Every night, at the stroke of 10, something magical happens to one of the channels on my cable service. The all-day stream of ho-hum cooking-and-gardening schlock vanishes with a flicker, and the screen explodes into a kaleidoscopic swirl of scrambled sex flicks. These rowdy hump-a-thons feature your standard hardcore fare: the most insatiable nymphos on earth receiving all manner of orificial service from well-hung hunks with jackhammer hips.
Hardcore porn makes for pretty compelling TV when viewed in its unscrambled form, but once the action is fed through a scrambler into my 27-inch Sony, something much different emerges -- something finer and more rewarding. Those highly choreographed shag sessions materialize on the screen as the distorted, sliced-up sequences of porno-cubism that jargon-makers call "Picasso porn."
A ramrod-stiff penis here, a jiggling breast there, a vague thrusting of hips that you can't quite trace to two distinguishable human bodies -- scrambled porn is a moving mosaic of sex. It can be a little hard to follow the action, as you squint into the flickering screen, but you're captivated in a way that you never are with straight porn, because you have to envision with your mind's eye the parts you can't quite see. And that's what makes the scrambled stuff so much more fulfilling: It leaves more to the imagination.
I don't much like unscrambled porn. With its worn-out story lines, its so-bad-it's-funny acting, and its mechanical humping and sucking, straight porn bores as often as it excites. It's the too-much-information problem; it doesn't leave you any room for filling in the blanks. But scrambled porn, like a finely wrought minimalist short story -- imagine Raymond Carver erotica -- gives you just a scattering of small but telling details. You catch a flash of breast here, a vague hint of penetration there, and then you flesh out the story line from your own mental storehouse of fantasies. It's interactive titillation, much like the give-and-take of sex itself.
The similarities to real-life sex don't end there. At its finest, scrambled porn achieves a kind of cinéma vérité effect. Compared to the unscrambled stuff, it bears a much closer resemblance to the actual experience of a sexual encounter. When you're in the act, you never see yourself and your partner from the camera's-eye viewpoint. You never observe things from that far-off, objective perspective. There are no slow, steady pans, no pull-back shots of the action. Everything is jumbled and in your face, herky-jerky and dislocated. As you flail around in the sack, you may -- in a fleeting moment of clarity, like the interludes of clarity in scrambled porn -- catch a glimpse of your partner's torso writhing above or below you, a gaping mouth near yours, a leg extended at the very edge of your peripheral vision. But you'll get no slow-motion sequences or tidy freeze-frames. Sex is scrambled, and if pornography aims for verisimilitude, it should be scrambled too.
If it weren't for a few right-minded justices on the Supreme Court, we might have lost the gift of scrambled porn forever. Last year, in a landmark decision for late-night voyeurs, the court fought off the morality watchdogs in "United States vs. Playboy Entertainment Group." The case emerged from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton, which called for an end to scrambled porn. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushed an amendment through the Senate that would force cable companies to either scramble their adult programming completely or banish it to the wee hours, the companies waved the First Amendment flag. The court ruled 5-4 that scrambled porn should not be removed from the airwaves, triggering a collective sigh of relief from Picasso porn connoisseurs everywhere.
What's bizarre is that, despite its obvious inferiority to scrambled porn, unscrambled porn still carries more cash value in the marketplace. In a world of properly assigned values -- a world where elementary school teachers pulled down high six-figure salaries while Britney Spears sang for nickels on the street -- in a world like that, cable companies would feed their unscrambled smut over the airwaves for free and charge a premium for access to scrambled porn.
Maybe we're already headed in that direction. In small ways, scrambled porn is starting to receive its due attention. In the opening scene of "American Pie," last year's cinematic paean to teen libido, Jason Biggs' character enacts one of the all-time sacred rituals of male adolescence -- masturbating to scrambled porn. The magazine Nerve recently featured an artfully packaged photo gallery of scrambled porn on its site, and pundits are starting to weigh in on the Constitutional ramifications of restricting scrambled porn.
In my fantasy, it won't be long before cultural critics in the humanities departments of Northeastern universities are devoting entire courses of study to the deconstruction of Picasso porn. Art film houses will put on scrambled porn festivals in sold-out theaters, and bespectacled grad students will slump in their seats tugging at their goatees, trying to mentally fix Picasso porn's place in the storied history of cinematic art.
In the meantime, though, aficionados of scrambled porn like me remain consigned to late-night surfing, squinting into the screen at those disembodied images tumbling like stray clothes in a dryer.
Of course the reason that these fragments of sliced-and-diced sex slip through the scramblers onto my TV screen in the first place is that the scrambling systems used by cable companies are far from perfect. Porn peddlers could funnel some of their profits into developing better scramblers, but why would they do that? They're hoping that those teasing glimpses of flesh will compel us to fork over the extra cash for the full smorgasbord of unscrambled smut.
But I say no thanks. I'll take my sex scrambled.