The body politic

How do you get young Americans to vote? By promising sexual ecstasy in return. The lure of votergasm.org has led over 25,000 people to the ballot box
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The Independent US

As the election draws nearer, the four co-founders of a web-based, youth activist group gather in a flat in Manhattan for their weekly meeting. Chairs are pulled into a circle, iPods and mobiles are set aside. The attendants are well-groomed and academic-looking. Snacks are going around. The host, a 23-year-old publicity assistant named Julie Binder, sits barefoot on the floor, occasionally taking notes on a laptop.

As the election draws nearer, the four co-founders of a web-based, youth activist group gather in a flat in Manhattan for their weekly meeting. Chairs are pulled into a circle, iPods and mobiles are set aside. The attendants are well-groomed and academic-looking. Snacks are going around. The host, a 23-year-old publicity assistant named Julie Binder, sits barefoot on the floor, occasionally taking notes on a laptop.

The night's agenda is finding a venue and sponsors for the group's election-night party. They consider bars called APT, Piano and Happy Ending. The space would have to be large but cosy, hip but relaxed, and it would need a TV to watch the results. Also, said Peter Koechley, a 23-year-old graduate, it should be a place "where it's easy to have sex where no one notices". The others nod.

The party is to be the climax (if you will) of Votergasm.org, a nonpartisan activist group whose website encourages "young people everywhere to have sex with voters on election night, and to withhold sex from non-voters until the next presidential election".

The Votergasm site has racy, voting-themed photo spreads and a game in which players guess a voter's party affiliation based solely on the person's head-shot. The goal, says the Votergasm home page, is to "send 100,000 first-time 18 to 25-year-old voters to polls for the 2004 elections, and catalyse 250,000 orgasms by the morning of 3 November", the day after the vote.

A joke? Not really, insists the group's publicist Michelle Collins, 23, a chatty, ponytailed legal assistant. She says the group was founded on the belief that young Americans are failing their country in two important respects: not voting, and not having enough sex. "If there's anything that's really going to speak to America's youth, it's saying that voting is as important as sex - as fun, as American. Take part in both; you know, be a patriot, be patriotic."

The Votergasm plan seems to be working. Since launching on 4 September, the site has received more than 516,000 unique visitors. More than 25,000 people have pledged to vote and have sex on election day, and 1,000 have hit the voter registration link. Last month, Votergasm.org was targeted by the right-wing radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who called for listeners to shut it down by overwhelming the homepage with thousands of hits. (Hordes of Rush fans succeeded in doing so, but the site was soon up again.) "Me and Rush Limbaugh having a back and forth - I never thought I'd say those words," Collins laughs.

Getting younger voters to the polls is important in this year's neck-and-neck race. A Newsweek poll showed the youth vote to be largely up for grabs. MTV has been appealing to this demographic with its Choose or Lose 2004 campaign, and the mission of P Diddy's Citizen Change: Vote or Die organisation is to make voting "hot, sexy and relevant" to young Americans.

But Votergasm and others are taking "hot and sexy" to a whole new level. One group of young activists formed a company called Porn for Progress and released their first movie, Fahrenheit 69: The Porn for Kerry DVD. A hardcore skin flick that also strives for social commentary, Fahrenheit 69 is described by its creators as "the world's first pornlitical satire".

In a New York café, the producer and backer of Fahrenheit 69 - who goes by the name Dick Tater - explains how he and two college buddies thought of the project during a three-way phone call. "We were mulling things over: Bush sucks, we hope Kerry wins, and we haven't done anything interesting lately. And I've always loved porn."

The trio decided to start a "socially conscious" porn company and to donate all profits to pro-Kerry grass-roots groups. In weeks, they had worked out a budget, written scripts, bought costumes and hired actors. The film was shot in Florida over four days, with Tater, a 23-year-old graduate, fluttering behind the scenes, making sure the lines were right, and occasionally holding a boom mic. "The thing about us," Tater says, sounding very earnest, "is that we want to make a difference. We're trying to be the Ben & Jerry of porn, to make porn that has a message, and that's of much higher quality." Tater is under no illusions that Fahrenheit 69 will throw the election, but he feels confident that its satirical message will remind young viewers of Bush's indiscretions, and hopefully motivate them to vote. Maybe college kids "who see the character Jorge Bush lubing himself up with Iraqi oil will look at that and think, yeah, what a schmuck, we just went to war for oil," he says.

An even more hands-on effort is FTheVote.com, a site that encourages "sexy liberals" to seduce and have sex with conservatives in exchange for their partner's promise to vote against Bush. FTheVote.com (not to be confused with Fuck the Vote, which discourages voting altogether) features photos of volunteer liberal "models" who offer their bodies to would-be Bush voters. "All you need to be armed with are your sexy progressive values, a razor-sharp wit, your genitalia, and a mindset that doesn't mind taking one for the team," the site says.

FTheVote provides volunteers with a downloadable contract ("I, the undersigned, acknowledge that in exchange for physical affection... from the cosignee, I will cast my vote for any candidate other than George W Bush...). Since its 4 July launch, FTheVote has received more than 1.8 million unique visitors.

Like Votergasm.org and Porn for Progress, FTheVote is playful, but serious about political activism. Nathan Martin, a 27-year-old arts professor in Pittsburgh who launched FTheVote with friends at the media arts group Carbon Defense League, says he started it as a joke. But aside from hoping to "oust Bush", Martin says, the site was born of a frustration with American politics in general, including "the disappearance of any progressive values from the left's agenda". Perhaps the most startling thing is that many people seem to be taking FTheVote's challenge seriously; Martin has received about 100 signed contracts.

One such volunteer is Chad Vollrath, 28, an English teacher in Pittsburgh. Vollrath says he was already platonic friends with the Bush-leaning voter he slept with, but the two had long been attracted to one another. "It was a way, I guess, to transgress a boundary in our relationship," he says. But his interest wasn't only prurient; Vollrath is a fervent Kerry supporter, and wanted to score one more vote for his candidate. He feels confident that the woman - who now has another boyfriend - will keep her promise not to vote for Bush.

FTheVote and its ilk may be capturing the attention of college-age voters, but can reducing the presidential election to a big, flirty, subterranean orgy really be considered progress? Martin of FTheVote says yes: "How could we tarnish a system that's already so tarnished?" Votergasm's Michelle Collins says that combining sex with American politics is only natural to her generation. "You look at Clinton, you look at Governor McGreevy... sex does play a humungous role in politics," Collins says. "The only problem... is that it's a negative role."

Whether Votergasm, Porn for Progress and FTheVote will have any impact on the result is debatable. But these activists get points for being inventive, spirited and - in this year's highly antagonistic race - for not taking themselves too seriously. When asked what she hoped to achieve through Votergasm, Collins thinks for a few seconds and says: "I want to, like, speak to my generation." She stops and blushes. "Oh my God, if I turn into a human Pepsi-can, please, forgive me."

This article first appeared in Salon.com. An online version is in the www.salon.com/archives. Reprinted with permission

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