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by Robert M. Young

When my colleague, Nick Crossley, invited me to give this talk some months ago he also suggested the title. Since I was and am writing a book on sexuality and have also written various essays about the internet, it seemed appropriate, so I accepted both the invitation and his proposed title. However, when I began to try to collect my thoughts I got into an awful muddle, one which I want to share with you, because I think it is a useful way of introducing what I want, on reflection, to say.

As soon as I wrote down the word ‘sexuality’ I was plunged into all the reasons I wanted to write a book on the topic. When I first heard about psychoanalysis on the day I arrived at university nearly half a century ago, it was from a new classmate with whom I had been randomly assigned to share a set of rooms. He had attended one of the great private schools in New England, which are called prep schools in America, and he had all of the pseudo-sophistication which young boys from such backgrounds affect. This is well-portrayed by Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which had appeared two years earlier: lots of cocky lip about sex but little actual experience or subtlety. I had been to a state school, called a public school, in Texas, and I’d had some pretty furtive sexual experiences but was burdened by no theory at all. He hooted when he learned I’d never heard of Freud (I had never heard of Marx or Darwin, either, but he never discovered that, thank goodness). He proceeded to give me a lightning introduction to psychoanalysis: ’Freud’s the guy who says all doorways are cunts and all neckties are dicks.’ And that, for a time, was my concept of psychoanalysis. Everything was sex. Some years later I began to read for myself and discovered the distinction between sex and sexuality, a far richer concept rooted in the libido theory of orthodox Freudianism. For Freud, 'sexual' was all-embracing and meant any attribute of living tissue expressing negative entropy. This is what he meant by 'libido' (Stoller, 1986, p. 12). It was, in effect, one side of the dual instinct theory, the energy of Eros, what some of his contemporaries called ‘the life force’.

Since Freud, however, there has been a decline in adherence to biologism and the classical libido theory and object relations have come to be seen as a more comprehensive approach to human nature and the inner world. Object relations theory developed in the work of Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn and Donald Winnicott (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983). There are important differences between their formulations. For example, Fairbairn was explicitly turning his back on biology in a way which Klein did not, and Klein considered internal objects the sine qua non of having a mind, while Fairbairn believed that a truly sorted out person would have no internal objects. The broad effect of the turn to object relations on psychoanalytic thinking, doctrinal differences notwithstanding, was to point to relations with the good and bad aspects of the mother and other important figures and of part-objects and to treat relations with objects, rather than the expression of instincts, as the basic preoccupation of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical work. The focus is on relations rather than drives. As the song says, 'the object of my affection can change my complexion from white to rosy red', rather than focusing on the aim of the instinct as specified in a biologistic metapsychology (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983, p. 126). Once you do this, sex, sexuality and sexual energy no longer provide either the rhetoric or the conceptual framework for how we think about the inner world. Love, hatred, unconscious phantasy, anxiety and defences have come to the foreground (p. 137). Object relations theorists approach the matter the other way round from the libido theory of Freud and Abraham: libido is not seen as pleasure-seeking but object-seeking (p. 154). Libido does not determine object relations; object relations determine libido (p. 157). It has been my recent experience that sex in its narrow sense plays a surprisingly small role in psychotherapy training and supervision and the literature. Indeed, some years ago I went to a public lecture by a psychoanalyst, Dr. Dennis Duncan, with the title 'What Ever Happened to Sex in Psychoanalysis?'. André Green has recently asked, in a similar vein, ‘Has Sex Anything to Do with Psychoanalysis?’ (Green, 1995).

In case you think you have come to the wrong lecture, I hasten to connect this bit of history to my title. As I set out to prepare these remarks I quickly found ‘sexuality’ too broad and bland a term. When I substituted ‘sex’ I found that too narrow. I then tried ‘intimacy’ and was instantly struck by the fact that much of the sex on the internet is quite starkly opposed to, and even a defence against, intimacy — in ways which I shall illustrate in a moment. I eventually realised that my real topic is object relations and breathed a sigh of relief that I had discovered this too late to change the title on the poster, since I dare say if I had advertised ‘Object Relations and the Internet’, there would have been a tiny turnout. So, although I have, in the event, got you here partly under false pretences, I can assure you that I did so with perfect false consciousness and can plead that I am innocent of catch-penny hucksterism and vulgar sexist sensationalism. The one with the dirty mind isn’t me: it’s Nick, closely followed in the voyeuristic pursuit of prurience by those who were attracted by his choice of title, i.e., my audience.

Now to sex versus intimacy. I have a patient who spends some time every night on the internet while his partner is asleep. Until recently he sent up to two hours a day searching for sites concerned with spanking. He’d enter that word on a search engine and then work his way through the sites which came up. He eventually found one which was exquisitely suited to his tastes and can now gratify his daily needs in about half an hour. He shares his flat with a woman friend with whom he professes to want to have a long-term relationship, but, to tell the truth, he prefers to masturbate to the pictures on the spanking web sites rather than make love to her. In fact, he says that the first time he is with a woman he is excited by her, the second time bored, and by the third he despises her. He comes from a part of the world where, during his childhood, his cultural group was subordinated to a dominant one. His father was too insecure ever to move from a clerical job he got in his youth, even though it was far below his talents. He compensated for this by having a hobby which brought him a lot of kudos. His wife came from a family in which men were denigrated by strong women, and she despised him. My patient is one of four children of this bleak relationship. Only one has married. My patient did not get down to having intercourse until his mid-thirties, and it has taken him some years to be able to do it with a even a modicum of skill. Indeed, he is a long way from understanding what real and considerate intimacy is about. What happens in intercourse is for him never lovemaking. He used to use spanking magazines and videos and prostitutes specialising in spanking, but now he prefers the pictures on the internet. It is private, instantly accessible, and there is no real human interaction — no relationship — to conduct except with a fantasy aided by pictures of strangers with exposed bottoms. The women in the internet pictures are always compliant and never answer back. Needless to say, my patient is reluctant to acknowledge that his preoccupation with spanking is vengeful or retaliatory. He refers to is as ‘a bit of fun’, but he does acknowledge that it pleased him when he had a partner willing to indulge his penchant who would return on a subsequent occasion and he could still see the red imprint that his hand had left some days earlier. This is, of course, a fetishism, an example of a class of sexual predilections which its main recent investigator, Robert Stoller, has called ‘the erotic form of hatred’ (Stoller, 1986).

I want to make this as concrete as possible. There is a woman who lives with him and wants to be his partner in the fullest sense and to bear his children, but he finds himself, in spite of his conscious intentions, despising her and thinking of a previous failed relationship and his internet pictures while having intercourse, during which he also finds it very difficult to ejaculate. Make no mistake. He consciously wants to conduct the relationship with the real woman who loves him, and he has supplemented his individual therapy with couple therapy in the hope of becoming able to commit himself to her, but he is inwardly overwhelmed by the template of the dynamics of his parents’ relationship. Internet sex is the fantasy alternative to real intimacy. It is his defence against real relationships. Moreover, his fetishism is as close as he can currently get to intimacy. Stoller stresses that a fetishistic relationship is still a relationship and that it is unconsciously chosen as a compromise of mental forces — far enough from the real thing for the anxiety to be bearable but as close to the sexual places of a partner as can be managed. If we think about it in object relations terms, the object relations between the men and women in his family have left him with a repertoire of internal objects which have determined his choice of libidinal gratifications. It is just as the object relations theorists say: libido does not determine object relations; on the contrary, his object relations determine his libidinal choices.

What about the provision of these materials on the internet? There is a firm offering a free service of counting the number of visits to a given web site on the world wide web. It is called WebSide Story Top 1000. As it happens, the web site of the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies in monitored by this service, which allows us to make some interesting comparisons. We are classified under Health. There are 35 other categories, e.g., agriculture, children, arts, schools. The centre is usually in the top fifteen. Visits to the centre’s site have been accurately measured since 17 November of last year, and there had been 160,905 up until this morning, when it was ranked No 13 and had had 482 visits by mid-day, with about 1000 predicted for the whole day. The centre has averaged 763 visits per day. It is by any standard a successful site as academic sites go, an achievement due in large measure to the work of our webmaster, Ian Pitchford. Now for the comparison. WebSide Story also has a Top 1000 for pornography. In fact, it has a Top 10,000. This morning the number one site on this list had 280,034 visits per day, and number 10 had 103,383. If the Centre continues at it present hit rate it will have perhaps a third of a million visits over a year. All of the top 100 porn sites have over 20,000 hits per day or getting on for seven and a half million each per year; all of the ones up to number 2000 receive over 1400 hits per day or half a million per year. Although the WebSide Story counter service conveys that it lists ‘the’ top 1000 or 10,000, in fact, there are a number of competing services which count hits. Another which calls itself the Top 100 has four sites which receive over 25,000 visits per day, and the top one, called CyberErotica has had 43,613,508 visits since 6 September 1996, less than two years. In case you may be drawing the conclusion that porn looms large on the web, I am told that, large as it is, it only constitutes two per cent of web sites. Also, I am not arguing that at the centre we are in the wrong racket. I am offering a stark perspective on fetishism.

There are many, many fetishisms. Each has its sites, on-line videos and telephone services, discussion groups, and archives of colour pictures. (I say nothing here about a whole other large continent of cyberspace called ’usenet’, which has been investigated in considerable detail by scholars at Carnegie-Mellon University - Rimm, 1995.) I could probably spend the rest of the hour merely listing them, e.g., breasts, hair, body hair, rubber, leather, Asian, black, celebrities, boy-boy, girl-girl, groups, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual, fisting, oral, anal, wet, golden showers, cum shots, brown showers (shit), large (including computer enhancement of body parts), small, pregnant, gross, nasty, limbless, sado-masochistic, tampon fetishism, necrophilia, bestiality (dogs, horses, snakes, etc.; over 99% of bestiality pictures are of women — not men — with animals), over 40, teens, amateurs, cartoons, stories. Most web sites offer thousands or tens of thousands of pictures. One which claims to be ‘the biggest index of pictures on the net!!!’ has over 300,000 files available. It boasts ‘more than 500,000 satisfied customers’ and ‘over a BILLION pictures served’. Most sites offer a few free pictures to entice you to pay to become a ‘member’ for a month, three months, six months, a year. You can pay some by the minute. Many say that they are ‘FREE’, but that means only a sampler. There are a number of ways to pay on-line, usually involving credit cards.

I have to confess that, having grown up in an environment where the mildest sex magazines were strictly taboo, my initial reaction to this cornucopia was fascination, but I can report that if boredom threshold is a sign of not being a fetishist, I soon discovered that I belong to Freud’s ’norm and mild deviation’ population rather than to the world of committed deviance. You will perhaps recall that he wrote, rather charmingly, in my view, 'No healthy person, it appears, can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim; and the universality of this finding is in itself enough to show how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach. In the sphere of sexual life we are brought up against peculiar, and, indeed, insoluble difficulties as soon as we try to draw a sharp line to distinguish mere variations within the range of what is physiological from pathological symptoms' (Freud, 1905, pp. 160-61). On the other hand, things have moved on rather a lot since Freud wrote in 1905 that it was a perversion if the lips or tongue of one person came into contact with the genitals of another or if one lingered over aspects of foreplay which, as he quaintly put it, 'should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim’ (Freud, 1905, pp. 151, 150; cf. p. 211).

I don’t know how porn fared in the Edwardian period, but I saw in a recent newspaper that there are a lot of very rich people today who got that way from selling pornographic magazines and videos, Hugh Heffner, Bob Guccioine and Paul Raymond being the most famous. There must be many more who have made considerable amounts of money selling pornography on the internet, which has the advantage that you do not have to go into a shop and face anyone when you buy it or even find a place at home to hide the magazine or video. It is as essentially private as masturbation itself, and, as one site claims, ’There is more cummin all the time’. I am not here concerned with the question of regulation or the protection of minors. Nor am I entering into the ongoing debate about the pros or cons of pornography (Segal and McIntosh, 1992; Ross, 1993). The only point I want to make is that we have here a very large number of part-object relations which are, by definition, far from wholesome. It should be noted that there is also a large number of people who have posed for the pictures. We can, in principle, take one line about what this remarkably large commercial area of exploitation says about people’s object relations and their abilities to conduct loving relationships with real people and quite another line about freedom of the press, civil liberties and related matters.

I will return to sex later, but for the moment I want to juxtapose what I have written with some thoughts about intimacy. Friends who are disinclined to get involved with the internet have often said to me that they would find it too impersonal and prefer face-to-face (which net people call ’f2f’) encounters. This is nothing like as simple a matter as it may seem at first glance. It is my experience that communication by email is extremely intimate, and I want to share my thoughts about this. People write to me, and I write to people, on the internet with whom I would not exchange letters to be sent through the post (called ‘snailmail’ on the net). We also say things and in ways which would be much less likely to be said face to face, on the phone or in ordinary post, and they are said after a much shorter acquaintance. I think I have come to understand this to some extent. When I write an email it comes out quickly. Grammar and spelling are not important. It is informal. You can do it on impulse and then hit a button and it’s off. You do not have to print out a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, take it out of the house to a pillar box and put it in. It occurs without that whole string of moments during which we can potentially think again. You don’t have to ask, ‘Is this a message I am prepared to have in print in someone else’s house?’ The facts that they can print it out, that it can be archived on their hard disc or even in the records of an email forum and are thereby accessible to total strangers — even more so than a private letter would be — somehow do not come to mind. Once again, not having to take an envelope outside the house is important. It eliminates (or at least mitigates) the dynamics of separation anxiety, of objectification, of a real-world action. It is almost as if it is all occurring in the head. There is no physical artefact outside the screen. The physical parameters of context and how they relate to the sender’s sense of the inner and outer worlds make it a virtual experience, occurring in a space which could be seen as Winnicottian, transitional, neither subjective nor objective but partaking of both (Winnicott, 1951). I feel that there is a lot more to be discerned psychoanalytically about the kind of space cyberspace is.

I have had total strangers write to me about the most intimate matters. I have had them say very flattering or very critical things of a sort I have rarely receive in letters. I have had highly erotic (though rarely sexual in the narrow sense) letters from men and women. I have received extraordinarily intemperate letters (and have sent one or two) from strangers, from acquaintances, from friends, from colleagues. It is if they don’t ‘count’ in the same way letters on letterhead, or even phone conversations, do. It is also the case that email communications can lead to dramatic misunderstandings, due, in part, to the very cues which make it easier to be spontaneous — no nuances of tone of voice, no visual cues. I have made people paranoid or been made paranoid by emails. However, I have often straightened things out quickly by just firing back my distorted interpretation and asking for a reality test.

Students and colleagues write email letters to me from all over the world. I am a member of over 50 email discussion groups, some on psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, others on music I like, on dieting, on history of science, on politics. (There are, by the way 89,382 email forums to choose from and a search engine, Liszt, to help you find ones on topics which interest you.) I help moderate four forums and get over 300 email letters per day, but I only open the ones which are clearly to me or on subjects which interest me. In individual emails and on email forums people are quite often very open and willing to say things I doubt that they would say in other media or face-to-face. Sometimes these ‘threads’ get out of hand and give rise to violent exchanges, called flames, and sometimes they reach such a scale that they are called ‘flame wars’. People have had to be barred from email forums and occasionally forums have had to be shut down because individuals would not settle down or the war could not be stopped. A fine man who moderated an excellent forum on Philosophy of Literature had so regularly to chastise troublesome subscribers that he finally had enough and handed over the running of that forum; more recently he has returned as one of four moderators. There is such a thing as ‘burn-out’ on the net.

The internet is a perfect space for polemics. People can dash off ripostes with no force moderating their reactiveness or their rhetoric, with, as I’ve stressed, no walk to the post box to permit cooling off and the possibility of second thoughts. I have seen exchanges which ran to tens of emails from several people in a single day. I have also seen some remarkably abject and heartfelt apologies and reparations which were graciously accepted. I have recently been writing about the psychodynamics of psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic institutions, and I have received emails from America, Canada, South America and even a whole book from Australia, with detailed, moving and self-exposing accounts of individual and institutional experiences which I think it unlikely that I would get any other way. I also get emails from students which help make life worth living. In one, an American high school student wrote to me about an essay I had put on my web site about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the book which he had chosen for a book report. He said he’d found my essay via a search engine, and who did I think I was trying to write better than Joseph Heller. I thought a lot about this and decided that it might help to say something to him about the genres of literary criticism, exegesis and homage. He wrote back, saying he wasn’t fooled by this response. I don’t think this potentially fruitful exchange would have occurred by ordinary post. You may wonder why I spend my time this way, and the answer is that I care about teaching.

The point I am making with these examples is that the internet seems to me to be erotic in the generic, early Freudian sense of serving the life force. It is also, in my experience and contrary to what common sense might lead one to think, extraordinarily intimate.

Let me give you an example which contrasts sharply with my spanking patient’s use of the internet to avoid intimacy. I know a person who is painfully shy in social settings. In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard him say anything in a class, seminar or social gathering. And yet he is positively gregarious on the net. He has written to all sorts of eminent people, set up all sorts of email forums, web sites and internet organizations, involving tens of thousands of people. He is active on all sorts of forums and has made important and mutually close friendships with people at all levels of academic life. He has flourished intellectually and has the benefit of advice, encouragement, patronage and helpful comments on his writings from the leading figures in his areas of interest and research. He is greatly admired, respected and treated with affection by a lot of people. He is a benefactor of humanity and has brought people into close working relations across a wide range of disciplines. Ask him to dinner, though, or to a conference or to give a talk and you are likely to find him trying to get out of it. I suggest that this person has been able to find greater personal contact and intimacy through the medium of the internet than he would have without it and that his creativity and social relations have thereby been greatly enhanced

I could go on to write at length about other ways in which people find the ineternet intimate, but I won’t, simply because, believe it or not, I have been too shy or reserved and to some extent too technically clumsy to get involved in them. I am referring to IRC, MUDs and MOOs. IRC means Internet Relay Chat, sites where people can be in the same bit of cyberspace at the same time, in effect, conducting a seminar via keyboard and screen while physically scattered around the world. For example, there is an IRC of psychotherapists every Thursday evening (New York time). MUDs and MOOs are more elaborate simultaneous spaces. A MUD is a Multi-User Dimension or a Multi-User Domain, a cyberspace version of Dungeons and Dragons, and a MOO is a MUD which is Object Oriented, a text-based virtual reality site that allows people to connect to the same imagined and complex physical space at the same time. They are completely unlike conventional chat rooms in that they allow the manipulation of and interaction with cyber-objects and cyber-architecture in addition to just chatting with other people. As I said, I have no experience of these, but I have pondered the writings of the MIT sociologist of science, Sherry Turkle, who has shared careful reflections on her own experience, so I will reprise some of my comments on the research in her recent and highly-publicised book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Turkle, 1995; Young, 1996a, 1996b). The topics to which I now turn bring together issues around intimacy, sexuality and object relations.

Turkle writes at length about the question of identity on the internet and more broadly on the nature of the real in a culture of simulation. In particular, she writes about MUDs and MOOs, which she describes as locations in cyberspace where people can be whomsoever they like. They can and do change their genders, their degree of assertiveness and their sexual predilections at will. Anything goes — from flirtation to cross-dressing to virtual rape and weird fetishisms. She analyses this phenomenon at length and gives some fascinating case studies. One is of a young man who was, in RL (the net abbreviation for Real Life) ill and unable to exercise much. In the MUD he became a dashing young man, called Achilles, wooed and won a lovely lady, married her on the net, and other members of the MUD game had a wedding party in Germany, while the virtual husband was languishing in America. The result was not, however, an increase in confidence. He felt devastated by the gap between his game self and his real self. Another of her examples is a person who did gain confidence from roles he played on the net. He treated it as a transitional space, one where he could play and develop at the same time by taking on some major responsibilities in administering the MUD. She tells other stories of constructive use of experimentation with identities during MUDs. The one which struck me most forcibly was a woman who had lost a leg in an accident. In her MUD game, she ’played’ a woman who had lost a leg. What she learned from doing this enabled her to gain self-awareness and self-confidence and to move on to meeting people, including potential partners, off screen or, as true internet addicts say only half-self-mockingly, ‘on RL’, as if real life was just another net channel (Turkle, 1995, p. 186) .

I found these stories moving and illuminating. I think they raise interesting issues, on which Turkle touches but into which she does not go very deeply, about part-object and whole-object relations. On the net it is easy to split into idealised and denigrated part-object relations. This can have huge benefits, as a forum on traumatology showed in providing instant and massive support to people involved in the Oklahoma City bombing. At the other end of the split, however, the armed, right-wing militias in America, members of which planted that bomb, do much of their communicating on the internet. Then there are the paedophiles. In contrast, as I have indicated, people are also much more generous and helpful on the net in scholarly matters than I have found them to be in the rest of life.

Once again, the feature of net culture which seems to me most important at is the lack of physicality, something which in most settings plays a central role in mediating object relations (see Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983; Summers, 1994). Turkle is absolutely right to raise the question, ‘What are the social implications of spinning off virtual personae that can run around with names and genders of our choosing, unhindered by the weight and physicality of embodiment? (p. 249). The net is in important ways uncontained; it has no boundaries, no skin, no density. It is an ideal medium for indulging part-object relations. It seems to offer unlimited access, to allow one to believe that one can know all, to be omniscient, even omnipotent.

In the course of her deliberations Turkle asks the question, ’Is the real self always the naturally occurring one?’ (p. 241). I understand her interest in this matter and the parallels she draws between net culture and the world depicted by postmodernists, but I am an unreconstructed modernist believer that psychoanalytic object relations theory stands four-square against any idea that we can settle for part-object relations, no matter how fundamentally the coherence of the object relations in our internal worlds may be under attack by various forms of distress, superficiality and alienation (Young, 1989; 1994; 1994c). I also grant the utility of some of the explorations of identity which she undertakes, but I am extremely cautious about the evasive, escapist and sometimes perverse aspects of life on the internet. To be blunt, I think some of her questions are posed in wrong-headed ways.

For all the subtlety and perceptiveness of her observations about what she calls ‘gender-bending’ and other experiments with sexual identity, Turkle does not begin to engage with the depth of the issues raised by the intersection of the internet with sexuality. On the subject of virtual sex, she says, ‘Although they involve other people and are no longer pure fantasy [in the way the role playing in MUDs is], they are not "in the world". Their boundary status offers new possibilities. TinySex [as it’s called] and virtual gender-bending are part of the larger story of people using virtual spaces to construct identity’ (p. 226). I think this formulation leaves out a lot and is therefore worrying. For starters, it cannot be squared with either the Freudian or the Kleinian concepts of the Oedipal relationship (Young, 1994), whereby one has to negotiate the rites of passage of the relations between child, mother and father in real time — if I may allude to this fundamental matter using a slightly ironical argot.

I suggest that with respect to pornography, as in the case of email correspondence, email forums, bulletin boards, MUDs and MOOs, the lack of physicality and embodiment is central to the experience. No chance of discovery, no boundaries, no limits, no risks of pregnancy or disease. It’s all in a private space. Even coded names are substituted so that anonymity is guaranteed in this purely private fantasy world where the person clicking the mouse is neither tall nor short, fat nor thin, buxom nor flat-chested, young nor old, potent nor impotent, orgasmic nor not. Sherry Turkle takes a rather optimistic view of the object relations engendered by the internet. She writes, ‘Today, people are being helped to develop ideas about identity as multiplicity by new practice of identity as multiplicity in on-line life. Virtual personae are objects-to-think-with’ (p. 260). She quotes the American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Dreams and beasts are two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature... They are test objects’ (p. 266). I am more ambivalent than she is. It is certainly true that the breakthrough of the computer into the internet makes utterly passé the old view that computers are about information and are only of interest to nerds. One point worth making is that no matter how elaborate and fantastical the things you can do on the net may become, people perforce respond to cyberspace in ways which are still in dialectical relationship with their existing object relations. Some may be able to make use of them in transitional ways which foster growth; others may go to them as a haven and as a place where their vengeful and destructive feelings can be secretly vented, perhaps nurtured. Like any other form of representation, net symbols, messages and images are at least as available for all sorts of use in the metabolism of people’s inner worlds as ordinary letters, phone calls, stills, novels, videos and magazines and are more so than many.

Now for a few thoughts on the net itself. The absolutely fundamental discovery which Tim Berners-Lee made when he sat down to invent the World Wide Web in 1989, was to create associative trails with hypertext links across the entire internet, which had originally been created to serve scientific and military research. He relates that his initial impulse was to overcome his bad memory and the fact that at CERN (the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva where he was on a six-months consultancy) so much was going on that nobody could recall much of what had been done and could not recover things. His first effort was called ’Enquire’, appropriately named after Enquire Within upon Everything, a domestic reference book which first appeared in 1856 and went through 126 editions by 1976, was recast in 1988 and is still going strong (Bremner, 1988, p. vi). He added a browser which would make this potentially endlessly relational network available to non-nerds by writing software which made it user-friendly (an achievement analogous to the user-friendly interface created by the Apple Mackintosh operating system). Then, in 1993 Marc Anderssen and Eric Bina wrote Mosaic, the first of the big browsers and the precursor to Netscape and Internet Explorer, each now in its fourth edition and competing fiercely for your and my loyalty as the industry standard. Anderssen’s most significant innovation was to make it easy to put pictures on web pages, opening up the domain to serious commercialism, including, of course, porn (Naughton, 1998). This has more recently been followed by a cheap device called CU-SEE-ME, whereby anyone can communicate visually between computers which are on the net.

Whatever else they are or may become, computers on the net are already rich in imaginative possibilities, serving both conscious fantasies and unconscious phantasies, utterly facilitative in making new contacts with individuals and perspectives with whom and with which one would be much less likely to make contact by other means. It allows one to dip into something with low investment, low personal risk, low exposure, low commitment. At the same time it can lead to tremendously rewarding and tremendously troubling new contacts, ones which can be rapidly developed and expanded.

I want now to move from my reflections and those of Sherry Turkle to some data which may be of interest to the quantos among us. What do we know about the people who avail themselves of sexual materials on the world wide web? We are fortunate in having an ongoing statistical survey of internet consumers which was started in October 1995 and has had 25,623 respondents to date. Seventy-five per cent are male, 22% female and tiny numbers are hermaphrodite (0.6%), transvestite (0.5%) or transsexual (0.2%). Ages are skewed toward youth, with three quarters under thirty; only five per cent are, like me, sixty or over. Over half lost their virginity by fifteen (half of those with a school friend), though ten per cent are still virgins. Seventy-eight per cent of those experiences were heterosexual and nine per cent homosexual. Current orientations are 79 per cent heterosexual, 11% bisexual and 4.6% homosexual. A third have had four or less partners and 53% less than ten (mind you, it’s a youngish sample population), and one per cent had more than 200 and 1.7% more than 500. The list of sexual activities frowned upon in some quarters, which are preferred by respondents, is long. Ten attracted over 20%, e.g., threesomes, S&M, orgies; thirty-one more attracted over 10%, including B&D (bondage & domination), voyeurism, heavy anal sex, bestiality, golden showers. Foot fetishism, paedophilia and infantilism come near the bottom with 4% or less. Forty per cent see the net as a benign outlet for sexual frustration, a third say it has made them more open-minded, and 28% say it promotes honest communication. More than half have downloaded erotic pictures and nearly half have read on-line stories (something I have found myself shy away from), while 29.2% have masturbated while on-line. Forty-five per cent believe that the net should be completely open; others favour some mild forms of regulation, and only 2.9% want to shut down all hard-core pornography, and, to my surprise, only 54% would ban children from watching it., while 8% are in favour of their having open access and 31.4% favour access guided by parents or guardians. I don’t have any particular gloss to put on these figures, but I imagine that you will find them of interest. I certainly did.

I remain struck by the ways in which sex on the net is sexy for some and decidedly not so for others, while typed communications — email letters and forums — are in some ways more intimate and sometimes more sexual, than more traditional forms of personal contact. I am in no doubt at all that the internet will loom ever-larger in our communications, and it is government policy that it should do so. In a recent article on the history of the net, John Naughton has suggested that the results of the web plus pictures, pioneered by Berners-Lee, will one day be bigger than all the other industries on earth combined (Naughton, 1998, p. 20). I agree with him, but at this juncture I cannot say what it means for identity, sexuality, sex, intimacy and the fostering of constructive human relations. All I will venture is that it will be a mixed bag and that passion will be a big ingredient. In the 1980s I saw a New Yorker cartoon depicting all the world’s literature, music and films contained in an object the size of a brick. It’s no longer funny. In a famous essay on ’The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, written in 1936, Walter Benjamin warned against too easy access to cultural artefacts (Benjamin, 1936). I recently read that Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type was quickly followed by a burgeoning porn industry. If we extend Adorno’s cautionary note to include total and instant access to other forms of representation and to communication with individuals and groups, what will all this mean for reflection, for authentic communication, for hope for trust and solidarity? I am not sure, but I am betting that the combination of democracy and principled anarchy which characterise the internet and which its designers have very likely made impregnable, will, on balance, give more good than bad results.


This is the text of a Talk delivered to the Public Seminar Series at the Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield, 28 April 1998.


I would like to acknowledge the help of a student, Luisa Lim, who gave me feedback on an essay of mine which on the web and then shared with me the fruits of her own research in a way which is characteristic of net co-operation.


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______ (1905)'Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality' S. E. 7, pp. 125-245. See esp. appendix - 'List of Writings by Freud Dealing Predominantly or Largely with Sexuality', pp. 244-5.

Green, André (1995) ’Has Sex Anything to Do with Psychoanalysis?’, Internat. J. Psycho-anal. 76: 871-83.

Greenberg, Jay and Mitchell, Stephen (1983) Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liszt, the Mailing List Directory. http://www.liszt.com

Naughton, John (1998) ‘The Observer Profile: Tim Berners-Lee, Weaver of the World Wide Web’, Observer Review 19 April, p. 20.

Rawsex. http://www.xxx-rawsex-xxx.com/door1.htm

Rimm, Marty (1995) ‘Marketng Pornography on the Information Superhighway: A Survey of 917,410 Images, Descriptions, Short Stories, and Animations Downloaded 8.5 Million Times by Consumers in Over 2000 Cities in Forty Countries, Provinces, and Territories’, Georgetown Law Journal, pp. 1849-1934. trfn.pgh.pa.us/guest/mrtext.html

Ross, Andrew (1993) ‘The Popularity of Pornography’, in S. During, ed., The Cultural Studies Reader. Routledge pb, pp. 221-42.

Salinger, J. D. (1951) The Catcher in the Rye. Boston.

Segal, Lynne and McIntosh, Mary, eds. (1992) Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate.. Virago pb.

Summers, Frank (1994) Object Relations Theories and Psychopathology: A Comprehensive Text. The Analytic Press.

Stoller, Robert (1986) Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred (1975). Maresfield pb.

Survey Results (1995-) http://www.survey.net/sex1r.html

Turkle, Sherry (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. N. Y.: Simon & Schuster.

WebCounter Plus Sites. http://www.digits.com/top/additional.html

WebSide Story Top 1000. http://www.hitbox.com/wc/world.html?W38510563

WebSide Story Top 1000 Adult Sites. http://www.hitbox.com/wc/top100.adult.html

Winnicott, Donald W. (1951) ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena’, in Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth, 1975, pp. 229-242.

Young, Robert M. (1989a) ‘Postmodernism and the Subject: Pessimism of the Will’, Discours Social/Social Discourse 2: 69-81; also in Free Assns. no. 16: 81-96.

______ (1994) ‘New Ideas about the Oedipus Complex’, Melanie Klein and Object Relations. 12 (no. 2): 1-20, 1994.

______ (1995) ’Psychoanalysis and/of the Internet’, paper presented to ninth annual conference on Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere, London; revised version presented at Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield, 1996.

______ (1996) ‘Is "Perversion" Obsolete?’, Psychology in Society no. 21: 5-26, 1996.

______ (1996a) ’Primitive Processes on the Internet’, paper presented to THERIP annual conference on ‘New Developments in Psychoanalysis’, London, 1996.

______ (1996b) ‘Anthropology of Cyberspace: Essay review of Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet’, Wired, June

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