A Door to the Future: Sexuality on the Information Superhighway

Sexuality and the Internet

People interested in sexual topics have always been quick to explore a new mode of communication - from graffiti on a prehistoric cave wall, movable type, photography, and radio, to video cameras, VCRs, and videocassette rentals and sales - as a way around the censorship society uses to regulate and limit the dissemination of sexual information. The most recent new mode of communication, the computer-based “information superhighway,” the Internet or simply “the Net,” is no exception. From its birth, the Net has raised images of erotica, pornography, and cybersex available in the privacy of one's home. The Net does provide sexuality information for the general “on-line” public, but it can also provide a wealth of reliable information for sex researchers, sex educators, and sex therapists. However, the use of the Net to access sexuality information has also brought the inevitable sequel of society's effort to regulate this new avenue of sex information.

The Internet is not a physical or tangible entity, but rather a giant network which interconnects innumerable smaller groups of linked computer networks. In early 1995, the global network of the Internet had 2 million Internet hosts; in late 1995-1996, 5 million hosts; and in early 1996, 9.5 million hosts. This is expected to double to 20 million hosts sometime in 1997. However, the number of Internet hosts is misleading, because many hosts limit access of their users with firewalls and other electronic barriers.

Gateways to a variety of electronic messaging services allow Internet users to communicate with over 15 million educational, commercial, government, military, and other types of users throughout the worldwide matrix of computer networks that exchange mail or news. These rapidly developing, and constantly changing, network information and retrieval tools are transforming the way people learn, interact, and relate. These networks provide users with easy access to documents, sounds, images, and other file-system data; library catalog and user-directory data; weather, geography, and physical-science data; and other types of information (Schwartz and Quarterman 1993). Professional journals, papers, conferences, courses, and dialogues are increasingly delivered electronically.

Although the federal government initiated the Internet during the “Cold War” as a way to send top-secret information quickly and securely, no government or group controls or is in charge of the Internet today. The Internet depends on the continuing cooperation of all the interconnected networks (Butler 1994). Because there is no proprietary control, anyone can send e-mail (electronic mail), start a newsgroup, develop a listserv, download files, and/or have their own World Wide Web (WWW) home page or Web site. This freedom has opened the cyberspace doors to the sexuality arena.

For sexuality professionals, the opportunities in cyberspace are limitless. E-mail is just one of many functions. This one-on-one mode of electronic communication allows colleagues to communicate and collaborate in their research worldwide, pursue new leads quickly, test new ideas and hypotheses immediately, and build networks of like-minded colleagues. Whole documents can be attached to e-mail, sent electronically around the globe, and downloaded by the recipients almost instantly. Both time and money can be saved by editing on-line and bypassing postal delays and costs.

Many American university professors communicate with their students by e-mail. Lessons, syllabi, and homework are passed back and forth with e-mail. E-mail can also provide the shy or quiet students in a class another venue for participation.

Listserv mailing lists are similar to e-mail, but instead of communicating with only one other person, communication takes place between many. Many Americans of all ages subscribe to a mailing list and use it as a good place to debate issues, share professional ideas, and try out new concepts with others. Subscribers automatically receive correspondence from others who belong to the list. It is like reading everyone's e-mail about a particular topic. Hundreds of listservs exist, including those that address rape, gay and bisexual issues, feminist theory, women's health, AIDS, addictions, survivors of incest, and advocacy, to name a few.

In addition to sending e-mail to individuals or to a mailing list, Americans are increasingly meeting people and sharing interests through newsgroups. Like listservs, newsgroups are open discussions and exchanges on particular topics. Users, however, need not subscribe to the discussion mailing list in advance, but can instead access the database at any time (Butler 1994). One must access a special program called a news reader to retrieve messages/discussions from a newsgroup. A local site may have many newsgroups or a few.

Newsgroups are as diverse as the individuals posting on them. Usenet newsgroups are arranged in a hierarchical order, with their names describing their area of interest. The major hierarchies are talk, alt, biz, soc, news, rec, sci, comp, and misc. Some examples of newsgroups in the field of sexuality are:, talk.abortion, soc.women,,,, alt.transgendered, alt.sexual.abuse.recovery, and alt.politics.homosexuality. This hierarchy and system of naming help the user decide which groups may be of interest.

Many groups provide informative discussions and support. Other groups are often magnets for “flamers” (those who insult) or people posing as someone else (i.e., a young adult male posing on-line as a lesbian). One benefit of the newsgroup is that anyone can read the articles/discussions but not participate. These voyeurs are called “lurkers.” This may be a safe starting point for a few months until one has an understanding of the group, their history, and past discussions. “Newbies” (newcomers to groups) are often flamed if they ask neophyte questions in some newsgroups. Reading a newsgroup's “FAQ” (frequently asked questions) page prior to inquiring on-line is one way newbies can avoid being flamed for naive or inappropriate inquiries.

In addition to transmitting messages that can be read or accessed later, Internet users can also engage in an immediate dialogue (called “chat”) in “real time” with other users. Real-time communication allows one-to-one communication, and “Internet Relay Chat” (IRC) allows two or more people to type messages to each other that almost immediately appear on the other's computer screen. IRC is analogous to a telephone party line. In addition, most commercial on-line services have their own chat systems allowing members to converse. An example of a chat system is the Human Sexuality Forum on CompuServe, a proprietary on-line network that also offers members access to the Internet.

In addition to e-mail, newsgroups, listservs, and chats, one can access information by transferring files from one computer to another with FTP (file transfer protocol). One important aspect of FTP is that it allows files to be transferred between computers of completely dissimilar types. It also provides public file sharing (The Internet Unleashed, 1994). These files may contain text, pictures, sound, or computer programs.

Another method of connecting with remote locations is through Telnet. Telnet allows the user to “log in” on a remote machine in real time. For example, a student can use Telnet to connect to a remote library to access the library's online card catalog.

American sexuality professionals now communicate, collaborate, and discuss issues with colleagues around the globe. They can also access information from around the world. Two of the more common methods for accessing information are Gopher and the World Wide Web (WWW). A user can collect data, read conference proceedings, tap into libraries, and even search for jobs on-line.

Gopher guides an individual's search through the resources available on a remote computer. It is menu driven and easy to use. Most American colleges and universities have a local Gopher menu. Gopher can also be accessed through most commercial on-line services. Gopher allows users to access information from various locations. The National Institute for Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Library of Medicine are just a few examples of sites that are accessible via Gopher.

Most information sites that can be reached through Gopher can also be accessed via the World Wide Web (WWW). The “Web” uses a “hypertext” formatting language called hypertext markup language (HTML). Programs called Web browsers that “browse” the Web can display HTML documents containing text, images, sound, animation, and moving video. Any HTML document can include links to other types of information or resources. These hypertext links allow information to be accessed and organized in very flexible ways, and allow people to locate and efficiently view related information, even if the information is stored on numerous computers all around the world.

Many organizations now have “home pages” on the Web. The home page typically serves as a table of contents for the site, and provides links to other similar sites. Some Web sites that may be of interest to the sexuality professional are: the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) []; the Kinsey Institute []; the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) []; the Queer Resources Directory []; and Tstar []. TStar provides resources and information for the transgendered community. The TStar home page is also a gateway to other resources on the Web, such as the Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered Alliance, and the Gay, Bi-Sexual, Lesbian, and Transgender Information from the United Kingdom. [The SexQuest Web Index for Sexual Health provides links to most sexuality research, education, and therapy sites on the Web: (Editor)]

Sex researchers, educators, and therapists can use e-mail, listservs, newsgroups, and the WWW for updated information and resources. Sexuality professionals can also use the Internet as a new frontier for sex research. Approximately 200 active Usenet newsgroups deal with sex and variations of some sexual theme (Tamosaitis 1995). Very few have researched who these newsgroup users are, what sexuality knowledge they possess, what sexual attitudes they hold, or in which types of behavior they engage.

In the fall of 1994, a modified version of the Kinsey Institute Sex Knowledge Test was distributed to 4,000 users on-line (Tamosaitis 1995). The results showed that over 83 percent were male, white, highly educated, single, middle- to upper-class, and not afraid of technology. The majority were in their 20s and 30s and predominantly bicoastal, with 63 percent living either on the West or East coasts. The survey demonstrated that both the sexually oriented and general on-line user group respondents are more knowledgeable about women's sexuality issues than they are about comparable men's issues when compared to the general off-line population polled (Tamosaitis 1995). This study, the first of its kind, could provide the impetus for further on-line research. Of the twenty most popular Usenet newsgroup forums, half are on sex-related topics (Lewis 1995).

Several universities are also concerned about sexually explicit material and are limiting or prohibiting access to certain newsgroups. In November 1994, Carnegie Mellon University moved to eliminate all sexually oriented Usenet newsgroups from its computers. Stanford, Penn State, Iowa State and other universities have also attempted to limit access (Tamosaitis 1995).

Legal Challenges to Free Speech on the Internet

Politically, any mention of sexuality in international cyberspace, from the most benign to the most perverse, is currently under scrutiny in the Supreme Court. In June 1995, Senator James Exon offered the Communications Decency Act of 1995 as an amendment to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was then included in the Telecom Act as Title 5, Section 507. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) expands regulations on obscene and indecent material to minors which would be transmitted to them through the telephone lines by way of the worldwide Internet, or any other on-line service (Itialiano 1996; Lewis 1995; Lohn 1996).

The bill included, in a very subtle unthreatening way, elements of the old Comstock Act of 1873 which, in the past, made it a crime to send material on birth control and abortion through the postal service (Schwartz 1996a). This archaic act, inserted by Representative Henry J. Hyde, a longtime abortion foe, remains on the legislative books today as 18 U.S.C. Sec. 1462. Elements of the Comstock Act prohibiting dissemination of contraceptive information and the sale of contraceptives to married and single women had been declared unconstitutional in various decisions, the last two in 1966 and 1972. However, the prohibition against providing information about abortion remains on the books to the present. In the new Communications Decency Act, the maximum fine for providing information about abortion has been raised from $5,000 to $250,000 for anyone convicted of knowingly transmitting any “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent” communications on the nation's telecommunications networks including the Internet. Meanwhile, other legislators sponsored legislation, the Comstock Clean-up Act of 1996, to repeal completely the remnants of the Comstock Act.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was signed by President Clinton on February 8, 1996. Although the President signed the bill into law, he immediately issued a disclaimer, saying that

I do object to the provision in the Act concerning the transmission of abortion related speech and information.... The Department of Justice has advised me of its long-standing policy that this and related abortion provisions in current law are unconstitutional and will not be enforced because they violate the First Amendment [protecting freedom of speech].
The CDA was included in the Telecommunications Act supposedly to squelch on-line pornography and make the World Wide Web and the Internet, as well as other on-line services, “safe” for children. But the wording crafted by Internet-illiterate Congressmen was so vague and overly broad that even the most innocent use of health-related information could result in a $250,000 fine and two years in prison. Free-speech activists, spearedheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Freedom Foundation, American Library Association, and many others, were appalled and filed suit to keep at bay any prosecution and punishment for this alleged on-line crime until the case can be heard by the United States Supreme Court.

Suit was immediately filed by the American Library Association and the Citizen's Internet Empowerment Coalition in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania seeking a preliminary injunction against the CDA on the constitutional grounds of the right to free speech. “Plaintiffs include various organizations and individuals who, inter alia, are associated with the computer and/or communications industries, or who publish or post materials on the Internet, or belong to various citizen groups.” The case was heard before Judge Sloviter, Chief Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Judges Buckwalter and Dalzell, Judges for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

An injunction was granted on June 11, 1996, after all three judges had schooled themselves with hands-on experience with the Internet. The basis for the injunction was three-fold:

1. That whatever previous decisions had been handed down limiting indecent expression on other media (such as cable television and radio) could not be applied to cyberspace,

2. Control over pornography aimed at children rested with the parents and schools, not with the government nor with on-line services transmitting the offensive material, and

3. There was no technological way available to the Internet of checking the age of Internet users, except the use of credit card numbers, to access hard-core pornography.

All three judges saw the CDA as patently unconstitutional and asked the Supreme Court for a final ruling (EPIC 1996; McCullaugh 1996; The New York Times 1996; Quinttner 1996; Schwartz 1996b).

On July 1, 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice officially filed an appeal. In its September 30, 1996, edition, HotWired magazine reported that the U.S. Department of Justice was stalling for time, and the U.S. Supreme Court granted them an extra month to submit filings. The case was supposed to have been heard in the Supreme Court in October 1996, but no new hearing date had been published as of November 1996. As of March 1997, the CDA was going to the Supreme Court, with a decision expected in June.

Judge Dalzell's opinion sums up the on-going debate over sex on the Internet:

True it is that many find some of the speech on the Internet to be offensive, and amid the din of cyberspace many hear discordant voices that they regard as indecent. The absence of governmental regulation of Internet content has unquestionably produced a kind of chaos, but as one of plaintiffs' experts put it with such resonance at the hearing: “What achieved success was the very chaos that the Internet is. The strength of the Internet is that chaos.”

Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so the strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.

For these reasons, I without hesitation hold that the CDA is unconstitutional on its face.

Since the filing of this case, three other state cases have been brought to court. A New York City case, filed April 30, 1996, by Joe Shea, reporter for the American Reporter, sought to overturn the CDA, claiming that the law limits freedom of speech for the press. On July 29,1996, the court ruled in favor of Shea. This case is expected to be folded into the primary case brought to the Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) et al. suit mentioned above. At the same time, journalism professor Bill Loving of the University of Oklahoma filed suit against the university charging that it blocked access on April 1, 1996 to a newsgroup, “,” after the university received complaints from a fundamentalist religious organization. Loving claimed that restricting students' access to the Internet is a violation of their First Amendment rights. (As of late 1996, he was awaiting the University's response.) Finally, effective July 1, 1996, the Georgia State General Assembly passed a law providing criminal sanctions against anyone falsely identifying themselves on the Internet. A suit (ACLU of Georgia et al. vs. Miller et al.), seeking a preliminary injunction against the Georgia statue, was filed September 24, 1996, by the ACLU, Electronic Frontiers Georgia, Georgia State Representative Mitchell Kaye, and others. As of late 1996, the hearing had not been held.

Summing Up

What is considered sexually explicit? Are safe-sex guidelines considered sexually explicit? Obviously, this type of law could disband the educational and informative sex-related Internet resources and the sex-related news-groups.

Another concern associated with the Internet is the loss of community in the real world and the formation of on-line communities. Opponents believe that people arc not honest about who they are in cyberspace, which is a fantasy land. Proponents say that virtual communities provide a place for support, information, and understanding. Many feel that gender, race, age, orientation, and physical appearance are not apparent in cyberspace unless a person wants to make such characteristics public. People with physical disabilities or less-than-glamorous appearances find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated - as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feelings, not just an able body or a face (Rheingold 1995). Many young people can be part of a community for the first time in their life by interacting with an on-line community. An on-line community might, for example, provide a teenage lesbian who feels alienated at school and home with a sense of self-worth and understanding.

Not since the invention of television has a technology changed how a nation and a world spend their time, gather information, and communicate, as has the Internet. Sexuality professionals and the public have the capacity to access tremendous amounts of sexual information, some of it valid and educational, some of it entertaining, and some that others might label “obscene.” But who is to judge? Sexuality professionals need to get involved before others judge what is deemed acceptable sexuality information. The Internet will also serve as a new frontier for sex research, sex education, sex information, collaboration, and communication (Tamosaitis 1995).