When my sister, searching for images of her favorite British pop stars, accidentally typed “Spicy Girls” into Yahoo, the search results made her run, shrieking, from the family computer. “It is probably no coincidence that this sea change comes on us at a time when AIDS lurks in the alleyways of our lives,” a writer for The Nation mused in 1993.Months later, the New York Times reiterated the point.“When I first asked her about this, she initially put it down to ‘just fooling around on the wires.’” “It’s just a hobby,” she said.

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She ceased to be “a rather mousy person — the type who favored gray clothing of a conservative cut …

She became (through the dint of her blazing typing speed) the kind of person that could keep a dozen or more online sessions of hot chat going at a time.” The effects carried over into real life.

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

*** In 1990, only 200,000 households in the United States had Internet connections. (The upward climb has continued to 43 million in 2000 and 85 million in 2013.) When the price of personal computers dropped dramatically in the mid-1990s, many families acquired more computers and moved them out of their living rooms into bedrooms and private places. In many ways, the liaisons between early online boyfriends or girlfriends followed the pattern set by earlier generations of daters. After crossing paths in a chat room, if you hit it off, you could start making appointments to come online at the same time and talk together. In some chat rooms, disabled singles who found it physically challenging to go out or hook up in real life, connected and fell in love.

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.As more and more Americans got online in the early 1990s, they learned how to enjoy relationships that were text-only.Pioneering “cybercitizens” developed forms of dating that were all talk.But the safer substitutes for sex to be found online offered whole new kinds of titillation.To talk (or type) about sex constituted its own kind of intimacy.It contained an article about a woman whose prolific activity in “hot chats” transformed her from a “paragon of shy and retiring womanhood” into a bona fide “man-eater.” The author describes a female friend who spent hours a day in the 1980s on a service called the Source.