL. I acted in the room not as a researcher, but as a participant looking for some good conversation before logging off for the night. I drank several cups of coffee as I typed back and forth with some friends. As the caffeine rush hit me, I decided that I would tr y to do one or two more interviews.

I asked aloud in the chat room if anyone wanted to talk with me about their experiences with online intimacy and online relationships. I got replies from two women, one of whom I already knew quite well and who I find myself attracted to. I asked Annie, the respondent I already knew, if she might let me interview her another time so that I could have the chance to think of some questions specific to what I already knew of her. Annie agreed to my request and returned to the chat room conversation while I focused my attention, or so I thought, on Rebecca, the other respondent.

Rebecca is a student in her third year of studying for a degree in history at a well known and respected university on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Immediately upon meeting her, I found her to be intelligent, well spoken, and friendly. Replying after I asked her to wait for a minute so that I could type her a message about anonymity and what to expect in the interview, Rebecca surprised me with her eagerness, "wonderful!!!!!!!!!! :)". I felt that Rebecca was being overly friendly and I wanted to avoid having to talk about cybersex with her be cause I was afraid that it might distract one of us and we would start flirting. I had too much work to get done in the following days, and flirting seemed like a waste of precious time. I decided that I would not ask Rebecca about cybersex. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]In the message I sent to Rebecca about anonymity, I included a passage about cybersex that I had never felt necessary to send before: "Since I was in that room just having fun and not researching, I can't really ask you about cybersex without it seeming funny, so I won't". Her reply, unbroken by me, went like this:

Rebecca: yea
Rebecca: But what about cyber??
Rebecca: I don't mind answering any questions.
Rebecca: : )

It was late at night and the caffeine buzz that had hit my body had refused to awaken my brain. In addition to being tired, I had just been talking with Annie who I said earlier I am attracted to. Then Rebecca, who seems overly excited to be interviewed, says "But what about cyber??" The only thing I could do was tremble in my seat. I badly wa nted to have cybersex with Rebecca, and could not believe how attracted I felt towards her despite hardly knowing her.

I thought for a second about Rebecca's articulate words, a fantasy was born, but I managed to stop myself and tell Rebecca that she had shocked me by asking that. I asked for a moment to regroup my thoughts. After a few seconds of thinking, I explained that I had to keep the line between my researcher self and my pleasure self separate. She responded to this by saying that she could tell me "yucky stuff too". I became confused and asked her if she wanted to tell me "yucky stuff" for my research or if she wanted to tell me about it for fun. Then she asked me if she was telling me her personal details because I was doing research or for some other reason. This went back and forth for many lines until I told her that she had scared me out of doing the interview , intimidated me even, by asking me so abruptly to have cybersex with her.

I misinterpreted Rebecca, who asked "But what about cyber?" because she wanted to know when I would be asking her about cybersex. For a combination of reasons I misinterpreted her words as a sexual proposition. My misinterpretation can be blamed upon the outside influences that I already discussed, having talked with Annie e arlier in the night and my being tired.

The narrow-bandwidth of computer mediated communications also had an important role in misinterpretation of Rebecca. Narrow-bandwidth is the main topic of this chapter and will be discussed at several stages here. I am confident that, had I been able to see Rebecca's body language as she spoke, I would have known that she was trying to tell me that she was will ing to talk about cybersex. Rebecca corrected me by saying "I merely said that I would help you out with your interviewing. I WASN'T asking you to cyber...." Then she made my misinterpretation even more obvious when she asked "you're a female, right". Rebecca was not flirting with me, she was trying to be helpful to a fellow female doing research on cybersex. The narrow-bandwidth of the computer medium caused us to make misinterpretations of each others words and intentions becaus e we were important information was missing from out communication. In Rebecca's case, even my gender was misinterpreted 18.

The experience I had with Rebecca, where I wrongly thought she was asking me to have cybersex and she wrongly thought I was female, is a very revealing one. It shows how I carried certain expectations, needs, and desires into the interview and how the effects of these are multiplied by the narrow-bandwidth of online communications. Luckily, instead of being offended by my error Rebecca found it humorous and we quickly became friends.

Narrow-bandwidth & Misinterpretations in Cyberspace

Stone makes an important distinction between face to face communication and computer mediated communication. Stone explains that "Reality is wide-bandwidth, because people who communicate face to face in real time use multiple modes simultaneously - speech, gestures, facial expression, the entire gamut of semiotics... Computer conferencing is narrow-bandwidth, because communication is restricted to lines of text on a screen." (Stone, 1995a, 93) In narrow-bandwidth computer mediated communications, important information is missing. Reid exp lains the need for users of online technologies to create new ways of transmitting this important information, "Smiles, Frowns, tones of voice, posture and dress -- Geertz's `significant symbols' -- tell us more about the social contexts we are placed in than do the statements of the people we socialise with... Communication and cultural context must be expressed through new channe ls, and new systems of meaning must be forged by virtual denizens who wish to make sense of and to one another." (Reid, 1994) Misinterpretations often occur due to the narrow-bandwidth of computer mediated communication, and emoticons, discussed below, are an attempt to overcome this as Reid states we must. The emergence of a new culture specific language and the issue of misinterpretation are methodological concerns as well as a concern of the users of computer mediated communication who must confront it every time the go online.

Language and Emoticons: The
Battle to Overcome Narrow-bandwidth

There is a new language being created and use d by the users of online services and the Internet. This new language, which includes ways of conveying emotion in text, will be the focus of this section of this paper. "Language", according to Saville-Troike, "serves many functions. Chief among these, perhaps, is that of creating/reinforcing boundaries, unifying it's speakers as members of a singl e speech community, and excluding outsiders from intragroup communication." (Saville-Troike, 1989, 14) Online communities are creating their own way of communicating with language that serves all of the above functions. People unfamiliar with the language of online communication are unable to fully understand or properly interpret what is said online.

Although most online communication is done in American English, there are certain grammatical and vocabulary differences between the language used online and that used in the everyday world. Grammatical, capitalisation, and spelling errors are not only acceptable, they are expected in online communication. This is because online communicators place a higher value on rapidly conveying their point than they do on correct spelling and grammar. According to Turkle, this "relaxed attitude toward sentence fragments and typographical errors suggest that the new writing is somewhere between traditional written and oral communication.&quo t; (Turkle, 1995, 183) In this paper, I write of text on the screen in the same way as I would audible words. People online don't write to each other in real time, they have conversations where each participant takes turns "talking" and "listening".

Because speed is of primary im portance in online communications, many users of online services purposely shorten words and phrases. For example, to ask another user the questions "how old are you? Are you male or female?" most users simply type "age/sex." Users of online technologies have also created new words to describe things and people they encounter in cyberspace. Examples of words created by online users include "Newbies", who are new users, and "net-split", which is when IRC users are bumped from their channels by the computer server. There are acronyms specific to the online community such as "lol", which means laughing out loud. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]Many unnecessary words are entirely dropped from sentences. The grammatical articles "a", "an", and "the" appear to be the usual victims of this word dropping. The language of online users is quick and to the point, ignoring certain rules of the English language in exchange for speed.

Because users of computer mediated communication can not see each other's facial expressions, body language, or hear tone of voice, they have created a new system of communicating emotions. Fudrucker explains that "an emoticon is an emotional icon, or a pictorial expression of the emotions of the moment. These are most commonly created on one line using the symbols on the keyboard." (Argyll & Shields, 1996, 65) A basic smiling face emoticon looks like this: : -) or = ) Smiling face emoticons are often placed at the end of sarcastic remarks which could otherwise be misconstrued as mean or angry statements. A : ( emoticon placed at the end of a sentence means that the user speaking is sad about that specif ic point. Stone states that, the development of emoticons like the ones above is "a direct consequence of ferocious misunderstandings over simple textual utterances..." (Stone, 1995a, 175) 19 Without using emoticons, it is difficult for users of online chat to communicate their emotions to other users.

Not only do users of online communication technologies use emoticons to express their emotions, many use characters to express actions as well. Hugs are often passed between users who type the other user's name surrounded by brackets. For example, if I type {{{Lisa}}} in an online chat room, other users will know that I am hugging the user named Lisa.

The new language of online communication is important for overcoming the effect of narrow-bandwidth in the medium. There are other ways of overcoming narrow-bandwidth by replacing, or putting back in, the information that is missing in narrow-bandwidth communications. These will be discussed in a later section of this paper.


Rebecca's Cybersex: How Potential Partners Present Themselves

Rebecca has bee n using AOL for almost a year now. She uses AOL twenty five hours per week, and spends about sixty percent of this time in chat rooms. In this time, she has visited many different chat rooms. She feels that the name of the room is a good indicator of whether the people there will tell the truth about what they look like and who the are in real life. Rebecca sent me an email explaining, "I have also met some people [from online] in real life ...generally the people I have met in rooms like Punk Music, Hip Hop, or other general common interest spots have been true to their word. In cases that the initial meeting was in a romance type room, they had tendencies to stretch the truth about their handsome physical appearances."

An important part of cybersex is locating a partner. Rebecca looks for partners that she can trust to be who they say they are. She has found that a good way of doing this it to use general interest topic chat rooms instead of romance chat rooms. In the following section, we will again discuss narrow-bandwidth by looking at how Rebecca fights it's effect.


Rebecca's Cybersex: Fighting Bandwidth

Like all the other users I have spoken with in this course of this research, Rebecca tries to put some reality back into the contacts that she makes online. Although Rebecca enjoys getting to know people online without having, as she says, "physical biases getting in the way," she asks the men she meets online to send her a .gif 20 of themselves. This effectively brings, what Rebecca calls, "physical biases" back into the medium.

Rebecca also talks on the telephone with the men she meets online, often having phone sex with them. The telephone is a narrow-bandwidth medium of communication. (Stone, 1995a, 93) Narrow-bandwidth mediums do not transmit much of the visual information available such as posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements, which are transmitted through wide-bandwidth face to face interactions. Computer facilitated communication is even more narrow-bandwidth than that of the telephone because pauses, changes in inflection, and tone of voice are less apparent to the person at the receiving end. Narrow-bandwidth makes it difficult for those involved in online communications to determine exactly what is meant by what has been said. "The effect of narrowing bandwidth," according to Stone "is to engage more of the participants' interpretive facilities." (Stone, 1995a , 92)

Stone studied phone-sex in regards to the effect of the narrow-bandwidth medium of the telephone and discovered that "in this circumstance narrow-bandwidth becomes a powerful asset, because extremely complex fantasies can be generated from a small set of cues." She explains further, using a Lacanian interpretation of phone-sex interactions, that "client and provider mobilize erotic tension by taking advantage of lack - filling in missing information with idealized information." (Stone, 1995a, 95) This `filling in', made necessary by the narrow-bandwidth of the communication medium, occurs in online communications, including cybersex.


Rebecca's Cybersex: Getting Off Online and Phone Sex

We have seen previously that Rebecca seeks out partners who are truthful in their presentation of themselves when online. She finds more truthful partners in general interest chat rooms. Then we saw how Rebecca fights the narrow-bandwidth effect by asking for a gif of her partners. She does this because in narrow-bandwidth communications, physical information is missing. A gif of her partner helps her to overcome this by replacing this missing informati on.

Following the {{{hugging}}} and <<<kissing>>> shown in the previous section comes a description of the setting where Rebecca and her partner are going to have cybersex. How they get closer to each other within this setting is the next step towards the consummation of cybersex. Once close within the setting, Rebecca likes to focus on her partner and help him to have an orgasm first. She does this by instructing the man by telling him how and where to touch himself. She likes the man to have his orgasm first because this way, in her words, they "pay more attention to me because they feel so good, almost like they have an obligation to do it." When it comes to her turn, Rebecca always has an orgasm.

According to Rebecca, the men who she has cybersex with, "usually want to progress to phone sex after or during cyber [cybersex]." Rebecca rarely has cybersex with men after she has had phone sex with them. Going off-line to have phone sex 21 is commonplace. It has been reported in Virtual City magaz ine that, "easily half of the people engaged in adult chat are trolling for phone sex." (Virtual City, 1996, 39) Rebecca speaks with many of the men she meets on AOL on the telephone the same day that she meets them. She does not engage in telephone sex with them during their first voice call unless she is, in her words, "really turned on" by what they say. She usually waits "at least a month" between the time she meets a man on AOL and when she has telephone sex with him. This gives her a chance to get to know him before having phone sex. Rebecca reports that on one occasion she had telephone sex with a man she met on AOL without having ever had cybersex with him. Rebecca enjoys phone sex because she likes to hear the man say her name and to hear the man have an orgasm. However, she is more self conscious on the telephone than she is online and feels that cybersex is more pleasurable because she has fewer inhibitions 22 there.


Rebecca's Cybersex: Comparing Cybersex to Wide Bandwidth, Real Life Sexual Encounters

Rebecca has had numerous cybersex partners in the time that she has been online. She feels that although cybersex is pleasing for her, "physical sex is beyond a doubt 100 percent better, more pleasing and more sa tisfying." Rebecca's disappointments with cybersex are not being able to physically touch her partner and not being able to share visual things with him.

Rebecca, who prefers physical sex to cybersex, prefers cybersex over solitary masturbation. Engaging in cybersex of the interactive masturbation type defined in an earlier chapter, she achieves orgasm faster during cybersex than during solitary mastur bation. This is due to the reciprocal nature of this form of cybersex. Rebecca admits that having cybersex makes her feel "silly" and she often wonders if having cybersex is morally correct. She does not have such feelings or doubts when she engages in solitary ma sturbation.

Rebecca's Cybersex: Motivations

Rebecca has not been having real life sex since she started having cybersex and phone sex. Because of her personal moral beliefs, Rebecca does not feel that casual sex in the real world is appropriate. She is also afraid of becoming infected with the HIV virus from having casual sex. Cybersex seems a safe sexual option for her. "Outside of masturbation," writes Dorion Sagan, "no sex is safer than cybersex." (Sagan, 1996)

Rebecca's Cybersex: The Danger of Online Stalkers Coming Home

Flirting in cyberspace has it's dangers. One night, Rebecca spent several hours flirting with a man but decided not to have cybersex with him despite his insistence. This man, who she describes as a "porno guy", followed her around AOL for the next several days. Every time she went into a chat room, he would soon arrive there as well. He managed to obtain her phone number using the name and location she had entered into her online profile, and called her at home -- stepping into her real world without her consent. Scared of this man, she slammed down the receiver of th e telephone and stayed off of AOL for two weeks. She usually feels that she is in control of any situation which arises while on AOL, but in this one case, she lost control and felt uncomfortable.

Multiple Selves

Rebecca expresses her strong desire to have a real life partner, but will not compromise her moral beliefs or safety to obtain one. Instead of compromising herself, Rebecca goes online for sex. In doing so, she discovers new ways of seeing herself and the real world. Turkle talks about anthropologists bringing new ways of looking at things and experiences back from the field with them in much the same way Rebecca has brought back from cyberspace new ways of seeing her body and new ways of touching herself sexually: "For anthropologists, the experience of depaysement (literally, "decountrifying" oneself) is one of the most powerful elements of fieldwork. One leaves one's own culture to face something unfamiliar, and upon returning home it has become strange -- and can be seen with fresh eyes. (Turkle, 1995, 218) Coming back from virtual worlds, Rebecca can now see many new possibilities for sexual pleasure for use both on and off-line.

Rebecca finds that having cybersex has incre ased her desire to explore her own body in private. Rebecca reveals that she has "always masturbated a lot, but I have to say, yea, I do masturbate more now than before I started cybering [having cybersex]." She feels that this is because cybersex has allowed her to become more comfortable with her body as well as her own sexuality. Before having cybersex on AOL, Rebecca did not feel comfortable with her own sexuality. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]Having cybersex has allowed Rebecca to try new sexual activities that she could not try in real life because of her moral stance and fear that she may become infected with sexually transmitted diseases. In other words, the computer medium has made it safe and acceptable for Rebecca to remain sexually active while helping her to continue to avoid real life casual sex 23. She has become more comfortable with her body because she, like the Turkle's anthropologist returning from the field, has found new ways to look at sexual aspects of herself.

Reid writes that users of online chat rooms, like Rebecca, feel free to "exercise aspects of their person ality that would under normal [face to face] interactive circumstances be inhibited." (Reid, 1991) For Rebecca, cybersex and the phone sex it often leads to, is a safe and moral simulation of real life sex and a way for her to experiment with her sexual self. Turkle writes that "When people adopt an online personae ... Some feel an uncomfortable sense of fragmentation, some a sense of relief. Some sense the possibilities for self discovery, even self-transformation." (Turkle, 1995, 260) Rebecca's online personae gives an opportunity to discover her sexual self as well as discovering new ways of giving herself physical sexual pleasure.

Case, who Turkle spoke with in her investigations of MUDs, says that "For virtual reality to be interesting it has to emulate the real. But you have to be able to do something in the virtual that you couldn't in the real." (Turkle, 1995, 219) Rebecca could say something similar: her motivation for communicating in AOL chat rooms is that she can have sexual experiences with partners there that she can not have in real life. Cybersex is enough to satisfy Rebecca's sexual urges in a time of her life where real life sex does not appear to be practical, moral, or safe.

Multiple Selves: Multiple Personality Disorder vs. "Identity as Multiplicity"

What Rebecca does online is acceptable to her because she has multiple selves. The online, sexual self, enjoys cybersex. The off-line, inhibited and more self conscious self, often wonders after cybersex if what she has done is morally correct. Rebecca's selves communicate and compromise with each other. Rebecca is not suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) because her selves communicate with each other and those of MPD sufferers do not. (Turkle, 1995, 261) Turkle writes that the Internet, and with it chat rooms on AOL, has helped us to think about "identity as multiplicity." Using online communication, "people are able to build a self by cycling through many selves." (Turkle, 1995, 178) Rebecca may have an online self and an off-line self, but these selves continue to communicate with each other and help to build her "identity as multiplicity."

Other Is
sues: Rebecca, Cyborg Model RS33 beta

Rebecca may be becoming a cyborg because her sex life is undeniably tied to and dependent upon AOL chat rooms. All her sexual activities involving partners are online. Cyborgs are those who have crossed two boundaries, the one between animals and humans and the one between humans and machines. (Haraway; Gray, 1995, 1) In the world of today, where we cross these boundaries at some times and not at others, cyborg depends upon th e existence of multiple selves. We are not all cyborgs at all times because there are some moments where we are away from out prosthesis (discussed in later chapter on cyborg theory). Although this may not be true for many Westerners in the near future, most of us exist in a semi-cyborg state within one or several, but not all, of our multiple selves. Thus the existence of the cyborg is dependent on having multiple selves, some of which cross the abo ve mentioned boundaries. Cyborg theory, an interesting blend of science fiction, literary theory, philosophy, and sociology, is discussed more comprehensively in the following chapters.

Chapter Summary & Preview

Misinterpretations are common in AOL chat rooms. In the example provided at the beginning of this chapter, I misinterpret Rebecca's willingness to answer my questions as a sexual proposition. Computer mediated communication is narrow-bandwidth. Narrow-bandwidth mediums do not transmit much of the data present in face to face interactions. This lack of information is what causes many of the misinterpretations that occur in cyberspace.

A new language is developing out of the need for the users of online communications to understand each other. Emoticons, part of this emergent language, are a way of transmitting emotional information through the narrow-bandwidth medium. Rebecca fights against the narrow-bandwidth effect by obtaining photographs of her partners and speaking with them on the telephone. Many times, Rebecca progresses from cybersex on AOL to telephone sex.

Rebecca has multiple selves. This is not to say that she has multiple personality disorder. She has multiple selves that communicate with each other and form her "identity as multiplicity" -- her whole self. (Turkle, 1995, 178) Because part of Rebecca's self is only possible with the aid of computers, she may be becoming a cyborg.

The narrow-bandwidth of computer mediated communications continues to be of importance in the following chapter where we meet Alison and Rob. Each of these users finds that narrow-bandwidth affords them anonymity online. In the anonymity of AOL chat rooms, they each lose some of their inhibitions. Alison and Rob use this loss of inhibitions, and the opportunity to experiment with new and old selves, in contrasting ways.


Chapter Four

Alison and Rob: Losing Inhibitions Online, Experimenting With the Self, Online Abuse, and Virtual Transsexuality

Introduction to The Loss of Inhibition Online

We have seen in the past chapter how narrow-bandwidth mediums are unable to transmit certain information. For instance, it does not transmit visual data such as body language that we get in wider bandwidth face to face communication. This creates a situation where all the information that we know about another person online is what they or their computer tells us. There are ways of finding out someone's identity on AOL, as the man who stalked Rebecca did, but in order to do so one would have to be determined and know where and what to look for. The anonymity of online communications is not a false anonymity for most users, many of who use the service for years without anyone ever knowing even their real life name.

As we have seen in the previous chapter, the anonymity of online communications often allows users of online chat to lose their inhibitions and experiment more freely with their selves. Users who find themselves on the good side of this loss discover knew ways of seeing the self. In the pervious chapter we saw Rebecca, whose loss of inhibition online allows her online selves to take part in sexual activities without violating her moral stance against real life casual sex. Because Rebecca has cybersex, she is more comfortable with her body and sexuality than she was before. Alison, seen below, is another example of how the loss of inhibition in online selves can lead to positive self discovery. When Alison has cybersex, she becomes reacquainted with her loving self and sexual self, which she felt she had lost in a divorce ten years ago.

Users who find themselves on the bad side of the loss of inhibition lose the self-restraint that keeps them from hurting people in the real world and end up hurting people online. Rob, presented below, abuses other users of AOL by betraying and violating their trust. The loss of inhibition that occurs when using narrow-bandwidth computer mediated communication contributes to Rob's abuses. Rob's victims, as we will see, take very real pain with them as they log out of the online world and into the real world. We each may have many selves, but we each still only one.

Alison: Rediscoveri ng Her Loving Self

Alison is a divorced mother in her mid forties who volunteered to take part in this research after seeing a post I left on an AOL message board. She volunteered because she had some questions she wanted to ask about her own activities online. Alison has been using computers for about ten years, both at home and work. When Alison bought a new computer two years ago, she decided to use the pre-installed AOL software to try out the service. Alison enjoys the contact she has with other users online, but misses the time that AOL has taken away from her other hobbies. Her other hobbies include watching television, reading, and listening to music. Alison has two favourite chat rooms on AOL, both located in the romance category of member's rooms. She finds that most of the conversations she has in these rooms are about music or with people who live in the same geographic area as her. Before she began using AOL, Alison had forgotten how it felt to fall in love. Through a romance with Rex, the man she met online, Alison has changed this.

Alison and Rex, who are no longer dating on or off-line, live in cities far apart. For many months they spent an hour each night talking on AOL. This was their primary means of communication, although they also exchanged daily voice calls. Alison never met Rex in real life during their relationship. Looking back, Aliso n believes that the feelings associated with falling in love are just as "intense" online as they are in the real world. Alison feels that she knows Rex as well as she would have known him if they were friends in the physical world for the same months. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]She uses very emotional words to describe the way she felt about her relationship with Rex. She describes her romance with Rex as having felt "spiritual." In explanation of this, she explains that she felt "very connected and in sync with [Rex]", "in love", "protected", and "safe in his arms". As they grew closer, Alison and Rex began to have cybersex which she describes as being &q uot;as good as the real thing".

Alison's Cybersex: "As Good as the Real Thing"

When Alison and Rex had cybersex, they engaged in both forms of cybersex defined in the introduction to this paper. The first time they had cybersex, they told each other sexual fantasies. Later, they learned how to instruct ea ch other through mutual masturbation. The feeling Alison had after cybersex with Rex was one of tired contentment -- the same feeling she has when she has sex in the physical world. For the ten years prior to when Alison and Rex had cybersex, Alison, who was divorced at the beginning of this ten years, failed to see her sexual self. She did not date or have any form of sexual contact with partners. She loved her children dearly, but failed to see that it was possible for her to love another man after her divorce from her first husband. Alison describes the effects of cybersex in her life: "I didn't have a sex life before using AOL and I still don't! However, I was not dating before my cyber-romance. Since that time, I have begun (tentatively) to date again, to be at least interested in it again... After the cyber-romance (which I dearly wanted to become real) I feel it [to fall in love] is possible to have it happen in real-life again -- maybe not today, but sometime."

When Alison first met Rex, she quickly fell in love with him and rediscovered her sexual self. Online anonymity, made possible by the narrow-bandwidth of the computer medium, is what has allowed Alison this freedom to experiment. Turkle explains that the attraction of chat rooms is that they offer "a combination of real time interaction with people, anonymity (or, in some cases, the illusion 0f anony mity), and the ability to assume a role as close to or as far from one's "real self" as one chooses." (Turkle, 1995, 14) When Alison first had cybersex, she felt that she had turned a significant corner. She became more aware of her sexual needs and desires by using her less inhibited online self to express them. Alison is now looking forward to using in the real world what cybersex has taught her about herself.

Blurring Lines Between Alison's Selves: Heartbreak in Cyberspace, Heartbreak in the Real World

When Alison extended herself into cyberspace and found love, she found that the boundary between her online self and off-line self had blurred. She desired for her relationship to move from the virtual world to the real world in the same way that it had already done within her mind. Rex did not allow this relationship to move from the screen into real life and refused to meet with Alison face to face. Alison enjoys her online time less now that she has realised that many online relationships are unable to cross this boundary between the virtual world and the real world as her self is able to.


Onl ine Abuse and a Researcher Dilemma

Rob, just out of university and married, is a graphic designer at a California office equipment and computer manufacturer. Like anyone else probably would, I liked Rob when I first met him. He was very friendly and eager to speak with me when we first met. He approached me to volunteer as an interviewee, and I later found that he only volunteered because he thought I am a woman. After finding out my gender, he continued to speak with me and I have noticed no difference in the way he speaks with me now that he knows that I am male. But as he disclosed his abusive activities to me, I began to feel a strong urge to betray the guarantee of anonymity I have made with him so that I could warn my online friends about him. Rob's online self has lost the inhibitions and fears which keep him from hurting people off-line, and this will be the focus of this and the following sections of this chapter.

I want to make it clear before talking about Rob that I find his actions to be despicable. Since meeting Rob and listening to him talk about the horrible things he does to abuse people online, I have found it harder to trust other users. I suspect that the victims of his a buse find that he has had a similar, if not worse, effect on them.

Rob is presented here not only to talk about the loss of inhibition online and how it contributes to violent behaviour, but also as a warning to the users of services such as AOL.

Rob's Cybersex: Video Games, Off-line Pain

When I ask Rob if he has ever had cybersex, his reply is that he has, but "only from a comedic point of view". When I ask him what he means by this, he explains that "Sometimes I'll sign on [using] my wife's name, to check her mail for her, (She knows I do this) and then I'll start to cyber with a guy and when he's all worked up I'll tell him I'm a guy. It really pisses people off!!!"

Rob has cybersex with men, telling them that he is male just before they have an orgasm. This action could have lasting ill effects on Rob's victims. Rob's actions may destroy the ability of his victims to trust people they do not know well. It may cause them to feel uncomfortable about their own sexual activities. It may also cause them to wrongly question their own sexual orientation, whatever that may be. Not only does he abuse men by betraying their trust, he also betrays "gi rls" he meets online.


Rob often has cybersex with women and saves a transcript of it to file. He then sends copies of this transcript to everyone on AOL with the same surname or from the same city as the woman. Several women have sent nude gifs of themselves to Rob, and he has swiftly e-mailed those to "Daddy" as well. The recipients of these files are able to read, electronically store, and freely distribute the cybersex transcripts and nude photographs without the woman's knowledge or consent

Rob's victims lose their sexual privacy, and sometimes, all control over who sees their naked body. Rob justifies this abuse by saying that it is "fun." Rob himself says that secretly videotaping people having sex and then sending others the video (as his friends did in college) is "like rape ". Rob fails to see the similarity between this action and his own actions online. What he does to both genders online has the same consequences, for some users, as rape or sexual abuse.

The people Rob encounters on AOL are as real to him as the characters of a video game, which he can hurt and destroy without consequence to himself.

Turkle describes a cyber rape that occurred in a MUD. One player took control of another player in the MUD and forced the victim's character to carry out sexual acts on his character. The victim had no control over what her player was doing as the other player had taken complete control. One aftermath of this `rape' was that the members of the online community where it occurred had a lengthy discussion to debate whether this truly was a rape of the type we normally associate with physical rape. The participants in this discussion spoke of the online self as being part of the whole self. Rape is not only a crime against the body they concluded, it is a crime against the mind and the self. (Turkle, 1995, 250 - 254)

If rape is a crime against the self, then was not this rape in a MUD not a rape in the true sense of the word? Are not Rob's abusive actions a form of rape, or at the least, sexual abuse? If rape is a crim e against the self, then yes, virtual rape is truly rape. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]Dibbell writes, "the more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take the notion of freedom of speech." (Turkle, 1995, 253) The online self may be the sole intended victim of abuse in cyberspace, but the whole self is also victimised when one of it's selves is.

In coming to the conclusion that virtual rape is truly rape in the full sense of the word, I do not wish to water down the meaning or power of the word rape -- rape is a serious subject no matter where and how it occurs. More important than whether there is a such thing as online sexual abuse and online rape, is that we discover why people abuse and rape in the first place. Then, we can solve the problems that cause people to abuse and rape so that there will not have to be any more victims.


Alison the Online Lover/Rob the Online Abuser: The Loss of Inhibition Online

In her paper on IRC, the chat area of the Internet, Elizabeth Reid writes about the loss of inhibitions in computer mediated communications. This loss of inhibitions leads to less self-regulation on the part of the users of online communication technologies. Reid writes, "The lack of self-regulation amongst users of IRC can be both positive and negative, as far as interaction is concerned ... Along with increased broad-mindedness and intimacy among some users goes increased hostility on the part of others. 'Flaming', the expression of anger, insults and hatred, is a common phenomenon in all forms of computer-mediated communication ... The safety of anonymous expression of hostilities and obscenities that would otherwise incur social sanctions 24, encourages some people to use IRC as a forum for airing their resentment of individuals or groups in a blatantly uninhibited manner." (Reid, 1991) The examples in this chapter demonstrate two very different ways in which users of AOL utilise the loss of inhibition which occurs online. When Alison goes online she loses the inhibitions that have kept her from loving others and seeing herself as a sexual being since her divorce failed years ago. She becomes more broadminded and intimate -- seeing herself in a new and positive light. When he goes online, Rob loses the inhibitions and fear of physical s anctions that keep him from hurting others in the real world. (Reid, 1991)

Other Is
sues: The Presentation of Gender Online

Many people online try on the roles of the opposite gender. Earlier we saw that Rob sometimes signs on to AOL using his wife's user name. I assume that the user name his wife uses appears to be a females user name. Rob is able to hide behind the mask of his wife's user name in order to present himself as a woman online. Presenting himself as a female, he is able to seduce and have cybersex with men who believe that he is a woman. Rob uses this ability to present himself as a woman online so that he can abuse other users. Other online `cross dressers' have different intentions, as we will see below.

Allucquere Rosanne Stone 25 tells the following story of gender presentation which I summarise here. Julie is a paraplegic, mute, and severely disfigured New York neuro-psychologist who set up a discussion group on Compu Serve. Or so it seemed to the thousands of CompuServe users who never suspected that Julie was really Sanford Lewin, a male psychiatrist. Sanford first opened a user account on CompuServe in 1982 using the username "Doctor". While Sanford was chatting online one day, he realised that he had been mistaken as a woman psychiatrist. Soon, Sanford opened a second account under the name of Julie Graham. Using the Julie personae, Sanford was able to help many women who he felt he would not have been able to help as a man. The charade lasted a long period of time until Sanford began to get nervous over the questions of a few women users with disabilities who, although they had rejoiced at Julie's previous successes, had begun to question the authenticity of the Julie's story. Sanford Lewin revealed himself as "Julie", and although n ews spread fast across the net, the "dismantling" of the Julie personae took several months. People were unwilling to believe that a man was able to present himself as a woman with so much success for so long. Stone states that, "the narrow-bandwidth mode of the nets interfered with the chat participants' warranting Julie to [Sanford] Lewin, so that even when they became suspicious they had to fall back on non-physical cues that failed them." (Stone, 1995a, 70 - 79)

Narrow-bandwidth made it impossible for users to authenticate the physical existence of Julie. There was a Julie, she was not a physical person, but was one of Sanford Lewin's selves. As Lewin became more involved online as Julie, parts of her became him and parts of him became her. The boundary between theses two selves broke down -- they were part of one whole self.

Gender is socially constructed because, ultimately, it is the way society sees one, and the way that one sees the self, which determines what gender each of us is. People who change their gender online, such as Rob and Sanford Lewin seen above, present us with what Turkle calls an "object to think with for reflecting on the social construction of gender." (Turkle, 1995, 213) In online chat rooms, we can see that gender is socially constructed.

Transsexuals in Cyberspace (?)

When a person has their biological gender changed surgically, we refer to them as being transsexual. Although medicine cannot yet alter the chromosomes that determine gender, all other physical and social determinants of gender can, with effort, be changed. People who present themselves as the opposite sex in online chat rooms are virtual transsexuals to varying degrees. Some, l ike Rob, trick people by misrepresenting their gender. Rob has no intention of becoming more `female.' Sanford Lewin, on the other hand, started out with the modest goal of helping people by using an online person, Julie. Lewin became very involved in the creation a nd maintenance of the Julie personae. After a while, Lewin noticed that the Julie part of him and the Sanford< span style='color:black'> part of him were mixing. He no longer knew where the virtual self stopped and the real life self began. This is the multiple self. This is the disinhibited navigator of cyberspace. This is the cyborg.


Chapter Summary & Preview

Users of online chat rooms experience a loss of inhibition due to the anonymity of the computer medium. This anonymity is a direct result of the narrow-bandwidth effect, as described in a previous chapter. This loss of inhibition allows users to more freely experiment with their online selves. In the anonymous environment of online chat rooms, users are able experiment with their (multiplicity of) selves. This loss of inhibition online, and the ability to access other selves there, can just as easily lead to positive experiences as it can negative ones. Some users, like Alison, use cybersex to access their sexual self and their loving self. As Alison's online self learns and has experiences in cyberspace, it shares discoveries with Alison's whole self. Other u sers, like Rob, use the anonymity (and in the case of his victims, false anonymity) of online chat rooms to experiment with abusive selves. Rob abuses men and women online, and they also incorporate these experiences into their whole self.

Gender presentation is an issue of this chapter. Rob sometimes presents himself as female online to allow him to sexually, emotionally, and mentally abuse other men. This abuse is crime against the self. Rape and sexual abuse in the physical world are also crimes against the self. We can call Rob's actions online sexual abuse, but only if our point is to show that all sexual abuse is harmful to it's victims. We must find a solution for stopping all forms of abuse without regard to when, where, and how they occur.

Users such as Rob are the transsexuals of cyberspace, and this is discussed at the end of this chapter.

The following chapter discusses cyborg theory. We have seen examples of the cyborg already, but what exactly is the cyborg? What are it's characteristics? How do those who engage in cybersex in AOL chat rooms become cyborgs? These are the is
sues of the following chapter as we apply cyborg theory to those who have cybersex in AOL chat rooms.


Chapter Five

Cyborg Theory: Concepts and Applications

Why Cyborg Theory?

Cyborg theory is an important element of this paper because it is a powerful engine of the mind, allowing us to think about the multiplicity of selves, sexuality, the social construction of gender, and the wider issue of repression in society.

Conceptualising the Cyborg

According to Cyborg-Feminist Donna Haraway, "the term "cyborg" was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline [1960] to refer to the enhanced man who could survive extra-terrestrial environments." (Haraway, 1995, XV) Furthermore, "Cyborgs do not stay still. Already in the few decades that they have existed, they have mutated, in fact and fiction, into second-order entities like genomic and electronic databases and the other denizens of the zone called cyberspace." (Haraway, 1995, XIX) Among these denizens of cyberspace are the many people who engage in cybersex in AOL chat rooms.

Boundaries Crossed in Becoming a Cyborg

Haraway explains that, "Like any important technology, a cyborg is simultaneously myth and a tool, a representation and an instrument, a frozen moment and a motor of social and imaginative reality. A cyborg exists when two kinds of boundaries are simultaneously problematic: 1) that between animals (or other organisms) and humans, and 2) between self-controlled, self governing machines (automatons) and organisms, especially humans (models of autonomy). The cyborg is the figure born of interface of automaton and autonomy." (Haraway; Gray, 1995, 1)

Let us look at the first boundary Haraway identifies, the one between animals and humans. Humans, like all animals, adap t to our environments. Unlike other animals, humans also have the ability to engineer and manufacture. As an environmentalist and strict vegetarian, I do not believe that humans alone constitute a new kingdom of life. We can never cut all our ties to nature or to the animal kingdom. We have, however, evolved from what could be seen as our natural state. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]As humans, we have the ability not only to adapt to our surroundings, but to shape and create new environments - may it be a small piece of jungle, a flat above a shop, or cyberspace. The boundary between animals and humans is now blurred -- "problematic." We are not fully animals, yet we are not entirely different from them either.

In an interview with Susan Stryker of Wired, Allucquere Rosanne Stone discusses the second boundary that Haraway speaks of above, the boundary between humans and machines. She uses the example of Steven Hawking to talk about the adoption of the technological prosthesis. Stone's words from the interview follow:

"In Desire and Technology, I use Stephen Hawking as an example of how body-boundary is
sues interact with technology. Because Hawking can't speak, he lectures with a computer-generated voice. When I speak, I sound different if you're in the room with me or if you hear me over the phone. But Hawking sounds exactly the same. The boundary between his human voice and communication tech nology has broken down. That's another kind of boundary."

"Hawking's computerized voice generator is also a prosthesis, from the Greek word for extension. It's an extension of his person. It extends his will across the boundaries of flesh and machinery, from the medium of air molecules in motion to the medium of electromagnetic force. Marshall McLuhan pointed out that communications media are extensions too, and that they interpenetrate us in ways we'd never anticipated and change us in ways we don't realize."

"At the close of the mechanical age, our consciousness is deeply changed by the way we're immersed in communication technologies every waking, and perhaps sleeping, moment. We are alread y "transhuman." The boundaries between "us" and our prostheses - contact lenses, implants, artificial organs, serotonin reuptake controls, genetic engineering, communication networks - have become vague, and they shift continually."

(Stone quoted in Stryker, 1996)

Humans have always wanted to have the same, or better, capabilities as the next human. This has led us to adopt a variety of prosthetics, which Stone partially lists above. In our quest to have at least the same specifications as our neighbour, we use technology to supplement our own humanity. In other words, we try to make ourselves better humans by using prosthetics. When we use prosthetics, the boundary between the human and the machine blurs -- it becomes "problematic."

In AOL chat rooms where people are engaging in cybersex, Haraway's two boundaries converge and the users of AOL who have cybersex in chat rooms become cybor gs.

Cyborg Theory: Applied to Rebecca

In the third chapter of this paper we look primarily at Rebecca. Rebecca is not sexually active other than with men she meets online. Although she has had cybersex and telephone sex with many of the men she meets on AOL, Rebecca has not physically had sex with a partner since she began using AOL. Rebecca does not practice casual sex in the real world because she does not believe it to be moral or safe. Rebecca's sex life is undeniably tied to her computer and the telecommunications system it is connected to.

Without a computer, Rebecca would not be able to freely access her sexual self in the same way that she can within the narrow-bandwidth space of AOL. She would be unable to experiment and learn from this sexual self. This sexual self is one of many selves which make up Rebecca's "multiplicity of selves" -- her whole self. The online, sexual self of Rebecca is a part of her whole self. Without computer mediated communication, Rebecca would be cut off from a part of herself. Without computers, she could not reach her potential as a human. She could not be fully human. Using the prosthesis of the computer, Rebecca is able to be more human than she could without the prosthesis. Rebecca is part human, part machine, and without the machine, she would remain only partly human. The boundary between the human and the machine has blurred. Rebecca has become a cyborg.

Cyborg Theory: Applied to Alison

Like Rebecca, Alison is a cyborg. She lost access to her loving self and sexual self when she divorced her first husband. For ten years, Alison had no romantic love or sexual contact with partners in her life. Alison has a multiplicity of selves within a whole self. Alison began using AOL and discovered that, while in the narrow-bandwidth space of AOL chat rooms, her sexual self and romantic love self could come out again. Feeling free to experiment with these selves, she began having cybersex and fell in love. As she fell in love, her online relationship became an increasingly important part of her life. The self Alison experiments with online, one of a multiplicity of selves within Alison's whole self, could not manifest itself for the ten years previous to when Alison went online. Without access to these selves, Alison could not be fully herself. The boundary between Alison's self, which is human, and her prosthesis, the machine, has now blurred. Alison is now a cyborg.

Cyborg Theory:
A Way to Speak About Gender and Sexuality

My claim Rebecca and Alison, who engage in cybersex in AOL chat rooms, are cyborgs will come as no surprise to Williams who writes, "Discourses about humans becoming cyborgs always articulate with human sexual anxieties." (Williams, 1995, 387) Claudia Springer clarifies this when she writes, "What is really being debated in the discourses surrounding a cyborg future are contemporary disputes concerning gender and sexuality, with the future providing a blank slate, or a blank screen, onto which we can project our fascination and fears..." (Springer; Williams, 1995, 387) According to Williams and Springer, the concept of the cyborg is an imaginative engine which helps us to think about sexuality.

When Williams writes that, "virtual sex provides a language for us to articulate with words and bodies our "real" sexual desires", he is saying that cybersex allows us to experiment with our multiplicity of selves. (Williams, 1995, 387) To freely experiment with our selves we must become cyborgs as the people who engage in cybersex in online c hat rooms do.


Cyborg Theory: Applied to Rob

We have seen previously that Rob abuses people online in a variety of ways. He presents himself online as female and has cybersex with other males before telling them that he is also a man. This betrays their trust in him and may cause other mental or emotional damage to his victims. Rob also abuses women. He has cybersex with them, saves it to file, and then sends it to other AOL users the woman is likely to know. When he gets a naked or revealing gif file from a woman he sends this to other users as well.

The first instance above, where Rob uses the cloak of narrow-bandwidth to virtually cross-dress, is of great interest here. Does v irtual cross-dressing make one akin to the transsexual who has used surgical technology to alter their gender? Transsexuals are cyborgs because the boundary between human and machine becomes problematic when the human part of them becomes (surgically) altered by the machine. Because this boundary is problematic, society has a difficult time categorising the gender of transsexuals -- do they remain their original gender, do the become a new gender, or do the become some kind of in-between gender? The ultimate answer to this question is tied to the societal construction of gender, not to biology.

Rob uses the prosthesis of the computer to electronically alter his gender. Part of Rob's multiplicity of selves acts as a woman online. Rob is a transsexual when he acts as a woman online. He is also a cyborg because he would not be free to experiment with his transsexual self outside of the narrow-bandwidth space of AOL chat rooms. Rob uses his transsexual self to hurt people. This is not because this self is transsexual, but because Rob has not only lost the inhibitions that hide his transsexual self in real life, he has also lost the inhibitions that keep him from hurting people in real life. I do not have enough information to conclude that Rob hurts people because he has had to repress his transsexual self in real life fo r so long. This does, h owever, seem to me a logical suggestion for further inquiry.

In addition to experimenting with his transsexual self, Rob experiments with an abusive self when he is online. This self is able to act when Rob is a virtual transsexual as well as when he presents his other selves in other ways online. Rob's abusive self and transsexual self are only two of his multi plicity of selves. Rob's abusive self and transsexual self are both a part of his whole self. So we can say that Rob is not only a virtual transsexual, but he is a transsexual in all worlds because his transsexual self is integrated into his whole self. Rob is a cyborg because he could not be his whole self without the aid of AOL chat rooms.

Resisting Becoming a Cyborg

Most AOL users I have spoken to in the course of this research fight against becoming a cyborg. To clarify this statement, I am speaking specifically of becoming a cyborg from using AOL. This is not to say that AOL users are resisting the adoption of other prosthetics into their lives, prosthetics which would also cause them to become cyborgs.

Many of the users I have spoken to in the course of this research trade ph otographs by post, decreasing their reliance on computers for information about those they meet online. Many people, like Rebecca and Alison seen in this paper, exchange voice phone calls with other users, once again decreasing their reliance on computers. Some users, of which we see no examples of in this paper but who I have seen many examples of in the course of this research, arrange real life meetings with their cybersex partners and online friends.

Meeting outside of the narrow-bandwidth space of AOL chat rooms for the first time can be difficult. In face to face meetings between users of AOL chat rooms, the online anonymity which has allowed experimentation with the selves no longer can protect them. Compounding this problem, users expect other users to be the same as their online self when they meet off-line. This leads to disappointment and broken dreams.

This brings up the question of just how much we will be able to resist becoming cyborgs in this age of information? Are the users described in this paper fighting in vain against an evolution that cannot be stopped? The answer to each of these questions is both yes and no. It may be possible for us to turn back now by discontinuing the use of computer mediated communications technologies. However, these technologies make it possible for us to experiment with our selves, and without these technologies, these selves would be repressed. [This paper 1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman -]The solution to users of AOL chat rooms becoming cyborgs rests upon society.

If society can change it's ways, making it safe for everyone to express whichever of ourselves we wish to, then we may still be able to resist our evolution into cyborgs. It is not the machine that seduces us, it is the ability to experiment with our multiplicity of selv es in the narrow-bandwidth space that computers can create. If we can some day become free to more fully experiment with gender and sexuality in the real world, we will no longer need the aid of computers for this purpose. Then, and only then, will we be able to resist becoming cyborgs.

[Note: In this chapter, I have presented cyborg theory in a way which ignores prosthetics other than computers and the telecommunications systems they are connected to. There are many other prosthetics which can also make us cyborgs as we adopt them, but they are not important to this study.]

Chapter Summary & Preview:

Those who engage in cybersex in AOL chat rooms are cyborgs. The cyborg exists when several boundaries a re problematic: 1) that between animals and humans, 2) the boundary between humans and machines. (Haraway; Gray, 1995, 1)

Cyborg theory is also an interesting way in which to think about multiple selves, issues of sexuality, and gender issues. Using cyborg theory in these ways, we can see that becoming a cyborg allows users of online chat to experiment with multiple selves, many of which "real life" society represses. If we are to resist becoming cyborgs, we must first alter our society in ways which will make it safe for us all to freely experiment with our selves.

The following chapter is the conclusion of this paper. Following this are several useful appendices and a bibliography.


Conclusion: Using The Knowledge We Have Gained in Cyberspace to Improve "Real Life"

In this paper, we have looked at the stories of several people who engage in cybersex in AOL chat rooms. It has been demonstrated that AOL chat rooms are a narrow-bandwidth space. Much of the information we obtain in face to face communication is lost in this narrow-bandwidth space. We have seen that narrow-bandwidth communication provides users of AOL chat rooms with the ability to remain anonymous. Anonymity allows users to more freely, and safely, experiment with their multiplicity of selves. Rebecca, Alison, and Rob all provide examples of experimentation with sexual selves and, in Rob's case, gender experimentation. We e ach have many selves within a whole self. I have my American self, my Anglo-fied self, my online self, etc., but each of these selves are part of my whole self. This is different than Multiple Personality Disorder because each of my selves communicate and share with each other. Rebecca, Alison, and Rob all have online selves which communicate with their other selves. The stories in this paper are about cybersex, so we see mostly experimentation with sexual selves here.

After looking at the issues of surrounding bandwidth and multiple selves, we have looked at cyborg theory. Cyborg theory is almost always tied to issues of gender and sexuality. People become cyborgs when two boundaries are problematic: 1) the boundary between animals and humans, and 2) the boundary between humans and machines. (Haraway; Gray, 1995, 1) People who have cybersex in online chat rooms are cyborgs. Without AOL chat rooms, they are unable to experiment with their own selves. The boundary between the human and the machine becomes blurred because the users of AOL chat rooms are no longer able to be whole without their prosthesis.

Thi s paper is not only about cybersex, bandwidth, multiple selves, and cyborgs, it is about repre ssion in society. Our society, known in this paper as real life, does not allow us the freedom we need to safely explore our multiplicity of selves. Being unable to experiment with these selves, we are not whole. We are more free to experiment with our selves in cyberspace, so we flock there in droves, becoming cyborgs in the process. If society were to allow us the freedom to experiment with our multiplicity of selves, as we can in cyberspace, we would not need to become cyborgs.

Moving Forward From An Ethnography Of Cybersex

In this dissertation, we have used an investigation of cybersex in AOL chat rooms to allow us to look at wider issues surrounding sexuality and society. The central argument of this paper, that people who have cybersex in AOL chat rooms are cyborgs, is only possible to make after looking at narrow-bandwidth and multiple selves freed of inhibition by anonymity. In the instance of cybersex in online chat rooms, Narrow-bandwidth and multiple selves are key elements leading to the existence of cyborgs.

Cyborg theory is humanistic in the sense that it allows us to think about sexuality and society in powerful ways. People who engage in cybersex in AOL chat rooms do not become cyborgs voluntarily. They become cyborgs because our "real life" society does not allow them to safely experiment with their multiple selves. Instead of building more online communities and having cybersex, we need to repair our real world society, making it a place where we can all live and co-exist without the need to repress any of our multiple selves.

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Footnotes to Cyborgasms

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1There are several other forms of cybersex available to computer users. For more information, see the appendix at the end of this paper entitled "Four Other Forms of Cybersex."

2I use the word "originate" here because many times people who meet in AOL chat rooms have their cybersex elsewhere. Most often, cybersex participants use instant messages (IMs) which are sent privately between them. Technically, they are still in the chat room while using IMs to have cybersex. As they engage in cybersex, most users tend not to speak in the chat room. Other users create private chat rooms in which to have cybersex. It should be assumed that cybersex of the two forms discussed here originates from contact made in a chat room. For the rest of this paper, I will no longer make a distinction between having cybersex in chat rooms and having cybersex using I Ms.

3For more information on just what "interactive" means, see Stone's summary of Andy Lippman's five point definition of interactivity in Stone, 1995a, p. 10-11.

4In my observations of this form of cybersex, I have noticed that as the exchange becomes more heated and the actors get closer to orgasm, typing speed decreases while the number of typographical errors increase. This is a good check on whether users are really masturbating during cybersex.

5Turkle lists the following definition of real time cybersex in the following passage: An internet list of "Frequently Asked Questions" people typing messages with erotic content to each other, `sometimes with one hand on the keyset sometimes with two." (Turkle, 1995, 21)

6Internet on-line chat rooms ar e called Internet Relay Chat (IR C) channels.

7AOL gives new users a free trial period of 10 to 20 hours. After this trial time, users are notified that they will begin to be billed for their online time. The rate at the time of this writing is US $2.95 per hour after the 5 free hours that a user gets with their monthly fee of US $19.95. There are several new payment options for frequent users so this price may vary depending on which payment option is selected by the user. Besides repeatedly signing on as a new user, creating a new account, using up the free time, and then cancelling the account, there are ways of illegally obtaining free time on AOL. Hackers on AOL tell me that credit card number generators can create fake credit card numbers to be used to open new accounts. "It usually takes AOL a day or two to figure out that the credit card is fake" says Megan, a 14 year old hacker I know on AOL. Megan will not tell me anything about the other illegal ways of gaining access to AOL, but does say that she has obtained modified AOL software that provides her with free access. I have no doubts as to the authenticity of 14 year old Megan's hacking ability. She is a great help when I have questions about my computer or viruses. Since talking with Megan, I have also been repeatedly approached by "bots," hacker created programmes that move around AOL on their own like robots, asking users to disclose their password or other sensitive information. Megan, true to the hacker spirit of helping individuals at the expense of corporations, does not like bots because they "screw people not AOL."

8IAPs are advertised in America for as low as US $10 a month.

9There is no time zone or date for AOL. When I refer to Wednesday night, I am referring to when it is night time on Wednesday in the continental United States. This is for no other reason than that most of the users I encounter during this research live in the USA, and it is easier to think of time in the same way that they do.

10 At th e time of this writing, these categories (which are the same for public and private rooms) are: 1) Town Square, 2) Arts and Entertainment, 3) Life, 4) News, Sports and Finance, 5) Places, 6) Romance, 7) Special Interests, 8) Germany, 9) France, 10) Canada.

11 I have always felt that in cyberspace, more than in places I know physically, people are what makes the place. In the physical world, a place has certain characteristics which are separate from who is there. In an online chat room, there is no surrounding other than the people. When I talk about the name of my favourite room (or any other chat room) changing, what I mean is that the people who once made up one room now meet under a new room name.

12 The actual number is 367/782. There are several main types of chat room names that I identify as being sex related or a solicitation for partn ers. Some chat rooms have names that are outright solicitations for sex such as, "m4f for cyber," "m4mjoandwanttogetoff" and "Stud4URwifeInNorCal". Other names of rooms are slightly less explicit. These rooms include "Clevelandm4m," "atlanta m4m NOW," and "TruckersM4sexyF". A very small number of rooms I identify as sex related are for trading pornographic pictures such as the rooms "xxWivesInActionxx" and "jr high pics x". I do not identify any of the rooms with the word flirt in their name as being in this group. This is because I feel that flirting is not necessarily the same thing as soliciting sex or trying to find a partner. I also do not identify any of the rooms with names such as "Lesbians" and "Gay Cops" because these names can easil y be used by groups discussing the issues of being lesbian or of being a police officer and gay.

13 These sampling and interviewing strategies include going to user group meetings to do interviews, and talking with people at cyber-cafes. These strategies fail because people are not willing to speak about cybersex in face to face interviews.

14 The case could be made that some people do life in cyberspace. These are the users who spend nearly all of their waking hours online.

15 I occasionally encounter scepticism from people I meet online who believe that my research is little more than a ploy to attract cybersex partners. This happens most often when I ask to watch cybersex or to see transcripts of it. At other times, for the most part, people believe that my research has a n academic purpose.

< /span>16 There is a certain irony to people going online to get help for online addiction. It is similar to someone with a drug problem going to their dealer's house for drug abuse counselling.

17 This includes the AOL software versions 2.6 and 2.7, AOL Browser software 1.0 and 1.1, Netscape 2.0 for web browsing, AddMail 2.0b4 and Eudora 1.5.4 for e-mail, Homer for IRC access, and NCSA Telnet for downloading functions. I paid for my copy of Microsoft Word, a popular word processor, and Screen Shot, a programme which allows me to print whatever I see on my screen or save it to file.

18 Later in this paper there is a more comprehensive discussion of gender presentation online.

19 The following bibliography comes from McLaughlin, Osborne, and Smith and is helpf ul for readers who would like to learn more about the topics discussed above: Emoticons are more fu lly discussed in Asteroff, 1987; Blackman & Clevenger, 1990; Danet & Reudenburg, 1992; Sherblom, 1990. More on the use of "truncated speech" and "electronic paralanguage" can be found in Carey, 1980. (McLaughlin, et al. 1995, 94)

20 .gif and .pic are technical designations for the type of files used to hold photographs.

21 In the course of this research, I have been able to speak with Gretchen, a woman in her mid-forties, who worked on a telephone sex line for three years. Every man that Gretchen can remember speaking with in the course of this job expressed their desire for the telephone se x "relationship" to become real. Gretchen talks about her former job, "Here we were, a hundred women, most of us middle aged and not particular nice [looking], playing crosswords as we pretended to have sex on the phone. They [the callers] always asked for a picture of me, or my address. They thought I was thirty-two you see, and slim as hell. Always they wanted to meet me or for me to send them a picture." Company policy where Gretchen worked is for the phone sex operators to give callers wishing to send them something a company post office box address. Real life contact is forbidden, and the operators are instructed never to give out personal details of themselves or to send photographs to callers. Many callers sent their pictures to Gretchen through the company post office box. Gretchen says that, once regular callers realise that the operators do not wish to meet them in real life, they begin to call far less frequently and eventually quit calling. She does not know if they quit calling the line that she worked on in favour of a new line or if they quit calling sex lines altogether. It seems that those who engage in phone sex, like those who engage in cybersex in online chat rooms, combat the narrow bandwidth effect of the medium they use by exchanging photographs. Those who engage in cybersex in online chat rooms are confronted with narrower bandwidth than those who engage in telephone sex. Not only do cybersex participants exchange photographs, they also utilise other mediums such as the telephone which has a wider bandwidth than is found in computer mediated communication.

2 2 Studies of the loss of inhibition online, which Rice and Love call "disinhibition" (Rice & Love, 1987, 89) can be found in the following: Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire (1984) and in Kiesler & Sproull (1986) (See Bibliography For More Information)

23 Case is a MUD user who is able to explore and express sexual aspects of himself online. He is similar to Rebecca in that his online usage has allowed him, in Turkle's words, to "find self-expression, but without compromising the values he associates with his `whole person.' (Turkle, 1995, 220) Rebecca is able to express her sexual self while online without breaking her personal stance against casual sex.

24 Reid states that users who victimise people online are & quot;Protected by terminals and separated by distance," so "the sanction of physical violence is irrelevant..." (Reid, 1991) In other words, Rob is nor afraid to victimise other users of AOL because he knows that, in all likelihood, they can not physically harm him for doing so.

25 Turkle also writes of this story. See the "case of the electronic lover." (Turkle, 1995, 228 - 331)


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Cybersoc | Cybersociology Magazine

1996 - 1998 by Robin Hamman. All materials here may be used for academic purposes, but I do ask that you obtain permission before disseminating copies or quoting extensively from any of my work. Use of this material for reasons other than academic research is allowed only with my express permission obtainable by email: robin @ cybersoc . com