How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected Story

Samantha Cole has been a journalist for over 10 years, spending the last five reporting on technology, sexuality, gender and the adult industry. She is senior editor of Motherboardthe outlet of science and technology for VICE.

Below, Samantha shares 5 key insights from her new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected Story. Listen to the audio version, read by Samantha herself, in the Next Big Idea app.

How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected Story by Samantha Cole


1. The Internet was built on sex.

The earliest modes of communication on the Internet were based on and popularized by the desire for sex and romance. Bulletin board systems, the digital equivalent of public cork bulletin boards, were quickly popularized as places to access porn online. With names like SleazeNet, ThrobNet, and Pleasure Dome, many subscription-based message boards served to exchange scanned images from porn magazines or photos uploaded by amateurs.

But they weren’t all just for obscenity; they were also centers of harm reduction, especially during the AIDS crisis and as a way for queer and marginalized people to find community and assistance at a time when coming out was even more dangerous than it is today.

On Usenet, a decentralized messaging system, people have been discussing the concepts of safe spaces and moderation. They fought over whether men should be allowed in women-only threads and had long-running discussions about everything from politics to how to have sex while scuba diving.

In text-based multi-user domains, or MUDs, people played fantasy versions of themselves and found love and loss. In a classic MUD legend, someone playing an evil clown sexually assaulted other chat members, which threw the entire community into chaos.

“People have fallen deeply in love in these online spaces, met in person, got married or had their hearts broken.”

In these systems, people grappled with how to define consent, abuse, and harassment. People have fallen deeply in love in these online spaces, met in person, got married or had their hearts broken. Ex-lovers emailed admins asking to be removed from chats, since seeing their ex-partners even through a screen was too emotionally charged. The desire to be seen and understood permeated these early predecessors of social media, and of course they often turned to sex.

2. The technology we take for granted was introduced by sex.

Much of the technology used today was developed to build an Internet dedicated to sex and sex work. Browser cookies and user tracking were developed by online dating entrepreneurs and porn webmasters who wanted to keep track of who visited their sites so they could advertise more effectively. Affiliate marketing, which runs much of the internet today, was popularized by porn site owners who needed to make money from the thousands of people who visit their sites every day.

The JPEG was developed using a photo of a playboy centerfold named Lena, and her photograph has been used as a test to standardize image processing for decades.

Webcams and web conferencing software were popularized by early generations of webcam models, who set up sites to sell a sneak peek inside their bedrooms. Lifestreamers, who streamed their lives 24/7 without censorship, paved the way for today’s Twitch and Tiktok stars. Technology that was once primarily used for sexual intrigue, we now use for business calls every day.

“The pioneers of online sex technology are still creating new ways to express themselves and capitalize on the insatiable desires of the internet.”

The founder of Web Personals, which was one of the very first online dating sites, claims to have invented the shopping cart and the technology that tracks users from page to page within a site.

Site memberships, members-only content, online credit card transactions, and advertising models—the list goes on, and the pioneers of online sex technology are still creating new ways to express themselves and capitalize on the Internet’s insatiable desires.

3. The Internet has transformed the porn industry.

The adult industry worked very differently. Before the internet, it was based on a studio system, where you typically had to have an agent, know a producer, or be located somewhere like Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley. Production companies or studios owned the rights to your images and any videos you shot with them.

This system also meant that purchasing pornography required finding a store, browsing the shelves, and buying or renting a tape or magazine. These stores were very male-dominated spaces.

All of that changed with the internet and inventions like the webcam and user-generated content platforms like clip and cam sites. Suddenly anyone could break out and carve out their own niche, retain ownership of their content, vet customers through more secure means, and work on their own terms, often without leaving their homes.

4. The Internet has transformed the sex toy industry.

The 1970s saw a revolution in women’s pleasure: People like Dell Williams, the founder of Eve’s Garden in New York City, and sex educator Joani Blank pioneered the idea of ​​sex toys and orgasms as something healthy and useful. Hitachi wands were sold at Macy’s and buying one is what inspired Dell Williams to open his own shop.

“More people than ever could be browsing safely, comparison shopping, reading reviews and talking about their interests, kinks and fetishes.”

But when the World Wide Web arrived in the late 1980s, the Internet did for sex toys what it had done for porn: It brought a previously isolated experience to socially stigmatized spaces (such as sex shops or video stores for adults) and brought the shopping experience home. A wider variety of people could now access sex toys that were once out of their reach. More people than ever could be browsing safely, comparison shopping, reading reviews and chatting about their interests, kinks and fetishes.

There was also a great destigmatizing effect. It’s a lot less embarrassing than it used to be to buy a sex toy, and it’s a lot less weird to talk to strangers about your kinks.

5. The future of online sex depends on us.

On the modern-day Internet, sexual discourses, including sex work, sex education, and expressions of sexuality outside the heteronormative, are increasingly suppressed. Wrong legislation like FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) or SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which became law in 2018 and confused all sexual talk as trafficking, made it harder for anyone working in these industries or trying to build community around sexual identity exists online. Anti-sex groups are pushing for more censorship and discrimination by mainstream platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, under the guise of saving women and children from exploitation. Demonizing sex doesn’t fix online abuse, it actually makes it worse.

The pessimistic view is that things will continue to get more sanitized and censored online. The reality is that things aren’t getting more welcoming to sex, they’re getting more hostile.

If we want a future where sexuality, innovation and safety coexist, then we must stand up to discrimination against sex workers and marginalized people and take control of how we want to exist online.

To hear the audio version read by author Samantha Cole, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key insights in the upcoming Big Idea app