This fall, around the time Google made global news by announcing it would snap up YouTube for $1.65 billion, you could have made a persuasive case that not all the action on the Internet was in new media. Two geeks were rich beyond their wildest dreams, but a handful of Web surfers couldn't care less: They were too busy clicking on PornTube, a website devoted to a decidedly old-school pastime.
Over the past three months, PornTube has enjoyed a 1,200 percent increase in reach, according to the Web ratings firm Alexa. It doesn't take a Ph.D. from Stanford to guess what goes on there. But what makes PornTube different is the exhaustive sexual variety it allows you to whack off to. Just like that vast swamp one slogs through on YouTube, PornTube has everything from slickly produced Busty Nurses and Asian Liaisons to amateur Bikini Bangers. It offers 28 Hentai titles, 13 "face fuck" choices, and nine streaming-video payment options. You can burn your own DVDs and, of course, download podcasts.
And that's just one site. Let's not kid ourselves. We applaud the likes of Flickr, Digg, and HopStop, but the Net is basically one big porn wasteland. And the Web is just one part of the adult industry's vast, roiling cauldron of kink; these days, there's a virtual universe of erotica to pleasure yourself with. Designer boutiques featuring the latest hypoallergenic love dolls and penis sleeves are popping up in New York's SoHo; Jenna Jameson's retail company now sells Jenna's Vibrating UR3 Vagina and Ass ($181.79; batteries not included); the sex shop Babeland dispenses a numerological substance called Stroke 29, which "takes on the heat and glide of aroused human tissue around the 29th stroke." Even your local CVS can be counted on for a full buffet of mint-flavored Astroglide and new-and-improved self-heating K-Y. For a young man with an ache in his loins and a handful of lube, this profusion of options might feel like a season pass to a sexual amusement park. But the actual effect is quite the opposite.
The sad truth is—whether you're straight, gay, or bi—modern life has taken the fun out of masturbating. In the golden age of the Internet, the universal sport of choking the chicken is about as hot as a testicular exam.
Richard Feinberg, a consumer psychologist who directs Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality, blames quantity. "There is a consumer phenomenon called information overload. When there are too many choices, sometimes consumers make the wrong decision, or don't make any choice at all," he says. "It's like an electrical outlet—plug in too many appliances and it will overload the circuit."
And if there's a product category that offers consumers too many choices, it's porn. "Now that you have so much pornography," says Joseph Slade, author of Pornography and Sexual Representation and a telecommunications professor at Ohio University, "people are overwhelmed by it."
What a difference half a century makes. Fifty years ago, porn was scarce and stag films were illegal; men had to take what they could get, and what was available was seriously limited. Assuming you could even find a copy of a stag film, you never got to enjoy it in private. Tom, a 54-year-old transit worker from New York, recalls his first illicit screening in a crowded, locked room in the early sixties. "We're all worked up," he says, "and all of a sudden, a woman comes on who looks like Ethel Mertz." Still, for guys like Tom, the experience was a thrill.
A vivid illustration of this less-is-more paradox and its inverted power over male fantasy can be seen at "Stags, Smokers and Blue Movies: The Origins of American Pornographic Film," an exhibit at the Museum of Sex, in New York. Here you'll find a nostalgic look at what stroke material was once made of. Check out 10 minutes of Dr. Longpeter, a sad short from the late forties with a homely cast and the technical quality of Grandpa's Super-8 home movies. Or imagine, now that you've been desensitized by ExploitedTeens.com, how thrilling it must have been to come across a PG-13 peek at Marilyn Monroe in the first issue of Playboy in 1953. Schwing! Just getting your slippery mitts on a copy must have felt like an act of espionage. Go back a few decades earlier and guys actually looked forward to getting their junk mail, Slade says: "People used to get turned on by drawings of women in corsets in the Sears, Roebuck catalogs."
Today, of course, the situation is very different. We've created a meat-beating bull market that caters to the most outlandish of fetishes, and oddly enough, it's left us limp in front of our computers, with our pants around our ankles, in a state of option paralysis. Shaved coeds? Bareback bowlers? Oh, my. The sad truth is, access to anything you want turns out to be anything but arousing.
We should have known. Anyone with a satellite dish or premium cable is well aware of the numbing horror of 500 channels and nothing on. It's a scientifically demonstrated fact that too much choice defeats us. Information overload doesn't just compromise our ability to get wood, it threatens to curtail our enjoyment of iPods, satellite radio, video games, and potato-chip flavors. Today, the simple act of selection seems impossibly stressful—and we wind up feeling lost, like a lone shopper in that dizzying, mural-size Andreas Gursky photograph of an enormous supermarket.
And it's sure to get worse. Varieties, categories, and formats will certainly proliferate and push the bliss of spontaneous arousal even further away; forthcoming technologies like IPTV will only hasten our ability to sit one click away from total boredom. Fortunately, there's an exciting antidote to this overload of choices: Turn off your computer and let your mind wander (presuming you still have one).
"I, for one, never fantasize about porn stars or celebrities," says Mike (not his real name), 32, a video editor in New York. "I've always fantasized about actual women in my life. It's fun to imagine what people you know on an everyday basis are like naked." Now, there's something you won't find on PornTube. This week, at least.