Men and women alike are using America Online to pick up, peel off and put out with a kind of glee unseen since the summer of love. But for heterosexuals, AOL is merely a swinger's lounge. For gay men, it's more like a 1970s bathhouse.
"I can have dick delivered to my door faster than a pizza," says Steve, an Atlanta P.R. executive who cruises for men in America Online's chat rooms. (Like many of the men in this story, he asked that his real name not be used.) Within minutes of entering one of six AOL chat rooms designated for gay men in Atlanta, he exchanges naked photos with other men -- some with their faces cropped out -- and arranges a sex date.
What AOL lacks in steam rooms and towel-wrapped men it makes up for in steamy chat and naked pictures zooming across its servers. "GayOL," as many gay men have christened it, is home to hundreds of thousands of men "window-shopping" in the M4M (men for men) chat rooms.
There are, of course, several Web sites devoted specifically to the gay community -- like gay.com and Planet Out. But none of these has the reputation among gays that AOL does as the go-to place to get laid.
Why are so many gay men flocking to AOL?
"It offers an easier means to an end," says Paul, a health-care analyst in Atlanta who says he visits AOL's chat rooms nearly every day. "I don't have to get dressed up and go to a bar, drink, get my clothes full of smoke and wonder if anybody's interested." But avoiding the bar scene is only part of it. At 18 million members, AOL is so big you can find just about everything -- or anyone -- you're looking for. It turns out size does matter, and AOL has become the de facto online meet market largely because of its big member base.
"There are a lot of other gay Web sites that have chat rooms, but they came after the fact, after AOL," says Ron, a San Francisco marketing consultant who maintains two AOL accounts -- one for cruising and one for everything else. "They have millions of subscribers, which would keep even the most active gay man busy."
The popularity of the gay penis prowl on AOL has more to do with the company's technology than any gay-friendly stance on AOL's part. Instant messaging, for example, allows private conversation in public rooms. And then there's the system's legendary ease of use. "I've tried other sites like Gay.com," says Paul. "It's just not that easy to exchange pictures. Nothing beats AOL for the immediacy of naked pictures popping up on your screen almost instantly."
Rory O'Neill, president of Cybersite, which specializes in building online communities, says Paul isn't just imagining AOL's speed and ease of use. "AOL uses a local client software resident on the user's hard drive," he says. "Which makes it more robust than other sites which use HTML or Java. Self-contained systems like AOL's always run better, faster and with fewer problems."
Paul doesn't care about AOL's technology but he likes the effect: "With AOL it's simpler to evaluate the merchandise."
AOL's chat rooms are overflowing with gay men most nights of the week. Steve often has trouble getting into the virtual meat markets like AtlantaM4M, AtlantaM4M2 or AtlantaM4Mnow. With a limit of 23 participants each, the six Atlanta rooms are always packed -- Steve has to hit the "return" key over and over to get in. "Persistence is the key," he says.
The first thing you notice upon entering a gay chat room is the absence of, well, chat. On repeated visits to different chat rooms, you'll find the public area of discussion silent. The point of being in a gay room is unmistakable: You're there to attract flies -- literally. The best way to do that is with a descriptive screen-name that other chat members can click on to see if you have a fly worth unzipping. AOL forces you to use a maximum of 10 letters in your screen-name, which serves to weed out the creatively feeble. It's a Darwinian process: If your screen-name doesn't attract the energy for fueling libidos, you starve, sexually.
An effective screen-name -- like "Opnwide4me" or "Uinmyass" -- leaves little room for second-guessing. Double-click on the member profiles and there's even less confusion. "URABTTM," for example, asserts: "You seek control and domination by aggressive top."
If the chat rooms are too busy, Steve will do a "member search" of men currently online who live in Atlanta and have keywords like "muscular" or "hung" in their profiles. Straight men tend to put "looking for female" in their profiles, so it's easy to distinguish gay profiles from straight. Then, using the instant message feature, he "IMs" the ones he likes, usually with an innocuous message like "Hey, I like your profile."
After a flurry of exchanged photos -- "I want pictures of faces and bodies. Dicks if I can get them" -- Steve arranges a rendezvous. "Your place or mine?" is a refrain reverberating all over AOL's servers. It usually takes Steve 45 minutes from the time he starts his computer till he hears a knock on the door. His record? Five minutes. "I logged on, clicked into a room, exchanged GIFs and bam, I was out the door."
Not everyone is happy when they finally do meet offline. As Tim, an inveterate chat-room user from Long Beach, Calif., says, "You cannot believe how much some of these guys lie. If you use their definition of a swimmer's body, Orca would qualify." Tim was addicted to AOL chat rooms. He'd meet guys on business trips by firing up his laptop and entering the chat rooms of the city he was visiting. But no more -- he's living with his lover. Guess where they met?
To understand how the squeaky-clean all-American portal of family friendly fun got turned into trick central you first have to grasp the dramatic impact the Internet is having on any group stigmatized by society. Indeed, the Net is changing the way gay men come out. Tom Rielly, co-founder of PlanetOut (which operates gay sites both on the Web and on AOL), thinks the Net is a lifeline for people unable or unwilling to come out in public. "How do you find your kind in a hostile world?" he asks. "The Internet provides safety for people too scared to come out. You can remain anonymous but participate in a community of people like yourself. It's the first medium to reach the closeted."
PlanetOut's mission, according to Rielly, is to help gays and lesbians meet each other online and off. "Flesh still matters," he says. "We've failed if all we do is connect people in cyberspace. Chat is an important part of our core mission to bring people together. Yes, some people use our service to look for sex, and I see nothing wrong with that, but the majority don't."
Those who do go online looking for lust say the Net allows them to put aside their inhibitions, speak frankly and lay out what the ground rules will be for the sexual encounter. "I want to know if they're into oral sex or whether they're a top or a bottom," says Paul. "And it's easier to ask about their HIV status online than it is in person."
Jeff Bennett, co-founder of Gay.com, one of the largest gay Web sites, downplays the steam factor for gay communities online: "For the most part, people come to our site to build a sense of community, to find somebody like them, not to have sex." He points to a recent meeting in California arranged by frequent visitors to an HIV chat room. Seventy men from all over the world met for a weekend retreat. "I was there," says Bennett. "It was not a pick-up, cruisy scene. It was about fellowship." Eighty people showed up at Charlie's Restaurant & Bar in Denver after the Gay.com Colorado chat room decided to hold annual dinners so the group members could meet each other.
Ron, the San Francisco consultant, says that through AOL he and his friends have developed friendships and paid visits to gay men in places like Israel and Ireland. "We're building a global community," he says. "Most of us use computers."
In fact, the research firm Computer Economics puts Internet use by gays and lesbians at 10 percent higher than the general population. The firm estimated the figure through a combination of focus groups with knowledgeable gay observers and extrapolations from previous studies of gay Internet use.
Ad salesmen for the gay press see firsthand how the Internet is changing gay culture. "There's been a slow but steady decline for the past two years in gay print personals," says Adam Segel, product manager for Tele-Publishing International, a firm that handles the classified personals for 18 gay publications. Segel believes the Internet is the principal cause of the decline. "There's so many more options," he said. David Gardner, advertising sales director for Frontiers, a gay magazine with Los Angeles and San Francisco editions, agrees: "We've seen a general decline. More noticeable, though, is the drop-off of audio-text advertisers" (900 or 976 lines that promise hot talk and the potential to meet).
AOL has approximately 16,000 chat rooms. Tom Rielly of PlanetOut recalls, "A few years ago people thought a third of all their rooms were gay. But no one really knows."
AOL divides its chat rooms into theme categories. An informal count during a recent visit to the "town square" category revealed 242 rooms, of which 160 had the "M4M" designation. That's about two-thirds of the town square rooms. Other sections of AOL don't seem to be nearly as dominated by a gay presence.
O'Neill, president of Cybersite, thinks AOL's success in gay hot chat is due to its "unthemed" service. "Contextualization is important for the direction and quality of conversation," he said. "For the most part, AOL is uncontextualized." In other words, many gay men don't turn to AOL for "community," because unlike gay.com or Planet Out, it's not a gay-themed service. Ironically, it's this very lack of theme that makes AOL, rather than the gay Web sites, so popular among gay men hoping to score.
Besides the AOL-created chat rooms, the company allows people to set up their own chat rooms. Many create geographically specific rooms, which only add to AOL's popularity. Where else are gay men in Harrisburg, Penn., going to meet online other than "HarrisburgPAM4M"? Most Web sites catering to gays have a New York chat room, but no other online service has developed AOL's reach into the gay communities in smaller towns. In fact, for every room in gay-friendly cities like San Francisco, there are over 100 in the Bible Belt ("Greenvillescm4m"), the rural Northeast ("PoughkeepsieM4M"), the Grain Belt ("OmahaM4M") and parts in between.
So is AOL aware of its reputation as the preferred penis provider for the
"I think AOL is very well aware of its role in ... in ..." said Jupiter analyst David Card, struggling for the right words, "romance-creation." A couple of clicks through AOL's chat rooms offer ample evidence.
But AOL apparently doesn't want to talk about how gay men are using its service. With the exception of reading a one-line boilerplate about the "amazing diversity" of AOL's community, spokesman Andrew Weinstein refused to comment. AOL strikes a gay-friendly stance publicly; it's one of three major investors in Planet Out and has a gay-friendly work environment (promoting many of its openly out employees). But commenting on how gay customers are using the service to score is probably beyond the scope of even the most progressive corporate culture.
AOL would not release what percent of online time is spent on chat, probably fearful of the business repercussions. When it charged by the hour, AOL was undoubtedly thrilled with its chat-room success: More chat meant more revenue. But now, it would probably rather divert those chatters to other parts of its site, where advertising and e-commerce are bringing incremental revenue. "Some traffic is more desirable than other traffic," said Jupiter's Card. "Chat gives AOL stickiness, but obviously it's bad for other revenue producers in their system."
There's a striking contrast between the way AOL ads portray the service and how some gay men use it. AOL cultivates a cheerful, wholesome entertainment theme in its ads, touting "parental controls," blocking software that lets parents restrict content and chat rooms. Meanwhile, "URmyNxTrik," "WorkMyAsGd" and "Ikneel4U" are furiously woodpeckering the keys, hoping for a little action.
This contradiction deepens when you read AOL's terms of service. "There is a difference between affection and vulgarity," states AOL's written policy. "For example ... the words 'breast' or 'testicular' would be acceptable, but slang versions of those words would not be." In other words, you can use AOL to get plowed like a snow-covered Minnesota freeway -- but not if you use raw language. While AOL parses cleavage and baskets, "BstBtmNtwn" is working the AtlantaM4M room hoping for another notch in his bedpost.
If AOL has a policy, gay men don't seem to know about it. They're too busy ordering from what they perceive as an online sex catalog. And why not? The items are always in stock, there's a liberal exchange policy and you can take delivery in a matter of hours.
The absurdity is captured by writer John Royce, who -- upon seeing how his gay friends use AOL -- quips, "Gay men don't need to support theater. They ARE theater." And now, America Online is their stage.