Shiny cars jam the thoroughfares of Silicon Valley, as computer workers flee their cubicles for the grinding drive home. Caity McPherson whips her red Honda Civic into the busy labyrinth of roads that crisscross America's new-media mother lode. The sunlight is rapidly fading. McPherson is in a hurry.
She changes lanes and heads for the Palo Alto headquarters of the Xerox Corp. Decadence, a North Beach stripper, checks her look in the passenger-seat mirror.
Near the enormous company sign at Xerox's main entrance, McPherson pulls off the road and parks. A citadel of buildings shimmers on the horizon. The company that brought the world its first computer mouse, graphical user interface, laser printer, and e-mail will today host another industry innovation — a guerrilla porn shoot. Decadence will drape her nude body on and about the Xerox sign while McPherson hurriedly snaps pictures.
On such a mission, God is in the details.
“You need to look for space around the sign, because you don't want to thrash anything,” McPherson explains. “During the WebTV shoot, I put my foot up on the sign, and a letter came off. They had these cheap wooden letters! The other model, Jezebel, used her gum to reattach it.”
An eye peeled for bugs and snakes, Decadence delicately steps through thick grass. Her sunglasses, cocktail dress, and feather boa give an impression of a demented Greta Garbo. McPherson positions Decadence near the sign, steps back, aims her camera, and starts shooting.
“Beautiful … and, move to the right.” Decadence turns around and sticks her rump up in the air. “OK, let's start doing some exposure … I like the panties down … ooh, that's lovely! That's great!”
Commuters on Hillview Expressway are now seeing full-frontal Decadence. A forest-green sport utility vehicle whips past, its driver happily blasting the horn. Minutes later, a Xerox employee takes the turn into the Xerox compound too quickly, tires screeching all the way. Nudity can be distracting.
The sight of a naked woman frolicking atop a high-tech company's sign is delightfully incongruous, particularly in Silicon Valley, where people are more likely to talk up Steve Jobs than hand jobs. But McPherson hopes to change that.
Last summer, the former topless dancer and human-resources manager launched her own porn Web site, specifically aimed at dazzling computer geeks with a combination of erotica and cutting-edge gadgetry. Her site, Juicymango.com, now claims to be the top adult site in Silicon Valley, although that's not saying much.
The Internet is already blitzed with online adult material, and the media has made celebrities of industry success stories. Yet against great odds, McPherson has gambled her life savings on Juicy Mango. And after one year of elbowing for attention against Web sites that gross millions, she's realizing that online porn isn't quite the pot of gold at the end of the bandwidth that she imagined.
She might well fail in her quest to become the Bay Area's premier purveyor of online porn. But she's in too deep to stop now.
Human beings sit atop the food chain, but we're just as predictable as the lower species. From the earliest erotic scrawlings on cave walls, we've ogled our own sexuality. As every new technology has been introduced — the printing press, daguerreotypes, home video, and now the computer — some have felt compelled to dutifully record the activities of their own crotches.
When hackers maneuvered through newsgroups and bulletin boards in the 1980s, they seduced each other and swapped crudely scanned porn images. The CD-ROM revolution was boosted by porn games like Virtual Valerie, and virtual-reality technology had people in goggles and gloves envisioning rich cybersex fantasies.
When the 1990s brought Web-browser technology to the masses, a handful of entrepreneurs quickly registered obvious domain names like www.sex.com. These pioneers slapped up thousands of porn images on networks of crudely designed sites and registered their corporate headquarters in offshore locales like Tijuana and the Bahamas.
Around 1995, a second generation of more sophisticated adult Web sites emerged. This next wave recycled the same old images and materials but also began tailoring porn to a computer-savvy audience. The tawdry, gossip-slinging clublove.com, launched by Seattle phone-sex mogul Seth Warchavsky, introduced technology that allowed members to have a real-time video conversation with a nude woman.
Danni's Hard Drive, started by stripper Danni Ashe in Southern California, represented a logical spinoff from the established adult industry of porn videos and strip clubs, and offered porn-dog surfers a pay fan club for over 150 balloon-breasted women with names like Pandora Peaks, Tiffany Towers, and Kimberly Kupps.
A Tacoma, Wash., housewife and mother of two named Beth Mansfield began collecting porn links while working from her kitchen table. Named for Mansfield's cat, the free Persian Kitty site lists dozens of adult sites, organized into various categories.
Pennsylvania college student Jennifer Ringley went online with her JenniCam site, which featured 24-hour live video-cam coverage of herself in her dorm room. Each day, 500,000 people clicked in and watched Jenni brush her teeth, study for exams, and fool around with her boyfriend.
Porn, as usual, proved profitable for those who got into the game first. A pioneer porn site like sex.com looks tacky and utilitarian, but industry analysts guess such a site can gross over $100 million a year. Warchavsky now claims annual revenues of $20 million from 200,000 members. Danni's Hard Drive boasts 13,000 members and earns an estimated $2.5 million every year. Persian Kitty grosses over $1 million annually.
Statistics about online porn vary depending on the source, but most agree that pornography constitutes an estimated 60 to 70 percent of Web traffic. The most requested search-engine keyword is still “sex.” Nearly 30,000 adult-oriented Web sites are out there in cyberspace, generating an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue. Surveys show that 38 percent of American households are currently online, and 30 percent of those are clicking through the portals of porn at least once a month, usually between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. That's approximately 26 million Americans.
This surfeit of porn doesn't stop more from being pro-duced. Purveyors have learned to snag visitors with clever “stealth sites” that pop up unexpectedly. Pages titled “whitehouse.com,” “whitehouse.net,” and “whitehouse.org” all bring the surfer to adult sites like “Nasty Teens.” Geeks hunting for free software at shareware.com may accidentally type in “sharware.com” and be directed to a porn page, as will soap-opera fans hunting for their favorite stars at “youngandrestless.com.”
The newest trend is amateur Web porn, a loosely defined category of photo and live-cam sites that includes original, home-grown efforts by exhibitionist college girls and housewives, and professional models who pretend to be college girls and housewives.
Companies like the New Jersey-based TiarraCorp will even provide a would-be porn Webmaster with everything needed to get a fledgling site up and running, including page-design templates, billing systems, and stock-photo libraries.
This Henry Ford assembly-line method produces scads of similar-looking amateur pages categorized in various ways, such as “Texas Coeds” and “Georgia Peaches.”
In a few short years, the online porn world has mushroomed from a handful of hackers to a billion-dollar industry. A couple of mouse-clicks yield an astonishing variety of smut to suit every taste — Asians, blacks, cheerleaders, redheads, blondes, lesbians, housewives, teenagers, fatties, big boobs, skirts, pantyhose, feet, amputees, animals — 24 hours a day, delivered to your desktop. How much porn the Internet can support, nobody knows. The market's sheer size and variety have made it harder for any one entrepreneur to make money. Some say the gold rush is over.
But that hasn't stopped Caity McPherson and Juicy Mango from staking their claim and hoping the mine hasn't played out.
Clusters of business types and tourists graze at Enrico's outdoor tables in North Beach. Caity (pronounced “Ky-tee”) McPherson sips tea in the afternoon sun. Her miniskirt and blouse exude a healthy yet professional amount of sex appeal. The 30-year-old laughs easily, doesn't badmouth anyone, and seems the type who returns things she's borrowed. No surprise that Juicy Mango's catch phrase is “Look what happened to the girl next door.” McPherson would be a good sister. You'd want to fix her up with one of your friends.
She grew up in a small, hippie community in the mountains near Santa Barbara. Dad was a self-employed tree trimmer. Nudity in the household was no big deal, and neighbors partied together in the hot tub.
In 1989, she came to the city and enrolled in speech and communication studies at San Francisco State University. On a dare from friends in a women's studies class, she auditioned for a job at the Lusty Lady Theater in North Beach and was hired as a peep-show dancer.
Working under the stage names Rubia and Sadie, she made good money while finishing school. After graduating, she took a day job at the American Language Institute on campus and continued dancing at the Lusty Lady to pay off her credit cards.
The women-owned and -operated theater was like a sorority, she recalls, providing a strong bond of sisterhood among employees.
McPherson sips from her tea, and looks halfway down the block to the Lusty Lady sign. It's been several years since she last worked there.
“At first it was such a turn-on. And it was so shocking. The first couple days, watching men masturbate and come, one after another after another after another.” She mimes the male act of masturbation with a fist. “It was just so surreal.”
Heads turn at nearby tables. The waitress lingers.
McPherson says she found she was attracted most to customers with eyeglasses and laptops. They weren't dumb jocks. They were intriguing, intelligent nerds. She found them so focused, on their jobs and their sexual goals.
But emotionally, dancing was a draining experience. Like most strippers, McPherson stopped talking about it entirely, except when she was around other dancers. She met a guy she liked and left dancing to work at a Silicon Valley semiconductor company as a human-resources manager. While surfing the Web one day at work, she came upon a site called the Post-Feminist Playground, put together by women who were tired of the usual feminist “crap” and wanted to enjoy men again.
McPherson approached Post-Feminist Playground to pitch a story idea on the S/M scene in Silicon Valley, interviewing dominatrixes whose clients were kinky computer executives. The Playground loved the story and immediately posted it. Susannah Breslin, the site's sex columnist, lived in Berkeley and wanted to meet McPherson in person. The two got together for drinks at Eleven, a South of Market restaurant.
“She was extremely tech-savvy,” Breslin remembers. “You often find people in the sex industry who are interested in sex, and you often find entrepreneurs, but you don't often find both in the same person.”
The conversation got McPherson thinking. The Post-Feminist women were shutting down their site to work on a book project. Here McPherson was, talking about sex and technology in the same sentence. She obviously held passion for both subjects. Maybe there was some way she could combine the two — create a marriage of the sex business and the Silicon Valley world of high-tech guys sitting alone in their cubicles. [page]
By the time the two finished their drinks and headed off to a strip club, McPherson had made her decision — she would start her own adult Web site.
The Bay Area generates much of the world's computer technology, including the mighty Intel Pentium chip, which powers almost everything. It's also given the world topless and bottomless dancing, unionized strippers, and safe-sex clubs.
From these tech and flesh roots, one would expect the area to be home to a plethora of porn Web sites. In fact, few are located here.
There are plenty of listing services for escorts, dominatrixes, strippers, mail-order sex toys, prostitution activists, and referral centers. But there are few prominent amateur sites like www.shyx.com and www.leighsworld.com, which are both independently run by young exhibitionist women who live in the East Bay. Another amateur site, www.glamazon.com, is the domain of a high-tech worker on the Peninsula. Such sites are more hobbies than full-time businesses.
When Caity McPherson decided to get into the game, she didn't want a hobby. She wanted a livelihood. She wanted to make lots of money. So she began piecing together what she hoped would become the area's premier site.
The name “Juicy Mango” came to her after she spotted a giant statue of a pineapple in the middle of a restaurant. She created an umbrella company, Samantha's Online Galleries, named for her brother Sam, a recovering addict.
But she needed a big-picture concept. Most of the porn sites out there were for shit, she thought, nothing more than a bunch of stock photos with lame captions. She wanted something smarter. She had watched guys at the Lusty Lady and observed their baser instincts, what they wanted and looked for. She remembered the computer guys, men who would obsess over small details. And she was living in Silicon Valley, surrounded by geeks and their gadgets. Why not target them?
“The notion that a nerdy guy could be at work and look absolutely not sexual at all, that that person could in fact be sexual — it's like opening a present!” she says. “Seeing a man in a technical environment, where there's just an absolute lack of sexuality, and fantasizing about the fact that he goes home and masturbates to visions of the secretary, whose skirt was sort of up a little bit at the front desk — is really sexy to me! I do have a Silicon Valley-centric perspective. Everyone loves technology, right? Because I do!”
She hired a designer. Friends showed her the basics of setting up an ISP account, credit-card billing, and how to get registered with major search engines. She learned the variety of ways an adult site can generate income. Banner ads. Memberships. Affiliate programs, struck with companies like Amazon.com.
Investment offers were weak, and when she couldn't find others to bankroll her plan, McPherson financed everything herself, cobbling together $30,000 from her 401(k) and credit cards, and getting help from family and friends. In May 1998, Juicy Mango appeared on the Internet.
From the beginning, she would avoid stock images and direct photo shoots herself. Juicy Mango was about originality. Not only was the Tech Girls concept — photographing models in front of Silicon Valley company signs — an original idea, it was also right in her back yard. And she would add cutting-edge software for panorama, zoom, and infrared viewing.
But pornography isn't as easy as it seems. After running a newspaper ad that sought “exhibitionists needed for female-run Web site,” McPherson was deluged with so many offers from men (and photos of their penises draped over keyboards), that she had to run another ad emphasizing she was looking for women. When girls did answer and agree to be photographed, some got to the shoot and turned listless and apprehensive.
Some of the first sessions with men were disastrous.
“I wasn't assertive enough to say, 'Now's the time for you to get a hard-on.' These were amateurs. They just weren't inspired with their partners. It was awful,” she recalls. “One guy decided he didn't want to take off his clothes. It was like, 'What did we talk about here?' ”
Initial feedback from those visiting her site was often confusing and contradictory. Some complained that it was too soft-core. Others said the soft-core was refreshing to see.
Then there was the episode with Jenny Blue. After receiving Blue's photos, McPherson posted them on the site. Right away, money started rolling in. “She looked like this drug-addict housewife from next door, with these huge fake boobs. She always had this dead look on her face. She was also really into dildos — she would do two dildos at a time. These guys went crazy over this woman.”
McPherson struck a 50/50 deal with Jenny Blue, and the Web traffic soared. But administrative and design work took so much time, McPherson approached Blue with a new contract, asking for 5 percent more. Blue said forget it and took her pictures off the site. Income abruptly dropped.
“It was ridiculous,” McPherson says, managing a smile. “It was a big mistake.”
Juicy Mango's most traumatic moment came with a Tech Girl shoot outside the headquarters of Yahoo!. As the photographer and model were working, McPherson noticed a couple of employees coming out of the building. Since Yahoo! has a hip ad campaign, McPherson thought the guys might want to goof around and be part of the shoot. McPherson approached one of the men. Before she could propose anything, she says, the employee snarled, “So, do you want me to take your film away from you now, or should I call the police?”
“I was just blown away by that,” she says now. “It was totally unexpected. This was some 25-year-old guy with a baseball hat on, on a Sunday. It was like, 'What? Does your dad own Yahoo! or something? What's your fuckin' problem with me?' We just hung around way too long, and it was really bad.” [page]
But she kept going, generating and stockpiling original material. And the site began to draw some traffic. A San Jose newspaper published an article about her and the Tech Girls. A wealthy salesman saw the article, called her up, and ended up investing, buying 46 percent of her company. Playboy.com ran a series on the Tech Girls and then hired McPherson to write stories.
Women in particular liked her site, she says. It was smart; it wasn't the same stupid porn. And she was funny.
“Most other adult sites don't have a sense of humor,” says Bryna Bank, president of the South of Market www.eroscan Web portal. “She's really a grass-roots site. She worked at the Lusty Lady, she knows the San Francisco sex vibe. There's a very San Francisco way about being open about your sexuality. It's like, 'Oh, I'll go to a fetish party, and I'll get spanked.' You can just drop it into casual conversation.”
It was time to beat the drum. McPherson spoke about erotic e-commerce at the Internet World Conference in New York. She attended the enormous COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas, set up her booth in the adult section, lassoed computer geeks, and fed them slices of mango. She sent photos of herself to Leg Show magazine, and after they were published, guys started e-mailing her, asking for underwear.
Juicy Mango had arrived.
First-time visitors will discover a very well-conceived site, much more complete and diverse than most porn. Visitors can check out photo sets of 20 of so different models, with areas for specific fetishes like underwear, feet, or smoking. In addition to the high-tech panoramic, zoomable, and Sony NightShot infrared photos, she offers book reviews, T-shirts, and an encryption service.
“I feel like the auntie of the Web site,” she says. “I'm like Aunt Caity, with my brood of models. This sort of loving creation. This is my baby. I actually have this image of a woman with this huge dress on, with these wonderful huge boobs, and she has all these kids under her dress.”
But not many guys are peeking under her dress. Membership hovers around 80. As a business, it appears to be treading water.
Part of the problem is the competitive nature of the Internet. As surfers discover thousands of new porn sites, bristling with free, downloadable JPEG images, they automatically start avoiding pay sites like Juicy Mango.
Technology also drives some away. Looking at porn is one thing, but waiting to download a particular piece of viewing software — especially if your computer is old or outdated — quickly robs one of valuable time, and porn surfers tend to be in a hurry. And if the software does get installed, unless the computer contains current upgrades, it can often be temperamental and prone to crashing.
A third reason for Juicy Mango's middling success is more touchy. A woman's idea of what the male finds erotic is often very different from a man's idea. Most porn produced by men portrays women as fantasy objects — hourglass-figured Barbie dolls, young and well-scrubbed, a disproportionate number of blondes, implants OK but not essential. Women-produced porn — such as Juicy Mango — often leans toward more realistic-looking models with a wide variety of figure shapes, a larger percentage of brunettes, and body hair, piercings, and tattoos. This image appeals to women because it indicates that women don't have to look like Barbie dolls to be sexy. And it's also very egalitarian in San Francisco, where the emphasis is often on who a person is rather than how she looks. But out there in cyberspace, where most people aren't from San Francisco, guys would rather look at Barbie dolls.
For all of these reasons, Juicy Mango stands little chance of surviving in its present form. A fundamental shift in content or distribution, or a partnership with similar sites, could increase traffic.
But at the moment it still can't pay the bills. Mango remains in limbo, and McPherson is working seven days a week trying to change that.
Caity McPherson greets visitors in her stocking feet at the back door. Her Mountain View apartment looks like any other split-level unit: tidy, with lots of plants, an abundance of health and science books, copies of Inc. magazine, prog-rock CDs by Yes and Rush. Surrounded by trees, her building complex exudes suburban calm. A leaf blower whirs in the distance.
An upstairs bedroom provides office space for the Juicy Mango empire. An initial designer left after a few months, so McPherson has learned to do all the HTML production herself. On her desk sits a Sony VAIO Digital Studio workstation with a Pentium II 233MHZ processor, tricked out with 6GB of hard drive, 96MB of RAM, and a CD-ROM burner, all wired to the Internet with a DSL dedicated line. A Nokai cell phone and PalmPilot sit within reach. Stuck to the monitor is a note reading, “Hard work never killed anybody — some dead guy.”
Behind her workstation sits her programmer boyfriend Stefan Podell, staring into another enormous monitor, quietly balancing his checkbook.
“We're kind of like Laverne and Shirley here,” says McPherson.
She settles into a chair, brings up Juicy Mango, and gives a quick tour of the site. It's clear she's just as geeky as the guys she targets.
She clicks on some infrared photos, which supposedly provide a see-through view of women's bodies beneath their clothing.
“You can see my underwear,” she points to a photo of herself. “You can see my nipples here.”
She demonstrates the panorama technology. Using the mouse, a visitor moves through a photo-realistic house filled with naked girls and explores nine different rooms, each of which is, coincidentally, filled with naked girls. She adds that the concept actually was first used by travel and car companies to show off their products. This is one of the few gizmos that hasn't yet caught on in the adult industry. [page]
“It's kind of like porno Myst,” adds Podell. In a few minutes, he'll go make himself a sandwich. He supports McPherson completely but could do without her nude photos on the site.
McPherson has recently begun adding more explicit material, tinkering with the site content to attract more business. “The Twins” photo series depict two raunchy nymphomaniac look-alikes, peeing in unison and going at each other with vegetables. Another new photo package is a threesome with a girlfriend and two guys. McPherson also has constructed and attached another site for women named Sweet Banana, featuring nude male models.
And this afternoon she's hired a photographer and model for a special high-tech shoot in her living room. Silicon Valley's Live Picture company designed its Reality Studio software primarily to allow users to zoom into photos and rotate 3-D objects. Sites like Rolling Stone and sportsite.com feature this technology. Juicy Mango will take it one step further.
Decadence the stripper stands in high heels on a rotating Lazy Susan platform, striking 18 separate poses that will later be edited together into a continuous digital loop. Guys will then be able to watch a 3-D nude woman rotate on their screen and manipulate her size and speed with the mouse.
A porn shoot is more about decisions than titillation.
“We have nine frames left,” says the photographer. “I think a buttocks thing would be nice.”
McPherson nods, “A butt thing.”
Although people like the high-tech bells and whistles, McPherson admits that most visitors will end up checking out static photos of the girls. Veteran online porn-hounds who were shown juicymango.com for this article seemed almost disappointed in the site's intelligence and variety. Guys are accustomed to basic, rudimentary porn. They hunt around for something that's free, find the image that pushes their buttons, and soon they're done.
“Too much going on,” says one about the Juicy Mango site.
“As soon as I see the word 'ENTER' I'm outta there,” says another, who refuses to pay for his porn.
The lack of traffic frustrates McPherson. Is Juicy Mango going to work? Will she have to go back to a day job? The company has a finite amount of money. She's had to lower her membership prices. What may save her is her interest in providing erotica for women.
“We've got a lot of dumb porn already,” says Breslin, now a media sex pundit. “A part of this site that holds the most promise, is to figure out what women want. It circumvents Seth [Warchavsky]. Women have this retarded stigma to not look at porn. The Internet allows them to look at porn in private.”
Until Juicy Mango finds the next level, McPherson keeps brainstorming, looking for that elusive idea that will make a splash and catch on in the cubicles of Silicon Valley. She says she's looking for a girl who can fit an entire mango inside herself. Maybe an outrageous freak-show act could get on Howard Stern and attract attention to her site.
“I would never think that I would ever say, 'I have a job that involves recruiting a woman to stick mangos inside of her.' ” She chuckles. “That's what I'm doing! Crazy.