The Porn Flâneur: What Baudelaire and LubeTube Have in Common

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Photo: Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Consuming pornography in the age of YouPorn and ­PornTube—not to mention LubeTube, WankTube, YouJizz, Spankwire, LobsterTube, MelonsTube, and LazyPornTube—is to stumble through a sexual landscape that surprises as frequently as it arouses. These websites don’t just give you the erotic materials you’ve requested to mainline but a vast array of pop-up penises, oozing animations, and oscillating breasts that multiply in cascading windows with each click. Every pixel of this is calibrated specifically to lure you down another path of escalating depravity or curious delights.

Stop me if this sounds insane (or should I say, Don’t stop, keep going, yes, yes, yes), but the modern paths to pornographic discovery resemble Baudelaire’s intellectual ideal of the flâneur, “the passionate spectator,” who strolls down the boulevards of Paris, wandering from one sensory delight to another, a “solitary, gifted with an active imagination, ceaselessly journeying.” Of course, the village of ceaseless cybersmut is less 19th-century Paris than, say, 1980s Times Square on PCP. Even jaded consumers may be momentarily repulsed, and everyone, even prudes, may find themselves mesmerized with freakish curiosity—or uncomfortable arousal—or both. And though your curiosity is piqued, your actions are mostly passive; while the people on the screen perform extraordinary physical feats, the viewer may be immobile, registering approval or disgust with a click or flick of the wrist.

Which means that, for all the attention paid to the erotic entertainment we seek out on purpose (the most searched-for porn term in America is “MILF,” though Romania out-squicks us with “mom and son”), the map of our less directed eroticized wanderings is equally revealing. The porn flâneur takes pleasure in his or her stroll. This is Balzac’s “gastronomy of the eye,” the opportunity “to enjoy the sublime pictures of misery, of love, of joy, of gracious or grotesque physiognomies.”

“I keep accidentally watching porn where girls drink their own pee,” a straight male friend named Alex recently lamented. “I don’t know if it’s a trend or if I’m using websites that have more of that than usual. It’ll be that thing where I’m watching something normal and then I skip ahead and suddenly there’s a cup. I saw one where a girl peed onto an office chair, then tilted the seat and drank it.”

“My dick went limp in my hand,” another male friend said of the moment when a group-sex scene morphed into the horrifying depiction of one performer’s digestive troubles. Nevertheless, he watched the whole thing. “The weirdest part was that the other couple just kept going, like nothing was happening. Can you imagine having sex right next to that? I only watched one video, but I didn’t get off for like a week.” An ex who made a masochistic game out of challenging himself to see what sorts of horrible images he could nevertheless achieve orgasm to seemed, in retrospect, to have the opposite problem: Wasn’t he creating some sort of Pavlovian sexual-depravity response in himself? And a female porn enthusiast who prefers “gentle girly ­videos” said she took an opposite approach to the onslaught of stimulus, always pulling in the edges of her web browser when watching videos, so the ads get cropped off the screen. “Some of that stuff is so gross. It’s distracting.”

But most of us do watch, even if only out of the corners of our eyes. The fact that paid porn companies can make any money advertising on websites that offer nearly identical content for free (diminished as their earnings may be) is testament to the suggestive power of flânerie. Chris Miller is the sales lead at Traffic Junky, the company that serves ads to PornHub, PornMD, Xtube, RedTube, and YouPorn. Traffic Junky clients include dating websites, boner pills, casinos, and Hollywood movies. But the most successful campaigns are video-style banner ads for other porn websites. “People always say, ‘How will they make money when there’s so much available for free on the site?’ ” Miller explained by phone from Traffic Junky’s Montreal headquarters. “But people really fall in love with certain things they see advertised. For some people, a $20 subscription is worth it to see that particular scene or that model naked.” The designers of these ads “have a kind of artistic or creative eye,” Miller continued. “They watch the scene, take it apart, and choose the most enticing moments.”

The results are animated ads that loop continually—an array of endlessly bouncing butts, never-ending orgasms, and pretty girls giggling and adjusting their tank tops for hours on end. “The beauty of the ad is really in the eye of the viewer. Sometimes the ads that get the most clicks are ones I find disgusting,” said Miller. Other times they’re baffling, like when a dating site ran an animation of male and female restroom symbols bent over having sex. “Just symbols having sex! Simple. Not graphic. I would have expected photos of a real woman or man to get more attention.” Maybe viewers found it funny? “I will never understand,” Miller replied in a tone of awed resignation. “Sometimes ads that look like they were designed by a 4-year-old will do better than professional-looking design.”

And sometimes it’s a sandwich that’s most enticing. Food-delivery website Eat24 purchased a PornHub ad campaign last year; for a tenth of the price of comparable ads on Google, Twitter, and Facebook, it generated three times as many ad impressions. Eat24’s most successful ad showed a woman eating takeout in lingerie. Its second-most-successful ad was a high-resolution close-up of a bacon sandwich.

In talking about our pornographic wanderings, I’ve noticed a stark divide in the sexual vocabularies of modern adults. The fault line is, in part, generational: Those born after a certain date are consistently fluent in a vast lexicon of colorfully named sex acts that rarely occur in the wild: felching, sounding, skull­fucking, snowballing, the Rusty Trombone, the Donkey Punch, the Dirty Sanchez, the Puppies in the Tub. (Some are physical impossibilities at best, cause for criminal charges at worst.) But a more accurate predictor than age is, simply, the amount of time they’ve spent strolling NSFW corners of the internet. They’ve learned this language without trying, simply because it is there. They may not even recall the exact moment they ­discovered felching.

One result of this cornucopia is that Generation Donkey Punch expects to find everything we can imagine online. “You know that Rule 34 thing they talk about on Reddit, ‘If it exists, there is porn of it’?” a gay male friend asked over iced coffees at a packed café in Chelsea. “Well, it’s not true! Did I ever tell you how, when I first came to New York, I had a formative experience with an older man dressed as a clown at a gay bar? So I went through this phase when I really wanted to find gay clown porn, but there wasn’t any. There was straight clown porn and gay porn with masks that they took off, but no gay clown sex.” More unsettling than porn-browsing sessions that leave you repulsed: those that convince you that your desires are repulsive to everyone else on the entire internet.

That said, it took me about a minute to find a video of two barrel-chested clown daddies fisting one another in diapers. “Was this a ploy to force me to watch clown porn?” I asked when I emailed the link to my friend. He watched it, then confessed to profound feelings of shame: “I can’t believe you’re better at finding gay clown porn than I am.”

*This article appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.