Dangerous Words and the Internet

"You've got mail"
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Content Warning: online harassment, online predators, child exploitation


Sometimes you have to go back in order to move forward. Like a mystery novel where you can’t understand the end because you missed something important in the beginning. Or an adventure video game, if you miss a vital treasure there is no way to get past the level.

Recovering from traumatic experiences is like that. I have had to go back and retrace my steps over and over again to find any healing.

In elementary school, the computer room was full of clunky machines that ran entirely on DOS. I am pretty sure that room was stocked with 1980s tech, I can’t recall having a mouse to use, it was keyboard only. We spent most of the time in there playing Oregon Trail, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. All of us kids were living at the end of the actual Oregon Trail, Oregon City (disclaimer: it is pronounced Or-ih-ghin not Or-eh-GONE, never Or-eh-GONE, we don’t care who taught you or if you try and debate that logically it should be pronounced that way, you’re wrong). Each game had its own floppy disk. Floppy is the perfect term, because each 8-inch disk was a limp and flaccid thing. Shake it and it would flop about, but they were hard to break and had enough juice to operate a basic program.

The computer my dad brought home was futuristic. It ran Windows 3.11 used 3.5 inch hard floppy disks. There was a mouse with a ball on the inside, it got stuck all the time because dust and hair would build up inside. I would take it apart and hope I didn’t lose the ball while peeling away layers of grime from the rolling rods in the mouse. I found it soothing, and would feel let down if there was nothing to clean off the rods when I opened it up.

Police Quest was an obsession of mine. It was made in 1987, I was born a year before its debut, so by the time we were playing Police Quest it was already very out of date. It had hilariously pixelated graphics and a command line interface. It only responded to typed commands like “open door” and the arrow keys directed the character around the screen. The command that always made us laugh was “take off clothes” because the guy in the game would do it but then the game was over. I learned it is frowned upon to go work in a government office and suddenly strip naked. It took so long to win that game because if you didn’t do every necessary step, you would get stuck at a crucial plot point and have to start over. Not really a kid friendly game, but it’s harmless compared to Grand Theft Auto. In the first moments of the game a character jokes, “Do you know how to tell the difference between an oral and a rectal thermometer? The taste.”

It was a simpler time with snail paced noisy dial up service. I can still hear the familiar dial and the screeching hiss of the modem as it worked to power up. Back then we couldn’t stay online very long because it used the same connection as the phone line. My parents eventually had a second line installed, and thus the age of the internet kicked into full gear.

Our main jam was AOL. There was a time when we took a detour through a bizarre online service called WOW! It was brightly colored  was written in a land written in a less legible form of Comic Sans bold italics. It was a relief when we went back to the classic AOL interface. I’m so attached to the old-school AOL “You’ve Got Mail” that I use it on my phone for email notifications.

I was in the online dating game long before it was a thing. My fellow 10-year-old pal JD was my ‘boyfriend’ and we mainly talked online even though he lived next door. A semi-break up message I wrote in 1997 has found its way to the archives of every computer I’ve ever owned.

Tarah told me what you told her.

I’ve been very busy lately. I said you can probably come over this week. I don’t get mad when Tarah comes over uninvited, it’s just you always come when I’m not dressed, or have to do the dishes…or something like that. Besides, I have girls spend the night and not boys…So when she comes over when I need to get dressed, and am in my PJs it doesn’t matter. Sorry that you haven’t been able to come over lately.

If it doesn’t seem like we’re boyfriend and girlfriend…maybe we shouldn’t be…and just be friends. But I’m not dumping you…just saying maybe, if you feel like we should not go out, then we won’t. But if we do stop going out, we can still be friends.

I don’t care which one…friends, or boyfriend/girlfriend. Because friends last a lifetime…boyfriends and girlfriends come and go.

It was not an exaggeration to suggest that doing the dishes would take an extraordinary amount of time for me to complete. My procrastination skills go into overdrive when dishes need to be washed, it’s a problem when you’re 10 and your mom says you can’t go out to play until you do the dishes and it’s a problem when you’re 30 and can’t make dinner until you do the dishes because there are no plates or pans or forks or knives.

I liked JD when I wasn’t with him and when I was with him I didn’t want to be. I thought he smelled, which now I realize was just the scent of a pre-pubescent boy closing in on puberty (sorry JD). Just like every other boy in my class. When we saw each other, it was not any different than playing with other childhood friends. Declaring “boyfriend and girlfriend” status added a layer of awkward even in the days before kisses and hand holding.

As a kid, I longed for even younger days. I used to break up with JD (multiple times, yes) because I would get that feeling of wanting to be a little kid again. I was already a little kid, but I wanted to be really little. I wanted to feel at home. I wanted to feel safe.

This was long before online sexual assault was a well-documented issue. If I was home without a parent, I knew to answer the phone and say mom is in the shower or that dad is mowing the lawn. I knew to not open the door if anyone came knocking. I also knew not to speak with strangers. I didn’t know I needed the same cautious self-protection when I logged on.

I had my own AOLKids username which was a variation on KrisKool9. A/S/L was the go to identifier in chatrooms. Age, sex, location. Without profile photos or an internet trail to trace an identity, it was a free for all. I was generally pretty honest, a girl under 13, but I would use a vague location or none at all. There were chatrooms for every interest and I was fascinated by them all. Sometimes I would not engage, just watching the conversation scroll in real time.

I would receive instant messages from someone I had said hello to in a chatroom. I now wonder if it was often the same person, because it began innocently enough. I thought I was talking to a boy my age who kept wanting a picture of me. Another time it was a girl just a little older than me who would talk to me about touching myself and tell me about puberty. Next came a teenage girl who claimed to be living with her much older boyfriend. She would describe their physical relationship in detail and ask me if I had ever done any of the things she told me about.

I had forgotten about what happened, blocked it out or labeled it imaginary. If a memory fragment floated to the surface of my consciousness, the weight of my shame would push it back down.

Eventually, whoever was messaging me either dropped the act or new people came into the fold. Adults looking for young partners. They would write out explicit messages with graphic detail of what they wanted to do to me. They would describe sex acts as if they were really happening. I was fascinated and uncomfortable.

I didn’t like it if I was pushed to talk about real life and where I lived. I never told the truth about that and I never wanted to see any of these people. I didn’t even think of them as real people.

When my parents bought a webcam, the conversations with strangers became more dangerous and invasive. I was naïve. I was a child. I would tell other AOLKids about the cool new webcam we had. Instant messages would pop up from people wanting to see how the webcam worked, requests for videos of specific things were common.

Offline, I tried to use my innocent demeanor to hide myself from the eyes of older men who stare a little too long. As I grew older, I began to have a huge amount of discomfort with my body in social situations. I would feel immensely uncomfortable with my physical presentation. I felt awkward about my breasts, my fat, my legs. It just freaked me out.

I shied away from attempting to appear sexy. I thought being sweet, cute, or tough would prevent the unsavory gawking and the lude comments. If they could just see me as their daughter, granddaughter, niece…maybe they would stop looking at me like that. I didn’t know I was doing it or why I felt so uncomfortable being seen, but I can see now how deeply entrenched that behavior has been.

I went through a horrifying phase when I went into hyper drive on reading and repeating the Bible. I would quote Bible verses as comebacks when my sister and I would fight. I don’t come from a religious family, but I have always had a flair for the dramatic.

I knew I was doing something wrong when I attacked strangers in chatrooms. I knew it was against the rules. More than that, I wanted to avoid the shame and embarrassment that would come with revelations of my misconduct online. I discovered the login details for the primary account holder, and I went into the account and deleted TOS violation emails that were sent to my parents as part of the AOLKids service. I did not have the courage to cause havoc and then face the consequences.

The chatrooms, because they were in real time, were perfect for my intense persona. If I wanted a reaction right away, I could get it. I infiltrated safe spaces like chatrooms for gay men and spouted my ignorant foolishness. I don’t remember how long that awful behavior lasted, but I think it was off and on over the course of several months. Maybe it was a backlash to the harassment, my own internal biphobia, or just something I needed to try on.

I quickly realized that words, no matter what medium used to express them, are important and hold immense power. Words can be dangerous.

December 28, 2018

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  1. William Lynn on December 29, 2018 at 11:09 am

    All about growing up…and up…and the thoughts and things that stick in the mind! I think the author would be surprised to find it is about the same for guys! The mind stuck on a flopy disc.

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