Has Manhunt Destroyed Gay Culture?

8.4.2008

By Michael Joseph Gross

If you are a single gay man in search of a mate, and if you are at times prone to discouragement, you probably have friends who reassure you that someday you will find a man who'll cherish every part of you -- even your weaknesses, even your flaws.

If you have been wondering whether to believe this, wonder no more. There are in fact at least a few dozen guys out there who cherish your flaws. They work in Cambridge, Mass., in a historic building topped by a golden statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, in an oak-paneled office suite where a grandfather clock marks the passing of the hours. Here the guys who delight in your weaknesses oversee Manhunt.net, the world's fastest-growing gay website, which is quietly abetting a revolution in social and sexual mores, under the slogan 'get on, get off.'

The phrase evokes the product Manhunt sells: a fix of quick sex -- easy in, easy out. To partake, men market themselves in a style shaped by the site's profile template. Profile names, which tend to be histrionically masculine or graphically sexual, appear next to pictures, usually of a beefcake or X-rated variety, often with heads cropped out, accompanied by brief, blunt descriptions of sexual tastes ('I need oral and anal sex all the time'). Beneath these entries lie a series of boxes that can be checked to signal 'What I'm Into' (27 options, including 'JO', 'Exhibition,' 'Pig Play,' 'LTR' -- long-term relationship -- 'Feet/Socks'), 'When I Want It' (the box most frequently checked is 'Right Now!'), 'How I Like It' (top, bottom, etc.), 'Where It Happens' ('Your Place,' 'My Place,' and the popular 'Anywhere'), and 'What I Got' (age, build, ethnicity, eye color, hair color, HIV status, and height). To that last category will soon be added penis length and girth -- 'a controversial issue within the company,' says Manhunt's recently resigned director of marketing Phil Henricks, 'because men lie.'

This wealth of information makes Manhunt seem the most efficient place for its target customers to find sex, because the site's comprehensive search function can produce in seconds a list of, say, brown-eyed bottoms within one mile of your zip code wanting to get it on 'Right Now!'

Manhunt's apparent efficiency owes even more to its staggering number of members. The site's other advertising tag line, 'If he's out there, he is on here,' is only a slight exaggeration. In the United States, Manhunt now has nearly 1 million members, and the site receives more than 400,000 unique visitors per month. If you are among its target customers -- younger, hotter, and richer than average gay men in big cities -- Manhunt is the club that the proverbial everyone (meaning, the guys you've always fantasized about) belongs to.

Who knows? You might even find a boyfriend there. If it's true -- and everybody says it's true -- that sex is the gay handshake, then one of these days maybe you'll hit the jackpot. Thus, even many of the most overbearingly erotic profiles also haltingly express a dream of emotional connection. The headline of one man's ad, next to a big close-up of his butt, asks, 'Are you The One?'

Manhunt was founded in Boston in 2001 by Larry Basile and Jonathan Crutchley, who came into the business via phone chat rooms (they still have that business, but it's dwindling). Separately, both men, now in their 60s, had also made fortunes in real estate. (Among many other properties, Basile owned a hotel and gay bar in the former gay enclave of Boston's South End; today, he lives outside the city in a Frank Lloyd Wright house on a 17-acre farm.)

Crutchley, a liberal Republican with a tight white beard, admits that he felt anxious during Manhunt's first years, before his and Basile's initial investment of $800,000 bore fruit. Now, seated at his desk and surrounded by giant photographs of body builders' glutes, Crutchley says the company brings in at least $2.4 million per month -- almost $30 million a year -- not counting ad revenues, and prospects for growth are strong. Manhunt's success measures the extent to which online cruising has changed gay urban social life. Is it changing gay politics too?

I began wondering about this connection at a dinner party on Martha's Vineyard when the host asked why, during the past decade, so many national political victories and legal reforms -- an employment nondiscrimination act, a hate-crimes bill, repeal of the military ban, marriage or civil unions -- have remained beyond our grasp. A fashion photographer from Texas drawled, 'I think it's because so many of us spend so many hours of so many days online, doing things that make us feel ashamed of ourselves.'

We all laughed, and the conversation rolled on, but the comment stuck with me. Though not an exhaustive answer to the question, it is (for the kind of men who were at that dinner party, for the kind of men who read this magazine) an important part of the answer, and -- when followed to its logical conclusion -- more than a little unsettling.

During the 15 years since America Online men-4-men chat rooms introduced mass-market online cruising (earlier Internet cruising technologies, like IRC chat rooms, were mostly for techies), some aspects of our lives have become more visible than ever. We are ubiquitous in mainstream culture; we are out to our families, friends, and employers; we're able to hold hands in public, in some places, without having to worry that we might get beaten up; and some states and cities now permit gay marriage or civil unions (more will inevitably follow now that California has joined Massachusetts). As this wave of enculturation advanced, AIDS treatments made the ravages of that disease less visible and dispelled the sense of crisis that strengthened our connection to each other in the 1980s. These factors, along with straight gentrification of gay neighborhoods and the growth of the long-tail economy, hastened the decline of many urban gay enclaves, and the demise of many bars, businesses, and social groups that gave structure to gay life.

'Post-gay' social life grew mixed, and the physical drive that defines us as gay -- the drive to have sex with each other -- increasingly found vent online. This aspect of our lives became more private, and even secret, than ever. In 1993, 2.3% of gay men found their first male sexual partner online. In 2003 the number was 61.2%. (These figures come from the United Kingdom, and there's been no parallel study in the United States, but sociologists believe the findings here would be similar.)

'The implications of that trend are enormous,' says Jeffrey Klausner of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. 'It means that gay men who were once socialized in brick-and-mortar establishments, surrounded by other people, are now being socialized online.' Gay men still go out as well, but our nightlife habits are very different than they were 12 years ago. Jeffrey Parsons, professor of psychology at New York's Hunter College, says his unpublished research confirms the common sense that 'when guys go to bars, they're going to be with their friends, not to meet new people.'

The same thing is happening all over the world, and Manhunt is going global. Already catering to members in over 100 countries, Manhunt has recently expanded into such unexpected realms as China and India. In March of this year foreign memberships numbered 600,000, and worldwide, Manhunt adds 30,000 new members per week. Matt Foreman, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, notes with some awe that Manhunt's membership is 'larger than the membership of every major gay political organization combined.'

Manhunt's annual income from memberships alone is roughly the same as the total amount of individual contributions to this country's two biggest gay political groups, the Human Rights Campaign and NGLTF. Foreman says, 'If we could leverage their membership for activism, there's no limit to what we could do.'

When the Department of Justice considered requiring proof of age for all Americans who post naked pictures of themselves online (ostensibly as part of an effort to crack down on child pornography), a link on Manhunt directed members to NGLTF's website for instructions on how to stop the regulation from taking effect. 'We got 130,000 hits in a two-day period and it crashed the site,' Foreman marvels. It was the heaviest site traffic in NGLTF's history, a fact that Foreman optimistically interprets as a reaction to the 'Bush administration's infringements on rights to privacy.' But there's another plausible reading of this activist surge: Perhaps the right that gay men are most willing to fight for is the right to cruise online.

I am not scolding. I have done practically every stupid thing a guy can do on Manhunt. I don't like to think about the number of books I could have read, languages I could have learned, and friends I could have stayed in better touch with if I had not wasted so much time cruising online these past 12 years. I hesitated to write this essay, because I am not proud of having acted like a moron, and because contemplating the just deserts of my online adventures is unpleasant.

I decided to write this piece anyway, because after I reflected on my own experience, talked to friends about theirs, and interviewed shrinks and doctors and academics, political activists, historians, journalists, novelists, and, via e-mail, heard from many dozens of random guys about how online cruising in general, and Manhunt in particular, has changed our lives, I found that their answers, taken together, told a surprisingly common story about the way gay men keep secrets and the destructive power those secrets hold.

Manhunt is the elite gay world's big secret. An acquaintance and his boyfriend, both successful executives, first met on a Manhunt hookup; months later they were married in a castle, surrounded by friends and family, few of whom have any idea how the couple met. We don't tell straight people about Manhunt. We don't even tell them it exists. And even when we do, we usually don't tell them what it's really like.

Manhunt is rarely mentioned in newspapers or magazines. Occasionally it shows up in stories about public-health crises (of which more later). A little more often, reporters discover the Manhunt profiles of public figures, who are subsequently embarrassed, or worse. The mayor of Spokane, Wash., and the chairman of the school board in Richmond, Va., for instance, both lost their office after their Manhunt profiles were made public. Last year, a 24-year veteran of the Norwalk, Conn., police department was arrested for having sex with two 15-year-old boys and trying to arrange to meet a third -- all of whom he found on Manhunt. Nude pictures from profiles reputed to belong to Thomas Roberts, the former CNN anchor, and American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken, were circulated on blogs and mentioned in gossip columns. And yet Manhunt members still seem to think they can get away with anything there: The profile of one of the world's most powerful entertainment executives includes full-length naked photos of him, clearly showing his face, having sex with another man. Another famous master of industry advertises on Manhunt as a hung top, with a headless version of a widely published portrait of himself. God only knows how many more ticking time bombs lie among the profiles.

But the most powerful secrets that live on Manhunt aren't the ones we keep from the outside world. The most powerful secrets on Manhunt are the ones we keep from ourselves. Practically every gay man has his own version of this secret, which we learned to keep while growing up in the closet: the secret fear that, if we were truly known, we would never be loved.

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