The Amateurs

Bernadette Taylor is a 30-year-old graphic artist who designs the pictures on product packaging. She leads a quiet life in Perth, Australia, with her fiance and baby daughter. And in her spare time she masturbates while being filmed on a home webcam, broadcasting herself for free to thousands of viewers who log on to her personal Web site (www.bernadette.net) every day. When she isn't doing a cam show, Bernadette's fans can browse her site to catch up on her latest nude photo shoot, personal diary entries and tips on everything from oral sex to bad jokes.Recently, a friend gave her some old bondage gear, so there's a new gallery devoted entirely to portraits of Bernadette in leather restraints, lashed to a wall, grinning wickedly at the camera. Why does she do it? And why for free?"[I]t's not a commercial sex site," she tells me by e-mail. "I'm an exhibitionist...not someone that strips for money. To me sexuality is tainted by commercialism. I would find it impossible to be myself and display my sexuality whilst having to meet members' requirements." Unlike the stereotypical subject of pornography, Bernadette is neither exploited, nor does she seem sexually neurotic. She claims she just enjoys having orgasms and sharing them with others, and that it's as simple as that.I ask how being an online sexual celebrity has affected her everyday life. One pictures her walking into her neighborhood grocery store and having the kid at the register leer at her knowingly."I was getting recognized for a while," she admits, "until I blocked out my local area." (i.e., she's set up her site so locals can't access it.) "Other than that, it's mostly just fan mail and presents sent via the post. I still don't see myself as a celebrity," she adds. "I'm an artist."Bernadette is probably the most famous of hundreds of amateur Internet pornographers whose work -- done for pleasure, and for free -- stretches the definition of pornography far enough almost to change its meaning. Is Bernadette's Web site really pornography if users don't have to pay for it, and the people who produce it do it for fun? It's a question amateur Internet pornography poses again and again. Vicki is a 30-year-old software engineer who lives in Virginia. Like Bernadette, she enjoys taking erotic pictures of herself and posting them on the Web. She is the webmistress of Necrobabes (www.necrobabes.com), a members-only Web site devoted to erotic horror. Under Vicki's supervision, Necrobabes hosts a number of free and low-cost amateur sites devoted to people who fetishize dead, unconscious and asphyxiated women. You might say Necrobabes provides users with safe-snuff-sex."Actually, we are always shy about talking about our little group in public," Vicki tells me by e-mail, "since we know how easy it is for people to judge others' fetishes. But our members are only harmless guys with a fantasy." Although she isn't one of Necrobabes' regular models, Vicki has done several photo shoots of herself lying "dead," her lingerie-clad form streaked theatrically with blood."When I was young," Vicki writes on her personal Web site (www.necrobabes.com/vicki), "my mother and I participated in a historical re-enactment of an Indian massacre. It was being produced by East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. They were making a film series for the North Carolina Bicentennial... All of us played dead in the mock village, while they filmed the scene. Although I didn't know it at the time, I enjoyed being handled and moved while playing dead with the other participants. As I got older, I would fantasize about being killed in various situations. I enjoy fantasizing about being killed -- this includes handling and sexual manipulation of my body. It surprises me when guys ask, 'Why would a woman like these kinds of fantasies?' Why not? Think about it -- I'm normally a very independent, controlled person. In my fantasies...I have no more control. My killer can then do whatever he (or she) wants with my body."Although the Necrobabes sites aren't free (the necrobabes.com membership fee is $35 for six months; you can spend $35 in a few minutes on a commercial adult site), Vicki explains that they are not set up to make money. "We started these sites basically so we could provide something to the people who share these fetishes. We only wanted to break even, so it isn't really supposed to be a money-maker, just a member site." People who pay to gain access to Necrobabes are its only financial supporters -- it's like a fetishist's version of public television. "If it were our intent to make a profit, we could do a lot less and also pay the models and producers less money," Vicki notes, "but we like having the models make a little more doing this for us. When you look at all the thousands of pictures we have posted you will see where all our money goes. But we like doing it."Both Bernadette and Vicki say they originally got into online amateur erotica by posting on Internet newsgroups (Usenet) in the days before such groups were so overwhelmed by advertising that they became useless. Amateurs whose histories go back beyond Usenet were displaying their free wares on even more primitive systems in the digitalithic early 80s. Personally, that's when I was discovering pornography and computer networks at roughly that same time. My friends and I had gratified our sexual curiosity the same way kids had been entertaining themselves sexually since the 1960s: We stole porn and nudie mags from our parents. Playboy, Penthouse, Penthouse Variations (my personal favorite); books like Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden, Men in Love, Forbidden Flowers. In the mid-80s, our pornographic imaginations were utterly rewritten. We began to gain access to computerized bulletin-board systems (BBSes) where you could download binary softcore pictures and sex stories, usually for free. It was pure, unmediated sexual entertainment. And a lot of it was being created by the same people who were consuming it. On BBSes with chat capacities, the sexual possibilities seemed safe but limitless. I will always consider the Internet to be one of the first places I had sex.The possibilities expanded along with the net itself. With the growth of newsgroups on Usenet -- especially the creation of the alt.* hierarchy -- a whole slew of special-interest pornographers can display, discuss and advertise (or spam) their wares on an international scale. These are the newsgroups where Vicki first hooked up with her fellow erotic-horror fetishists, and where Bernadette posted her sexual self-portraiture. Unlike most other newsgroup hierarchies, alt.* will permit the creation of new newsgroups without requiring netizens' groups to vote on them. So anyone can create perversely specific sexually oriented alt.* newsgroups, ranging from the wildly popular alt.sex.stories to the easily parodied alt.sex.cthulhu or alt.sex.nasal-hair. Not surprisingly, the number of newsgroups beginning with "alt.sex" expanded astronomically during the 90s. Internet relay chat (IRC), written in 1988, also provided a way for users to form sexually oriented "channels" (chat rooms) where they could exchange pornography in real time. Private IRC channels could also be created to host the sexually explicit hijinks of a few consenting users -- this practice gave rise to the first tales of "virtual sex" on the Internet.The Web, already the target of various "decency" vigilance committees, is now the major location where Internet pornography is procured, consumed and hyper-marketed. Unlike accessing newsgroups or ftp archives, surfing the Web is easy. Ironically, though, it's harder and more expensive to create a Web page than it is to post your erotic ramblings or your personal exhibition-photo library on a newsgroup. Thus, as the Web has become the dominant Internet medium for sexual entertainment, that entertainment has become far more commercialized and slick.Even personal Web sites can cost a great deal, particularly if you're expecting to receive lots of hits and downloads. Amateur pornographers who would once have posted their stuff for free on BBSes or newsgroups are virtually forced to charge visitors to see their sites. Webmasters who still want their sites to remain free often take in advertising and give huge amounts of space to pornographic banner ads that use memory-intensive animations, flash irritatingly, open "consoles" (those browser windows that often crash your browser) and just plain distract readers from legitimate site content.So it's come full circle: Updating the slick nudism of Playboy and Penthouse, we now have extremely commercial Web sites that distribute photographs mostly produced by a few large corporations (like Zmaster [www.zmaster.com] and Giffy Enterprises [www.giffy. com]). Instead of the pseudo-sociology of Nancy Friday, we have sex-education Web sites like www.sexscape.org and www.goode.com, all about sex toys, safer s&m and politically correct sexual fantasies. (I admit I find Good Vibrations and its extensive vibrator catalog far more useful than I ever found Friday's commentary, but still.)Nevertheless, simply by virtue of sheer quantity and diversity, Internet pornography is able to encompass a whole range of erotic production, from bland, airbrushed softcore images to the self-portraiture of obese exhibitionists (Delilah Samson's www.sensuoustimes.com/delilah) and the detailed written fantasies of people who want to have sex while they're hypnotized (the Erotic Mind-Control Story Archive at www.mcstories.com).Many Internet porn users are extremely preoccupied by the authenticity of what they read and watch. They want to know that a "personal" porn site is in fact produced by a real person. A common aspect of the authentic personal Web site is a sex-saturated "diary" or domestic webcam, generally accompanied by the alleged webmaster's long autobiographical introduction and his/her/its answers to users' frequently asked questions (FAQs).Bernadette comes across as a real human being partly by broadcasting her own political agenda on her site. She was recently profiled by Wired for refusing to make her Web site accessible to people using Microsoft products and e-mail. In an effort to keep her erotica as personal as possible, Bernadette has become charmingly rabid about tracking down people who steal her copyrighted images. One offender, a man who reposted some of her pictures on his own Web site, is receiving the ultimate punishment: Bernadette listed his name, address, phone number, Social Security number, credit card agency and Internet service provider (ISP) in one of her recent diary entries.Other personal Web sites like Bernadette's also go to great pains to convince us they're authentic. Jill's Diary (www.jillsdiary.com/story.htm) contains a long FAQ in which "Jill" tries to explain that she actually is a woman, even though her domain name is registered to a man.It's hard to know why people care what Jill's actual gender is when she provides them so reliably with nonstop sexual adventure. On a typical day, Jill has a conversation with a colleague, and suddenly they're fucking. "I felt his fingers push aside my underwear and take my smooth pussy closer to his lips," she gushes in a typical passage. "The first touch of his tongue nearly sent me over the edge. He glided it up and down over my crack and teased my hole with wetness." In answer to the question, "Are the stories real?" Jill finally says in her FAQ, "If you are getting off, does it matter?"In Jill's case, there's a strong possibility that some amateur really is producing this sex diary just for fun. And free sites like Delilah Samson's, devoted to the "super size" exhibitionist's photos of herself semi-naked in public, are obviously the work of a real human who gets off on self-display.Of course, there any number of commercial sites with names like "Clare's XXX Fantasies" (www.swingers.nu/clare/hardcore.html) and fake introductory notes from "Clare" ("Welcome to my world of lust. I hope you will enjoy this Hot XXX-action as much as i do. It sure makes me Cum every time. So cum on in and enjoy!"). While the pictures on Clare's site are free, they are clearly not the work of an amateur enthusiast. Sites like Bedfellow (www.bedfellow.com) declare their authenticity in other ways: Since Bedfellow is "gay owned and operated," users are supposed to assume a certain degree of self-interest on the part of the models. Although you have to pay to enter Bedfellow's professional Web site, at least you'll know that the boys who produce it actually do like boys.You'd expect the free sites would be less commercialized and more likely to contain personal touches, but in fact sometimes the most original, personal material comes with a fee attached. Dave's Sleepy Girl site at Necrobabes is clearly the personal project of a few horny narcophiles -- although you pay to enter the site, the site itself is commercial-free. On the other hand, some of the cheesiest, most trite Playboy-looking crap is available online for free, albeit under half a dozen banner ads for "ass meat," "teen freaks," "cum in her face," "hot rod boys," etc.Anyway, a great deal of online porn is totally free, and humorously unpredictable as a result. One my favorite free amateur pages is called simply "Close-Up Shots of Some People Fucking" (www.zippy-blamo.com/closeup/). Part of the Zippy-Blamo Web ring (www.zippy-blamo.com), "Close Up Shots" is the enticingly lewd, irony-soaked brainchild of two guys, Zippy (an engineer) and Blamo (a dispatcher), who just wanted to see how many people would come to their site. "It's like a challenge thing," Zippy told me in an interview. "I want to see exactly how many people I can get to visit My Little Creation. This electronic world is so saturated with porn, it becomes absolutely mind-numbing. The only thing I can offer is my rude cynical wit." In the Zippy-Blamo universe, a breast-milk fetish page is called "Got Milk?" Another page is jauntily titled "Ned's House O Cumshots!" And in homage to Pulp Fiction they've named one collection of pictures "Zed's Dead, Baby -- Check out the Lesbians (They're Asian, Damnit!)."What's this about? For Zippy, it was just a matter of making do with what he has. "I found a distributor that licenses CD-ROMs with XXX images to individual Web sites," he explains. "Me and my buddy, using our math skills and lack of common sense, decided the best license to purchase would be the one with the most pictures at the cheapest cost (obviously). Turns out the pictures were so baaaad, the only option left was to make fun of them."To aid browsers through random netporn, pornographic "link" sites have grown up alongside the Internet porn industry. These are sites devoted entirely to categorizing, describing and linking to other online pornographic sites. Some focus principally on certain types of Web sites, and others archive posts to popular newsgroups as well. Most have a particular demographic in mind, supporting themselves with advertisements aimed at this group.Perhaps the classiest and best-maintained of the porno link sites is Jane's 'Net Sex Guide (www.powerotic.com/jane), run by Jane and her partner Jim (who have a section of their Web site called "photo challenge" devoted to proving that they exist in real life). Jane offers consumer tips to Internet porn fans and writes detailed reviews of sex-related Web sites. What she seems to value most in a site are originality and lack of advertising. With its cute stick figures and pastel notepaper backgrounds, its literate commentary with a woman-friendly/queer-friendly ethic, Jane's is the "Good Vibrations" of link sites.Another popular one is Greenguy's Link-o-Rama (www.link-o-rama.com/greenguy/mlinks. htm), with jibes from the obviously unreal "Greenguy," who claims, "I just turned 18 yesterday & this is my brand new site!" Right. With his raunchy sense of humor (Greenguy's site is decorated by little green animated balls that give you the finger) and a hardcore, indiscriminate appetite for anything sexual, Greenguy is a place for the adolescent guy in all of us. Appealingly, Greenguy breaks his listings into "pay" and "free," so you always know whether you're heading toward a request for your credit card number or not.I find the categorizing of porn links often more interesting than the sites themselves. Race is popular, with "black" and "Asian" listed alongside everybody's favorite activities like "oral," "anal," "fisting" and "bondage." There are fetish genres like "panties/clothing" and "cum shots" and ambiguous genres like "babes" and "group." Here, in the taboo world of sexuality for its own sake, hidden predilections and prejudices may be revealed. We learn that "Asian" and "fisting" are not only categories of erotic fixation, but also somehow equivalent (or at least comparable) in our libidinal economies.In some ways, surfing a pornographic link list is like watching sexually explicit television commercials. Identities, acts and objects are surrealistically interchangeable. Watching banner ads for Asian babes who want you to come on their faces always makes me think, absurdly, of those Frito ads where the chips want you to eat them so much that they come to life, run joyfully into a bag and sing all the way to the grocery store. It's this pornographic eagerness to be consumed, to be surfed, that arouses the fear of parents and FCC watchdogs who want to keep the Internet "decent."Some of the best, guaranteed-amateur porn on the Net contains no pictures at all: It's the fiction found in the Web archives of Usenet newsgroups from the alt.sex* hierarchy (news.vic.com/news/groups/alt.sex.html). Nearly all Usenet sex stories are free, written by porn readers for other porn readers. One may not ever know the identity of the person(s) who wrote the stories -- people tend to post under pseudonyms or from anonymous servers -- but the sentiment is virtually guaranteed to be real.The brainiest and sexiest of the Usenet archive sites is most certainly Elijah Griffin's alt.sex.stories.moderated and rec.arts.erotica archives, arranged neatly under his unassuming "My page of Erotica" (www.qz.to/erotica.html). Known online by his pseudonym Eli the Bearded, Griffin has been archiving rec.arts.erotica since 1995, and took over the alt.sex.stories.moderated archive in 1997. The style of his pages is deliberately spare; there are no advertisements, no pictures, no background pattern to interfere with the text.Griffin says he started his site as an act of "deliberate civil disobedience" during the 1995 fracas over the Communications Decency Act. Others clearly share his taste for civil disobedience combined with sexual pleasure: so many people were accessing his archives that it was costing Griffin roughly $1000 per month. When things got too expensive, an anonymous donor stepped in and began to pay for the cost of keeping the site online.The stories you'll find on Griffin's Web site (including his own) are as close as you'll ever get to brain-on-brain sexual contact with other people. As Griffin is quick to point out, the lack of pictures on his site allows for a greater freedom of expression: Topics that might raise hackles portrayed in images are par for the course in text-based stories about everything from incest to rape and wife-sharing, from losing virginity to magical spells that enlarge women's breasts to extreme proportions.Stories are organized by codes authors put in the subject headers of their posts. For example: a story about a man hypnotized by another man, made to dress up like a woman, and then tied up and forced to have sex with another woman, might have a subject header like this: "Bob's Hypno-Humiliation, MM; MF; mc; bd; tv" (adult male/male sex; adult male/female sex; mind control; bondage and discipline; transvestism). Simon Bar Sinister's Mind Control Archive is devoted entirely to alt.sex.stories with "mc" in the header. Like Griffin, Bar Sinister works with an anonymous donor whose regular contributions of free bandwidth have allowed the costly site to remain free to the public, and commercial-free as well.Bar Sinister tells me that what's important about maintaining archives like his is the need to sidestep the commercialization and homogenization of so much pornography online. "If it comes to a day when the Internet is only controlled by a handful of companies, then people with different interests or out of the mainstream are going to get cut out."Other story sites are equally valuable, although many are not exactly commercial-free. Freudian Slip Free Sex Stories (freudian-slip.com) is a great resource, as is Anne's Erotic Stories Archive (annejet.pair.com). On Griffin's erotica Web site, you can also link to one of the only hypertext porn novels available online, Phil Phantom's See No Evil (www.qz.to/erotica/sne/). Mary Anne Moharnraj, the author of Torn Shapes of Desire: Internet Erotica, posts her own stories, sex activist information and an "ongoing, erratic diary" on her personal Web site (www.iam.com/maryanne/).The excellent Nerve Magazine (www.nervemag.com) publishes pictures, stories, book reviews and articles about the social meaning(s) of sexuality."Real" sex arouses from the outside in, beginning with the body and (one hopes) ending with a mind laid open to erotic suggestion. Internet porn works its way out from the inside, seducing the imagination to the point where we cannot help feeling it, expressing it, with our bodies. Even if we come together only by virtue of shared fantasies, we're still coming together. And it feels good.

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