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Amanda Hess writes on www.slate.com – The first time I traveled to Las Vegas for the Adult Entertainment Expo, America’s largest gathering of porn stars and their fans, I found myself sitting on the ground near the elevator bank at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino with a blue-eyed, gravelly voiced girl who performs under the name Katie St. Ives.
She lit a cigarette and sank into the carpet. St. Ives was coming off an eight-hour shift perched on a pair of platform heels and running her mouth dry in repetitive conversation with strange men. I asked her if she was having a good time.
“Uh. Yeahhhh,” she said. “Sorry. That sounded … not convincing.”
Hours of posing and autographing had bottomed her out, but what really got to her were the legions of pornography fans who had attempted to pry past her “Katie” exterior to access the regular girl underneath.
“Fans will get comfortable with me because I can act very friendly. They start to expect things of me. They seem offended when I don’t get up and give them a hug.”
As St. Ives spoke, a pack of twentysomething polo shirts pooled around her, waiting for an elevator to skyrocket them to their room. One of them recognized St. Ives. He plucked a novelty penis drink stirrer from his cocktail and flicked it at her freckled face. “You want this cock?”
She did not want that cock, but the offer illustrated how drastically the relationship between porn stars and fans has changed in the past few years.
When David Foster Wallace chronicled porn’s biggest fan show back in 1998—at the height of VHS and DVD sales—he observed a sweaty, trembling mass of shy guys who appeared both thrilled and ashamed to make first contact with their favorite pornographic actors.
But the Internet crumbled all that, and last year I watched a man wait 30 minutes to grope a porn star’s breasts and announce, “That’s going on Facebook later!” Another languished in line to see if his favorite star was nice; act too aloof, and “I’ll never want to see her again,” he told me. “Not even in porn.”
In an age when every conceivable permutation of pornography is immediately accessible for free online, the power dynamic between viewer and star has shifted. Most porn viewers are still quietly accessing the material from the privacy of their own homes, but because it’s so easy to get, the reverence has faded.
And when a man actually uses up his vacation days, books a plane ticket to Las Vegas, secures a hotel room off the strip, and drops between $35 (one-day access) and $325 (the VIP treatment) to celebrate porn in person, he is no longer content to gawk at a porn star standing on a pedestal. He expects an intimate affair.
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Stoya [pictured], 26, is something of an Internet phenomenon. Fans know her for her thoughtful Tumblr that takes on issues like street harassment and sexual health; her wink-nudge public romance with porn it-boy James Deen; and the work she has done having sex on-camera.
As we perch in the convention’s pressroom at this year’s expo last weekend, Stoya details the classes of fans she meets at shows. There are the “very socially awkward guys”—Foster Wallace’s quiet, sweaty types. There are the “douchebags”—the grabby guys who get oiled up enough at the bar to ask, “Do you think I could do porn?” And now the “hipsters”—guys drawn to Stoya’s alternative pornographic aesthetic who nonchalantly sidle up to her booth. “Those guys don’t pay for it,” Stoya tells me.
Those guys are the industry’s biggest problem—people who like to watch porn but also situate themselves as above it all. Today, most viewers don’t count themselves as “fans” at all.
Clarissa Smith, a researcher at the University of Sunderland in northeastern England, has spent years collecting data on thousands of Internet porn users. When she crunched some preliminary numbers from a voluntary online questionnaire of 5,490 men and women, she noticed a schism between young and old consumers. Both male and female users in their teens and 20s viewed porn frequently but not passionately. They accessed it through downloads and tube sites and amateur portals when they were either horny or bored. And out of all porn viewers, those aged 18-25 rated pornography as least important to their lives. When porn is free, we want it more, and we value it less.
It’s ironic that the omnipresence of porn in our homes is now backfiring on the porn industry. For a while there, figuring out new ways to deliver porn straight into the consumer’s home was the name of the game.
The porn industry has managed to successfully leverage the erotic potential of every new technology, from the printing press to the telephone to the VCR to the camcorder, to facilitate that process.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, America’s foremost porn convention even shared floor space with the Las Vegas outpost of the International Consumer Electronics Show. Back then, the adult show functioned a little bit like CES’s dad’s basement—it was the darkened exhibition hall you and your friends could sneak into after-hours to pop in a racy film.
For reluctant porn fans, the tech conference provided the perfect cover for an explicit outing. For tech types, it was a legitimate business opportunity: a place where DVD distributors could shake hands with content producers, and their busty starlets, too. The alliance was a success.
But now, the conference’s techie contingent has all but withered. DVD distributors and pornographers have less to chat about. Technophiles have little incentive to hop over to the porn convention to peruse the newest titles; they can just dial them up on their smartphones.
It’s gotten to the point where Dan O’Connell, founder and president of the lesbian-focused porn company Girlfriends Films, can spy a likely customer by the quality of his cellphone. If he’s packing a dinosaur of a flip-phone, perhaps O’Connell can interest the guy in some DVDs. But it’s all over when the iPhone comes out.
Last year, the AEE cut its loose alliance with CES entirely, moving the porn convention to a week after the tech show and to the relatively diminutive Hard Rock Hotel. And this year, AEE picked up a new supplemental population of conventioneers. “The demographic is way different,” says Janet Gibson, COO of AVN Media Network, the company behind the convention. “It’s not the tech geeks anymore. It’s the gun people.”
Yes, this year’s convention intentionally coincided with the four-day Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, which experienced record attendance just months after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.
The demographic shift is one way to dial back the clock on the Internet takeover. Gun people are “the people who are still buying DVDs,” Gibson says. Sativa Verte, a 27-year-old performer known for her hair fetish work, put it another way: “These are the hillbilly, backcountry folk.”
In addition to reaching out to gun owners, the AEE has made strides to corner the young, douchebag market by expanding the convention experience beyond autograph signings and DVD racks. Smaller booths and more intimate activities offer increased access to performers.
This year’s VIP offerings included events like “Porn Star Bingo,” the “Blind Date With a Porn Star Contest,” the “Beer Pong Porn Star VIP Party,” and numerous club parties featuring big-name starlets booked to “host” the event (i.e., drink alcohol in a roped-off section of da club).
Increasingly, smudging the line between porn star and fan is key, because to fans, that line is already very blurred. The distinction between a “professional” porn star and that hot college girl with a webcam who could turn up at your next frat party is narrowing. Hence, beer pong and bingo with the “stars.”
“When I got into this business, the only people who were open about watching porn were almost like pseudo–serial killers,” Lisa Ann, 40, told me over coffee last year. When she debuted in porn at 22—receiving early attention for her turn as the guardian nympho of 1994’s Tits a Wonderful Life – [written by Gene Ross] —fans would track her down at live appearances armed with a gold-dipped rose and a three-ring binder containing her every known published photograph, then ask her to touch each page.
Now, “young, hot guys are not embarrassed to say they watch porno.”
Fifteen-year-old boys request her photograph at Lakers games. College girls email her for relationship advice. Today’s porn viewers are so nonchalant about their porn habits that they don’t even buy it at all. Which means that, “as stars, our brands are more valuable than ever.”
Lisa Ann is dogged in pursuing this new permutation of her fandom, but finding ways to monetize her sunny personality is hard work. She spends nights on her couch tweeting at select fans to cultivate jealousy among their friends.
In monthly online webcam chats, she wears clothes and just talks. She has accompanied fans to Yankee Stadium and a high school reunion. She maintains an Amazon wish list of gifts she wishes her fans would buy her; she recently scored a $399.99 Dallas Cowboys helmet autographed by Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman.
She sat for a mold of her vagina to sell to fans as a masturbatory Fleshlight product (the prestigious gig—one of the few that pays royalties for products moved—is a boon to an adult star). At this year’s convention, Lisa Ann partnered with Fleshlight to invite one young customer to accompany her to the awards show that caps the weekend. Any guy who bought a Lisa Ann–brand Fleshlight could qualify: Buy the fake vagina, and you could get the real human for free.
Given the stigmas projected onto members of the adult industry, perhaps it’s a positive development for fans to appreciate that porn stars are people too. After eight years of bumming around the show floor, Deen commandeered a booth for the first time this year.
It gives him the chance to promote his new line of sorbet-colored T-shirts emblazoned with cartoon panda bears and hawk an enormous synthetic mold of his penis. Now that he’s more in control of his public narrative, Deen at least gets fewer guys asking “what a girl’s pussy feels like” and more who understand that “I do not want to talk about what a girl’s pussy feels like. I want to talk about baby pandas and stuff.”
Now that porn is a normal, everyday thing, typical viewers are less likely to see porn performers as objects to either venerate or degrade. While this humanization can feel good—Deen loves to talk pandas—the shrinking pool of porn money does not. The question of how to get performers compensated for their work remains.
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As the fourth and final day of the AEE convention concludes, the porn stars decamp to their tower hotel rooms to primp for the 30th annual Adult Video News Awards, the industry gala that typically caps the convention weekend. This is the moment when the porn star stops being your friend.
She pulls herself up off the convention floor, squeezes into her prom gown, and slinks into the press-only red carpet area, where she’s quizzed by the likes of international shock jocks and Robin Leach—guys who have a professional excuse for staring. Fans are free to attend, to the tune of $300 a ticket.
Outside the awards show, at the spot where the freewheeling casino hallway ends and the locked-down velvet rope begins, two lines of gawkers form a drunk-guy funnel for arriving stars. I’ve found myself squished into a pack of five young fans who are upending Bud Lights, cat-calling Ron Jeremy, and taking turns strutting down the porn gauntlet.
I request an interview. “We’re gonna be on TV!” one replies. “I’m just gonna say tits, ass, and fuck a lot,” says another. A third handles the crotch of his stars-and-stripes-festooned jorts, doing his best James Deen. “Do you want to take a picture of this?” he asks me.
I do not. I gravitate to the most coherent member of the group, a 25-year-old with a dazed grin and close-cropped hair who wears neither a tank top nor sunglasses at night. He offers his name, then takes it back—preferring to be identified by the porn name he has just invented.
Sleazy-D never pays for porn. He doesn’t even shell out for porn conventions—he and his buddies snuck in instead of dishing out for the official lanyard. Then he just kind of did whatever—chatted up his porn idol Evan Stone (“he gets to fuck the hottest chicks”), high-fived some porn star, looked at boobs. I asked Sleazy-D what a porn actress would need to do for him to actually pay for it.
“I would pay to have her climb into my bed,” he says.
“Well, that’s rude.”
Sleazy-D laughs in approval and offers me a high-five. Then he cranes his neck back toward the gauntlet to train his eyes on a leggy blonde in a microscopic red dress making her way into the awards. Sleazy-D reconsiders his position. “She’s hot,” he says. “I don’t know who she is, but if she had a webcam? I would pay a marginal amount for her.”
Then she was gone, disappeared behind the awards show doors, and Sleazy-D forgot about her as quickly as he had noticed her. Yielding to the allure of something immediate and free, he turned to me and said, “So, what are you doing later?”