Life

SINNERS IN CYBERSPACE

Log on and unburden your conscience, or find out about others’ misdeeds

MARY DWYER October 24 2005
Life

SINNERS IN CYBERSPACE

Log on and unburden your conscience, or find out about others’ misdeeds

MARY DWYER October 24 2005

SINNERS IN CYBERSPACE

Log on and unburden your conscience, or find out about others’ misdeeds

MARY DWYER

Life

I currently am studying medicine at university, and am unable to afford to pay rent. Outside the food bank one night I met a man who offered me accommodation for no money—the catch, I live at his home and provide sexual services to him. He expects me to do nothing else— he cleans the house, he normally does the cooking and laundry, although I try to help where I can, and he is really good when it comes to my workload and exams. He pays for my oral contraception, and even gives me a clothing and study allowance. I am expected to tell people that I am boarding with him, and do house and office cleaning for him. He is not a bad

sort, has an OK body and personality. I’m not sure why he did this, as I am sure there are plenty of single woman out there that would love him. While I don’t love him, I am kind of neutral with the arrangement—I am not overjoyed, but I am not disgruntled. Confused and deluded maybe.

— anonymous 22-year-old woman from New Zealand posting on e-admit.com

‘Little annoyances make me want to maim/ kill people-l want to disembowel them with a rusty hook’

IT USED TO BE that those seeking absolution for their sins would have to go to a Catholic church, squeeze into a cramped cubicle and confess to a priest. Others might turn to a spiritual leader in another faith— or even a sympathetic friend—to relieve their guilt. But in today’s wired world, a clean conscience—or, at least, a less troubled one— is just a few keystrokes away. In recent years, a number of confessional websites have appeared, and there’s no shortage of people logging on to unburden their souls. But based on the number of hits the sites are getting, it seems many more people are visiting to read about the misdeeds of others.

All the websites offer anonymity—electronic intimacy without consequences. And the confessions cover a wide gamut of emotions, psychological issues, behaviours and relationships. Some are mundane or funny. Recent visitors to Notproud.com—where one can choose from among the seven deadly sins—posted these messages under the gluttony heading: “I just ate 15 Cumberland sausages”; “I ate the pizza I burnt last night, out of the trash at 4 a.m.”; “Most of my friends know me as a vegetarian but when I feel depressed I sit at home in my underwear eating slices of salami and bologna.” At another site, GroupHug.us, there’s this: “I purposely rigged the thermostat, so that my roommate can’t lower the temperature. She used to set it so low that it was freezing cold.” But scrolling through postings from a lengthy list of penitents, it’s easy to feel distaste for human behaviour. Under NotPPWwa’s anger heading, there’s this recent admission: “One time, a bum came up to my car while I was stopped at a red light. He asked me for change. I proceeded to pull out a handful of change and throw it into the busy intersection. Quite possibly one of the cruellest things I’ve ever done.” Another Notproud visitor wrote this under “pride”: “I didn’t give a shit about the union at work until a co-worker of mine decided to run for it last week. I hate the guy, goddamn know-it-all. No way I was going to let him get status while I sit around idly. While he was ofifThursday and Friday, I launched my own campaign, and when he comes back Monday, he’ll find out I’m totally winning.” Other postings on the various sites are disturbingly graphic, as when people recount self-destructive binges, or use vulgar language to describe their lust or sexual escapades.

‘I go to a site and pretend to be a woman interested in lesbianism, but I’m just a chubby guy who can’t get laid’

At the same time, many who confess give small glimpses into their lives, longings and vulnerabilities, and it’s hard not to feel at least some empathy. Click on “envy” at Notproud, and there’s a litany of covetous feelings about others’ looks, sexual success and wealth. But then this admission from a 13-year-old stops you in your tracks: “I envy the people who don’t have albinism like me.” Or this from a small-town resident: “I envy the lesbians who can walk down the street holding hands. I can’t. I know too many people in my town and would get my ass beat.” The following cathartic rant appears under the anger heading: “I hate how there’s poor people and rich people... I hate the media, am I supposed to be that skinny? I hate how [at school] if you’re popular, you have to be ‘gangster’ and the slut of the world... I hate Paris Hilton.”

‘One time, a bum came up to my car while I was stopped at a red light. He asked me for change. I proceeded to pull out a handful of change and throw it into the busy intersection. Quite possibly one of the cruellest things I’ve ever done.’

Not surprisingly, sex is a frequent topic, with many confessing to betrayal and duplicity. “I lied to you,” writes a Notproud visitor. “I’m messing around with him. I feel like a whore.” At GroupHug, there’s this admission: “I go to an Internet confession site and lie up a storm. I pretend to be a woman interested in lesbianism, but I’m just a chubby guy who can’t get laid. I’m going to hell.” At e-admit.com, the most interactive site, readers can comment on others’ confessions or vote on such questions as “Should I leave my wife to be with her sister?” (Thirty per cent voted “yes, be happy.”)

Reading these sites can be nothing more than cheap entertainment, a sordid and salacious glimpse into other lives. But Patrick O’Neill, executive director of the Canadian Council of Departments of Psychology, points out that while it may be voyeuristic, it can also be reassuring. He likens online confession to the group therapy phenomenon so popular in the late ’60s and 70s. “It can be therapeutic knowing that your secrets are not especially horrifying when yoi at other people’s secrets.”

Clearly, GroupHug.us has incorporated the group therapy concept into its and tens of thousands of visitors have contributed to a vastof personal revelations. ManyjafWrooidng for a sense of belonging. “I felt really sad,” writes one, “and finally we can join and talk about our pain. I want to hold every person that’s lonely.” All the confession sites include entries designed to shock. Often it seems a degree of embellishment—if not outright fabrication—is going on. Someone claiming to be the lead singer in a famous band boasts to GroupHug of having a sexual interlude with a groupie and her daughter. Another

‘My friends know me as a vegetarian, but when I feel depressed I sit at home in my underwear eating slices of bologna’

declares, “I am a hacker—I will be reading all your email.” And then there’s this: “Little annoyances make me want to maim/kill people—I want to disembowel them with a rusty hook.”

Much of the sinful behaviour on confession sites is relatively benign, but occasionally people write about acts of vandalism and violence. There’s this at GroupHug: “I just punched my neighbour out for cursing at me when I asked him to park his car in front of‘his’ house instead of mine. I’m still shaking I’m so mad. I know the police are on their way and I’m probably going to jail”. Dina Kaïns, a forensic polygraph examiner with the Toronto Police Service, notes that when someone has “done something wrong, that’s a secret, and it’s very difficult to keep a secret. You want to tell somebody.” Father Jack Costello, director of Toronto’s Jesuit Centre, agrees there’s a human need to unburden oneself, but he notes that websites can’t offer the caring, in-person encounter that makes Catholic confession effective. In fact, he notes that the anonymity of the confessional booth is increasingly being replaced by face-to-face meetings with priests who offer counselling as well as absolution.

‘I hate how there’s poor people and rich people. I hate the media, am I supposed to be that skinny?

I hate Paris Hilton.’

As a community art project, PostSecret.com sits in a category all its own. People anonymously mail secrets, frequently confessional in nature and written on one side of a self-illustrated postcard, to a Maryland address. By necessity concise, due to the postcard format, the admissions are often compelling in their brevity—and especially if accompanied by an original and evocative image. One card is a doctored reproduction of a vintage magazine cover showing a girl holding a dress, with this message: “Before we broke up I cut holes in your nice clothes and blamed moths.” Another features a close-up photo of a pensive man, and scrawled in black marker across his forehead are the words: “I’m not scared of dying. I’m scared of no one CARING.” Calgary psychologist Beth Hedva, author of the book Betrayal, Trust and Forgiveness, describes the site as showing “the human condition as an art form.” She points to the value of exploring “the broad spectrum of emotional content that isn’t dinner conversation. To have a place for that to be expressed can reflect back our vulnerability as human beings, and that we’re not alone.” One site visitor, identified simply as being from Egypt, echoes that sentiment—“I never knew that people are so identical. They just pretend they are not."