You can live out your fantasy online without ever having to dress up
The Beginners Dungeon is packed for FratBoy's humiliation. The room holds 23. I'm the last to arrive. I scan the rest, most of them regulars: SmartStar, BearHunt, RedBeard, NYNYER, NstyAlice2 - who invited her? - and, leading the pack, BigCuss.

BigCuss hails from Texas (he says), is 40 years old (he says) and claims to be an architect, currently raising a hi-concept restaurant in Beverly Hills. He's also in charge of FratBoy's chastisement. Everyone should have a hobby.

"You have disobeyed your Master. You will be spanked."

FratBoy agrees. "I must be spanked."

NstyAlice2 speaks up: "Make him beg like a bitch."

NYNYER concurs: "Tell him to drop 'em."

Please, no coaching from the sidelines.

BigCuss breaks out in capital letters: "REMOVE YOUR PANTS."

FratBoy does as he's told: "Master, I am taking off my pants ..."

Fratboy is 21 (he says), a Harvard student (he says), has rich parents (he says) and is VERY GOODLOOKING. I suspect Fratboy is blond. FratBoy is also into working out - "I keep every part of my body hard" - hairy chests and is looking for "hot encounters with IN SHAPE dudes only, no strings attached."

He's certainly come to the right - and wrong - place: America On-Line. Right because in cyberspace there are no strings attached. Wrong because there are no shapes, in or out of condition, to speak of, merely phantoms and fabrications, tapping, stroking, downloading. Which makes AOL, like Compuserve, the Net, the Web and whatever, both familiar and oddly ideal environments for gay men: one strange twilight world meets another.

It's not just that the free and legally unfettered space allows the building of a truly democratic homosexual "community" unthinkable in the real world. Or that this community can't fossilise into a ghetto, because it is available to all and therefore less threatening to all. Or that American On-Line's homo-away-from home site, the tellingly entitled Utopia, crammed with news, views and entertainment - flick through the Gay to Z Directory, swoon to the Gay Daze On-line Soap, learn how to buy Toy Boy jocks - disproves the notion that gay men are technophobic. Or even that gay men's isolation can now be banished with a keystroke, from Alaska to Serbia to Saudi Arabia.

It's because we grasp the system's other freedom - the liberation of anonymity. Here, identity, any identity, can be adopted without the tedious necessity of dressing up. Is Fratboy really 21 or a fantasy of 21? Is BigCuss an architect or a bricklayer? You can cruise strangers, type dirty and engage in singular or multiple safe sex (no one ever died from a computer virus).

Yesterday, for instance, I lost my lunch hour but made a sandwich with a Bi Couple. AnnaF: "Robert and I like Spanish men. Are you Spanish?" Me: "Si. I am Manuel. I come from Barcelona."

The evening was blown educating Straight But Curious Men. Jim2O: "I want to go with other guys because other guys are always horny, too. Other guys never have headaches. Other guys don't want flowers and dinner and a movie. I imagine going with other guys would be simpler." Me: "Jim2O, you really need to get out more often."

Earlier today I did drag. I was a Submissive Female - "My name is Roxy. Tear my knickers off" - and bumped into Jim2O again. After he'd torn my knickers off, I told him he didn't actually need me, gorgeous, pouting, big-bosomed exotic dancer that I am. What he needed was a cute, compatible gay man whom he didn't need to buy flowers or dinner or take to the movies. Jim2O agreed.

Which is no triumph. Jim2O might be putting on a persona and playing along, as I was. Jim2O might be Bill Clinton, free from Hillary's gimlet eye for a few hours and ready for a mega-bite of the previously forbidden. Welcome to the electronic trans-gender, hetero-homo meltdown, where desire and obsession override class, race, age and, supposedly, sexual orientation; Freud's polymorphous perversity made fact if not flesh, and no harm done. The other Utopia.

FratBoy's punishment is going nowhere, slow. I amble into the next members' room, Ask Gay Guy Anything.

SuthrnHunk claims to be 31 and lists his occupation as "getting off'. Steve is 5' 11" and says he has a gymnast's body (yeah, buried in the basement). Bunnyl01 has no profile to check, but he does have a question: "What are we doing here?" SuthrnHunk wants the question repeated. Bunnyl01 says that he expected more than hardcore and big talk: "We have lives, don't we?"

Stu appears: is Bunnyl01 a top or a bottom? Bunnyl01 wonders why no one ever asks about feelings. Steve says: "Try group therapy." Suthrn Hunk concurs: "Don't spoil the party."

Bunnyl01 asks Suthrn Hunk who he really is. Is he 31? Is he as macho as he acts? Does he have a boyfriend? Does his boyfriend know what he's doing?

Suthrn Hunk bridles: "Why pick on me?"

Bunnyl01 says he's not picking on anyone. "Then what do you want?" Stu asks. "Intimacy" returns.

Steve thinks he's got it. Intimacy, that's easy. "Hey, are there any guys here who do phone?"