forrestporn

The Pre-Internet Phenomenon of Boys Hiding Their Porn in the Woods

The long life and slow death of woods porn

I grew up in a New Jersey suburb called Basking Ridge, so named, we were told in elementary school, by the British Presbyterians who bought — cough — the land from the Lenape Indians in the early 18th century, after the wild woodlands animals who would bask in the sun on the ridge. It’s Tri-State Mayberry, famous for an old tree and AT&T and its adjacency to our president’s country club. A 1995 New York Times article refers to it as “a rich hamlet,” where the lady who owns the only deli in town knows how everyone takes their coffee, and as the locale a woman chose to raise her family because a waiter was nice to her once.

Perhaps this woman would have saved $500,000 if she’d taken just one peek into those same idyllic woods from whence the basking creatures came. Namely, she could have taken a leaf blower and uncovered an entire bodega’s worth of rain-battered Penthouses and Hustlers from that very same year.

Behind our house was a pair of New Jersey Transit train tracks, surrounded on one side by a dense mass of trees and thick brush. My friend Rob lived across the street, and we were bad kids when I was 12 and he was 13, at least for our town, and we used the woods for cover. We’d walk the train tracks like the kids from Stand by Me, sipping warm bottles of Guinness pilfered from his parents’ garage fridge. We’d smoke Newports crouched behind a particularly large pine tree, stubbing out our smokes on its trunk when we’d see our parents’ cars pulling up. But mostly, we looked at tits every day, between marathon Mortal Kombat sessions, on the pages of warped porno mags we had stashed under rocks and inside holes in trees.

We never jacked off while looking at it, but there would always be that time when we’d look at each other, nod silently, and retreat back to our respective houses, breaking into a full sprint when the other was out of sight (or at least I did).

For years afterward, I thought our experience was unique. We were smart; we had access to pornography (mostly pilfered from the Brentano’s at the Bridgewater Mall), but we didn’t want to keep the radioactive material in our houses, so we improvised, without any influence from other kids. As I later learned, everyone — woods nearby or not — did this. It turns out that the woman who spent half a million on a mid-century colonial in Basking Ridge would have run into this situation anywhere in America.

Woods porn is ubiquitous. The concealment of spank mags isn’t limited to the Northeast, straight men, or as I came to learn over the course of my reporting, the U.S. For men of a certain age, generally those who grew up before modems were fast enough to show pubescent kids the pornography that they so craved, hiding porn mags in the woods shaped their early sexuality. Woods porn was a pre-internet, worldwide practice, like singing “The Diarrhea Song” and believing that Marilyn Manson removed a rib so he could suck his own dick. It was a magical outlet for horny teens with crustaches and body odor around the world before DVDs and Pornhub made paper porno irrelevant. What we thought was ingenious had been practiced for decades, by nerds and jocks and burnouts and whatever Rob and I were, and now it’s gone.

But should we lament its death? Or is having a full buffet of internet pornography at your fingertips a better way to embrace a young man’s blossoming sexuality?

* * * * *

I first reckoned with the notion of woods porn as a widespread normality beginning in 2008, when I was hired as the associate editor of High Society, the pornographic magazine first edited by adult film star Gloria Leonard. By the time I got there, though, print porn was on its deathbed. Long gone were the days of cushy expense accounts and hotel parties, and about 18 months later, so were all of us editors who worked in the drab Second Avenue office, for magazines like Playgirl and Cheri and (barf) Finally Legal.

I would think to myself, Who is reading these magazines that I write and edit? The answer, though, should have been readily apparent: People without broadband internet and three-pubed teens who have heard of masturbating but are too scared to try yet.

Eventually, DVDs, and the internet, really, rendered us useless and unemployed, though the downward turn for printed pornography was signaled almost a decade earlier. Once access to the newer (and, frankly, better) mediums to jack off to became more widespread, I feared for the 12-year-old kid who would never find horny-making material in the woods.

Over the next few years I started making scattered notes, usually during drunken conversations when someone would find out I used to write “girl copy,” an industry term for the intro copy and captions in porn magazines. Now, a full decade out, I went back to some sources I’d culled and got into it. Every single one had a woods porn story.

“We figured out the woods porn supply chain in my hood,” says 37-year-old Perry Lee, “due to some careful recon.” (Full disclosure: Lee is a close friend of mine, but I have never and will not now protect his reputation.) Lee grew up in Byram Township, New Jersey, a small Sussex County enclave about a third of the size of Basking Ridge and 30 miles from the New York border. “There was this dude named Jesse [not his real name], the local burnout guy. Jesse was a maniac, a latchkey kid and the local criminal element,” Lee says. “We were skateboarding in a parking lot, and Jesse walked up and was like, ‘I found a bunch porno mags.’ We go behind the back of QuickChek, and there’s a huge dumpster filled with porno.”

It turns out, every few weeks, the QuickChek employees would cut the covers off the unsold jack mags and toss them into the dumpster in a black trash bag. Jesse was jumping into the dumpsters and hunting for porn, depositing some of it near the BMX tracks they’d built in the woods. “That blew the doors off and we had porn on tap all the time — we had stupendous stockpiles of porno,” Lee says. “Now that we had the skeleton key, we’d check dumpster every couple weeks. Sometimes they’d dump three months worth at a time.”

Similarly, I spoke to two friends from Texas, each from a different major city, and both of whom found their woods porn in concrete tubes. “When I was 10, my cousin Johnny led me through this long drainage pipe, and we ended up at one of those little horizontal street drains,” says Jason Saldana, 39, who grew up in San Antonio. “There was so much porn in there.” Stuart, 40, grew up in the Houston area, and asked me not to use his last name. “My friend hid porn mags in a drainage pipe near the Bagel World,” he says. “We rode bikes up there, and he showed me.”

Generally speaking, the woods porn stayed in the woods, partially because prepubescent kids are scared of getting caught with pictures of naked women, but I like to think there was also an unspoken code involved: You left the goods there for the next horny teen. Maybe you’d grab a few pages or a rain-stained, coverless magazine to stash under your bed, but the balance of the stash remained under the stars, like the world’s filthiest (literally, not figuratively) library.

“I’m a pervert, not a crook,” Saldana says, when I ask him if he filched anything from the pipe.

Lee says most of his stayed where he found it as well. In fact, he and his friends decided to protect their carnal investment, dragging a tarp out to the BMX trails to throw over the contraband to make sure the pages would turn if it were to rain or snow.

“You would hang out with friends, look at it intermittently, mentally etch a set of tits or a bare ass into your memory and beat off when no one was looking,” he explains.

I also spoke with men from California, Western Pennsylvania and Arkansas, who all had pulled porn magazines from beneath wet leaves. “My friend had a Playboy down by a river park in my hometown,” one tells me. But what I could never have imagined is that the phenomenon is worldwide, like Pitbull. Or, at least, it existed on a second continent.

Sam O’Sullivan, 28, grew up in Canterbury, Kent, England, which means that there was, at one point in time, woods porn in Chaucer’s town. “The area I lived in was pretty working class, and there wasn’t exactly much to do ‘round there apart from fuck about and explore and stuff,” he says. “So these woods would be the place to go into and find shit; there used to be a lot of burnt-out cars and scooters. You’d climb up this huge dirt mount and there’d be a path, and every few weeks a porn mag would appear and everyone would lose their mind.”

For O’Sullivan, it wasn’t his first introduction to pornography, but it was his first major foray into the genre, which were mostly U.K.-based publications, including, he says, “stuff like Granny Shaggers and Over 40s Slags. During our interview, he referred to printed pornography as “jazz mags,” which he promises is a British saying, and that woods porn wasn’t just a Kent thing. “I honestly think anyone who grew up in a small town in the U.K. has a porn mag discovery story,” he says, “and it’s almost always in the woods.”

* * * * *

Woods porn was a singular moment in time, omnipresent for a generation (or more) of young men who didn’t grow up with the internet. But was having this outlet, this secret library beneficial to their sexual growth?

And what about for gay men, who didn’t particularly care to find an issue of Juggs hidden beneath a mossy rock (though sometimes did)? Wouldn’t they have prefered the broad scope of the internet?

Chris Trout, 36, is the former editor-in-chief of Engadget and the writer of a column about the confluence of sex and technology called Computer Love. He grew up all over the American Southwest, beginning in El Paso, Texas, and says that gay men had their woods porn stashes too, though, without actual foliage, they’d hide contraband in the desert. They just had to be a bit more clandestine about it.

In his 20s, Trout worked for the Athletic Model Guild, started in 1945 by photographer Bob Mizer as a venue for showcasing the male physique at a time when nude male photos were illegal. “It was the de-facto gay porn of the time,” he says. “Tom of Finland and the male nude photo came from there. Customers, just like customers of Penthouse or Playboy, would do the same thing. You had to stash stuff where your parents or wife wouldn’t find it. It was true of everyone at the time.”

Still, most of the printed porn he and his friends would come across in middle school were Penthouse magazines, which didn’t do much for him. Luckily for him, he grew up in a tech-savvy household, right on the cusp of when the internet made its way into people’s homes. He says he’s grateful to have been able to print out porn at home, stash it and revisit it whenever he so desired.

“For me as closeted gay man living in the Southwest, the son of a preacher, there wasn’t a lot of representations of me in the media,” Trout says. “Being able to go on the internet and find representations of myself, in gay porn or on forums, was how I got to understand my sexuality. It was a safe space for me to explore it and get to understand that people out there had the same desires as I did. You don’t get that in a stack of paper magazines hidden in the woods.”

For Trout, having a family that was an early adopter of the internet was a boon to his burgeoning sexuality. My straight sources felt quite the opposite.

Christian Long, 40, remembers specifically a certain issue of Club magazine he’d browse through in Tamaques Park in Westfield, New Jersey. He says he’s thankful that he had the limited option of scattered pages in the grass featuring some rather vanilla sex rather than the smorgasboard of extremely specific search categories like “Korean BJ” and, depressingly, “Rick and Morty,” that anyone with internet access can feast upon these days. “Those first dribs and drabs of it were so tantalizing and special,” he says. “The extreme limitations of it heightened its effects for sure. Kids’ sex drives might be all messed up from the overexposure.”

Lee adds, “You were limited by what you could acquire, and that’s a narrow band of sexual stimulation. We didn’t have anything outlandish that would conceivably lead a kid astray: no hardcore bondage, no video, not seeing Rocco Siffredi fucking someone until they threw up. I don’t know if was beneficial, but the order of magnitude of risk involved when kids have access to what’s on the internet … it’s a rabbit hole. It’s easy to consume a lot of shit in six minutes when your parents aren’t looking.”

He admits, though, that children just happening upon porn without any social context is a double-edged sword on the balance. “You still end up with some pretty fucked-up misconceptions about women,” he says, of porn magazines, but “it’s less risky than giving kids the internet and having them not understanding what they’re searching for.”

For his part, O’Sullivan, the Brit who found woods porn behind the Wife of Bath’s house, probably, had a more wistful take on these bygone days. “Weirdly, it was quite a lovely thing to remember back on,” he says, of hidden stacks of jazz mags he’d come across, back when every boner was special and new. “Simpler times.”