Books

David Kushner’s ‘Players Ball’ a juicy history of the online sex industry

"The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet's Rise" by David Kushner; Simon & Schuster (256 pages, $27)

The internet has become such a pervasive part of our lives in such a short time that it's already hard to remember its early days. For a vivid history of its Wild West phase, juiced up with a long-running battle royale between two men who made (and lost) fortunes with online sex, open "The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet's Rise."

Author David Kushner spent a decade researching the book, and it shows. Kushner's last book, "Alligator Candy," was a wrenching memoir about the 1973 murder of his young brother, Jonathan, in Tampa. "Players Ball" is a return to the journalistic narratives he has written in the past, many of them rooted in popular culture.

The book revolves around two pioneers of the internet. One is Gary Kremen, best known as founder, in 1995, of the hugely successful online dating site Match.com. That's just a small slice of his career, though, and Kushner recounts the key to the Stanford MBA's early ventures: "People wanted to consume sexual content as discreetly as possible. And, in the late 1980s, there was no more discreet way to do this than online."

Back then, domain names (now a multibillion-dollar business) were free. Kremen registered scads of them, including Sex.com. And that led to trouble.

Trouble took the form of Stephen Michael Cohen, a con man and petty criminal who got into the sex industry as a teenager in the 1960s. The dawn of the internet found him running French Connection BBS, an online bulletin board for people seeking hookups. There he discovered a key to online sex and dating services: There were always too few women. Cohen's solution was to pose as one long enough to get male customers' credit card numbers.

When Kremen created Match.com, he ran into the same problem, finding that only 10% of his customers were women. "Women, then, were his true targets, because, as he put it, 'every woman would bring in a hundred geeky guys.'"

The collision between the two came when Cohen hijacked Sex.com – or, as he insisted, acquired it legally. Their bitter personal battle led to years of lawsuits and other legal maneuvers. By 2005, one of them was in jail, the other "living solemnly in a mansion like some porned-out Citizen Kane." And that wasn't the end of the story.

It's a fascinating tale, and Kushner tells it with brio and detail. It's also an eye-opening account of how much of internet commerce grew, for good or ill, out of the sex industry's willingness to do anything, and they mean anything, for a buck.

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