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Sex Stories on the Internet: The First Twenty or so Years

by H. Jekyll

h_jekyll2000@yahoo.com, Alt Sex Stories Text Repository

One might wonder how sex stories grew so quickly on the Internet. Not sex, per se, pictures or videos of amazing acts, but stories, which take enormous time to write and edit, and time to read. And that pay so poorly - for the most part not at all. Free sex stories have been present on the Internet almost from its invention and have been considered a "problem" by some outside commentators since at least 1990, predating the World Wide Web by several years.

Sex was successfully censored for generations, maybe centuries. For every period of explicit murals on villas in ancient Rome, or tryst-carvings in Indian caves, there have been long periods when it has been illegal to show the human body, and especially illegal to show it engaged in ecstatic pursuits. This persisted well into the twentieth century. At one point it was a badge of honor for an author's book to be "banned in Boston." I don't need to go into the whys and wherefores. Who doesn't understand the conflicted status of sexuality? On the one hand, loving, vanilla sex between spouses is generally considered praiseworthy. On the other hand, there are all those other sexual activities, choices of partners, and desires. You do that? You do it with whom? You fantasize about what? Any "excessive" concern with sex - even between spouses - raises eyebrows, and this is a serious enough issue that people generally mask their desires and practices. Have you talked with your neighbors recently, about that little experiment you and your honey tried?

Still, we grew and thrive. How so? Let me begin with the "Great Renaming".

On the early Internet, messages were often passed via "bulletin boards" (this was the bulletin-board system, or "BBS"), which led to today's "Usenet." Unlike email, bulleting board posts went to a group, not an individual. They were stored on an accessible location on a server, where they was available for reading by whoever knew the Internet address. Problem: The proliferation of bulletin boards on the different systems then in existence made the system chaotic and difficult to use. In 1986-1987, the "Great renaming" was undertaken by major system administrators, to better organize communication. Discussion groups (or "Newsgroups") would be categorized into a series of "hierarchies," depending on the sorts of topics they covered. You can read about this on Wikipedia or several other sites.

Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.

The "alt.*" hierarchy was developed specifically to include a largely unregulated set of newsgroups. The term meant "alternative," but a standing joke was that it stood for "anarchists, lunatics, and terrorists" because from the beginning it was filled with groups that focused on outrageous or antisocial topics, and its "discussions" were marked by substantial amounts of flame.

It took a full year to get "alt.sex" established on the Internet. It launched in April 1988, after much opposition. Yes, things were different then. Almost immediately (I have found no exact date) the "alt.sex.bondage" newsgroup was formed within the hierarchy. I have not yet found any sex stories on the Internet before the institution of alt.sex, but long-time netizens swear they existed. With the forming of alt.sex, though, explicit stories on the internet took off.

The Take-Off

Google Groups contains discussion posts to the alt.sex.bondage newsgroup from as early as June 1989, and it was a.s.b. that pioneered posting stories of unconventional sex. For example, it had been the site for the "Perverts and Weirdos Digest," which long-time netizens have referred to as a major, early source of unconventional Internet sex discussion and advocacy, and which was already defunct by mid-to-late 1989.

The earliest actual sex stories I have found on alt.sex and alt.sex.bondage were posted in September 1989, but sex stories were certainly posted much earlier than that. What happened to them? Though Google boasts about how much it has saved, much was not, at least from the `alt' hierarchy - or else it was actively deleted. For whatever reasons, the Google Groups archive of `alt' posts is severely incomplete before the late-1990s. For example, I have found no original "Perverts and Weirdos Digest" postings on Google Groups. The entire last year of original postings of stories by `deirdre,' my favorite among the `old' writers, is missing from Google Groups. That's about half her stories. Damn!

Many of the earliest stories that still exist are about sexual interludes - stories about consensual sexual encounters between (for the most part) college students, which makes sense given that the early Internet existed mainly on major university campuses, along with a few government agencies and a handful of corporations. Computer geeks dominated early Internet posting, so of course there were stories of computer geeks getting lucky.

The earliest story with any hot button issues I have found is a gay bondage/domination tale titled "The Costume Party," posted to a.s.b. October 28, 1989 This is also one of the earliest posts I have found from an anonymous posting service (later called "anonymous remailers"). More about these later.

As I mentioned, stories about unconventional or antisocial sex may well have been deleted by system administrators. There is a famous incident of this from late 1989 or January 1990, concerning the story "Cindy's Torment," which dealt with a corporate executive and his secretary who systematically rape, torture and humiliate a young Asian woman. The story appeared on a.s.b. but then simply disappeared, apparently censored by a gifted system administrator or several administrators. This was a difficult task because newsgroup posts are not held in a single server. They are deposited into the servers of all service providers that subscribe to the newsgroup. In the case of "Cindy's Torment," the story was reposted and re-reposted and, in fact, can be found today if you look around. An article on Wikipedia, however, states that other stories were more successfully censored, and some universities (e.g., the University of Waterloo) stopped allowing access to any newsgroups in the "alt" hierarchy.

By November 1989, differences in the tastes and desires of posters at a.s.b. led them to discuss labeling stories to "warn" readers of the contents. The labels suggested were acronyms (ex: FD/MS for "female dominant/male submissive" or "het" or "hom" for heterosexual versus homosexual), which leads me to believe that they might have been used earlier (see this thread). At alt.sex.stories, there are stories with story codes in the subject lines, dating as early as April 1993.

By May 1992 the "alt.sex.stories" newsgroup had been founded specifically for the posting of stories rather than sexual discussion. At about the same time "alt.sex.stories.d" was created for discussion of sex stories and related topics. The proliferation of "spam," or unwanted advertising and solicitations on the newsgroup, led to the creation of the "alt.sex.stories.moderated" newsgroup in 1996-1997. Unlike the situation on much of the alt.sex hierarchy, posts to a.s.s.m. go to a set of moderators who screen out spam. In 1997 an associated Web site, the "Alt.Sex.Stories.Text.Repository" was formed. Since that time a wide array of sex-stories Web sites have appeared, most of them free (some use advertising for revenue), though there are also a growing number of subscription ezines.

Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.

The Demand-Side Growth of Sex Stories in Cyberspace

The rapid growth in numbers of posted stories shows a reservoir of fantasies that needed only opportunity to find expression in print. How fast did the flow of stories develop? There are no reliable counts of stories on the Internet from the early time period, but stories were harvested by individuals for their personal archives. An a.s.s.d. post from May 13, 1993, stated that the poster had about 1,600 sex stories in his personal archive (later in the year he upped the count to 3,000), and that he intended to repost them before deleting them. A poster with the pseudonym "Nobody" replied that he had a personal archive of 3,400 stories. At about this time, the first sex story archive sites began to appear - again largely at university sites.

Google Groups provides month-by-month tallies of posts to all the thousands of Usenet groups in its archives. While, as I said earlier, a large number of posts from the early years of the alt-hierarchy have not been archived, the counts can give lower estimates of the number of actual posts. Alt.sex, for example, had only 58 posts in 1988, but it reached a peak of over 240,000 posts in 1997, before declining to its current level of 30,000 to 40,000 posts per year. Over the years, most alt.sex posts have become spam. Alt.sex.stories began with 84 posts in 1992, reached a peak of 105,000 posts in 1997, and now has 25,000 to 30,000 posts per year, most of them also now spam. We have to turn to the a.s.s.d. and a.s.s.m. groups to get fairly accurate counts of participation.

As stated earlier, a.s.s.d. is purely a discussion newsgroup. It can be used as an index of total interest in on-line sex-stories. Posts to the newsgroup can be found as early as 1992, but it is not possible to get completely accurate counts of posts. The numbers provided by Google Groups are slightly different from those one gets by using the Google search engine. Moreover, because of the rapid increase in spam with the development of the World Wide Web, the newsgroup in 1997 began having discussants tag their posts with a label "{ASSD}," which members refer to as "the curlies," to differentiate true posts from commercial ones. The reliability of Google archives is questionable here, as the {ASSD} posts sometimes outnumber the overall Google count. In any case, a.s.s.d. has received tens of thousands of legitimate (non-spam) posts per year for a long time, with a maximum of well over 40,000 in a year. Last year there were about 24,000 a.s.s.d. posts with "curlies" in the headers.

A.s.s.m., as a moderated site, gives us the purest measure of story posting. For practical purposes it began in early 1997 and in its first year it posted over 5,000 stories. In 1998 over 10,000 stories were posted there - its peak year. There was a sharp drop in 1999, because the original moderator ("Eli the Bearded") left and there was a delay of several months before a team of moderators replaced him. Afterwards, it resumed at a rate of over 5,500 posts (individual stories and story chapters) per year, before declining in the two most recent years to about half that rate.

The Move from Usenet to the Web

I don't think the drop in participation in the alt.sex hierarchy shows a weakening of the sex stories movement. It seems to be a defection of writers from Usenet to the Web. Many people who have come to the Internet in the past decade are completely unfamiliar with Usenet, having worked only with Web browsers. Moreover, each internet service provider can choose which Usenet groups it will carry, and many refuse - for example - to carry sexually-oriented sites. The largest ISP, AOL, decided in 2004 to stop supplying Usenet entirely. Today Usenet can be accessed via the Web, for both reading and posting, via services such as Google Groups, but it faces stiff challenges for viewers from Web-based discussion groups, instant messaging, email-based discussions, blogs, and so forth.

An example of the growth of story sites on the Web can be found at StoriesOnLine, founded in mid-1999. From 2000 through 2005, the number of stories posted there rose from 542 to over 2,700 per year. The 2005 count is virtually identical to the number of posts to a.s.s.m., but represents a clear upward trajectory. The first nine months of 2006 set it on track for breaking that record (about 280 stories per month, extrapolating to about 3,400 stories for the year). As of today (October 1st, 2006), its search engine shows that it has 15,504 stories in its archives.

There are a large number of smaller sex stories sites, but as successful as it is, SOL is not among the largest sites. ASSTR may be the largest one. Founded in 1997 as the Web-companion to a.s.s.m., it has grown steadily and is now also the home for an authors' archive site, other newsgroups, and several Web story sites, and is also the mirror site for other archives. ASSTR is a U.S. tax-exempt institution. It accepts no advertising, but lives entirely on donations. Whereas a.s.s.m. seems to have about 54,000 posts in its archive, the ASSTR engine indicates that, as of today, it possesses over 318,000 indexed stories. Yes. Now these are not are all unique stories, as there may be many reposts from different sites, multiple chapters for a single long story, and stories reposted or revised by the authors themselves. Because most story sites are non-commercial, and copyright is held by the authors, individual stories may be posted at a.s.s.m., SOL, and Literotica, and archived on ASSTR. They may also appear at other sites, including commercial ones. In any event, the number of story posts added to the archive has grown from about 30 per day in its earliest years, to somewhere between 60-200 per day recently. It appears on-track to acquire at least 36,000 new posts this year.

ASSTR also provides free archive space for authors, who can store their stories either on an FTP site or a personal Web page. ASSTR claims to have "over 1,000" authors in its author section, but that number seems to be a severely out of date. A count of the author folders in the FTP section (which misses authors who use Web access), finds over 2,100 separate author names.

The next largest erotic stories site, Literotica, advertises having over 75,000 stories on its site. That number too may be out of date. Though unlike ASSTR it restricts the stories it will accept, by refusing to post stories portraying sex with a person under the age of 18 or stories of bestiality (probably because of Canadian law), it still posts roughly 500 stories per week, or about 25,000 stories per year. It is international in its orientation, and the site is available in six languages.

Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.

There are, as well, a growing number of subscription e-zines that compete for many of the more focused sex-story writers, and that add formatting and illustrations, though the number of stories they post is small in comparison to the free story sites. Many of them, such as "Ruthie's Club," hold exclusive publication rights for a fixed period of time (six months in the case of "Ruthie's"), after which the authors can freely post elsewhere.

Readers

The issue of the popularity of sex stories is not just of the number of writers or stories, but of readers. These are difficult to ascertain, but some sites keep counts of the number of times individual stories are accessed. ASSTR may have the largest number of downloads, but at this time software problems keep the site from providing that information. During the period that the site provided download counts, well-established writers with a large number of stories could find total downloads in the tens of thousands per year.

There are, though, many currently documentable readers. The single most downloaded story at Literotica, for example, is "A - My name is Alice," about a middle-aged housewife who is seduced by her teenage son. "Alice" has been downloaded almost 3.7 million times since August 2001. The top 95 stories in the site's archive have each been downloaded over half a million times. A typical story will be downloaded from several hundred to several thousand times.

While the number of readers of SOL stories cannot compare with those at Literotica, the top 46 stories in its archive have each been downloaded over 100,000 times. The number one story, "Jack and Jill," a 118-chapter story about high-school sex and romance, has been downloaded over 320,000 times. A typical story will be downloaded several hundred to several thousand times.

The picture is clear. As soon as it was possible to post sexually-explicit stories with a degree of anonymity, a large - and growing - body of individuals began doing just that. A much larger population downloads and reads the stories.

Problems in Storyland

One might think that the widespread nature of sex story posting, and its enormous readership, would give the enterprise acceptability. That may be so to some extent, but it has some characteristics that could, as the social theorist Erving Goffman put it, "spoil the identity" of people who write the stories. There are at least two major things that could do this. The first of these is our incessant focus on sex. Whatever other genres our stories may touch - romance, science fiction, gothic, detective stories, fan-fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, or even poetry - the focus is on sex, almost always explicitly.

A large proportion of the stories deal with sex alone - with pursuing it, with achieving it, with peak sexual experiences, or with sex that is unusual in its manner, frequency, intensity, or expression. Though there are talented writers in cyberspace who can and do write well-crafted stories, in general stories focus on the physical characteristics of sex to the detriment of plot, characterization, description and other basics of story-telling. This is so well-known that known that by the mid-1990s a light-hearted (but not completely inaccurate) list of "The Top-10 Clichés of alt.sex.stories," began circulating and soon expanded to dozens of clichés. The following are representative:

(1) When a woman orgasms, she screams, "Ohhhh, I'm cuuummmiiinnnggg!!!!!!

(2) All men have penises at least 9 inches long and 3 inches wide

(3) Blond goddesses with gigantic breasts and gorgeous bodies are all secretly in love with nerdy computer geeks, and their ambition is to move into the apartment next door to a computer geek.

(4) Babysitters are the luckiest people on the face of the earth.

(5) When a husband finds that his wife has been cheating on him, he is more turned on than angry.

(6) When a woman finds that her husband wants to watch her have sex with other men, she thinks it a swell idea. Or, in general - When one person wants some kind of non-standard sexual behavior, everybody else agrees.

I don't want to leave the impression that the clichés define on-line sex stories, but ours are "genre" stories and within any genre there is a limit to the breadth of expression. For every "Maltese Falcon," there are innumerable, throw-away, detective novels. In addition, few of the on-line writers are professionals, and one must - finally - remember that a normal characteristic of this particular genre is the search for sexual arousal. A criterion commonly used in ranking stories, in fact, is their amount of "stroke."

Then there's the second reason why sex story writers could face spoiled identities. The stories aren't just about sexual love, such as is common even in some lines of romance novels. Because they represent sexual fantasy and are shared anonymously with strangers, there are few limits to how extreme the stories can be. People can - and do - include in their stories activities they would never consider undertaking in real life. Stories include romances, sexual interludes, and loving, marital sex, but they also include homosexuality, adultery, and such hot-button themes such as sodomy, incest, kidnapping, rape, bondage, domination-and-submission, sadomasochism, torture, scat (feces), water-sports (urine), mind-control, bestiality, pedophilia, mutilation, and snuff - sometimes in complex combinations.

To allow one's spouse, child or associate to know that one not only has had such a fantasy, but that one has taken the trouble to develop it into a story and post it on line, could be disastrous for the writer. This concerns not only the writer of extreme stories but - for example - the husband who posts stories of gay soldiers or the wife who writes lesbian romances. In either case, the revelation of this hidden side of one's partner can spoil his or her identity and ruin the relationship.

This has often been discussed on a.s.s.d. and related sites, and it is not just a hypothetical problem. Posters have complained that their spouses have called the police to accuse them of sexual crimes, and the fact of having posted stories has been used in divorce proceedings. Being "outed" is a terror for many. One of the most famous sex-stories writers from the mid-1990s wrote that having her identity revealed was "my own very worst nightmare."

Probably the very worst outcome of sex-story writing is arrest. Americans may not consider that likely, since in the U.S. writing has substantial Constitutional (First Amendment) protection. In other countries, even ones that seem more sexually liberal than the U.S. (Canada; the U.K.) writing does not have the same explicit protection, so that, for example, stories of sex with teenagers might subject one to criminal sanctions. Still, even within the U.S. there are examples of arrests and seizures for posting sex stories on the Internet.

In 1995, Jake Baker, a University of Michigan student, was arrested and prosecuted for a story on Usenet about kidnapping, raping, and murdering a woman with the same name as a UM classmate. The prosecution was ultimately dismissed by a Federal judge. In October 2005, "Red Rose Stories," a subscription site that specialized in pedophilia and extreme fiction, was effectively closed through seizure of the owner's equipment by the FBI. In October 2006, "Rosie" was charged under Federal statutes with posting obscenity on line.

Anonymity and Sex Stories

Because of such possibilities, most people in the sex stories community work hard to protect their anonymity. The two major ways of doing this are via the adoption of pseudonyms (nyms) and the use of anonymous email addresses. Both grew along with the sex-stories movement and may be intrinsically connected to it.

Many early sex-story posts appeared with the writers' real names and email addresses - usually provided by universities. Even if a person uses a pseudonym, her emails carry her address and the path by which the message came to its destination, thus allowing a person in the know to track the message to its source. That is, in fact, how Jake Baker was identified. To provide more anonymity, by the late 1980s people began offering anonymous posting services. An anonymous posting service, or anonymous remailer, is a vendor that receives an email or post, strips away all identifying information, and re-transmits just the text of the message to the intended recipient.

The most famous anonymous remailer was "anon.penet.fi," which operated out of Helsinki, Finland in the mid-1990s. The ease of running one is clear from the fact that Penet was the largest remailer in the world at that time but was run using a pre-Pentium based PC. I have seen claims that most people who use remailers are part of one or another of the Internet's sex communities, but Penet's demise had nothing to do with sex. It came about because of a 1995 suit by the Church of Scientology, in California, over church documents released to a Scientology discussion group. The poster had used the Penet remailer to mask his or her identity, but Finnish authorities enforced an Interpol subpoena requiring the administrator, Johan Helsingius, to release information about the person, and he then closed the site because he could not guarantee the anonymity of users.

I have been informed by long-time netizens of widespread speculation at the time that the demise of Penet would mean the end of sex stories on Usenet, perhaps of Usenet itself. Obviously that did not occur. In fact, in the past decade there have developed a large number of Web-based email systems that do not require either a verified name or access from a particular location (e.g., Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc.). These serve hordes of posters today.

Not all sex-stories writers are concerned about release of their real-world identities, but the enterprise would probably not exist without anonymity. Recent FAQs to authors, from the a.s.s.m. moderation team, begin with a "special" note:

"When posting to A.S.S.M., please take care to use an email address that will neither reveal your real name nor can be tied to your real name. Many former A.S.S.M. posters email the ASSTR administration years after they originally posted a story requesting the removal of their name or the story in its entirety. While ASSTR will always gladly comply with such requests, it has no ability to get the story and associated poster's real name removed from search engines' search results. For this reason, ASSTR highly recommends that posters use a pen/pseudoname when posting to A.S.S.M.."

Photo (c) Copyright 2006 John Nemeth. All Rights Reserved.

Playing up the Community

Following anonymity, story posters deal with the stigmatized nature of their practices by various forms of community-building. There is much talk at a.s.s.d., for example, of the writers' "community" both as a body of personal acquaintances and as authors. Though few will ever know each others' real names, locations, or sometimes even genders, posters come to be familiar and comfortable with each other, and share personal information. In some cases posters drop anonymity with one another, at least in emails. It probably will not surprise one to find that netizens' identities may be far from those of their everyday lives.

On the a.s.s.d. newsgroup, birthdays, illnesses, marriages, divorces, or deaths are announced, and there is ongoing bantering. Conversation is almost never seductive. People argue over issues such as whether sex story writers in the U.S. need to worry about crackdowns by the government, or the meaning of research showing that more women are having lesbian experiences. Because people who communicate via pseudonyms tend to appear and disappear quite suddenly, there are occasional posts asking if anyone knows what has happened to X. The quality of interaction is no different from that at non-sex sites, including the occasional "flame war."

One theme that marks discussion is a focus on writing. People often share lists of favorite authors or stories - both sex stories and "mainstream" stories. There are reviews of recent stories. The most famous reviewer, "Celeste," discussed and rated thousands of stories between 1995 and 2000, after which, complaining that writers were too thin skinned and hostile, she disappeared. There are story festivals on different themes. There is an informal "Hall of Fame." There is discussion of the nature of writing and an abiding concern with being taken seriously as a community of writers. There are awards. On the a.s.s.d. site, there are monthly and annual awards - in various categories - called respectively the Silver or Golden "Clitorides." There was an institutionalized forum on a.s.s.d. for reviewing and polishing stories, called "The Fish Tank." Its founder and administrator, Desdmona, has moved it to the Web, where it is modeled on mainstream story review sites like Francis Ford Coppola's "Zoetrope." There are other review sites as well.

Despite all the risks, privately-written and posted sex-stories flourish in a large corner of cyberspace. The moment it became possible to write and post their fantasies, a large number of people rushed to do it, and the flood has grown over the years. Sex stories aren't the only sorts of stories posted on-line. Every genre is represented in cyberspace - though all of them seem to have big dollops of raunch. It must have been that there was a vast reservoir that only needed tapping, that once released is hard - impossible? - to stop. We're riding the wave at this moment.

Postscript

Since completing the essay, I have found an original "Perverts and Weirdos Digest" thread at the "Temple of the Screaming Eagle" Web site.

The thread consists mainly of discussions of bondage and domination topics — no stories. What makes it interesting (for purposes of this little history) is that it documents an Internet focus on unconventional sex earlier than what's available directly via Google Groups. The posts are all dated from September 9 through September 13, 1988, and the thread comes with a number: "V1N13." Some people believe that P&WD emerged in the pre-Renaming period, but Dave Mack, a founder, stated in a 1991 post (reposted in 2002) that the first issue came out around August 7, 1988, and the last was around March 4, 1989.

Research is fun.

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