When I was 15 or 16, I thought I was in love with a married Midwestern housewife. She wrote telling me how sad she was to be trapped in an abusive relationship with a man she’d never loved, and I responded with stories about how I was tough and could take on her husband. She was probably somewhere between 30 and 40, I was a 5-foot-2 11th-grader who had never thrown a punch. Although I later grew a lot more skeptical about the things I heard online, I’ve always assumed she really was female (largely because the amorous content of her messages always stopped at kissing)—but her actual age, sex, and location, and her real domestic situation are all details I could never verify. “Heather” stopped messaging me abruptly several months after we started talking. She was a grown woman, and I never lied about how young I was. Even so, I’ve never been quite sure which one of us was being catfished. After all, I certainly had zero intention of flying to Kansas—or wherever she was from—to try to beat up an abusive husband.
Growing up gay online in the late ’90s and early 2000s was complicated like that. There were headlines about sexual predators and vulnerable children, there were jokes about how there were no girls on the Internet, and then there was the reality of muddled, questioning, socially isolated adolescents, staying up all night, typing at whoever was out there. As one of those awkward, Internet-obsessed young people, my experiences growing up online have been stamped indelibly, for good or for ill, on my awkward, Internet-obsessed adulthood.
In my high school class of roughly 100, there wasn’t exactly a large pool of openly lesbian students for me to draw from for potential romantic partners. In addition, I was overweight, introverted, and anxious in social situations—if there had been anyone to date, I doubt I would have dated them. Online, however, nobody knew anything about me! I could act brash, confident, daring, and adventurous, and no one would know I wasn’t. I quickly developed a dashingly obnoxious online persona; Anyone who had an insult for me, I had a better one. An argument about politics? I knew everything and would explain it to you. An abusive husband? I could totally beat him up, if only I were close enough. Sex? Of course I knew about sex. Totally just sexed up some sexy sexpot yesterday. No problem, I definitely had sex covered from all possible angles. This was how I went on to discover cybersex in my first year of college—not as the unwitting victim of some scheming older pervert, but as an initiator who also happened to be 100 percent clueless.
Here’s how it went down: When I was in college in Massachusetts, I started talking online with a girl who was in college in Washington. She was straight, she said, but she had some questions about what lesbians like me did in bed, and, well, I had to help her out now, didn’t I? So I told her about what I’d heard lesbians probably did in bed, made up what I wasn’t sure of, and threw in my own half-formed sexual fantasies. One thing sort of led to another, and together we discovered cybersex. It was, if not exactly innocent, then at least mutually, consensually shady behavior between two young adults. (I later learned she’d had slightly more experience than I had, albeit all heterosexual—I can verify the basic details about her because we met once, briefly.)
My earliest experiences were much more cyberemotional than cybersexual—I thought I was in love, both times—but after two fake relationships with far-off women, I became a bit more savvy and a bit more self-protective. I continued to chat to anyone about anything, to pretend to believe what they presented about themselves as long as it wasn’t too outrageous, and I also started to fool around with cybersex whenever I was in the mood—so long as my partner gave good text box. I was well aware that there were men out there presenting themselves as lesbians, but my philosophy was that as long as I was having fun, what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me. Living adult human women and reasonable facsimiles thereof were equally welcome.
For the most part, the men posing as lesbians were depressingly easy to spot. They never offered more than the barest details about their lives, shared ludicrous stock photos of skinny blondes, and remained laser-focused on dirty talk, never straying off on any interesting tangents about their actual lives, cultural tastes, or political opinions. The women, however, were often fascinating characters who’d give me a glimpse into other ways of being—bored moms with sleeping children; traveling professionals in hotel rooms; anxious, unemployed, insomniac job-seekers; married women who’d always secretly wondered; self-hating Christian girls afraid of what their families would think; angry women; lonely women; isolated women; intense women.
Generally speaking, those of us who’ve reached out for connection through the Internet weren’t doing so at the happiest or most-well-adjusted points in our lives. As I gradually developed the confidence to meet actual girls (found via the Internet, but local!), I began to drop out of the cyberhaunts where people like me went to find something distinctly seedy—but still so very human.
What the headlines and jokes got wrong was that we were all just ordinary people, sometimes sad, but very rarely evil. Even the male fake-lesbians trying to lie their way into a cheap thrill, the optimist in me wants to think, were mostly decent—or at least not monstrous, and probably also quite lonely. Growing up online made me tolerant of people’s foibles at the same time as it made me a lot more wary of them. I was never serially killed, or assaulted, or even really taken advantage of—but I was lied to, a lot, and I had to learn not to take people at face value. It wasn’t traumatic or dangerous, but it wasn’t harmless, either. It left its mark on me.
To this day, I’m more confident in any text-based medium than I am in person, and many of my close friendships and relationships continue to be virtual ones. But nowadays I’m more confident and comfortable out in meatspace than I was when I first escaped from it into the Internet. I’ve still only dated one woman I didn’t first meet online—and it was my worst dating experience by far. The best relationship I’ve had, with the woman I eventually married, started out on Craigslist, of all places (and my wife had her own fair share of online cyberadventuring). Looking back, my younger self makes me laugh, and she makes me cringe, but really my online life seems more similar than different to everybody else’s adolescent misadventures. However you reach out to other people, whatever tech you use to find connection, in the end you find they’re still the same old mixed bag of humanity. It’s silly, really, that anyone thought technology would change that.