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Emerson, 19, White, single. For other youth, becoming connected with the virtual world meant confronting uncertainties about sex and the types of relationships being sought. Describing his first romantic relationship, which had been established through online contact, Michael 20, White, single conceded:. Really, it was a learning experience more than anything. Mostly that some guys will say anything to have sex with you…In the beginning, I think I was more interested in the friends than he was. Earlier than I really wanted to. In a similar experience with his first online partner, Christopher 19, White, single felt burdened by the sexual turn of the relationship:.

We were going out, like, a week. It happened very fast. And when we met up, we hooked up, which by that, I mean, he gave me oral sex. Then I felt very guilty.

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And I felt like a whore. So, I called my friend and I told her that. I couldn't get over the guilt of that. Rather than experiencing a rapidly changing context of what they had perceived to be a romantic relationship, other participants' concern was the emphasis on sex as the sole objective, negating any chance of friendship or attachment.

Ethan 24, White, single recalled the typical course of events:. You know, it's funny, when I was 16, I ended up having a lot of sex, but that's not what I wanted.

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I wanted to make friends. I wanted to make a connection, but I had a lot of sex because apparently, for some reason, I was super hot at I didn't think so. And I just thought it was a bit shallow. You know what I mean. Doesn't anyone want a friend? We can be friends. This representation of the online scene encountered by YGM underscores a particularly salient theme that emerged in the course of the narratives surrounding initial online dating experiences.

Their sexual inexperience and lack of self-confidence led them to pursue relationships in which their own needs and desires for friendship and romance, in addition to sex often went unmet. Well, I was in high school. I was in my senior year, and I was sort of just — I wouldn't say becoming aware that I was gay, but willing to sort of accept it and move on it. And I was trying - I was a virgin at the time, and I was trying to sort of have new experiences, I guess. Ultimately, I did cave in and do it. And I ended up enjoying myself. And I guess I, at that point, yeah, I guess at that point, I sort of caved in to the whole idea that's what these sites were about.

We got together, and I was still learning the aspects of being gay and all of that. You know, that you had to wrap it up, that kind of thing. James 22, White, single alluded to his sexual inexperience as contributing to his lack of assertiveness about condom use with an older partner met online. Describing an unprotected sexual encounter, he said of his partner:.

He was aggressive about it, but not in a bad or forceful way. I just, pause he knew what he wanted. I knew what I wanted, I guess. And I mean, he was really good at it. He was a little older than I was, and I didn't feel like I had a whole lot of sex at that point. And I should have definitely said something more about it.

And the question never came up to use condoms, so we didn't. Overall, participants acknowledged that their first encounters with men met online made them more susceptible to sexual and emotional risks, as a result of their youth and inexperience. Going online to search for romantic and sexual partners meant entering an adult realm in which YGM found themselves on unequal footing compared to more seasoned members of the online community. Their elevated status as desired youth, tempered by awareness of their inexperience, left them both exhilarated and frightened.

Yet, it also provided them with skills and knowledge, which in part comprised their interpersonal scripts, to better navigate sexual and romantic relationships in the future. When asked to dwell on their initial online dating experiences, participants were apt to offer additional reflections on how their own online behaviors had changed over time. YGM spoke of feeling less afraid of meeting men in person and giving out personal information, while simultaneously being more selective about the nature of their virtual activities and personal connections.

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Using their prior Internet encounters as a template for future expectations, participants characterized their current consumption of online dating services as more direct and opportunistic. YGM spoke of their ability, acquired through experience, to decide more quickly whether an online conversation or relationship was worth further pursuit. Sean 22, White, single admitted:. I guess just becoming more picky.

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Well, not picky, but like, sounds bad, but it's like if I know that me and this person are going to have nothing in common, then I won't waste my time talking to them on the site. I guess I would say the big thing is I'm more opportunistic about it [online dating]. And a lot better at even like even messaging people first.

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Or, you know, ignoring people that I don't want to talk to. And, like, either setting things up or shutting things down really quickly, as opposed to just sort of messaging into infinity, and then nothing ever produces itself. In response to their earlier experiences of isolation and uncertainty, which initially drove them to engage in online exploration, some participants articulated a sense of freedom in no longer relying on the Internet for personal validation and acceptance of their sexuality.

Matthew 22, White, in a relationship justified this change, suggesting,. I think before I was using it just as a way to identify gay people. And now I live in Boston, and I don't — I know gay people. The same things aren't motivating me. So, I use the Internet to find, like, people with similar interests or, like, people to go out with and party. James 22, White, single underwent a similar transition regarding his use of online dating. Now that I'm in college and I'm out and I've accepted a lot of things about my sexuality and who I am, I don't feel like I need the Internet as much.

Because it was the only outlet I had for that. And now, you know, I can go to a bar. Or I usually just know somebody who knows somebody kind of thing. Another emerging theme regarding changes in online dating was an increased feeling of security at both the prospect of sharing personal information on the Internet and meeting men in person. Derek 21, White, single summed up his new attitude: And I think at that point, I feel like Internet dating hadn't really hit yet.

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So, a lot of people didn't have a lot of information up. Not many people had pictures up. And, like, being able to see what somebody looked like was more of a big deal…. Whereas now, you have a profile and you have your whole life, like on a freaking page…. But, you know, back then, like you had to have a picture of yourself and then you'd have trade.

And, you know, sometimes it wouldn't work or they wouldn't — you'd send them a picture and then they wouldn't send you one back. And, you know. So, I think it was a lot sketchier. Peter 24, White, single described his reservations about meeting men face-to-face as shifting over time:. I think I started to kind of be able to more immediately dissect how people present themselves online and, you know, I guess, like, when I was a kid, I was more afraid of, like, meeting someone who turned out to be, like, a very old pervert who'd like kill me and murder me or whatever, and I'm less afraid of that now… I guess my biggest fear went from being killed into being disappointed.

And I was never killed but I'm often disappointed. YGM's initial dating experiences online helped them come away more equipped to navigate the emotional risks that present themselves online. Emerson 19, White, single neatly summarized how his dating habits have changed:. I still use Internet dating, but I use it in a different context. I use it, I guess I look at it with a different view than I ever did before. And I use it in a way that's going to benefit me. That's going to let me feel good myself and not use it for the reasons that I did before.

You know? Looking for a relationship. I may look for a casual hookup, but I know that I can handle. I know what I want and I'm not going to put myself in a situation where it's wanting that…If I feel like I'm doing this because I just want that love feeling, I just, I have to stop, and I stop myself because it's just, that's not contributing toward a healthy lifestyle, that's for sure.

YGM's initial online dating experiences can be characterized by a need for validation and personal connection, often accompanied by a desire to please or conform. Through time and experience, however, participants were empowered to draw their boundaries and exert more control over the nature of their personal encounters, be they romantic or sexual. As Ethan 24, White, single declared:. It's like I'm not afraid of the fact that everybody's looking for sex online anymore.

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I think I feel a little bit more knowledgeable about it because I'm like, you know, I've seen so many profiles now and I've kind of been up and out and around, and I'm like, it doesn't affect me the way it used to. And I'm a lot more comfortable telling people that I'm not really looking for sex. Our participants' narratives bear witness to one of the conundrums of adolescence and emerging adulthood.