by Paulina Borsook
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"America Online was first introduced to me, in 1995, as the Gay Home Shopping Network. The mutual friend who introduced us would later describe AOL as a secret garden, though only in the context of its having been discovered and ruined by hordes of ill behaved crystal meth and sex addicts, and it was not long after that a reader (of a column I’d written about concerns that AOL chat rooms were stoking San Francisco’s syphilis epidemic) wrote in to describe the proprietary online service as a sexual cesspool in which he had contracted every venereal disease I’d ever heard of and a few I hadn’t.
“Thank God for the gays and lesbians,” Steve Case is reported to have said about the queer affinity for AOL, said to have saved the company from insolvency during tough times. By that he primarily meant the gays, and I was one of ‘em. In my mid-to-late twenties, in the mid-to-late 90s, AOL reliably promised instant sexual gratification twenty-four hours a day. Once AOL went to its “all-you-can-eat” fixed-rate pricing, the only thing inhibiting your volume of sexual partners was your stamina, your schedule, your mores, and your aversion to risk.
"Urban gay men were notorious for their promiscuity before AOL; AOL just made it easier. My own period of sexual profligacy came after the Internet electrified the urban gay playground, and seemed to me to bring all the advantages the Internet promised generally: it brought down costs by obviating the need to spend money at bricks-and-mortar retail establishments (bars and sex clubs), saved time for the same reason, and helped consumers negotiate wants, needs, locations, conditions, positions. The pic often didn’t match up with the trick, however; then, as now, the Internet was not much of a gauge of honesty.
"My online carousing came to an end when a friend suggested Salon.com personals. “That’s where all the quality men are,” he said, having just landed a boyfriend with a brain, a body, and a job. AOL hook-ups didn’t always meet those criteria, so I took his suggestion. The only person to reply to my profile was someone who recognized me from stories I’d written for Salon. I’d never strictly sworn not to fuck a fan, so I met him. Four months later we moved in together; a month after that we were domestically partnered in the state of California; and in February we were married in San Francisco City Hall.
"I’m too happy married to a gorgeous 27-year-old intellectual to say that I miss AOL’s gay playground. But the Internet and even the computer itself have lost much of their charge and attraction. There was something about logging onto AOL late at night, poking around in a few chat rooms, chatting up five or six guys at once, exchanging a few pics and quips, and then, voila, having some guy ring your doorbell at one in the morning with a smile and a hard-on--it was better than home shopping. It never felt like a cesspool at the time, though if public health officials were to be believed, it probably was. Secret garden? That’s marriage."