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.

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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