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The book, The Joy of Cybersex, argued that the World Wide Web was a godsend for this reason. Say: ‘Sure, honey, but I’d actually rather be a rocket scientist, okay? Think about it for a few minutes, fix yourself a drink, and succumb to the unknown.

The author of The Joy of Cybersex, Deborah Levine, had spent several years counseling college undergraduates at the Columbia University Health Education program. Like earlier safe-sex activists, Levine used bullet-point lists to introduce the sites her readers should know and to teach them the language that they would need to thrive on them.

Levine encouraged them to use their computers to flirt, start online relationships, and explore their farthest-fetched fantasies without taking real-world risk. The pages she cited ran the gamut from tutorials for geeks, like to resources for free lovers like the Open Hearts Project and

“The driving source behind sex in the 1990s, whether you’re partnered or single, is the human imagination,” Levine declared. The place where imaginations go wild, anonymity is the rule, and desire runs amok.” Like earlier safe-sex educators, Levine used multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires to help readers take stock of what they wanted. The chapter “Overcoming Sexual Inhibitions,” for instance, started with a quiz intended to help you assess how uptight you are. If your best friend started unexpectedly talking about his or her sex life over coffee one day, you would:a. A service called Tri Ess connected heterosexual couples who were into cross-dressing.

But the safer substitutes for sex to be found online offered whole new kinds of titillation.

Spaces like bars and boardwalks shared many features in common with chat rooms. Sure, people worried about other people misrepresenting themselves.

Both were enticing despite being slightly dangerous. A cyberlover might say he was tall and strong when in fact he was short and skinny, or thin when she was fat. Back in the day, in your parents’ parlor, or at a church- or synagogue-sponsored dance, any other young person you met would have been screened in advance. The man who held your hand as you shuddered through the dark of the Tunnel of Love might be anyone.

In others, gay teens who felt isolated in the homes they were growing up in could do the same. By the time he graduated, one in six gay kids who went to high school in the late 1990s would get beaten up so badly he needed medical attention at least once.

But the ambiguous setting of these cyberdates made many people nervous.

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