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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."
"It is an apt comparison in that (with cybersex) people crash and burn quicker now," agrees Dr. Helen Friedman, a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in sexual trauma and sexual compulsivity. The difference between accessing titillating images before and after the advent of the Internet, says Friedman, who attended the Atlanta conference, is "like night and day." She cites the twin lures of anonymity and convenience. "Think about it: No more having to risk being seen at the adult bookstore. No more buying magazines, and some of them are expensive. And whereas before someone might have thought twice about leaving the house at odd hours to go to a bookstore, now they can get what they want in the comfort of their own home. The problem is that, because people have it all the time, they get hooked quicker. It escalates the whole progression of compulsive behavior."
Friedman is quick to add that the computer, with its myriad doorways to prurience, does not cause sexual addiction. "Even all these sites will not create a sex addict. A person has to be already predisposed -- this is their way to anesthetize pain. And so for the person who already is sexually compulsive, it becomes a terrible problem. It promotes isolation. I've known people who can't get their work done because of it, or people whose spouses aren't available in the bedroom because they're up half the night online."
Friedman brought back some statistics from the Atlanta conference. There are an estimated 72,000 commercial porn sites, and 40 new ones emerge each day. An estimated 15 percent of Internet users have visited online sex chat rooms or porn sites. According to one study, nearly 9 percent of people who use the Internet for sex spend more than 11 hours a week surfing for erotic sites. Moreover, and of great interest to employers, 70 percent of all e-porn traffic occurs during the 9-to-5 workday. Finally, e-porn is a $1 billion-plus industry and the biggest moneymaker on the Internet.
This last information should come as no big surprise. The Internet -- already an addictive instrument to begin with -- is, for some, made virtually irresistible when porn is stirred into the mix. David Delmonico, an assistant professor of counseling at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University, sees the attraction as a triad of inter-related desires: "I see sex addiction being one part of it, cybersex addiction being another part and Internet addiction being a third part. I don't think they're necessarily mutually exclusive, although they can be. This one can be a sex addict and be on the Internet, this one a cybersex addict and be on the Internet, and still another can get into this trancelike state of surfing and be addicted to the Internet itself. These three components can work together and be additive in nature, and when that happens, it really makes the problem much more complex."
Ayres contends he was never at any point hooked on Internet pornography: "No, no, not at all. I can go days or weeks without actually looking at it. It's not even something that I think about all that much. Just sitting around, absolutely bored, thinking about something to do, and like, 'Oh, I can do this for five or 10 minutes,' and then I'll have to go do something else."
Delmonico estimates there are literally millions of curious individuals surfing the Net for sexual content. Some, such as one pal of Ayres', a fellow porn browser who wishes to remain anonymous, even write poetry about the experience. The poem Ayres likes is called "Satyriasis," which, he says, denotes "an unhealthy obsession with pornography," though the dictionary defines it as "a morbid lasciviousness in males": "A world of sickness at your fingers/glowing on a screen/More and more we want and writhe/with squeamish minds diseased."
These lines seem at odds with Ayres' contention that pornography is a healthy outlet for sexual gratification. "It facilitates the orgasmic experience," he says, sounding like a Masters and Johnson protégé. Well, what of the clubs on the East Side -- don't they facilitate the orgasmic experience? "The Internet is more explicit and more private," he says. Explicit indeed -- everything's available, from a woman fellating a horse to a man evacuating his bowels and then smearing the feces on his face. "Use your imagination; it's on there," says Ayres.
The experience with the credit cards and the irate mom has caused him to turn introspective, Ayres says. "I've had a kind of catharsis lately, admitting my faults and weaknesses. This is just another example. Basically, this whole thing's my fault -- though I still say there is a lot of fraud, a lot of traps, on the Internet."
Ayres says he has reconciled with his mom. "We're fine. She's desensitized. She loves me unconditionally. She got those bills taken off her charge -- I don't know how -- all except the biggest one, the one for $159. I'll pay her back."
Meanwhile, Terri Ayres was without a phone over the Mother's Day weekend. Although the credit-card company let her off the hook for the porn-related charges, Ma Bell said nix to waiving the charges for the call to Vanuatu. "I know it wasn't a 900 number, because I had those blocked," she says. "I decided I wasn't going to pay that bill, and when I couldn't reach an agreement with the phone company, they disconnected my phone."
Once reality set in, she had a change of mind. "I went to a pay phone at Schnucks and started dialing Southwestern Bell 800 numbers until I got a live human. I gave them my credit-card number and said, 'Turn it back on.' But I'll tell you," she adds, "I'm not going to let this drop, because this is beyond out of bounds. It is too much."
Twelve thousand miles away, in the island country of Vanuatu, a shadowy figure lounges on a resort patio, gazing out on the azure Pacific, nursing his fourth mai tai -- all at Terri Ayres' expense.