I'm standing in the hallway outside the enormous, state-of-the-art ballroom of Las Vegas' Venetian Hotel. Around me mills a crowd of hundreds, soon to be thousands, all of us gathered for the most prestigious event in the world of adult film: the Adult Video News Awards, hereby known as the AVNs, popularly known as the porno Oscars. Each year the best and brightest of live-action pornography's producers, directors, and stars gather in Vegas to honor their own, bestowing awards in an exhaustive array of categories, from Best Actor and Actress to Best Editing and Cinematography to Best Film. It is a high-profile, high-tech extravaganza, drawing attendees from all over the world and boasting production values easily on par with, say, the Golden Globes.

I'm stationed near the ballroom's main entrance among a clutch of photographers and fans eagerly awaiting the arrival of the evening's stars. Men in tuxedos escort women whose attire seems to come in three styles: stately elegance, sexy elegance, and gonzo trash. Never have I seen such luxurious dresses cut so low, or so little cloth holding in so many women.

A sudden storm of flashbulbs announces the arrival of Bridgett Kerkove, nominated tonight for Best New Starlet. Kerkove's taken the sexily elegant route, her enhancements straining against a strapless satin floor-length. Trailing her is tuxedoed Hall of Famer Rick Savage, with a starlet of his own on his arm. Savage's appearance introduces a motif that will resonate throughout the evening: the shocking shortness of male porn stars (undoubtedly the by-product of physical science's discovery that a regular-sized penis looks enormous on a pint-sized frame).

Another burst of flashes and more stars are upon us. There's Alisha Klass, last year's Best New Starlet, nominated tonight for Female Performer of the Year and "Best All-Girl Sex Scene, Video" for Tampa Tushy Fest. The raven-haired Klass is adult film's current It girl, blending the beauty of Elizabeth Hurley with the firebrand outspokenness of Fiona Apple. Klass is also the lover and leading lady of esteemed video director Seymour Butts, and while prior to the ceremony industry journals had reported the impending split of the high-profile pair, Klass wastes no time in squelching the rumors, proudly announcing their engagement in a dazzling chain-mail minidress, slung low in back to expose her intended's name tattooed a half-inch above her buttcrack.

Next comes Chloe, Alisha's co-nominee for Tampa Tushy and last year's winner for Female Performer of the Year. Doe-eyed Chloe is an industry darling, famous for her sexual intensity and emotional vulnerability as a performer, and respected for her efforts as co-founder and board member of the Adult Industry Medical Board, which provides HIV/STD testing, gynecological services, couples counseling, and cosmetic surgery consultations for members of the adult entertainment industry. Tonight Chloe's up for a whopping eight awards, and looks gorgeous in a slender lingerie dress, her signature chestnut hair piled high.

Finally there's Houston, perhaps America's most popular porn star, thanks to her regular appearances on The Howard Stern Show. Tonight Houston's working her Pamela Lee schtick in a salacious grab-bag outfit inspired by that wannabe porn queen's getup from the most recent MTV awards: goofy hat, skintight bellbottoms, merciless corset, and extraordinary boobs. Houston's nominated for nothing, but she's already a winner, having starred in the Best Selling Tape of 1999, The Houston 620.

Suddenly my eyes are caught by two pairs of truly humongous boobs coming down the runway. Their owners are two teased blondes, both in shimmering, skintight jumpsuits unzipped almost to the navel, and both, closer inspection reveals, easily crowding 40. The photographers race in, then realize the women are not whomever they thought they might be, and saunter back to the sidelines. The women appear unfazed. As they pass, I call out a question: "You two nominated for anything tonight?"

"Yeah, right," said one, in a voice like Debra Winger after 5,000 filterless Camels. "I'm nominated for best cunt."

The Adult Video News Awards began in 1984, with relatively little fanfare. A handful of winners were selected by the editorial board and listed in the pages of AVN's monthly magazine. By 1986, the AVN Awards had blossomed into a full-scale event, moving to the Tropicana Hotel and featuring a live band, comedy entertainment, and adult film luminaries from around the globe. Over the next 13 years, the AVNs hit the big time, attracting live audiences of over 3,000 (including such big-name celebrities as Redd Foxx, Rich Little, Ice-T, Penn and Teller, and Drew Carey) and home audiences of hundreds of thousands more for a pay-per-view event on cable's Spice Channel.

In the '90s the ceremony migrated from Bally's Hotel & Casino to the Riviera to Caesar's Palace before landing in January 2000 at the Venetian, where the canals of Venice meet the Nevada desert, and where tonight the football-field-sized master ballroom is filled with hundreds of tables, each draped with a white linen cloth and holding an elaborate floral centerpiece ringed with sample bottles of I-D Glide lubricant. At the north end of the ballroom, an eight-piece band sits on the high-tech stage. Stationed throughout the room are enormous video screens, offering close-up views of the evening's proceedings to every seat in the house.

My seat is at a table near the middle of the room. With me is my friend Betsy, a law student from New York who's come along to take in the sights and see the First Amendment on parade. Also assigned to our table are three young stockbrokers from the East Coast, who just happened to be visiting Vegas at the time of the awards and purchased tickets on a whim, and an older, unassuming married couple from Southern California, who'd driven over specifically for the ceremony. "We were curious," the husband says with a smile, as his wife peers around the ballroom, hoping for glimpses of stars.

Sitting beneath the chandeliers, watching the tuxedoed-and-gowned figures swirling about, it's easy to forget the nature of the work being celebrated here tonight. The evening's aura of legitimacy and grandeur is so dazzling that only through effort can I recall that Alisha Klass achieved her superstar stature through anal elasticity and vaginal squirting, that Chloe received one of her eight nominations for inserting her fist into Alisha Klass' anus, that the "620" in the title of Houston's bestseller refers to the number of men the star serviced over a 16-hour period in "the world's biggest gangbang." But this is the magic of the AVNs: the creation of a world where the members of this stigmatized profession are not only accepted, but exalted.

Onstage the band strikes up, the lights dim, and the ceremony begins with the screening of a 10-minute video montage chronicling key moments from AVN ceremonies of years past. Basically it's a parade of emotional acceptance speeches and adorable onstage gaffes, climaxing with the poignant address of last year's Special Achievement Award winner, Larry Flynt. Surprisingly, there is no sex footage featured in the montage, or anywhere else in the ceremony. Unlike the Oscars or Emmys, the AVNs announce nominees only by name, unaccompanied by clips of the nominated work. If this exclusion is a ruse to preserve the glamour of the evening by banishing the grit of the labor, it works, and keeps things zipping along at a pace that bloated shows like the Oscars would do well to emulate.

When the montage ends, the evening's first presenters take the stage. To everyone's delight, it's Alisha Klass, along with Herschel Savage, '70s porn veteran and Alisha's co-nominee for "Best Anal Sex Scene, Video" for Tushy Con Carne. In a nod to Klass' infamous behavior at last year's ceremony (where, in her capacity as co-hostess, she made so many references to anal fisting that several attendees walked out in protest), Alisha enters bound and gagged. But when the gag comes off, she's back to her old tricks, reaching between her legs to bring forth a prepared speech that leaves last year's wisecracks about assholes in the dust.

"Ladies, in this business you have to set goals and have a plan! Ask questions! Seek legal counsel! Trademark your stage name and copyright your original work!"

While her co-presenter squirms, Alisha forges on like porn's own Norma Rae, imploring her sisters in the business to "follow your instincts, follow your own bodies and minds! And most of all -- respect your fans! Everyone is equal! We are all winners here tonight!"

I find Alisha's self-empowerment seminar thrilling, but not everyone is pleased, particularly those industry insiders Klass lightheartedly mocks for their alcoholism and foundering careers. (Later in the evening, Screw magazine publisher and First Amendment warrior Al Goldstein draws gasps and cheers when he refers to "Alisha Klassless" as "the world's best excuse for O.J.")

Klass' pleas for smarter career management are echoed by an actor I meet a short way into the ceremony, at one of the many bars stationed along the edge of the room. He is a tall, handsome, all-American bodybuilder type who I first saw working under the name of Frank Powers in the straight porn video Foreskin Gump. A year later, I saw him billed as Mark Slade, starring in the big-budget gay video West Hollywood Hope.

"So who do you know me as?" he asks as we shake hands.

"Both," I say. Frank/Mark informs me that he's Ted Hunter now, finished with gay porn and working his way back into the straight industry, having ventured into the gay world solely for the money. "I made $10,000 on one gay film," he says. "That's more than Jenna makes!"

"Jenna" is Jenna Jameson, the highest-paid star in straight porn. For his higher-than-Jenna salary, Frank/Mark/Ted performed sex scenes with two men. In the standard gay-for-pay setup, he penetrated and allowed himself to be sucked by both of them. In a rare turnabout, he also went down on each.

"It was easy!" he says, then casts a glance over the room. "These girls got it made!"

Unfortunately, Ted's stint in gay porn has complicated his re-entry into the straight porn world, where image is everything. "A lot of people think I'm gay now, or bi, or have AIDS," he says. Neither of us mentions the irony of his predicament -- how, in gay porn, condoms are used for 100 percent of penetrative intercourse, while straight porn's condom use is intermittent at best, or how a majority of straight porn's females are contractually stipulated to perform same-sex sex. For now, Ted's just hoping the name change will be enough to help him get his foot back in the door, and before we part ways, he reiterates Alisha Klass' concerns about the proper handling of a porn career: "You need to budget, put away for the future, because this isn't a job you can do for too long...."

"Yeah," I say. "You're not going to be a babe forever."

I instantly regret this ham-handed flattery, but Ted's face lights up. "You think I'm okay?"

I assure him that as a physical specimen, he's plenty okay, and he seems genuinely grateful. "People always say that, but I have a hard time believing 'em," he says, and strolls away.

Back at the table, I find Betsy chatting with the stockbrokers. "They're huge Chloe fans," she informs me before our attention is called to the stage by comedian Bobby Slayton, who tries to rev up the crowd with jokes about blowjobs and his ugly wife's incompetence in bed. Having recently appeared as Joey Bishop in the HBO miniseries The Rat Pack, Slayton is the closest thing to a mainstream star here, and while his jokes suck, he does offer a compelling glimpse of acting life outside of adult film: "The other morning I get a call from my agent, telling me I'm cast in a small part in a new Ben Affleck movie. The next morning I fly out to wherever the hell the shoot is and stand around all day until it's time for my tiny little scene, then I fly home. For this I get paid about $300. And I don't get to fuck anyone!"

Slayton closes with a Sinatra standard, then offers his heartfelt congratulations and love to the members of "the AVN family," whom Slayton implores to take pride in themselves, to understand that the work they do is valuable and important. "Not everyone can do what you do!" he cries. "But nearly everyone wishes they could!"

Despite the disappointing lack of Hollywood names, the evening is proving to be a veritable cavalcade of stars. Having grown up watching straight porn (it was more available, and less incriminating), I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to see so many people I've seen so very naked, breezing about clothed like regular old folks.

Across the room, I spy Peter North, a well-built guy with perfect hair and an enormous penis, and the very first man I ever saw have sex on film. North is famous for his perpetual erection and voluminous come shots, and once upon a time I would've had my doubts about being able to fit Peter North's penis in my mouth. Now I see that I would have little difficulty fitting Peter North in my mouth; he's literally just this side of midgetry. North is another actor who, early in his career, dabbled in gay porn under a pseudonym. Appearing as Matt Ramsey in the 1984 film Bigger than Life, he was fucked by horse-hung gay porn icon (and fellow midget) Jeff Stryker, in a scene Peter North has since dismissed as "a computer-generated lie." I'm tempted to rush North to express my fanhood, but as I'm unsure of what to say ("I really enjoy your work"?), I keep to myself.

My shyness dissolves when I catch sight of Nina Hartley, one of the industry's most esteemed and beloved female performers -- the Queen Mother of intelligent, feminist porn. Like Peter North, Hartley's a star whose work I saw at an early age (she's appeared in nearly 500 films during her 25-year career), and I jump at the chance to express my admiration.

"I'm a total fag," I say by way of an introduction. "But I want you to know that the orgasm you had in Suburban Dykes is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen."

"Well, thank you, sweetheart," she says with a smile, before patting my shoulder and sauntering off.

Meanwhile, the stage has been taken by two more living legends of adult film: Ron Jeremy and Marilyn Chambers. Jeremy, an obese, unrepentantly unattractive man who has appeared in over 1,000 films during the past three decades, is straight porn's most popular and beloved male performer. (The night before, I watched Jeremy enter the Venetian's casino to receive a rock star's reception, shaking hands and waving to his vociferous male fans, to whom he is living proof that even the most hideous man is capable of scoring the most gorgeous pussy.) Chambers, a still-foxy lady in her late 40s, is one of the biggest stars of '70s porn, best known for her role in the seminal porn film Behind the Green Door. Performers like Chambers are the reason the AVNs exist; her fiery, organic performances make the work of so many other porn actresses look like pouty calisthenics -- you may as well compare Meryl Streep to the women of the WB. Currently making a comeback with a new facelift and an ever-expanding libido, Chambers is here to present the Best Supporting Acting awards, but is having difficulty reading the list of nominees. "I need my glasses," she cackles, and the ever-reliable Ron Jeremy takes over.

A slew of awards are passed out in rapid succession, and if the evening's proceedings have indeed been cultivated for maximum respectability, the names of the nominated films provide a nearly constant foil: There's just no getting around a title like Stop! My Ass Is on Fire!

Still, the presenters are uniformly glamorous, the winners unfailingly thrilled. First-time director and full-time dyke Tristan Taormino provides the night's most exciting upset, when her ambitious two-volume Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women vanquishes the cheesy man-made competition (e.g. Cornhole Armageddon) in the category of Best Anal-Themed Tape. In her charming acceptance speech, Taormino pays tribute to her mentor, director John "The Buttman" Stagliano, before cheerfully thanking her parents, "who probably never dreamed I would grow up to be the subject of a 10-person anal gangbang!"

Lexington Steele, winner of Male Performer of the Year and one of the very few male porn stars taller than the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, also pays tribute to his mentor, fellow actor Mr. Marcus. Without Marcus' influence, Steele says, "I'd still be in New York, working on Wall Street." And Howard Stern, honored with this year's AVN Special Achievement Award, teaches a roomful of First Amendment supporters a typically perverse lesson about freedom of speech by sending a retarded midget -- who rambles incoherently before being forcibly escorted from the stage -- to accept his award in his place.

Soon we come to the category of Best Actor in Film. For the second year in a row, the award goes to James Bonn, a Richard Gere look-alike honored this year for his work in the movie Chloe. Bonn is visibly emotional, his voice quavering as he thanks director Kris Kramski for his vision and bravery in "drawing this performance out of me," and then expresses his gratitude toward co-star Chloe: "This couldn't have happened without you!" I might've been tempted to mock Bonn's earnestness if I hadn't seen the work in question before I came to Vegas -- because Chloe, written for and starring the actress of the same name, is unlike any adult film I have ever seen.

The film tells the story of a young woman who moves to California to achieve her lifelong dream: to find love and see the ocean. Instead, Chloe catches her boyfriend fucking her best friend, gets dumped, attempts suicide in a parking lot, and is "rescued" by a deviant doctor (James Bonn) who keeps her doped up while he and his friends use her for their pleasure. "Based on a true story," reads the box cover, and it's a testament to the film's artistry that hardly any of this comes off as a joke. Watching the film, I gaped in near-amazement at the artful cinematography, the restrained writing and naturalistic performances, the thoroughly contextualized sex -- for the first time, a porn film made me feel I was observing actual couplings of real people. And if Chloe has its share of ridiculous moments (no sex scene should ever involve soft-boiled eggs), it also boasts some truly impressive ones: Chloe's loss of her anal virginity is allowed to be as unpleasant as it should be, and her suicide attempt is the most honest and realistic I've seen on film.

Of course, unpleasant sex and suicide attempts aren't the traditional hallmarks of hardcore porn. So, curious as to whether Chloe is typical of new adult filmmaking or just an artsy anomaly, I rented Seven Deadly Sins, a popular favorite and Chloe's prime contender for Best Film. And while Sins boasts some imaginative storytelling and inspired set design, it is, for the most part, a standard wank film, with fuck-by-numbers sex scenes and typically bad acting and writing. In the AVN Awards race between Chloe and Sins, I find myself on the edge of my seat in a way I haven't been since the 1994 Oscar battle between Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, when art and crap went head to head, and crap, shamefully and decisively, won out. Tonight there's an equally crucial battle, and I wait anxiously to discover which the AVN will honor -- the better art or the better smut.

Art scores a hit as Chloe takes the award for Best Actress. Smut strikes back as Sins' Ren Savant wins Best Director. Finally there's the big KO, with smut triumphant, as Seven Deadly Sins is named Best Film.

But there's no time for moping, as hostess Julie Ashton takes the stage to deliver her closing speech, before issuing a call to the ladies in the house: "Come on, girls, you know what time it is!" The band revs up and an army of women -- nominees and winners, up 'n' comers and past-their-primers -- take the stage for AVN's traditional "ladies only" dance finale.

Under spiraling lights the women writhe in celebration, and there's plenty to celebrate. For Alisha Klass, her forthcoming nuptials. For Chloe, an upcoming stint on the other side of the camera, as director and producer. And for Houston, another blockbuster -- a Japanese-styled Bukkake video, in which hundreds of guys will jerk off in her face while she's buried in the sand. The excitement is enough to move my friend Betsy out of her chair and onto the stage, where she bops alongside Houston, just behind Alisha Klass -- who, ever the showstopper, squats at the lip of the stage to spread her labia for the paparazzi.

Later Betsy will tell me that her first moments on stage were intoxicating, but that the euphoria dissolved the moment she saw herself projected on one of the 20'-by-20' video screens. What the hell am I doing here? she thought, and froze, inspiring a nearby Nina Hartley to shimmy over to inquire what was wrong.

"Um, I just got a job at a law firm," Betsy tells her. "And, well, I don't think I should be seen here."

Unruffled by the judgment, Hartley performs like Gone with the Wind's Belle Watling, protecting the virtue of good Miss Mellie. "Well, honey, let's dance you right off this stage," she says as she gracefully maneuvers Betsy, abashed and grateful, off into the wings.