Is the Internet killing the porn industry?

Like other media industries, porn has seen cuts in jobs and fees during its mass migration to online publishing

Published May 30, 2013 4:58PM (EDT)

       (<a href=''>andrearoad</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(andrearoad via iStock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


When was the last time you watched a porn flick? It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or woman, straight or gay, or whether it was a "romantic" or a “gonzo” video. Chances are you watched it on a digital TV, computer or mobile device like a smartphone or tablet, and that you accessed it via an Internet connection.

According to one estimate, there are nearly 25 million porn sites worldwide and they make up 12 percent of all websites. Sebastian Anthony, writing for ExtremeTech, reports that Xvideos is the biggest porn site on the web, receiving 4.4 billion page views and 350 million unique visits per month. He claims porn accounts for 30 percent of all web traffic. Based on Google data, the other four of the top five porn sites, and their monthly page views (pvs) are: PornHub, 2.5 billion pvs; YouPorn, 2.1 billion pvs; Tube8, 970 million pvs; and LiveJasmin, 710 million pvs. In comparison, Wikipedia gets about 8 billion pvs.

Anthony also reports that men make up more than four-fifths (82%) of porn viewers while women consist of less the one-fifth (18%). He estimates the average length of time spent on Xvideo at 15 minutes. From an aesthetic perspective, he notes that most people receive their digital video feeds using low-resolution streaming.

Sometimes the porn industry recalls Mark Twain’s famous line, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” In June 2012, Guardian columist Louis Theroux analyzed “the declining economics of the pornography industry.” Reporting on the January 2013 Adult Entertainment Expo, David Moye, writing at the Huffington Post, picked up the chant and warned, “porn industry in decline.” But is the porn industry in decline or yet again restructuring due to technological innovation and marketplace changes?

The porn business is like an old Sally Rand fan dance performance, with performers suggesting a lot while showing very little. It is nearly impossible to get real numbers from porn companies, as few are publicly traded. Estimates as to the size of the business range across the board. The website TopTenReviews claims that, in 2006, the worldwide porn market topped $97 billion, with the U.S. making up $13.3 billion. It argues, “the internet is not the most popular form of pornography in the United States. Video sales and rentals accounted for $3.62 billion in revenue in 2006 while internet pornography raked in $2.84 billion. Magazines were the least popular.” The world has changed since ’06.

The Guardian’s Theroux does not offer an estimate as to the size of the porn industry, but warns, "some time around 2007, the ‘business of X’ started going into a commercial tailspin.” Huffington’s Moye cites estimates from Theo Sapoutzis, the head of the Adult Video News (AVN), who claims that the porn business made $10 billion in 2012. Last year, CNBC claimed that porn businesses, led by Vivid Entertainment, Digital Playground and Manwin, “generate roughly $14 billion in revenue per year that in 2012.”

The porn industry is facing a period of significant restructuring. Porn theatres and XXX shops catering to the “raincoat crowd” and the risqué have all but vanished; the DVD, the old cash-cow release platform, is in rapid decline for both porn and conventional movies. Digital video streaming is the 21st-century medium of porn distribution.

Most commentators identify five factors contributing to the predicament now facing the commerical porn industry: (i) the widescale pirating of copyrighted porn and its illegal resale and posting by opportunistic websites; (ii) the ease of producing do-it-yourself (DIY) amateur porn videos; (iii) the enormous increase of “free” porn sites; (iv) the resulting change in business economics; and (v) the ongoing recession with cuts discretionary spending, especially among a certain sector of the male audience.

This restructuring has led to the closing of many commerical porn companies and cuts in jobs and fees to porn workers. Not unlike other once-analog media industries – e.g., newpaper, magazine and book publishing – porn is struggling to make the transition to digital online publishing.

“The current economic crisis besetting the porn industry began to emerge around 2005,” says Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who has spent over 10 years studying the industry. “2005 was one of the last years that things looked good for the industry, at least from the outside,” she adds.“Things started to visibly change after that.”

She identifies piracy as the key factor fueling the crisis. She points out that the proliferation of “free” stolen content cut into cash flow, but the industry’s inability – or unwillingness – to effectively deal with the problem turned a serious cold into a cancer. Only a handful of companies took early action. “Digital Playground is an example of a company less impacted by piracy,” Tibbals reflects. “They engaged a variety of strategies early on to protect their content.”

The 2008-2009 recession, the sluggish recovery and the rise of the Internet compounded the problem of piracy. This was mirrored in the decline in DVD sales and the drop in DVD price points. Tibbals notes that in the good old days, a high end three-disc box set could go for upwards of $69.95, while more “ordinary” titles would sell for $29.95. “Today, only an elaborately produced title with great source material and huge star power will go for $30 or $40 – something like theAvengers XXX or The Dark Knight XXX,” she points out. “Price points drop off steadily after that. Today, you’re lucky to get $14.95.”

Piracy and the economic crisis led to dozens of porn companies in the Los Angeles area, the nation’s porn production capital, either closing or being absorbed by bigger players. (California and New Hampshire are currently the only two states in which commercial porn production is legal; it is technically illegal to shoot content in Arizona, Florida and other states.)

Since the first porn photographs were introduced in the 1840s, each new technology destablized – and revolutionized – what is considered “pornography.” This is evident in the great analog revolution of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The sexual imagery conjured by newpapers, magazines, books, radio, records, movies, television, self-printing cameras, photocopyers and homevideo fashioned the modern erotic sensibility. Now, yet again, with the digital revolutions of the late 20th- and early 21st-century, pornography is being recast.

The analog and digital revolutions share two attributes. First, each makes availability to an unprecedently-wider audience what was once considered “obscene” works, originally reserved for the few, often grandees. Second, each technology expanded porn “aesthetics,” the depiction of a greater range of previously unacceptable sex practices.

A century-plus ago, in 1896, the first “porn” film was shown in New York City at the Koster & Bials Music Hall. It was William Heise’s classic, The Kiss, which runs 16 to 51 seconds (depending on version). It depicts a closeup of John Rice and May Irwin passionately kissing. Exploiting the latest moving-image technology of the day, “vitascope,” this truly new pornographic imagery was projected onto a large screen in a dark, dank movie theater.

The display of larger-than-life sex must have been thrilling, even overwhelming. Early movies must have felt like a cascade of images reinforcing the complexity, confusion and rawness of daily life. A newspaper critic of the day exclaimed, "Magnified to gargantuan proportions, it is absolutely disgusting. ... Such things call for police intervention.”

A half-century later, in post-Depression and post-WWII America, the iconic images of female sexual fantasy were represented by Marilyn Monroe’s provocative innocence in a swimsuit and Bettie Page threatening in a S&M outfit; they were decried by sexual puritans as immoral. Measured against today’s erotic standards, they seem so tame, so innocent, so all-American.

Walter Benjamin recognized that the photography engendered the aesthetic sensibility of the modern age. A photo extended image reproduction from the natural to the “manmade” or manufactured substances, specifically chemical-based processes. Photography introduced a new way of capturing and rendering an image as well as a new way of seeing, and thus a new category of art ... and artist, the photographer. It fashioned the modern Western aesthetic sensibility of the last two centuries. (The early porn postcard has essentially the same dimensions or aspect ratio, 4.5" by 2.3”, as today’s smartphone.)

The technologies of modern pornography have followed two twin paths. One path involves “obscene” content created to feed the technologies of centralized creativity, the one-to-many media of radio, television/cable and movies. Much of it is regulated by the government, whether by the FCC or the courts when distribution involves “public” or over-the-air broadcast media, media sent through the U.S. mail or retail operations barred by local ordinances. Broadly speaking, this is commercial porn.

The other path involves decentralized creativity, from the earliest photography to today’s DIY or user-generated-content (UGC) digital online porn. This second path is expressed in the adoption of a number of groundbreaking analog techologies that empowered the user’s ability to produce and distribute porn. The Polaroid camera, introduced in 1948, enabled the first-generation DIY still-image pornogapher; the Xerox copier of the ‘60s enabled the unlimited reproduction of black-and-white pornographic images; and by 1986, some 30 percent of the homevideo market consisted of DIY porn content.

These second path techologies seek to empower the autonomous media maker. These makers have grown in number and production capability with the introduction of low-cost digital production tools, most notably (relatively) inexpensive cameras and Apple’s Final Cut Pro editing program. This second path was further empowered with the widescale adoption of an easily  and cheaply accessed Internet. The Internet has turned out to be the next-generation “public” media, an open -- mostly unpoliced -- distribution medium. Porn is produced and accessable at an historically unprecdented scale.

In her telling 1967 article, “The Pornographic Imagination,” Susan Sontag identified the underlying force of sexual desire. She observed, “tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness.” Its force is truly superhuman, “pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.” Sontag grasped the negative dialectic of erotic desire.

Since its Puritan founding, the U.S. has never known how to deal with sexual passion, especially expressed in the changing forms of media representation. Today, many embrace Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s quaint phrase defining pornography, “I know it when I see it." Stewart was seeking to distinguish between soft-core and hard-core porn and refused, apparently for moral reasons, to specify the differences. Ruling on an allegedly obscene movie, Stewart concluded the sentence, “… and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” The 1964 case, Jacobellis v. Ohio (378 U.S. 184), involved a French import, The Lovers (Les Amants).

Sontag published her article three years after Stewart’s opinion. Reading them with a half-century’s hindsight, they seem like voices coming from different planets. They had very different understandings of pornography, let alone sexuality. In the intervening half-century, Stewart’s pre-consumer revolution Protestant innocence was superceded. (We even have a Supreme Court justice made famous for his porn viewing practices.) Today’s sexual culture, what Sontag would have called its pornographic imagination, has lost its innocence.

The film historian Linda Williams observes, "pornography is not one thing, but sexual fantasy, genre, culture, and erotic visibility all operating together.”  Modern visual culture is in the latest stage in the transition from analog to digital media. Porn produced during the 19th and 20th centuries took a variety of analog forms, including photography, magazines, records, film, televison and homevideo. An expanding market cultivated a widening erotic appetite. This created businesses, even industries, as well as new ways of seeing, the modern erotic imagination. Each format expresses its own form of sexual representation, a particular pornographic vocabulary. Often unappreciated, each medium created a vital community of amateur makers who helped remake America’s erotic sensibility. Over the last half-century, porn pros and DIY amateurs have refashioned the pornographic imagination.

The commercial porn industry is restructuring, adapting to new technologies of distribution. Porn – along with illegal “recreational” drugs and commercial sex -- is a “sin” industry. For the 13 years of Prohibition, alcohol consumption was not only illegal but a “sin”; it is the only Amendment to the Constitution to have been replealed. A dozen or so states have adopted one form of another of medical marijuana and two states have decriminalized recreational drugs.

The issue of obscene content over the public airways may come up in the soon-to-be-held Senate confirmation hearing (chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. VA) of Tom Wheeler as the new head of the FCC. Wheeler will be grilled over net neutrality, industry consolidation and other issues. More illuminating will be his answers to questions about the “f” word, “fleeting expletives” and limited nudity on ever-shrinking broadcast television. If he’s asked.

By David Rosen

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a public affairs consultancy specializing in the strategic applications of political psychology. Follow him @firstpersonpol.

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