Northern Virginia is a wasteland. Twenty or so miles due west of Washington, DC you'll find a series of nondescript neighborhoods, with no distinct identity, no true town centers, a barely broken chain of outlet stores and closed restaurants. The stretch of highway leading from Arlington to Dulles Airport is the urban equivalent of an ellipsis: a “loading” screen of locales. There could be no more suitable place to host the most conventional of conventions.

And conventions can be frightfully dull. Cockburn would know: his lengthy tenure with The Spectator has seen him grace the stalls...

Northern Virginia is a wasteland. Twenty or so miles due west of Washington, DC you’ll find a series of nondescript neighborhoods, with no distinct identity, no true town centers, a barely broken chain of outlet stores and closed restaurants. The stretch of highway leading from Arlington to Dulles Airport is the urban equivalent of an ellipsis: a “loading” screen of locales. There could be no more suitable place to host the most conventional of conventions.

And conventions can be frightfully dull. Cockburn would know: his lengthy tenure with The Spectator has seen him grace the stalls of CPAC, AIPAC, the RNC. He is far too familiar with the jangle of elevator musak, the freebie fridge magnets, the plastic press passes. When it comes to corporate America, he has seen everything. Or so he thought.

“Did you masturbate today?” an MC asks a line of women on stage at the Dulles Expo Center, a high-ceilinged echoey arena in Chantilly nestled next to the Carpet and Blinds Center, the Brickmania Warhammer store and the Direct Cremation Services of Virginia. The women are participants in a fake orgasm contest, and a crowd of conference attendees is watching on with interest.

This weekend, Cockburn found himself not at another dull political convention but at Exxxotica, “the largest event in the United States dedicated to love & sex.” The Expo Center usually hosts more sedate events: there’s a train and toy exhibition later in December, a monthly gun show, an arts and crafts festival. But this time, it was the turn of the adult film stars, fetishists and sex shop vendors.

The venue itself made for a disconcerting setting: the bright overhead lights, hard shiny floors and airport hangar-style ceiling stood awkwardly at odds with the supposed “intimacy” of the convention’s purpose. Standalone exhibits — a climbing frame-style group of stripper poles, a couple of flat queen-sized beds, a cage — were isolated. The performers cavorting on them seemed detached. At her stand, Jenna Foxx, a prominent adult star, told Cockburn that the space was “much bigger” than those used for similar conventions nationwide.

One of the performance areas (The Spectator)

Ostensibly, the purpose of Exxxotica is to give pornography enthusiasts a chance to meet the adult film actresses they obsess over. The DC event featured headline appearances from a number of the industry’s biggest stars: Lisa Ann, of Nailin’ Sarah Palin fame and Stormy Daniels, of “tens of thousands of dollars in hush money from Donald Trump” fame (more on her later).

Ann, Daniels and the other top-billed stars appeared courtesy of Bad Dragon, a company that makes some of the most egregious-looking sex toys ever committed to silicone. Cockburn observed a few typical interactions between the porn stars and their fans: an ample-buttocked pair called Vicki Chase and Carmela Clutch both had eager admirers lining up for photographs. Clutch was offering multiple poses: lifting up a knee-high-booted leg for the fan to grasp, then backing up and bending over. Much like at, say, Comic-Con, the stars would also sell autographed pictures of themselves to attendees, or even DVDs (yes, DVDs still exist).

Some visitors opted to pay a premium price for a more hands-on experience: a lap dance, for instance, or “companionship”: the chance to wander around the convention for half an hour or so. A number of stars ambled around the arena, arms linked with military-looking men. One man wore overalls as he strolled, accompanied by a voluptuous woman in a red bodice. Don’t get the wrong idea though: the convention’s nudity and soliciting rules are rigorously enforced and plastered everywhere. Pasties are ubiquitous so there’s not a nipple in sight. Finally some decency.

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The Exxxotica rules (The Spectator)

Imagine the typical attendee of a porn convention, and you probably visualize the same kind of person Cockburn did: a basement-dwelling, overweight incel-adjacent serial masturbator for whom just leaving the house is an achievement. And sure, a number of the male visitors seemed to fit that bill.

“Kiss Me Under the Mistletoe” announced one portly young gent’s Christmas sweater, a bushel of it hanging from his belt. Another festive fellow was dressed as one of Santa’s elves… in his boxer shorts and a ballgag. Cockburn observed three stocky men in loose-fitting slacks, one in a suede hat. “Let’s go walk it off,” one said as they left a nearby Mexican restaurant and entered the venue. Cockburn would later spot the same trio filming a stripper thrusting on her hands and knees on a bed, as “DJ Giggity” blasted EDM. There was a lot of standing around and filming going on.

A long-haired chap on a leash wore an all-white outfit with multicolored Sharpies attached, so his favorite performers could sign his clothes. Another wore Pit Viper sunglasses and a black hoodie that read “I love hot moms” on the front and “BLM: Bang Local MILFs” on the back. (Cockburn wondered whether this was a custom piece.) “This mah scene,” a young man said, walking into the “Dungeon Experience,” where a lady was lying on a massage table being hit with sticks and two goth girls were being harnessed from a chain hanging down from the rafters. A young man with a shaved head in pajama bottoms ambled around filming the whole affair on his iPad.

The weirdness was compounded by some of the sights on offer at the exhibition stalls. Veteran male performer Evan Stone, dressed as Santa, posed for pictures in a Christmas scene. Various performers and sexologists led seminars about different sex acts. A kink expert who trades under the name “Peggin Tha Stallion” sat idly at her table. Women straddled the Motorbunny Sybian machine, a video camera capturing their reaction to the vibrations. A nude maid service handed out goodie bags and business cards. Frequently Cockburn found himself turning around and inadvertently staring squarely down someone’s orifice. One woman stood watching her own hardcore porn on a screen alongside a couple of women, as if to say, “yep, that’s me alright.”

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Peggin Tha Stallion’s stand (The Spectator)

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of Extremely Online influence, given the close ties between gaming, anime and porn: a girl in cat ears and lingerie skated around on rollerblades, sucking a phallus-shaped lollipop (they came in five sizes). A few camgirls wore “cowgirl bikinis” and colored contacts. There were odango double hairbuns galore. A number of men in better physical shape didn’t even bother wearing shirts: one confidently strutted the aisles in silk boxer shorts and Nike sliders.

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An anime-influenced performer at another of the convention’s performance areas (The Spectator)

Cockburn knows what you’re thinking — and it’s hardly glowing. Didn’t you say this was a “love and sex” event? Where’s the love? Therein lies the true shock of Exxxotica: most of the attendees were couples. Your average, unassuming, suburban NoVa couple.

More often than not, Cockburn wandered around behind besotted men and women, holding hands, taking in the sights. One woman, the kind you might bump into at Wegmans, wore a BDSM harness over her decidedly plain woolen sweater as she traipsed around with her partner. Cockburn clocked a couple of hijabi ladies, also with their male consorts. Stormy Daniels’s husband Barrett Blade, her fourth, was her shadow for the whole weekend.

Of course, some of the pairs were a bit more unorthodox: one hypebeast-looking gent led his girlfriend around the event on a chain. A man and his lady took to the convention floor in matching leather dog masks. One male guest held hands with two buxom women, while wearing a shirt that read “I’m with her <— and her —>.” One of his ladies wore a unicorn headband. Still, Cockburn surprised himself as he gazed around at the happy pairs and thought, “actually, they’re all quite sweet.”

And if you scouted hard enough, you could find some stands which would fit in just as well at other conferences. Naturally, the sacred was among the profane. “Jesus loves sex workers,” announced one stall staffed by young Christian women, who do outreach to strippers and sex workers on behalf of a Seattle-based nonprofit. A local artist called Jeff Semmerling and his glamorous sales assistant sold beautifully intricate commedia dell’arte-style masks that wouldn’t be out of place at Shakespeare in the Park. A couple of physical therapists were offering (non-sexual!) massages. These blended in with the racier stands seamlessly.

Besides: how different are porn stars really from your average CPAC goer? One veteran, who has spent almost three decades in the industry, told Cockburn how the pandemic had resulted in an explosion of average suburban couples starting to make their own porn: your Facebook mom types started turning to OnlyFans and the cam sites. Many of these folk use the same alternative messaging apps as the CPAC crowd, such as Telegram. Like most political convention attendees, they spend hour after hour on Twitter. Some even are victims of financial cancel culture, finding themselves kicked out of their bank accounts due to the nature of their work. Many of the things conservatives fear will happen to them soon are happening to sex workers now.

Plus, it’s not like the post-Donald Trump GOP is any stranger to vulgarity. Cockburn stumbled upon this rather crass tweet from a “MAGA patriot” as he paced the expo center floor. The world of Exxxotica isn’t all that different from American political life. The shamelessness, the coarseness, the flagrant self-promotion, the desperation. After realizing this, Cockburn headed back into the city. He had seen everything.