Secret Museums

Struggling with the world’s, and his own, homophobia, one queer young man searches for intimacy in the world of internet porn.

B. Pietras Creative Nonfiction | Summer 2019 | 16 minutes (4,291 words)

 

I was a freshman in high school when my religion teacher faced the class and asked, with a knowing smile, “How many of you have seen pornography?”

There were about twenty boys in the classroom that day, and until then, we probably weren’t paying full attention—some of us were thinking about lunch, others about the quiz next period. But when the question came, everything in the dusty room seemed to go still; the air itself seemed to thicken, to prickle against our skin. Tense, wary of a trap, we watched one another out of the corners of our eyes. Did he really expect us to answer honestly? And what would happen if we did?

“C’mon, c’mon,” Mr. C. said, impatient, frowning at us in a cut the bullshit sort of way. “Raise your hands if you’ve seen it.”

A middle-aged man with slick black hair going gray at the temples, Mr. C. had a certain world-weariness, an aura of having traveled far outside our sagging Rust Belt city. Though he was a devout Catholic, he also liked to tell us stories about his wild years before he’d found God. It seemed like a safe bet that, sometime during that lost era, he had seen porn.

One boy raised his hand, and another followed a second later. It triggered a kind of chain reaction, a sudden mass unmasking. In seconds, almost everyone in the class had a hand in the air, and the mood shifted from embarrassment and fear to an almost rueful sort of pride. Guys traded grins of acknowledgment across the aisles. Yeah, I’ve seen it. Even one of the most beautiful boys in the room—one I’d been admiring for months without ever quite admitting to myself that I was doing just that—even he had thrust his hand up, a little smirk playing on his pink lips.

I was one of the only boys in the class not to raise his hand. I didn’t move, didn’t breathe, until Mr. C. continued, launching into a lecture on the dangers of porn.

I was lying, of course. Just that fall, my mother had brought home a new computer and signed my sister and me up for accounts with an internet service provider called CompuServe. Both of these accounts had filtering software designed to keep minors away from “objectionable content”; sites deemed offensive would fail to load anything more than a page that said, in outraged capital letters, WEB RESTRICTED. Before long, though, I figured out a loophole. The software worked by scanning pages for indecent or obscene words, but only English ones; sites in French often slipped past the blockade. And that’s how, in the hours after school, when my parents were still at work and my sister was shooting layups at basketball practice, I found myself downstairs at the family computer, typing out foreign words into search engines. I didn’t know French, but I quickly learned a few key phrases—garçon, beaux mecs, hommes masculines—the words as alien and alluring as the men themselves.

For a time, I thought it would always be that easy—that porn would always be something I could erase from my life with the click of a mouse.

Because that, I found, was what I always went looking for: photographs of men. Not the chaste, faceless underwear models from the J. C. Penney catalog, but actual, honest-to-goodness naked men. I’m just curious, I told myself, again and again, my right hand trembling on the mouse, my dick painfully hard in my jeans. The men didn’t care; they were hard, too. They were older than the boys at school, more muscled, and they stayed perfectly still as I stared, letting my eyes travel over them. Often they were dressed in work-related outfits—the uniforms of police officers and firemen, auto mechanics and army grunts—which they peeled off their bronzed bodies piece by piece, photo by photo.

At school, Mr. C. warned us that porn would pollute our relationship with God, but his words faded from my mind at the staticky hum of the computer dialing up. For that first year or so, simply looking at the photos made my heart pound so loud and frantic that it scrambled any attempt at thought. Shame washed over me only later, when I realized how soon my parents would be home. Panicked, I’d spend at least five minutes filling up the browser history with a backlog of innocuous websites, covering my tracks in case my mother went online to check her email. It was a relief when I finally learned how to clear the browser’s history, and, for a time, I thought it would always be that easy—that porn would always be something I could erase from my life with the click of a mouse.

* * *

As a word, pornography has ancient roots, but its current meaning—“the explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings”—is more recent than we might expect. The word comes from pornographoi, a classical Greek term so rare that scholars have found only one use of it, in a fifteen-volume work from the second century CE called the Deipnosophistae. Compiled by Athenaeus of Naucratis, the Deipnosophistae discusses a wide range of subjects, including cooking, dining, music, wine—and prostitutes. While describing this last topic, Athenaeus alludes to pornographoi, which literally translates as “whore-painters” or “whore-writers”: he seems to be referring to artists who depicted prostitutes in their works. How, then, did the word come to acquire its current meaning?

According to the cultural historian Walter Kendrick, the answer lies in the eighteenth-century rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two ancient Roman cities buried after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The cities’ excavators were shocked by the brazenly erotic art they found there: mosaics of lusty nymphs and satyrs, bathhouse frescoes depicting threesomes, bronze wind chimes in the form of winged phalluses. Too scandalous to be openly displayed, these items were also too historically important to be destroyed. A solution to this dilemma was reached in 1819, when 202 of the cities’ more lascivious artifacts were moved to a secret, locked room in the Neapolitan museum founded to house the area’s rediscovered antiquities. No women or children were allowed to enter this room, and no poor people either. Only moneyed gentlemen could admire its obscene treasures—what scholars and cataloguers began to call the museum’s “pornography,” adapting an obscure classical term to a new (and very different) context.

As a word, then, pornography is a nineteenth-century invention. It’s also a word bound up with shock—not the shock of the new, but the shock of the ancient. The shock of touching the past.

I think of this history whenever I stumble across a video I watched for the first time as a sweaty, awestruck teenager. Often I’m struck by how much I remember, and how vividly: the faces and the bodies, the words spoken, even the furniture in the background. All of it’s been preserved in the unyielding amber of the Internet. But it’s been saved, too, in some kind of hidden chamber in my brain, some secret museum of the lewd, the lascivious, and, sometimes—it must be admitted—the beautiful.

* * *

By my sophomore year of high school, I was more practiced with porn. I had memorized the addresses of websites that the filtering software wouldn’t pick up on, and I knew what kinds of photo galleries I liked best: ones devoted to “college jocks.” In these galleries, locker rooms became well-lit and surprisingly hygienic arenas of sexual possibility, populated by smirking men in eye black and jock straps.

Every now and then, though, I would come across a different kind of photo: an image not of a posed professional model, but of what seemed to be a real guy—an actual college jock in an actual locker room. Often he would be soaping up in the shower or tugging on a pair of boxers. Unlike the models with their knowing smiles, the real guy always seemed to be caught off guard; he looked at the intruding camera with a mixture of surprise, confusion, and (sometimes) the dark edge of anger. Other candid photos were different—shot through with a kind of drunken, electric joy. They showed college boys tea-bagging their frat brothers or peeing together outside, laughing into the night air, blue jeans tangled around their ankles.

When I first started looking at online porn, I thought I’d found something startlingly real: flesh in graphic detail, nothing held back or hidden. But the candid photos changed that. In comparison, the firefighters and army grunts seemed fake, their outfits little more than cheap costumes. Looking at the frat boys in all their feral innocence, I believed I had discovered something more authentic and—somehow, because of this—more erotic. Porn rattled me with wanting, but the candids played on another deeper desire: to slip, quiet as a ghost, into the secret world of straight guys.

Porn rattled me with wanting, but the candids played on another deeper desire: to slip, quiet as a ghost, into the secret world of straight guys.

It was a common gay fantasy, though I didn’t realize how common until the following year, when I started using peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and Limewire. This was the early 2000s, when more and more porn sites were coming online, and more and more videos were being pirated and shared. One of the most popular new gay websites was called Sean Cody, and—as its innocuous, WASP-y name both hinted at and concealed—it specialized in videos of clean-cut college-age guys. In addition to being young, good-looking, and white, the models were almost always supposed to be straight. Before anything sexual happened, first-time models often sat down for on-camera interviews, in which they were asked questions like What kind of girls do you like? and Does your girlfriend know you’re here? (One former Sean Cody model—an openly gay man, and hence a rarity for the site—remembers that, before his interview, he was instructed, “Don’t talk with your hands, don’t use any big words, and keep your voice kinda deep.”) For a number of years, Sean Cody’s splash page featured photos of its models playing outdoor sports—swinging a baseball bat, gripping a soccer ball—and, beneath these images, three words lined up so as to suggest they were all synonymous: Straight. Muscular. Raw.

I wish I could say I saw right away what a disturbing equation this was, that I immediately recognized its implicit homophobia. But I don’t think it bothered me at the time. If anything, the logic at work on the site was familiar from my all-male high school, where many students played sports and no one was openly gay. Oddly enough, Sean Cody and the boys I went to school with agreed on one thing: the only real men were straight men. I believed them both. For years, I believed.

* * *

Mr. C. wasn’t the only one to warn my classmates and me about the dangers of pornography. My high school was a Catholic one, and our other teachers told us porn encouraged impure thoughts and actions. They were following the teachings of the Church, which identifies pornography as one of the sins “gravely contrary to chastity.” The Church’s official doctrine—as published in its Catechism of the Catholic Church—defines pornography as something that “remov[es] real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other.” In the Catechism, pornography sounds less like a physical thing than an action; it takes what the Church maintains should be an essentially private experience and renders it worryingly public; it shares what should be kept secret.

Pornography is not the only sin identified as “gravely contrary to chastity”: homosexuality is another. Homosexual practices, the Catechism explains, are “contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” And yet it goes on to say that those with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should be “accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” It is under this guise of tolerance that the Catechism condemns queer people to a life without sex, claiming that “homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship … they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

My high school taught its students this very lesson: being gay wasn’t morally wrong, but acting on it was. The nuance was lost on my classmates. Every day, stomach churning, bile sour in the back of my throat, I listened as they called one another homo and faggot. Friendship with them—disinterested or otherwise—seemed impossible. I told myself it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, but sometimes I’d see a group of them laughing together after class—relaxed, easy, casual—and something would throb in my throat. It was desire, but not the kind that made it so hard for me to keep my eyes on the floor when we changed in the locker room. It was a longing for something else.


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While the Catechism equates pornography with the destruction of intimacy, the opposite seemed true at my high school. Like most teenage boys, my classmates  enjoyed talking about sex, and sometimes, when the mood was right, they swapped the names of their favorite porn stars. In those moments, their voices lowered and became almost reverent, hushed with a pleasurable sense of conspiracy. Dude, you’ve seen Jenna Jameson, right? What about Tera Patrick?

I never joined these conversations, just sat silent at their edges, but that was enough—enough to show me how trading secrets could turn a group of boys into a closed circuit, humming with shared energy. The word intimacy, it turns out, derives from the Latin intimus, meaning “inmost, deepest, profound, or close in friendship,” and it was that last part—the friendship—that pornography, of all things, somehow revealed.

* * *

Despite everything I learned in my religion classes, I kept downloading more videos as high school ended and college began. It was also in college that I stopped simply listening to straight guys talk about porn; it was in college that—driven by curiosity, and by those four years of longing—I began to initiate the conversations. The first one must have been with my freshman-year roommate, a solidly built, mildly cute guy, who later joined the campus’s Young Republicans Club. (Mr. C. would have liked him.) One humid night very early in the semester, bored of our homework and flushed with the new freedom of dorm life, we started talking about porn. I avoided giving any details about what I’d seen, letting him do most of the talking.

“I think it’s bad,” he told me, brown eyes wide and serious. “I think I was almost, like, addicted to it.”

“Really?” I asked, trying to keep my voice low and appropriately masculine. Excitement was clawing in my stomach, thrumming in my throat.

“Yeah,” he said, “I was really into this one thing, called titty hard-on. It’s girls with, like, really hard nipples. Here, I’ll show you.”

He turned to his laptop and began searching—our dorm’s Ethernet racing way faster than either of our dumpy dial-up connections at home—and, sitting across the room from him at my own computer, terrified and titillated, I blushed. Titty hard-on: it was such a bizarre-sounding phrase, alien and obscene. Later, the words would make a certain kind of sense to me (how else, after all, would teenage boys imagine female arousal except from their own experiences?), but at the time, all I could think was I never would have guessed.

A few months later, my roommate and I stopped talking to one another, more or less completely—when he figured out I was gay, he was quietly horrified, and in return, I was cold and bitchy—but I didn’t forget the feeling of that late August night, of the weird, giddy intimacy that we’d briefly shared. The following year, I transferred to a much more liberal college; as I filled out the application, I told myself a new school would let me be completely out, would let me do more than simply look at men as they touched each other on screen.

But that’s not what ended up happening. I was openly queer at my new school, yes, but I remained practically as chaste as I’d been in high school. Instead of dates or drunken hookups, I found more straight guys to quiz about porn. “Pretty sure the last vid I watched was called Big Boob Lesbians,” one told me, with a shameless grin. Another confessed that his favorite porn star was Tori Black, “because,” he said (and the phrasing was so peculiar and precise that I never forgot it), “she can be both the girl next door and a deviant sex goddess.”

My high school taught its students this very lesson: being gay wasn’t morally wrong, but acting on it was.

Oddly enough, after college, it seemed to become even easier to ask straight guys my age about porn—maybe because, even though we were supposed to be real adults now, porn was easier to find than ever: 2007 marked both my graduation and the rise of “tube” sites like PornHub, XTube, and YouPorn. Freed from the necessity of downloading, a viewer could now stream dozens of videos in one sitting. And, given how precisely the tube sites categorized their content, the viewer could also be pickier than ever, sorting through channels devoted exclusively to MILFs or teens or redheads or Japanese guys.

It was both exhilarating and bewildering to have access to so much so quickly, and that ambivalence was usually where I began when I talked to straight guys about porn—often after we’d both had a number of drinks but the night still stretched out before us, gleaming with possibility. Remember how long it took to load a single photo on dial-up? I would ask, mimicking the photo’s slow, jolting progress in the air with my hands, its painstaking crystallization out of a cloud of pixels. Remember how one photo was all you needed?

Oh my god, yeah, the guy would say, smiling into his beer—relaxing, starting to like me, to think I was funny.

After that, it wasn’t hard to steer the conversation toward the present day, to questions like What’s your favorite site? and Who’s your favorite porn star? In all my questions, what I was really asking was this: Give me the key. I wanted guys to tell me what made excitement claw at their bellies, what made their dicks go hard in their jeans. I wanted them to tell me about the images that had stayed with them, year after year. I wanted them to bring me inside their secret museums.

By then, I’d listened to plenty of guys murmur about porn, but it still surprised me—how eager they were to talk—maybe because I could never quite believe they’d discuss something so intimate with me. Sometimes the stories they told were oddly sweet (“The first time I jacked off, it was to a topless photo of Pam Anderson that I found online; I was twelve.”); sometimes they were darker (a gentle, bearded hippie once confessed he liked to watch an S&M subgenre called “forced orgasm”). A number found that porn made them worry: about the size of their dicks, about if the girls involved actually enjoyed themselves. And they were surprised, too, to find that they sometimes preferred it to actual sex—that what they wanted was not the real thing, not the authentic intimacy of two bodies together, but its image.

* * *

Around this time, I started to assemble a secret museum of my own, a collection that existed in more than just my mind. It began innocuously enough. One of the many straight guys I’d had a crush on in college posted a photo of himself on Facebook—he was standing by a waterfall in only a pair of swim trunks, laughing, pale and strong against the wet black rock around him. On impulse, I saved it to my desktop. A queasy twinge of shame went through me as I did it, but the beauty of the photo burned away any misgivings. Soon, I found myself saving more photos of male friends and acquaintances. I saved images of them mountain-climbing with their girlfriends and skinny-dipping in Vermont ponds, and images of them stripped down to their boxers at parties, drunk grins plastered over their shining faces.

I wanted them to tell me about the images that had stayed with them, year after year, to bring me inside their secret museums.

I added new pictures to my collection frequently, became adept at working my way around Facebook’s privacy settings—and yet, as soon as I was away from my laptop, I barely thought about the file at all. The thrill, I think, came from knowing that I could go back, that the photos would vanish from my newsfeed but not from my life. Though the images themselves weren’t pornographic, I was practicing a kind of looking I’d first learned years ago while scrolling through galleries of hommes masculines: a kind of looking that involved both intense attention and willful forgetting. First came the shock of desire—studying the image, consuming it, feeling almost consumed by it—and then, once it was time to leave the computer, a refusal to remember. A clearing of the history that nevertheless repeated the history embedded in the word pornography: that same conflicted pattern of discovery and disavowal.

Creepster was the name I gave to the folder that held these photos on my computer, and, for a time, being archly self-aware about what I was doing helped to distract me from really thinking about it. From admitting that there was a crucial difference between the men in those long-ago photo galleries, who had consented to being collected and consumed, and the ones I’d scoured off social media, who hadn’t.

Eventually, I started saving photos of someone I had never met before, a twenty-year-old I’ll call N. He was a friend of a friend, and so beautiful—big, dark eyes and messy hair, a daredevil smirk often on his lips—that I regularly went to his Facebook profile to look for new photos. At the time, they seemed like glimpses into another life, another world. Here is N. skateboarding with his friends after dark, gliding over the night-black asphalt. Here is N. at a house party full of young men who look like him, all skinny jeans and stubble, beanies jammed over uncombed hair. One of them has his arm slung around N.’s shoulder, and they are all beaming—casually radiant, oblivious to their own beauty.

Our mutual friend seemed surprised the first time I told him that N. was cute. “Seriously?” he asked. “You like him?” But he remembered what I said.

A few weeks later, a new photo of N. popped up in my newsfeed, posted by that mutual friend. It showed the two of them sitting together at a table, an open takeout container of fries between them. N. is looking right at the camera, someone’s foot in his lap, everyone sobering up after a night of drinking but not quite ready to go home. It fit in perfectly with the other photos I’d seen of him, and yet something about it made me look more closely.

I saw someone who had chosen looking over touching, glass over skin, someone who was afraid of the very intimacy he wanted most.

That was when, stomach twisting, I noticed there was writing on the inside of the container’s lid. Writing that, even in the white glare of the camera’s flash, looked like a message addressed to me: the word HI and then my name, spelled out in capital letters.

Later that day, my friend confirmed that, yes, it was exactly that. He explained that he’d told N. about me, and then—after writing on the inside of the container—they’d taken the photo, knowing I would see it later on Facebook. I faked a laugh, but the story left me unsettled, the knot in my stomach tightening. I couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation they had to have had about me, couldn’t stop imagining how it must have played out. My friend saying something like, Dude, this gay guy I know thinks you’re hot, and the surprise N. would have felt, and then the unease, knowing he’d been watched from a distance, the skin on the back of his neck prickling, as if he’d been brushed by a ghost.

It was then, I think, that I started to reconsider my secret museum. I’d told myself it was a kind of holding-place for male beauty, a space where—not coincidentally—I was nowhere to be found. And yet I was reflected in this museum, too, the way you can sometimes catch shadowy glimpses of yourself in display cases. I saw someone who had chosen looking over touching, glass over skin; someone who was afraid of the very intimacy he wanted most. That was what I thought about, the day I finally dragged the Creepster file into the Trash. It vanished in an instant—quicker even than Pompeii—and I felt both relieved and bereft.

I lost a lot of photos that day, but not the one of my friend and N., for the simple reason that I never saved it to the file. The image might have been taken with me in mind, but it wasn’t really for me—it was about the two of them and their bond. I was beginning to understand that intimacy was sometimes like that: it could benefit from a third party, an outsider whose presence highlighted the experience of being on the inside.

And yet, more than once, I found myself going back to my friend’s page so I could see the photo again. One last time, I would tell myself as I leaned closer to my laptop screen. One last time, I would think as I increased the contrast. And then, hunched over my computer, alone at my desk, I would try to see if somewhere in that photo—in that warm circle of light, in the secret world of real boys—I could find, at last, my own name.

***

B. Pietras is a writer with essays in Creative Nonfiction, TriQuarterly, BuzzFeed Reader,
Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a novel and a nonfiction collection
about queer shame.

This essay first appeared in the “Sex” issue of Creative Nonfiction, the print quarterly founded by nonfiction writer Lee Gutkind in 1993. Our thanks to B. Pietras and the staff for allowing us to share this essay at Longreads.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath