The first form of pornography shared online was likely via ASCII art. Before computer graphics went mainstream, early users of the internet in the ’70s and ’80s figured out how to arrange slashes, dots, and lines on a screen into images of body parts far more intricate than the average “(.)(.)” one might have dashed off in an AIM chat back in the third grade. As tech journalist Samantha Cole writes in her new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected History, “Anyone could do a crude ASCII of boobs or stick-figure pinups—but it took a patient artist to craft something in realistic detail, line by line, like weaving on the loom of a keyboard.” Which is to say: Throughout every stage of the internet’s history, people have only gotten progressively more creative about being horny on main.
When I called Cole up a few weeks ago to chat, Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover had just been made final, and we spoke about how her book’s thesis—that we owe some of our greatest innovations on the internet to the enduring yet ever-evolving needs of adult content—already carries major implications for at least one of Musk’s reported schemes: to create a paywalled video service on Twitter. Also relevant: the ensuing exodus of Twitter users who have started searching for a new place to roost, which Cole pointed out is perhaps the only predictable feature of life online for anyone on the internet, but especially for the sex workers and adult-content creators whose digital migrations so often revolutionize everyone’s technology along the way.
Below, Cole talks with Vanity Fair about the internet’s long and uneasy relationship with sex—and how, for all of our technological advancements today, we’re still left in want of faster, better, truer connectivity.
Vanity Fair: Your book starts with all these stories of the proto-internet—a time of bulletin board systems and Geocities and ASCII porn. How was it to research that era when the internet is so ephemeral? Like, how back does the Wayback Machine go?
Samantha Cole: Not as far back as I would like; I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Internet Archive. It’s tough because a lot of it is falling away. Link rot is very real even from week to week. Then you’re looking at like, 30 years ago and trying to find conversations people were having on forums.
Is there anything from all that internet archaeology that stood out to you?
There’s one story that I really loved on Usenet, where people were talking about how to have sex during scuba diving. That conversation went from 1997 until 2020, and maybe is still going on on Google Groups. I thought that was really funny because it was something people kept picking it up like year over year.
Stacy Horn, who actually founded the Echo New York BBS in 1989, told me about how users of Echo would become really close friends. People would use it kind of like a dating pool, because it was all New Yorkers. Some of them got married and had kids, but others would break up. And then they wouldn’t be able to use Echo anymore, because it was just too sad to see their ex posting. There was no way to mute or block people. So she was like, I had to remove people a lot of the times who asked me, saying, “I’m too heartbroken to see so and so’s post.”
Seeing your ex online: a problem since the dawn of the internet!
A very foundational part of the internet.
There have been some big recent developments that could carry implications for the future of online connection. The first one I want to ask you about, of course, is Twitter. Amongst the many, many things Elon Musk is reportedly toying with for the platform’s future, one of them is the possibility of a paid adult video feature. Basically OnlyFans, but on Twitter. Could that actually happen?
That’s certainly something I’m keeping an eye on. I don’t think that anyone proposing those ideas has seen through the extreme difficulty that adult websites have even just staying up as adult websites without involving the mainstream under-18 public.
If they are going to try it, they’re going to realize very quickly that things like discrimination from banks and Square all of these payment processors that people take advantage of on the mainstream aren’t friendly to adult transactions. They’re gonna have to think about, like, FOSTA/SESTA [the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which became law in 2018 and amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, making websites liable for hosting content that facilitates or promotes prostitution]. They’re gonna have the anti-trafficking people all over them. It’s just such a Pandora’s box that people in the adult industry have been thinking about and working on, and advocating for and solving these problems for a really long time. Unless Elon miraculously decides to hire and commission advice from people in the adult industry, which like, I doubt it, maybe it would stand a shot.
But you know, Twitter is already under attack from people who hate porn and hate sex on the internet in general. That’s a real risk for him. And it’s a real shame to open people who are using Twitter up to that risk—people who use Twitter to advertise their OnlyFans or their clip sites and meet clients, stuff like that. Twitter is one of the last places where you can just post adult content where you’re in it with everybody else; It’s not like the adult section of Twitter. Your exposure is to everybody, with the caveat that Twitter down ranks porn pretty severely. Like 13% of the site is porn or something, so it makes sense that he wants to monetize that. He’s in for a world of issues that I don’t think he’s ready for. But that’s applicable to everything he’s doing.
The other big story in the news is that perhaps fortuitously timed announcement that Tumblr is bringing back nudity—though not necessarily all NSFW content. Are these two shifts related in any way?