Hi-tech sex world shows its face

Sun Journal

Role: When leading computer corporations convene, porn providers set up nearby, seeking business -- and respect.

November 23, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- More than 200,000 computer geeks spent last week ogling the latest high-tech hardware and rubbing shoulders with industry luminaries including Microsoft's chairman, Bill Gates. The event was Comdex, the world's largest computer trade show.

A few blocks from Comdex, inside a threadbare conference room at the Imperial Palace hotel and casino, another hot technology trade show was under way. And it too was drawing techies looking to ogle hardware and rub shoulders with industry luminaries.

"Hiiiya!" purrs porn queen Asia Carrera as she strides across the room in a tight skirt and see-through stiletto pumps.

This is Adultdex, the trade show where silicon meets silicone.

One of the premier get-togethers for the Internet sex industry, the show draws companies peddling everything from X-rated DVD movies to cutting-edge interactive computer "smutware."

While you won't find Microsoft or any other titan of technology here, you'll run across plenty of their male employees.

"I really love your Web site," one man gushes as he cozies up to Asia for a snapshot with his digital camera. As do many visitors, he has carefully flipped over his Comdex I.D. badge before entering the curtained entrance to the show.

(Discretion here is a must. The show was raided by the local vice squad a few years back after a product demo got out of hand.)

Despite being widely credited for whipping Internet technology forward, cyberporn remains the dirty secret of the booming online economy. For years the adult industry exhibited high-tech wares at Comdex alongside mainstream firms. But in 1994 show organizers gave it the boot, concerned that prancing porn stars and sleazy software were tainting the trade show's increasingly valuable image.

Now companies such as Sexy Servers and Digital Playground attend. And just as Comdex offers a glimpse of the computer industry's latest trends, Adultdex provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at the evolving nature of cyberporn.

The Internet sex industry is much like the universe: large, not fully grasped and rapidly expanding. Forrester Research estimates that as much as $1 billion worth of dirty images flows across the Internet, circulated by as many as 40,000 entrepreneurs.

Signs of its growth are all around: It has trade shows and industry associations. Adult Video News, the venerable porn-industry trade magazine, this year launched a glossy new monthly for the online adult industry. This month's issue teaches adult Webmasters about copyright infringement and how porn star Ashley Renee built traffic on her new bondage Web site.

"Sex has sold and sex will always sell," says Dave Gould, co-organizer of Adultdex.

Most purveyors of online porn are mom-and-pop operators who make anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars a month, analysts say. But what draws people into the business are the tales of online superstars such as 31-year-old former stripper Danni Ashe, whose Danni's Hard Drive Web site is expected to rake in $5.5 million this year.

But just slapping a few dirty pictures up on the Internet isn't good enough anymore -- as Caity McPherson found out.

A former exotic dancer who had dreams of becoming the next Danni Ashe, McPherson started a Web site, juicymango.com, featuring erotic photos and stories. But the money didn't flow.

"I think people who have dreams of the Gold Rush will be disappointed," she says. "A year and half ago it was already too late."

These days, says McPherson, you've got to have a niche.

Adultdex attendee Gary Hamilton thinks he's got one: X-rated cartoons.

Hamilton, 52, commissions 10-minute animations from artists all over the world, especially in countries such as Russia and the Philippines, where labor is cheap. The medium, he says, offers several advantages over photos and videos. "In a cartoon, anything is legal."

Still, "we draw an ethical line."

Hamilton says he frequently asks artists to draw condoms on his animated actors to promote safer sex. And he stays away from cartoons depicting pedophilia. But not all fetishes are verboten. He describes one of his best sellers as an amorous romp between "Big Foot and two sexy blondes."

Hamilton says some couples find the cartoons therapeutic. "We got a letter last month that said, `Thank you so much. We tried everything including Viagra but nothing worked until we found this,' " he says, beaming.

Analysts also credit cyberporn with helping the online economy.

One of the first industries to colonize the Net, the online adult industry has spurred deployment of real-time video technology, secure credit-card transactions and innovative online marketing tactics such as Web site banners -- the bedrock of mainstream commerce sites such as Amazon.com.

"The adult industry has historically been at the cutting edge of technology," says Kenneth Braun, a Los Angeles lawyer who stands out as the only exhibitor wearing a suit. ("This is an industry that needs legal assistance," he adds.)

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