Technology increases chances to see porn in public

NOWHERE TO HIDE: The culprits could be anywhere -- a crowded train, an SUV on the Beltway.
NOWHERE TO HIDE: The culprits could be anywhere -- a crowded train, an SUV on the Beltway. (Michael Williamson/the Washington Post)
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quick poll. Watching porn while on public transportation is:

A. Acceptable.

B. Not acceptable.

On a recent cross-country trip from Los Angeles, Jana Matthews thought she'd lucked out when her friendly seatmate cued up a cartoon on his laptop. Her four children were enthralled; she hoped listening in might keep them occupied. Then the cartoon characters started doing things that cartoon characters should not be doing. Naked things. Naked, noisy things, unfettered by the restraints of human anatomy because the participants were, after all, hand-drawn.

After unsuccessfully trying to divert her kids' attention, Matthews asked the guy whether he would mind watching something else. After a little grumbling, he put on some headphones and turned the screen away. But he was still watching. She knew he was still watching.

Porn vibes. In public. Flooding the recycled air of the plane.

The thing that skeeved out Matthews, an English professor, is that she'd had such a pleasant conversation with Porn Man before the plane took off. They'd talked about his Ivy League classes, about the math conference he'd just attended. "I had a significant amount of information about him," Matthews says. They'd developed a little travel-size friendship. Then came the porn. And she was trapped.

It's practically a human rite of passage to have a roommate -- a slobby college one -- who loves Jenna Jameson. This, we know how to deal with. ("Dude, turn it off. My lab group's coming over.")

But the increasing popularity of laptops and handheld devices, and the prevalence of wireless Internet access, means there's a greater chance of becoming a bystander to a complete stranger's viewing proclivities. Like being exposed to the cigarette smoke of a nicotine addict on the street, people are inhaling secondhand smut.

"To each his own is my policy," says Debbie Shatz, a consultant who lives in Northern Virginia. That's why, with rare exception, she's remained unfazed every time she's encountered porn on planes, choosing to quietly avert her eyes and ignore it, unless ignoring it becomes impossible.

Something in the air

Naturally, flight attendants, the front line of defense for any in-flight high jinks, have experience with this issue.

"We don't walk through the cabin and give passengers a thumbs up and thumbs down" on what they're watching, says Steve Schembs, a Washington-based flight attendant and local union officer. But when he notices that something is disturbing other passengers, he intervenes. "I've had 100 percent compliance," Schembs says. "I have never had anyone say, 'I refuse to stop. I must watch this dirty movie.' "

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