Misty Stone is a fairly big- time, if not totally blockbuster, star of pornographic films. She is African-American, legitimately beautiful, petite. She is wearing a two-piece bathing suit covered with the likeness of Bob Marley. To her left a group of men is standing in line to meet her. She smiles and mugs and wraps a leg around the next lucky fan.
This is hard work. “I’ve never had my feet hurt so bad,” she says.
Also on Misty Stone’s left, a large flatscreen television, perhaps 55 inches, shows high-definition images of one of her films. Plot unclear. Given the size of the television, anatomical parts are larger than human. Now she straddles him atop a leather couch, and there’s a close-up of the act that can—given the right circumstances—lead to human reproduction. Up, down, in, out. I am not certain that the men in line who are here to see Misty Stone are averting their eyes from the high-definition images of explicit sex. It’s more like the screen isn’t there, so there’s no reason to look. But it is there.
I’m at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo at the Hard Rock for the type of assignment that has friends winking and nodding and doing a kind of Monty Python tribute—“Tough job being a Las Vegas journalist, eh? Eh? Say no more. Say no more.”
The reality is that covering AVN and its denouement, the annual AVN Awards that are like the Oscars of porn, is actually just like covering other trade shows, which means diving into a subculture with its own mores and hierarchy and politics and lingo and, above all, insular business culture. Like the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. This means if you’re not part of that subculture, if you’re a foreigner in a foreign land, the whole thing can be fascinating and strange, but also unwelcoming and unremittingly dull—no matter how titillating the subculture and its products.
(Note on the previous sentence: This report will likely be filled with double entendres and dirty-seeming references. They are unintentional but impossible to avoid. Also, note that the late David Foster Wallace writes that he wrestled with the same issue when he covered the AVN Expo in a 1998 piece called “Big Red Son.” I’ll also note that Wallace’s story is so funny and insightful that I was embarrassed to try to take on the subject, like a kid whose hero is John Glenn or Neil Armstrong and can only pay tribute with a bottle rocket.)
A quick tour of the expo on the first day:
A guy is taking a photo of a kink woman in latex who is in turn taking photos of lifelike polymer sex dolls, also in latex. (Baudrillard yada yada yada.)
I’m introduced to John Stagliano, aka Buttman, a pioneer of so-called “gonzo porn” and a First Amendment/porn hero. The feds recently tried to prosecute him on obscenity charges, but the case was so weak that after the defense rested, the judge acquitted him from the bench. Still, the threat of a new war on porn is always at hand given America’s deeply fraught, conflicted attitudes toward sex, which veer from the repressed to the liberated and usually both at the same time.
The smell of the Hard Rock is perfectly aligned with this convention.
At a booth for aphrodisial supplements, the ad copy is one of the worst sentences ever written in English: “Taking you to the apex of ethnobotanical and alternative supplements through the sourcing of the finest herbs and nutraceuticals from around the globe.” A guy at this booth is drinking a Bud Light.
Scott is a former Air Force F-16 pilot here with Sky Combat Ace, the company that will take you on a dogfight thrill ride over the Vegas Valley. He declines to give me his last name, and I can’t really blame him. It’s his first day of work, and they sent him here, wearing a flight suit, to sign up customers. He’s next to a kink booth that has a bed where women are repeatedly whipped and pointlessly pretend to enjoy it.
“They don’t look like they do in the pictures,” he says of the starlets.
On the way out, Teddy Babes: These are plush, life-size lascivious women, but stuffed like teddy bears. Shiver.
I return 48 hours later, and while getting my press credential I see porn legend Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy being interviewed next to Craig Gross, founder of XXXChurch, which offers ministry to porn addicts and those in the industry who’d like to find a way out.
Jeremy is legendary and mobbed when he goes out on the trade floor. He looks worse in person than he does on-screen, which is remarkable.
I only hear snippets of the interview, but I’m pretty sure I hear this: “Plenty of girls want to have a child with me, but I’m a traditionalist. I want to be in love.” [?!?!]
Also, something about his bar mitzvah.
The odd couple Gross and Jeremy conduct these interviews and debates frequently, which is mutually beneficial. Gross says that without being confrontational or judgmental, his group tries to help people caught up in porn.
Now I’m in the Joint, where the big companies like Vivid Entertainment have set up booths so their starlets can sign autographs for fans.
A guy in a wheelchair backs into my Achilles tendon. Trying to interview strangers here is like torture. I can’t decide if I’m more embarrassed for them or for myself, and I get denied a couple times.
At the bar at the back of the music venue a couple of mooks, overgrown frat boys, leer at a woman and sneer, “Hey you. You’re really pretty. Can I buy you a drink? Come here. I have to ask you a question.” The fans veer from sweaty and awkward to brutish and contemptuous.
The entire motif at a Jules Jordan video booth seems to be about young girls, like, high school girls. Abella Anderson is in a complicated one-piece silver jump suit, with an open front. She has a tiny sweat stain on her backside. I’m no prude (though compared to these people, clearly I am), but this is creepy and I move quickly past it.
Reid Mihalko, a bartender turned sex expert, is giving some advice from the Joint stage to a small group of rapt men about how to please a woman, using strap-on fake genitals and an actual woman. He knows what he’s talking about, throwing out nerve endings and blood flow and pelvic floor muscles and the like, but the overriding message is to be gentle. Real genius, this guy.
In an interview later, he tells me that due to a toxic blend of a lack of sex education in schools and access to hardcore pornography, there’s an epidemic of bad sex.
“If the only access you have to information is watching someone hammering away, well, that’s all they know,” he says, comparing learning about sex from porn to learning about driving from The Fast and the Furious.
Finally, the big event: AVN Awards.
First, though, a lot more waiting around, as the stars—4-inch heels, spray tans, bustiers, satin ball gowns, mermaid cheesiness—begin a winding path toward the red carpet. Four or five actors line up for photos, and all of them have goatees. I see mainstream doppelgängers, sort of worse-looking versions of Judi Dench, Meryl Streep and Philip Roth.
I run into Amanda Hess, who writes about sex and gender for Good magazine and recently published a widely read profile of James Deen (why not, right?), a new star beloved by very young women.
When I observe that most of these people don’t look very good, with burned-out hair and the makeup of ’70s Times Square trannies, Hess compares the event to the prom, noting that many of the women are just out of high school. No doubt some never got to experience their actual prom.
A local radio reporter’s questions are supposed to be risqué, the idea being that nothing could be considered inappropriate with these people, so he asks the starlets if they would rather have sex with Hitler or Osama bin Laden.
While the Joint slowly fills, a song is playing. Here are the lyrics: “Tits tits tits/Tits tits.”
Soon the festivities begin. It’s totally great that there are production problems, with videos that are supposed to start but don’t and sound and teleprompter problems and the like.
The wooden line readings of the bad jokes are eerily reminiscent of the dialogue in pornography.
The video clips of Best Oral Sex Scene show no oral sex, which calls to mind the entire problem with a convention like this, that pornography is a mostly private pursuit, but here we are, celebrating it in public.
The titles lurch from the strangely unoriginal (Praise the Load 6) to the merely vulgar (Shut Up and F*ck). Parodies are big. (Mission Asspossible.)
The winners of the Best Girl/Girl Sex Scene are Belladonna, who has a short, butch haircut, and Dana DeArmond, apparently one of the few stars to use her real name. They aren’t like the others. DeArmond is actually crying upon victory.
A strangely affecting moment, and time to end a weekend of pornography.