Inside Adultdex, the cyberporn convention that time forgot by Adi Robertson

I’m gearing up to attend some adult expos this month. There are a lot of them!

Back when I had a foot in the design world, I remember hearing about how AVN’s Adult Entertainment Expo (AEE) always happened at the same time as the Consumer Electronic Show. They changed that a few years back and so that’s not the case anymore.

This piece, by Adi Roberston delves into some of the history of the relationship between consumer electronics and the adult market. What’s interesting is that the coupling and split of CES and AEE is a kind of techno-porn history repeating. Before CES and AEE were Cyberdex and Adultdex, which divorced back in the late 1990’s.

Robertson writes about the paradox that is taboo material  considered “obscene.” Despite its clear financial profits, the Comdex organizers rejected Adultdex, refusing to admit that the obscenity of pornography kept them afloat.

“So in 1995, Adultdex officially arrived in Las Vegas. It still drew an audience from Comdex, which was nearing its zenith with almost 200,000 (mostly male) attendees, but the two had a prickly relationship. After the first year, a Comdex spokesperson admitted the organizers had lost $500,000 in booth rental revenue by banishing porn but made clear that they didn’t care: “Their stuff is obscene and we don’t need them.” For the next several years, though, visitors flocked to what was described variously as “seamy Comdex rejects” and the “recess” to Comdex’s classroom.”

Read the original post here, or see below.

Inside Adultdex, the cyberporn convention that time forgot

Remembering the days of cyber lust, sexy software, and “seedy ROMs”

Adultdex Robsertson

I found out about Las Vegas’ defunct erotic CD-ROM convention because I was wondering if there had ever been a murder at CES.

As far as I know, there hasn’t – at least, that’s what a Google search tells me. But in my fruitless search, I caught a piece about the death of Comdex, a massive consumer electronics tradeshow that rivaled CES until it shut down in 2003. And alongside it, there was another name: Adultdex.

Until a few years ago – the year before my first visit, in fact – CES infamously coincided with the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, an event that hosts some 25,000 exhibitors, industry professionals, and porn fans every year. Originally part of CES, it officially split in 1999 and has become a journalistic mainstay in its own right, partly because sex sells and partly because it’s fascinating to see it sold at what is arguably the least sexy type of event on Earth. But it turns out CES wasn’t the first tech convention to spawn a porn show.

Adultdex and the AVN Expo had strikingly similar origin stories. They were born a few years apart, out of warring mainstream conventions that had grown uncomfortable with their increasingly visible dirty side. Porn companies, AVN founder Paul Fishbein said in 2012, had been drawn to CES since the ‘80s, when they helped boost the popularity of VCRs. But the show exiled them to the basement of the Sands Expo Center, where essayist David Foster Wallace said they were treated like “the crazy relative in the family,” and by 1998, they were ready to split.

Aduld

Adultdex didn’t take nearly that long to part ways with Comdex. Where the AVN Expo emerged at the end of the century, in the middle of the dot-com bubble, Adultdex was a product of something older: the CD-ROM. Adult CD-ROMs (or, if you wrote newspaper headlines, “seedy ROMs” – this was an era where you could call a film about cybersex a*.DOCumentary with a totally straight face) emerged in the early ‘90s, their high-production interactive erotica feeding a burgeoning fascination with virtual sex. While the games industry was swooning over Myst or The 7th Guest and exploring the wonder and horror of full-motion video, other people were putting that technology towards something quite different.

NERDS WERE ILL-EQUIPPED TO PROCESS FARE LIKE LA STRIPPERS: BIKES & BABES & ROCK ‘N’ ROLLIn 1993, the The New York Times remarked that a half-dozen companies had set up bustling X-rated CD-ROM booths in a Comdex annex normally filled with sound cards and disc drives. Nerds were, apparently, ill-equipped to process fare like LA Strippers: Bikes & Babes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: “the displays caused traffic jams in the aisles as the predominantly male computer crowd stopped to gawk,” the Times wrote. “Many customers waved fists of cash.”

On one end of the CD-ROM spectrum were entrepreneurs like Rebecca “Lee” Noga, whose company sold tens of thousands of discs – adult and all-ages – by trawling online bulletin boards for shareware and pictures to resell at exorbitant prices. (She reportedly considered the material “in the public domain” until Playboy, Disney, and Time Warner all sued for copyright infringement.) On the other end were moguls like Bob Guccione – who bankrolled bothPenthouse and the visionary science fiction magazineOmni – and upstarts like New Machine Publishing, a group of 20-somethings who abandoned dreams of making educational games about rainforests to pursue the more lucrative path of ambitious choose-your-own-adventure smut. In the early- to mid-’90s, you could buy a “Penthouse Guide to Cybersex” and shell out $130 for the “Penthouse Interactive Virtual Photo Shoot,” which one reviewer described as an incredibly stressful photography simulator featuring an angry virtual Guccione. The adult disc industry was big enough to support two apparently short-lived magazines, Hustler Hard Drive and Interactive Quarterly.

Comdex, however, wanted no part of it. When more porn companies showed up the next year, other exhibitors (including Microsoft and Intel) complained, and the organizers kicked them out – CNet describes Comdex literally pulling the plug on adult entertainers’ booths, turning off the electricity when they refused to leave.

IF THERE’S ONE CONSTANT IN PORN SHOW NEWS COVERAGE, IT’S THE OMNIPRESENCE OF CREEPY MEN WITH CAMERASSo in 1995, Adultdex officially arrived in Las Vegas. It still drew an audience from Comdex, which was nearing its zenith with almost 200,000 (mostly male) attendees, but the two had a prickly relationship. After the first year, a Comdex spokesperson admittedthe organizers had lost $500,000 in booth rental revenue by banishing porn but made clear that they didn’t care: “Their stuff is obscene and we don’t need them.” For the next several years, though, visitors flocked to what was described variously as “seamy Comdex rejects” and the “recess” to Comdex’s classroom. Attendees carefully flipped over their Comdex name badges and paid an extra $20, fleeing the likes of Intel and IBM in order to buy discount videos and snap pictures of themselves with porn stars in crop tops, against a decidedly non-erotic backdrop of black drapes and beige CRTs.

Adultdex2

CD-ROMs were old hat within a couple of years, and Adultdex quickly began navigating the move to DVDs and online porn, especially after the Supreme Court struck down rules governing internet indecency in 1997. Exhibitors showed up with videoconferencing tools, web hosting services, and a “$100,000 turnkey cyberporn system,” talking up the success stories of online stars with seven-figure incomes. Reporters went from writing about sweaty nerds grabbing at shiny discs to sweaty nerds looking for the women from their favorite websites; if there’s one constant in porn show news coverage, it’s the omnipresence of creepy men with cameras.

As with the AVN Expo, mainstream writers often seemed bemused by Adultdex – comedian Dave Barry paid an early visit, sardonically hailing a future where “this fast-growing billion-dollar industry will undoubtedly come up with newer and better ways to help losers whack off.” But the Las Vegas sex industry loved Comdex, and Adultdex was an integral element. When vice cops raided the show in 1997, issuing citations to performers for flashing their breasts, organizer Fay Sharp declared it a victory. “It’s giving us the kind of publicity we could never buy,” she told Billboard. “It’s showing adult interactive is very much in the mainstream.” Around its peak, one estimate pegged attendance at between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year.

At the start of the 21st century, though, the future wasn’t so bright. The radical promise of dot-com riches had collapsed. The internet had revolutionized all kinds of media, including pornography, but not in a way that promised bigger profits. And the September 11th attacks cut the legs out from under Comdex, Adultdex, and the rest of the tech world. Comdex attendance dropped by nearly half between 2000 and 2002, and in 2004,its organizers decided there was no longer enough demand for a show. Adultdex was already gone. It had been canceled the previous year, after convention space proved hard to find and overseas attendees were reluctant to travel.

Adultdexleftfloat

Technically, Adultdex wasn’t totally dead yet. Its organizers had split off a webmaster-specific event called the Cybernet Expo, which in turn morphed into the now-defunct “YNOT Summit.” But I failed to track down anyone who’d actually worked on the show. “The main owners of Adultdex are long out of the adult industry,” YNOT’s Jay Kopita told me. The company took over the Cybernet Expo in 2008 and changed the name, but discontinued it three years ago “due to market demands (or lack thereof.)” At this point, it’s probably safe to call it down for the count.

Adultdex was far from the only place to find smut in Las Vegas. It wasn’t even the only smutty tech show in Las Vegas. But looking back, it’s fascinating how neatly it bookends a certain period in computing culture, where home computers became high-powered entertainment machines and the web was going to make everyone rich. And it’s all the more interesting because unlike hypertext art or mainstream CD-ROM games, porn is disposable, consumed on the sly – the further back you go, the harder it is to find these products that were supposed to revolutionize the way people (or, at least, men) saw sex.

Today, New Machine’s CD-ROM magnum opus Dream Machine exists as a single (NSFW) trailer on YouTube. You can buy a few of the interactive films that were deemed too hot for Comdex on eBay, as long as you’ve got a 3DO to play them. A used copy ofPenthouse Virtual Interactive Photo Shoot, Volume 5 is selling on Amazon.

It still costs $130.

Photo: Associated Press

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