In the Fall of 1993, SEXONIX, the world's first sexual virtual reality company, headed by American inventor Joseph Skaggs, Ph.D. (a.k.a. Joey Skaggs), planned to exhibit their equipment and software at the Metro Toronto Christmas Gift and Invention Show at Sky-Dome. They secured a booth and began working on a public relations campaign in New York and Canada. This product offered not only safe sex in the era of the AIDS epidemic, but also offered a new dawn of hope for the impotent and handicapped. As Skaggs noted, "Let there be no doubt, SEXONIX offers pleasure of a different order of magnitude. By translating individual fantasies into a stunning approximation of reality, we enable our clients to experience sublime pinnacles of delight that most people only dream of."
But, the demonstration was not to be. All of the hardware and software, valued at over $300,000, was confiscated at the border by Canadian customs agents on the grounds that SEXONIX was morally offensive to the Canadian people. Thus ensued a long legal battle to retrieve the confiscated property. This, after several conventional media outlets throughout Canada and the U.S. had reported first on the company and it's extraordinary product, and then on the customs confiscation. SEXONIX was featured in the CityTV, Toronoto series called Sex in the Nineties, as well as in Future Sex Magazine, who all expressed outrage at the Canadian government.
[NOTE: A short time earlier, Joey Skaggs had received nationwide coverage in Canada's Saturday Night Magazine and in a featured editorial in The Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper) about his work as a media satirist, complete with photos. This after just having appeared as Father Joseph with Portofess on the front page in The Globe and Mail. Skaggs had decided to use his own name for the SEXONIX hoax to be as obvious as possible.]
Dr. Skaggs then took his story in the form of a warning and plea for advice to news groups on various electronic bulletin boards around the country, including FidoNet, AlohaNet, and the WELL. The cyberworld accepted Skaggs' plea and tried to be consoling. What, after all, was one to expect from Canada's sexually repressive government? But, over the next few days, as concern for the fate of SEXONIX mounted, some savvy WELLholes (as Skaggs calls them) began to question the identity of Dr. Skaggs. One recognized the name from RE/Search: Pranks!, a book published in 1987. Another confirmed knowledge of Joey Skaggs the hoaxer. Following on that trail, journalist, Brock Meeks, a WELL user, took it upon himself to track the story.
He did exactly what Skaggs had hoped someone would do. He tried to trace the confiscation through the bureaucracy of Canadian customs. His postings recounted a hilarious journey through never-never land. Not surprisingly, he was never able to turn up anything conclusive. Until he resorted to other methods, contacting Skaggs' neighbors to confirm his identity.
Once the ruse was confirmed, Brock and some of the other members of the WELL participating in the conference called SEXONIX Confiscation, did not take kindly to being hoaxed. They postured about the sanctity of this "new" medium and about the "rules" of Cyberspace. As Meeks said "When you're jacked into Cyberspace, you are who you say you are. No exceptions. And if you try a street scam out here you're going to be held accountable. F--- with the WELL and you'll feel like you've been f---ed with an elephant prick."
Skaggs was later quoted as saying, "Any new technology is the artist's territory, and that means a challenge to all pre-conceived limitations. Shocking those people on the WELL was my goal. They had this mind set that 'this is my space,' not realizing that it was certainly not their space. BBS users can be a lynch mob. They are very self-righteous, but they're just as gullible and irresponsible as everybody else."
Says Mark Dery, cultural critic and the author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, in an article published by The Web Magazine, April 1997, "The Sexonix hoax is a parable for weird, wired times. By perpetrating it, Skaggs poked fun at our evangelical faith in way-new technologies. More seriously, he also encouraged us to reflect on the slippery nature of even the most basic facts online -- where biography and biology can be altered with a few keystrokes, and where hoaxes, rumors, and urban myths take on an almost viral life, infecting each new wave of credulous newbies."