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It has, historically, a sense of being furtive—pushed into the underground for centuries—but once outside social constraints, it was a lot freer within a private, underground context.” In many ways, these were also the hallmarks of the early digital space: a private, members-only society with its own language and codes and libertine ethos that existed under the radar.
At the same time, Mayes recalls, the digital photography revolution of the 1990s served to enhance the sex lives of those who were drawn to the visual, to exchanging private pictures, and to creating homespun erotica that might invite and satisfy the fellow male gaze.
There were quite a lot of women on The WELL—for an Internet group, it was a shocking number. It didn’t even occur to me that computers were supposed to be a guy-only space.
[As part of ] this private women’s conference—it was more gossipy and talking about our private lives and things you didn’t necessarily want everyone else to see in public—someone started a topic called ‘That Son-of-a-Bitch.’ ” She laughs. “This woman told a story about how she’d met this wonderful man on The WELL and it just all seemed so incredibly touching and poignant and like a match made in heaven. So we were ‘listening’ to her describe how sexy it was.
“I had had an incredible disability in the gay world of never having picked up a man in a bar,” Mayes confides over drinks at a speakeasy in Manhattan’s East Village.
Bright recalls that she had first gone online because she’d heard that on a computer bulletin board called The WELL a community of people was engaged in a discussion thread labeled “Why I Love Susie Bright.”Bright now says, in a series of interviews and emails, “The WELL was like the shiny new toy that everyone in the media was fascinated with. The first time there was a sex hoax on the Internet—at least that I am aware of—it happened at The WELL.
There was a private women’s conference that only [female] members could be part of.
Sodomy was illegal in places like Texas until the 2000s. But it was a misguided belief that you were addressing a private club.
So the digital camera freed up people.” And those intimate digital photos could be easily traded electronically. If you wanted to, you could place an explicit photo online to attract partners, and you felt it was private. In fact, anyone could register and, more than that, you could download the image—and suddenly your own photo [would be] feral, animal, developing a life of its own.
This elasticity unleashed a new freedom to experiment, fantasize, and role-play.