For Californians dismayed by our state's dysfunctional politics, I offer a sign of hope: Last week it was possible to buy copies of the DVD Blond Cougar from Down the Street Fucks Like a Teen or purchase a "Strap On Cyberflesh Hollow Extension Dong" with just a couple of mouse clicks.

The reason that's uplifting news is that the woman ultimately responsible for these offerings is now the frontrunner in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

During her 10 years as CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman oversaw the growth of the auction site's Adults Only section, linking buyers and purveyors of porn and sex paraphernalia. In a December poll, she was leading the pack with support from 32 percent of GOP voters surveyed.

Whitman's success in the June primary wouldn't merely mean Republicans had backed a pro-choice moderate. It would signify that members of a party that endorsed Proposition 8 favored a candidate who helped bring us a recent auction for "Anal-Ese Desensitizing Cream: can be used with Butt Plug — $6.95" and thus moved her party from right-wing extremism toward a socially libertarian future. Of course, most of those voters probably don't know about Whitman's role as a porn enabler at eBay. That, however, is likely to change during the coming months.


On the campaign trail, Whitman has touted herself as a business whiz able to bring jobs to the state. "We must overcome our challenges by counting on the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that is a hallmark of California," she said in a statement last week.

But she didn't note that California's modern entrepreneurial spirit often involves selling sex. After all, since its inception, the Internet's success has been aided by porn.

Under Whitman's stewardship between 1998 and 2008, eBay was no different. Porn is also an eBay profit center — albeit a relatively tiny, multimillion-dollar one in a company with annual revenues of more than $8 billion. But it does appear to be a growing part of eBay's revenue stream. Back in 2000, the site's sex section had fewer than 40,000 items for sale, according to an LA Weekly story from the time. Last time I checked, there were more than 80,000.

Prior to the company's 1998 IPO, Whitman oversaw the creation of an eBay section, Adult Only, dedicated exclusively to the sale of pornography, rather than simply including porn items in auctions for more mainstream movies, magazines, or toys. The move was couched as a way to sanitize the overall site. But it was also prescient marketing — though much porn consumption has shifted to streaming Internet video, there's still a market for specialized fare such as anus cream and granny sex videos.

While at eBay, Whitman expressed discomfort with the site's porn sales, but ultimately deferred to other executives who saw the revenue potential. This is apparent in depositions given by eBay executives and an affidavit filed by Whitman in a 2006 federal age-discrimination lawsuit by Emmanuel Kepas, a former technical support manager at eBay's offices in Draper, Utah.

Kepas' claims were dismissed after being rejected in arbitration (he is appealing the decision), but the case is interesting independently of its merits because it reveals details about management of eBay's pornography and sex aid sections. Testimony in the case suggests that the issue of whether to eliminate or support the Adult Only section was an issue of ongoing concern.

Whitman herself revealed in a February 2008 sworn declaration for the Kepas case that porn was indeed on her managerial radar. "Certain proposals concerning eBay's mature audiences policies were presented to me," she wrote.

Scott Newman, former eBay vice president of customer support who was deposed in the Kepas suit, emphasized that the Adult Only section posed a quandary for Whitman.

"There was a lot of concern whether we should continue having a mature audiences site or not," he said. Whitman "had often gone on the record saying, 'I wish we hadn't started that thing.' But it was kind of like, now it's out of the bag, and to stop it would have caused kind of a big deal, I guess, with the sellers who made their living on the 'mature' site."

Brandon Scheuerman, who worked in eBay customer support between 1999 and 2006, spent part of his early time with the company dealing with customer complaints about offensive material. Early on, eBay executives "talked about doing away with that [explicit material] because it wasn't consistent with the brand," he recalled in an interview. Some eBay employees had complained of "get-a-load-of this" cubicle banter, where someone would point to a computer screen displaying that day's most bizarre sex-themed auction item. "I did not think that it should exist in any shape or form, but I guess it's whatever makes money."

In 2006, Kepas recalled in an interview, an eBay vice president held meetings with managers at its Utah operations, "considering closing the mature audiences site." In the end, however, the pro-porn faction prevailed. Last year, eBay moved to make purchasing adult material easier by ending a policy of prohibiting consumers from using PayPal to buy products such as Blond Cougar.


The Whitman campaign did not respond to a request for an interview about Whitman's role as a steward of porn commerce, while an eBay spokeswoman said, "I regret to inform you I'm going to have to decline to participate in this story. My clients don't have any information to share with you on this topic."

But in a March 2009 discussion between former PayPal president Rajiv Dutta and Whitman, a transcript of which was published in BusinessWeek, Whitman seemed to characterize her role in the internal eBay porn sales debate as that of an executive who didn't like that business, but was swayed by underlings to embrace it.

"I think if you want to get the very best people, you need to give them degrees of freedom, you need to give them latitude within a set of defined points of view; rules, if you will," she was quoted as saying. "And you need to let them figure it out. And this was a gray area."

Oddly, porn seems to be the only issue where Whitman describes herself as a meek executive who allowed staff to overrule her. In other areas of eBay management, she claims on the campaign trail to have been a strong executive actually in charge. Voters are used to hearing politicians say, "The buck stops here," but they aren't accustomed to hearing it from former executives of businesses that sell sex entertainment.

"I have to believe, at least in a subterranean way, there are people who will start talking about it and be concerned about it," said Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley.

That said, he suggests that Republicans' willingness to elevate a sex-business leader to frontrunner status in the gubernatorial primary just might be a sign of change in California politics.

"Part of the issue here is the very interesting question of whether Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a learning experience for state Republicans," Brady said. "He showed that being a moderate on social issues is the way to power in California, but he's been booed at Republican Party conventions. For some, the lesson has been, they really, really don't like that kind of moderation."

Other Republicans, however, have made a gubernatorial primary front-runner of the mastermind behind the easy availability of porn on eBay.

Watching to see whether those porn-tolerant moderates prevail will be, well, delightful.

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