tagReviews & EssaysSex Stories on the Internet

Sex Stories on the Internet

byH. Jekyll©

Sex Stories on the Internet: The First Twenty or so Years

H. Jekyll

February 2, 2008

One might wonder how sex stories grew so quickly on the Internet. Not sex, per se, pictures or videos of amazing acts, but stories, which take enormous time to write and edit, and time to read. And that pay so poorly -- for the most part not at all. Free sex stories have been present on the Internet almost from its invention and have been considered a "problem" by some outside commentators since at least 1990, predating the World Wide Web by several years.

Sex was successfully censored for generations, maybe centuries. For every period of explicit murals on villas in ancient Rome, or tryst-carvings in Indian caves, there have been long periods when it has been illegal to show the human body, and especially illegal to show it engaged in ecstatic pursuits. This persisted well into the twentieth century. At one point it was a badge of honor for an author's book to be "banned in Boston." I don't need to go into the whys and wherefores. Who doesn't understand the conflicted status of sexuality? On the one hand, loving, vanilla sex between spouses is generally considered praiseworthy. On the other hand, there are all those other sexual activities, choices of partners, and desires. You do that? You do it with whom? You fantasize about what? Any "excessive" concern with sex -- even between spouses -- raises eyebrows, and this is a serious enough issue that people generally mask their desires and practices. Have you talked with your neighbors recently, about that little experiment you and your honey tried?

Still, sex stories have grown, and they thrive. How so? Let's trace them, beginning with the Internet's "Great Renaming"

In the distant past, when wooly mammoths ruled the plains, most messages on the Internet were passed via a "bulletin board." system ("BBS") that directly led to today's "Usenet." Unlike email, bulletin board posts went to a group, not an individual. They were stored on an accessible location on a server, where they were available for reading by whoever knew the Internet address. Problem: The proliferation of bulletin boards on the different systems then in existence made the system chaotic and difficult to use. In 1986-1987, the "Great renaming," was undertaken by major system administrators, to better organize communication. Discussion groups (or "newsgroups") would be categorized into a series of "hierarchies," depending on the sorts of topics they covered.

The "alt.*" hierarchy was developed specifically to include a largely unregulated set of newsgroups. The term meant "alternative," but a standing joke was that it stood for "anarchists, lunatics, and terrorists" because from the beginning it was filled with groups that focused on outrageous or antisocial topics, and its "discussions" were marked by substantial amounts of flame. It was at 'alt' that most sex on the Internet found an early home.

It was actually a full year after the Great Renaming that the "alt.sex" hierarchy was established. It launched in April 1988, after much opposition and, apparently, almost surreptitiously. Yes, things were different then. I have not yet found any sex stories on the Internet before the institution of alt.sex, though long-time netizens swear they existed. With the forming of alt.sex, explicit stories on the internet took off. Almost immediately (I haven't found the exact date), the "alt.sex.bondage" newsgroup was formed.

The Take-Off

Google Groups contains discussion posts to the alt.sex.bondage newsgroup from as early as June 1989, and it was a.s.b. that pioneered posting stories of unconventional sex. For example, it had been the site for the "Perverts and Weirdos Digest," which long-time netizens have referred to as a major, early source of unconventional Internet sex discussion and advocacy, and which was already defunct by mid-to-late 1989.

The earliest actual sex stories I have found on alt.sex and alt.sex.bondage were posted in September 1989, though sex stories were certainly posted much earlier than that. What happened to them? Though Google boasts about how much it has saved, much was not, at least from the 'alt' hierarchy -- or else it was actively deleted.

For whatever reasons, the Google Groups archive of 'alt' posts is severely incomplete before the late-1990s. For example, The entire last year of original postings of stories by 'deirdre,' my favorite among the 'old' writers, is missing from Google Groups. That's about half her stories.

I have found no original "Perverts and Weirdos Digest" postings on Google Groups, though I have found V1N13 (September 9-13, 1988) at the "Temple of the Screaming Eagle" Web site. The thread consists mainly of discussions of bondage and domination topics -- no stories. What makes it interesting (for purposes of this little history) is that it documents an Internet focus on unconventional sex earlier than what's available directly via Google Groups. Some people believe that P&WD emerged in the pre-Renaming period, but Dave Mack, a founder, stated in a 1991 post (reposted in 2002) that the first issue came out around August 7, 1988, and the last was around March 4, 1989.

Many of the earliest stories that still exist are about sexual interludes -- stories about consensual sexual encounters between (for the most part) college students, which makes sense given that the early Internet existed mainly on major university campuses, along with a few government agencies and a handful of corporations. Computer geeks dominated early Internet posting, so of course there were stories of computer geeks getting lucky.

The earliest story with any hot button issues I have found is a gay bondage/domination tale titled "The Costume Party," posted to a.s.b. October 28, 1989. This is also one of the earliest posts I have found from an anonymous posting service (later called "anonymous remailers"). More about these later.

As I mentioned, stories about unconventional or antisocial sex may have been deleted by system administrators. There is a famous incident of this from late 1989 or January 1990, concerning the story "Cindy's Torment," which dealt with a corporate executive and his secretary who systematically rape, torture and humiliate a young Asian woman. After the story appeared on a.s.b. it simply disappeared, apparently censored by a gifted system administrator or several administrators. This was a difficult task because newsgroup posts are not held in a single server. They are deposited into the servers of all service providers that subscribe to the newsgroup. In the case of "Cindy's Torment," the story was reposted and re-reposted and, in fact, can be found today if you look around. Other stories were more successfully censored, and some universities (e.g., the University of Waterloo) stopped allowing access to any newsgroups in the "alt" hierarchy.

By November 1989, differences in the tastes and desires of posters at a.s.b. led them to discuss labeling stories to "warn" readers of the contents—what today we call "story codes." The labels suggested were acronyms (ex: FD/MS for "female dominant/male submissive" or "het" or "hom" for heterosexual versus homosexual), which leads me to believe that they might have been used earlier. At alt.sex.stories, there are stories with story codes in the subject lines, dating as early as April 1993.

In March 1990, a moderated, erotic stories site was founded in the "rec" (recreation) hierarchy, rec.arts.erotica. The idea was to have posted erotic stories passed on by a moderator or panel, to screen out. R.a.e. still exists as a newsgroup with very low activity, but it never "took off" the way stories in alt.sex did, apparently in part because the work was too much for the moderator and because there was a desire to exclude stories of low judged quality. That would change with alt.sex.stories.

By May 1992 the "alt.sex.stories" newsgroup had been founded specifically for the posting of stories rather than sexual discussion. At about the same time "alt.sex.stories.d" was created specifically for discussion of sex stories and related topics. The proliferation of "spam," or unwanted advertising and solicitations on the newsgroup, led to the creation of "alt.sex.stories.moderated" in 1996-1997. A.s.s.m. was like r.a.e. in that stories were moderated before posting (initially by its first true moderator, Eli the Bearded; later by teams of moderators), but it did not screen for "quality," leaving that up to readers. Anything but spam is allowed, at least hypothetically including stories that have nothing to do with sex. In 1997 an associated Web site, the "Alt.Sex.Stories.Text.Repository" (asstr.org) was formed. Since that time a wide array of sex-stories Web sites have appeared, most of them free (some use advertising for revenue), though there are also a growing number of subscription ezines.

The Demand-Side Growth of Sex Stories in Cyberspace

The rapid growth in numbers of posted stories shows a reservoir of fantasies that needed only opportunity to find expression in print. How fast did the flow of stories develop? There are no reliable counts of stories on the Internet from the early years, but stories were harvested by individuals for their personal archives, and these show tremendous growth.

An a.s.s.d. post from May 13, 1993, stated that the poster had about 1,600 sex stories in his personal archive (later in the year he upped the count to 3,000), and that he intended to repost them before deleting them from his computer. A poster with the pseudonym "Nobody" replied that he had a personal archive of 3,400 stories. At about this time, the first sex story archive sites began to appear -- again largely at university sites.

Google Groups provides month-by-month tallies of posts to all the thousands of Usenet groups in its archives. While, as I said earlier, a large number of posts from the early years of the alt-hierarchy have not been archived, the counts can give lower estimates of the number of actual posts, and it can show just how popular sex stories sites became. Alt.sex, for example, had only 58 posts in 1988, but it reached a peak of over 240,000 posts in 1997, before declining to its current level of 30,000 to 40,000 posts per year. Over the years, most of these have become spam. Alt.sex.stories began with 84 posts in 1992, reached a peak of 105,000 posts in 1997, and now has 25,000 to 30,000 posts per year, most of them also spam.

Actually, we must turn to the a.s.s.d. and a.s.s.m. groups to get fairly accurate counts of posts that don't include spam.

As stated earlier, a.s.s.d. is purely a discussion newsgroup. It can be used as an index of total interest in newsgroup sex-stories. Posts to the newsgroup can be found as early as 1992, but it is not possible to get completely accurate counts of posts. The numbers provided by Google Groups are slightly different from those one gets by using the Google search engine. Moreover, because of the rapid increase in spam with the development of the World Wide Web, the newsgroup in 1997 began having discussants tag their posts with a label "{ASSD}," which members refer to as "the curlies," to differentiate true posts from commercial ones. In any case, a.s.s.d. has received tens of thousands of legitimate (non-spam) posts per year for a long time, with a maximum of well over 40,000 in a year, though posts have dropped off dramatically in recent years. In 2007 there were only about 7,500 a.s.s.d. posts with "curlies" in the headers.

As a moderated site, a.s.s.m. gives us the purest measure of newsgroup story posting. For practical purposes it began in early 1997 and in its first year it posted over 5,000 stories. In 1998 over 10,000 stories were posted there -- its peak year. There was a sharp drop in 1999, because Eli the Bearded left and there was a delay of several months before a team of moderators replaced him. Afterwards, it resumed at a rate of over 5,500 posts (individual stories and story chapters) per year, before declining to just over 1,700 posts in 2007.

The Move from Usenet to the Web

So what happened to the sex stories posts? Did the stream dry up? No. The drop in participation in the alt.sex hierarchy seems to indicate a defection of writers from Usenet to the Web. Many people who have come to the Internet in the past decade are unfamiliar with Usenet, having worked only with Web browsers. Moreover, each internet service provider can choose which Usenet groups it will carry, and many refuse -- for example -- to carry sexually-oriented sites. The largest ISP, AOL, decided in 2004 to stop supplying Usenet entirely. Today Usenet can be accessed via the Web, for both reading and posting, via services such as Google Groups, but it faces stiff challenges for viewers from Web-based discussion groups, instant messaging, email-based discussions, blogs, and so forth.

ASSTR may be the largest Web-based sex stories site. Founded in 1997, it has grown steadily and is now also the home for an authors' archive site, other newsgroups, and several Web story sites, and is also the mirror site for other archives. It is a U.S. tax-exempt institution and accepts no advertising, but lives entirely on donations. Whereas a.s.s.m. seems to have about 53,000 posts in its archive, the ASSTR engine indicates that, as of today, it possesses over 363,000 indexed stories.

Yes. Now these are not are all unique stories, as there may be many reposts from different sites, multiple chapters for a single long story, and stories reposted or revised by the authors themselves. Because most story sites are non-commercial, and copyright is held by the authors, individual stories may be posted and archived at several different sites. In any event, the number of story posts added to the archive has grown from about 30 per day in its earliest years, to anywhere between 60-200 per day recently.

ASSTR also provides free archive space for authors, who can store their stories either on an FTP site or a personal Web page. ASSTR claims to have "over 1,000" authors in its author section, but that number seems to be a severely out of date. A count of the author folders in the FTP section finds over 2,100 separate author names.

The next largest erotic stories Web site—probably the largest one without a specific newsgroup tie-in—is Literotica. It advertises having over 75,000 stories on its site. That number too seems out of date. Though unlike ASSTR it restricts the stories it will accept, by refusing to post stories portraying sex with a person under the age of 18 or stories of bestiality (probably because of Canadian law), it still posts roughly 500 stories per week, or about 25,000 stories per year. It is explicitly international in its orientation, and the site is available in six languages.

A third example of the growth of story sites on the Web can be found at StoriesOnLine, founded in mid-1999. From 2000 through 2007, the number of stories posted there rose from 542 to over 3,200 per year, and it far exceeded a.s.s.m.'s total. By the end of 2007 there were over 19,000 stories in its archives. That is far fewer than the total of the site's posts, because it counts multi-chapter works as single stories.

There are, as well, a growing number of subscription e-zines that compete for many of the more focused sex-story writers, and that add formatting and illustrations, though the number of stories they post is small in comparison to the free story sites. Many hold exclusive publication rights for a fixed period of time, after which the authors can freely post elsewhere.

Readers

The issue of the popularity of sex stories is not just of the number of writers or stories, but of readers. These are difficult to ascertain, but some sites keep counts of the number of times individual stories are accessed. ASSTR may have the largest number of downloads, but at this time not much general download information is available. Writers can get weekly counts of how often individual stories were downloaded, active writers with a large number of stories may find total downloads in the tens of thousands per year. As an example, I am not one of the most downloaded ASSTR writers, but my full set of stories and chapters at the site can easily total in the neighborhood of 1,000 downloads per week, or about 50,000 total downloads per year. I may be famous.

There are many currently documentable at other Web sites. Literotica provides download totals for every story on the site. Its single most downloaded story is "A -- My name is Alice," about a middle-aged housewife who is seduced by her teenage son. "Alice" has been downloaded over 4.7 million (!) times since August 2001. The top 173 stories in Literotica's archive have each been downloaded over half a million times. A typical story will be downloaded from several hundred to several thousand times.

While the number of readers of SOL stories cannot compare with those at Literotica, the top 70 stories in its archive have each been downloaded over 100,000 times. The number one story, "Jack and Jill," a 118-chapter story about high-school sex and romance, has been downloaded over 334,000 times. A typical story will be downloaded several hundred to several thousand times.

The picture is clear. As soon as it was possible to post sexually-explicit stories with a degree of anonymity, a large -- and growing -- body of individuals began doing just that. A much larger population downloads and reads the stories.

Problems in Storyland

One might think that the widespread nature of sex story posting , and its enormous readership, would give the enterprise acceptability. That may be so to some extent, but it has some characteristics that could, as the social theorist Erving Goffman put it, "spoil the identity" of people who write the stories. There are at least two major things that could do this. The first of these is our incessant focus on sex. Whatever other genres our stories may touch -- romance, science fiction, gothic, detective stories, fan-fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, or even poetry -- the focus is on sex, almost always explicitly.

A large proportion of the stories deal with sex alone -- with pursuing it, with achieving it, with peak sexual experiences, or with sex that is unusual in its manner, frequency, intensity, or expression. Though there are talented writers in cyberspace who can and do write well-crafted stories, in general stories focus on the physical characteristics of sex to the detriment of plot, characterization, description and other basics of story-telling. This is so well-known that known that by the mid-1990s a light-hearted (but not completely inaccurate) list of "The Top-10 Clichés of alt.sex.stories," began circulating and soon expanded to dozens of clichés. The following are representative:

(1) When a woman orgasms, she screams, "Ohhhh, I'm cuuummmiiinnnggg!!!!!!

(2) All men have penises at least 9 inches long and 3 inches wide

(3) Blond goddesses with gigantic breasts and gorgeous bodies are all secretly in love with nerdy computer geeks, and their ambition is to move into the apartment next door to a computer geek.

(4) Babysitters are the luckiest people on the face of the earth.

(5) When a husband finds that his wife has been cheating on him, he is more turned on than angry.

(6) When a woman finds that her husband wants to watch her have sex with other men, she thinks it a swell idea. Or, in general - When one person wants some kind of non-standard sexual behavior, everybody else agrees.

I don't want to leave the impression that the clichés define on-line sex stories, but ours are "genre" stories and within any genre there is a limit to the breadth of expression. For every Maltese Falcon there are innumerable, throw-away, detective novels. In addition, few of the on-line writers are professionals, and one must -- finally -- remember that a normal characteristic of this particular genre is the search for sexual arousal. A criterion commonly used in ranking stories, in fact, is their amount of "stroke."

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