You Make Me Feel Like a . . . : Virtual Woman : He went where no man should have gone--the women’s on-line network. And he fit right in.


The record is quite clear: I’m male. And a straight male at that.

But the record is limited, for life as I’ve known it lo these many years now ends at my modem. Once I punch up my on-line service and beam myself into cyberspace, everything changes--in addition to the recognizably male identity I use to communicate with people I know, I have another persona.

I’m a woman. Well, a virtual woman.

Women of America Online, I hear your hearts pounding as I type these words. You worry that you spilled secrets into my not-truly-pierced ears. Or--worse--that I used my skills as a professional writer to bring you to a bliss now dirtied by the possibility that your electronic ravisher wasn’t really wearing just bikinis and Escape.


What can I say?

Well, first, that I meant no harm. That I chose a name that might have made you suspicious. That your secrets will die with me. That deception isn’t a charge you can credibly level against anyone on a network where almost every woman says she’s a 36C and no man admits to tipping the scales at 200. And, most of all, this: The devil made me do it.

You know who I mean: Men.



When I originally signed on to AOL, I had no intention of developing multiple personalities. But the first level of “chat rooms” bored me silly. All I saw in the AOL “lobby” and the “public rooms” were those cute punctuations that only an on-line addict could call communication--like LOLA to signify a warm greeting and LOL (laughing out loud) to acknowledge the most modest expression of wit--and typed dialogue that made ham radio compelling in comparison.

I pressed on to the next level of on-line conversation pits, the “member rooms.” These, at least, had alluring names: “Le Chateau Dungeon,” “M 4 M, Yes Sir” and “Married and Restless.” I anticipated these rooms would be musky with desire. And I was ready for that, for what is journalism if not a form of seduction?

But even this veteran writer was shocked by what goes on in the AOL member rooms. The women, in the main, come to talk; the men, in the main, seem far more purposeful. The result is a mating dance so crude it’s hard to believe the practitioners are grown-ups--the cyber prom kings claim their queens, drag them off to private rooms and achieve what passes here for bliss.

(And they call this an advance over phone sex?)


In real life, I’m married to a woman who’s smart and funny and easy on the eyes. I have a network of bright, amusing and bodacious female friends, and, if I were a slime ball, I could surely convert one of them into a lover. I have, therefore, no reason to seek cybersex--this is one man who went on-line to meet sharp-tongued, quick-thinking, maladjusted smart asses like himself.

Well, I tried the male-oriented member rooms. They were--what a surprise!--for gays. And the gents I met there weren’t terribly interested in my mind.

So I moved right on to the rooms for women. But a man connecting with a woman in “Women 4 Women” is as unlikely as Madonna bedding down with Newt Gingrich. I’d wander in as my male self, and everybody would clam up. Or point cyber fingers at me, as if I were a dog who’d just mussed the rug. And, reeling with rejection, I would flee to the safety of the lobby and try, once again, to LOL with LOLA.



That’s when I decided to become “MsTerious.” (Footnote: This isn’t the name I used. I’ve disguised all the AOL names I cite here.)

Compared to many of the “screen profiles” I’ve read, I created a description for MsTerious that was extremely ethical. My aim was to suggest near-total unavailability, not intriguing intimacy.

In her profile, MsTerious alluded to a free-ranging imagination, but she emphasized that she was completely devoted to her career and traveled frequently for her company; she made it quite clear that on-line was a place for her to vent at the end of her long workday and that there was no way she’d let an on-line relationship turn into a real one.

There were only two pieces of information MsTerious didn’t offer: her measurements and her sexual preference. I just couldn’t see myself typing 34-24-34. And, rube that I was, I assumed MsTerious was as straight as a string.


When I first logged on as MsTerious, women asked me questions that, in previous visits, had been asked of other new women: “What size pantyhose do you wear?” and “What’s a French manicure?”

Once I provided the answers--and threw in a quick put-down of men who log on using women’s names--I was handed a cup of cyber coffee and welcomed in.

Long ago, a wise guy friend paid me what I thought then (and think now) was a compliment: “You couldn’t be gay, Jesse--but you could be a woman.” You would never have agreed if you could have seen me at the start of my first session as MsTerious. I sat, hunched over the keyboard, sweat glistening on my brow as I struggled to write from the feminine side of my soul. It took me a solid half hour to realize that I couldn’t produce an unnatural personality on cue. I would have to be myself as MsTerious and just wing it.

I took a breath. I checked out the profiles of the women in the room I was visiting. “I think, therefore I’m one up on a man,” one had written. “The sexiest distance between two points is a curve,” another opined. “The Eskimos had 52 names for snow because it was important to them; there ought to be as many for love,” a third offered. Reading those, I began to feel I was in the right place, and I joined the conversation.


Minutes later, I had one of the most powerful revelations of my life. I didn’t need to do anything special to become a believable woman, I just had to be intelligent and open and attentive and empathetic--gender differences really didn’t matter. So I relaxed. Asked questions. Offered advice. And, very quickly, was having the chats--about books and relationships, music and travel--that I couldn’t find anywhere else on-line.


But what about the sex, you ask?

Men, of course, were only too eager to imagine they were wooing MsTerious in some European hotel room. Try as I might, I couldn’t be attentive and open to those requests; behind the come-ons, I perceived the silhouette of dominance.


It was very different, though, when a woman approached me for cybersex. Her come-on was aggressive, but I could feel some humanity--and even the faint suggestion of a smile--behind it. And so, improvising at every step, I gave her what she wanted.

Unless, of course, “she” was a “he,” and we were, in our posing, the punch lines of our own jokes.

I’d have to be a cyber Moliere to graph that set of crossed wires--and for now, that’s too much effort. I just came to play. And play I did.

Like the night I ramped into a room called “Why AOL Women Lie.” We had a fine time swapping war stories, and I formed a gang of two with a woman I’ll call Jane. Then a guy I’ll call BigStick entered the room. And Jane and I attacked.


“Why introduce yourself with that name?” I asked.

“It’s demeaning to women,” Jane typed.

“It’s just a code for when I’m cruising rooms like this,” BigStick replied. “My luck is better with this name.”

“In my experience,” I said loftily, “you get lucky more often with candles and poetry.”


We hammered away at BigStick until he was limp. Then we got another idea. At Jane’s urging, I told him I felt badly about the attack, that I’d come to like him, and that I wanted him to join me in a private room so we could do that funky cyber thing.

BigStick smelled a con, but he was, after all, a man--and he fell for it.

“Lighting candles,” he announced, when he and I were alone. “Grabbing a well-worn copy of 500 limericks for all occasions.”

Suddenly another name appeared on the screen: Jane.


“You slut!” she typed with blinding speed. “Harlot! Hussy!”

“This isn’t how it looks, Jane,” I typed. “BigStick is reading his poetry to me.”

“Boy, did I see this coming a mile off,” BigStick moaned.

“Please, Jane, leave,” I said. “This is my private time.”


“She’s mine, BigStick,” Jane said. “And I need to know what she said to you.”

“When does one of you pull out the gun and shoot the other?” BigStick asked.

“We were lovers,” I explained. “But Jane has been drinking and drugging all summer, so I moved out.”

“Right, and Jane is the only donor for bone marrow to Lisa Marie Presley.”


Somewhere in Ohio, BigStick was learning to set aside lust and just enjoy the moment. In Maryland, Jane was signaling more friends to join the madness. And in New York, I was laughing so hard I could scarcely type.

So hard I was actually weeping.

So hard I almost wet my . . . uh . . . boxers.