I am watching her through the glass: her mouth parts in a perfect "O" as he lifts her onto his lap and enters her. She seems to come instantly, writhing hungrily in his strong arms. An instruction is whispered in her ear, and slowly, she responds. Smiling softly at the nearer of the two video cameras, she holds up a piece of paper with "Hi Charlie" written on it and waves vaguely with her free hand.
Behind the glass, a bank of full-screen colour monitors show close-ups of the scene - the genital embrace, and the naked, waving woman with the piece of paper, sitting on her boyfriend's lap. Next to the monitors, a young man smoking an endless roll-up is typing furiously into a Power Mac. "Now do you believe that this is live, Charlie?" he types. "This is really happening, right now."
A window in the top left-hand corner of the screen shows a jerky, grainy image of the waving woman in black and white. The quality is not that good, but it's good enough - you can see what's going on. Somewhere in the world, a man called Charlie is sitting in front of his computer with his dick in his hand and his heart in his mouth. He's paying $2.99 a minute to see this, and now he knows it isn't a fraud. This is a genuine online live sex show, broadcast 24 hours a day over the Internet from the Casa Rosso in the heart of Amsterdam's red light district. Legally.
I have come to Singel Street, Amsterdam, to see a little bit of this world, and to talk to the producers and performers, to some of the people for whom this is a job like any other; the people who work on a highly successful pornographic Web site called fun.nl. Everyone thinks there is a lot of sex on the Internet - and there is. Some of it criminal and some of it is doubtless disgusting, but some of it is a straightforward business proposition; pictures of adult sex acts for people who like such things, provided by people who want to make a profit. It's part of the world of pornography, a world rich in sleaze and exploitation. But it is also legal, at least in some countries.
Across the table from me are three men. Thomas Bervoets of Funtertainment BV, which owns the first four of the sites, is small and quiet, bespectacled and silver-haired. Michel van de Sanden, younger, square-jawed and good looking, runs the International Media Company, Imco for short, which owns the other two sites. The third man, classically fat and jolly, is persistently coy about his real name, and voluble about almost everything else. Let's call him Job. He works for a Dutch Web services company which "is just the facility provider" for fun.nl. He asked me not to name it for fear of losing non-pornographic custom, though it is named in the fine print on many of the fun.nl Web pages as Siteways.
They don't look like pornographers to me. Then again, I'm not sure what I expect a pornographer to look like. Horns and a cape, maybe? They do, however, look successful. And for good reason, as Job explains.
"In Dutch, you call it the law of the three g's - the g from genot, which is pleasure, the g from gewin, which is profit, and the g of gemak, which is make things easy." fun.nl's profit comes from making pleasure easy. When I visited in June, the six sites had three things in common. In terms of layout and construction, they were all as close to state-of-the-art as anything else on the Web; they all offered pictures of people being licked, fucked, or buggered, or simulating masturbation; and they all had customers.
The first site on the fun.nl domain was the Red Light District, followed immediately by the live link to the Casa Rosso - the only live link to live sex in the world, the company boasts. Next, the team introduced Studio 17, an Internet version of the Dutch erotic magazine 17 - "a sex site made by and for the young people of the Internet." The Pink Link, a version of the Red Light District for gay men, followed soon afterwards, and they have just opened two new sites, Young Lesbian Lovers (no male members allowed, hem hem) and the originally titled Girls From Brazil (clue: they're not all girls, not quite).
Both Job and Thomas are Internet specialists who are new to the porn trade. Michel is the key contacts man. "My father-in-law has some erotic magazines, and I worked for him for a while, so I know almost all the big publishers worldwide, and so what we did is we joined together with the facilitatory company here (Job's). I bring the clients, the big publishers, and together with Job we create new sites."
"Big publishers such as who?"
"Silwa in Germany, VTO in Germany; we've talked with Rodos in Denmark, Scala here in Holland, which is not a publisher, more a producer, and big distributor, the biggest in Europe. We work together with the biggest publisher in Brazil; we also just made a contract with a company in France, to provide two big erotic magazines there, and I'm talking with some other people also in England, and from there on we just go on."
Michel understands that only Job can provide him with the technical know-how and personnel to create Web sites that stand out from the crowd. Job knows that he would be nowhere without Michel's contacts book and industry knowledge. They work well together - and they understand marketing.
"The reason we became a success," says Job, "is that other people still think if they're gonna put 200 dirty pictures on the Internet they're going to be an overnight millionaire. That's just not true. You have to make a concept, you have to be aware of what you're offering, you have to find an atmosphere, a darkened room, et cetera et cetera."
"What we try to do with every site we open," he continues, "is to give it a kind of USP, a unique selling proposition." That doesn't just mean specialist content. It means different sorts of service. "There are two types of magazines we run," says Job. "One is changed every month; we add stories to the other daily, so there's a good reason to come in every day. We always try to add something as an extra."
"For example, when there was a snow blizzard in New York, we changed the cover within two hours to a picture of a naked girl in the snow, and we said, 'Hey, New York, this is Anabelle; she is coming to save you,' and she was there, you know, just tripping in the snow, and we got lots of nice reactions from people in New York who appreciated that that's what we did. A magazine, it's in a shop, that's it. That's the fun of the Internet - you can change it whenever you feel like it."
"And the pay per minute thing...?"
"That's $2.99 a minute, but it's a live show, where every ten minutes, 24 hours a day, there's a new girl, or a couple, in front of the camera. They do everything."
In the peep-show, as elsewhere, fun.nl benefits from the liberality of Dutch law (and the expectations that arouses). Everyone is endlessly keen to stress the site's legality. Indeed, they point out that it doesn't even test the legal limits. They avoid heavy S&M or bestiality, even though they might legally portray these. Virtually everyone I spoke to at fun.nl repeated the same line about "sticking to material you can come in on Monday morning and look at without feeling queasy." Besides, niche markets might not pay as well. "We looked at making a fetish site," says Job, "but then we did some research, and even though people are willing to pay more for it, there's no figures in it for us."
The fun.nl people say that they invited the Dutch Justice Department to come and investigate them, informally, for any wrongdoing, and say they were given a clean bill of health. But I couldn't find anyone at the Dutch Justice Ministry, the Amsterdam Public Prosecutions Office or the Amsterdam vice squad who had heard of fun.nl at all.
I was, however, able to verify that when a Christian Democrat member of parliament asked Hans Van Mierlo, the Dutch minister for foreign affairs if "erotic Web sites such as the Red Light District were contributory to a bad image of Holland overseas, and is the Minister willing to support measures against fun.nl and their competitors?" Van Mierlo's answer was basically, "No".
"You know," says Job, "we don't want to be a sleazy company." I think he really means it: they don't want to be sleazy. But that doesn't mean they aren't.
Shauna Heron has been editing the Studio 17 Web site for about six months. "I've been doing computer stuff, networking, stuff like that, since about 16," she tells me, "and I was really into BBSing for years. I got into the Internet about four years ago and one year ago I moved here from Toronto and started doing work in Amsterdam, on the Net, doing artwork, site design and helping with networking and stuff like that for a company.
"Basically, I go through images, deciding which are appropriate and which are not appropriate for the Web, for the site. Once some stories are picked out I put them together and decide colour schemes and work out the overall layout of it." So how does she choose the images? "It's the ones that are, I guess, appealing. Some aren't that nice to look at, others we're not into, you know, the really over-the-top kind of stuff. We don't want to offend too many people, we don't want a million letters coming in, but it's just the sort of stuff that I don't mind working with as well, you know what I mean?"
What, in this context, is over the top? "No fisting." She laughs. "No pissing and stuff like that. Nothing like that. It's mostly soft; there's images with girls alone, and that's soft, but then there's also stuff where there's girls with girls, or girls with boys and there's penetration, but there's no bizarre weird stuff going on. It's just sex."
"You're a woman working 0in an editorial role on a pornographic Web site. Have you not had any problems at all with it?"
"I wondered at first if maybe this was going to be weird for me," she answers, carefully, "but I met the Studio Seventeen people and it's a really professional ... it's a business. It's not some sleazy place. I was talking to Michel one day, and he said that the people that work in this industry don't necessarily have their pants round their ankles all day....
"There's really a sleazy part of this industry, I'm sure, but I haven't seen it yet. What I've seen so far is just people like this. Which makes me feel better, actually, because before I was right involved in it like this I wondered what it was like, and now that I've seen so much of it it's just ... I don't know, it makes me feel a little more comfortable." She laughs.
"OK," I say, "so what's in it for you?"
"I love it because this is what I used to do at home, for fun. I would work all day as a network administrator, putting systems together, and I would go home and do artwork on my system, and set up my own Web site, and now I do it all day, and I get bored really easily, so now there's always new things for me to do. I'm getting into 3D rendering and animation and graphics and stuff on the new Silicon Graphics machine. I really want to get into 3D landscapes and stuff like that, instead of just a sort of 2D site where you just click on things, like a 3D thing where you're moving within a site, and trying to remember the way that you have to get into certain areas of like the Red Light District, or something."
She goes on, enthusing about Fractal Design Painter. I've heard about the charades performed in the porn world to convince visiting journalists that there isn't a sleaze factor, and Job, Michel and Thomas have done a good job, but I hadn't been entirely convinced. Shauna, though, seems utterly for real. If they've fooled me, they've fooled her, too, and she works there.
That said, there's working and there's working. At midnight I meet Nicolas Huygen at the Casa Rosso, Amsterdam's oldest and most famous live sex show theatre. He's chief HTML editor for Job's Web services company (and also Job's brother-in-law), and he's going to show me the attic studio from which the online live sex show is broadcast.
Before we go in, I am introduced to three of the largest men I have ever shaken hands with. Their job is to hang around on the door and look intimidating; they are good at their job. It crosses my mind that these are the guys who will be beating me up if I make a wrong move. "Nice to meet you," I say.
Before I know it I have pushed my way into a room full of mostly naked people, men and women, smoking and chatting to each other relaxedly. The few clothes being worn in this room are homely - furry slippers and shabby dressing gowns. A palpable air of tension arises now, and it occurs to me that I am its source. I realise, too late, that now more than ever previously would be a good time to make sure I am not caught staring involuntarily at women's breasts.
"This is the artistes' dressing room," says Nick. "The studio is upstairs. Come on." Initially, it is a relief to enter the studio. It has a bank of monitors, a sound mixer, a Power Mac and a Silicon Graphics workstation arranged on a few benches on our side of the glass screen that divides the room in two. On the other side of the screen are two beds, four cameras and a naked woman, writhing suggestively on one of the beds with a ribbon, or something. It is hard for me to focus my eyes on her, which is odd, because I can look at her in any of at least three ways - at her directly, at two full-screen colour monitor close-up images, or at the box in the corner of the Mac's screen, where her movement is jerky but relatively clear. There is a guy sitting at the Mac, typing obscurities into a small chat box, and a woman operating the cameras, fully clothed, wearing the same harassed look as any live-broadcast professional on any job anywhere.
"This is it," says Nick. "The only one in the world, as far as we can tell. There are about 100 other sites on the Internet that claim to be live sex shows. We've checked them all out, and they're rubbish. It's either a video, or a con. They throw you off the site before they show you anything. Only ours is real."
As we are talking, a naked couple enter the studio and take their positions on the empty bed behind the glass screen.
"Now!" says the woman with the cameras. The guy presses a button on the Mac, and the images on the screen change to show the couple on the bed and what they are suddenly busy doing. The woman with the ribbon emerges wearing nothing but rabbit slippers and an open dressing gown; she lights a cigarette, exchanging cheery pleasantries with Nick and her two directors. When she catches my eye momentarily I find I am smiling weakly at her as if I have done something wrong, but she doesn't smile back. Nick seems amused at my discomfiture. "You know," he tells me, "this studio took six months to build. It cost us half a million guilders (about £195,000), and guess what...." He leans forward.
"We're still losing money on it."
When people say that the Dutch are a basically open society, they really aren't joking.
"But," he continues, "that's because right now, you can't just dial up and get the pictures through. You need to download extra software, and let's face it, most of our punters can't manage it."
Being brutally honest, nor could I, when I tried it.
"This week we are introducing our new JPEG system," he says, "which we developed ourselves. It needs no add-ons, just Netscape 1.1. It'll give you 15 frames per second, with a download rate of 7K per minute."
I ask him if I can speak to a couple of the performers. Now he seems uncertain. He disappears back down the stairs and I am left there contemplating the bizarre scene before me. It is clear why most of the online live sex broadcasts are frauds - it takes an enormous amount of hard work to keep such an operation going. There are five performances an hour. I abandon any plans I might have had to speak to either of the directors; they just don't have the time.
Nick returns. "Monique will speak to you," he says. "In a little while. She and her boyfriend are on next, and then she will speak to you."
"You know," he says, "This is not a sleazy company. We are all professionals. My girlfriend, she is OK with it. She has no problems at all. In fact she works in the company, too. Answering emails. We are professionals. Clean. Not sleazy."
"I believe you," I say. "I do."
"My parents don't. They don't like it at all."
We chat amicably for a while. Then, all of a sudden, an attractive young woman in a dressing gown, looking slightly flushed, appears in front of me.
"This is Monique," says Nick.
"Hi," I say, smiling feebly.
Monique has been working there for only a couple of months. She got into it because her boyfriend knows the director, and emphasises very firmly that she has only ever done such work there.
"It is acting," she tells me. "Performance art."
Her English is not so good, and the conversation does not flow freely. She is clearly extremely uncomfortable with the idea of talking to me, and constantly looks at Nick before she answers. I cannot tell if this is because she is not understanding my questions or because she does not know what she can and cannot say. She won't tell me how much money the performers get, only that it is enough and she has no complaints. Previously she worked as a secretary. The atmosphere is fun and relaxed; sometimes there are amusing incidents. Last week her boyfriend put on a funny wig just before their performance began, and it was hard for her to concentrate on the job because they were all laughing so much. You had to be there.
"Can I go now please?" She is asking Nick, not me.
"OK," he says, and turns to me. "Happy?" he asks.
"Sure," I say, lying. "Delighted."
"Delighted?" answers a voice with an English accent. "You must be English."
It is one of the other performers, going by the name of Charlotte. "I've been here two months," she says. "It's not the first time I've done this sort of thing. I used to work in one of the peep-shows up the road, but I got tired of being wanked over by 20 men behind a glass screen, and so I moved here. It's very different - you have no contact with the clients; it's just straight, honest, technical work with professionals. Plus it's a kick to be on the Net."
"You know," says Nick after she leaves for her act, "compared to the peep-shows, the girls are so fucking happy to work here. It's broadcasting, a production team, and the sleaze factor is zero compared to elsewhere. Perhaps it's a little boring, but 99% of the world is into boring sex. And that's what we give them."
Back on Singel Street, Thomas, Job and Michel are dissing the opposition. "In the next two years," says Job, "a lot of sites are going to close down, because they're not making money. A lot of people just copy us. I could show you whole sites which were copies of the Red Light District, exactly the same areas. They are bandits. They steal."
The only example of a competitor that springs to Job's mind is the Blue Angel Cabaret Club in New York. "When we found the Blue Angel, we became a member, because we are everywhere a member. We saw our own live show. Yes. He relayed. He had two computers, he took our show from one, relayed to a second one, and re-transmitted it. We send out lawyers on a weekly basis to stop things like that." O sinful world.
The competition seems to have little concrete to say about fun.nl. Dominic Collier, manager of electronic publishing at Northern and Shell in London, is currently working on the Penthouse UK site. "As far as I know, the top porn sites on the Web are all in the States," he says, "but it's impossible to know how well anyone is doing, because they all tend to lie."
Collier's colleague, Al Needham, is Web-site manager of Fantasy Publications' Electronic Publishing Department and thus handles the Web versions of Readers' Wives, Asian Babes and Electric Blue, among others. Needham agrees with Collier that America has the most successful sites of all. But he's impressed by fun.nl, too.
"They have a particularly good brand name - The Red Light District in Amsterdam." How well does he think fun.nl is doing? "A million hits a day is plausible if their servers can handle it."
But the competition is not just on the Net. There's traditional porn - videos and magazines - as well. How do they effect fun.nl's future - and vice versa?
"You don't take a computer to the toilet with you," offers Job, "so there will be always be a market for printed material - " Michel cuts in. "Many people do not want to do anything with computers, you know, for them there will still be the magazine shop."
If, that is, you have an accommodating magazine or video shop on your doorstep. "If you're living in Texas or whatever, you have to drive several hundred miles to get something."
"These people, actually," says Job, "used to have to go twice a year, and drive for six hours to get some material, and now we bring it in their home every day. So their life is improved." This, he reckons, is good news for all producers and users of porn. The Internet "will make the market as a whole bigger, because you will come to new target groups where you couldn't come before." From the point of view of an established print pornographer, Needham tends to agree. He thinks Web sites can actually help magazines to build the brand. He's more worried about other challenges. "The real enemy is the so-called non-pornographic men's magazines like GQ or Maxim. They're not on the top shelf, but they do tend to have 16-page lingerie supplements, and people are buying those instead."
Collier, though, disagrees. "What with all the Web sites and the newsgroups where people can exchange JPEGs for free, the sales of printed pornographic material are dropping through the floor. Bob Guccione of Penthouse is currently cutting the paper side of his operation to the bone in order to concentrate on Web sites. No more print costs, no more distribution costs. It has to be done."
"I'm not worried about being banned in a few obscure countries," says Job, "or by a few obscure service providers. There's a big market for porn. The economics will eventually decide." As to children, "Because we work with credit cards," says Michel, "if somebody is 15 years old they cannot go into our sites. We don't show anything up front. You have to become a member."
"A lot of youngsters are dying to see porn material," adds Job, "and if they don't get it one way they get it another way. They're also dying to get booze, and some of them do on a daily basis. You could steal the log-in and password of your father, but for me it's the same thing as if daddy leaves his whisky on the table. You cannot go for the supplier of the whisky due to the fact that his son's getting drunk."
Now Job starts to hit his stride. "Americans today are quite uptight about the whole thing. They don't have any problems seeing people killed but they have problems seeing people making love. [In Holland] we're quite easy towards people who are open to their own mind, open to their own thing. You can live in Amsterdam and have an extreme opinion and just live - that's a bit more difficult if you live in the UK. That's why only 3% of our customers are Dutch. You don't go into a computer and watch a picture when you can see it on the streets.
"It has to do with social control. Your sex has always been used as one of the means to control you, by church, by law, by government, by your mum and dad often. If the whole world changed to the Dutch mentality, we wouldn't have any business. That's fact."
So it's really a case of no shame, no sleaze? How about within fun.nl itself? Do the pornographers themselves exert control, or do they feel shame?
Job is uncharacteristically plaintive. "We don't have any written rules here, but we have some moral rules that we developed. What we offer is fairly straight hetero sex and gay sex. We don't go into children and we don't go into animals. We got a set of pictures where, obviously posed, there was a rape going on. Posed. We won't put that on. Because, we all say that if one crank, idiot, will get an idea out of that, you know, we won't sleep."
"OK," I say, "but what about the actresses? How do you know that they aren't being coerced into things they don't want to do? Even if you are totally sleaze free, you can't deny that there is nasty shit that happens in this industry."
"I think we can see from the material if people are being violently forced," says Job. "And the people we work with we know very well; we know where they come from, how long they're in the business. We don't buy material from somebody who knocks on the door here, and says, you know, I've got some slides.
"True, we cannot in a 100% way be sure that those things won't happen. The only thing what we can do is to pay everybody. Paying makes an industry, makes it worthwhile. If things are worthwhile people start to organise themselves, because, its worthwhile to do so...."
Job tails off. Michel has a go.
"If you see the material which is on our sites," he says, "the material has been made by professional photographers like, you know, safe people who have worked with "Penthouse" and "Playboy", and they work with models who do this for a living, and with male models who do this for a living. It is organised and very normal, and nothing strange or sleazy about it."
And that's it. There's deeply sleazy porn, I'm sure - and so are they. And there's a legitimate side, where the guys running it manage to convince themselves that nothing untoward is going on outside of the material itself. They have a commercial interest in porn's acceptability - and as Job pointed out, a commercial interest is a powerful tool for making things happen. It wasn't Hugh Hefner's vision that produced the soft-core porn market. It was his bank statements. That the sort of acceptability that fun.nl wants - the big bucks of mainstream success. These Web sites want to become the "Playboy of the Internet".
The team is full of ideas for how to manage it. There's virtual group sex ("it's the safest sex ever because there's 6,000 miles between us"), and then there's a range of online sex shops. And they are seriously considering introducing a system of fuck miles for each $10 spent with them, and a frequent fucker programme that lets you spend your fuck miles on site. They're not sure about the name, but the logo will be a penis on a blue sky.
Wayne Myers is a London-based freelance writer who believes that 3,000 years of failed attempts to eradicate the sex industry should tell us something.