Adultcon Undressed

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Author: Richie DeMaria and Gabe Bernadett-Shapiro

“Twenty-four hour boners!”

These were the first words we heard when we stepped into Adultcon 17. The hawker who shouted this was standing in front of a huge, green, inflatable and flapping erection. “Check it out!” He forced the fliers into our hands. He was selling some kind of male enhancement, one he guaranteed would provide us with the ability to get an erection at any hour of the day. He stood by his product and his swaying balloon prop, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet and telling us that he had taken some earlier that day. Rather than quiz him on the logistics of marketing in such an excited state, we decided to check out the other booths and see just how else we could eroticize every aspect of our lives.

Adultcon, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Oct. 2, 3 and 4, was not just a giant sleazy strip show as some might imagine – though there was some of that. Instead, we found ourselves in a porn nexus, an expo covering all manner of different aspects of the heterosexual porn industry. From porn star signings and DVD sales to herbal sex drive drinks, camera caddies and erotic cakes, the convention showcased faces and products behind the $13 billion a year industry. For the price of $35, anyone 18 or older could come and buy porn, t-shirts, lotions and “lollicocks” to name a few. It was just like any other trade convention – capital-driven, corporate, sanitized – but with scantily clad women strolling among the spectators and the occasional strip show.

The crowd was small, and thickened as the day went on. Most of the attendants were men in their late 20s and 30s, though there were some older gentlemen, couples, possible vagrants and even some who looked fresh out of high school. The crowd moved in a herd. If an attendant received a lap-dance or had his face smothered in breasts, a congregation would form to watch and snap a photo. Photos with the models came at a high price, ranging from $10 to $20 depending on the model.

The convention featured a mix of vendors. Some of them were convention regulars, like The Vagina Man, Drew Fin-Kelson, the founder of I Love Vagina Clothing Co. and Ozzfest tour partner. Inglewood native Fin-Kelson has made a profit selling shirts sporting slogans like “I Love Vaginas” and the Coca Cola inspired “Enjoy Cock.” Fin-Kelson has garnered the admiration – and ire – of people across the nation.

“Texas, Ohio, Detroit [are my biggest markets],” he said. “In Detroit they’re all broke, but they love vagina.”

There’s I Love Vagina stickers, I Love Vagina underwear, and even a shirt with an exhaustive list of vagina slang. (“The cock one’s even bigger,” he added.) He even managed to secure his own trademark for the brand, a big accomplishment considering the difficulty of trademarking “I Love” anything. Unsurprisingly, not all have embraced his provocative merchandise; he cited Christians and college girls as his main detractors.

“College girls, you think they’re progressive but then you put the word ‘vagina’ on a t-shirt [and they get upset],” he said. He was surprised – and impressed – to hear Occidental’s Vagina Monologues sold similar merchandise.

Though his critics accuse him of perversion or worse, he considers himself a regular guy, in the business to feed his surfing hobby and put food on the table. “I love surfing, fish tacos and pink tacos – that’s it, dude,” he said.

Others, like Polyna Berlin of the newly-formed Erotica Cake and Mandy Morbid of the amateur porn site mandymorbid.com, were new to the convention circuit.

Mandy, a Canadian, has developed a big following with her D.I.Y., punk aesthetic and has become something of an internet sensation with “Mandy Morbid vs. Crazy Tentacle Sex Monster,” a Japanese hentai-inspired video in which she is unsuspectingly screwed by a Cthulu-esque beast. (This subgenre derives from a Japanese legend, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” in which an adulteresses, as punishment for cuckolding her husband, is sexed by a pair of giant octopi.) “People prefer amateur porn – it’s more popular,” she said.

In some ways, the convention felt short on content. More than a third of the exhibition room was unused and some of the vendors had only a tangential relationship to porn and erotica. There was, for example, an impressively afroed woman giving away free alkaline water and espousing its health benefits. She had moved, she told us, from New York to Miami and finally to Los Angeles where she, apparently, discovered the miracle of ionized water. How her business related to the adult entertainment industry, we couldn’t tell.

Similarly, a defense attorney had a booth and marketed his ability at getting you out of a DUI, some weed farmers had a booth displaying their monstrously oversized bong and some booths were empty. Adultcon was, if you forgive the pun, a little bare. This was, we learned, not just our imagination. “L.A. Adultcon gets smaller every year,” porn actress Kelly Divine said. “New York is where it’s at.”

We could not quite figure out why L.A., of all places – L.A., where so much porn is filmed -was wanting for content at its adult entertainment convention. Were the prices too high? Had Christian propagandists finally had their way? (Someone had scattered Christian pamphlets on how to live a “decent” life all over bathrooms. An excerpt: “I found myself drawn to girls that had an immoral reputation and even with the decent girls I knew, I began to think about putting ‘the make’ on them. [. . .] So now I command the spirit of lust in the name of Jesus to leave me alone whenever it puts dirty thoughts in my mind.”) We could not tell, but something was lacking.

Despite the numerous sex toys and buxom blondes, there was something distinctly un-erotic about Adultcon; the sex on display was, like a strip show, distanced and automatic, an expensive tease. There was sex everywhere one looked at Adultcon, but it felt forced.

Perhaps to compensate for this, the organizers played up other parts of the convention’s “adult” aspects. There was an additional V.I.P. room where, from what we could tell, moneyed guests could sit in a walled-off segment of convention floor and listen to loud music, and, later, all ticket holders could attend a free after party at the Rio all-nude strip club in downtown L.A. Attendees received a $5 poker chip, a cash substitute usable at any of the merchandise stalls, with which to purchase goods.

For veterans and newcomers alike, the convention provided a platform for vendors to sell their wares, meet their fans and make new ones. It also gave inquiring minds a chance to get to know the people behind the porn.

“We’re nice people,” Divine said. “You get your crazies here and there, but you also get a lot of normal people.”

Divine attended Catholic School and tried her hand in sales and modeling before making her foray into pornography at the age of 23. Porn, she said, is far more regulated and professional than most people assume.

She distances herself and many of her fellow performers from the assumption that porn stars get into porn as a result of some childhood trauma. She chose her job, she said, because of her abilities and talent, and not a difficult past. “I do it because I’m good at it,” she said.

Others, like fetishist Kimberly Marvel, do it with a sense of humor. Her videos appeal to fans of bondage, kidnapping and thematic soft-core. “It’s funny to me, I’m the one jiggling my boobs outside of the shot trying to make people laugh. These guys watch it and say, ‘This is better than porn!'” she said.

She sees herself as occupying a unique niche in the market. “There’s a big gray area between porn and fetish videos,” she said. Kimberly enthusiastically described her new project, a WWII pin up inspired calendar for our troops overseas, the proceeds of which went to the families of veterans. “I want people to be able to
buy it for the soldiers, you know, as a kind of charity. They shouldn’t have to pay for it,” she said.

Marvel was among the most modest of the performers we spoke to at Adultcon. She refuses to film anything more extreme than an R rating. “I don’t want my family to see me in an X-rated film,” she said.

Besides the LCD screens playing the new and wildly successful Seinfeld XXX porn and the throbbing club music emanating from the VIP booth, there was a deeper, human element present at the convention. Porn is a difficult business full of hardworking people, and one actress stood out above the others. Stephanie Swift, porn star, entrepreneur, certified dental hygienist and cancer patient.

“You can’t say that to me,” she said about the t-shirt one of us was wearing, which read “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” “You can’t say that to me because I want to live.”

Swift became aware that she had breast cancer after seeing a self-breast exam on television while memorizing her lines. “Luckily, I had a scene where my character needed to cry,” she said with a wry, ironic smile.

Swift is considering a double mastectomy and finds herself in a difficult dilemma: a woman whose line of work requires her body be attractive and healthy must, to save her life, receive invasive procedures and debilitating medical treatments. Yet Swift is no pessimist. To raise the money for her treatments, she went to work for two weeks and managed to raise $26,000 to help pay her medical costs. “You gotta fight it, you can’t be negative about it,” she said. “Cancer, you fucked with the wrong girl.”

Like many cancer patients, Swift’s family has a history with the disease. Her father passed away from cancer and a startling number of her relatives are afflicted. We asked Swift if she would be interested in speaking at Oxy during Relay for Life, the school’s annual cancer fund raising event. “That would be in the spring after my chemo,” Swift said, handing us her planner which is replete with a startling number of doctor appointments. “I would love to, let’s do it!”

Swift’s attitude was an inspiring and refreshing change of pace. Although the topic was dark, it reminded us that these people were not just porn stars – they were people susceptible to all the same flaws and vulnerabilities as the rest of us.

In the end, it was not the male enhancements, phallic candies or Vagina shirts but the people, the faces behind the performances, that stuck with us. We went in with a humored and even downward-looking attitude, ready to be amused; we left impressed by the diversity of the industry and moved by the difficulties of its members. Between Swift’s struggles and the glaring light of flashbulbs illuminating porn stars spanking one another, we found some kind of solace.

After being on our feet for four hours, we decided we had seen enough. Porn, it turns out, is of course a fun and ridiculous medium, but it’s one backed by a diverse industry of hardworking and, in Swift’s case, pained professionals, an industry as deserving of respect as any other. This is not exactly the impression one expects to get from a porn convention, especially one with the kind of greeting we received, but there you go. As if to remind us why we had come, though, on our way out the giant inflatable penis waved us goodbye.

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