By Tony Phillips
On a rainy Sunday night in October, hundreds gather between the fountain and arch in Washington Square Park for a 'glowstick vigil for LGBT youth,' specifically 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after a roommate broadcast his intimate, same-sex encounter, which went viral on the Internet.
The vigil is dotted with umbrellas. Media-friendly signs naming Clementi and other recent teen suicides are strategically clustered in front'of'Stanford White's famous arch. New York City council speaker Christine Quinn, her brown leather jacket flecked with raindrops, calls out Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and his accomplice, Molly Wei, requesting attendees to 'send a message to those individuals that they're not in the mainstream.' The two 18-year-old students already face up to five years in prison on invasion of privacy charges, but contrary to Quinn's message, they are already the norm.
Manhattan's most notorious 'comfort station' is on the park's south side, less than a hundred yards from the vigil. The front of the small, fly-blown men's room is lined with urinals, the back is a row of open-plan toilets. The parks department removed the stalls in anticipation of a lengthy, three-phase park renovation. But what that open plan actually created was a booming porno set. A silent, 18-minute Internet video called Spy Cam details v'rit'-style homosex in this men's room courtesy of a camera hidden in a shoulder bag. Men at urinals jerk off with abandon, occasionally swiveling for furtive blowjobs. When the camera pans the toilets, it's clear that ditching the stalls exacerbated on-site sex instead of putting the kibosh on it.
And Spy Cam is just the tip of the iceberg. Post'Paris Hilton, gay sexuality is awash in exhibitionist ops, from the nightly one-man (sometimes more) peep shows on Cam4.com to swarms visiting the Senator Craig tearoom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Then there are high-concept projects, like William E. Jones's chilling film Mansfield 1962, which resurrects the Ohio police department surveillance footage of an active tearoom beneath Mansfield's town square that resulted in more than 30 sodomy busts.
And where desire leads, commerce follows. Jet Set Men's new porn title Locker Room Spy Guy is currently number 6 on AVN's Top 100 sales and rental charts. Though populated by porn stars, it's Ravi at Rutgers redux. 'I never thought I'd grow up to be a pervert,' Josh Griffin muses in the film, 'but I did.' The gym owner observes some 'hot-assed men' having sex in his gym. Griffin is on a ladder, then holed up in the gym office, watching the telltale nocturnal green footage remotely on his computer. 'I got an idea,' he says, 'why not install some hidden cameras?'
David Halperin, a University of Michigan queer studies professor and author of the forthcoming How to Be Gay, says the Washington Square Spy Cam video 'is more embarrassing than filming someone in a dorm room kissing. Some of the people are pretty recognizable. They look generic, but if you knew one, you probably would recognize them.' And although the thrill of both videos is a reasonable facsimile of sexual excitement, it's from a different place entirely. 'What's exciting isn't how much of a turn-on the acts are,' Halperin explains. 'It's how much you get to violate people's privacy.'
Porn, Laura Kipnis writes in Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, 'refuses to let us off the hook for our hypocrisies. Or our fascinations.' Or does it? Consider that Ravi and Wei may not serve as much jail time as those entrapped in Jones's Mansfield 1962. Jim O'Neil, with the Middlesex County prosecutor's office, says that jail time in New Jersey for third-degree invasion of privacy charges carries a five-year maximum. But the students' first-time-offender status probably means a probation/community service combo, provided a judge doesn't kick in New Jersey's hate crimes statute or consider the resultant suicide, for which Ravi and Wei are not technically charged. A similar university case jailed Christopher Marsh this year, but only because the 31-year-old augmented his Indiana University of Pennsylvania restroom spying with a prior probation for drilling holes in men's room stalls at the local mall.
While Marsh's brand of DIY is against the law, what about other homemade porn that's just faking it? Many reality porn sites, just as scripted as their prime time counterparts, speak to a more politicized pornography. Take OutInPublic.com. Its logo is spray-painted over graffitied bathroom tile, and the sexual libertarians who operate the site declare, 'We bang out in public and we don't give a fuck,' but that's precisely what they do. In Easy Does It, blond Hunter picks up a swarthy stud on South Beach, and they go shopping on Lincoln Road. The two go at it in an open-doored fitting room, but it's the postcoital sidewalk interview that's most interesting. 'What do you think of this guy?' the cameraman asks of their discovery. 'He could probably do porn, huh?' Hunter replies, 'He just did.' The online metrics site Alexa ranks OutInPublic's traffic at double that of the more traditional Falcon Studios.
Chatroulette.com is another website dedicated to the everyman porn star. This Russian site facilitates random, virtual hookups via video feed and a 'next' button. When performance artist Vaginal Davis played Performance Space 122 last summer, she bookended her '70s-talk-show homage Speaking From the Diaphragm with live projections from Chatroulette. Her Chatroulette Dancers, boys and girls from NYU's Tisch and Steinhardt schools, sat on the sidelines dressed in white skivvies camming with other Chatrouletters. It's not easy to pull focus from Davis, a boisterous, six-foot-six black tranny, but the Chatroulette Dancers did just that.
Jonathan Hinman, a 24-year-old NYU grad, was a Chatroulette Dancer and one of only three troupe members willing to take a rotation on Davis's face each night to give her a rejuvenating butt facial. But that wasn't the only first for Hinman. 'I'd never heard of Chatroulette before this show,' he says. 'But after just a few hours, I found it's mostly guys looking to jack off. When you're exposing yourself like that, it's so easy to say 'next-next-next.' If someone spent a hundred hours on Chatroulette, their ability to have a real relationship would be impaired. It's that empowered feeling that sells the site. It feels really good to click the 'next' button for a bit, but pretty soon it's really lonely.'
Back at the glowstick vigil, Washington Square Park is monitored by boxy NYPD surveillance cams in place since the Giuliani administration. Governor Patterson climbs atop a wet park bench, telling the crowd, 'I am no stranger to bullying. I know the feeling of being degraded. I know the feeling of loneliness.' He's referring to his days as a legally blind young student, but the problem before him is an abundance of sight, into even the darkest corners.
It may be time to take a cue from HIV prevention campaigns and just assume everyone has it -- the 'it' in this case being a surveillance camera. Late last century, Kenneth Cole informed the public -- via giant billboards -- that they were on camera an average of 10 times daily. His kicker 'Are you dressed for it?' now sounds almost willfully naive. These days, most people aren't wearing anything at all.
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