Sex On The Info Highway

MEET THE COUPLE WHO CALL themselves the Roarks. This is how they looked for love on a Florida electronic bulletin board last week: "My fiancee and I have a well-evolved submissive/dominant relationship. She is classically beautiful (former model), quite intelligent (turned accountant) and a warm and loving individual ... She loves to role play-especially damsel in distress-and sometimes likes to be spanked. We often imagine spending an evening with another woman (ideally) or couple where the woman will be dominant over her while I will be ultimately dominant over both ... You should be sensitive, sensual, and sane; 25-40, attractive with an hourglass figure, feminine and busty (a preference we both share)."

The Roarks are expert navigators on one of the best-traveled back alleys of the Information Highway. They are among thousands of cyberswingers linked together by networks of adult-oriented bulletin boards with names like KinkNet and ThrobNet. Loaded with libraries of X-rated pictures and interactive adult games (like "Pin the Tail on Your Wife"), these on-line services draw users to the computer the same way porno videos attracted consumers to VCRs a decade ago. Subscribers download pictures and chat with others of their ilk in steamy electronic forums. Adding to the seedy mix: a growing cache of adults-only software, including CD-ROMs, that turn cyberspace into Times Square.

No one knows how much money is spent on cybersex, but it's clear that after the first byte, many users can't get enough. One national bulletin board reports receiving more than 400,000 calls since 1986. KinkNet is the second largest bulletin-board network in the country, and much of its traffic is sexual. Among KinkNet's many appealing features are personal ads and special groups for S&M'ers and gays, as well as on-line, real-time orgies (the action is typed out by participants). The Windup BBS in Brooklyn, N.Y.; The Pleasure Dome in Virginia, and NixPix in Denver all join up couples and singles. Not everyone wants to meet F2F (that's face-to-face for techno-peasants). The picture files on New York's Electric Eye are organized into collections like "Women who love women" and "Women in bondage." Network users pay either an annual or an hourly fee, ranging from $50 to $100 a year and $2 to $5 an hour.

Membership on most boards requires a short biography. Some are sappy pleas from lonely hearts; others seem to come straight out of Penthouse. "Hot housewife loves to be in home videos," reads one description on a Brooklyn board. "We like all kinds, but you must be clean, drug-free and open-minded."

While they're waiting for replies, couples can slip a hot CD-ROM into their computer. The content isn't much different from porno mags or tapes, although the price tag is a lot higher: as much as $100 for a disc, compared with under $25 for an adult tape or $3.95 fora magazine. So why would anyone buy this stuff? There's the allure of using new technology to fulfill old needs. And in these AIDS-obsessed times, "it's the ultimate in safe sex," says Lawrence Miller of New Machine Publishing in Santa Monica, Calif. Last year, Miller says, his company sold more than $2 million of its CD-ROM titles, including "NightWatch" (a security-guard voyeur) and "The Interactive Adventures of Seymore Butts." The wrong answer gets Seymore a refusal or a slap in the face; the right answer lands him in the sack, where the viewer gets to see hard-core action. "We're not [creeps]," Miller claims. "We're nice, clean-cut people-well, relatively clean-cut-who just happen to be doing adult material."

Whatever you say.

The quality of much cyberporn varies from low to dreadful. While the idea of electronic dirty talk may seem titillating, the reality is often pathetic or, worse, boring. A lot of the time, participants discuss techniques. The tone isn't all that different from that of computer forums on auto repair; only the tools vary. Downloading rated pictures takes time and concentration: users need a special program to translate digital blips into flesh-and-blood tones. Often, the amateurish results aren't worth the effort. Even many professionally produced products, such as CD-ROMs, are little more than dirty movies copied onto a disc. Because CD drives are slower than VCRs, the viewer sees nothing more than a series of jerky images.

Up until now, cyberspace has flourished uncensored, but some net observers worry that a flood of X-rated material could prompt a clampdown. "It would be a serious mistake to treat this world as if it were broadcast TV and limit it to family viewing," says Jerry Berman of the Electronic Freedom Foundation in Washington, which studies technology and public policy. Aside from First Amendment issues, it's hard to imagine how any agency could effectively police bulletin boards, since they're nothing more than computers hooked-up to phone lines and easy to set up anywhere. Stacy Horn, who runs New York's highbrow Echo BBS, says the net can regulate itself. "These will come to be perceived like 900 numbers," she says, which "aren't an important part of the way in which we use phones." But with most services accessible with a modem and a credit card. Berman says, there's still a need to develop software that allows users (like parents of teenagers) to filter out objectionable material.

Censorship isn't the only concern. Some computer-industry observers are troubled by cybersex hype. Diana Hawkins, a Silicon Valley multimedia consultant, says pornographic programming overshadows more important uses of new technology, such as education or entertainment. "To be using the technology for that is human, I guess," she says. "But it is far from ideal." But Lisa Palac, editor of Future Sex, a magazine about high-tech sex, defends finding pleasure in new machines. "Some of the best sex I've ever had has been with myself," she says. "We have to break out of this idea that having sex alone makes you a loser."

No one thinks the appetite for cybersex will be sated soon. Cave men drew dirty pictures with charcoal. That tradition of using technology to express sexual needs has continued unabated. Constance Penley, a film professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studies porn. "The minute the camera was invented, people started making pornographic images," she says. "The minute they invented cinema, people put sex on screen." Why should the computer be any different? For erotic explorers on the infobahn, the trick will be keeping their hands on the wheel.