Freedom to chat about, bring about deadly ideas

November 06, 1996|By Mike Littwin

I WENT IN SEARCH of Sharon Lopatka's world.

She lived in suburban Carroll County, where she ran a business out of her house. But her real world was in the nether regions of cyberspace.

Unless you know this world, you may not recognize the addresses.

There's a message group called, as in asphyxiation, in which people presumably discuss the joys of choking or being choked until one is, well, dead or maybe just close to dead. In the community, they call this little game "breath control."

There's a group called alt.torture.

And a group called

And a group called

And so on.

You must be wondering who participates in these message groups and plays these little online kinky sex games, but, if it's not your neighbor, it must be the neighbor of somebody you know. Heck, it might even be you.

I don't know what went wrong in Lopakta's life that led her to this new life and to her death. But it's a trip she took. And it's a trip that others fantasize about. There are thousands of such people, the experts tell us. Maybe tens of thousands, maybe more.

And the Internet, that brave new world, brings them together. This scares people, and you can understand why.

New things are dangerous, especially new forms of media. And not only are they dangerous -- you can go back to cave drawings for this one -- they inevitably involve sex.

Because there's sex on the Internet and because there are teen-age boys using the Internet and there are even, gasp, teen-age girls using the Internet, the old men who run the country have tried to limit what passes for speech in cyberspace. The courts have stopped the old men, for now.

But with every Sharon Lopatka story, the tendency to blame the messenger (that innocent-looking cursor on your computer screen) grows harder to resist.

We've always been ambivalent about unlimited free speech anyway. We tend to like it in concept more than in practice (see: flag burning.) Give a child a computer, and he can often go where we can barely follow. Sure people are scared.

And if Lopatka had been 15 instead of a grown woman, there would be congressional hearings by now.

You probably know many of the details of Lopatka's shocking private life and her shocking now-public death.

The story is that Lopatka was looking for a man who would kill her in a slow, torturous, sexual dance. She looked for a long time. She kept looking, even though there were people, even in this sick world, who tried to caution her about the thin wall separating fantasy from reality.

Because it's the '90s, and because we live in an age where anything is possible, she strolled through the "chat rooms" until she found a willing partner from rural North Carolina who went by the name of "Slowhand." And soon she was dead.

Her story is now a cautionary tale.

In an earlier time, your parents warned children against accepting rides from strangers. In the '90s, in a more complex and faster- moving world, parents warn children that the anonymous name on the other end of the e-mail posting could be dangerous.

You get common-sense tips. Don't give out your real name or address or phone number to a stranger. Never meet a stranger unless it's in a safe, public space. Be suspicious. Remember that the world, whether in cyberspace or ordinary space, is a dangerous place.

You can find this nether-world without leaving the comfort of your home. All you need is a computer and a modem and a little perseverance to find the "chat rooms" and "message boards."

I went to to hear from A Tangled Web, the screen name of one Web explorer who wrote sympathetically of Lopatka: "I'm still leaning toward the idea that breath control is irresponsible but I will still defend the right to explore [it] online." This person then went on to talk about tarring, in which people apparently scald others with, yes, tar.

Another onliner came up with this take on Lopatka's death: "It sounds cold, but we're all responsible for our own decisions. That's life."

That's certainly a little colder than I'd want to be.

But I would say this: Sharon Lopatka didn't die because of a computer modem. She died because there's a sickness in this world that, with all our scientific achievement, we haven't figured out how to cure.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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