Psychology Today - Cybersex; trail shows post-modern courtship as reflected in e-mail exchanges

by Joan Ullman

In the wee small hours of the morning, they do not sit alone in a bar weeping into their beers. Typing away on their computer keyboards, sending and receiving messages on their screens, they are in a place beyond meditation. Untethered from the usual social restraints, Internet chat-room devotees of all genders, ages, races and sexual proclivities or hang-ups give free rein to their disinhibited ids, getting in touch with their inner deviants.

A Freudian analyst's dream, they are the electronic talk therapy patients of the 1990s. They are also part personal ad interviewers and interviewees, part seducers and part religious confesees. Unlike conventional therapy patients, these cyberchat addicts don't need to waste hours of time and thousands of dollars trying to overcome their "resistance." Pressured to produce a shocking, witty, outrageous or perverse persona lest they become cyberwallflowers, they regress on line instantaneously and seemingly universally. As one participant explained: "You have to keep a person interested. Otherwise they move on."

Out of this often-kinky culture arose the celebrated cybersex trial, New York's first Internet- related sexual assault case. Last May, Oliver Jovanovic, a Columbia University doctoral candidate, was sentenced to 15 years to life for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman he had met and corresponded with on the Internet.

The verdict came as a shock to courtroom observers who, unlike the jury, had access to the uncensored, and highly titillating, e-mail exchanges between Jovanovic and his accuser, 57 pages of exchanges that took place both before and after the alleged torture incident that marked their only off-line date. By ignoring 'Net dynamics and accepting his e-mail postings as pure representations of truth rather than admixtures of fantasy, the verdict exposed the failure of many traditional institutions to grasp the psychological upheaval wrought by cyberculture.

Legal maneuvering stripped the victim's e-mail of its many references to her interest and participation in bondage and domination experiences, experiences that in themselves commonly turn gender roles upside down. The unexpurgated e-mail, however, is not only key to the case, it is a great prism for viewing the new havoc in relationships playing out on- line.

The most important facets include blurring of male and female identities, cocktails of fact and fantasy, sharp disjunctions and free associations in thoughts, and the fluid assumption of new personas, all aided and abetted by hyperfast communication in the absence of verbal and visual cues to behavior. If the cybersex trial tells us anything, it is that in the free- wheeling interplay of these elements, which it encourages, cyberculture has turned yesterday's pathology into today's ordinary sex chat.

Handles with Care

The then 30-year-old Jovanovic and his accuser, a 20-year-old English and philosophy major at Barnard College, met in an America On-line chat room at the end of her freshman year. In standard chat-room protocol, they signed their email with their screen names, personas which, as with most chat-room users, reflect hidden or, unexplored aspects of their IRL (in real life) personalities.

Jovanovic called himself Gray, a handle—the term went unused during the month-long trial—that he explained in his first communication with his accuser: "I generally wear black and gray, if you haven't guessed already." His choice of screen name may have had a deeper meaning. "Oliver believes in Ringing together the black and white extremes of opposite points of view," observed a later girlfriend, a Belgian woman named Marinza he also met in a chat room. "It's his life philosophy. He believes in harmony, not war."

His accuser, whose real name, like that of other sex-crime victims, was withheld, called herself Zutzut5, a screen identity that also seems to have reflected deeply personal interests. It is a play on the French word zut, reflecting ZZ5's interest in French, words and phrases of which dotted her e-mail. Zut is a French euphemism for shit, and her handle could be taken to mean double shit or bullshit. ZZ5, who claimed interests in art, public speaking, writing and politics, was so proud of her ability in BSing that she had noted it on a high school information card. "By the way," she wrote. "I can BS really well. Should I (also) put this down ...?"

A Date to Remember

Jovanovic was just two weeks away from defending his doctoral dissertation in molecular biology when he wound up in court defending himself against horrific torture charges. The prosecution claimed that the cybersex victim was a naive and vulnerable young woman who was lured to her torture by a man whose e-mail was that of a dangerous sexual sadist. The defense argued that she was an emotionally confused woman who had consented to kinky sadomasochistic sex that the two had discussed in their e-mail, and that she fabricated the charges against Jovanovic to absolve herself of guilt after she found their sexual encounter unexpectedly disturbing.

During the trial, ZZ5 testified that after Jovanovic drove her from her dorm to have dinner on the night of November 21, 1996, she willingly accompanied him home to his small New York apartment. They arrived around midnight. She sat next to him, looking at photos in an art book and watching a video that they had discussed in their e-mail—works whose imagery included still lifes of cut-up corpses, and scenes of hideously maimed live people in various stages of torture.

They also continued their "fascinating" discussion of topics from e-mail: dismemberment, Jeffrey Dahmer, sci-fi creatures devouring each other during intercourse, good and evil, the danger of contracting AIDS and other diseases from unprotected sex, schizophrenia, self-defense, and more.

Several hours into their date, she said, she disrobed at Jovanovic's bidding, lay down, and let him tie her to his futon chair-bed. For the next 20 hours, she said, he gagged and choked her, burned her with hot candle wax, bit her breasts until they bled, beat her with a black wood karate-type club on her legs and genital area, and sodomized her by inserting the club or his penis into her anus.

ZZ5 testified that she did not begin to resist Jovanovic until three or more hours into their date. She said the reason she took so long to say no to his atrocities was that she felt intellectually intimidated by Jovanovic, that she initially thought his tying her up "was a joke," and that she had trouble "being assertive." "I don't now, but I did then," she said, before dissolving in tears on the stand.

This testimony by an admitted bull-shitter seemed to give the defense a good chance to prove its case for consent. On the stand, ZZ5 admitted that she had willingly submitted to some of Jovanovic's tortures. And her post-torture behavior also appeared inconsistent. She delayed seeking medical help for the supposedly painful aftermath of her ordeal for several days.

She also sent Jovanovic several ambiguous e-mails. "Quite bruised mentally and physically, but never been so happy to be alive, now if I'm happy simply because I'm not dead, well, some may question that. But nonetheless, all's well on 116th st.... [William] Burroughs best sums my state, saying something about rotting eggs or rotting cheese, the taste is so overpoweringly delicious, and at the same time, quite nauseating so that one will eat and puke and eat and puke until collapsing from exhaustion." "As happy as ever, and with renewed enthusiasm for life," she wrote in her last note.

Conclusive physical evidence in the case was lacking. There were no bite or burn marks, for example, to help substantiate ZZ5's story. The prosecution argued that Jovanovic was an accomplished sadist who knew how to avoid leaving marks. The only real evidence against him was the word of his victim, and his own roughly two months worth of e-mail. No one testified about such cyberculture quirks as the notorious difficulty in distinguishing the truth or fantasy of e-mail postings.

The DA treated Jovanovic's e-mail as fact, but chalked up that of the victim to playful fantasy and a love of language. As a result, she survived her ordeal virtually (to make a bad pun) unscathed. Jovanovic—despite the DKs admission, that "we don't know what else this man may be guilty of"—received a far stiffer sentence than that given many murderers.


A strict deconstruction of the e-mail shows it to be a post-modern courtship. But cyberculture has also transformed the contents of courtship. It has turned the expression of traditional romantic love into its opposite, converting potential lovers into rival Scheherazades, each trying to top the other with the most sordid and shocking images or ideas.

The first Instant Message between ZZ5 and Gray begins innocuously.

Zutzut5: hmm whaT do you do?

Gray: Research and deign ...

The two proceeded to discuss their prior experience in RPGs (computer role-playing games), their parents, educational backgrounds, and career aspirations (hers to be a lawyer, his to get his doctorate). Minutes later she confided her first sexual fantasy, along with her interest in "violence and chaos," her yearning to make a snuff film—a genre that ends in an actual death—and her interest in creating an army so as to make war on New York streets. In response, he discussed his interests in sex, magic, and the occult, and referred her to some obscure books and films on pagan rituals linked with the cult of Pan.

Zutzut5: (secret wanna hear?)

Gray: Sure.

Zutzut5: 1st xual fantasy-pan, i love him ...

Gray: Yes ... Are you familiar with the rituals and innovocations associated with Pan?

Rather than vying to voice their idealization of a cyber-beloved, Zutzut5 and Gray describe themselves in debased or jaded terms. ZZ5 laments her lack of morals, her prior "girly"-ness, her "fickelly obsessive" tendencies in relationships. Gray alludes rhetorically to his stupidity, his average, non-glamorous height, his "strange and dark" appearance and occasional resemblance to "a serial killer."

Initially their cyber-correspondence was sporadic. Early on there were some three weeks in which Gray did not respond to ZZ5's e-mail because he was traveling. But after he returned, the pace of their e-mailing picked up.

Soon, they were writing each other several times a day

Gray showed himself to be a cyber-name-dropper of major proportions. In response to every subject ZZ5 broached, he had an erudite or obscure author, book, or film to refer her to. Still, he writes like your traditional man of yore. His e-mails are short, to the point, all business. In contrast, ZZ5 is the more active pursuer. It is she who first suggested an off-screen meeting, especially when she learned Gray's real name.

Gray: ... my name's Oliver, by the way.

Zutzut5: and i may proposition you for coffee latte will you object? ...

"oliver?! ... its my most beloved name ever, named my cocker spaniel oliver ...

Zutzut5: i'm not repulsive kinda cute


It is also ZZ5 who keeps bringing up the subject of murder, from her own "homicidal impulses" to her love of the pagan Pan, or panic, to her snuff-film and dismemberment obsessions. And it is she who writes the most suggestively about her sexual interests. Her imagery sometimes turned gory, or lewd. "who cut your's off you 2 holed freak ..." is hardly the stuff of the classic "Let me count the ways" courtship epitomized by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

ZZ5 testified that in fact large parts of her cyberwriting were copied or paraphrased from a very different genre, Naked Lunch, the notorious Burroughs novel. The book, she wrote Gray, was her "bible."

Zutzut5: "... give me two cunts and a prick of steel and keep your dirty fingers outta my sugar bum, what do i look like a purple assed reception already.... i've found a person quite excited by the idea of making our own snuff film, even if this time we only pretend to slaughter...and how was death induced ... (perverse curiosity)."

Even a generation ago, few women would be so enthralled, or admit to being so taken, with a book of male fantasies. But in cyberculture, male and female tastes, like male and female identities, are often indistinguishable.

Similarly, ZZ5's peculiar e-mail verbiage conjures such traditional diagnostic indicators of mental disorder or frank psychosis as "word salad" or "loose association" or "confabulation." It ranged from disjointed ideas triggered by loosely homonymic words ("yaddahda yahdada" to Yoda to Star Wars nostalgia) to wild flights of rhyming or near-rhyming ("Ya, its all a surreal deal, steal me a ticket to next week's episode").

But ZZ5 gave some of the teariest, hand- and teeth-clenching testimony seen in a courtroom. As one juror later commented, "she turned her crying on and off as if on cue." She was far too savvy for such a diagnosis.

Notwithstanding the often graphic nature of her own, or borrowed Burroughs' writing, ZZ5 resorted to many traditional feminine ploys in her electronic seduction of Gray. At one point she tried to pique his curiosity, and perhaps to awaken his jealousy, by describing her new boyfriend, a man with eight voices that, she wrote, "live in an apartment building in his head." She to arouse Gray's sympathy, revealing tantalizing bits of information to draw him into her life crises.

She also lured him with flattery. "... you're filled as in chock full o' exact esoteric references, which amaze the be-jesus out of me," she writes. "how do you know about such out of the way, your-mom-probably-wouldn't be -pleased-resources..."

At times, beneath Zutzut5's tough and gory cybertalk lurks your familiar single woman surfing the net for her IRL (In Real Life) Mr. Right. "I may love you...," she wrote. "yes its official, when shall we marry?"

ZZ5 and Gray turned a corner in their relationship five nights before their ill-fated date. In a long e-mail ZZ5 wrote of death, dying and her own "semi existential crisis" regarding morality. Her outpouring is precipitated by the suspected rape of a dorm-mate.

ZZ5: "Last night i was sitting in the emergency room ... and i sat there, a bloody rag at my feet, from a stranger infected with hiv, probably, blood smear on my pants from her ... and on the tv there was a cartoon ... these monkey warriors in outter space ... and ... survivor kamikaze pilots ... I want to go home. But can't. I'm so sad ..."

"Life can be very cruel at times. It is a killing joke," Gray replied to this seeming cyber-cry for help. It's at this point that he also gave ZZ5 his phone number "If you need to talk to someone...." The nearly five-hour phone call that followed was the prelude to their calamitous off-screen rendezvous.


Although her e-mail showed that ZZ5 was very much a liberated woman of late Nineties cyberculture, the cybersex trial judge reached back into an earlier era of male-female relations and applied the rape-shield law. The law is intended to keep a sex-crime victim from being smeared in court by having her past sexual history cited as proof that she (or he) either asked for or consented to a violent sexual assault.

The law—which grew out of traditional views of women as the weaker sex, vulnerable and prone to being victimized by a strong and dominant man—was not meant to bar evidence or testimony bearing directly on the crime at issue. However, the judge edited out of the e-mail almost all of ZZ5's numerous references to interest in or experiences with S&M or bondage and domination, forms of sexual activity that involve submissive and dominant role-playing and in which, in some instances, "no" can be taken to mean "yes." Practitioners, though, usually have "safe words" that clearly mean "stop."

As a result of the judge's decision, Jovanovic's lawyer couldn't ask ZZ5 why she had called herself a "pushy bottom" or had e-mailed Jovanovic that she had become another man's "slave and its painful, but the fun of telling my friends 'hey, i'm a sadomasochist' more than outweighs the torment." In addition, the lawyer was unable to put Jovanovic on the stand to ask him what it was in ZZ5's e-mail that had led him to believe she hoped and expected to have an S&M experience with him.

The rape shield law, which many legal experts believe was misapplied in this case, only wound up shielding perjury: It sanctioned ZZ5's denials about her e-mail S&M discussions with Jovanovic.

The paternalistic hand accorded the cybersex victim as a traditional woman in need of extraordinary protection by the law is thoroughly at odds with the enormous reversals in behavior taking place in cyberculture. It's not just that gender differences are often irrelevant on the Internet and women have total on-line equality; ZZ5's own. cyberwriting literally and figuratively turned seduction upside down.

"The e-mail had no more impact than if this man and woman had gone back 50 years and sent regular letters," Jovanovic's lawyer said dismissively when the case was over. But 50 years ago, Jovanovic and his accuser would never have become instant and aggressive pen pals. Even if they had passed each other on the Columbia University campus, it's unlikely that his beauteous blond accuser would have looked twice at the nerdy, bespeckled Jovanovic.

The Internet definitely has its charms. But unless there is a better understanding of how it is changing the dynamics of social life, there may wall be a lot more court in modern courtship. Copyright 1998 Sussex Publishers Inc.

Psychology Today

September 1, 1998

SECTION: No. 5, Vol. 31; Pg. 28; ISSN: 0033-3107

IAC-ACC-NO: 21050184

LENGTH: 2955 words

HEADLINE: Cybersex; trail shows post-modern courtship as reflected in e-mail exchanges

BYLINE: Ullman, Joan

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