It doesn’t take an expert to see a correlation between the massive increases in childhood obesity and the rise of the computer age. In 1974, just 6.1 percent of adolescent males were obese, according to the American Obesity Association. By 2000, it was 15.5 percent. You can make a number of valid arguments about diet and exercise, but I can tell you this: If I’d had access to an endless cornucopia of pornography at that age, I would’ve never left the house either.
I’m 34 now and not terribly interested in porn, but I can practically hear my adolescent self calling to me from the early ’90s: “You can see porn seconds after logging onto a computer? WHY AREN’T YOU DOING THAT RIGHT NOW?!” Sure, the pre-Internet age had dirty stuff—history shows a close relationship between pornography and emerging technologies—but describing it now is like hearing my grandparents talk about life before television or indoor plumbing. We might as well have been scrawling dirty pictures on cave walls.
The last computer we had before I left for college in 1994 was a gargantuan no-name “IBM-compatible” machine with maybe a 386 processor—probably slower—that ran this weird hybrid of DOS and Windows. For some reason, when it booted up, it opened to a DOS menu with an option to launch Windows. In addition, we had a VGA monitor, a Panasonic dot-matrix printer, and a dial-up modem that probably hovered around the 8,000 kilobytes/second range.
That modem provided the gateway to social networks of the pre-Internet age: bulletin-board systems. Usually havens for hardcore computer hobbyists, they also occasionally provided low-tech porn to bored, sexually frustrated adolescents like myself. They released us from the shackles of late-night HBO and Cinemax, from our pathetic attempts to decipher scrambled pay-per-view channels, and from the cat-and-mouse game of hiding dirty magazines. We were the foot soldiers of the Internet Porn Revolution.
I don’t recall how I found the BBSs, though I’m sure my equally frustrated friends tipped me off. Connecting to them required an elaborate ruse, because it wasn’t anonymous: They often required a mailing address and phone-number verification to connect—positively Orwellian now, when anonymity rules the Internet landscape. Like the anti-meth rules that limit how much Claritin you can buy at once, these roadblocks made anonymity more difficult, but not impossible. Glancing at my high-school directory, I picked first and last names at random to construct aliases. (My go-to: Frank Rodriguez.) For a legitimate street address, I used the archaic precursor to Google Maps, the Key Map. Key Maps provided detailed street maps of my hometown of Houston, broken down onto letter-sized pages in a spiral-bound book. The index offered a comprehensive list of all streets, with page number and quadrant placement depending on the address.
Unfortunately, there was no way around phone verification: The BBS would disconnect you, then dial you back. From my perspective here in the Anonymous Age, I’m not sure why this was necessary, and it created headaches. My parents had little patience for phone calls waking them up in the middle of the night, even if the phone only rang once before the modem connected.
With the verification complete, you could finally start looking for files. That’s what all of this effort came down to: low-resolution photos, or if you were lucky, equally crappy animated .GIFs: a photo with a couple of seconds of motion on a loop. (I distinctly remember a green monochromatic .GIF that involved a dildo, or at least that’s what it looked like—again, low-res.)
My system worked pretty well, but I had little to show for it. Even though I was the family’s computer expert and only shared the machine with my mom and dad, I couldn’t exactly leave files on it. Any time I looked at that dildo .GIF, I erased it, and if I wanted to look at it later, I had to unerase it in DOS. In retrospect, the labor-intensiveness of this whole system really dwarfed the payoff, but I was an adolescent without any other options.
It didn’t always go to plan. One time my mom walked in on me just as I had arrived to the designated “adult” area of a BBS. I practically tripped over myself telling her I had accidentally stumbled on it and was trying to leave—which is right when the system administrator messaged me (I can’t believe rudimentary instant-messaging existed then) to say “Hey, what’s the hold-up? Finish registering so we can start this!” I disconnected immediately, but the damage had been done: My mom now knew what could be found on these BBSs—with the heat on me, I had to lie low. Not long afterward, Nick Rodriguez, the kid whose last name I used as one of my aliases, killed himself. I’m not sure which made me feel guiltier: that I’d used his name in the first place, or that the first thing I thought when I heard about it was, “Oh shit, the kid whose name I stole!”
In the fall of ’94, I left for college, which quickly alleviated the frustrations that kept me up late at night poring over Key Maps and creating aliases. It’s too bad, in a way: I had a new Compaq desktop with a blazing 486 processor and a 28.8 modem, and no family members to pry into files with racy names. I started to lose interest just as the Internet Porn Revolution took hold. My adolescent self will never forgive me.
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Kyle Ryan is associate editor of The A.V. Club, the pop-culture wing of The Onion. He lives in Chicago with his wife, cat, and refurbished 15-inch MacBook Pro with 2.8 gigahertz processor.
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