review of Samantha Cole’s book How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex

Given its title, and the opening chapter being called “The Internet Was Built on Sex”, I was expecting this book to do a lot more to establish that sex-related use cases shaped the evolution of the Internet. It does makes some arguments to that effect—like porn’s role in the rise of banner ads and user tracking—but in general I think a more accurate title would have been something like Sex Has Always Been One of the Things People Use The Internet For.

Regardless, I enjoyed the book (and the magazine-style design helps make it fun to read). Some tidbits:

Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein coined the phrase “bounded authenticity” to describe the erotic exchange that takes place between in-person sex workers and clients: The “authentic” experience a sex worker delivers is bound within the confines of time and an agreement. Clients don’t just want to get off; they could do that at home with one hand. They want to feel a connection to another person, and they want to imagine that the other person feels satisfied, too—even though this is the model’s literal job, and they’re performing a service.

In private emails, the feds praised Backpage for years of helping them find trafficking victims. After an expansive investigation into Backpage in 2013, they traded emails saying that following interviews with more than a dozen witnesses and review of more than 100,000 documents, none of the “smoking gun admissions” to trafficking they hoped to find ever manifested.

One thing I would have liked more discussion (and citations) on: Cole says “the overwhelming majority of [porn] sets, will ensure that everything is aboveboard from the beginning.” I’d be curious what data is available to provide confidence in this.