A head job

It takes your biggest organ to truly appreciate cybersex

By Cherry Wong (written for The Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek,12/10/97)
Inside the back cover of Virtual Spaces: Sex and the Cyber Citizen, Dr. Cleo Odzer is pictured sitting on a chair lined with shag fur. She is dressed in an off-the-shoulder minidress, fondling her computer. But despite her Lusty Lady aesthetics, Odzer, a computer programmer and anthropologist, has written a book about human sexuality that is less steamy than heady. Like many of us, she is turned on by intelligence -- so much so that for the past seven years, she has been addicted to cybersex, a world where sex is less a physical act than a function of the mind.

Odzer has long been exploring psychological and sociological dynamics of sexual exchanges. In 1994, she published Patpong Sisters: An American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World, an examination of prostitution in Thailand based on her doctoral dissertation. But although Virtual Spaces is an examination of the psychology behind the technology -- ie, why people get off on cybersex -- it's mostly a personal account, tracing the author's development as a cybersex wiz from writing basic "hot chat" (text-only dialogue) in 1990 to programming sophisticated interactive sites with live graphic and voice capabilities in the present. Within Odzer's sometimes embarrassing narrative of her various online crushes, affairs, jealousies, and break-ups, she gives the stories of dozens of other cybersexers she's met along the way.

This is where the book works best -- as an inside look into a growing community of people who meet, court, and seduce each other without ever coming face to face in real life. Lest you think cybersex is just a simulation of casual anonymous sex, there's an account of one couple who took their on-line romance so seriously that they decided to refrain from "consummating" and go back to "kissing." In some cases, cybersexers even marry each other on the net: Odzer relates the story of an on-line wedding of a couple who lived in separate continents but were committed to each other's internet personae.

Sound bizarre? Maybe, but the author claims that playing out fantasies in cyberspace can lead to a greater understanding of the self: "The love, passions, and torment that emerge from cyber relationships depend on dynamics that develop in real life but that manifest themselves more explicitly in cyberspace. So subtle are these dynamics in real life that people aren't even aware of them. It is on the net that our innermost secrets are revealed." And while some might dismiss cybersex as a poor substitute for real sex, Odzer points out that the very lack of physical reality is, ironically, its greatest attribute. One woman, Claire Benedikt, talks about the greater freedom that comes with the lack of consequences. "There is no HIV, no herpes, no unwanted pregnancies. The physical side of sex is under control. And this opens doors. I can become this girl who is slender and young...who wears no clothes, and who sleeps with the stranger who meets her eyes.... This drama would never happen in my real life, but in this fiction world of words, I can let my head do it, even my heart, and there's an off-switch by my hand the whole time."

Admittedly, I was once a cybersex enthusiast. For about a month last winter, when my boyfriend and I were in the doldrums, and it was too cold to even think about going out, I would log on to various chat rooms and get hot with people who called themselves "Erotiq," "Diamond Jack," or "BiSusie." I never thought to make the cyber trysts into real-life encounters -- I mean, who knew what these people were really like? -- but talking dirty with them was fun nonetheless. In my most aroused moments, I'd find myself with legs tightly crossed, hunched over the keyboard, and typing about 100 words a minute.

Still, what surprised me most about the book was the discovery that there are scores of people who take these mind games very very seriously. For me, cybersex was a brief fling, but for many others, it has crossed over from being a form of "adult entertainment" to a lifestyle choice -- and one that leaves them "completely satisfied." Who needs real, messy sex, if you can have an orgy in the Star Trek's holodeck?

In the end, you can take this book as you like: It's part sociological commentary on our computer-centered society, part psychological study of what happens during cybersex, and part weird woman's fantasy of herself as a sex goddess, but it's still an engaging read. And while you're reading, you can't help thinking that at that very moment there are thousands of other people making whoopie on the net.