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.”
The Porn Myth: In the end, porn doesn’t whet men’s appetites—it turns them off the real thing. By Naomi Wolf (October 20, 2003)The New Position on Casual Sex: The rise of Internet dating has brought a sexual openness (not to mention one-night stands) to the younger generation not seen since the seventies heyday of Maxwell’s Plum. But can there be too much of a good thing? By Vanessa Grigoriadis (January 13, 2003)
But, speaking of the girls, there’s one small problem: Rick, despite his good looks, is intimidated by them. “Girls like that are waiting for Derek Jeter to walk in, or a movie star, or a 50-year-old guy to be their sugar daddy,” he explains. “They want someone at the pinnacle of his career, who lives on Fifth Avenue—not someone who lives in Williamsburg with two other dudes.”
Rick has a solution—of sorts. “Thing is, you can find a million girls just like them online,” he says. “And they’re naked, doing whatever you want them to do.” And so he’ll often find himself stumbling home at four in the morning and going online to search out digital copies of the women he’s just seen gyrating on the dance floor. Rick admits his isn’t exactly the healthiest outlook on dating. “I think it’s a substitute for reality,” he says. “What you can’t get through real life, you can get through porn.”
Like many other guys his age, Rick, who has never rented an X-rated video and considers strip clubs “a little gross,” discovered Internet porn in high school, and he’ll tell you about it with all the whimsy of a high-school football star waxing nostalgic about his early years on the JV squad. “I remember it clear as day. It just dawned on me: I can type in Pamela Anderson, and naked pictures of her will come up from Playboy!” But it wasn’t until college, when he was introduced to an Ethernet connection, that looking at online pornography became a daily habit. “Think about it. You’re 18, your hormones are out of control, and you’ve got these beautiful women cavorting in all kinds of sexual positions on the screen right in front of you. You know they’re there. You have to look. Everyone in college these days is pretty into it.”
Though Rick, who has never had a serious girlfriend, doesn’t consider looking at cyberporn a problematic pastime, he will admit that it has affected his interactions with women—and not just those apparitions at Suite 16. “I think it’s made me more picky,” he says. “These girls on the computer are just so hot. Obviously, you want to get with a girl like that. So you may be at a bar with a girl, and she’s really cool, but she’s not a ‘10,’ you know? She’s cool, she’s cute, but you quickly start to notice flaws.” Meanwhile, the women who manage to come off as relatively flawless are curiously categorized in his mind: “Say I see a girl who’s hot, I’ll think, That girl is like a porn star!” At the same time, he adds, “I’d be worried if I met a girl at a bar and three hours later we were in bed.”
Recently, Rick was working late and during a break went online and “typed in ‘Heidi Klum,’ because, you know, she’s so hot.” The browser responded with CENSORED CATEGORY: SWIMSUIT AND LINGERIE. What the hell was this? He tried again. CENSORED CATEGORY: ADULT. It was like being caught with a Penthouse by an eagle-eyed nun. “When I first started there, you could look at porn,” he says. “I’d just glimpse at it when I was stressed out. You just go to Google and type in ‘blowjobs.’ ”
And yet he’s never worried that his relationship with I-porn has veered from campy to creepy. “I mean, come on, porn just isn’t so off-limits anymore,” he says. “Porn’s everywhere, it’s in your face! Jenna Jameson’s a cultural icon!”
She most certainly is—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Next week, Fox will debut Skin, a Jerry Bruckheimer–produced hourlong drama featuring prime time’s first porn king. HBO, meanwhile, is shooting Pornucopia, a six-part documentary on the world of pornography in California’s San Fernando Valley, and the ladies of Sex and the City have saucily deconstructed porn on more than one episode. The Onion constantly parodies Joe Public’s porn habits (classic headline: IRONIC PORN PURCHASE LEADS TO UNIRONIC EJACULATION), and the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q dedicates a number to Internet porn sung by Trekkie, a character whose occupation is listed on the Website as “Internet Porn Addict.” During a recent rant about the blackout on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the cantankerous comedian Lewis Black huffed, “Now, I always heard that the biggest souvenir of any blackout was unplanned pregnancies. Well, I didn’t have any sex during the blackout. How could I? My computer wasn’t working.”
And speaking of Jenna Jameson, she was recently plastered on a billboard in Times Square, she has spoken at the Oxford Union, and her autobiography is being ghostwritten by Neil Strauss, a Times critic.
Perhaps the most explicit evidence of mainstreaming is the recent launch of “classy” sex sites designed to appeal to the smart set. While most are filled with the predictable material (“Gorgeous Asian Kinky Sex” and “Lovely Licking Lesbians” read two links from PersianKitty.com, a popular free site), there are now destinations creeping into the porn pantheon that are a touch more, for lack of a better word, tasteful.
“Recently, I was on a date with a guy, and it came up that he didn’t look at Internet porn. I was shocked! My general notion is that every guy does.”
Currently, the most prominent is SuicideGirls.com, which was launched just under two years ago and gets 500,000 unique visitors a week, making the co-founders, Sean and Missy Suicide (don’t ask), a comfortable living off subscribers and advertisers. The site is aimed at those who thought the shy drama chick with the black eyeliner and the nose ring was the sexiest girl in high school (e.g., every guy in Williamsburg). There are thousands of photos of such young women—pierced, tattooed, bleached, you name it—who are paid $200 to be photographed in the buff. Also, to make clear that they aren’t sexual objects but rather empowered, they post profiles expounding on their favorite bands (Radiohead, Björk), writers (Vonnegut, Bukowski), and sexual positions (“With my boot in your face”). Bizarrely, the site also publishes articles on whether Internet porn is harmful.
“We’re not a porn site so much as a pinup site,” says Sean, pointing out two major differences: (1) There’s no penetration to be found on SuicideGirls.com, and (2) these women truly want to be doing it, “unlike the debased women in mainstream porn who are really just used for the money shot.” It’s a community, he adds. Like Friendster.com—only the girls are naked. It’s the nearest thing you can find to a politically correct porn site.
Dan couldn’t believe it. Here he was, walking across campus on a glittering spring day last year to talk to the school psychologist. Now a 23-year-old aspiring indie rocker with an entry-level job in the music industry, he knew that everyone devoured cyberporn. Guys joked about it, girls rolled their eyes ironically, and one of his roommates, a smart computer-science major, was even considering starting his own I-porn franchise. Nonetheless, Dan was starting to worry about his porn habit.
“At first, it was kind of a natural thing, and then it got compulsive,” he says. “I’d feel unnatural when I went to bed if I didn’t look at it. Then I said to myself, Okay, I’m gonna go a week without it. But I could only make it three or four days.”
Moreover, his once-a-day habit was having some peculiar effects on his relationship with his girlfriend. He was in love, yes, and had been committed to her for over four years, but their sex life remained, for him, let’s just say, “missionary.” However, the thought of discussing this with her made him jittery—after all, in all other respects, the relationship was working—and so, he says, “I’d use Internet pornography to get what I wasn’t getting sexually. Say I was really horny. Well, I’d go out with my girlfriend, and then, after, I’d look at it.” On other occasions, he’d peek at it beforehand, much the way certain men rely on Viagra, “and then I’d be like an animal with her, trying to superimpose her with all these images in my head.” Then, during a “break” from the relationship, he found himself in bed with another girl and inquiring, out of nowhere, if he could photograph her nude and post it on the Internet. (No thanks, she said.) “It was like a drug,” Dan says. “I just started to feel so bad about it. I’d think about how these girls I looked at were being exploited, but then I still couldn’t stop. It was totally screwing with the way I thought I should be seeing women.”
Still, there remained something comical—ridiculous, even—about being in the fluorescent-lit office of a psychologist waiting to exorcise his demons.
“So why don’t we start by having you tell me why you’re here today,” the therapist said as Dan sat down.
He took a series of deep breaths. Then, nervously, he voiced his concerns. “Oh, relax,” said the therapist. “There’s been a lot of guys lately coming in to talk about the very same thing … ”
“I couldn’t believe it!” Dan recalls with a chuckle. “I never went back to her. I told myself, Okay, I made an effort to stop looking at it.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “But it didn’t change anything.” ‘It’s really a slippery slope,” says David Marcus, a psychologist who runs a counseling group for men who hope to curtail their cyberporn habits by chatting openly in a half-circle. “It’s not as if looking at pornography of any sort is, hands-down, a bad activity. Certain men are inspired by it, and others with low sex drives can use it to get aroused. Couples, too, can often use it positively.”
Nonetheless, Marcus is certain it can have negative ramifications, and at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre, where he works with Alvin Cooper, editor of the book Sex and the Internet, they break them down in pretty crude (if seemingly random) terms: “Our research has shown that if you spend more than eleven hours a week looking at Internet pornography, then it is starting to become problematic.” Not that all men who’ve become compulsive consumers are eager to be treated. “Most of the men I see are here because their girlfriends are annoyed—they think it’s almost like having an affair. Others found themselves in trouble or even fired for looking at it at work.”
It doesn’t take a Mensa card to understand the appeal of limitless free and frisky women to the male mind. Still, Marcus says, there are more complex factors at work. “It makes sense in a way, because, especially in urban environments, our professional lives are very much go-go-go!, and we put our emotions to the sides,” he explains. “Porn can provide an instant soothing to emotional stress.” Ursula Ofman, the Manhattan-based sex therapist, agrees: “The Internet provides such an easy out that you can manage without any real-life contact for a long time,” she says. “And since Internet porn is so accessible, it’s often very difficult to wean men from it.” Marcus prefers to classify I-porn consumption as a compulsion rather than as an addiction. The difference? “There’s an anxiety component to it,” he says. “In medical terms, we call it ego dystonic, which basically means that it’s a behavior that goes against your sense of self.”
Jill was in love. It was the late nineties, she was a sophomore at a competitive state university, and she found herself smitten with Kyle, a junior with a confident strut who also happened to be the editor of the school newspaper, which won him instant parental approval. By the end of that year, they were a serious couple. Jill knew that she had discovered not only true love but, to put it bluntly, great sex as well.
So when, after a year, she learned that Kyle spent quite a bit of time looking at pornography—first online, then, eventually, on videos too—she wasn’t immediately put off, despite being a psychology major who seriously questioned the morality of porn. “I was the kind of girlfriend who was up for anything sexually,” says Jill, who is 25, has hazel eyes, and works in PR. “When we were having sex, he’d call me his porn star, and I thought that was hot.”
In time, this changed. Kyle would sometimes e-mail her links to sites “he thought were really hot,” which made Jill more than a little uncomfortable. Sometimes, she’d drop by his house for a surprise visit and he’d have already “exhausted himself” with the computer. Then, when she was a senior, the campus scandal of the year was when “a student videotaped herself masturbating and someone intercepted the tape,” Jill says. “People were mass-marketing it on the Web.” Kyle at that point had moved to New York, where he quickly made a name for himself in publishing. “He heard about it and asked me to get him a copy!” she says. Later still, he suggested they watch a movie together, which turned out to be a bad idea. “I figured we’d laugh about it, but all of a sudden he was so serious and into it,” Jill says sadly. “I wanted to giggle, and he was raring to go. I was like, ‘Can we turn this off?’ I was grossed out a little.”
They have since broken up, and have stopped talking. “He was a lot more innocent when he was younger,” she says. “He was looking for love and companionship. Now he just wants a good lay. I’m sure he’s looking for some huge-breasted, tight-assed bitch.”
Now that Jill is single, she finds that porn has also complicated her general outlook on men. “The other day, I was on a date with a guy and somehow it came up that he didn’t look at Internet porn,” she says. “I was shocked! I mean, my general notion is that every guy does.” And there’s something else she finds disconcerting: “The few experiences I’ve had with guys who don’t look at it, the sex hasn’t been very good.”
That said, she’d like to find a man “who doesn’t need to look at hard-core sex every night—online or anywhere else.” These days, she feels “very jaded about love and sex,” but every so often, she finds her cynicism dissolving. For instance, she’ll be out with friends, lounging in a bar on the Lower East Side, sipping a beer, and surrounding her are plenty of clean young men. Many have impressive careers. Many are quite witty. In general, they all just seem so … nice. As she puts it: “I think it will be really rare, and hopefully it will happen, that I can meet a guy who will be happy with only me.”