The media is so stuffed with Tech Slump stories these days, that many people might not know just how many online subcultures online are booming -- auctions, women's communities, gaming, Open Source, entertainment, p2p, Weblogs and, most of all, sex. There is no slump in sex sites, says Robert P. Libbon of American Demographics Magazine. He cites a report from sextracker.com that the number of free adult Web sites grew from 22,100 in l997 to 280,300 last year. Sex-for-pay sites grew from 230 to 1,100 during the same period. (Read more.)
Despite the explosion of sexual activity online, a Zogby survey found that 65.l per cent of respondents believed finding sexual fulfillment on the Net was "not likely." Duh.
These robust figures show just how hypocritical and schizophrenic America's attitudes about sex and the Net are, and how much the success of online sex sites reveals about the future of the Web.
In a l999 CBS.MarketWatch.com poll, 23 per cent of the people surveyed called pornography the Net's worst feature. It's certainly all most politicians want to talk about when it comes to discussing the online world. But somebody isn't telling the truth. A 1999 report by Alvin Cooper and Coralie R. Scherer of the California- based Marital and Sexuality Centre found that 75 per cent of those who enjoy adult Internet sites don't tell anyone about it.
The popularity of sex sites, especially during a so-called Tech Crash, ought to send a message about technology and applications that work online, or don't. Like Napster, sex sites offer genuine utility for millions of people who want sexual information and activity. Sex, like music and entertainment, is a universal human interest. Technology can make it easier for people to connect with these interests, and when that happens, the technology works. And the Net is rattling old taboos. Even though the number of people accessing sex sites has gone through the roof, the Cooper/Scherer report found that the proportion of sexual compulsives online parallels that in the general population. The hue and cry about the menace of cybersex addiction seems misplaced.
Law enforcement officials have also been reporting a dramatic rise in child pornography online, but there is no evidence that sex crimes are on the rise either, according to researchers and federal (including FBI) statistics. Is it possible that the availability of sexual material online gives people healthier and safer outlets for sexual impulses than were previously available?
The problem with the way media, politics, morality and the Net have gotten all tangled up is that the confusion makes it difficult to measure the real consequences of online sexuality, clearly a significant new social reality. The Net has, for the first time in contemporary history, given individuals the freedom to explore sex and sexuality, despite ferocious opposition to the idea from government, elected representatives, religous groups and much of media. Tens of millions of people can access sex sites, talk about sexual fantasy and practice, consider whether they're gay or straight, meet one another, indulge in fantasies, gather information, assume different identities. According to the Cooper/Scherer report, 87 per cent of sex- site users said they felt no shame or guilt. More than 60 per cent pretended to be a different age than they actually are; 14 per cent admitted that they made up other attributes; another five per cent assumed the opposite gender.
Some interesting conclusions emerge from all of this. Simple exposure to sexual imagery doesn't appear as harmful or destructive as many politicians, moralists, educators and others would claim, as they pass legislation requiring blocking and filtering. Nor do the clucking or the legislation seem to have much effect. Even while Congress passes profoundly stupid laws like the Children's Internet Protection Act -- which forces local schools and libraries to install filtering programs whether they want to or not in order to get federal aid -- the number of adult Americans accessing sites devoted to sex seems to be growing by the day.
Another pattern that's been developing over several years is also becoming more distinct: The Net works well as a corollary to non-virtual human behavior and activity, not as a subsitute. Messaging doesn't replace voice-to-voice communications like phones; free music doesn't stop people from buying CD's (which sold in record numbers last year); e-books aren't more attractive to most readers than the real thing. And sex sites and virtual sexual identities don't replace real sex.