Mass market penetration: New Zealand's growing market for porn

by Matt Nippert / 21 August, 2004
By Matt Nippert and Patrick Crewdson.

The fifth annual Erotica Adult Lifestyles Expo represents the "tasteful" side of what is a growing domestic industry.

Looking out the window of his gated Ellerslie apartment, Steve Crow can see a church spire, proudly erect. He recoils at the labels some Christians have hurled at him. "They called me a child pornographer," he says indignantly.

Shouldn't New Zealand's porn king expect that? "I'm quite happy for you to call me a pornographer," he explains. "I'm quite happy for you to call me a sleazeball, whatever you want to call me. But keep it factual."

Crow, who looks like he has just walked off a set in Guy Ritchie's London, bulky and bald with a brace of fat rings, wasn't born into porn. A former deep sea diver and merchant banker, he used to run a computer company with a sideline in adult games.

"And then the adult CD company passed the computer company for dead. It was like, 'Shit, I'm focusing on the wrong thing here.' So I got rid of the computer company, and the rest is history."

History has seen him expand into every level of the industry. He's a director in seven companies, whose activities range from film production to DVD distribution. His most visible enterprise is the annual Erotica Adult Lifestyles Expo, now in its fifth year. It's an explicit show, he admits, but it represents the "tasteful" side of what is a $30m, and growing, domestic industry.

For the Listener photoshoot, he's sandwiched between his girlfriend - Penthouse Pet and Celebrity Treasure Island castaway Hayley Marie Byrnes - and visiting expo pin-up Dolorian - the tall, surgically enhanced American star of When the Boyz Are Away the Girlz Will Play 11 and more than 30 other adult films. They have to be told to stop licking his face.

Unlike most pornographers, Crow isn't shy of the limelight, or of controversy, especially when it doubles as publicity. Although he objected last year when the stock exchange re-branded itself as NZX - a name shared by a magazine in his stable - he's now more candid about his motivation.

"It wasn't a dispute, it was good media," he laughs. "The NBR did an article. Do you think the NBR would write an article on Steve Crow and Vixen? Hell, we could turn over a billion dollars a year and they still wouldn't write an article on us."

Porn is typically a discreet industry, but Crow wants to bring it into the mainstream. "We're not selling hand grenades to kids or something stupid, we're selling sex. It's as essential as food."

In the US, pornography is enjoying unprecedented mass market penetration. "Porn is where hip-hop was 10-15 years ago," a marketing expert told Advertising Age magazine recently. "It's very rock'n'roll. There's a rebellious, edgy attitude to it."

Fresh from an appearance on Good Morning to promote the erotica expo, Crow believes mainstream acceptance is growing here, too. "I think middle New Zealand is pretty comfortable with what we do," he says.

Middle New Zealand might not forgive his girlfriend's colour of denim, though. How does a cover girl dress for the Sexpo? Byrnes opts for a jacket and jeans, both pink, and - redemptively - Ugg boots.

It's just after noon on a Saturday and things are already pumping at the Auckland Showgrounds. "All these people here for porn, so early, so quickly," muses Byrnes. Upstairs in the "Pornotopia" room, Dolorian reclines on a zebra-print bedspread, fully dressed, autographing glossy portraits.

On the main stage, strip shows from visiting pornstars - like 1994's "best new starlet" Shayla LaVeaux - alternate with nude jelly-wrestling matches. Much to the disappointment of the crowd of vocal women, demure local lads the Men of Steel keep their briefs on.

Away from the stage, the show has the ambience of a strip mall. Various snake oil merchants proffer potions, herbs and pumps "guaranteed" to improve your sex life. Others push DVDs, costumes and sex toys.

Comedian Raybon Kan is window-shopping. "The only thing that's freaked me out so far is that someone's selling telescopes," he says.

Voyeurism? Maybe, Calvin from Telescopes.net.nz admits, but most customers just want a better view of the harbour. "Who pays $1000 to look at the next-door neighbour?"

One stall has Crow's notorious Ripe - the film with the live birth scene. "The movie they tried to ban! As seen on 60 Minutes!" the cover screams. Sex-toy shop the Buzz Club displays an antique vibrator from 1869. It looks as pleasurable as an egg beater. "It just makes me feel out of the loop," Kan says. "Apparently, there's a lot of appliances I don't own."

In the foyer, SPCA volunteers jiggle collection buckets in time to guitar-driven striptease anthems. "I guess there's a lot of those underpaid animals in porn," quips Kan.

Like other Western societies, we're a bit schizophrenic," says Pat Moloney, who lectures on sex and politics at Victoria University. "We're watching all these TV shows about sex - which is entertaining - but on the other hand sex is still connected with guilt. There's still the atmosphere that it's naughty."

Although pornography is edging closer to mainstream society, its naughty aura means it isn't yet mundane. Erotica got into a fight with the Auckland City Council over billboards. Several councillors objected to the depiction of scantily clad women, despite similar imagery employed practically everywhere in advertising.

Moloney reckons this controversy works well for marketers. "Advertising plays on that: that enticement, the veiled, the forbidden." Crow ended up debating an Auckland city councillor, live on Holmes.

Adult entertainment attracts a broad demographic, or so the spa pool salesmen and financial consultants at Erotica think. The expo has its share of dirty old men, but is also popular with couples. Women, although not a majority, make up a sizable portion of the 30,000-odd crowd.

And it's not just the punters who defy expectations. Example: what does Dolorian, Texan pornstar, think about Bush? She's a church-going conservative Republican, but with a brother-in-law in Iraq, she has found it difficult to support "good old George Dubya".

"The kids don't know what they're fighting for, when they're gonna go home, when their tour of duty will end. Bush keeps moving to extend it - it's really hard for us."

More predictably, she doesn't believe in hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation for the wicked. "We are lustful creatures - we do what our heart is set out to do," she says. "I love to have sex. I'll have 20 kids. I'd procreate all day if I could support them.

"The feminists, they get a hold of me and tell me that I'm using my body. No. I love my body ... Am I exploited? No. If I didn't want you in me, I wouldn't let you go there. It's not like you're tying me down."

Dolorian's second love is maths. Day job? Accountant. She has a slew of adult entertainment award nominations under her belt, but when she can no longer act, she would like a career among the ledger books.

Hayley Marie Byrnes, on the other hand, wants to be a TV presenter. They disagree on how to classify her current resumé entry. Porn, says Byrnes. No, just nude modelling, Crow and Dolorian innocently suggest.

Flyers distributed by the small knot of picketers outside the expo don't entertain the distinction: "Playboy = Porn = Lust = Rape = Cool? Are you kidding?!!"

Protester Ken Wessel, who runs a home-group church and believes in a "100 percent literal" interpretation of the Bible, says that going to the expo is helping Crow fund whatever "these sick minds can think up".

Pornography is a sin, leading to a "steeper and steeper slope" that inevitably leads to "paedophilia, incest or rape," Wessel says. "Perhaps not all will take it that far, but the majority do."

Back inside, retired couple Eileen and Harry are heading home with bulging shopping bags. They don't fit the profile of sexual offenders.

"We wanted to see what all the fuss was about," Eileen says of their reason for attending. "It's made for a pretty exciting Saturday."

The mood of the nation is more permissive than it used to be. "I couldn't have got away with going to this when I was a young woman."

Eileen says she's not embarrassed to be at the expo, but when asked to give her surname, she demurs. "Heavens, no. What would the bowling club think?"

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