The medium may be different, but the message is the same: Porn sells.

Seattle may have driven Roger Forbes out of business, but now Seth Warshavsky has risen to take his place.

Editor's note: Please be advised that the Web sites mentioned in this story are adult-content sites.

AS THE NEWEST millionaire computer geek from the Eastside, boyish Seth Warshavsky already has a lot to live up to. Depending on who is characterizing him, he's either a genius, a misogynist, a respected global businessman, an exploiter of children, the Bill Gates of porn, or the Larry Flynt of cyberspace. He has been sued by the Pope and Pamela Anderson Lee, caused a riled-up competitor to spit in his face, and was arrested for choking his former girlfriend during a limo ride in Las Vegas (he claims he was trying to keep her from jumping out). He plans to take his fast-rising adult-entertainment Internet company public in April, and last year addressed Congress on issues of sex online (he's for it). His eclectic mix of Net sites offers casino betting, psychic advice, housing loans, and sex-change operations—although, due to complications, he had to postpone last week's online surgery turning a male Florida government worker into a woman named Julie by removing his/her penis (making her one less customer for his Viagra Internet sales site). He hopes to sell art and music over the Net in the future, and when high-speed TV-quality video hits the home computer, he'll begin around-the-world transmission of picture-perfect live sex from Seattle. His intent is to surpass the lower-quality smaller-screen sex acts he already peddles on the Net from Pioneer Square—"free" to paid members—that have helped make him one of the few Internet entrepreneurs of any kind to turn a profit.

But to fully appreciate what the high-school dropout and World Wide Web wunderkind has achieved, and the virtual challenge he poses from his busy office and live-sex emporium at opposite ends of First Avenue, it's helpful to see him for what he inarguably is: the latter-day business descendent of the avenue's historic pornographers—the Second Coming of, say, Roger Forbes.

FROM THE 1970S through the 1990s, Forbes operated a string of Northwest porno theaters, most of them on First and Third avenues in downtown Seattle. (In the '70s, Seattle was home to 11 porn theaters and 14 panoram arcades showing X-rated videos in private booths.) Fearful for their children and weary of looking at the long lines for Debby Does Dallas, church and civic leaders conspired to run Forbes out of town, only to constantly collide with the First Amendment. By the time they came up with workable ordinances, Forbes was infamously celebrated and filthy rich. As the dirty-movie market began its fade—this year, for the first time in modern memory, Seattle does not have a porno movie house—Forbes opportunistically followed the crowds to home video and nude dance clubs. He still sells videos, operates clubs in San Francisco's North Beach, and has a share of the national D骠 Vu nude dance chain. But for the most part, 30 years and hundreds of headlines later, the porn king has relinquished his turf. From his First Avenue condo, Forbes can survey the remains of his former empire: one final nudie joint down the avenue near Pike Street (the Champ Arcade, memorable for its neon sign advertising "Live Girls"). Two blocks up First, the last of Forbes' downtown theaters—the Midtown—was just remodeled and reborn last month as an upscale salon. To the added satisfaction of City Hall, the developer who bought the theater from Forbes is also the wife of Seattle's city attorney.

But the joke may be on Seattle. From Forbes' ashes on First Avenue, the Son of Roger has risen, computer in hand, spreading porn not just down the street but to distant galaxies—and, more to the point, to Seattle living rooms.

"I have met Roger Forbes on occasion," says Seth Warshavsky, dwarfed behind the big desk in his 10th-floor offices, "but I have no sense of his history." Warshavsky, who'll turn 26 in April, wasn't even born when Forbes began blazing the trail that Warshavsky continues down today—literally on the same sidewalks. A block from Forbes' condo and a half-block from Forbes' old Midtown site are Warshavsky's offices and, across First Avenue, his $500,000 condo, from where he surveys the beginnings of his empire: Cybersexland.

Warshavsky's bustling office suite just north of the Pike Place Market serves as global headquarters of the Internet Entertainment Group (IEG), which, with just 150 employees, is estimated to have grossed around $75 million in its first three years. At the other end of First, in a Pioneer Square loft above the Pyramid Breweries alehouse, Warshavsky has created the modern-day version of his neighbor Forbes' nudie joints: voyeuristic sex 24 hours a day, with a modern marketing advantage—home delivery on demand.

Amid a jumble of beds, stages, showers, and video cameras, men and women earn $20 an hour in the converted warehouse performing what began as strip dancing in 1996 and now is live sex—alone, with objects, or with each other. On the loft's stages, the 35 technicians, directors, and young performers are locked in dramatic production of masturbation and intercourse—simulated in the sense that there is no apparent ejaculation or penetration. Many of the performers—some of them onetime local nude club dancers and their boyfriends—undress and roll about and semi-bang away for hours on end as directors in a booth guide the joysticks of remote cameras—part of what Warshavsky says is $3 million worth of push-video and state-of-the-art graphics systems. For the online customer, the viewing options include the Dungeon, Two-girl Shower, mano-on-mano Buddy Room, or the Couples Room ("Live couples fucking their brains out"). As the performers writhe, grope, and soap up, the video signal passes from the performance cubicles into a control booth. It is at this point that Warshavsky, and history, part company with Roger Forbes: The product is sent by computers to telephone lines and across the Net to the World Wide Web, into any of the millions of homes with an Internet hookup. There, an impulsive chap on his PC in London or a horny teen logging on from China can join what Warshavsky says are 100,000 fellow members enrolled at $25 a month ($175 a year) to view anonymous sex at IEG's Internet sites, the most popular being Clublove.com. In Warshavsky's new-media jargon, it's called "video conferencing." To old-timers, it's spank-the-monkey time.

ACCORDING TO WARSHAVSKY, dues and product sales (photos, sex objects, videos) at Club Love and other sites made 1998 IEG's best year yet, with revenues topping $50 million (75 percent of it from sex sites, and 30 percent of it profit). His plan now is to take IEG's low-overhead operation public in April, offering stock investors a piece of the piece. That would be a first for an adult- entertainment Net company, and Warshavsky's chances thus depend on how underwriters and investors view the "image problem." "You can make a lot of money by selling sin, and that could be enticing to investors," says Tom Taulli, a market analyst for IPO Monitor. "IEG is creating another Playboy." Adds Gordon Firestone, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney, "I don't think there's anything wrong with an IPO by a company like this. IEG has products that are a bit sensational—that's exactly what makes them valuable. I think the underwriters and investors will see the dollars, and won't care too much about the content."

Others don't want to touch the subject of an X-rated IPO. "That's too hot for us to comment on," says a spokesperson at Renaissance Capital, a respected IPO research company. "Seriously, we have no comment."

Warshavsky, who prefers the job description "adult content provider" to "porn king" or "smut merchant," hopes IEG will be valued as high as $500 million. He owns 50 percent of IEG, which, according to the secretary of state's office, is a Delaware company whose president is Warshavsky and corporate officers are two South San Francisco, California, businesspeople—Dana Pierson and Mark Cohn. Warshavsky says that Cohn, who heads up Four Star Financial, a South SF investment company, is his only partner (Cohn could not be reached for comment). "We want to utilize the public money to acquire [more] competitors and diversify our distribution—cut deals with cable companies and in-hotel-room providers," says Warshavsky. "We think the public will react well, based on [the fact that IEG is] one of the only profitable Internet companies." Last fall, he launched a Web site that may epitomize IEG's business position today: Sexquotes.com offers up the latest stock quotes and pictures of naked babes.

Though IEG's online action has escalated from strip dancing to live sex, Warshavsky for now is keeping his content "softcore"—along the lines of offerings from the Spice or Playboy channels. Guided by his full-time legal staff, "We make sure the content complies with current law. We're pretty conservative when it comes to explicitness."

With an estimated 30,000 sex-related sites on the Internet, hardcore is readily available elsewhere. But IEG predominates in large part because of its marketing scheme: Like a TV network, IEG furnishes its daily sex programs to several hundred "turnkey" online sites whose operators can't afford their own programming. It also contracts with more than two dozen of what IEG calls private label sites, such as Penthouse magazine's Penthouselive.com, in exchange for up to 50 percent of the take. Warshavsky says he also has linking agreements with more than 1,400 other Web sites, virtually cornering the Net. It's the Roger Forbes equivalent of a porno theater on every block.

The picture quality of live video sex, however, has yet to match Forbes' big-screen porn or home video. The state of the art is more like First Avenue's old panorams. On my home PC, the soundless picture is small and fuzzy, stuttering along at a frame a second—a couple lying down one moment can be standing the next. It's not unlike watching a 5-inch TV while flicking the power off and on—hot stuff, if you're into robotics. Warshavsky tries to enliven the action with two-way communication allowing the guy at home—90 percent of IEG's customers are men, mostly middle-aged—to talk (type) live with a studio operator on a chat screen next to the picture, or to call performers on a 1-800 telephone line (and, in either case, to perhaps request special acts: "Roll over, sit up, beg," an apparent pet owner typed on a Club Love chat screen recently).

But the transmitted video is certain to improve—or degenerate, depending on your moral view. "With Microsoft's acquisition of Web TV and all the cable companies moving into high-speed data products, we want to be a strong force in new media content delivery," Warshavsky says. That already has the world weighing what used to be an issue for the town council—how to protect the kiddies and control electronic smut now accessible to any home with a modem. According to PC Monitor, "sex" is the word most commonly entered at search engine sites by the world's estimated 60 million Net travelers, and pornography is expected to become the multibillion-dollar business online that it already is on cable TV and VHS tape. The formerly low-profile Warshavsky is destined to become feared and loathed not simply by local leaders but those in Gdansk, Buenos Aires, and Fiji. By comparison, Roger Forbes was a small-time operator. Forbes, after all, never took on the Pope.

IF YOU HAVEN'T heard about that one—IEG's papal dustup—it's not because Warshavsky didn't try to get the word out to you. He relentlessly pounds the publicity-mongering machinery, scoring PR points while occasionally sounding like a tin-horn Hugh Hefner. Warshavsky delights in picking on Hollywood targets sure to gain him some ink. He has so far outdueled Pamela Anderson Lee and estranged hubby, Tommy Lee, in their attempt to stop his site from showing and selling their honeymoon sex video. (At least three lawsuits remain to be settled, and Anderson is involved in a separate suit against IEG brought by Poison singer Bret Michaels, whose video of him and Anderson having sex apparently is on Warshavsky's future playlist.) Tut-tutting radio shrink Dr. Laura Schlessinger likewise failed in her attempt to force removal of a dozen embarrassing naked still photos taken 20 years ago (and sold for $50,000 to Warshavsky) by her ex-lover, and now displayed on Club Love's pages. Kelsey Grammer filed a lawsuit when he thought Warshavsky had possession of a homemade video of the Frasier star making love, but four days later dropped the suit "like a red-hot crack pipe"—a gleeful Warshavsky reference to Grammer's admitted drug use. Warshavsky now is hoping to screen a video of Jerry Springer having sex with two people—a young woman and her stepmother—who appeared on his show. Club Love customers can also watch interviews and nude pictures of women claiming to have had animal-like sex with Michael Jordan, Jack Nicholson, and Nicholas Cage. As a stunt, Warshavsky is offering any member of Congress a 99 percent discount at a whorehouse in Nevada, and, along with Bob Guccione, has a standing offer of $3 million to Monica Lewinsky if she'll pose nude and tell all, live, on the Internet.

His dark star rising, Warshavsky was called before Congress last year to testify on proposed Internet adult-content regulations. He suggested creation of a secure zone in cyberspace with ".adult" addresses that could be blocked from children's access by a V chip. Legislators seemed impressed, but it was also a mandatory business move—like Roger Forbes' carding of pubescent teens to keep his critics at bay.

Then came the Pope. IEG recently linked its sites to others that carried news of Pope John Paul II's visit a couple of weeks ago to St. Louis. To make sure Catholics were properly horrified, IEG included an account of papal sex scandals and dirty religious jokes. In a suit by the church, a federal judge in St. Louis ordered the link severed, turning back Warshavsky's free-speech argument. "The Pope and I share many of the same interests," Warshavsky snickered in a publicity release. "Sex is what drives our business and sex is a main concern of the Pope."

Just as he constructs PR opportunities—issuing press releases even when he loses in court—Warshavsky labors over his own image. He likes to repeat catchphrases—IEG, for example, is becoming "the Viacom of new media." The other day in his office, where visitors are greeted by the cleavage of a well-endowed receptionist, he returned unshaven and with a cold from Las Vegas, one of his regular stops for such sex events as the annual Adultdex show—the adult version of Comdex—where "the silicone meets the silicon." Last year, IEG's booth featured busty porn star Lauren Montgomery, one of a number of X-rated actresses who appear live at IEG events and on its Web site; Warshavsky is also regularly on the plane to LA to woo investors and attend Hollywood parties, seeking out exclusive partnerships with such online providers as Alleykatz.com, once a separately operated site that Warshavsky bought into and turned into a veritable clone of Club Love.

Rubbing his stubble, a road-weary Warshavsky didn't want a picture taken. "I'm not wearing what I'd like for that," he said. "I want to prepare." As he expands into tamer online services such as legal advice and golf tips, he finds himself deferentially compared to Bill Gates. Both have Eastside connections, were young innovators, and are school dropouts—Gates from college, Warshavsky from Hot Tub High—Bellevue High School. "But I went back and got my high school degree off campus," Warshavsky says in a nasally monotone, offering a vaguely toothy smile. Short and spare, he looks the mischievous kid playing with papers on the big desk while his dad's away—except that this kid turned his first million before he turned 21.

HIS PARENTS MOVED to Bellevue from his native New York when Warshavsky was a grade-schooler. By age 19—the same age as Gates when he began to assemble Microsoft—Warshavsky discovered the easy money available from phone sex. Borrowing $7,000, he and a partner launched 1-800-GET SOME. It grew from crude beginnings to a worldwide operation that, Warshavsky says, grossed $60 million in just a few years. At age 22, he saw the future and it was still phone sex, but with pictures. Pirating a streaming-video sex site idea from a Canadian online pioneer, he launched Candyland.com, his original online porn site, in January 1996 (changing the name to Clublove.com after toy-maker Hasbro sued for name infringement on its Candy Land board game). Today Club Love and Warshavsky's other subtly named sex sites—Flirtual Reality, Buttsville, and the all-gay Manhole, for example—are among an estimated 3,000 Internet sex locales available only to paying adults (or kids with their parents' credit card numbers). Although few Internet sites of any kind make a profit, Warshavsky says that IEG netted $15 million last year. One key factor in the profit picture is Warshavsky's online commerce company, IFS. It allows members to join his sex clubs using an encrypted system and, if they choose, to have costs charged to phone bills or deducted directly from bank accounts.

For all this, he seems to have earned mostly bemused admiration. Wired magazine calls him "the Bob Guccione of the 1990s," comparing him with the sometimes unctuous Penthouse publisher. The Wall Street Journal has called Warshavsky a "scrubbed and apple-cheeked . . . seasoned Web publisher." AdWeek finds him to be a "freckle-faced, clean-cut Gen-Xer who recently bought a boat and likes water-skiing, but says he is bored when not working." Writers have noted that he owned a BMW (today a Jaguar), but had a chauffeur drive it after he lost his license as a habitual offender—20 moving violations in five years. (His license was returned in September of last year, although a copy of his driving abstract shows he notched another moving violation two months earlier.) "My mother's proud of me," Warshavsky told ABCnews.com. "I'm a successful businessman."

Missing from most Warshavsky profiles is any mention of what has helped make Mrs. W's son rich—masturbation. Without that vast market of self-abuse, Warshavsky might still be the clothing salesman he once was. The customers of what is sometimes called Clublove.cum don't even have the excuse that Guccione's have—that they buy the product to read the articles (Warshavsky's sites have no text-only buttons, although he does publish an online magazine I plan to read any day now).

His aggressive business tactics have ticked off competitors, among them Joseph Kahwaty of iBroadcast, a Seattle (and First Avenue) pornographic video-feed supplier to Internet customers. In 1997, Warshavsky obtained a restraining order against Kahwaty after he allegedly spit in Warshavsky's face and challenged him to fight outside a Pioneer Square bar (Kahwaty posted details of the near-fisticuffs battle on the Internet, writing: "I spit in the little pussy's face . . . "). Warshavsky later sued Kahwaty for $1 million, claiming assault and defamation, but dropped the suit last April.

UNMARRIED AND WITHOUT a steady girl (his best friend appears to be a cell phone), does Warshavsky partake of his own services? "No," he says with a shrug. "There are enough women around here," he adds, pointing out his office door. Asked about her boss, a young woman running copies at Warshavsky's office photocopy machine says, "Seth has his moods. But he's a good person."

His former girlfriend may have another view. Last fall, a year after they began dating, she obtained a one-year restraining order against Warshavsky. Sunawin Andrews, 25, an attractive, shapely, auburn-haired woman known by the name Leasi and employed by Warshavsky, claims he choked her during a limousine ride in Las Vegas last fall and has physically attacked her in front of her 6-year-old child. In court papers, Andrews claims Warshavsky has been "stalking her home"—an apartment on First Avenue—has threatened to kill himself, and "to have my baby's father killed." (A male friend of Andrews, Patrick McKenna, says he has repeatedly been threatened by Warshavsky and has moved to another residence "because I have a real fear of what Mr. Warshavsky or his agents might do.")

Warshavsky tells me Andrews' civil action was "just a frivolous restraining order in an attempt to extort money, and is in the process of being dropped." (The order in fact was renewed last month for another year, according to King County court records that Warshavsky unsuccessfully attempted to have sealed, and is based on physical threats, not extortion.) Warshavsky claims that since the protective order was first issued last September, he and Andrews have been "intimate" and have traveled together—to attend the MTV Music Video Awards in Hollywood, for one. But he also took back the car he gave her, Warshavsky says, and ended a business deal they'd been planning. Andrews' attorney, Allen Ressler, claims Warshavsky has repeatedly violated the restraining order and says his client still fears for her safety.

Though Warshavsky's sex sites refer to women as "nasty bitches," "pussy," and "sluts"—the native tongue of the porn industry—and feature a Pee Cam peeping on women in an employee restroom stall—no one's complaining, Warshavsky claims. "No negative feedback," he says, from either his customers or the general public. Perhaps, in the paralyzing muck of today's American morality play, where currently Ken Starr and Larry Flynt are playing each other, the world may be temporarily immune to shock over sex. (Unquestioningly, it's an atmosphere conducive to Seth Warshavsky assuming the role of the cosmos' Roger Forbes.)

Not that he's wasting much time thinking about it. "Like to talk more," says Warshavsky from behind his big desk, impatiently cradling his phone, "but I've got to take this call." Another investor? Attorney? Pope? The Chinese kid wanting his money back? The beat goes on.

 
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