Internet pornography isn't just a distant concept--it's something being produced right next door.
By Coury Turczyn
JUNE 21, 1999: The neighborhood is prettier than most in Knoxville, full of shade trees and ivy and the sort of breezy tranquillity that doesn't come cheap. A winding road leads up the ridge to hideaway homes nestled amid the woods, perched so far above the bustle of a nearby highway that you'd never know it was there. Squirrels scamper among the leaves, birds sing in the tall trees, and shafts of sunlight dot rain-dampened driveways.
It's not the sort of place you'd expect to find a business meeting, but out on the back porch of one such home a small group of people are discussing a mutual project. As the hot tub bubbles away in the background like a cauldron, Chris Smith leads the session with some modern incantations: "online resources," "updated content," "hot links." It's Internet lingo, the newfangled language so many earnest young entrepreneurs are fluent in these days. Around him, easing back in lawn chairs or sitting on the stone deck, are his creative partners: Raoul, a professional web designer; Kari, a local poet in charge of developing women's content; and Greg, the illustrator who's brought in some new designs. Together, along with nearly a dozen contributors, they're developing new additions for their web page: hardknox.com.
You probably haven't run across itunless you've been web surfing for information on local strippers, escorts, massage parlors, or adult book stores. Hardknox, you see, is a clearinghouse for information on adult entertainment available in Knoxville. It started out simply enough: About a year ago, Smith and his friends had been planning a bachelor party, and "We were like, 'Man, wouldn't it be great if we could just go online and figure out where the best deals are for bachelor parties?' So we started calling around, we had a notebook, and we had this information available." Smith put it online, and now hardknox.com has grown into a launching point for anyone interested in finding Knoxville-flavored cybersex, offering an array of links to local websites that'd unbuckle any Bible belt: locally shot pornography, escorts for hire, women with live webcams, dominatrix services, fetishes of every sort.
"Once you start picking over stones, you're really surprised at what you find," says Smith, who admits that many of the sites just don't interest him. "Knoxville has a lot of stuff that you would never, ever think was in this areaand it is. People are streaming video, people are putting their wives online nude, there are people making films, there are people doing all kinds of stuffand once you get in there and start looking for it, you find it."
While this may come as a shock to local moral guardians, the business of porn has established several beachheads in Knoxville. This is because the Internet has become the ultimate porn delivery system, discreetly shuttling images and sound from point to point without having to become entangled with Mafia middlemen or public newsstands. Likewise, to become a porn producer, all you need is a camera, a computer, and a payment system. According to Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., Internet porn is already a $1 billion business (about $4 billion less than the sales and rentals of X-rated videotapes in the U.S.), with several companies publicly traded on the stock exchange like any other legitimate industry. Although most people consider porn to be mostly produced in sinful California, the biggest Internet porn companies are sprouting in places like Seattle and Cranston, Rhode Island. So why not Knoxville?
For many of the people involved in local sex sites, though, profit is just one motivating factor among more personal reasons. For some, it's more or less a hobby, an excuse to delve into their own fantasies. For others, particularly those who run sites featuring their own bodies, it's a sexually liberating vehicle for attention on a global scale.
The first online porn resources in Knoxville appeared long before the Web even existed. In the '80s and early '90sbefore the Internet became an inescapable buzzwordcomputer hobbyists would communicate through local Bulletin Board Services (BBS). These were direct-dial systems that operated like clubs for computer aficionados, offering computer files, chat, and rudimentary email. A computer store, for instance, would have its own BBS to distribute files to support the machines it sold. Some were like co-ops, in which you got an allotment of bytes that you could download; to get more, you had to contribute to the BBS. Others offered paid memberships. And, very frequently, there were adult-oriented files to be found.
For instance, there was The Wolf's Den in the early '90s, reportedly run by a couple of swingers out of a trailer in Maryville who threw parties and photographed the action; access was mostly exclusive to the participants. While the Wolf's Den was intended to include adult content, others simply allowed users to post it along with other features. In 1991, Jennifer Ogle started Bangkok Nights (named after the song "One Night in Bangkok" from the musical Chess, not for the infamous city) as a fun place for people to meet and talk, trading info on where to eat or places to avoid. As part of the mix, she allowed users over the age of 17 to access adult message areas, files, and games; five years later, though, she decided to tone down the content.
"In 1996, I got worried about all the rumors that BBSes were being shut down by local authorities and computers confiscated because of a few questionable files," she says. "Being a firm believer in free speech, but also too broke to fight court battles, I opted to remove anything from my system that could be considered 'X-rated.'"
As the Web exploded in popularity in the late '90s, many BBSes shut down or converted to websites. Bangkok Nights, however, is still running and is probably the biggest BBS left in East Tennesseeand Ogle says she still allows R-Rated content. "Basically, if it is just a nude person in a non-suggestive pose, I considered that 'R,'" she says. (A Bangkok Nights info site can be found at http://www.ogle.org/bangkok.)
Similarly, Smith and his compatriots at hardknox.com are planning to include R-rated content as well, not only at the hardknox site but in a number of offshoot sites that Smith is developing with unnamed backers. Moving from providing information to pornography wasn't a difficult transition, says Smith, a local media professional.
"The local angle will only carry you so far. I've got to keep the people coming in," he says. "We're giving away all this information for free, then we're taking it one step further and we're saying, 'If you want to see pictures of these girls, they're here.' And I think when people come into the site, [pictures] might be a little bit of what they expect, and I want to give people at least what they expectand hopefully some things they don't expect."
Thus, Smith has personally photographed about 20 local strippers in the buffmany, he says, at their own request. They're reimbursed for posing either with copies of the photos (which he says they use for promotional purposes), an upfront fee, or a payment schedule based on the popularity of their photos. This is a long way from his days in journalism school, a notion which has given him pause once or twice, he admits.
"The first time I did it, I was like 'Woooo, I'm taking pictures of a naked woman!'" Smith laughs. "You get over that. It suddenly becomes work, there are technical aspects, and as anybody who's a photographer will tell you, after the first couple of minutes it's no fun. Well, maybe it's still fun, but it's workand they get tired and cranky. Hopefully what's coming through is something nice; it's not always nice on the other side of the lens."
Smith typifies his photos as simply nude photography that doesn't even qualify as 'softcore,' and says he consulted lawyers before moving into the erotic photography business. And indeed, if you examine some of the sample photos he has posted on his pay sites (subscriptions to the members-only sections run $4.95 a month), they are mostly simple snapshots of local naked women in various poses. What's more, one site has photos of local naked men.
"There's more nudity coming into Knoxville with movies coming in and out. It's not a 'core' at all," Smith insists. "When I get the pictures developed, I go and have them developed at Wal-Mart. Because if Wal-Mart says this is too racy, then it's too racy for me.
"A lot of people said in the beginning, 'You know, Chris, you need to go hardcoreyou're not going to make any money unless you have people having sex.' And I don't believe that. I believe there's a group of people out there who would like to see nude women. And the fact that they're from the local area is a kick, too.
"I don't think profit is our primary motive," he says, "but it keeps us going."
Profit wasn't the primary reason why Jeanna and her husband, who run a video production business out of their home, decided to start sexyjeanna.com, a website devoted to all things Jeanna. At first, Jeanna's husband basically wanted to share with the world how great he thought his wife looked. Once he took nude pictures of her after she had toned up following the birth of their third child, he started lobbying her to let him post the pictures online. Several months later, she relented.
"He really wouldn't shut up about it," says the 32-year-old mother of four. "He was determined to have my pictures shown to the world, so I agreed to put up a site for two months. During that time, my site became the featured site on Amateur Index and I started getting hundreds of thousands of hits in just a couple of weeks. Email was coming in by the hundreds each day. It really blew my mind...but it was so damn exciting, I knew right then that I had found something addicting. I loved it. I don't know how I will ever be able to give it up."
Since November of 1998, Jeanna's free site has gotten nearly 700,000 hits, while her pay section averages around 200 members ($10 for one month's access). Her husband does all the work on the site, including the actual design and photography. Jeanna says the reasons for the site's popularity include the fact that (until recently) she didn't shave her pubic hair, that she has a frequently complimented butt (one fan writes on her message board: "Just wanted to say you have one of the best asses I've ever seen, next to Nina Hartley."), and that she also includes photos involving breast milk. (She says she's had customers ask if they could purchase samples of either her milk or pubic hair; "So far I haven't sold either.")
"All the attention and compliments really has helped my self-esteem," Jeanna says. "Growing up, I never got the attention I needed from the opposite sex and it made me feel a little inferior. The website and all the positive email really has helped me overcome all that. I finally feel sexy!"
Perhaps it's this newfound brazennesscombined with her girl-next-door good looksthat has inspired what amounts to a world-wide admiration society of lustful men. Her message board abounds with declarations of worshipful praise ("Jeanna you have a fabulous body. I would love to kiss your precious feet. If you are interested, I would love to worship you completely. If this is cool with Mr. Jeanna let me know."). Jeanna also has a section called the "J-mart," where fans can buy videos or even a pair of her panties ($25 plus $2 shipping). Perhaps even more amazingand bizarreare the money offers for Jeanna herself.
"One really rich Egyptian living in Qatar said to name my price...he wanted to fly me over there for a week to be his woman," says Jeanna. "He said money was no object. Of course I declined. And another man offered me $3,000 per night to have sex with him. He wanted to get together twice a month. That's a hell of a lot of money! But I declined that one too."
While drawing the line at prostitution, Jeanna says the site does allow her to form a different sort of relationship with her customersone of friendship.
"Before we put up the website, I really didn't have any friends," she says. "I didn't have people who called me on the phone or were interested in my life. So I was probably more open to developing real friendships with these guys than most girls on the net are. These men became my best friends...really, my ONLY friends. Many of them have come to know the real menot the side of me they see in the pictures, but the part of me that changes diapers and fixes chicken nuggets and cries when she's sad. They became an important part of my life."
In the "real world," the couple's relatives are completely unaware of sexyjeanna.comand that's the way they want to keep it. "They are very conservative and wouldn't understand how we could get into such a thing as this," she says. "They would alienate us, I'm surethink we were the worst dogs on Earth."
Respect in the sex trade isn't something that comes with the job. Although porn is booming as a global business ($56 billion worldwide) that's more mainstream than ever before, those who work in it are still largely condemned by not only moralists and feminists, but by hypocritical consumers as well. This is doubly true for prostitutes, whose occupationdespite its trade unions and publicationsis still a grim reminder of how low the human condition can go, even on Knoxville's streets.
For Bill, however, prostitutes are a source of fascination and a small income; he photographs them and posts the pictures on his website streetwalkerpics.com. About once a month, he gets into his car, cruises streets late at night, picks up a prostitute, then takes her to a hotel and pays her for a photo session.
"Dealing with the girls themselves isn't very hardI just take a straightforward approach with them, I just treat them with respect," the 27-year-old Bill says. "During that time, she's no longer a prostituteshe's a model and I'm a photographer. They seem to react well to that. I don't think they get a lot of respect in their line of work most of the time."
The resulting web page is an odd mix of voyeurism and the gritty documentation of hard lives. Although Bill says he started the site more for money than art, it's very different from just about any other traditional porn site. His models are decidedly not glamour girls, and Bill combines the photos with short descriptions of what they had to say and how he picked them up.
The idea for streetwalkerpics.com came from his own dissatisfaction with adult websites that "all had these same glammed-over Playboy mansion women you'd never see in real life." So he decided to establish his own site with "just real ordinary women." Although he moved to Memphis last year, Bill started and ran the page out of Maryville in October of '97, and it's still posted by a Knoxville ISP. Most people find it through Internet searches for "Tennessee prostitutes" or "Knoxville streetwalkers;" he gets 400-500 hits a day. Five of the 11 prostitutes featured on the page are from Knoxville.
"I've always had kind of a weird fascination with hookers," Bill says. "I'd always drive past and look and just see what's outI'd never picked one up for sexual purposes. But I was just always intrigued...I [wanted to] talk to these girls and find out what makes them tick: 'Where did your life go wrong that you started hooking? Are you happy with this?' I guess I do it to make money, yeah, but also to fulfill some of my own internal questions."
His first attempt at a photo shoot was nerve-wracking, he says. He drove into Knoxville and found Tami on Magnolia Avenue on a Sunday morning around 11:30. She took him to "either a crack house or her pimp's house," where Bill was allowed to use one of the bedrooms for the photo shoot.
"I was scared shitless the first time. I had no idea, really, what I was doing or what I wanted," he says. "Told the girl I'd pay her $30 for 30 minutes, and it ended up being $30 for about 10 minutesI only got like 15 pictures of her. And she said 'Okay, that's enough.' And I was like, 'Okay.' But each time it gets a little easier. I mean, there's still that adrenaline rush'Okay, what if a cop comes around and sees me picking her up?'"
His descriptions are often crude (Spanish Fly is "a very sexy 18-year-old a little on the big side but who cares?"), and Bill admits that he's been accused of being a woman-hater. "I know some of the things I've written on there are hardbut that's because they told me a hard story, and I've got a hard truth to tell." When reading his mini stories, though, they seem very matter-of-fact about the harsh realities these women facedoesn't he feel some sort of sympathy?
"It's hard not to when you ask questions and they talk about some of the rough experiences they've had," he says. "You have another human being who's had a lot of problems early in life, and to cope with that they turn to drugs, and then they can't get off of them. So yeah, I feel sympathy for them."
With the threat of possible arrest looming over every pick-up, you might think this is a hobby that Bill would keep secret. Despite his reluctance to reveal his last name or occupation in print, however, he says he's let everyone except his grandmother know what he does.
"The people at work know, my boss knows, my friends know, my mother knows, and my girlfriend knowsso beyond that, what anybody else thinks doesn't matter," he says. "My mother, when I first told her about it, wasn't very happy. But after I got my first check for a couple hundred dollars, she said 'Well, I'm still not very happy, but if it makes money, it makes money.'"
While most of the websites mentioned above mostly deal in nude photos, there are Knoxville area sites that delve in other matters of sexual interest, particularly fetish obsessions. There is, for example, the official homepage of the Secret Garden S&M performance group, which does include many performance photos but also offers primers on the S&M lifestyle.
Then there's Mistress Beauty, a local dominatrix who uses her word-of-mouth-only website to recruit new clients (or, as she terms them, "slaves"). Potential trainees must fill out an extensive online questionnaire, checking off their preferences from a long list of options ranging from "Clips & Clamps" to "Uniform Scenes." Once this is submitted, Mistress Beauty puts applicants through a rigorous filtering process that usually takes around one or two months. The Mistress insists on knowing their names, occupations, and exactly why they wish to be submissive or masochistic.
The majority of her clients come through her website or word of mouth, she says; she currently has 16 slaves who pay her a minimum of $100 an hour. (According to her website, "For extended training sessions, i.e. overnight or several days of pre-allotted time per day, tribute can be negotiated prior to initial introduction.") Most of them are white, professional, married males, ranging in age from 25 to 65.
"I have turned down many 'potential trainees'those who are in the least bit rude or act arrogant," Mistress Beauty says. "If they prefer to remain anonymous or are secretive in any way, I will NOT see them simply because I have many pets (slaves/submissives) to chose from, and my discretion and safety takes precedence over anything else. This is my lifestyle as well as my living, and I can afford to be picky and careful."
This pickiness has nevertheless made her financially secure after three years of being a professional, online-advertised dominatrix, she says. "I became professionally active in the scene simply because I believe that if you are going to work, why not do something that you enjoy?"
While most of Mistress Beauty's participants don't suffer more than they want to, you have to wonder about those involved with videos to be found at aquafan.com, a website reportedly based in Clinton. Catering to those with a fetish for women in water, the site at first seems rather silly: "We offer unique erotic videos of gorgeous women underwater swimming just for you." With talk of mermaids and pictures of women swimming in French maid's outfits, it appears to be more strange than scary.
But once you look at the pages advertising the site's "erotic drowning videos," then things get creepy. Here's a capsule description of Mermaids in Peril Vol. 2: "It contains two hot tub drownings, two deep-end pool drownings, and a bathtub drowning. There is lots of great action, struggling, and bubbles! Just like a serial killer, we keep getting better and better at drowning girls!" Graphic descriptions are included as to just how the women are killed. ("The killer hits her on the head with a lead pipe, then drags her out to the hot tub. She also puts up a great fight.") With descriptions focusing on the pain and death throes of the women, aquafan's videos would appear to go far beyond mainstream movies' preoccupations with murder and into the realm of make-believe snuff.
Alarmingly, the site makes no reassurances about the actors' health, though it does carry a standard disclaimer that all models are over the age of 18. Metro Pulse's email inquiry for an interview was not answered.
None of the above sites are illegal in any wayin 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. California that "pornography" but not "obscenity" was protected by the First Amendment. Considering that the porn in a typical Hustler magazine is more graphic than most anything offered in these local sites, it would seem our community standards accept their parameters of personal expression. Even aquafanunless its actors are meeting untimely endshas the right to stage murders, just like Hollywood.
But there is a fine line between positive and negative expression. Chris Smith makes it clear that hardknox.com (which he's registered with all Internet filtering software) won't support local sites run by people whom he describes as "underground," and has declined to include certain links.
"We didn't want to get into anything that was really negative," he says. "We didn't want to get into anything that was against the lawthough I'm sure there's interest there. Not that people were coming out and saying that, but I'm sure that stuff is aroundit has to be, because people are getting busted for it. We want to be open, but by the same token don't want to embrace everybody or everything."
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