Georgia Payne, a dominatrix who cheerfully admits that's not her real name, knelt on a stage in a cavernous hall of the L.A. Convention Center. Facing about 50 people, she'd asked for a volunteer and gotten Tom, a 39-year-old graphic artist from La Crescenta.
Payne, who earns $250 an hour, was about to demonstrate the fine art of spanking, which -- contrary to what you might think -- is not as simple as it looks. The hand should be cupped, not flat, she explained, and positioned on the lower part of the buttocks, never at the top, never on the leg and never ever near the tailbone.
"If your husband went to Catholic school," the 32-year-old Payne said with a sly smile, "he's probably secretly dying for it."
In the audience, more than half of whom were women, Jennifer and Jonathan Chavez, 19-year-old newlyweds from Lynwood, giggled. Their baby was home with grandma, and the pair were happily exploring the first night of Erotica L.A., a three-day retail expo that ends today at 6 p.m.
"This bondage stuff is pretty fun," said Jennifer, neatly encapsulating the evening's risque but unthreatening vibe.
This year's expo is a far cry from the first Erotica L.A. show, at the Hollywood Palladium 10 years ago. It attracted about 1,200 people, mostly men, to a warren of swap meet-like booths selling X-rated videos. This year, organizers said they were hoping for 50,000 paying visitors, an increase of 10,000 over last year. They have directed much of their marketing effort -- including 90% of a $300,000 promotional budget -- toward women, buying time on female-dominated outlets such as the Lifetime Channel and the Oxygen network.
To be sure, many events appeal to the male libido: "strip offs" on one of the three stages (nudity is verboten, stripper poles are not), a cheerleader tryout for "Debbie Does Dallas ... Again," autograph signings and picture posings by many hard-bodied porn queens -- most notably Jenna Jameson, who just sold her adult entertainment business, Club Jenna Inc., to Playboy Enterprises for undisclosed millions. And everywhere, there are scads of scantily clad women with zero body fat and amazingly inflated chests, working as "spokes-models." They are trailed by men with both their tongues and cameras out.
But there are also many couples, many clusters of women, and a vibe in the air that this place is just as much about romance as sex. It's hard to find a seminar that is not tailored to attract a female crowd (or at least couples).
On Friday and Saturday, Payne presented "How to Be a Dominant Diva," which is how Tom wound up being spanked and caned in public. (It could have been worse for Tom; Payne also demonstrated hogtying on her husband, Greg Sena, a cross-dressing Chatsworth geologist who said that at their wedding two years ago, she wore a red dress, he wore a white dress ... and yes, his mother wept.)
Saturday's seminar lineup included "The Straight Girls Guide to Sleeping With Chicks," "A Practical Guide to Striptease" by Miyoko Fujimori, a former Playboy Channel talk-show host, and "Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World's Greatest Aphrodisiac," by David Wolfe, an earnest raw-food expert who was energetically selling cacao nibs and goji berries at his booth Friday night.
A 55-year-old South Bay mom who works in an elementary school spent $65 on berries, chocolate and Wolfe's book on aphrodisiacs. She declined to give her name for fear that colleagues and family would make fun of her. This was her second year at the expo, she said. Both times she had come with a girlfriend who was studying psychology and sexuality. Last year, said the woman, who wore wire-rimmed glasses and her hair in a bun, "some sweet young thing came up to me and said, 'What are you doing here?' "
In fact, many aspects of the show were vetted for their appeal to women, because women drive the market, said Darren Roberts, chief executive of Teddy Communications Inc., the events division of Adult Video News, the adult entertainment conglomerate that puts on the show here and in other cities. (The company's signature event is the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo Las Vegas.)
"You have to do very little to get the male audience," but apart from the $30 ticket, men don't spend a lot of money, Roberts said. "Guys come and they want an autograph, they want to look, they walk out with a video. Women and couples are walking out with bags of stuff."
Some of that stuff might include erotic garments, candles, massage oils, razors, vibrators, whips, masks or even phallus-shaped (among other body parts) chocolate lollipops, selling briskly at $4 each at the Chocolate Walrus Adult Boutique booth. Young women in skimpy milk-maid outfits offered derriere-shaped bites of butterscotch chocolate. "Here," they said, "have a piece of ...."
Sonia Quintero, a 33-year-old tech company account manager, and her boyfriend, Devin Agnew, a 32-year-old self-employed software designer, couldn't resist a lollipop. It was her idea to attend, Quintero said. "It's our first time here," Agnew added. "It sounded like fun."
No one describes pornography as fun, which is why Roberts and others in the industry don't like to use the word anymore. The preferred term is "adult entertainment." And anyway, it's been years since the X-rated world was a secretive male domain.
Women now have their own sex websites and home parties that feature lingerie, and accessories once coyly referred to as "marital aids" are a growth field.
"If you think about it," said sex expert Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist, "90% of the sex toys manufactured are for women. Once women started to discover vibrators as adjuncts to their marital and single lives, they started having 'Tupperware' parties and making it part consciousness raising, part girls night out ... which defanged it and got it away from the guys-in-trench-coats imagery."
Publishing houses known for their bodice-ripping romances aimed at women are increasingly turning to more graphic erotic tales: Harlequin has launched Spice Books, Kensington Books has Aphrodisia and Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, recently created an erotica line, Avon Red.
Liz Brinkman, the U.S. sales agent for Lelo, a Swedish company that makes palm-sized, kidney-bean-shaped vibrators, said she was struck by the number of couples strolling around the expo.
"Women are getting more comfortable with the idea of using props in the bedroom," she said. And unlike the many booths full of plastic genitalia and other in-your-face products, she added, "What we sell is more high-end and discreet." (Her products range in price from $89 for a silicone vibrator to $1,500 for a 14-karat gold-plated vibrator made of high-grade medical steel.)
Still, a hallmark of a show such as this is the opportunity to mingle and take a picture with porn stars such as the mega-famous Jameson, who has become a crossover star with her bestselling book "How to Make Love Like a Porn Star," and lesser-knowns such as Stormy, Savannah and Nautica, most of whom are frighteningly proportioned and far too perfect looking. These are women with "man magnet" written all over them, but Friday night, nearly as many women as men lined up to get close.
"The idea of unabashed unfettered and intense sexuality is awesome to both sexes and it is very hard to get there," Schwartz said. "The feminist revolution has reconstructed the idea of what a sex worker is -- your body belongs to you, etc. So for women, there is a certain admiration for this person who has made herself into a star, who is beautiful, sexually comfortable and who makes no apologies for that." (Even "Jesus Loves Porn Stars," according to the cover of New Testaments being given away by the Orange County-based XXXchurch.com, an anti-pornography Christian outreach effort that has a booth at the show.)
And yet, despite the mainstreaming of porn and women's increasing comfort in a marketplace such as Erotica L.A., some women, such as the South Bay mom, do not want to see their names in the newspaper.
"I keep my work life and my private life separate," said a 44-year-old Los Angeles legal secretary, who would give only her first name, Robin. "I am not ashamed of being here, but I don't need my colleagues to read about it."