It's a "peer-to-peer" networking application, of sorts, that makes music file-swapping on Napster look pretty tame. It taps into a passionate community that meets both on- and off-line. It serves five major urban areas -- New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Toronto -- and the company behind it plans to expand to nine other U.S. cities by the end of the year. It's everything the Internet ever promised, a service that is personalized, customized and real-time, bringing new efficiency to an essential human need.
So why aren't venture capitalists rushing to pour tens of millions of start-up capital into this seeming online gold mine? Maybe because the action at this cyber center is a little bit too raw for the average Silicon Valley financier. Then again, raw is how they like it at M4M4Sex, the virtual home of "Billybareass" and "HotBlackTop," an online meat market for gay men where members need not bother with the sly pleasantries of online chat or other time-wasting forms of beating around the bush. At M4M4Sex, there's only one goal: "Sex now!"
"We're cutting to the chase. It's definitely not a dating site," says David Halpern, the content manager for M4M4Sex. "We're making it exactly what it is. It's about a hookup."
It's also about exploiting what's great about the Net. Just try to name a buzzword that can't be applied to M4M4Sex. It brings to bear the personalization of MyYahoo, the real-time action of Etrade and the instant gratification of Kozmo.com on the most intimate of human exchanges.
From AOL chat rooms to Gay.com, there are plenty of places to cruise for sex partners on the Net, but M4M4Sex takes specifically targeting and tailoring your next encounter to an extreme. Members of the site can search for other members by neighborhood and fetish, as if ordering a partner off a menu: "One Castro-dwelling top, please." It's all about finding the piece of ass you want as conveniently as possible. "You can indicate if you're looking to have someone come over to your place, looking to come over to their place or if you want to meet outside," explains Halpern.
Where you want it, and when you want it, too. At M4M4Sex it is easy to see who else is online, so you can go check out their pics and profiles, see if their interests match yours and e-mail them to see if they're in the mood. The site is adding instant-messaging capabilities to make this preliminary exchange more efficient. Or, you can place your own photo and description in the "Sex now!" section for four hours at a time, indicating that you'd like to have sex today between 6 and 10 p.m., 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and so on. Halpern says the site is also investing in wireless capabilities, so you could arrange an encounter on the road, as well as tourist features, so your photo and profile can travel with you to different cities you visit.
Ain't the Net great? Although one might wonder if it's all that healthy to make the process of "hooking up" gay men even more efficient at a time when unprotected gay sex is reportedly on the rise again. Isn't the sex distribution system already efficient enough? But a survey of community health leaders suggests that they aren't too alarmed at this new way to find partners online. New technology is always exploited, first and foremost, for sexual purposes. M4M4Sex is just the latest in a long line of breakthroughs.
Mary Madden teaches a course called Exploring Cybersexualities at San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program. She cautions against assuming that M4M4Sex can actually deliver on its promise of hot flesh: "It is important to remember that just because someone places an ad on this site, it does not mean that they will find what they're looking for: 'Sex now.'" But in a survey of a sample of the site's 15,000 members conducted by M4M4Sex, the average sex seeker said he'd been on the site for less than six months, and had met 10 guys.
"Robdawg," a 39-year-old San Francisco Web designer, says he's met about 30 men through the site since he started using it last year, and "90 percent were people who I'd see again. My rate of acquisition is pretty damn high," he boasts.
Improbably, he found M4M4Sex by querying the prim butler at Ask Jeeves with the question: "Where can I meet guys in San Francisco?" The first time he posted photos of his body (without his face) along with an enumeration of his predilections, he received seven e-mails from guys wanting to meet him. "I thought: They have to be shills. This can't be real." But he ended up meeting three of them in person, "And they were all really hot, and I was like: 'OK, bingo! I am going to get laid.'"
Now, Robdawg visits the site almost every day to see who's new. Some nights he'll find as many as 400 other men in San Francisco cruising the site for sex partners at the same time he is. And when he moves his own photo to the "Sex now!" section, sometimes it actually lives up to its billing, with liaisons taking place half an hour after first e-mail contact.
One hookup turned out to be his next-door neighbor, who lives just across a walkway. "And we got busy. Damn, he's really cute. I'd seen him forever, and I thought he was really stuck up, but it turned out he was really shy."
Terrence Alan, the proprietor of the Dot-cum Lounge, encourages the patrons of his clothing-optional cyber-cafe to use the site. "So many people don't like going out and socializing, and so many people don't have the time," he says. "They see a Web site like M4M4Sex as an opportunity to get together with guys looking for the same thing, sort of like a flea market."
Robdawg certainly fits that group. He hasn't been to a bar in six months, favoring the directness of M4M4Sex to the real-world meat market. "You can sort by particular fetish, instead of the whole 20 questions, standing in a smoky bar with a cocktail, guessing are they a top or a bottom, positive or negative, into fuzzy slippers ..." (He wants it made clear that he's NOT into fuzzy slippers, but he does like tattoos.) But it's the pictures that eliminate the ultimate piece of guesswork: "Since their pictures are online, you can actually see the goods in advance," says Robdawg.
He's trolled for sex in other quarters of the Net -- AOL and Gay.com chat rooms -- but found that too many of the chatters on Gay.com just wanted to chat, and that the chatters on AOL are short on follow-through: "There's an attitude there. A lot of people are looking to get their ego fed. It's the hunt they're interested in, not actually getting busy."
That's what makes M4M4Sex different from the other sites: It's highly targeted, not just by demographic, but by what the members use it for. Probably the biggest barrier that keeps the Lookie-Lous out is having to post a photo of themselves. Guys who post porn-star photos are busted by the watermarking that's usually found on professionally made pics. And members tattle on those who advertise falsely and don't live up to expectations when they show up. Such poseurs are immediately kicked off the system.
M4M4Sex is just trying to make hooking up more convenient for the hardcore sex seeker. More mainstream gay sites have a pickup element, but don't cater explicitly to it. Jeff Bennett, the vice president of community management for Gay.com, says of the more mainstream gay site: "The majority of people go to the chats or bulletin boards to interact in one way or another, but they're not necessarily there to hook up with someone ... With any online environment, because it's anonymous, there's certainly a sexual element. We don't shy away from it but we don't necessarily encourage it either. We want people to interact with each other in any way they think is healthy."
Is it healthy to make the age-old search for sex partners more efficient than ever before? The Dot-cum Lounge's Alan argues that ultimately the health of a service like M4M4Sex is up to the people who use it: "With any type of introductory service, it does not preclude individual responsibility. Just because we make it easier, more convenient, more high-tech and interactive, doesn't make it bad."
Brian Byrnes, director of prevention services at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, sees sites like M4M4Sex as "part of a long history of gay men trying to find safe and creative ways to identify each other," from the 19th century sharp-dressing Jim Dandy to the "hanky vocabulary" of the '60s, '70s and '80s, in which handkerchiefs signified who was looking for what when. But while it "does raise concerns for me as a prevention person," he says, "I don't want to pathologize the Internet. It is a new and fresh environment, and hopefully gay men use it in a way that is safe and healthy."
Not everyone involved in AIDS prevention is so optimistic. Mary McFarlane, a research psychologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the division of STD prevention, sees a set of risks that come with M4M4Sex-style services. "People can get sex a lot faster. It's much more efficient. They don't have to go to a bar and cruise for the person who has the same sexual tastes as they do. And that efficiency means more sex partners."
But you won't see the CDC trying to bust up the party at M4M4Sex: "You can't barge into a Web site any more than you can barge into a bar and start announcing that people need to have safe sex," says McFarlane.
The CDC and others are studying the matter, but no one really knows for sure if the people hooking up online aren't just the same people who would be finding, as the CDC says, "multiple anonymous sex partners" elsewhere if they weren't doing so on the Net.
"We have found that people who look for sex partners online are a lot more sexually active than folks that didn't go looking online," says McFarlane. But she acknowledges that the studies she's conducted haven't controlled for whether those same subjects had in the past used, for example, 900 numbers to find sex partners.
The company that owns M4M4Sex, Advanced Communications -- which is not to be confused with Advance Publications, the parent company that publishes such Condi Nast magazines as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Glamour -- has been in both the 900 phone chat and voice-mail personals businesses. But Advanced has found growth in those sectors to be "pretty flat" for a number of years since the Net boom, says Halpern, while the M4M4Sex site is growing "exponentially."
"In the gay world, it's pretty much common knowledge that the Net's a major source of meeting. It's completely replacing phone lines and personal ads," says Halpern. For the New York site, Halpern sees the crackdown on sex venues under Mayor Rudy Giuliani as another source of business for the site. With fewer peep booths and bar backrooms in which to meet a hookup, guys take their cruising online.
It's long been a favorite maxim of Net evangelists that the Net "interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." The New York experience offers another reason why M4M4Sex exists -- and is thriving. Once again, technology is finding a way to get around prohibition. Add another buzzword to the list: M4M4Sex isn't just about real-time, peer-to-peer personalization. It's also about freedom.