By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
I made $14 selling my used panties on eBay. See, I got curious about the ”panty people,“ as I‘ve dubbed them, who pawn off their worn undergarments in the adult section of the online auction house. (It was a few Weekly editors, incidentally, who first put me on to the sellers -- and they claim to be ”working“ in there with their doors shut!) So I joined the ranks of auctioneers one morning to see how it all worked and who -- if anyone -- would actually cough up hard-earned cash for my old undies. Turns out, not too many. But other panty peddlers were more successful. Six hundred and one this day, to be exact -- more than the Grateful Dead Beanie Bear and A-Team action-figure hawkers combined. And used lingerie is just one of thousands of adult products being flogged on eBay each day.
Beneath the squeaky-clean veneer of the Web site that set out in 1995 with the wholesome intention of unloading Pez dispensers lies a thriving multimillion-dollar backroom business in off-color merchandise. While eBay insists that adult sales represent less than 1 percent of its overall transactions, online porn and auction experts put the percentage higher, somewhere between 1 percent and 5 percent. With eBay’s gross revenue at roughly $2.8 billion a year, that means up to $140 million in extra cash from Hello Kitty vibrators, remote-control butt plugs and the like.
”If [the adult section] were a Web site alone, it would be considered quite successful, judging from the amount of activity it gets,“ says Mark Dodd, co-founder of AuctionWatch, a San Bruno--based company that tracks online auctions.
EBay denies actively facilitating the adult section‘s growth. Dan MacKeigan, a senior Internet analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. Inc. who has shadowed eBay closely, believes the company is embarrassed by its adult site. ”Especially now that they have a partnership with Disney,“ he says, referring to the co-branded site eBay.go.com announced February 8 as a way to auction Disney merchandise. ”They don’t make [adult merchandise] easy to find.“
Still, eBay certainly hasn‘t overlooked the fiscal promise of its X-rated category. Offerings are expanding so fast, many sellers report doubling their profits yearly. And while these sales haven’t exactly rocked the porn industry, Frederick S. Lane, author of Obscene Profits, a study of pornography in the cyber age, feels eBay is quickly displacing adult bookstores as the favored spot to buy used men‘s magazines. Lane also notes that eBay is part of the broader $2 billion adult e-commerce boom that ”has wiped out at least half of the existing adult mail-order sales over the last three years.“
EBay points out that the company maintains taste standards (used undergarments must be washed and stain-free) and keeps children away by requiring a credit card to access adult auctions. But with 10.35 million different visitors monthly, according to Media Metrix (the leading Internet-use tracking firm), eBay staff concedes it’s near impossible to monitor all auctions. Nor would a company that bills itself as ”the world‘s leading person-to-person online trading community“ want to play Big Brother, preferring to rely on customer complaints to police the action. ”We have 4,300 categories and half a million items added daily. We can’t possibly monitor every item,“ says eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove. ”And we don‘t want to. The idea is to have the users manage the system.“
But, as one marketing director at an established adult-video distributor puts it: eBay has ”become so large, it’s impossible to police. Once you learn the tricks of the trade, you can get away with a lot.“ And so the little ”adult suburb,“ to some extent, is running itself, and users are making -- and breaking -- the rules.
Sexually explicit material has always appeared on eBay, where the anonymous, voyeuristic nature of the Net has long been recognized as the ideal incubator for porn. But whereas it used to be the stray collector‘s edition of Playboy or autographed porn-star head shot floating out there in cyberspace alongside antique violin strings and baseball cards, adult sales by 1997 had grown large enough to warrant their own online ”room.“ EBay senior PR manager Kristin Seuell says the reasoning was that a separate division would ”provide a secure category to sell this type of merchandise with a gateway, where minors can’t enter.“ Pursglove adds that the decision was made entirely in response to user complaints. ”It was an ongoing community discussion,“ he stresses.
Dave Michaels, senior editor of talk ingblue.com, an online magazine about the adult entertainment industry, is also known as ”Porno Dave“ on eBay, where he was one of the first people to sell autographed erotic photos. Michaels says he was instrumental in those early discussions by helping eBay locate objectionable material whose existence had escaped the company‘s eye. ”I worked closely with eBay for about two months, sending them hundreds of pages I researched with items that wouldn’t be allowed anywhere else on the planet: body parts, vials of semen, underwear with feces on it. They ended up creating . . . what you see now.“
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