Rough trade show

Despite Cyberdildonics and tantric sex swings, the sex biz trade show Erotica USA is a decidedly unsexy event.


Albert Mobilio
April 20, 1999 10:53PM (UTC)

Soft lights, soft music. A glass of champagne, a spiked dog
collar and an enema. If this sounds like a sexy combination to you,
keep a voyeuristic eye out for Erotica USA, a sex biz trade show coming
soon to a town near you. The Erotica show just closed in New York, where
it sparked complaints from expected sources like New York's hall-monitor mayor
and the Christian Coalition. Both denounced the use of the Jacob Javits
Center, a government-owned convention hall, as a site for the
propagation of, well, propagation. Or at least the urge behind it.

But the show, it turns out, was rather tame. Exhibitors were given
a set of printed rules forbidding actual nudity and even the depiction
of penetration. Compared to what used to be available in nearby Times
Square, this stuff seemed positively apple pie. One of the more puzzling
no-no's on the list forbade customers from opening their purchases until
leaving the convention hall. The thinking seems to be that it's better
to be hailing a cab on 10th Avenue with your newly bought
cat-o'-nine-tails than showing it around to other sadists inside
the building. In any event, the sanitization worked -- the show had the
dreary Willy Loman ambience of a convention of dental supply
manufacturers. Jackie Henderson, an erotic artist who has attended
the much raunchier Erotica shows in London, where visitors dress up in
high-fetish style and naughty bits are everywhere in evidence,
complained, "There's hardly a dildo in sight. There's too much business
here and not enough fun."

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The theme of the show, emblazoned on banners and T-shirts, was
the Socratic query, "What Is Sexy?" It wasn't clear whether exhibitors
like AT&T Cellular and the various plastic surgeons were intended to
provide an answer or whether visitors -- who paid $30 for admission -- were
meant to ponder this weighty question with colleagues around the water
cooler for weeks to come. Chances are, if you were one of the loner
males thronging around the stage during the lingerie fashion show, you
know what is sexy. Sexy is getting to look, maybe touch, but not
having to talk much afterward. One chief source of amusement was to
watch as one barely dressed, pneumatic-chested porn actress waded
through a cluster of my fellow testosterone factories. (Take a wild
guess about the conversation skills of the burly sensualist with a shirt
that read, "Proud Owner of a Nine-Inch Cock.") With her formidable
breasts acting like the prow of an icebreaker, she easily parted the
sweaty mass of guys who, with their hands stuffed in their pockets,
struggled mightily not to gawk openly, but instead sneaked rapid-fire
peeks as they studied their shoes or the intricacies of the glass
ceiling. For some of these guys, no doubt, it was like seeing their
fantasy girlfriend out on a date with another few hundred men: They were embarrassed and
maybe a little hurt. After all, sex goddesses aren't supposed to traffic among
mortals.

Aside from these tepid carnal visitations, this trade show -- which
will be moving on to South Beach in Miami and Las Vegas -- was mostly
about trade. Jay Servidio runs
Teleteria, a porn Web design and
programming company that really wants you to profit from the Internet
boom. Jay and the gang at Teleteria will set you up with a dripping wet
Web site, provide you with "live video streaming of girls, Asians, guys,
transsexuals, amateurs and dungeon," and ensure you direct billing of
"100% of the commission." When I asked Jay how many porn sites the Web
could support, he launched into his spiel with a button-holer's gusto.
"Do the math," he says. "There are 150 million people on the Internet
and only 30,000 adult sites. Every day another 20, 000 people sign up.
Every 500 hits yields a membership, Christmas, Chanukah, every day of
the year." As if offering his own ringing reply to the big question,
"What Is Sexy?" Jay bore down close on me and declared, "Making money is
simple."

Another potential Web-sex moneymaker was the much publicized
"Cyberdildonics" at the SafeSexPlus booth. All the local news and cable
film crews stopped there. It's a natural news hook -- a vibrator you can
operate over the Internet. So you could be in Milwaukee and a friend
could be in Cairo and you would be able to control a strategically
situated vibrator with your mouse. Why the big whoop, it's hard to
say. My limited experience suggests most folks want control of their
sex toys to be as immediate -- at hand, shall we say -- as possible. I
mean, it can be hard enough to make precise adjustments in speed and
duration from under the same bed covers let alone from across a
continent. Nevertheless, the cash register frisson brought on by
joining the words "Internet" and "Sex" is, judging by the crowds at this
booth, an irresistible shiver.

Traditional sex toys -- those requiring actual bodies in contact --
were also plentiful: tantric sex swings in which a woman or man
dangles weightlessly, handcuffs, chastity belts ("Access Denied" is the
brand name), the ultimate dildo and porn star Ron Jeremy were all for
sale (Jeremy just signed autographs), although I saw little cash
exchanged. The guys circulating around the show were like most
convention attendees, be they anesthesiologists or Trekkies -- they
glommed up as much free stuff as they could, pausing chiefly to view
product demonstrations. A desultory whipping being given by one
leather and spike-clad girl with pigtails to a similarly garbed young lady
attracted only bemused attention. Here was the inescapable sense that
this routine was old hat. More than 20 years ago there were jokes on
"Laugh-In" and "Love, American Style" about a rabbi being beaten with chicken
soup noodles, and the New Yorker recently respectfully profiled a
dominatrix. For its participants, the current S&M scene may be a kick,
but for everyone else, it's a cartoon setup for punch lines like "beats
me." The baroque, "Edward Scissorhands" look of the bondage wear
undercut its potential allure with the loud claims of originality by
the designers. Instead of sexy -- in '50s bondage mags, clothesline and
baby oil were the only accouterments -- these deviously turned-out costumes
felt parodic rather than priapic.

Indeed, it was the most chaste demonstration that mustered the most
shock. For those rarefied souls whose sexual delight requires full-body
restraint, there exists a hard-framed latex envelope: After someone lies
down between the shiny sheets, a vacuum cleaner sucks all the air out
until every fingernail shows in sharp relief. Aside from an erect hose
positioned over the mouth, the body is completely encased. I'm not sure
about the rest of the wide-eyed audience, but for me it was
claustrophobic terror that held me fast to the spot. Even though the
guy who was operating the vacuum chatted on about things you could do
with a vibrator to the trapped body, whatever mild excitation the
lingerie models had inspired promptly fled my lower parts. I thought
longingly of Jay Servidio and the good times we'd had. "What Is Sexy?" I
wondered. The pyramid schemer, or the vacuum cleaner salesman?

Erotica USA very much wants to go mainstream. Even with videos and
magazines catering to female wrestler buffs ("Steel Kittens"),
submissives ("Bitch Mistress Magazine," "Trampled"), foot fetishists
("Sole Desire"), enema enthusiasts ("Flash Floods"), voyeurs ("Peeping
Toms Get Spanked") and traditionalists ("Bald Beavers," "Ass Blaster"
and "Goo Guzzlers"), the message, says Kimberly Chigi, one of the New
York show's organizers, "is that sex is healthy and there's nothing
dirty here." And she's right, unless you think lucre is filthy. The
overheard talk all around the convention hall was about franchises,
turnkey sites, distribution networks, synergy and "the power and
profit of sell-through." In the booth of the self-proclaimed "Baroness"
you found tourniquet-tight rubber clothes, but whatever lubricity they
began to cook up in your autonomic nervous system was quickly short-circuited by her poster announcing how we could learn how to clean,
shine and take care of our latex garments from the Regal One. What is
sexy? Well, money can be, but cleaning up definitely isn't. How those
latex briefs and bras might get dirty is what you want to explore at
something called Erotica USA.

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Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

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