Surf naked

At San Francisco's Dot-Cum Lounge, the future of online porn is a group experience.

Published June 30, 2000 7:15PM (EDT)

"Got Internet?" asks the marquee outside the New Meat Campus Theater in the seedy Tenderloin District. It's an improbable question coming from a gay adult-entertainment establishment that features live skin shows every hour and continual XXX video screenings.

"Try jerking off at Kinko's. You'll get thrown out," explains Terrance Alan, the proprietor of the theater, which is now home to the newly opened Dot-Cum Lounge -- probably the first Internet cafe where you can surf naked.

"San Francisco is the home of the sexual revolution, the gay movement and the Internet industry. Coincidence? Ha! Convergence," boasts Alan, who is not only the owner of the New Meat Campus Theater, but also the publisher of a "pan-sexual fetish magazine" called "Fetish" and the auteur behind a line of "sexually positive educational videos -- what the rest of the world calls gay pornography," starring himself. Naturally, he also runs a Web design firm.

As for the Dot-Cum Lounge, it's housed in what used to be a "really gross dressing room," according to the theater's manager, Chris Beamish. But it's been transformed into a clothing-optional Internet cafe that appears cleaner, and certainly sleeker, than most clothing-required cafes.

Up a short staircase, the lounge consists of a small, dimly lit room filled with pounding house music. The "walls" are made of black vinyl curtains -- to hide the unsightly computer wires -- and a black linoleum floor, convenient for rolling around on while seated in ergonomically correct black office chairs. There's a circle of five PCs running Intel Celeron processors -- surely, Intel should be paying for such prime product placement! -- with 17-inch monitors, DVD players and microphones. The ever-important webcams should be arriving next week. A small silver stage is the only other adornment of the lounge, so that patrons or performers from the club's strip shows can flaunt their meat to the Web.

It's all the DSL you can eat for free, provided you pay the $15 price of admission to the theater. For an additional fee, you can have all the hot pics you've downloaded printed out or burned to a CD-ROM to take home. So far, says Alan, guys have been using the room to check their e-mail, as well as surf porn and get off.

Right now, there's absolutely no privacy. This isn't like going into a video booth to watch a movie. Anyone else in the room can see what you're looking at or what you're doing with your hands. But soon partitions will be added between the chairs to offer limited privacy. And the ceiling, Alan explains, will one day display a mural that's a "queer digital-age interpretation of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel." Just think about that for a second and I'm sure you won't have trouble picturing what he envisions.

Not just a place to jerk-off en masse, the Dot-Cum Lounge will begin offering Internet classes in July, ranging in skill level from how to turn the thing on to courses in HTML and Flash.

"Isn't that a funny picture. I'm learning Quark naked!" says Beamish, making a Pee-Wee Herman face. Turning serious, he adds: "I don't think a lot of people will exercise that right. But I think that they will understand it's a non-threatening environment to learn about the Internet."

Why would a porn theater want to offer HTML classes? As Alan explains it, some of the first patrons of the Dot-Cum Lounge clearly needed to learn basic Web skills -- like how to use a search engine -- to find what they were looking for. Alan, happy to meet any need, obliged with a quick-and-dirty Web curriculum. In the future, he envisions Adobe Photoshop as a popular offering. "How to give yourself a six-pack [of ripped abs] in three mouse clicks," as he conceptualizes it. So, you can put your face on a new body and "send to your chat buddies in Auckland, New Zealand, who you'll never see in your life." There's also plans for a gaming night. Quake naked!

Alan, the 47-year-old self-described "porntrepreneur" behind the Dot-Cum Lounge, is a 19-year HIV survivor and unabashed promoter of what he sees as his latest bid to "create sexually positive queer culture."

"OK," says Alan, "say you want a job, and you have to work on your risumi. But you're horny. Where can you go to do both? No place but here!"

And he sees nothing odd about the idea that men will want to come to a public place to look at the kind of images that seem suited to being looked at in private. "For the gay community, the Internet has been an extraordinary way for us to build our community, and for people to have a safe place to explore that side of themselves." But surfing at home doesn't equal privacy for some, "especially if you're married or if your parents don't know you're gay."

"We're filling the niche for people who want to do things with the computer that they can't do at work or at home or at Kinko's or at a cafe," says Alan.

Wasn't the Internet supposed to turn us all into a bunch of solitary porn-surfers, alone at home with our sticky mouses itching to get off? If more porntrepreneurs like Alan have their way, that dystopic vision of the Net might well give way to a communal grope future where men and women of all sexual orientations can surf openly for their porn naked together.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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