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.