THERE IS a very old cartoon about the Net. A dog sits at a keyboard, eyes staring into a monitor. Beneath the strip is the caption "On the Internet no one knows you're a dog". All right, it's not going to split your sides but it does illustrate that on the Internet you can be anyone you want to be - that gender, race, creed or colour mean only as much as you want them to.

Well, that's the theory anyway. People use the Net as evidence of a Utopia, that prejudice can be abandoned by a society that is confident with and in itself. Unfortunately, it's far from true. Every type of irrational hatred exists online (see alt.conspiracy as evidence of the obligatory "and then some"), the only difference being that there's never been better camouflage than the 0s and 1s of cyberspace - on the Internet no one can see you, let alone hear you scream.

Gender is a particularly fluid concept. The only clue as to what and who you are comes from the email address that you can choose to put on the end of any message and, unlike altering physical features, changing that address doesn't require anything as extreme as plastic surgery. Women often become men, or androgynous initials, men - less frequently - the reverse.

This has nothing to do with confused sexuality, nor an existential interest in the "other". According to Sophy, a regular frequenter of the newsgroups on Usenet, being able to gender reassign is a way for women to escape prejudice that seeps on to the Internet from RL (real life).

"When I first started out a lot of people used to dismiss any points I raised simply because of my sex, as if having ovaries and breasts in some way made me mentally imbalanced. I got the idea of using a boy's name from someone else on the newgroup - someone who I had thought was a male but told me in an email that using a boy's name was the only way to really enjoy the group. So I dumped 'Sophy' and created 'John' - the same person, but with a different name. And the effect was amazing. I got to par- ticipate without the distractions of numerous come-ons and sexist jibes. The real victory, however, came when one of the pigs in the group started agreeing with me on points he'd earlier dismissed. That gave me satisfaction - proved I wasn't being paranoid."

Many women are, however, unwilling to abandon their sexuality in this way. Why should they become men in the attempt to give their arguments the validity that they already possess?

"One of my friends who joined the group at the same time as I did thought it was a bit of a sell-out," says Sophy, "and refused to do what I'd done. She still comes into the group now and then, but she's nowhere near as vociferous or active as I believe she would have been if she'd abandoned her name. There are only so many emails that you can take from neanderthals who think your range of conversation should be restricted to the ingredients of apple pie ... I've lost count of all the emails that have told me what I really need is a 'damn good shag'."

Users of the Internet often feel proud of their contribution to what is becom- ing the greatest communication medium of the 20th century. And they're right to do so. Never has so much potential existed in one place, in one medium.

However, as in RL, most of us also choose to concentrate only on that closest to us - ignoring anti- social activity as long as it works its destructive course elsewhere. The Net is still a boy's toy, and there are far too many boys being "boyz" - dive-bombing the likes of alt.feminism with antagonistic postings designed for no other reason than to offend; picking on solitary women on newsgroups because they're considered a weak target (a mistake if ever there was one); and generally causing a nuisance of themselves. The sad thing is that in the process the boyz are doing real men's damage. The Net is no more than the sum of its parts, and at the moment its mathematics is all wrong. It's hardly a revelation that to really grow the Net needs women.

Like the best organic creature with its own internal self defence mechanism the Internet has its own cure, however. And that's the loss of sexual identity altogether. After all if the two sexes continue to swap genders in this way, then no one will ever be sure of anyone else's sex, and then the whole concept will surely become meaningless.