Porn Fans Aren’t What They Used To Be. And James Deen Just Wants To Talk About Pandas.

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Jan. 24 2013 2:40 PM

Porn Fans Aren’t What They Used To Be

Reporting from the Adult Entertainment Expo, where the gun-owning, flip-phone-carrying demo reigns and James Deen just wants to talk about pandas.

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Last year, the AEE cut its loose alliance with CES entirely, moving the porn convention to a week after the tech show and to the relatively diminutive Hard Rock Hotel. And this year, AEE picked up a new supplemental population of conventioneers. “The demographic is way different,” says Janet Gibson, COO of AVN Media Network, the company behind the convention. “It’s not the tech geeks anymore. It’s the gun people.”

Yes, this year’s convention intentionally coincided with the four-day Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show at the Sands Expo and Convention Center, which experienced record attendance just months after the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. The demographic shift is one way to dial back the clock on the Internet takeover. Gun people are “the people who are still buying DVDs,” Gibson says. Sativa Verte, a 27-year-old performer known for her hair fetish work, put it another way: “These are the hillbilly, backcountry folk.”

In addition to reaching out to gun owners, the AEE has made strides to corner the young, douchebag market by expanding the convention experience beyond autograph signings and DVD racks. Smaller booths and more intimate activities offer increased access to performers. This year’s VIP offerings included events like “Porn Star Bingo,” the “Blind Date With a Porn Star Contest,” the “Beer Pong Porn Star VIP Party,” and numerous club parties featuring big-name starlets booked to “host” the event (i.e., drink alcohol in a roped-off section of da club). Increasingly, smudging the line between porn star and fan is key, because to fans, that line is already very blurred. The distinction between a “professional” porn star and that hot college girl with a webcam who could turn up at your next frat party is narrowing. Hence, beer pong and bingo with the “stars.”

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 “When I got into this business, the only people who were open about watching porn were almost like pseudo–serial killers,” Lisa Ann, 40, told me over coffee last year. When she debuted in porn at 22—receiving early attention for her turn as the guardian nympho of 1994’s Tits a Wonderful Life—fans would track her down at live appearances armed with a gold-dipped rose and a three-ring binder containing her every known published photograph, then ask her to touch each page. Now, “young, hot guys are not embarrassed to say they watch porno.” Fifteen-year-old boys request her photograph at Lakers games. College girls email her for relationship advice. Today’s porn viewers are so nonchalant about their porn habits that they don’t even buy it at all. Which means that, “as stars, our brands are more valuable than ever.”

Lisa Ann is dogged in pursuing this new permutation of her fandom, but finding ways to monetize her sunny personality is hard work. She spends nights on her couch tweeting at select fans to cultivate jealousy among their friends. In monthly online webcam chats, she wears clothes and just talks. She has accompanied fans to Yankee Stadium and a high school reunion. She maintains an Amazon wish list of gifts she wishes her fans would buy her; she recently scored a $399.99 Dallas Cowboys helmet autographed by Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman. She sat for a mold of her vagina to sell to fans as a masturbatory Fleshlight product (the prestigious gig—one of the few that pays royalties for products moved—is a boon to an adult star). At this year’s convention, Lisa Ann partnered with Fleshlight to invite one young customer to accompany her to the awards show that caps the weekend. Any guy who bought a Lisa Ann–brand Fleshlight could qualify: Buy the fake vagina, and you could get the real human for free.

Given the stigmas projected onto members of the adult industry, perhaps it’s a positive development for fans to appreciate that porn stars are people too. After eight years of bumming around the show floor, Deen commandeered a booth for the first time this year. It gives him the chance to promote his new line of sorbet-colored T-shirts emblazoned with cartoon panda bears and hawk an enormous synthetic mold of his penis. Now that he’s more in control of his public narrative, Deen at least gets fewer guys asking “what a girl’s pussy feels like” and more who understand that “I do not want to talk about what a girl’s pussy feels like. I want to talk about baby pandas and stuff.”

Now that porn is a normal, everyday thing, typical viewers are less likely to see porn performers as objects to either venerate or degrade. While this humanization can feel good—Deen loves to talk pandas—the shrinking pool of porn money does not. The question of how to get performers compensated for their work remains.

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As the fourth and final day of the AEE convention concludes, the porn stars decamp to their tower hotel rooms to primp for the 30th annual Adult Video News Awards, the industry gala that typically caps the convention weekend. This is the moment when the porn star stops being your friend. She pulls herself up off the convention floor, squeezes into her prom gown, and slinks into the press-only red carpet area, where she’s quizzed by the likes of international shock jocks and Robin Leach—guys who have a professional excuse for staring. Fans are free to attend, to the tune of $300 a ticket.