Sometime in the late 20th century a naked man bent over, spread his ass and took a picture. Eventually that picture, known as Goatse, became one of the most venerable memes in internet history. Who is this man, and how did his ass take over the internet?
The story of Goatse begins with a mustachioed, wiry man in his late forties who goes by the name "Kirk Johnson." Johnson is a prominent practitioner of extreme penetration, which is the extreme penetration community's term of art for sticking huge objects up your ass. For years, Johnson has been rumored to be the Goatse man, based on their similar frame, skills, and matching moles on both Goatse's and Johnson's ass.
Reader, I examined the moles. They match.
Everyone remembers their first Goatse (pronounced Goat-see). I'm not sure the exact circumstances of my first, but I do recall the weightless horror after clicking on the link as a greasy teenager, screwing around online between rounds of the first-person shooter Counter-Strike, that directed me to the now-defunct Goatse shock site: www.Goatse.cx.
This is what I saw at Goatse.cx: a picture of a skinny naked man with his back to the camera, bent over at a 45 degree angle. He's reaching back with both hands, four-fingers deep, stretching his asshole to the diameter of a cantaloupe. It's a flash photo taken very close and the man's gaping ass is lit a queasy red against a nondescript dark room, everything else dangling where it should be. The photo is cropped at the man's neck; the one tantalizing clue to his identity, besides his obvious talent, is what appears to be a gold wedding band on his left hand.
(Oh, just go see it for yourself, if you must, but be warned: It is as awful as its reputation claims. Don't open this at work. But if you sincerely feel your time has come, here's Goatse. I recommend exercising similar caution in following the links throughout this article.)
Your first Goatse hits you in waves, rocking between confusion and disgust as the physiological reality of the picture resolves gradually, magic-eye style. Jay Stile, the pseudonymous founder of the infamous shock site Stile Project and a person who has seen more than his share of gross things, clearly remembers his first thoughts upon seeing Goatse.
"One: How is that physically possible? How is he not dead?" Stile told me. "Two: Why would any human ever want to do that? Three: the guy had a wedding ring on his picture! It's probably, like, your university professor, or a doctor or a lawyer. You have no idea who this person is; it could be your neighbor—behind closed doors, people really do fucked up shit. You go through this whole range of emotions. Why, who, what, where? It's just fucked. It's unbelievable that someone would do that."
And after that: "Oh God, I need to show this to everyone so they feel the same pain I did."
Since the late ‘90s, this sequence of events has been repeated often enough that it's safe to say that millions of people have shared the pain of their first Goatse. The photo was the original internet bait-and-switch: Share a link to a hot girl, a cute puppy, but— boom—it's Goatse instead. Goatse'ing someone without their consent is emotional assault. It's also funny as shit.
Goatse peaked in popularity in the mid-2000s and then faded, but it remains the most enduring meme of Web 1.0. There are T-shirts and tribute sites. The mere mention of Goatse will bring a wince—or a smile, depending on the person—to the face of the initiated.
But for all that, the full history of Goatse has never been told. After two weeks of staring deep into the metaphorical and literal black hole of Goatse, it's easy to see why.
Kirk Johnson's bios on his many porn site profiles describe a bisexual man with a penchant for huge black dildos. He's anywhere from 45 to 48 years old, depending on which profile you go by. He's stunningly prolific. His profile on the adult image-sharing site Imagefap, which holds the most complete collection of his work, boasts 15,156 photos, all of which have been compiled over the last five and a half years. His videos of xTube have been collectively viewed more than 22 million times.
When I began looking into Goatse's identity, I depended on the longtime rumors that the men's similar frame and matching moles all pointed toward Johnson. I couldn't be sure, though, so I consulted an expert: A man who calls himself Grey. He's the proprietor of the Big Sex Toy Store, an online erotic novelty shop specializing in extreme penetration gear, where the bestseller is an eight-inch PVC slip-on penis-extender. Grey is very familiar with both Goatse and Johnson, and he approaches them both with the practiced eye of the connoisseur.
"It's like a musician going to a symphony concert. They're going to hear things different than the average person," Grey, a middle-aged man who talks about jumbo butt plugs like they're models of lawnmowers, told me over the phone.
And Grey's discerning eye says Goatse and Johnson are the same person.
"If you've seen enough of his videos you can kind of recognize him pretty quickly. 'Oh, I know that butt!'" Grey said. "He's kind of a slender guy but he inserts these huge objects to an incredible depth. I admire his capabilities." Grey said he once emailed Johnson an offer of some free free toys, but never heard back.
While I had Grey on the phone, I asked about the other big mystery of Goatse. Does this guy have to wear a diaper, or what? Grey must get asked this a lot. He patiently explained that extreme penetration is like any extreme sport. Injuries can and do occur, but only if you're reckless. He's never heard of even the most extreme penetrator ever requiring a diaper.
"The anus is a voluntary muscle," he said. "Our parents trained us to close them, you can train them to open. It takes time, it takes practice, it takes lots of lubricant. But you're actually training the muscle. You're improving the muscle tone by doing this."
In an earlier time, Johnson would have trained his muscle in obscurity; maybe a few shoeboxes of his pictures would have ended up in some extremely dedicated porn fanatic's collection. But around 1997, a collection of 40 pictures of Johnson— including the now-famous one—called "Gap.zip" began making the rounds in gay porn communities on the global forum network Usenet.
Great Moments in Goatse History
• Oprah: In November 2000, the Goatse image was posted in one of Oprah Winfrey's online message boards, and it was shut down soon after.
• New York Yankees: A hacker redirected all of the mail from Yankees.com to Goatse.cx after the Yankees won the World Series in 2000.
• L.A. Times: In June 2005, the Times's special editorial site was taken down after only two days of operation after "explicit images known as Goatse appeared on it."
• New York Times: Tech blogger Anil Dash appeared in a Times article wearing a Goatse-inspired T-shirt.
• London Olympics: b3ta user Sean Stayte successfully supplanted the London 2012 logo with his own Goatse-inspired creation during a BBC News broadcast in June 2007.
• Audi: In April 2011, Audi unintentionally used a Goatse-esque image in an ad campaign.
Usenet was an early iteration of the massively crowd-sourced web we have today. A free-wheeling cauldron of chatter and shared images, anyone could create a forum dedicated to their interests. And unlike corporate-controlled AOL chatrooms that were at least nominally policed, Usenet was decentralized, built from the ground up to protect free speech. In the early and mid ‘90s, Usenet filled up with all the weirdos, hobbyists, trolls and geeks who had previously congregated online on isolated dial-up message boards, if at all. The natural result of this grand union was an epic flamewar between cat lovers and trolls. Porn, including a disturbing amount of child porn, flooded the site's "alternative" boards. Usenet, in other words, was the perfect primordial soup for Goatse to crawl out of.
It's unclear if Johnson uploaded the fateful Gap.zip file himself. Some sources say Johnson self-posted Gap.zip to the gay porn forums. But one Usenet gay porn fan who recalled spotting Gap.zip back in the day told me in an email, "It is unwise to identify the file as originating from usenet, as though Johnson posted it there himself. A lot of these files 'originated' in emails, ftp servers, etc." Maybe the Gap.zip photos were a special gift for a friend.
So the image that would eventually be known, almost universally, as Goatse first emerged in a tiny, dark corner of the web. But to become a true viral sensation required a crucial leap in technological sophistication. And Goatse had to be named.
The first step came when the famous image from the file was plucked off of Usenet by a group of online friends called the Hick crew. By all accounts, Hick members were that special geek brand of technically brilliant poop joke-tellers. They were teenage hackers, programmers, pranksters, and internet fanatics, mostly men, who made their home base on the website Hick.org ("The Hick.org farm") and shot the shit in chat rooms.
The Hick.org website was managed by Matthew Miller, a notorious computer programmer known online as "Skape." Miller would eventually make his name developing Metasploit, a powerful tool for finding vulnerabilities in software, and he now works for Microsoft's security team in Seattle. A giant cow's face with a human mouth greeted visitors to Hick.org, which also hosted the official site of the "Firm Penis Corp."
By 1998, the Goatse image had become a running joke in the Hick crew, used to screw with one another and their enemies. One of their favorite pranks, according to former Hick associate Orin Heidlberg, was to invade Christian chat rooms and scroll endless links to the image until the room emptied and they could use it for themselves.
"That was a dark time in my life," Heidlberg told me. She'd been inducted into the crew on the strength of a satirical website she made. "That's what I did in high school. There were certain channels we would kind of bully. 'Christian Singles' was one of them and 'Jesus' was one of them."
After the squares fled, the Hick crew would take up the channel as their own.
It was fun, but the reach of Goatse was limited by a clunky distribution method. This was before Flickr and ubiquitous cloud storage, so the image was stored in an unlabeled directory on a server owned by Miller, according to Heidlberg. The unwieldy URL— hick.org/whatever/whatever.jpg, say—didn't make for good bait to catch unaware browsers. (This was before URL shorteners made all links easily booby-trapped.)
"They wanted an easier place for people to see it other than just a directory on another website," Heidlberg said.
So in 1999, a hacker and Hick associate who used the handle Merl1n registered Goatse.cx "for the purpose of trolling," according to a person familiar with the early days of the site. The meaning of the domain has been hotly debated. Some say it's an approximation of "Got Sex?" a play on the Got Milk campaigns popular at the time, or an acronym for "Guy Opens Ass To Show Everyone."
We may never know for sure. "Honestly, no one talked about the meaning of Goatse so I'm not sure why merl1n chose the name," said our source. "But with the .cx domain a lot of people pronounced it 'goat sex' as well."
But at the time, the Hick crew knew a dedicated webpage would help them spread the word of Goatse. The unusual .cx domain in particular was a brilliant touch, as it hinted at some undiscovered internet realm. Goatse.cx would also come to include a feedback page, which featured fan mail, screeds against the site, and various people claiming to be Goatse man himself. The archived (safe-for-work!) feedback page is like a congregation praying to a one-eyed God.
Heidlberg remembers when a member of the Hick crew excitedly IMed her the link after Goatse.cx had gone live.
"I remember him being really pumped when it was happening, saying 'Everyone's going to see this and you're going to tell everybody.'"
Heidlberg took advantage of the new Goatse site right away. She secretly changed the browser homepage of all of the computers in her library's lab to Goatse.cx. After half a day of students' brains melting, the librarians, unable to change the homepages back, called on the one person they knew had the technical knowledge for help: Heidlberg.
"That's my greatest feat of computer hacking," said Heidlberg, who never did any real hacking. "Bringing Goatse into ‘real life' felt like a rad hacker prank, or a real-life troll. It let me be as cool in real life as I was online."
More impressively, after the Yankees won the World Series in 2000, a hacker redirected all the mail from Yankees.com to Goatse.cx. "We called up yankees.com to tell them we were getting there mail (which was pretty funny..), then later on the FBI calls wanting to 'meet,'" a Hick member named Shane boasted at the time.
With the shareable domain name, Goatse.cx quickly made the leap from underground inside joke to the geek mainstream. Now you didn't need a server to host your own image, or get inducted into the Hick Crew: The site was sitting there, begging for its next victim, and noobs were falling by the thousand. Even the New York Times would find itself Goatse'd, in a way.
In the early 2000s, the venerable tech news site Slashdot became so inundated with Goatse links in comments and posts that it was forced to change its code to allow users to see the domain of the site they were about to visit, specifically to keep them from getting Goatse'd at work.
Pioneering internet culture blog Boing Boing posted so much about Goatse that some of its readers quit the site. "After 3 Goatse references in 4 days. I don't care what is said on the blog at all," griped one blogger. "That's enough, it's a horrible thing, and if you don't now what I'm talking about then I suggest you DON'T go looking for an answer."
There was a difference between the Goatse obsession of Boing Boing and the earlier Hick crew. Boing Boing constantly referenced the gaping ass but never showed it. They posted reactions to the Goatse, stories about other people Goatseing celebrities, and countless corporate logos or book covers that had an unfortunate resemblance to Goatse.
The joke was more about the existence of Goatse, and what its existence said about the internet, than simply frightening squares off. Goatse "occupies a sweet spot, horrifying as that phrase might seem in this context, for mainstream America's prejudices about the internet it was collectively pouring itself into at the time," Rob Beschizza, a Boing Boing blogger, told me in an email. "Goatse exemplifies how the internet brought the weird and wild right in front of people's faces, but is so absurd and funny that its disgustingness is somehow defanged."
The sentiment was widespread at the time. Goatse wasn't an isolated phenomon. The early 2000s were a good time for anything disgusting on the web. Famous shock sites like Tubgirl (girl + body fluids + tub) and lemonparty (old dude orgy) went live and found followings. Around the country, Rotten.com was demolishing teenage innocence.
Driving the gross-out trend were strange entities called "everything/nothing" (E/N) sites. Part Livejournal, part proto-social networking profile, E/N was where disaffected young people who spent too much time on the internet threw up whatever scraps of web detritus they could find or make. Their all-encompassing ambivalence was captured in the name.
If there was one thing connecting the E/N scene, it was the desire to shock. E/N girls mainly shocked with frank discussions of their personal lives and confessional webcam sessions. E/N guys shocked with porn and gore.
Jay Stile was one of the E/N guys when he started his own site, the Stile Project, in 1999. The site began as typical E/N fare, with daily musings interspersed with the occasional exotic pornographic artifact. But he quickly realized that it was the gross stuff that brought traffic. He ditched the words and turned into a tireless filth aggregator, combing the web for the most fucked-up pictures and videos of gore and porn he could find. He started his search at breakfast.
"For 12 years straight, seven days a week," he told me, "I would wake up and go filter through millions of pictures looking for the weird, odd fetishes."
Stile Project hosted the entire Gap.zip file and the Goatse image, of course. Stile once wrote a fake article announcing that Goatse guy had died from stretching his ass too far, a rumor that still persists today. He pulled a more impressive stunt in 1999 by faking his own suicide by hanging on webcam. Howard Stern discussed whether he was actually dead on his radio show, and Stile won a Webby award for his work in 2000.
At one point, Stile told me, he was getting a half-million page views a day. And it wasn't just dudes who were fans. Stile wistfully recalled his far-flung female "groupies" who would put on private webcam shows for him.
"Web fame can be pretty fun," he said.
By the time he was 27, Stile had saved enough to buy a house and finally move out of his mom's basement—and to pay for the therapy sessions he now needs to cope with what he's seen.
It was through the E/N scene, so epitomized by Stile's site, that prominent tech blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash first discovered Goatse. He's one of the erudite, funny geeks you wouldn't think at first would be a fan of a giant gaping ass, but he was attracted by the sense that all the fuss around Goatse suggested signs of a new, vibrant web culture.
"It was kind of a secret handshake thing," Dash said. "It was so transgressive that it could only happen on the web. And it was something that was a bit of a hazing ritual, an induction ritual that you went through and now you're part of web culture."
So when, in 2005, the New York Times called his San Francisco office to tell him a photographer was on his way to take his picture for an article, Dash sprinted two blocks home and changed into a T-shirt he had bought. It was branded with the word GOATSE and the characteristic stretching hands. He had never actually thought he'd wear it.
"I was really worried, because I knew [New York Times Deputy Technology Editor] David Gallagher and I knew he would get it—and I thought, oh man, if he saw it that would be bad." But the shirt made it through the Times' edits. The next morning, Dash was bombarded by friends who had seen the paper on the East Coast, and a picture of him smiling in the Goatse T-shirt lit up the triumphant blogosphere.
"The Times' revealing that they didn't know there was a web culture that could be disseminated through their newspaper was a big thing," he said.
Goatse had completed its transformation from sex picture to hacker gag to internet emblem.
One thing gives me pause about Kirk Johnson's identity as Goatse. The Goatse picture is some dark Lovecraftian horror, a hurried snapshot of a secret shame. But Kirk Johnson poses with his face and dopey mustache in full view in proud, well-lit space. Indoors, Johnson works in a single corner of a beige room, in front of a white door. Sometimes he moves to a big bathroom with a new slate floor. Outdoors, Johnson does his stuff in a bright meadow, or a quiet birch grove. In one picture he's doing it ankle-deep in the shallows of a pond, framed by lime-green reeds. The seasons change. Here is Kirk spread-eagle on a bare piece of ground between snow patches. In all of them, the weird contrast between the wholesomeness of his rural abode and the literally gut-wrenching things he does to his body is completely at odds from the freakshow vibe of Goatse. Also, the wedding ring is nowhere to be seen.
There's no question that Kirk Johnson is aware of the Goatse phenomenon. His porn profiles are littered with people paying their respects to "Goatse man." Tim Hwang, an entrepreneur and founder of the influential internet culture convention Roflcon, invited Johnson to do an interview for a documentary. Hwang never heard back, and from what I can tell, Johnson almost never communicates with his fans, let alone journalists. I sent him a number of messages while he was logged into his accounts and never got a reply.
The one person I found who did claim to have direct contact with Johnson was the owner of the fisting porn site Extremehole.com. He goes by the name Gerco. In a 2006 post on the porn industry message board Go Fuck Yourself, Gerco offered a possible explanation for how the sad man in Goatse became the carefree Kirk Johnson [sic'd]:
His ex was a nurse, he use to fly experimental aircraft, and ultralights. He works as a truck driver etc. I have talked with him many times and he has provided content for EH but, just his solo stuff. I don't have a "amatuer" section on the site anymore so I don't use any of it.
He's actually is a regular poster on other boards and in some newsgroups. Including current pictures and video. He's had a rough time of it, got divorced lost most everything. It's been about 7 months since I talked to him on the phone last, but he had moved into a new house out in the country. His new pictures reflect that since he now has the freedom to do his extreme play outside on his property. I sent him an email about an hour ago to see if would be interested in hooking up for a paid shoot, BUT I have been down this road many times with him and have never been able to actually get it worked out. Believe it or not, but he is also a private person.
But in an email, Gerco wouldn't elaborate on his relationship with Johnson and said he'd lost contact with him years ago. He did, however, tell me that Johnson knew about Goatse. "Yes he was [aware] but disappointed that everyone seemed to be making money off him without compensating him for it."
The time for Johnson to cash in on his fame has probably passed. The Goatse.cx website was shut down in 2004 after a complaint from a Christmas Island resident, and though the image continues to horrify many through a number of knock-offs, it seems that the internet's heart just isn't in it anymore. A huge portion of the web's cultural activity takes place on Facebook these days, which has a small army dedicated to cracking down people who post images like Goatse.
The Internet's gross-out moment has passed, too. Internet culture these days does come from the hacker and programmer underground, as Goatse did in the '90s. But the tamer form of xkcd comics, unfunny Reddit memes and the latest bombastic video from the hacktivist collective Anonymous dominates the web instead.
"We've gone past 'jaded' to the point where the internet's nasty underbelly is just part of our collective imagination rather than something to fear," said Beschizza, the Boing Boing blogger.
Jay Stile sold his site last year, and it became a vanilla porn portal. Stile is now a marketing consultant for porn sites.
"I got burnt out after doing it for 12 years," he said. "I wake up and I'm eating an omelet while looking at girls shitting in people's mouths and I was like, 'this is not how I want to spend my morning.' I'm done with this shit."
After just two weeks in the gaping chasm of Goatse, I know where he's coming from.
Top image by Jim Cooke.