Vegas, Baby — “Eggs are expensive, sperm are cheap.” That’s a plain-English approximation of Bateman’s principle, which holds that in a species with two sexes, the members of the sex that invests less biologically in reproduction will end up competing, sometimes ferociously, over the members of the sex that invests more. Because healthy men can in theory reproduce almost without limit while women are constrained by the number of pregnancies that they can take to term in a lifetime, women have a very strong incentive to be more selective about their sexual partners, while men don’t: snipers vs. shotguns, basically. In a 2004 paper under the forthright title “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” two scholars from the University of British Columbia and Florida State took that insight and examined mating behavior through the lens of market competition. And if you doubt for one second that the pitiless laws of supply and demand provide an excellent explanation of human sexual behavior, then by all means make a reservation at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino for the annual awards ceremony hosted by Adult Video News, a.k.a. the “Porn Oscars,” the most mercilessly Darwinian sexual marketplace you will find this side of Recife.
The awards show itself is almost an afterthought on the agenda of this multi-day pornopalooza, which is one part serious insider trade show for the nation’s increasingly specialized pornographers and sex-toy peddlers — Doctor Clockwork’s Home for Electrical and Medical Oddities draws a curious crowd, as do the live product demonstrations including one of a “sexercise” device that is basically one of those Sit N Bounce balls we all had as kids, but with one or two additions — and one part fan-fest for the world’s most dedicated consumers of smut, men who travel great distances and shell out hundreds of dollars in order to pack sweatily into crowded rooms and wait in line for autographs from their favorite performers, representing such powerhouses of porn as Evil Angel, Morally Corrupt, Brazzers, and dozens of others, while manufacturers of sundry sexual devices and what one entrepreneur refers to bluntly as “d**k pills” hawk their latest wares and potions at cheery display booths. It is raw consumerism, and there’s a kind of eerie symmetry at work: sex toys laid out in glass cases like jewelry at Tiffany’s, women displayed like flank steaks at Safeway. Bateman’s principle predicts that among primates like us, males will have a more lopsided distribution of sexual outcomes than will females: Basically all of the healthy females who survive to adulthood will have the opportunity to mate, but some of the males will be crowded out of the marketplace by a relatively small number of highly successful competitors — they just don’t have the biological capital to compete in the Hobbesian sexual war of all against all. The guys buying VIP passes here at the Porn Oscars, sitting slack-jawed at Sapphires Gentlemen’s Club as the performers swan through the crowd performing what is no doubt contractually required fan stroking, and then perhaps making a furtive or not-so-furtive trip down the highway to one of Nevada’s legal brothels: These frustrated, cow-eyed men are Bateman’s losers, and they are legion. The unkind industry term for them: trenchcoats.
On Day 1, the line of trenchcoats waiting to hand over $80 to $120 for a one-day pass to the event stretches from the box office well inside the Hard Rock across much of the length of the enormous casino past the bell desk and to the front door. Some of them are normal-guy Vegas, Baby tourists, and even couples, out on a lark, but some of them aren’t simply stopping by this circus on their way to Circus Circus: For them, this is the main event. They speculate among themselves about which of their favorites will be here this year, and debate which performers and which events should take priority — like the Smithsonian, you can’t see it all in one day and probably would invite some sort of retinal-glandular damage if you tried. One gentleman talks wistfully about Lisa Ann, a performer in the “mature” segment of the market whose career was revived by a timely impersonation of Sarah Palin — she’s the Tina Fey of porn. The trenchcoats are young and old — a few old enough and deconditioned enough to require mobility scooters — and mostly white, though not exclusively so, their troglofaunal complexions suggesting a great deal of time spent awake in the dark. The contrast between the bearded, roly-poly trenchcoats and the performers — many of them tiny and fragile-looking, their massive surgical enhancements slung on remarkably slight avian frames in many cases barely five feet tall — calls to mind H. G. Wells: The Morlocks are here to consume the Eloi.
What’s remarkable about the expo is just how square and corporate and conventional a trade show it is. Sure, there are a lot more impossibly pneumatic bare breasts displayed on the show floor than at your typical laundry-detergent convention, but that’s just trenchcoat bait, and such lewdness as there is is drearily predictable. (Everybody sniggers in unison when an elevator emblazoned with the seriously curvaceous image of one Stormy Daniels announces: “Going down.” Everybody, that is, except for one Rexxx Holz of Decadent D Digital, who is off in his own little apparently Stoic world.) Inside, in the sessions the gawkers are kept carefully out of, there’s a great deal of concern about whether the FDA — “three little letters with a whole s**tstorm of stuff behind them,” as the moderator puts it — is going to intervene in the herbal male-enhancement market, about inconsistent overseas regulation of benzocaine levels in penis desensitizers, about the high cost (up to $20,000) of getting FDA sign-off on particular blends of personal lubricants, etc. Craig — he’s just Craig, no surname, like Madonna or Sting but a known player in the sexual-products market — complains that he could “rebuild a rain forest with all the paperwork I have,” an observation met with general commiseration by the other panels in the regulation session. “We definitely don’t have a sex-positive agent at the FDA, to say the least,” complains one, while another declares: “The FDA has two jobs. One is to protect the consumer, and the other to protect Big Pharma.” They mirthfully deride FDA communiqués that quote Wikipedia articles on the subject of penis diameter, missives received in the course of the agency’s leaning on them about certain vascular-constriction devices that the industry insists are “novelties” but the FDA considers “medical devices.” They all sound like coal executives discussing the EPA. While the trenchcoats are busy with the titillating displays outside, the industry operators are hearing pitches from logistics companies, legal advisers, cosmetic dentists, and bankers specializing in the unique challenges of the skin trade.
There’s a strange sentimentality detectable here, too. There is a panel on the future of the feature-length porn film and a great deal of wistfulness about the decline of the form. People speak about the “golden age” of the 1970s, when porn movies lasted 90 minutes and had something resembling plotlines. People become distinctly uncomfortable when I inquire as to what exactly is the point of a 90-minute porn film, given the use to which such films are habitually put. Later, I do a quick analysis of the clips offered at PornHub — along with RedTube and YouPorn, one of the web’s Big Three porn sites — and calculate the average length of a clip to be just under 13 minutes.
Las Vegas is the perfect venue for the porn industry, which until the day before yesterday was dominated by California. Smut isn’t the only business fleeing the politico-economic orbit of Sacramento, but its shift has been especially dramatic. After Los Angeles County passed a law mandating the use of condoms in pornographic films, applications for permits to produce them crashed by 95 percent — an industry group ran a series of humorous advertisements offering performers in full haz-mat gear as a glimpse of the porn future — and with the San Fernando Valley sidelined, Vegas is picking up the slack. Like gambling, porn has its roots in the shadowy, semi-legal-to-outright-outlaw enterprises that still intersected with the edges of organized crime long after the high-water mark of the traditional criminal syndicates. And like slot machines and poker, porn has gone mainstream and corporate. The men conducting business on the sidelines of the AVN trade show are not in the main of the gold-chains-on-hairy-chest variety, but your classic California entertainment-industry types, sandy-haired and looking like they have a lot invested in egg whites, personal trainers, and depilatory treatments. The corporate-speak — “monetize,” “brand-building,” etc. — is relentless.
“The days of just churning out product and selling DVDs are long gone,” says director Miles Long, a two-time AVN award–winner with some 50 AVN nominations on his curriculum vitae — an honest-to-God official member of the AVN Hall of Fame. (I do not ask whether “Miles Long” is a nom de porn or an aptronym or what.) “Most of the revenue streams are Internet-based, and we have to have multiple revenue streams: overseas, broadcast, DVD distribution, selling toys. The industry really failed to see the relevance of the Internet, and it cost them.” Mr. Long sounds positively Republican on the subject of California and Los Angeles County — “They are making it difficult for people to do business, with the insane taxes and regulations” — and on the virtues of his newly adopted hometown of Las Vegas: “It’s Second Amendment–friendly, and there’s no state income tax.” Poor feckless California: It can’t even do porn right.
Elsewhere, a young entrepreneur speaks admiringly of Walmart’s famous inventory-and-logistics systems, which put before customers products that they are likely to want but not know that they want (the classic example being to stock bananas in the dairy aisle, since cereal buyers are likely to be banana buyers as well). “People on the Internet are very focused when it comes to their masturbation,” he says. “They know exactly what they want to be looking at.” Pornographers have responded by carefully tracking what customers watch and what they search for, in order to connect them with ever more finely tailored content. Porn has of course long been a driver of technology. Two young webcam performers speak admiringly about a particularly considerate host company’s IP-blocking technology. “If you have family in Texas, you can block anybody from Texas from logging in and seeing you,” one says. It’s a way to keep her career “private.” People talk a great deal about privacy in this business; nobody talks about shame.
The market for porn is necessarily as unpredictable as the human sexual urge, and the near-uniformity of the performers is broken up by the occasional outlier: a 300-pound woman in a fishnet top lounges near the pool. The possibility for finer and finer slicing of the market is being explored by Customs4U, a firm whose name and logo encircle my neck, being helpfully printed on the lanyards for press badges. Rather than having customers seek out the images they desire, this service allows them to go to the site, choose the performers they want and the scenarios they want, and have a bespoke porn clip sent to them for a fee that varies according to the length and unique demands of the film. “Girls with webcams do live shows, and there are clips for sale,” says Kelly Shibari, who is manning the Customs4U booth. “What we do is we make the process efficient. They don’t shoot a video until there has been an order.” Customers can choose from a menu of scenarios, she explains, “or submit a script of their own. If you want a five-minute trampoline clip, that’s what you get.” (Given the alacrity with which the word “trampoline” enters the conversation, my impression is that this is not merely a hypothetical.) A relatively new enterprise, only three months in, Customs4U has 500 models doing as many as five to ten bespoke porn videos per week.
As specific as that tailored porn can be, the sex business still wants to come off the screen and into the world, a fact that comes into very sharp focus as A-list porn star Kaylani Lei totters past a life-sized Kaylani Lei sex surrogate manufactured by Realdoll, the Rolls-Royce of inflatable girlfriends. A normal human being generally cannot walk past a mirror without taking a subconscious glance at it, but Miss Lei is, judging by outward appearances, not a normal human being. I briefly consider pressing her about what it is like to be cast in high-quality plastic as a recreational masturbation aid, until I realize that the question is based on a rapidly vanishing distinction. With her surgical augmentations jutting out perpendicularly, as though resting on an invisible shelf, the main physical difference between Miss Lei and the sex-doll version of her is the percentage of artificial filler. These trenchcoats are not here for reality — the aftermarket parts are the point. Porn is no longer an ersatz, last-option sexual substitute — it is an end unto itself. The AVN spectacle turns out to be a perverse vindication of the theories of Jacques Lacan: The signifier here has indeed taken precedence over the thing signified.
But technology has not yet brought us to the place where digital pornography is entirely immersive, and so the Las Vegas sex trade remains an unholy trinity of porn, strip clubs, and the studiously not-talked-about (at least at AVN) legal brothels down the road. Prostitution remains formally illegal in Las Vegas, though as everywhere the rise of the Internet and mobile communication has made policing it practically impossible. But legal prostitution is just an hour away and a county over, and the enterprising brothel owners of Nevada are more than happy to dispatch a limousine to any Las Vegas destination and ferry clients across the relevant county lines.
I don’t even bother putting the coordinates of the Chicken Ranch into my maps program; I assume — incorrectly, as it turns out — that when I cross into Pahrump, Nev. — unofficial municipal motto: “Where Things Go Pah-RUMP in the Night!” — I will be greeted by billboards, if not a thicket of flashing neon signs, reading “Whores This Way!” Instead, there’s the usual southwestern sprawl, the fifty-shades-of-beige Nevada landscape punctuated by little rectangles of Pantone 342 green giving way to Carl’s Jr. and Walmart. The only sign of the sex traffic is the literal traffic, which includes a suspiciously large number of black Lincoln Town Cars. You take a left at the local strip club, drive down Homestead Road past the Heritage Bible Church and the Second Missionary Baptist Church, cross the unambitiously named Thousandaire Boulevard, upon which sits a combination casino and RV park, pass the Ten Commandments plaque affixed to a utility pole, and only then do you see two discreet signs, each no more than 18 inches across, one advertising the famous Chicken Ranch, the other advertising its next-door competitor, Sheri’s Ranch. You are right on top of them before there’s significant signage.
The two establishments are quite similar, though Sheri’s has a reputation as the slightly upscale member of the pair. The Chicken Ranch is faux Wild West Victorian, while Sheri’s appears to be a converted motel. Both are decorated in a combination of old-fashioned men’s club and modern suburban sports bar. Sheri’s has overnight accommodations available, for those so inclined. You can go in, order a drink, mingle with such commodities as are available, or call for a “line-up,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Fees are charged by specific service, not by time, and negotiations can be excruciatingly detailed. The shy can make these arrangements by telephone or e-mail in advance, which forecloses the embarrassing possibility of making a request that a prostitute is unwilling to fulfill.
Prices are pretty high at these establishments — you can spend more than $1,000 easily — but they are less than what you’re going to spend for three nights at the Hard Rock Hotel and three days’ worth of VIP passes for the porno expo. And there’s actual sex to be had. Not only sex, but sex with porn stars — J. R. Carrington, who appeared in more than 100 porn films, is listed on the current Chicken Ranch roster. (Irony alert: She once appeared in a film called “Whorehouse.”) For porn fans considering a brothel trip, there’s some ugly statistics-and-probability work to do: Nevada’s legal prostitutes are screened for HIV and other venereal diseases every 30 days; the current best practices in the porn business is to screen performers every 14 days. Like California’s porn performers, Nevada’s prostitutes are legally required to use condoms. But the thought of sex with somebody professionally obliged to undergo HIV screening 12 or 26 times a year is a powerful dysaphrodisiac. I notice that the housekeeper tidying up the overflowing ashtrays in the lobby at the hotel this week is wearing black hygienic gloves that match her uniform.
Back at the Hard Rock, things are pulsing. A middle-aged Asian man looking for all the world like he’s going to a costume party as Ken Jeong’s character in The Hangover — shiny red suit over a tacky print shirt, the checkerboard pattern on his Louis Vuitton loafers matching his man-purse — bobs and snaps to music heard only by himself while he waits for the valet. The AVN line is back out to the door again, and go-go dancers have been stationed at the venue entrance as trenchcoat appetizers. Ron Jeremy, who is basically Clint Eastwood in this milieu, chats quietly in the hallway with a small knot of men, his pop-eyed hypertensive face seemingly lit from within by an unwholesome radiance. Down the hall, a tired, middle-aged exhibitor sits in the pop-up café sponsored by Wicked Pictures, counting out the day’s medication from prescription-drug bottles lined up neatly on the table in front of him. There are, milling about, representatives of the XXX Church, a seriously mixed-message outfit whose porn-mustache-and-palm-trees logo and glib messaging — “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” — belies its serious concern about porn addiction. Its porn-and-pancakes breakfast discussion is wedded to a 30-days-porn-free challenge.
I am introduced to Nikki Phoenix — the number of “X”s in her surname is variable; I’ve seen as many as three — who is a nominee this year in the category of best “crossover” performer. “Crossover” denotes a performer who does “mainstream” work as well as porn, and Miss Phoenix — who has family in Phoenix — has appeared in non-porn offerings from billboard campaigns to not-quite-porn men’s magazines to the immediately forgotten comedy 21 and Over, with IMDb listing her as “Topless Chick, Uncredited.”
As Miss Phoenix tells it, porn — and not just the porn but the billboards and the lad mags and the lingerie modeling — has been an exercise in living well as the best revenge. She is not planning to title her memoir “Topless Chick, Uncredited” — from her point of view, hers is a story of triumph in the face of adversity. An early bloomer who developed breasts well before most of her peers and then became seriously overweight, Miss Phoenix was tormented by bullies whose abuse ran the entire gamut from mean-girl insults — she was nicknamed “Sandwich” — and social exclusion to more serious stuff, including outright violence. Being relegated to remedial reading classes did not help. (For all you former tormented nerds out there, remember what high school was like and then add to that the humiliation and hopelessness of being an academic underperformer.) There were even darker experiences outside of school. She eventually completed a vocational course and dropped out of high school to work in a veterinarian’s office, and life began slowly to improve. Eventually, she lost 120 pounds and began posting photos of her newly slender self on Facebook, and was in time approached by a porn producer. After her first scene, she says, she was “hooked.” Doing porn was “the epitome of everything I wasn’t.” Her parents have been supportive of her career. “My family is very liberal,” she says. “My mom says she’d do it if she could. My dad just says that I’ve ruined Google for him.” The Goldwater-country branch of her family, which she describes as “Republican and conservative,” is less enthusiastic, and the operative modus vivendi is an agreement not to talk about it.
She is writing a diet book under the working title “Fit as Phoenix.” In fact, every performer here seems to be writing a book: Porn actress Asa Akira advertises her forthcoming memoir, Porn: A Love Story, to be brought out by the same house that publishes P. J. O’Rourke: “The world has seen every fold of my most private parts, and yet I feel this book is my most exposing venture yet.” Such are the demands of maintaining multiple revenue streams.
Having transformed herself from fat to merely buxom and garnered an AVN nomination, Miss Phoenix projects confidence about her future, which in the near term includes the launch of a lingerie line. The unhappy high-school chubby duckling has indeed become the epitome of everything she was not. But the world of porn is at least as cruel as the world of high school: Search for Nikki Phoenix’s body of work on any of the commercial websites that specialize in that sort of thing and the merciless algorithms that select Internet advertisements will bring up the following offer: “F**k a fat girl tonight.”
The little borough of Vegas, Baby is practically hermetically sealed. It is surrounded by the city of Las Vegas, wherein dwell hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who go about their business only vaguely aware, if they are aware at all, of the specific day-to-day operations of the industries at the core of the city’s economy. The two municipalities are formally coincidental, but they are two very different places. I have dinner with some old friends who are the very picture of a happy, healthy family, the sort of enviable people who make it look easy even though it almost certainly isn’t. He is a respected man in his field, she a full-time wife and mother, the two of them steady and cheerful hands on the tillers of the lives of their two engaging and energetic children, practically a Mozart duet of wavering encouragement and gentle discipline. They hold hands around the dinner table and say grace with no sense of self-consciousness. They live in Las Vegas but they have, as you might imagine, a complicated relationship with the borough of Vegas, Baby, plotting out routes to social activities that do not necessitate driving their little ones past 40-foot billboards advertising the annual porn convention.
Back when the porn industry’s main concern was censorship, there was a great deal of talk about things done “in the privacy of your own home.” But porn has long ago been liberated from the constraints of domestic privacy: The AVN expo is advertised by larger-than-life images of porn stars, and a towering billboard for Stripper Circus promises “The Dirtiest Show on Earth.” Down at the grimy sidewalk level the city is dotted with vending machines offering such titles as Smut Club and Homo Guide, the covers of which are more or less what the titles would lead you to expect. There are markets for everything, and this market is growing — and growing more vicious.
The libido is the engine of human history, but for that period of time that we refer to as “civilization” it has been tempered and yoked. My friends’ happy family is not a viable option for an increasing number of men, especially those outside of conservative religious communities. In the metropolitan areas where they congregate, young men are in almost every case outearned by the young women in the same cohort, and under current law a marriage is far easier to walk away from than is a student loan. As the French novelist Michel Houellebecq put it in his own vision of sex after humanity: The future is female. With the institution of marriage in decadence, the family in chaos, and men’s traditional role as providers and protectors rendered marginal by economic reality, only the ruthless semi-simian sexual market remains, stripped naked of such traditional mediating forces as have customarily wedded male sexual energy to sociable purposes. More than that: As porn becomes less of a substitute for sexual relationships and more of an end unto itself, we are entering an era in which sex is, at least for some section of the population, post-human. To condemn what the porn expo is offering is to miss the point: It is an inevitability. “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” the gospelist advises, but short of taking that radical and irreversible step, the eye is commanded, willingly or not. We are all trenchcoats now.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story incorrectly described the condom law. It is a Los Angeles County law, not a California law.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving reporter for National Review. This article has been adapted from the February 10, 2014 issue of NR.