Cybersex 101

Can't find porn online? Maybe you need a real adult education -- one that brings hardcore scenes and sex chat tips into the classroom.

Published May 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

He calls himself "A1sexy," and he has the chiseled, rippling torso to live up to his screen name. Seated in what looks like a black lawn chair, wearing nothing but a hat, he smiles warmly into the camera. Every few seconds A1sexy's grainy black-and-white onscreen image reloads, each time revealing a slightly different from-the-waist-up view of the young black man and, behind him, a rumpled bed.

"Show us your cock!" exclaims the teacher at the front of the classroom, where she's flanked on either side by A1sexy's giant, hunky image. The instructor proceeds to type this order into her keyboard. "You don't hear that in every class," she says aloud as an aside to her ogling students.

I have seen the future of online learning, and it is a fluorescent-lit, brick-and-mortar classroom in a downtown San Francisco high-rise, where students engage in live sex chat with exhibitionistic strangers, while the teacher shows them how it's done.

In Exploring Cybersexualities, a very-adult education course offered by San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program, students get initiated into the technologically mediated sexual underworld with step-by-step lessons in the juicy thrills (and unique boredoms) of cybersex. It's $100 for a two-day course on how to get off with a chip, a kind of guided tour of techie sex toys and smutty sites, many of which have been around for years. And whatever the course's limited academic pretensions -- alas, it's not for credit -- the syllabus is a whole lot more voyeuristic than scholarly.

In this alternate scholastic universe, shouting out in the middle of class -- "Tell him to show us his ass!" -- is not only acceptable, but an encouraged form of class participation. And don't bother being furtive about checking out sites like Jail Babes, a personals site for female inmates. The URL for that naughty diversion is right there on the virtual reading list.

Who could have guessed that pedagogical instruction in the finer points of sex chat occurs in the same office building that houses buttoned-up companies like AT&T Global Network Services? Granted, the course work in the Multimedia Studies Program usually runs to such tamer fare as "Advanced Web Applications with Perl" and "Macromedia Flash II." But now the school proudly boasts that it's "the first institution to add the stimulating subject of cybersex to its curriculum."

Whether that's really something to brag about isn't at all clear on the morning of the first day of this supposedly first-ever cybersex class. Just four students and two reporters drag themselves out of bed (or away from their sticky keyboards) on a rainy Sunday morning, the day of the National Masturbate-A-Thon; it prompts the obvious question: What if you gave a cybersex class and nobody came?

The ringleader of this eye-popping effort to bring triple-X porn sites and cyberdildonics into the classroom is one Mary Madden, the multimedia program's webmistress. It's soon obvious that Madden, who holds a master's degree in social psychology with a concentration in female sexuality from San Francisco State, should be awarded the first Ph.D. in surfing for smut.

The 30-year-old webmistress -- at 6-foot-1 -- is quite striking, in a hip, pointy-glasses, webmistress-ish way. She comes across as disarmingly reserved for a cybersex radical, making her pleasingly professorial. Discreetly, she never reveals her own proclivities to her pupils, although she does mention that she engaged in flirty online chat with a preteen sysop when she was only 11. Since then, she's assembled an extensive body of knowledge on everything from CyberSM to the Real Doll, which takes the form of seemingly endless naughty links.

Madden has assembled much of the material for the class in the form of detailed notes and links posted to the course's in-depth Web site. Hearing this, one student grumbles: "I could have saved $100 and bought porn videos with it."

The class begins with the kind of open-ended discussions that you'd expect from an undergraduate seminar, with students gamely typing their answers -- every desk has a computer with a Net connection -- and then reading them aloud. Soon we are engaged in deep epistemological quandaries: Is masturbation sex? Or, does another person have to be involved for it to be sex? For the purposes of this class, cybersex is ultimately defined as: "sex that depends to a greater or lesser extent on computer technology."

Before we get to any of the smutty stuff, Madden offers this official disclaimer: "Much of the material discussed and viewed in this course may be considered embarrassing, offensive, mentally disturbing or even nauseating ..." This draws titters from the students, who surprisingly, are almost all young women; there's a computer art student, a Web designer, a stripper looking for tips on taking her act online and a gay man who's involved with the nonprofit San Francisco Sex Information. At one point during the class, I catch a guilty-looking guy lurking just outside the door, but he doesnt dare come in.

So, why does anyone take a class to learn how to get hot with computers? And better still: Who needs to take a class to find out? The computer art student, Jean McIntosh, later tells me her reasoning: "In all the classes I have taken, pornography has never been addressed ... I think most people treat pornography like it's a bum on the street. They think that if they ignore it, it will go away." She's in the conceputal stages of an art project about porn and female sexuality, and she's doing everything from touring sex shops to taking this class for it. Plus, some of the most sophisticated Java scripting is on porn sites, she informs me. McIntosh, for one, will not be denied her full technical education.

Scholarly interest in cybersex has so far run more to the theoretical than the hands-on. Sociologists, anthropologists, cultural critics and film studies professors have all attempted to explain and interpret the intersection of sex and technology. One academic publication, the Journal of Sex Research is planning a special sex-and-the-Net issue. And a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Kent's Darwin College in Canterbury, England, is getting a degree in "Sexual Futurology and Computer Fetishism," but after six years of study, her 80,000-word thesis is still unfinished. But it is not as if there are freshman textbooks on this stuff.

With no established canon to draw on, Madden's syllabus casts a wide net, drawing from science fiction, film and the defunct magazine Future Sex to help define the topic. We ponder clips from "The Lawnmower Man," "Brainstorm" "Sleeper"-- remember the orgasmatron? -- and even the schmaltzy "You've Got Mail!" What we're supposed to learn from the mini-survey of modern film is that cybersex is not all digitized porn and chat. Far from it; or at least it could be.

From our pop-culture study, we imagine immersive virtual reality sexcapades; fetishistic body suits with 3D tactile feedback; experiencing sex from the viewpoint of the opposite gender; recording your own sexual experiences to play them back; sex with tailor-made androids.

So, what has stopped us from realizing these outrageous visions of Hollywood and outlandish predictions of futurists? The Net. In Madden's view, it isn't just the lagging technologies, but also the explosion of online porn has been a huge distraction for those who would realize the early 1990s cybersex hype and hope. Yes, there's been some recent noise about a cybersex suit with DVD interaction, but apparently it's stalled because of one delicate problem: Get fluid on it, and you could short-circuit the suit -- and yourself. Still, efforts are crawling along to get the kind of force feedback -- essentially, an interactive sense of touch -- that it would take to make most cybersex visions a reality. Stay tuned.

And don't forget it's the artists, not the commerical hucksters, who brought us some of the first and most original visions of cybersex, Madden notes. She cites, for example, Pit Schultz, a German who in 1994 conceived of an "interchange format for digitized orgasms" -- a kind of MP3 for orgasms, so they could be shared and exchanged freely. Forget music -- free the orgasms!

The class focuses largely on "primary sources," many of which will be old news to anyone with even a mild curiosity about cybersex. There's "Virtual Valerie II," a vintage 1990 CD-ROM game in which the goal is to make Valerie have an orgasm. (Valerie is a horrifically disproportioned big-breasted blond graphic, with long red fingernails, who masturbates incessantly.) Making Valerie come involves moving a mouse rapidly from one erect nipple to the other and then back to her vagina in a repetitive-stress-inducing triangle. She moans thoroughly irritating, canned indications of her pleasure throughout: "Fuck me. I never knew it could be like this. Fuck me. I'm gonna. I'm gonna. I'm gonna come." There's a button that you can push to make yourself come instantly -- in the game, that is -- but then you immediately lose all your points. "It's not about you. It's about Valerie," Madden cracks.

Now the class starts to feel more and more like online porn for dummies. There's a brief lesson in searching for dirty pictures and video through the likes of Persian Kitty and Scour. "Let's look for naked pictures of Britney Spears -- is she old enough yet? I think she might be 16, so we better not do that ..." Madden stalls. "How about women and dogs?" suggests her assistant, Linda. On Scour, this leads to a link to "Reservoir Dogs," the movie.

Then it's time for some hot chat on Bianca's Smut Shack, where the class assumes the handle of "smutty girl." But we seem to bring the temperature in the room down with our queries: "Does your wife know? Would you be upset if she were doing the same thing?" This line of questioning draws cries to "lighten up" and the swipe: "So why do you call yourself smutty? ... you seem very tame to me."

Finally, Linda goes into a private chat to show us how it's done. She describes herself as "26, flaming red hair, tall, big tits, strong thighs ..." (She's gray-haired and in her 50s.) Despite her best attempts: "I'm wearing just a red thong, which is actually a bit small ..." she soon discovers that her partner-in-chat is chatting away with "Beth" in another chat room. A no-good chat cheat.

"I'm bored," announces Madden, indicating that the tedious chat lesson is over, even as she assures us that chat can indeed be hot: "You have to focus on it, and you have to be direct and tell him what you want."

The lesson in online personals, which follows, is an evidence of just how easy it is to find someone if you just know what you want -- our search for a red-meat eating, smoking, large drunk of a man or woman living within 25 miles of San Francisco turns up some 500 matches. Who said it's hard to find someone online?

But the climax of the afternoon is definitely the late-in-the-day video and chat encounter with A1sexy, who even goes so far as to flash his naked butt when we beg him properly. Interacting with him is exciting, if only because it's a startling reminder that there are actual human beings in the flesh out there, not just crass and garishly doctored graphic photos and endless inane steamy chatter and technology.

The lure to bring the students back next week: a live teledildonics demonstration -- essentially, sex toys with remote-controlled input over the Web. Plus, students will present their class projects: their own otherworldly visions of what cybersex could be, ideally digitally rendered, naturally. The rest of our homework: Surf those links, and spend an hour in a chat room.

Who's to say if it qualifies as higher learning, but this could be the first class where no one wastes time dreaming up excuses for not doing their homework.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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