Citing Google, pornographer claims orgies are bigger than apple pie

Does the search engine prove group sex isn't so unusual?

Published June 24, 2008 4:47PM (EDT)

In the summer of 2006, authorities in Pensacola, Florida, arrested Clinton Raymond McCowen, a middle-aged entrepreneur who founded, a leading pre-IPO video portal whose business model relies on what you might call use-her-generated content: According to prosecutors, McCowan regularly recruits one or two women and a couple dozen men to carry on sexually with each other in various porn-set houses across Pensacola. He records the orgies, of course; at the time of his arrest, he had 5,000 subscribers paying $30 a month for access to his overlit, overdramatic videos.

McGowan and his associates now face charges of racketeering and prostitution, but his defense attorney, Lawrence Walters, believes the prosecution's case can be undone with a simple observation: Orgies, Walters says, are as American as apple pie. Indeed, they're more American than apple pie, if Google is to be believed.

According to Google Trends, which tracks the relative popularity of search engine queries, folks look for "orgy" about twice as often as they look for "apple pie."

And that's only the national average -- in Florida, Googling for orgies is an even more popular pastime. There, people search for orgies nearly three times as often as they search for apple pie.

This could mean many things, of course. The most reasonable conclusion is that that apple pie is simply not a very Googly thing: Other than during the holidays, when people are looking for recipes, one finds few reasons to search for apple pies online. When you want pie, you go to a diner, not the Web.

On the other hand, Google is going to be your first -- and likely your only -- solution when you're struck by that ever-so-frequent taste for an orgy.

But Walters sees another meaning in this data. In 1973, in Miller v. California, the Supreme Court set down a three-part legal test for describing "obscene" material. The test relies greatly on vague "community standards" for determining whether a work should be declared obscene, and therefore not protected by the First Amendment.

Walters tells the New York Times that the Google data proves that McCowen's videos are above-board -- if the community is searching for orgies, people can't really think they're so bad. "Time and time again you'll have jurors sitting on a jury panel who will condemn material that they routinely consume in private," he told the Times. Google shows "how people really think and feel and act in their own homes, which, parenthetically, is where this material was intended to be viewed."

While Walters may be stretching the data in suggesting that interest in orgies surpasses interest in apple pie -- and while it's unclear whether his case will prevail in court -- his argument seems compelling enough.

"Community standards" are difficult to gauge because people are skittish about admitting to the community what it is we're really into.

Google collects and filters our desires, mapping our private interests with heretofore unknown clarity and precision. As a nation, it turns out, we're quite interested in orgies. Who knew?

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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