Internet History, Porn, and the Altered Sexual Marketplace – American Enterprise Institute

By Naomi Schaefer Riley
Institute for Family Studies
January 25, 2023
Of all the broadsides launched by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, perhaps none struck readers at the time as more outrageous than his critique of rock and roll. Bloom famously described “a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV.” For Bloom, the soundtrack of this child’s life was nothing more than the music encouraging and even imitating uninhibited sex in its rhythms. Or as he wrote, it was a boy,
whose body throbs with orgiastic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercial prepackaged masturbational fantasy.
If rock is the music of sex, then the internet is the medium of it. In her new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed SexVice editor Samantha Cole makes the case that many of the most important features of our online experience were made possible because people wanted easier, faster, more private, and more public ways of seeing and experiencing sex. 
Beginning in the late 1970s, Cole chronicles the early development of computer bulletin board systems (BBS). During the brutal Chicago winter of 1978, “a bored 33-year-old IBM employee named Ward Christiansen called his computer club friend Randy Seuss from his snowed-in home in the suburbs with an idea.” Tens of thousands of callers eventually began to participate in these BBS’s and almost immediately they gave rise to discussion boards about sexuality and pornography. Early operators included Sleazenet, Throbnet, and Pleasure Dome, which, according to Cole, allowed users to connect and send sexually explicit images to one another. 
But, of course, it was not just the ease with which such images could be moved across computers that prompted the growth of such groups. It was also the anonymity they offered and the ability to connect with others who had similar interests without advertising one’s own interest publicly. 
For Cole, the spread of online pornography and the expression of sexuality online has been a positive development, and her book cheers both the social and technological changes that have brought us to our current point. She writes: 
The thrumming potential of the internet as a place to bring your entire self (and in many cases much more than you’d bring to a flesh-and-blood interaction) was so vibrant that it threw into question the entire notion of what constitutes the real and the virtual, the imagined and the valid.
Whether you bring more—as opposed to something very different—to a virtual interaction is surely open to question, but Cole can hardly contain herself: 
In these relatively spartan online spaces, it might seem like denizens had more control over their experiences than they did in the flesh-world; after all it was just text lines on a screen, no messy complications like pheromones, facial expressions or vocal subtleties, and they could pull the plug at any moment. But as more people came online, the less predictable—and more deliciously chaotic—the internet became.
The chaos of the internet, too, is why so many harmful expressions of sexuality have flourished there—because seeing people’s facial expressions and vocal subtleties might discourage such expressions. The lack of context in online communications has made these interactions faster and easier, removing the complications of human emotion. The internet has also made cheap sexual interaction more efficient, something Cole and many of her friends in tech see as an unqualified good. She celebrates, for instance, the internet’s elimination of the middleman to create porn. She writes: 
The internet’s explosion fueled the rise of independent porn performers who could be directors, videographers, producers, actors, marketers, and full owners of their own work. And all it took was a laptop, a webcam, and an internet connection.
Another way the internet has made things more “efficient” is in its use of payment for sex. Cole argues that many of the pioneers of using financial technology online were people like Jen Peterson and Dave Miller, who were uploading nude images of themselves and telling stories about their sexual exploits online: 
After the passage of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, they and hundreds of other adult sites set up credit card memberships as an age verification method—and fans of Jen and Dave’s exploits could see their entire archives in one place, for a credit card payment of $10 every three months. They made $20,000 in their first three weeks.
Cole suggests that these early sex web pages “developed and popularized many of the financial technologies we now use and find indispensable: affiliate linking programs, site subscriptions, members-only content, online credit card transactions, and advertising models.”
And why wouldn’t that be the case? There are few things people—particularly men—have wanted more than unfettered access to sex, including the ability to see explicit content and meet potential willing partners, all while not having to submit to the prying eyes of others. The providers of such content could see the synergy offered by the internet right away and had every incentive to make it work better. 
Even things like “A/B testing” were pioneered by pornographers, she explains. This is where a “user in one zip code (or other demographics) would see one version of a category’s lead image or video titles, and their neighbor in the town over would see another. They’d take the one with the most click-throughs or conversions to a paid web site and roll that out to everyone.” Programs like Tinder have allowed people to participate (sometimes compulsively) in an explicit sexual marketplace, swiping left and right, choosing partners in the immediate vicinity, and then moving on to the next choice quickly. When it’s offered to them in this format, what else could people want as desperately?
But by enabling people to more easily find sexual partners without any kind emotional connection, the internet has also helped to undermine real relationships. These services have harmed women, in particular. While Cole thinks most of the internet-related developments (like personal webcams) have empowered women, they have actually served to alter the sexual marketplace and leave many women without reliable partners, let alone fathers for their children. Online pornography has chipped away relationships between the sexes, creating unrealistic expectations in men for how women should behave in the bedroom. And it has caused irreparable harm to children who, thanks to the internet, are viewing disturbing sexual imagery at younger and younger ages.
If Cole has any misgivings about these developments, they are simply that the internet hasn’t solved “systemic problems.” While she believes that the internet has empowered the people mainstream society believes are not sexy—by offering them the opportunities to broadcast their sexuality on webcams, for instance—“internet-based sex work” can still be exploitative for those not making enough money. Cole worries about pirated pornography and large companies pushing out smaller operators. But for someone who celebrates the commodification of people’s sexuality as just another individual choice, it is strange to be so concerned about limiting the forces of capitalism. Where did she think all of this was going?
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 
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