What Fred Willard and the Tiki Can Teach Us About the Benefits of Internet Porn

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July 27 2012 4:14 PM

What Fred Willard and the Tiki Can Teach Us About the Benefits of Internet Porn

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Fred Willard, recently arrested for a "lewd act"

Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Last week, 78-year-old actor Fred Willard was arrested for performing a “lewd act” inside the Tiki Xymposium, a 24-hour porn theater in Hollywood.* Every time I’ve passed the Tiki—my commute used to lead me straight past it—I had two questions. How do you clean a masturbation den that never closes? And why would you still pay $13 to watch the same porn you can fire up on the laptop at home? When my friend Cord Jefferson headed to the Tiki on assignment for Gawker, I tagged along to find out.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

The answer to my first question is: The theater’s manager periodically stalks the cinema’s darkened aisle, spritzing a can of disinfectant into the air. The second question is a little more complicated.

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Before I actually entered the Tiki, I had my theories about the public porn theater’s appeal. Maybe its patrons get off on an environment that’s designed to stoke feelings of shame and—thorough spritzing notwithstanding—filth. Or maybe they're aroused by the homoeroticism of sneaking a peek at other men masturbating. Then I slipped $13 under a glass window and slid into one of the Tiki’s 40 pleather seats. The theater was pitch black and silent. I heard no talking or grunting, witnessed no eye contact or “lewd acts.” The four men (curious journalists not included) who had assembled to watch the afternoon’s triple bill—“Cruel D.P.s,” “Big Tits at Work Vol. 16,” and “Anal Warfare”—heeded the theater’s central rule, posted outside the door: “do not open zipper and pant.” One of the men appeared to be asleep. I didn’t really get what these guys were doing here. Then I took in the show.

I have viewed standard smut like this—a man with bicep tattoos angles a woman over a desk, muttering misogynistic commentary—hundreds of times before (hey, sometimes for work!). But there in the darkened theater, the porn seemed somehow more … pornographic. When you watch porn in the privacy of your own home, you’re doing it within the context of your big, complicated life—you're viewing it in a home you share with your boyfriend, or at a computer your kids use for homework, or in a bed your best friend crashed in when she got too drunk to drive home. Human things happen there. What’s more, watching porn on the Internet invites a dialogue—you search for what you want, turn it on or off, rewind or fast forward. You might even turn your favorite parts into a GIF and share it with other fans, or send your friend a Gchat complaining about those bicep tats. Maybe you actually talk out loud to the screen, or just think about what's unfolding and whether it turns you on or makes you feel bad or bores you. You participate. And then, especially if you’re female, you talk about it.

But at the Tiki, you leave your life behind, turn off your brain, and watch whatever the screen offers in the four-hour window your $13 buys you. These men weren’t there to engage with other members of the voyeur community, or to revel in the theater’s specialized environment. They were there to shut out the rest of the world. They don't go because the theater's context appeals to them—they go because it allows them to watch porn with even less human context.

Over the past decade, many hands have been wrung over how the ubiquity of Internet porn is working to degrade our relationship to sex. But there is an upshot to the accessibility of laptop pornography. While the Tiki’s patrons sit silently in a darkened theater, accepting whatever product the porn industry dishes out, the Internet at least opens the door to forming an open dialogue about this industry. And while the Tiki’s world is dominated by men—one of the men appeared extremely confused and aroused when he saw me take a seat—online, women are free to occupy these sexual spaces to talk about what porn is offering them, and what they really want. (Type “James Deen” into porn-friendly Tumblr, and you’ll find more women chatting about the porn star than you will evidence of his work.) The resulting dialogue can often be rich and contextualized and challenging and analytical and even fun. And we can keep hoping that maybe one day if we get loud enough, the porn will get better, too.

Clarification: Willard's age has been variously reported as 72 or 78, though several official records indicate the older as being the more credible.

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