Is That a Boiled Frog in Your Pocket? Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

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by Tony Comstock

"I'm not waging a crusade here any more. Just noting the persistence of a cliche." -- James FallowsIt Never Ends: The Boiling Frogs

In her article "Hard Core: The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women" in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that the modern phenomena of easy online access to sexually explicit material represents a near-perfect market catering to male sexual desire. She posits that the nature of the material available online and its popularity offers a window into the true nature of male sexuality, untempered by social norms; and that this gives lie to various tropes of sexual mutuality and egalitarianism that have misguided her own journey towards sexual adulthood. 

In service of her thesis Ms. Vargas-Cooper cites various sex acts that she (quite rightly) claims are easy to find online and complements these citations with personal testimony from the trenches of singlehood and dating, as it were.

My own experience in making and marketing sexually explicit films makes me cautious about declaring the market perfect, let alone representative of anything, other than what aspects of the human sexual experience can be captured and distributed as a media product. I would further caution that attempting to draw any insight as to the nature of male sexuality or the fundamental dynamic of male/female relationships on the basis of what sort of sexually explicit material is being produced and distributed is, at best, a vast inductive leap, and fraught with hazard.

Markets are notoriously imperfect and notoriously misunderstood; and broad inferences drawn from misunderstandings of imperfect markets tend not to be particularly insightful.

For example, it is widely believed that China's economy is as large as, or larger than, that of the U.S., when in fact China's economy a fraction that of the U.S. Nonetheless, popular sentiment and policy decisions, across a vast array of public concerns--trade, education, military readiness, etc--are being driven as much by popular (mis)conception as by fact.

Similarly, concerns, celebrations, and critiques of sexually explicit material and its place in society unfailingly make declarations about sheer size and ubiquity of the enterprise; reported anywhere from billions, to tens of billions, to even a trillion dollars per annum. Ms. Vargas-Cooper's article is no exception:

Pornography is now, indisputably, omnipresent: in 2007, a quarter of all Internet searches were related to pornography. Nielsen ratings showed that in January 2010, more than a quarter of Internet users in the United States, almost 60 million people, visited a pornographic Web site. That number represents nearly a fifth of all the men, women, and children in this country--and it doesn't even take into account the incomprehensible amount of porn distributed through peer-to-peer downloading networks, shared hard drives, Internet chat rooms, and message boards.

This paragraph seems to work because it feels right. It feels like sexually explicit material is everywhere--virtually inescapable. But there are a couple of problems.

To begin, there is no "January 2010 Nielsen Online Porn Rating." Nielsen only ever did one survey of people's online viewing habits for sexually explicit material (in 2007) and then abandoned the category as both trivial from a business standpoint and unworkable from a methodological standpoint. Nonetheless, this one abandoned research report has been recycled as "fact" ever since. From here, the paragraph bootstraps to a vast, incomprehensible bogeyman of "peer-to-peer downloading networks, shared hard drives, Internet chat rooms, and message boards."

[Editor's note: The Nielson rating information for January 2010 used in the March 2010 article, "Hard Core," was provided to The Atlantic by Nielson, not taken from a published survey.]


Now if boiled frogs are James Fallows's area of special attentiveness, sloppy, fact-free reporting on the business of explicit sexuality in cinema is mine. I will, depending on how egregious I feel the error, variously, chime in relentlessly in comment threads, writing my own blog posts, or even call newsrooms and demand to speak with reporters and editors.

The standard reply, whether from a cub reporter at the AP or a Pulitzer Prize winner at The New York Times is that the "adult industry" is almost all privately held companies, verifiable figures difficult to come by, and the figures we published ran with the proviso "reported as". Sometimes they will refer to an Adult Video News (AVN) pie chart. (Though usually not with the same level of scrutiny as in this Forbes article.)

Reported as? How wonderfully circular! But also incredibly unenterprising. The figures I'm about to present took me about 20 minutes to research:

Since online porn is presented by Vargas-Cooper as "omnipresent" and therefore important window into male sexuality, I took a look at how viewership of free online content on RedTube (by views, the most popular source of free online sexually explicit material) compares to views for content on YouTube.

As of this writing, RedTube has, across all categories of sexual interest, a grand total of 120 videoclips that have received 1,000,000+ views.

Compare that to this small sample of what people are watching on YouTube:

For the keyword [kitten] there are over 100 videos with 1,000,000+ views.

For the keyword [annoying orange] there are 71 videos with 1,000,000+ views.

For the keyword [rihanna] there are over 300 videos with 1,000,000+ views.

For the keyword [justin bieber] there are almost 500 videos with 1,000,000+ views.

For the keyword [lego] there are 201 videos with 1,000,000+ views.

If you added up the total views on just the above 1,000,000+ view videos on these topics alone, it would dwarf the total number of view for all 1,000,000+ view videos on RedTube.

YouTube also dwarfs "porn-tube" sites on the sheer number of video clips offered, and for nearly any niche sexual interest, non-sexual niche interest videos can be found on YouTube in greater numbers and with greater viewership.

And lastly, RedTube's "Anal Sex" category only has 40 videoclips with over 1,000,000 views, and of these only one (so far as I could tell, I didn't watch every clip front to back, but I think we can rule out the clips with only two people) features Ms. Vargas-Cooper's fabled double-anal, which she identifies as " a fixture on any well-trafficked site." (I suspect this one paragraph has used up mentions of the word "anal" for the Fallows blog for the next 100 years!)

But it's not just free online clips viewership numbers.

Whenever comparables can be found--DVD replication volume, cable rights contracts, dayrates for talent and crew, guild, union, and association membership, etc--data for sexually explicit media is minuscule in comparison to corresponding data in other media and entertainment.

Major League Baseball has approximately 1,200 players earning an average salary of $2,996,106 per season. The "adult industry" has about 1,200 actors who typically make $300-$1,000 per video.

By the end of its run, the cast of NBC's Friends were making $1,000,000 each, per episode, and that's just the actors on one hit show. But in the entire history of the "adult industry" there is not one production with a verifiable budget in excess of $1,000,000.

Hugh Hefner is reportedly making a bid to buy Playboy (by far the largest "adult media company") in a deal that values the company at about $200,000,000. Groupon (an online coupon vendor) has a pre-IPO valuation of $15,000,000,000.

Groupon. $15,000,000,000.

But instead of a seeking a rational explanation of this discrepancy, we are asked to believe that there exists a secret underground network of porn jizzillionaires. ("They don't want the notoriety of how much money they've made. That's why you don't see most of them running around in the Rolls they keep that in the garage and take out on weekends. It draws too much attention to them." Dennis McAlpine, PBS's Frontline: American Porn)

Seriously?

Would this pass for financial reporting on any other industry? (Wait, don't answer that, probably not a question that supports my thesis.) Are we really supposed to believe that, despite the fact that we can't find evidence of any meaningful amount of money, there's a vast network of Lex Luther-like porn moguls, living inside underground lairs, filled with stolen antiquities?

Or is it something more like China, hysteria, fear, and titillation that leaves common sense and observable facts behind? 

Whether it's anti-porn hysterics, the "adult industry" and its cheerleaders, or the academics and journalists who want to spice up their publication with a little sex, everyone has a vested interest in inflating the numbers. And the only thing harmed by the outlandish claims made by all sides of the great porn debate is the truth. It reminds me of the "debate" around gun control, only with so much less at stake.



"Standing cat," 4,000,000+ views.

Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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