New Yorkers Resist Sex Schemes of Horny Downtown Webmeisters

It’s not so easy being a pornographer. Elements of pornography have long been legit in the art scene, and it’s practically a compulsory course of study in graduate schools. And porn is, of course, a standout business model for the Internet. But the hard part about being a pornographer is the human factor. That’s what gets you. As much as most people may want to view themselves as swinging and unrepressed these days, few people are comfortable with acting in accordance with the sexual mores one might think would be in place for 2000.

To wit: Two recent Internet ventures that require the cooperation of sexual civilians to perform in an uninhibited fashion for cameras have been something of a bust. These were Internet pornographer Andy Fair’s Apartment21.com Web site, which is meant to give Web surfers a glimpse of gay male sexual shenanigans in a Chelsea apartment; and downtown Web entrepreneur Josh Harris’ no-holds-barred celebration of the new century’s arrival.

Mr. Harris, the founder of Pseudo Programs Inc.’s Web TV venture, installed the beds, showers and toilets in the open and invited some of his friends to come on over in a building on lower Broadway as part of his monthlong millennial celebration he has dubbed “Quiet.”

“You have 150 people living together, showering together, shitting together. There’s no reason why they can’t have sex together,” Mr. Harris said.

And just to make sure that the visitors to his event happened upon something scandalous, one night he paid three couples $250 per person to have sex in a curtained-off back room called Luvvy’s Lounge for an audience while he got it on camera. But guess what: Despite their best efforts, none of the guys were able to perform before the assembled spectators and video cameras; too much pressure, it seemed. And the guy who was supposed to fellate himself never even showed.

Mr. Harris stood there and pointed to the couples. He seemed not so disappointed with the lack of visible sexual energy. “It’s all about the theme of the thing. It’s all about finding the universal orgasm,” he said.

David Leslie, a performance artist who can count Mr. Harris as a patron, said, “I don’t think it was a great success because there were no hard cocks. But that wasn’t important because what was important was the concept.” Which belonged to Mr. Harris.

In the other recent Web porn venture involving sexual amateurs, Andy Fair had his problems, too. Lots of people tried out for Mr. Fair’s Apartment21.com site, but then, when offered the opportunity to actually have sex in public via the Internet, they kept backing out. Most people simply don’t possess that sexual sang-froid that makes for a porn star. Mr. Fair was angry at the men who had quit on him in the weeks before he was set to go live on the Web.

“He said he feels uncomfortable having his picture taken while he is having sex,” said Mr. Fair, referring to one recent dropout. “Which just caused me to roll my eyes. When push comes to shove, you separate the weak from the strong.”

First, Mr. Fair interviewed 50 fellows willing to live rent-free in the Chelsea apartment so long as they agreed to live their lives-in the kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom, all of it-for the camera. Then, he invited eight men over to the wired apartment, which, when up and running, will be equipped with seven Webcams; the ones in the bedrooms go infrared black and white when the lights are out. Voyeurs pay $14.95 a month to log on to see it all.

The eight auditioners showed up: Nate, Lee, James, Daniel, Amir, Kevin, Jesse and Phil. All are in their early 20’s but Amir, an 18-year-old who said he lives with his parents and worked at the Gap.

Mr. Fair, who’s 33 and from Westchester County, introduced himself: “Hi. My name’s Andy. I’m very glad you all came.” He thanked them for “getting it” and asked them to introduce themselves.

“Hi, everyone, I’m Amir. I applied to this because I guess I want to have fun. I like the whole idea of cameras.”

“I’m Nate. I’m pretty shy, but when I have sex I’m an exhibitionist.”

James said, “I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m here because it’s free! A New York City-Chelsea-free apartment!”

“I broke up with my boyfriend, and I need an apartment! I don’t make much money,” said Phil. “Also, I’ve done it on camera before.”

And so forth.

An hour later, the guys were still chatting away. Rain drummed on a skylight and Mr. Fair was getting impatient: “They don’t actually have to have sex. But it would help!” he said, watching the action, or lack thereof, on a computer screen. “It sure is boring when they’re not having sex.”

An hour later, after some prodding, the men are on the couch.

“Let’s see, we have Daniel groping Kevin,” Mr. Fair said. “We have Phil looking a little confused. And everyone else trying to figure out what to do.”

A half-hour later, Mr. Fair was hopeful. “I think we’re getting some bulge here!” he said. “We’re seeing some hand-holding.”

He ordered the the bartender out of the room to give the talent some privacy. Shortly, everybody was topless and some guys were piling on the bed.

“It’s still looking a bit like a frat-house photo,” complained Mr. Fair.

Lee took his pants off, and Mr. Fair’s computer seized up. By the time it was working again, Lee had put his pants back on.

“I don’t blame him. No one else is following his lead,” Mr. Fair said. “I think they need another round of drinks.”

More trousers dropped, but the mood kept getting broken by one-liners. Suddenly, Kevin got up, put his shirt on and announced he was going home.

“Tonight’s been, well, weird,” said Kevin, a 24-year old graduate student who moved here from Toronto last year. The orgy was continuing in the next room without him. “There was this long period of negotiation where we were trying to figure out what they wanted us to do. It would have been better if they’d been more open. There was a feeling of competition, too. A feeling that if we didn’t have sex, we wouldn’t get the apartment.”

He said he wanted to be a part of this because of the free rent. “I’m going to have to live in New Jersey,” he said. “I don’t want to live like that for six months.”

He said he didn’t have a problem having sex live on the Internet: He’d been paid to do so for a site called Chiselmag in Canada, he said. “It’s not due to inhibition,” he said. “It’s this strange tension.”

The orgy went on, with some of the men reaching satisfaction. It ended by midnight.

“My personal fantasy is that I have an entire apartment building full of Webcams,” Mr. Fair said.

Then he talked with Kevin, Phil and Daniel, who were unhappy with their experience. After that little talk, Mr. Fair mocked them: “I should get the apartment even if I don’t want to have sex with everyone in the room.” Then he switched back to his own voice: “What do you think this is about? It’s about pornography!”

The next day, in a phone interview, Mr. Fair sounded O.K. “As things transpired with the three dissidents, it was very productive for me,” he said. “In terms of assessing personalities. In terms of making really hot Web porn, last night wasn’t a success.”

Mr. Fair eventually settled on the three people he wanted for the Web site. But two of them dropped out. He added one more guy to the team-but this one quit, too. Things are still up in the air, but he said he’s confident he’ll find the right guys.

So maybe sexual entertainment should be left to the professionals, after all. At Josh Harris’ “Quiet” party at 3 A.M. on Dec. 30, a few hours after New York magazine editor Caroline Miller toured the place, a couple was living up to the big slogan installed in electrical lettering: “We Live in Public.” Their names were Jordan and Christina, and they were making out for the roving cameras in Luvvy’s Lounge while a crowd gathered.

Some of the voyeurs helped the couple to undress a bit, untying his shoes and trying to get Christina to take her shirt off. But she refused.

Twenty minutes later, the crowd drifted off. The camera disappeared, too.

The couple sat up and the guy put his shirt back on. Christina, 30, a graduate student at Hunter College, said: “It felt very comfortable and intimate at first, but the camera crossed the line.”

They curled up together and listened to the music, private citizens once again.