Habbo Hotel
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GirLand, Habbo Hotel and me: how I learned to masturbate online

The forum was a kind of guerrilla support group, hidden on a pretty pink website that our parents didn’t even think to worry about.

In 2004 I was 13 years old, bored, curious and perpetually horny. To make matters worse, writers like Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham hadn’t yet bared the truth about female masturbation, and society was still operating under the illusion that teenage girls had no sexual feelings to speak of. 

When I discovered the ability to make myself orgasm I, like many girls before me, thought I’d done something deeply dark and possibly sinful. My one solace was the internet.

GirLand was a haven. It was an interactive site where you had your own avatar, a Barbie-style character who could go shopping and chat to other avatars. But the best part of the site was the message boards. They were totally anonymous, and were home to hundreds of girls who would post questions and give each other advice.

While some of the conversations focussed on face masks and crushes, the most popular board by far was about masturbation. Women swapped tips, told anecdotes about getting caught, and advised each other about what really doesn’t work. It was possibly the the most positive and wholesome exchange I’ve ever seen online.

We on the GirLand message boards had one united purpose: getting ourselves off. This common goal transcended background, ethnicity, and location. Decades later, I have reminisced with dozens of women about the boards and realised that we probably interacted all those years ago. In a world where female masturbation is so often airbrushed out of the conversation, it was essential. It was the only thing in my world that showed me I was normal, and that what I was doing was healthy.

The GirLand website in 2005.

Now, the conversation has moved on a little, and teenage girls seem more encouraged to explore their own bodies – parenting advice has become far more supportive of “alone time”. But we didn’t have any of that. What we had was a kind of guerrilla support group, hidden on a pretty pink website that our parents didn’t even think to worry about.

Of course, some of my teenage explorations weren’t quite so wholesome. Another favourite website was Habbo Hotel, a sort of chatroom crossed with the Sims, where I would occasionally convene with other avatars for “cyber sex”, which consisted of typing what you’d do if you were together. Unsurprisingly, the site has subsequently been dubbed a “paedophile’s haven”, and suspended its chat function following a Channel 4 investigation. 

I’m not sure what I make of this nickname, even if it’s accurate. I don’t doubt that I had sexual conversations with older people on Habbo Hotel, probably men much older than me, who enjoyed the fact that I was a child. But I still think I had a better deal than today’s teens, who grapple with Snapchat nudes and FaceTime sex.

On Habbo Hotel, I was able to be totally anonymous, and at least there was no evidence that could be used against me in the way that revenge porn would be today. My identity was never connected with what I was doing online, meaning I could explore in a safe, controlled way, and if it felt too much I could click the red "x" in the top right hand of the screen and it all disappeared. In some ways, it really didn’t matter who was on the other side of that screen.

So where was the child protection in all of this? As I remember it, there wasn’t much. Adults did their best to shelter us, but like every generation of teens before us, we resisted them. The early 2000s were a gloriously odd decade in which children understood new technologies much faster and most instinctively than the majority of the adults around them.

IT lessons were delivered by middle-aged teachers who were still a little afraid of the machines they introduced us to. They warned us of paedophiles lurking in the shadows; of the fire and brimstone that lurked in chat rooms. And of course, we totally ignored them. As fast as schools and parents tried to block our access, we worked ways around them through proxy sites.

Now, most parents wouldn’t give their child unfettered access to the internet. The relative freedom and anonymity that my generation enjoyed growing up has disappeared in families where parents set up child locks and carefully monitor screen time.

I know that if and when I have children, I’ll be the same, and the idea of my children exploring sex through strangers on the internet will frighten and repulse me. Rightfully so. But right now? I can’t help thinking that I owe the darker sides of the internet a great deal. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here.

Photo: Getty
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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?