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For years, I didn’t tell a soul about my relationship with Frank Zappy, assuming they would think he was a pedophile and I a snaggle-toothed sex maniac.But I later discovered that I was not the only pre-adolescent haunting the AOL adult chatrooms.And to be honest, I don’t think he knew what he was saying either.

“I think I probably was truthful about my species, but beyond that I just fed everyone lies.” More often than not, these lies would backfire in absurd, hilarious ways: One of my best friends, for instance, once sent an image of Mandy Moore from her desktop when she was asked for a photo by a chatroom paramour, at which point he “politely informed me there was a copyright notice at the bottom of the photo.” Without Skype, Facebook, or any identity verification system to speak of, the adult AOL chatrooms made up a universe that was almost completely void of accountability.

Even if someone didn’t believe that you were, say, Stone Cold Steve Austin or Mandy Moore, it almost didn’t matter; you might have been lying, and your partner likely knew you were lying, but because he or she was probably lying too, no one seemed to care.

Then one day, he started telling me what he wanted to do to me if he met me, and I, picking up on his cues, told him what I (or “Dana”) wanted to do to him.

Of course, I had no idea what I was saying; much of what I said was based on what I had seen on General Hospital and read in Jackie Collins paperbacks.

Most teens of the early AOL chatroom era, or the mid-to-late-1990s, experimented with cybersex or had their sexual initiations online, in chatrooms with names like “Bored housewives over 30” or “Naughty wellhung surfer boys 18 .” In 1996, AOL had 5 million subscribers; by 2002, it had 25 million and was the biggest dial-up service in the country.

Chat had never been more expedient or accessible, so it was only a matter of time before people started using it for sex.“I do remember someone once telling me he wanted me to shove marshmallows up by butt while I touched myself,” she told me in a follow-up email, “and I felt a little bit confused about whether this was ‘normal’ or not.” Eventually, though, curiosity would take hold, and those who had started venturing into chatrooms playfully started ducking in in earnest—and alone.“I know everyone talks about how they did that with their friends and lol it was so funny, but like, I was kind of turned on by it,” Amy*, a freelance writer who was 12 years old when she first started going into AOL chatrooms, told me.It was invigorating to have an older man express interest in me and my life; it didn’t matter that that life wasn’t mine, but Dana’s, or that he was supposedly old, potentially married, and borderline illiterate.For me, cybersex with Frank Zappy was nothing short of a full-blown sexual awakening.If you secretly wanted to be spanked, for instance, but were worried your partner wouldn’t be receptive to the idea, it was easy to find someone who would be in one of the hundreds of BDSM-themed chatrooms.