MAKING SENSE OF MODERN PORNOGRAPHY
While the Internet has made porn ubiquitous, it has also thrown the industry into severe decline.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SARA CWYNAR
If you watch pornography, it’s likely that you do so on the Internet. The days when consuming pornography meant buying or borrowing a pinup magazine or watching a film loop in a peepshow booth are long gone, as are those of tracking down adult-video stores in faraway neighborhoods. Most porn is viewed on easily accessible “tube sites,” such as YouPorn, RedTube, XVideos, and Pornhub. These work on the same model as YouTube: they are free, and steer users to amateur videos, snippets uploaded by commercial producers, and pirated material. Watching pornography no longer requires leaving the privacy of your home, though that doesn’t mean you necessarily do it there: according to a recent CNBC report, seventy per cent of American online-porn access occurs during the nine-to-five workday.
Pornography has changed unrecognizably from its so-called golden age—the period, in the sixties and seventies, when adult movies had theatrical releases and seemed in step with the wider moment of sexual liberation, and before V.H.S. drove down production quality, in the eighties. Today’s films are often short and nearly always hard-core; that is, they show penetrative sex. Among the most popular search terms in 2015 were “anal,” “amateur,” “teen,” and—one that would surely have made Freud smile—“mom and son.” Viewing figures are on a scale that golden-age moguls never dreamed of: in 2014, Pornhub alone had seventy-eight billion page views, and XVideos is the fifty-sixth most popular Web site in the world. Some porn sites get more traffic than news sites like CNN, and less only than platforms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and PayPal. The twenty-first-century porn kings aren’t flamboyant magazine owners like Larry Flynt, whose taboo-breaking Hustler first published labial “pink shots,” in the mid-seventies, but faceless tech executives. The majority of the world’s tube sites are effectively a monopoly—owned by a company called MindGeek, whose bandwidth use exceeds that of Amazon or Facebook. Its C.E.O. until recently was a German named Fabian Thylmann, who earned a reported annual income of a hundred million dollars; he sold the company while being investigated for tax evasion.
The millions of people using these sites probably don’t care much about who produces their content. But those who work in porn in the United States tend to draw a firm line between the “amateur” porn that now proliferates online and the legal adult-film industry that took shape after the California Supreme Court ruled, in California v. Freeman (1989), that filmed sex did not count as prostitution. Since then, the industry has been based in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, where its professional norms and regulations have mimicked its more respectable Hollywood neighbors. In “The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford), Shira Tarrant explains how that industry works in the new age of Internet porn, and sets out to provide neutral, “even-handed” information about its production and consumption.