nsfw
Owning Porno Used to Mean Something, Damnit
Written by: Blake Butler

Photo courtesy of the author's personal collection

1. When I was in high school I kept my porn in a white box. Inside the box was a stack of magazines—almost entirely Playboys, because I liked the clean stuff—as well as a purple folder full of the images I liked best, so that I could spread them out on my bedroom floor and sit in the middle of them, kind of like a crude manual version of Tumblr. 

2. The internet really changed the way people masturbate. Today, if you want to see someone naked you just press the buttons and poof, there’s a boob. But as a teenager I remember thinking of pictures of naked women as a kind of secret relic, something you had to search out, anticipate and covet, which made them that much better when you got them.

3. I saw my first porn magazine in fourth grade when some kids in my class were passing one around under the lunch table. I remember feeling a weird sense of doom, like I was going to get caught the second I touched the paper, even though everyone else was laughing about it. I’m not sure what magazine it was, but the pictures were of naked women holding automatic weapons, dressed up like military personnel. I remember the feeling of seeing more than I actually saw.

4. The kid who owned that magazine briefly ran a business where you could buy a page out of other, similar magazines for a dollar. He carried them around in a duffel bag with a padlock on it. They were his dad’s magazines, he said, and there were more where those came from, if you had the money. I never bought one. Eventually he was caught and suspended. 

5. I used to occasionally go to work with my dad. I remember feeling an insane sense of agency whenever he would stop at this one gas station that had a rack of tattoo magazines with tits in them. I would stand in front of the rack and wait until I knew I had half a second with no one watching, and then I would open the magazine as if I didn’t mean to, in case someone caught me. So instead of full visions, I caught flashes and tried to embed them deep in my memory so that I would be able to see them for a long time afterward whenever I shut my eyes.

6. A very brief, insanely vivid memory from when I was probably four or five, of picking up a magazine my dad’s friends were passing around at a camp in the woods, and the men laughing as my dad took it away from me before I could see. I remember my uncle saying something to the effect of, “one day you can have that,” and everyone laughing. I don’t remember many other things from that early stage in my life.

7. One of the first full-frontal pictures I saw was in a modded version of DOOM for PC. A friend’s older neighbor had edited the program to replace the tapestries on the walls with a jpeg of Pamela Anderson. It meant nothing to him, but I couldn’t stop staring. I asked my friend for weeks after that to please get me a copy of the game, over and over. I lost sleep waiting. I asked and asked. When the 3.5” floppy disc finally arrived it was just the regular old version of DOOM. No Pamela, just blood and guns. I think I played it anyway.

8. Eventually, probably while snooping, I came across my dad’s small collection of adult magazines on the high shelf in his closet, covered with a t-shirt. This was probably the most common way for kids to find their first pornos back then. My dad had mostly Playboys, a couple Penthouses, and Penthouse Letters. I would wait for my parents to leave the house, then I would take the magazines into my room and look at them carefully, trying not to leave fingerprints.

Image via Flickr user FiDalwood

9. I was extremely worried about getting caught, of his knowing I had seen. I traced the images I liked best with tracing paper. That gave me a boner even more than looking at the pictures. Eventually I got the nerve to cut a page out of one of the magazines, tearing carefully along the seam so as not to leave jagged remnants. I stored the page in one of those plastic slips used to hold valuable comics. Even though my tastes were pretty tame, I was some kind of acquisitive weirdo.

10. I remember reading Penthouse Letters in the bathtub. In writing, the idea seemed more putrid to me—not glossy like the images. But it was also strangely compelling, like a portion of being a human I had yet to find the keys to, but that was buried somewhere in me.

11. There was a certain convenience store everyone knew sold porn to anyone without asking ages. Once I got my license I drove there many times, so nervous I was literally shaking. The first few times I went in I browsed, pretending that I was looking for gum or something, and ended up just buying the gum. Eventually I paid a kid who looked way older than me $20 to get me a Playboy, like a dork.

12. I remember sitting behind the bookshelf in my room for the first time with my own magazine. I had the door locked. I turned each page one by one, carefully examining the image before continuing to the next. It was an issue with Jenny McCarthy in it. She was taking a bath in a bunch of the pictures. I probably masturbated to that same issue more than 50 times. Each time was different.

13. After a while I finally got the nerve to buy one myself. I went to the Happy Mart, driving around for a while first trying to gather my nerve. I can still remember how my warbly voice sounded telling the 50-year-old man across the counter what I wanted. After that first time buying, feeling like I’d been just released from prison walking back out to my car, I pulled out and immediately drove through a red light and got pulled over by the cops. I was sure I’d been caught. I was shaking with the Playboy in the bag under my seat, like it was drug money.

14. Eventually I removed and mounted my favorite pages on cardboard so they wouldn’t get bent, unless the page was good on both sides, then I would slide it in another plastic sleeve. To supplement the images, I had a tape recording of audio from the Spice Channel, a pay-per-view cable station that blurred its visual stream but still had all the sounds of girls pretending to be fucked. With my white Walkman, surrounded with 2D cardboard icons, it almost seemed like they were alive.

15. I’m pretty sure the idea of having the thing was as exciting as the thing itself. Like I could feel a strange power in possession. And soon, with the limited range of what there was to see, I could see it in my mind without even the paper. Certain images are so burned into my brain I know they’ll be there until I die. Now, nothing online stands out more than any other for any longer than the seconds you spend with it before clicking forward to the next.

16. I only recently found the purple folder again. Looking at it now feels pretty weird, like entering a museum no one else knows has a door. Inside it are totems I used over and over to get off to. Each one has a little history that is all mine. I have no idea why I deemed the shot of Pamela Anderson in a cowboy hat washing her ass in a sink worthy of a plastic casing. Years of easy porn online have changed these relics into something more like comic books, clothes I used to wear, each of which seemed like mine alone. There was no address millions of others could type in to get the same secret. Despite a print run of millions, it seemed like a thing made just for me.

17. The girl in the orange bikini top spread on a life raft making a face that looks less sex-related and more like she’s dreaming about a buffet; the girl squirting cake icing on her tits; the girl pulling her Mickey Mouse halter top down with one hand and raising her glasses with the other; the blonde girl covered in soap in the bath: here it is again all in my lap, like a portable, defunct internet of its own, one I’ve kept stored in a closet for more than a decade.

18. By now, it’s clear the excitement was in the hunt. The day we got America Online the first thing I did was download a photo of Jenny McCarthy, not so different from the ones I already had, but now in countless iteration. It was suddenly always there, and always more than I could ever jerk off to. Pretty soon the folder got put into its box, crammed down under all the rest of the junk I never touch, like a blanket or a toy, left behind for a world where it’s so easy to get a copy of almost anything it’s hard to imagine how anybody ever remembers what they want.

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