My VCR taught me about sex

Sex. The word alone still makes me giggle. But that's more to do with my status as a self-described man-child, and a proud one at that, than any real sexual immaturity. Blame my parents. They never sat me down for a serious talk about the proverbial "birds and the bees." Neither did my older brother and sister, the supposed torchbearers of all pre-teen sex how-tos. So I got my education elsewhere; from a keen bit of advanced (for the time) videocassette-recording technology called the VCR and premium cable. Timeshifting made me a man.

It was the early '90s. A Wednesday; I remember as much because hump day always meant a half day of school and a few hours free of parental supervision. The television was a Mitsubishi model: 30 imposing inches housed within kitschy wood paneling. In the uncommon quiet of my TV room that afternoon, you could hear the hum of the JVC-brand VCR as it turned the wheels of a home-recorded VHS tape inside. Onscreen, a badly dubbed, low-quality copy of a French film called College Dormitory was playing, requiring occasional adjustments to the tracking. And, in front, four pre-teen boys sat awkwardly gawking at the screen in rapt silence. This was a porno-viewing party I'd arranged for some neighborhood friends. This was my self-taught introduction to sex.

This was a porno-viewing party I'd arranged for some neighborhood friends. This was my self-taught introduction to sex.

At 10 years old, I was already too smart for my parents. I had the cable remote's Favorites button programmed to skip through an innocuous trail of blasé basic channels should the siren sound of my parents' approaching heavy footsteps impede on my illicit TV watching. Which, let's be clear, wasn't even anything that risqué to get upset about. It was mostly R-rated movies, like Coming to America, that played on HBO before my bedtime. I never actually got to stay up late enough for HBO and its sister channel in soft-core programming, Cinemax (now lovingly referred to as Skinemax), to let down the curtains and go full-tilt on the bare boobies-laden B-movies. And, yet, I saw more simulated sex (and bad acting) by the age of 11 than most other boys on the cusp of double-digit preadolescence.

Three things made this possible: the timer on the VCR, a roll of black electrical tape and a heady dose of precociousness. See, back then, HBO would issue a monthly paper guide to its programming schedule replete with an index in the back for all the movies. Each month, I'd set time aside to research what movies were rated for nudity and when they'd air. Then came the scheming. I'd cook up outlandish excuses and distractions for my parents so I could stay up late enough to watch TV. But no matter how brilliant my diversions, I always failed at this. My parents may not have been up and up on the nuances of new home electronics, but they did make it a point to have the house quiet by 9PM each night.

And then I discovered the ability to set timed recordings on the VCR. This knowledge, nay, this epiphany came to me by accident. I'd only been messing around with the various buttons and menu settings on the VCR remote when I chanced upon it. That was all it took to send my juvenile brain into mischief mode. I knew I could record things -- naughty things -- that aired while I was asleep, but there remained a pesky flaw in my plan: the telltale, glowing-red VCR recording light of doom.

As luck would have it, our VCR was jet black and in the darkness of the TV room at night, that box became little more than a shadow obscured by the brightness of the tube below. Except for when it was recording. Then, and only then, did you notice the VCR screaming out from its perch atop the TV set. I needed a way to silence that red alert. So I suffocated it with an expertly cut swatch of black tape. Problem solved.

In this era of streaming video and high-speed downloads, porn's just a simple Google or Tumblr search away...

The only obstacles left in the way of my premium-cable sex education were my parents' sleeping habits. My mother wasn't an issue. She barely ever watched TV and struggled to power on both the TV and cable box. My dad was the one to worry about. His schedule was unpredictable. Sometimes, he'd stay up late watching sports or Steven Seagal movies, leaving me no time to sneak into the TV room, set the timer and channel and affix the black tape. Other nights, he'd go to bed right when we did. But he was reliable in one very crucial way: When he went down for the count, he didn't wake up until morning. That's when I'd make my move. That's how I amassed a VHS library of Skinemax's greatest hits.

College Dormitory. Blown Away. Takin' It All Off. Emmanuelle (and all the sequels). Real Sex. Before I'd even hit puberty, I'd become a connoisseur of soft-core erotica; the go-to for any friend that needed a quick VHS porn fix, and probably the youngest boy to ever see Shannon Tweed's entire B-movie oeuvre. My tastes and preferences have mercifully evolved since then.

It's easy to forget where we come from; to ignore the way technology has shaped us when you're growing with it in tandem. In this era of streaming video and high-speed downloads, porn's just a simple Google or Tumblr search away... on a phone. Someday, someone's going to reminisce about Snapchat -- maybe even in a thousand-word piece for Engadget. But this is my moment to remember the way things were and salute a bygone era of crude VCR timeshifting and shitty Skinemax soft porn.

[Image credit: Getty]