How AOL Instant Messenger Shaped the Sexuality of a Generation
For those of us who came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was a wild and exciting world of rudimentary websites, slow-loading pornography, and the subversive thrill of spending three to five hours illegally downloading a CD you couldn't afford to buy at Tower Records.
Through it all, there was AOL Instant Messenger, an easy-to-use and highly customizable application that hid a wealth of features beneath its utilitarian facade. Before social media, before we started assuming that someone was monitoring our every online move, AIM was a place where so many of us expressed ourselves, made friends, and experienced our first sexual awakenings.
Mention the service to anyone who used it during their formative years and you'll get stories of away messages that were supposed to be clever, online boyfriends and girlfriends that ended up never existing—I dated a GAP model from Florida who claimed to be in all of the brand's commercials, too young to realize how astoundingly untrue this actually was—and nostalgia about the custom sounds you could create to let you know when specific members of your buddy list came online.
Released in 1997, the service was an instant hit. (AIM still exists today, although it hasn't been updated since 2012.) In the age before MySpace, before every teen in the world had a cell phone, there was no better way to make plans with your friends, arrange drug deals for after fifth period, and discover that while you probably weren't ready to have sex with another person, you could absolutely fake the sexual prowess of Wilt Chamberlain with some guy you met in a chatroom entitled M4OlderM.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, the word "cybersex" felt cool, maybe a little dangerous, and definitely futuristic, but all it really meant was pretending to bang strangers on the internet. Sometimes you'd write ::moan:: and sometimes you'd inform the person of exactly what you were doing to them ("I'm sucking on the tip of your penis," I once wrote, as a 14-year-old virgin), while presumably pleasuring yourself. Data about teens engaging in this behavior during these years is scarce, but conservative estimates suggested that 30 percent of internet-using adults engaged in cybersex.
"I had an internet sex addiction," Jennifer Martin joked to me. At 27, Martin's days of cybering with strangers are over, but she claims that as a young teen, she was scarily proficient in the art of making guys on the internet come with a few taps on the keyboard.
Growing up in a religious household where any talk of sex was verboten, Martin described herself as an awkward kid who moved around a lot and didn't have many friends outside the computer. "I played a lot of text-based role-playing games," she told me, explaining how she got involved with AIM. "Eventually, people said 'I want to talk to you outside the game.' I was this overweight, insecure girl, but behind the screen I could be whatever. It was sort of this weird place for me to come of sexual awakening."
And because Jesus doesn't watch your chat windows, Martin soon began experimenting with cybering, which, for her, was as much of a writing exercise as anything else. It wasn't the sexual release that drew Martin to cybering, but it was the attention and validation of the guys she cybered with, many of whom would come back for more. Some even asked for her phone number, something Martin's religious father wasn't too happy about. But she couldn't be stopped, she said: "If anyone would come and flirt with me online, it would invariably lead to cybersex."
Martin's activities weren't unusual. AIM allowed young people to be anyone they wanted, without requiring names, pictures, or identity verification that could be tracked back to real life. For many, cybersex offered the allure of a safe space in which one could experiment and express their innermost desires. In 2008, an article in The Village Voice detailed the many reasons why cybersex might be preferable to actual sex with another human, including convenience, safety, and the ability to try out new things one might not otherwise.
A man who asked to be identified only as his former AIM name, Unknown97478 (created to make him sound very mysterious) told me that cybersex was one of the few ways in which he could come to terms with his sexuality, allowing him to explore his sexual identities without letting anyone else know the kind of things he was into.
For some teens, online hookups were the only option they had for exploring their sexuality in an era when porn—or at least porn that wasn't heterosexual and vanilla—wasn't readily available. "It took me a long time to figure out that gay porn was a thing," Unknown97478 said. "I just didn't think that anyone would bother making porn that featured penises."
"In retrospect, talking with nerds about acts neither of us had performed and most of us only dimly understood at this point probably wasn't the healthiest introduction to sex," joked a former cybersexer I'll call D. "But hey, at least nobody got knocked up."
Another woman I spoke to admitted that she began meeting men in their 20s online when she was 17 years old. "It was totally legal because the age of consent is 16 in my state, but I'm fortunate I didn't get killed or anything."
She's not wrong. During AIM's heyday, there were countless cautionary tales of adults preying on children through the computer. The book Katie.com, for example, chronicled the story of a young woman seduced online by someone she thought was her age but who turned out to be a middle-aged sex offender.
She conceded that any of the guys she went out with from the internet could have been a serial killer.
Warnings like this were weren't as common for young gay men who were just trying to get a few dick pics from their older paramours. Unknown97478 recalled sending nude pictures to "this guy who lived in Australia, who was like 25-26 at the time, who was really nice. I seduced him, like full on. At first he was like, 'No, you're like 13 years old,' but I sent them anyway." He received nude pictures back. "I don't feel victimized," he insisted, but added that he has come to question, in retrospect, exactly who seduced whom.
The death of AIM came fairly gradually. With the advent of true social media networks—ones that allowed users to share everything about their lives with friends and friends of friends—the online social web became imbued with reality. One day, we were all skipping class to cyber with anonymous strangers, and by the next, everyone had moved on to MySpace, which involved pictures, and meant users had to at least go through the effort of prefabricating an internet identity, rather than just making one up on the spot. No longer could you seduce someone with only pink text on a black background, and the promise of a mind-blowing cybersexual experience.
By 2011, AIM's share of the chatting market had fallen to less than one percent. The app is still available today, but logging in won't give you the nostalgia you're looking for: Your buddy list will resemble a ghost town, a reminder of an era when people only had a couple hundred internet friends rather than the thousands they've now accumulated across an array of social media platforms.
Not many of us yearn for the days when most American families had just one computer, one phone line, and no high-speed internet. But there was a certain innocence to the era in which teens could be anything they wanted to be. And for that, AIM, we salute you.
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