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Women turning to computer chat for females only

For women, logging on to the Internet can be the computer equivalent of walking past construction workers.

"R u horny?" come the messages. "So what brings you here at this hour?" "Wanna chat privately?"

Gender wasn't supposed to matter in cyberspace. But try telling that to anyone who has ever logged on under a name like Cindi or Veronica. Rather than deal with the posturing and harassment, many women are logging on to women-only discussion groups scattered around cyberspace.

"It's not all "Here's how cool I am' and "Here's how clever I can be.' It's an attempt to connect, not to show off," said Fawn Fitter, a Bostonian who logs on to the women-only portion of the WELL, a 10,000-person computer network based in Sausalito, Calif.

There are at least 15 women-only areas _ or conferences _ on bulletin boards around the country, as well as a smaller number of men-only spaces. Users must speak to an operator to prove their sex before they can log on.

Women-only spaces don't mean male bashing. Last year the women of Meta Network in Washington started a topic called Celebrating Men. For several weeks they filled it with their musings: "I love the way they look at you intensely." "I love the way they smell after they exercise." Then as a holiday gift they copied the whole list over to a community conference, so that all the men could read it.

Over at New York City-based ECHO's women's conference, a group of younger women recently started an on-line version of the "Who'd you rather do?" game. "They name names," said ECHO's Stacy Horn. "It's hysterical."

Some users on men-only conferences have other things on their mind. "I see us struggling with being male in this society, and dealing with pain and emotional hurt," said Dana Lewis, a writer in Pennsylvania who uses Meta Network.

Gender-specific places on bulletin boards have their dangers, though, as a recent case in California illustrated.

Last month, three students at Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California each won a $15,000 settlement in a sex discrimination lawsuit filed over comments made on a men-only portion of the school's computer network.

Two women found out that men were making derogatory sexual comments about them in the men-only forum. The third student, a man, came to their defense, and he, too, was maligned.

"They were ugly words . . . basically juvenile words you could see on any bathroom wall," said Cynthia Dyer-Bennet, a student not involved in the settlements who saw a printout of the comments.

The federal Office for Civil Rights concluded that the remarks about the women created a "hostile learning environment" for them. It also found that the 20,000-student school had violated students' civil rights by allowing gender-based areas on the system. The men- and women-only portions of the bulletin board were discontinued.

The Office of Civil Rights decision affects only publicly funded institutions, such as schools and libraries, where resources cannot be assigned according to gender.

RACIST E-MAIL: A white professor at Texas A&M University says he has been the target of death threats since someone broke into his electronic mail account and sent a racist message to about 20,000 computer users in four states.

Grady Blount's password was used to send E-mail to college campuses in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Colorado and Texas. The message was received Monday by users of the Internet, which links colleges, research facilities and individuals worldwide.