Most conventions are pants-mandatory kinds of affairs -- even those of the adult nature. For the world's first virtual porn convention, however, I'm not wearing any (relax...I'm in my PJs).
The main virtual hall
Trying to explain the very nature of this whole thing requires more nerd references than I'm capable of conveying to a broad audience -- but here goes. Imagine if World of Warcraft wasn't all about wizards and war but instead sex and stimulation, and was designed by Neil Stephenson and William Gibson's bastard love child. Did I lose you? What if each porn website you visited was a little 3-D world and all of the people looking at it were in it with you, rubbing pixelated elbows (or crotches). That's pretty much it. Only, the Utherverse isn't all porn, per se. Or maybe it is. We'll get to that.
The writer on the virtual red carpet
I'm attending this conference in my PJs, but my avatar is dressed much as I would be in a real-world situation like this -- tie, jeans, and Chucks. But most attendees have exceeded my limited virtual-world imagination by leaps and bounds. There are cats, leopards with wings, and dudes in digital Affliction T-shirts, also with wings. Like most conventions, there are booths, vendors, ads, and people milling about aimlessly. Unlike most conventions, we're in this bizarre World of Wank-Craft, and some people are flying.
I get a chance to talk to Brian Shuster, the man behind this whole universe. With a background in cartooning and entrepreneurship on what he calls "the flat web" (i.e., what you're staring at right now), he was inspired to create the Vancouver-based Utherverse in 2002 based on observations of some early pre-WoW MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) adventures. "We found that these games became a flirtfest," he says. They were full of lonely dudes, but "one girl would show up and everyone would lose interest in whatever quest they were on...they'd want to show her around or help her," he says. So he and his partners created the Utherverse, which was just about social interaction, and more or less a competitor to the better-known virtual world, Second Life.
Inspired by a trip to Amsterdam, he added to the Utherverse a Red Light Center in 2006, a virtual adult world based on Amsterdam's Red Light District. In this little world, there are bordellos, bathhouses, and even hookah bars, where subscribers can live out whatever fantasy they can conceive of, using self-styled digital avatars. "When you think about it, Facebook is so isolating," Shuster says. "Here, people are mentally stimulated in the same way as they are in real-life interactions."
In this convention, at the outset, I personally do not feel as stimulated as I would at a real life adult-con. Walking around with an avatar offers no real-world sounds and smells. The environment looks like a convention space -- hanging banners, exhibit tables, and even a networking bar. Sure, it's overall easier to navigate, and I can do my laundry while my avatar does all the online mingling -- even when other avatars are just standing around publicly sucking face. But there's something missing. I can't put my virtual finger on it.
Maybe it's the lack of free food? I'm not sure how I feel about food at a porn convention anyhow -- although given the general sculpted-body fitness that most porn stars sport, I'm not so sure it will be the unhealthy slop I've seen at lesser, non-adult conventions.
Opening-day sessions are all aimed at adult-industry insiders, as there are sessions on social media, law, and virtual-world monetization. Stephen Yagielowicz, senior editor at the adult-industry publication XBiz, gives a rousing set of opening remarks, reminding attendees that the adult entertainment industry is full of some pretty erudite and well-reasoned freedom fighters. The biz generally concerns consenting adults interacting with other consenting adults, not some menacing Moloch out to corrupt your children. Even in the 3-D virtual world. Later, lighter topics include managing your Twitter account, and making sure your twit-pics stay sexy as well as legal.
At this point, the 3-D world is actually kind of growing on me. I'm getting tons of chores done in real life, and my avatar's eyes don't reflexively glaze over, no matter how tired my real self gets of hearing the same lame body humor jokes. In the fake world, I have a giant digital badge that identifies me as a journalist, and quick work is made of introductions -- everyone's avatar is linked to their online Utherverse profile, eliminating at least half of all informational small talk. But I feel a little more awkward in this world than I am in reality, unable to rely on normal human facial expressions and body language.
For others, the virtual world makes interactions easier. Derek D, the Main Hall's DJ, puts it succinctly: "My avatar's looking real sharp. In real life, I'm fat, hairy, and I've got a small dick! In cyberspace, everybody's sexy!" he says as he spins tunes and invites attendees to interact with him at the booth.
Utherverse and Red Light Center are pretty easy to mock. Why don't these people just get out and meet real people in real life? Maybe get some real actual sex? Isn't the internet teeming with ways for real people to get really filthy?
Sure, but "Sigmilla," a 40-something woman and Utherverse member since 2008, offers some insight into the allure of an online world. "I joined it kinda by accident looking for other social sites, and I've been on here ever since," she says. "On here you can interact with people from around the world, something that doesn't always happen in real life," she continues. While most subscribers are from North America, there are plenty that aren't, and that instantaneous global reach draws in most of those users. "So it isn't all about sex?" I ask. "Well, yeah, that's part of it," she responds.
Virtual dance party...with virtual butt crack
Active users like Sigmilla customize their world, designing "Zabys" or fake living spaces that range from small apartments to country mansions, plus the clothing they wear, the items they use and even the different iterations of the digital skin they have underneath those clothes -- like different types of muscles, scales, or purple fur. Sigmilla has two jobs in the Utherverse: as virtual event planner and, yes, a virtual model, something she probably wouldn't do in real life.
While Sigmilla models in exchange for Utherverse virtual cash called "Rays," others do more nefarious things for those fake dollars. SaphyreRose is an Utherverse call girl -- and she's the best there is. So good, in fact, that the AEVC honored her as this year's Best Verified Working Girl. Her in-world husband (yes, Utherverse hosts about a thousand virtual marriages a year), Eros, shared the honor as this year's Best Working Guy. Utherverse's working guys and girls like Rose and Eros book virtual sex sessions with Ray-paying customers. The couple -- in an open, long-distance relationship with each other in real life -- revels in being virtual royalty of the oldest profession.
Rose personally walks me through the seedier side of virtual online sex. Each encounter takes place in any number of virtual bedrooms or spaces decorated according to taste. "It's very alluring...very erotic," she says. "Well, it can be with the right person and the right chemistry and the right setting. Some think it strange, but it's really just a new avenue of enjoying sexuality." During a session, communicated through text chat or voice chat, each participant controls their naked or partially clothed avatar through a variety of sex acts and positions, which all build to a (somewhat comical) animated climax.
Rose charges an hourly rate of Rays and services dozens of clients a week -- all of whom leave her charming and positive feedback on her personal page. They seem to appreciate that Rose is verified as a real person with real pictures, though she generally doesn't show her whole face in her photos, or use the site's webcam. "I'm on the PTA," she says, "We can't have that getting around the web...it might show up on Mysluts.com or something or be seen by the school principal."
During her AEVC talk, with her warm and inviting Midwestern accent, she could be mistaken for a scrapbooking lecturer, but instead she's advising would-be virtual sex workers on the benefits of stewarding their clients. "If there is no chemistry with a client, there's nothing wrong with telling them that you two wouldn't mesh...but you have to be gentle so you don't hurt someone's feelings," she cautions the crowd. There's definitely a positive community vibe here. Rose's lecture is one of the few AEVC sessions that are specifically geared towards the Utherverse world.
An interview with porn legend Seka
Over the remainder of three real-life days, the convention introduced sessions with real-world porn starlets like Aurora Snow and industry pioneers like Seka. Mixed in were more intense freedom-of-speech kinds of sessions, and a bummer of a condom law lecture.
Starlet Sabrina Deep, best known for her marathon group sex videos and fan inclusion, gave that bummer lecture, clarifying for fans the new California condom laws that threaten the adult industry's historic home base in Los Angeles. While her arguments questioning the safety of condoms fell flat, her impassioned portrayal of the industry's enemies rang solid. "Due to the nature of productions, the adult entertainment industry makes for an easy target for many individuals, organizations with personal, political and religious agendas," she said.
Seka, one of the first major porn stars, answered a number of questions about the early days of porn with the class of a debutante. "In the late 70s and early 80s, I didn't even drink...I was so frickin' naïve...," she said. She also called out current performers for their party lifestyles. "I enjoy my job. I'm not a lazy porn star! Excuse me, bitches, you put on your bra one titty at time, just like everyone else," she crowed to virtual giggles.
Kelsey Obsession on "The Art of Anal"
As charming as Seka was, the stand-out session goes to fetish model Kelsey Obsession, who taught "The Art of Anal" to a packed digital theater. Obsession, on webcam, showed the ins and outs -- well, mostly the ins -- of anal sex. She demonstrated on her own body, with her own toys, how to safely and effectively...y'know...do that kind of thing. Her hands-on approach got high marks from every avatar we chatted with. "That's how it's done!" one attendee told us.
Even if the Adult Entertainment Virtual Convention is indeed the first of its kind and did draw over 10,000 unique users over the weekend, organizer Shuster really wants us to know that sex is not the Utherverse's primary concern. "There are over 80,000 user-generated worlds and a million personal worlds," he says. Most of them are not adult, supposedly; there's even a Virtual Vancouver. "There are even folks who do karaoke on there," he says. Perhaps sex is just at the forefront because it's more exciting than virtual karaoke? No one will disagree with that. -- Paul T. Bradley