Eros association sexpo
Performers at Sexpo 2014 (Image: AAP/Jane Dempster)

It’s the worst possible night for this sort of event. As Crikey approaches Centrefolds Lounge, to meet representatives for adult industry body Eros Association at the pre-Sexpo industry night, the streets are still clogged with office workers and slick with icy, spitting rain.

It’s about as unerotic a scene as one can imagine. It feels all wrong for an adult industry night.

Past the heavyset bouncers and the heavy doors, I’m handed a sparkling wine by a lad with a distressingly chiselled torso (it will not shock you to hear there is no fabric between his belt and his bow tie) and settle in near a stage.

There is a couple wearing loose Kimonos on stage; a woman being bound to a pole. The most flesh we see is her shin. I resist the urge to loosen my tie like some kind of white guy in a Sir Mixalot video.

This is the kinkiest thing that occurs all night. The main stage is dedicated to more mainstream stuff: dancers, men and women in fabulous shape, demonstrating, among other things, incredible core strength.

Performances aside there is a kind of sweet, family reunion kind of vibe to the whole thing: women tottering on giant heels to hug one another, while men in shiny black body suits and women in lingerie sidle up to the snacks table.

Sexpo director Kevin Mack, a tattoo creeping up past his tux collar to his ear, takes a photo of a group of young women in various costumes. The quality doesn’t pass muster, clearly — “You had one job!” teases one. At the end of the pole-binding act — though, in its intimacy, it doesn’t seem like an act for anyone but themselves — the couple exchange a brief kiss and a long hug in the middle of the stage.

As it turns out, porn has been in the news in the lead-up to the night. In late October it was reported that Home Affairs had made a submission to a House of Representatives inquiry on proposing its facial recognition system be used to provide “age verification for online wagering and online pornography”. It’s far from the first time arbitrary, moralistic rules have been weighed against adult entertainment — pointing to the weird disconnect between what we know about people’s habits and political rhetoric.

Remember, for example, when right-wing independent senator Brian Harradine and National Party MP De-Anne Kelly tried to clamp down on porn classification by marching into then-prime minister John Howard’s office with a box of VHS tapes with titles like Max Going SouthBuck’s Transsexual Adventures and My Life as a She-Male in the FBI? 

Somewhere in all that, Howard reportedly decided female ejaculation was “not a true thing”, which informed a new standard for the type of X-rated films that could be sold in Australia as of September 2000.

This moralistic attitude has banks refusing loans to adult businesses. Eros got Small Business Ombudsman (and go-to “nice conservative” on every ABC panel show) Kate Carnell on board to help. Still, the problem persists.

At the same time, businesses in the adult industry can’t access job seeker programs — not just performance or sex work, but customer service jobs, social media and warehouse positions.

“I mean it’s like they’d prefer people stay on welfare,” Rachel Payne, Eros’ general manager, tells Crikey.

Howard’s classifications means that a remarkable amount of pornography can’t be produced or sold in Australia, but is still easily consumable (technically illegally) via the internet.

Payne tells Crikey the disruption of the internet has particularly serious implications for the industry. Everyone accessing porn for free, outside of any classifications or regulation, means not only dwindling income for the workforce — mainstay magazines like People and Picture are closing down — but also means there’s no way of guaranteeing ethical, properly remunerated work.

The night ends with an auction for the Melbourne Period Project, which provides sanitary products and assistance to women, transgender men and gender non-conforming and non-binary people experiencing homelessness. A young woman with a thick Northern Irish accent barks at people to bid for various toys and aphrodisiacs, while Payne happily disrobes and gyrates beside her.

“No one told me I was getting naked tonight, by the way,” she says with a grin.

“Didn’t take a lot of convincing, now did it, doll?” comes the retort from the auctioneer.