Lighten up, sex is fun. After 10 years, Sexpo’s message is reaching further afield, writes Liza Power.
IF DAVID Ross hadn’t been involved in a near-fatal car accident in Horsham some 25 years ago, his life might have turned out very differently. As it was, the apprentice motor mechanic suffered permanent damage to his legs and was forced to consider a career change.
After partying away much of his insurance payout, he “came to his senses”, went on a date with a “madam”, and decided the brothel business was worth a try.
Profitable but tedious, Ross sold out of the brothel within a year, took a course in public relations and landed a gig as a PR consultant for Top of the Town. A stint in marketing for Club X came next. Midway through this stint, Ross stumbled on an idea.”
My brief for Club X was fairly simple, and that was to make adult bookstores more appealing to women. The reputation of adult bookstores, at that time, was fairly ordinary – a place for men in trenchcoats with brown paper bags, if you like.
“But women are the largest purchaser of adult merchandise. Men might buy DVDs and videos, but women buy sex toys. So it was vital to welcome them into the stores.”
It was during a trade show, held in a Chinatown restaurant, that the idea of taking adult products out of book shops and placing them in a more appealing environment occurred to him.
“I was doing a story with a freelance journalist, and we went to a trade-day lunch. There was a woman standing at a lectern giving a really professional presentation to industry representatives about products and equipment.
“I looked around at the wine, the white tablecloths, and audience – largely women – and the products, which were laid out on the table for people to pick up and play with, and I thought, ‘You know, this is what we have to do’.”
Ross’ original concept was to hold a two-day “touch and feel” expo of adult toys, an event that, in his words, “would allow people to see how they could bring a spark back into their sex lives without being scared or embarrassed about it”. Held at the Carlton Crest Hotel and featuring just 20 stands, it drew about 8000 people. Ross says that, at the time, he was surprised anyone came.
“We were collecting entrance fees in bum bags, and, to this day, I don’t know whether we lost money or made money out of it.
Still, the level of interest was sufficient to convince us that we had something.”
Hoping to harness that “something”, Ross put together the first Sexpo, folding invitations, sealing envelopes, and writing every media release, radio and television advertisement himself.
“From the beginning, it was important for everything to be carefully worded, free from anything remotely graphic or gratuitous. For men, all we’d need to say would be ‘bare breasts inside’ and we’d be inundated, but for women the marketing had to be smarter.”
Ross says the key to Sexpo’s success has been to create a setting in which people can explore adult products in a space that’s non-threatening.
“We try not to create much controversy, or court it. It’s managed in a way that makes it pretty hard for people to find fault in it.
“If they (people with moral objections) come to an event, they can see a really diverse demographic, and they can see that we’ve been very successful at what we do.”
It’s also been crucial, Ross says, to keep the show diverse and interesting. Aside from sexrelated products, Sexpo 2005 features pole-dancing classes, glamour photo transformations, a “shaggin’ wagon” panel van display by the Van Council of Victoria, and fitness displays from Fitness First.
Brothels, swingers’ clubs, holiday clubs, wineries and adult-industry lobby groups also have stalls, as do chiropractors and sexual health groups.
Ross likes to think Sexpo has been instrumental in changing people’s views towards sex by creating an environment in which people aren’t afraid to ask questions.
“Without getting too sentimental, it’s a good feeling to see these people – mums and dads, boyfriends and girlfriends, 80- year-olds hand in hand – walking around at Sexpo, because it’s clear how successfully we’re getting our message across.
“Our slogan is ‘Lighten up, sex is fun’ and, while we’ve been criticised for that, because, for some people, it apparently promotes promiscuity, it seems the vast majority of people get it,” he says.
The hottest in the business
Blonde, beautiful and siren-like she may be, but Silvia Saint, the Czech-born star of the adult film industry – in Melbourne to meet fans and promote Sexpo, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary – isn’t as easy to interview as one might have imagined.
Just why is hard to say. It’s not that Saint is intimidating – seated in the back of a stretch limousine with a glass of champagne in one hand, flanked by her manager Oldrich Widman and Sexpo representative Rocky Cazzinarro, she’s anything but.
Still, hailed in Sexpo promotional material as “the hottest in hardcore”, and with close to a decade of experience in adult film under her belt, Saint directs her words as carefully, it would seem, as she’s directed her career. She responds to predictable questions with good humour. How did she end up in the adult film business?
“Our country was very poor and it is an easy way to make money. Of course, it helps that I love sex, because, if you do not like it, you can’t be in this industry. You can fake some things, but not everything,” she replies, with a smirk. What does she like most about her job?
“I like the travelling. I have been so many places – Japan, Brazil, North America, Mexico and across Europe.”
Saint’s visit to Melbourne marks her third trip to Australia. It’s a place she likes, she says, because she finds Australians warm and easy-going. Meeting her fans, both during and outside her promotional work, has, she says, been interesting.
“On the last trip to Melbourne, a fan followed me all along Collins Street before he came over with a camera saying, ‘Is that you, is that really Silvia?’ before he asked for a photo,” she says, pronouncing Silvia as S-iii-lll-v-iii-aa.
“For a lot of people, it seems really hard for them, because they’ve seen me in a film, to accept that I’m real. It’s almost like they would prefer me to stay a fantasy in their head and not be a person.”
Saint says she’s surprised by the growth and success of Sexpo, particularly given that attendance numbers at similar shows across Europe are dropping each year.
Widman cites the growth of internet pornography in Europe as the central reason for this, and the fact that people would rather consume adult entertainment at home than attend a show.
As for those people who deride Sexpo as an exercise in poor taste and bad morals, Widman dismisses such views.
“People might look at the porn industry and think it promotes dangerous and bad ideas, but pornography presents one of the safest ways for people to enjoy themselves. People in this industry are incredibly well-educated about health and sex.
“What is dangerous is going to a club and picking up a stranger and having unprotected sex, which a lot of people do all the time. It’s not what people in this industry do at all. They can’t, or they wouldn’t have a job.”
Sexpo is at the Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, Southbank, from today until Sunday. Details: www.sexpo.com.au