Ten months on, it’s no surprise that there isn’t an aspect of life that the COVID-19 pandemic has altered, including how people are choosing to get off. For many in the gay community that’s meant a lot less hooking up and a lot more jerking off, usually with assistance from online content. Despite its recent contretemps, video sites like PornHub dominate the conversation about digital erotica, but it’s not the only platform providing succor for the terminally horny. Long before the rise of the tube sites and the reign of streaming video, the desperately dick-starved turned to Nifty.org.
For the uninitiated, Nifty is an archive of user-submitted erotic stories that run the gamut from tame romance to hardcore bondage, neatly filed into a range of categories including the general (athletics, encounters) to the highly specific (urination, incest). Nifty is a no-holds-barred repository of user-generated smut that can be both inspired and insane. It’s also one of the longest continuously operating sites on the internet. While Nifty officially places its establishment all the way back to 1992, a lengthy scroll into the archives finds stories dating back to 1989. (For what it’s worth, Fraternity Hell Week by Bondage Lover holds up)
Perhaps more significant than the site’s age is its impact. Nifty is something of a stealth gay content colossus. The web analytics site SimilarWeb estimates Nifty has seen about 7.4 million visitors in the last six months. For context, Out.com, the digital outpost of iconic queer publication Out Magazine, reached only 1.9 million hits over the same period, Out’s Gen Z- focused spiritual successor, Them.us, saw just 687,000. It’s not an apples-t0-apples comparison, but in the battle for gay mindshare, Nifty more than holds its own against mainstream media. As one inspired tweet recently summarized, “If you didn’t read nifty.org growing up are you even gay?”
Despite its rite of passage status, Nifty is rarely talked about in the same tones as other gay platforms famous and infamous. Much of that is down to the site’s operator. Nifty is funded entirely by reader donations and operated entirely by a single, somewhat secretive proprietor. By his own account, this self-styled archivist (who declined to be named for this article) has operated the site more or less single-handedly since the mid-90s, a job that involves everything from maintaining the site’s somewhat lo-fi aesthetic and fending off cyber threats (he describes Nifty as “a high profile threat target” but declined to elaborate) to formatting and filing dozens of daily submissions across the site’s nearly 80 verticals and sub-categories.
It’s a labor of love for the site’s maintainer, who inherited the role from a founder who was uninterested in maintaining the fast-growing archive, but not in the way you might expect.
“I do not personally enjoy most of the content on the site,” the archivist told me in an interview conducted via email, “but I defend the right of people to say and write and think it.” Though he did express a fondness for some of the more vanilla romantic fare that makes up a distinct minority of the site’s content, for the man who currently maintains one of the Internet’s largest repositories of smut, the mission has more to do with freedom of speech than the freedom to self-pleasure.
However, just because he sees his work on the archive as part of a higher calling, that doesn’t mean he’s blind to Nifty’s place in the queer digital landscape.
“It is very humbling,” he told me when I mentioned that that site was seen by many as a rite of passage for growing up gay. “I hope that Nifty has helped people to not feel so alone or different or isolated…I am glad that Nifty continues to serve a unique role in the community. I am glad that many people in the LGBT community appreciate Nifty, even if some consider it a guilty pleasure.”
“A guilty pleasure” is a good way to describe the site, which features something for every prurient taste. But even in today’s sex-positive culture, there are aspects of Nifty that give some fans pause. There are few restrictions on the kind of content writers can submit to the archive, and some critics have questioned taboo topics like Incest, long popular in some corners of the gay porn world, and sections like “Young Friends” and “Adult/Youth” that feature stories about sex with and between the underaged.
For the archivist, this criticism is taken in stride.
“Nifty has advocates and Nifty has detractors. One of the most interesting things that I have learned from Nifty is the wide variety of tastes and preferences of readers. I frequently receive messages from readers that Nifty is great except for one particular type of story that I should remove. And each request for the type of story to remove is different. I wish that people would accept that other people have different preferences and move on. There are plenty of other stories on Nifty. If one is not to the taste of a particular reader, close it and read a different one.
Unsurprisingly, the ongoing pandemic has brought a lot of new eyes and new stories to the platform. Not only has the site seen an uptick in readers and submissions since lockdowns started around the world, but according to the archivist, the COVID regulations themselves have been the catalyst for plenty of new stories about hookups under lockdown. For him, that’s par for the course. The COVID era will be one of many epochs in queer life reflected in the long scroll of Nifty.org.
“The evolution of stories,” he says, “reflects the changes in LGBT culture. Nifty represents an interesting history of writing styles, personal experiences, and relationship styles in the LGBT community.”