For Jonathan—an attractive, Ivy League– educated musician and adjunct professor—it all started a couple of years ago, when he was working as a temp in the sleek offices of a Madison Avenue ad agency. There he was, seated at his desk, half-heartedly going over pitches for new accounts, when a colleague tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey, man, you gotta check this out.” The co-worker spoke in a whisper.
“Just come over here.”
Jonathan—who is 33 and speaks with the hapless charm of a Nick Hornby protagonist—made his way over to the neighboring cubicle, where, on the Mac’s fifteen-inch screen, a pixelated young woman was making love to a machine that resembled a Pilates apparatus. The image, he says, “wasn’t for me,” but it did send an impossible-to-ignore signal to that region of the male brain where curiosity and testosterone intersect. “I was like, Oh, I want to see what’s out there,” he says. “At the time, I barely understood what a ‘link’ was, but it didn’t take too long to figure it all out.”
Indeed not. Suddenly, cyberporn seemed to be everywhere Jonathan went. While in the recording studio, he found that the producer, “a real straight-up guy,” was constantly procrastinating with Internet porn. “Sometimes I’d drop in unexpectedly, like when he was supposed to be mixing my stuff, and he’d be at the computer, staring at pornography, going, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ ” Jonathan recalls. “At first, he had the attitude like, Look at how awful this is, because, obviously, we were both supposed to be these educated men. And I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s awful.’ But the whole time, we’d be exchanging these knowing glances like, But it’s kind of cool, too, isn’t it?”
It became a once-a-day habit—one that, these days, Jonathan admits has gotten somewhat out of hand. For instance, before most dates, he finds himself logging onto TheHun.net, one of many sites that cull and categorize free porn daily, “so I’m not so anxious.” He now jokes about the Internet as “the vortex of self-hatred” because of how it can turn mere diversion into a self-destructive act: “I’ll have a ton of papers to grade, but instead I’ll be like, Let’s jerk off to the Internet first. So I go online, but then I despise myself. I look up, and my computer says I’ve been online for 47 minutes and I’m like, What the hell have I been doing?!”
His latest foray into teaching hasn’t helped matters: Jonathan uses the university’s high-speed connection to download pornography onto floppy discs, he says, because “my dial-up at home is monstrously slow.” Which, he acknowledges, has produced another unorthodox temptation. “God, it’s so fucked up,” he says. “I go into the computer lab, right? And I’m looking at it, and there are these girls all around in their little cubicles, and, I don’t know, I want to see if I can reach orgasm right there.” Discreetly, he has managed to succeed in this mission a few times.
“I think part of the thrill is the danger element. It’s like a Portnoy thing,” Jonathan says. It’s an apt allusion, except for one difference: Philip Roth’s chronic masturbator, Alexander Portnoy, was a high-school freshman, not a 33-year-old professor.
It’s not news, of course, that men are into porn—or that the Internet has made it possible to delve into the dirty without slipping into the back room at a video store or hunkering down in a Times Square peep booth. But in the same manner that looking for flings online went from deviant to de rigueur behavior, the mass consumption of cyberporn has slyly moved from the pathetic stereotypes (fugitive perverts, frustrated husbands) into the potent mainstream (young professionals, perhaps your boyfriend). Thanks to the advent of cable modems and DSL connections, it’s now easier than ever to scan lewd material in the privacy of your own home. One minute you’re reading the New York Times, and then two clicks on Google and—oops!—you’re downloading highlights from Jenna Jameson’s oeuvre.
And why not? After all, we live in a society that not only has embraced porn but giddily lavishes it with high-brow attention. Frank Rich “analyzes” adult entertainment in the Times. Writer Irvine Welsh revisits the Trainspotting crew as it makes a skin flick in his latest novel, Porno. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders offers a coffee-table book of photographs of porn stars—with essays by literary types—and it’s snatched up by an A-list publisher. Porn is not merely acceptable; it’s hip.
Of course, for those not just talking about it but consuming it, cyberspace offers the luxury of total anonymity. A graduate-student friend of mine who admits to looking at I-porn daily puts it: “You don’t want to rent a porn movie, which in and of itself is seedy, just bringing the thing to the counter. Being anonymous is very cool. You’re watching it in the confines of your own home, with your own music playing—there’s a certain comfort. In my case, I can always turn it off and look at ESPN.com.”
Cyberporn has become the raunchy wallpaper to these respectable lives. A 43-year-old trader at a prominent firm spends much of his downtime trading porn—everything from unauthorized photos of Hollywood stars to twisted S&M pics—with his colleagues. “It’s just something to amuse you when you’re bored,” he says. “It’s just there—like white noise.”
A 30-year-old fashion editor was recently floored to discover that two of her most estimable male friends were skilled navigators of the Internet’s seedier sites. “I was at my country house the other weekend when all of a sudden I see that they were casually staring at ViolentRussians.com and Trannies.com,” she says. “What was most bizarre is how no one really cared.” Emily Kramer, the 25-year-old co-founder of Cake, a “female sexual-entertainment company,” explains that the subject is utterly commonplace among her nouveau-bohemian pals. “It’s like a joke among my close male friends,” she says. “I’ll ask, ‘What did you do last night?’ and they say, ‘I was up till five in the morning jerking off to the Internet.’ It’s just like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ ”
Even Dawson is doing it: In the recent film adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel The Rules of Attraction, there’s a scene in which James Van Der Beek mulls over his options on a Friday night at an elite university, one of them being “I could go back to my room, play the guitar, and masturbate to broadband-speed Internet porn.”
It may be a viable laugh line, but when does it stop being funny? Over beers recently, a 26-year-old businessman friend shocked me by casually remarking, “Dude, all of my friends are so obsessed with Internet porn that they can’t sleep with their girlfriends unless they act like porn stars.” A 20-year-old college student who bartends at a popular Soho lounge describes how an I-porn-filled adolescence shaped his perceptions of sex. “Looking at Internet porn was pretty much my sex education,” he says. “I mean, in school, it was just, ‘Here’s a gigantic wooden dildo, and now we’re putting a condom on it,’ whereas on the Internet, you had it all. I remember the first time I had sex, my first thought as it was happening was, Oh, this is pornography. It was a kind of out-of-body experience. I was really uncomfortable with sex for a while.”
Dr. Ursula Ofman, a Manhattan-based sex therapist, says that she’s seen many young men coming in to chat about I-porn-related issues. “It’s so accessible, and now, with things like streaming video and Webcams, guys are getting sucked into a compulsive behavior,” she says. “What’s most regrettable is that it can really affect relationships with women. I’ve seen some young men lately who can’t get aroused with women but have no problem interacting with the Internet. I think a big danger is that young men who are constantly exposed to these fake, always-willing women start to have unreal expectations from real women, which makes them phobic about relationships.” Also, she surmises that cyberporn may play a role in what she describes as “the truly stunning things women today feel obliged to do sexually with a man—whether it’s something like anal penetration or simply not bothering to please themselves.”
All of which raises a question: How much is Internet porn screwing with the way a generation of young men view women?
If you hang out at Suite 16, the trendy Chelsea lounge popular with Britney Spears and every impossibly lithe model in town, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Rick. He is 24, has shaggy blond hair and a body sculpted from three days a week at New York Sports Club, and, when he goes out, tends to sport a dapper pair of black Calvin Klein slacks and a crisp white Hugo Boss button-down. A graduate of one of the country’s top universities, he is on the rise at a good midtown law firm and shares a Williamsburg loft with two roommates. He hangs out at Suite 16 because he likes “to be part of the scene” and also because the girls—in their teeny tank tops—“are simply ridiculous.”