You've Got Porn!

Fresh-Faced AOL Feels Up Smut For Profit

We have met America Online's perverts, and they are us.

Hungry for sex, we crowd into AOL's sweaty chat rooms, those thousands of niches in cyberspace with names that belie the company's apple-pie image. Picking our way across aol's servers, we huddle in dark corners like "Smack Smack Oooooo" and "Seeking WFSubs2Breed," where we swap fantasies, nudie "self pics," and recycled photos from hardcore newsgroups carried by AOL.

Lusty AOLiens may have made this friendly ISP the world's busiest on-ramp to e-rotica, yet of the $17.9 billion gross the service is expected to rake in this year, not one cent will come from the direct sale of porn to its 34 million American subscribers. Rather than pointing the way to online sex, AOL prefers to leave customers fending for themselves in a maze of virtual boudoirs, and in the process leaves behind millions in potential profits.

Porn insiders say AOL execs have already begun to explore ways to profit from dirty pictures.
Porn insiders say AOL execs have already begun to explore ways to profit from dirty pictures.

So when will all that money finally seduce AOL into stripping off its chastity belt? When will the company just sell its customers the smut they so obviously crave? The answer, say porn industry players and media analysts, is soon after AOL clears regulatory hurdles and completes its purchase of Time Warner.


AOL has worked hard to look as scrubbed and wholesome as its moon-faced chief executive officer, Steve Case, but the company has always had a bulge in its khakis.


The coming convergence of the Internet and television means subscribers to a joint AOL Time Warner service would be able to download hour-long shows, in a matter of minutes. AOL already takes pains to fence off its racier content from children's eyes. When it acquires Time Warner, it will be able to serve up mature fare like Sex and the Cityand The Sopranos, on demand, through a single Internet TV box. But some parents will demand that their kids not be able to view these shows, which means AOL Time Warner will have to build a firewall. Once that system is in place, the company could muscle its way into the fast-growing adult pay-per-view business, which last year generated $342 million and is projected to pull in nearly twice that annually by 2003. Porn insiders say AOL execs have already begun to explore ways to profit from dirty pictures—either by erecting its own virtual Sodom or by taking proceeds from traffic it directs to independent smut sites.

Flush with $245 billion in market value, the swelling empire of AOL Time Warner might feel confident enough to take what was once a too-risky plunge into porn. The tantalizing opportunities have sent purveyors of smut scrambling and strategizing.

"I'm not sure why more people haven't figured out what you've just described," says Bill Asher, president of Vivid Entertainment Group, a colossus in online, broadcast, film, and video erotica. "Virtually every search engine and ISP is looking at dealing with adult entertainment." Asher's insight applies to other media as well. The Village Voiceitself has long trafficked in smut, both in print and online; just a hundred pages or a few clicks from the high-toned rhetoric of columnists like Nat Hentoff is a covey of she-males and single women and rippling men ready to lay hands on all well-heeled comers.

Though AOL, by contrast, has worked hard to look as scrubbed and wholesome as its moon-faced chief executive officer, Steve Case, the company has always had a bulge in its khakis. The job of spokespeople like the aptly named Tricia Primrose is to cover that bulge with the official corporate playbook. Primrose carefully phrased her denial of a company interest in erotica and refused follow-up questions. "We have made it really clear the kind of content we provide," she said. "The AOL brand Internet service is not going to offer adult channels."


A mock-envious Penthouse executive sees humor in the contortions AOL makes to hide its desire. "AOL is already the center of porn in America. AOL is built on porn," says Gerard Van der Leun, director of Penthouse.com. "AOL is a perfect symbol for the vast bipolar nature of sex in America."

For AOL to be outspoken about getting directly involved in sex would be a public relations disaster, according to sources in all corners of the industry. Porn producers are eager to profit from the taboo by doing the dirty work for the icon of electronic middle America; they'll provide the slapping flesh, while AOL provides the viewers. "AOL wants to be Caesar's wife in this business," says Van der Leun.

AOL has for years tried to leave few fingerprints on the dirty pictures it might vend. Not surprisingly, it came up empty when it bobbed for the fruits of porn without using its hands.

A former AOL director of Internet programming, who agreed to be identified only as "Mulder," says he was given a confidential 90-day mission in 1996 to seek a place for the company in the porn gold rush. He says the Internet service was then hemorrhaging subscribers and desperate to find new sources of revenue—perhaps through peddling adult material on a separate site. "I sat there and my jaw dropped," recalls Mulder, who says AOL went as far as to fly him to a prostitution convention. "They asked if I'd have a problem with this assignment, and I told them the only problem is that if I get hit by a car the morgue will never be able to remove the smile from my face." Mulder remembers that while he was hunting for ways to heat up AOL, CEO Case was at the White House, talking about protecting children on the Internet. "They're all a bunch of hypocrites," he says. "Let's face it."

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