Moving From Back Alleys on to Wall St.

James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail:

The dirty secret of the Internet, of course, is dirt. Or smut, or porn or, to use the industry’s preferred term, “adult entertainment.” By any name, it’s a billion-dollar business; indeed porn-preneurs spearheaded the innovations--including instantaneous credit card transactions and streaming video--that paved the I-way for the likes of AOL and

And so it’s fitting that Adultdex, the high-tech trade show for the porn biz, was held cheek to, er, cheek with Comdex, the giant computer exposition that attracted some 200,000 rich nerds to a geek Woodstock last week. Adultdex skulked in Comdex’s shadow like the dirty old man at a family gathering, barely acknowledged but undeniably sharing the same DNA.

Yet ironically, the adult industry no longer wants to hide, and that reveals much about the libertarian--or maybe libertine--direction of American society in the last few decades. Most pornographers no longer fear the law; rather, they welcome legal protection for their business. In fact, they are so out of the back alleys that they are even eyeing Wall Street.

To be sure, the Adultdex show abounded with porn stars, most touting their own Web sites--estimates of the number of pay-to-view places on the Internet range from 85,000 to 250,000--all prancing around in bikinis, slinky evening dresses or even skimpier pseudo-cheerleader outfits. But Adultdex isn’t about sex. It’s about making sex more profitable.


And that brought Gregory A. Piccionelli to Adultdex. He’s a partner in a law firm with offices in the Century City complex in West Los Angeles. Is he here to offer counsel for obscenity busts? He shakes his head; that practice has mostly dried up. As befits someone with a background in molecular biology, Piccionelli’s real passion is intellectual property. “The Internet is the mother of copyright infringement,” he says with the smile of a lawyer who keeps busy chasing down picture-poachers. But it’s more than that. “Almost any business method is now patentable,” he notes. And so if you have a new technique for extracting money from Web surfers, porn-related or not, Piccionelli can help.

One of Piccionelli’s clients is Gail Harris, who claims to own the world’s largest erotic photo gallery. All the big skin magazines are clients, she says. Harris is busy digitalizing her 1.5 million images; soon they all could be available on the Internet. Having dreamed up the concept for two adult magazines, Barely Legal and Hometown Girls, and sold them to Larry Flynt Publications, the England-born Harris now dreams of the ultimate capitalist fast-break: She wants to sell shares in her company, Falcon Foto, to the public. After all, her product is much more tangible than the hazy business plans that have get-rich-quicked the “dotcom” visionaries at Comdex. And a comedy script in which pin-striped investment bankers travel to her porn plant in the San Fernando Valley--the area immortalized as the capital of carnality in the 1997 film “Boogie Nights"--practically writes itself. But Harris seems confident that a seven- or eight-digit initial public offering is even more of a sure thing.

Any qualms about what she does? “Oh, I don’t do the hardcore stuff,” she says with the airy authority of a Brit. Meanwhile, just a few feet away, a videotape plays on the table at her show booth; it shows a woman urinating on a man’s face. Evidently the definition of “hardcore” has gotten hard indeed.

And that’s the lesson of Adultdex. The true rap on capitalism in the post-Reagan age is not that it doesn’t work, or even that doesn’t work equally; it’s that it works too well. The miracle of the market has made raunch available to just about everyone. Even those who don’t have personal computers--fewer than half the population, according to the latest surveys--can still get access to Net naughtiness in public schools and libraries.


For his part, lawyer Piccionelli is sure that free speech is the cure for just about every problem in the future. “One lonely idea may be necessary to save mankind,” he declares--meaning that any stifling of “free speech” could be catastrophic. Most Americans might not agree with that lusty assessment, but the combination of tech and sex is already pipelining porn into every home, ready or not.