Has Manhunt Destroyed Gay Culture?

8.4.2008

By Michael Joseph Gross

If you were asked to design the perfect weapon to exploit this vulnerability as it manifests itself in attractive, urban gay men, you'd want something that would intensify our isolation, exaggerate our propensity to objectify each other, and persuade us to objectify ourselves -- by encouraging us to believe that our purpose is to look good and have lots of sex.

Manhunt would be your perfect weapon, a heat-seeking missile for the weaknesses that have plagued us for decades. Perry Halkitis, a New York University associate dean and professor of applied psychology, says, 'Manhunt is a symptom. It does well because we don't know how to relate to each other and we don't know how to take care of ourselves.' Dan Savage, author of the sex column 'Savage Love' and editor of Seattle's The Stranger newspaper, says, 'Manhunt is a tool. Big, bad Manhunt doesn't make guys drag themselves to the webcam and take all those pictures of their dicks.'

It does, however, offer powerful incentives to do so. When we started cruising online, neither I nor any of my friends would have dreamed we'd post naked pictures of ourselves for strangers to see. Now almost all of us have done it. When we crossed that line most of us felt we were violating ourselves. But it got us laid. We took more pictures -- better ones -- because the hotter our pictures, the more we got laid. When we questioned our choices, we reminded ourselves, We're gay, this is our culture, Manhunt is the 21st-century gay bar, and you can't stop progress. Besides, every fuck, we rationalized, was another chance to find a boyfriend. Yet the more we did this, the fainter grew the hope of finding something more meaningful than a hookup. As our hopes faded, we learned to see one another, and finally even ourselves, as things.

When I say all of this to Larry Kramer, he asks, 'Do you realize you're quoting me?' In Faggots, Kramer's satirical novel of gay New York and Fire Island, published in 1978, the protagonist, wandering through a culture that has reduced its members to meat, exclaims, 'I'm tired of using my body as a faceless thing to lure another faceless thing, I want to love a Person!'

Gay urban life has always been a meat market, and cruising, you could argue, has always been a form of consumption. For gay men seeking sex, as for all kinds of shoppers, the Internet removed constraints of space and time on access to the market -- and at the same time offered an unprecedented range of products to choose from. Basile says that, from the start, he wanted Manhunt to be 'like eBay for men,' where users could find anything they wanted.

Yet cruising, unlike shopping, requires a buyer to also make himself a seller. And selling yourself online, unlike selling yourself in the meat markets of bars and clubs, requires you to create a sexy image that stands separate from your physical self.

You must create, in other words, a pornographic version of yourself, a thing that represents you but is not you. Michael W. Ross of the World Health Organization believes that such dissociation speeds development of a sense of intimacy, which accelerates the pace at which two people decide to trust each other, which increases the likelihood of their engaging in risky behavior.

There's still scant research linking online cruising to the most extreme risky behavior -- crystal meth use and unprotected sex. In the age of bioterrorism and bird flu, gay men's health and our mating habits are not of primary concern to most grant-making bodies. And relevant study results are somewhat inconclusive. Two recent studies indicate that men who have unprotected sex are equally likely to do so with partners met online or offline.

A number of others, though, indicate that men who hook up online are more likely to have unprotected anal sex, more likely to use drugs, and more likely to report having received money or drugs in exchange for sex. A San Francisco study found that men who hook up online were four times more likely than men who meet elsewhere to have unprotected sex with someone of opposite or unknown serostatus. In Boston, epidemiologist Matthew Mimiaga says that 'the vast majority' of subjects in his study of HIV-positive men who believe they contracted the virus while doing crystal meth first encountered that drug in the context of an online hookup. (Manhunt has been praised by some health officials for making information about safer sex and drug abuse available through its site, but no one really knows whether these activities amount to much more than a fig leaf.)

Both quantitative and qualitative analyses -- of health risks and of the psychological dissociation that's characteristic of online social life -- point to sobering conclusions about the utility of habitual online cruising for men who say they want to find love. You might as well train for a marathon by doing sprints on a minefield.

To pretend that the choice to have immense numbers of sexual encounters with little or no emotional context is value-neutral -- long an article of faith of modern gay life -- is a mistake. Decoupling sex from emotion is a fool's errand, and Manhunt seems to be the fullest expression of this project. It is hard to see how it could go any further.

It is about to go further.

Last winter Manhunt put out a casting call on its website asking for members to volunteer to have sex with each other on-camera. In short order 211 men had volunteered. Of these, Manhunt employees chose 40, paired them up, and sent well-known porn stars to digitally tape their hookups. Each performer was paid $1,000 for the right to show these videos on Manhunt's sister site, OnTheHunt.com, which went live in June -- Gay Pride Month.

Appearing in these videos will have the immediate effect of inflating the performers' prestige in Manhunt's membership at large. The long-term effects of Manhunt members' choice to do porn are less clear.

Employers now routinely reject job applicants after checking MySpace and Facebook profiles for suggestions of irresponsible or reckless behavior. Yet the explosion of amateur online porn has given many gay men, particularly younger men, a remarkable sense of security about their choice to perform. Last year a medical student in Manhattan told me he decided to have sex on-camera because 'I'm not going to run for the Senate. I'm going to be a doctor in New York City. If anything, being a gay porn star is something to talk about at a cocktail party. That sort of thing here is like, 'Oh you were in porn? Me too!''

The project of pornographying ourselves while cruising online -- whether by taking naked self-portraits in the mirror, masturbating with another guy via webcam, or volunteering to go for broke on OnTheHunt.com -- can impair or devastate gay men's ability to find intimacy with one another. 'It means you're always looking for the better or the best,' says Detroit psychologist Joe Kort. 'This is the negative effect of a culture where people spend lots of time looking at pornography and judging each other primarily based on naked pictures of each other: You always think there's something better, because you're seeing it -- it's out there -- so why shouldn't you hold out for somebody whose looks are everything you dream of?'

The seemingly endless stream of available men on Manhunt is, according to marketing director Henricks, 'addictive, like a slot machine. You keep hitting next, to see another screen of profiles, thinking you're gonna get lucky sevens.' This drive, according to Alan Downs, a psychologist and author of The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World, lies at the core of the appeal of online cruising: 'Variable payout schedule, which is used in slot machine designs, is the most addictive form of psychological conditioning, because you never know when you'll get paid. It could be every 10 times you play, or every hundred.' In the same way, Downs adds, 'every time you log on, you never know what you'll find. That's why it expands to fill a person's time. Last night was a bust, but who knows who will be online this morning or tonight.'

How vulnerable are Manhunt users to its addictive quality? 'We're the second-stickiest website in America,' Henricks boasts. 'Stickiness,' he explains, is slang for attention ranking, the measure of the amount of time a user spends on a website each time he visits. According to Compete.com, the Web's Nielsen equivalent of attention rankings, the average Manhunt user spends 40 minutes on the site per visit. That's about twice the amount of time the average Facebook or MySpace user spends on those sites. And, back to the slot machines, the only website in this country that is stickier than Manhunt is the wildly popular gambling website Pogo.com.

Manhunt's employees can brag about the site's addictive quality because they're not doing anything illegal and because they can count on no one making a moral argument against their business, because no gay man wants to risk sounding anti-sex.

Jim Foster, a leading gay activist in the 1970s, often said, 'What this movement is about is fucking.' We are defined by our sex drive -- and our political goals amount, essentially, to ensuring that we are in no way legally penalized for it. In our personal lives, even now, almost 40 years after Stonewall, coming out requires a painful exertion of energy to rout the puritan fear that gay sex is bad. To vanquish this fear, especially when first coming out, many of us become preoccupied with the pursuit of sex.

Periods of promiscuity can help us make up for lost time and can be a healthy and meaningful part of our development as gay men. 'When we were teenagers, when straight people were learning how to connect, we didn't learn that,' explains Robert Weiss, a Los Angeles psychologist and the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men.

Yet as cruising migrates to the virtual world, the challenge of integrating desires for sexual and emotional connection can become much more difficult. As teenagers, Weiss continues, 'we learned that we had to survive on our own. That means inside ourselves, many of us don't have an innate belief that other people can meet our needs, which means that we don't believe we can connect with them. Which means I have to rely on myself, I have to live on my own. And there I am, in my bedroom, all by myself. And the computer is in the far corner, and all I have to do is turn it on'.'

When we turn it on, says novelist Andrew Holleran, we enter a world that amounts to 'the nightmare that gay people always have just underneath the surface, the fear that, I'm just my dick. I'm just my body. I'm just my age. It reduces everybody to statistics. You're presuming that nobody will love you for yourself, if you're offering yourself as just a bunch of statistics.'

This is, to say the least, a lonely place to be -- a place that anyone would want to escape. Problem is, the easiest way to salve that loneliness is to go back online. Manhunt 'creates loneliness and then relieves it,' Holleran says. Manhunt offers itself as the way out of the isolation it creates.

Larry Basile, who came out in New York in the 1970s, knows that online cruising intensifies the isolation of gay urban life. 'There was a lot of camaraderie that used to happen at the bars,' which, he says, is harder to find online. Still, he believes Manhunt is a force for good because it allows people in rural areas and smaller cities, where being gay is still stigmatized, to find one another. 'In North Dakota they're using it for dates or to find friends,' he says. Then he tells the story of one depressed young Manhunt member who wrote to another that he was contemplating suicide. The second man forwarded the message to a Manhunt customer service representative, who sent a list of suicide hotline numbers to the depressed young man, who decided not to end his life.

I'm glad that some guys in North Dakota aren't so lonely anymore, and I'm glad the depressed man is still among the living. But do those positive outcomes make up for Manhunt's role in the decline of gay urban life?

When I ask Basile and Henricks to do a cost-benefit analysis of Manhunt's social impact, they don't answer directly. Instead, Henricks reverts to a narcotic platitude about the Web's power to salve loneliness for young gay men in rural areas. To demonstrate Manhunt's reach, he asks me to name a town so tiny that I can't imagine it might have a Manhunt member. A few strokes of the keyboard produce a profile of a man who lives there. The profile says he's 23. When I point out that the kid doesn't look a day over 16, Basile answers, chuckling, 'His mother's MasterCard.' The remark reveals, as much as anything he's said, Basile's awareness of the duplicities and dangers that animate his product, and nurture his profits.

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