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September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s Friday night and a small group of strangers, separated by thousands of miles, are sharing their kinkiest sexual secrets in a place called Jezebel’s Parlour. One’s into bondage, another’s a cross-dresser, and to the third, size definitely matters. Despite their different fetishes, they’ve all got one thing in common-they’re sitting in front of computers.

It’s safe to say that when the Defense Department stitched together the Internet, it probably didn’t envision a future with hundreds of erotic BBSs (bulletin board services), thousands of saucy messages posted in usenet groups, and vast stockpiles of computerized nude pictures. ”Any time there’s a technological advance, sex will lead the way,” says Lily Burana, editor of Future Sex, a magazine on sex and technology. ”It’s like the VCR.” The video analogy’s a good one: It was only when X-rated movies came out on tape-allowing the image-conscious to bypass porn theaters for the privacy of their own home-entertainment spaces-that VCR sales took off. Now, almost two decades later, sex may be the one thing that persuades a nation of technophobes to lose their on-line virginity.

”Sex was one of the first things people thought to do with their brand- spankin’-new technology,” says Tiffany Lee Brown, a technical support person for the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a non-sexually oriented on- line community with approximately 11,000 members. ”The sex newsgroups have been around for a decade or more,” says Eric Theise, owner of Internet consulting firm Liberty Hill Cyberwerks. ”The alt.sex groups are probably the most read.” In fact, the original alt.sex group became so popular it spun off smaller, more specific groups that run the erotic gamut from alt.sex.bondage to alt.sex.fetish.feet to alt.supermodels.

While usenet groups are the Penthouse Forum of the on-line world, the BBSs are the equivalent of phone-sex lines, where people communicate by typing things like ”Oooh, baby.” Beginning as a handful of groping free-for-alls, now BBSs number in the hundreds, each with its own bent: The Backdoor (gay women), The Hot Tub Club (swingers), and Brooklyn Perverts (Brooklyn perverts). The one thing cybersex shares with old-fashioned phone-sex numbers: You may have to pay to play. Some BBSs are free, but others are big business-charging up to $2 per hour.

Even though there’s a lot of online traffic, it’s impossible to know how many people are having sex on the Net and who they are. ”There’s absolutely no way to tell, which is why it works,” says Brown. ”It’s completely anonymous, one person can have 20 different accounts all over the Net.” But according to Richard Kadrey, author of The Covert Culture Source Book, ”This isn’t just the New York-L.A. swinger types.” Burana agrees: ”Originally, the sex groups were the normal outlet for computer geeks, but (now) it’s got everybody-teachers, secretaries, you name it.”

But not everyone’s ready to take a dip in the cyber-hot tub. A slew of complaints, from copyright infringement to violations of obscenity laws, have some people hot and bothered. ”The Internet is still pretty much the Wild West,” says Kristin Spence, an editor at Wired magazine. ”There are a lot of gray areas about what is the law in cyberspace.” While most Net aficionados see this lawlessness as a virtue, parents and police face a dilemma. ”The laws are exactly the same on the Internet as they are in real life,” says Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, ”but people don’t want to police the Internet because it’s too hard.”

So, if cybersex stays one step ahead of the law, does that mean that we’ll all be spending a lot more time at our computers, having on-line sex, and a lot less in our bedrooms? Burana doesn’t think so. ”It’s just a different kind of sex,” she says. ”It’s a side dish, not the whole enchilada.”

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