Net Losses

Cyberporn's sexual pleasure often comes with accompanying financial pain

On his 18th birthday, Robert Ayres drove from his University City home to Jefferson County, in the middle of the night, to rent a porn video. Why? "Because I could," remarks Ayres, a tall, thin college student with short, dark hair and piercing blue eyes. "I was 18." Ayres, now 22, no longer logs 60-some miles to acquire adult videos. Instead, a cornucopia of blue images are at his fingertips -- actually at the click of a mouse -- only Ayres won't be doing any clicking from his former U. City residence. Recently, his mom expelled him from the house because, in various visits to commercial porn sites on the Internet, he had racked up hefty charges on her credit card.

"I never thought those charges would go through," he says in his own defense. And although he sincerely regrets the situation, he nonetheless feels taken advantage of by what he terms the predatory proprietors of the Web sites he visited. "The information on some of these sites is very misleading," he says. "They advertise it's 'free' based on contingencies. You enter your credit card to gain access -- basically you're signing up -- though generally there's some stipulation that you can call back and cancel if you do it within a certain time, three or four days.

"The facts are there," he admits, "but you've got to dig and dig deep. But those who want to get on these adult sites are not going to take 15-20 minutes, however long it takes to read the terms and conditions. They want their four or five minutes of bliss and then go on to something else."

Ayres worked hard at his PC, scoping out fleshy landscapes and carnal domains. He admits he got a bit carried away, growing intoxicated by the sheer eroticism of it all. The volume and variety of what was available was no less impressive. "There's so many links," he notes. "You go to one site and five more pop up." In some cases, he was billed by the minute (and when downloading images, as he did, that time can be precious); others charged a monthly subscriber fee. In the process, over a two-month period, he ran up about $500 on his mom's credit card. In addition, a visit to one site somehow appeared on the Ayres' phone bill -- $159 for 23 minutes -- as a call to Vanuatu (sounds like Xanadu), a chain of islands (formerly known as New Hebrides) in the South Pacific. "I had no idea that it was an international call," declares Ayres.

And what was his mother's reaction to the unexpected charges? "Extreme disgust," says Ayres. "She's pretty religious. She was doing bills, and she came up in my room and confronted me with it. I tried to deny it. She came back: 'You know what this is about.' I tried to give her my rationalizations, and there was no excuse."

"My reaction? I was angry!" says an exasperated Terri Ayres, 55. "I guess I didn't want to think he would do a thing like that, to be actually squandering hard-earned money."

"The thing is," says Robert Ayres, "I tried to cancel those memberships, but you have to remember all the sites you went to and all the passwords and user names you used. I thought that I'd canceled most of them, but some got by me. And at least one of them I tried to cancel and their cancellation page was down."

"It's a shame it is so easy for anyone to get on these sites," says Terri Ayres.

It was about that time that his mother suggested he might want to leave the nest. Ayres now shares a Midtown apartment with a fellow college student. On summer vacation from UM-St. Louis, he has a part-time job with a catering company. He stays up late and sleeps in the morning. "I lead a quiet life," he says. "I don't go out to bars much. I'd rather stay in and read." One of his favorite books is Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, and he aspires to be a fire lookout in the style of the Zen-like protagonist in the novel. All that, however, is in the tentative future. Meanwhile, he still has his laptop computer with online access, but these days he says he's using the Net mainly for nonprurient academic pursuits. "I haven't been on porn sites for a month," he says.

Well, the myriad adult sites on the Internet will just have to operate without him. And operate they will, proffering cyberporn for any with the price of admission -- a credit card. Coincidentally, even as Ayres was telling his story over beers at the Laclede Street Bar & Grill during the first week of May, a group of psychologists and other professionals in the field of human sexuality were convening in Atlanta for a weeklong conference hosted by the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. Their dire summation on Internet pornography in all its mutations -- interactive sex chat rooms, fetish sites and more -- made headlines across the country: Online sex addiction is a growing epidemic that is breaking up real-life relationships. And although we may have had an inkling of that happening, Al Cooper, clinical director of a sexuality clinic in San Jose, Calif., stressed the gravity of the problem. Cybersex, he said at a seminar, is changing the definition of sexual compulsion "like crack cocaine changed the field of substance abuse."

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