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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an attack on the human imagination.
You might not like what I’m about to say about the multiverse. But don’t worry; you’ve already had your revenge. If there are an infinite number of parallel universes, there will be any number of terrible dictatorships, places where life has become very difficult for people who like to string words together. Somewhere out there, there’s a society in which every desperate little essay like this one comes with a tiny, unremarkable button: push it, and the author will be immediately electrocuted to death.
Maybe your hate is more visceral—you already know I’ll die some day, but you want to see it happen; you need to see me groveling. You can if you want. Fly upwards from the plane of our solar system, keep on going, through the endless huddles of galaxies, never forgetting your purpose, until space and time run out altogether. Eventually you’ll find yourself in another universe, on a damp patch of grass and broken concrete, unwatched by whatever local gang or galactic empire rules the city rising in foggy shapes beyond the marshes. There, you’ll see a creature strangely similar to yourself, beating me to death with whatever bits of scrap are lying around.
Hillary Clinton has her problems, but Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency.
On one hand, there’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who oversaw “grossly inadequate” security at a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, the site of a deadly September 11, 2012, terrorist attack.
As pay TV slowly declines, cable news faces a demographic cliff. And nobody has further to fall than the merchant of right-wing outrage.
Updated at 12:05 p.m.
October 7, 2016, will be the 20th birthday of the Fox News Channel, and at the moment, the network is experiencing the soap-operatic highs and lows typical of any teenager on television. In many ways, the summer of 2016 may go down in Fox News history as the company’s nadir. Its founder and leader Roger Ailes has been dishonorably dispatched, the remaining executives are dealing with a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, and one of its most public faces, Sean Hannity, has ignominiously remodeled himself as a gutless Trump whisperer.
And yet Fox News’ fortunes are ascendant, at least in the most quantifiable sense. The network’s annual profit in 2015 soared by about 20 percent. For the first time ever, Fox News has been the most-watched cable network among both primetime and daytime viewers for several months, with a larger audience than its nominal rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined. Led by “The O'Reilly Factor,” Fox News doesn’t just have the best-rated news show on cable television; according to The Wrap, it has the 13 best-rated news shows on cable television.
Why did the company trend a false article about Megyn Kelly?
Oh, Facebook. Just when the company seems to have avoided the responsibility of being a news organization (and all the attendant controversy), it finds itself back in the editorial muck.
Last week, Facebook made a surprise overhaul of its “Trending Stories” feature, the sidebar that highlights some of the most popular news stories on Facebook. Where the company had previously provided a short, human-written summary of the news at hand, it now only described the story in a one or two-word phrase: “#Toyko2020: Japanese Prime Minister Appears in Surprise Performance During Rio Ceremony,” became just “#Tokyo2020.”
Facebook’s decision to simplify the feature seemed like an attempt to wriggle out of editorial responsibility: What had been a messy human-led process would now become an algorithm-guided one. The company also laid off the 26 employees who had run the feature—19 curators and seven copyeditors—with little warning on Friday, according to Quartz.
In the primaries, he avoided policy debates by promising to build a wall—but the general election is forcing him into specifics.
The biggest political story of the last week has been Donald Trump’s flip-flop on deporting undocumented immigrants. This Sunday on CNN, Mike Pence filibustered his way through the subject for almost seven minutes before Jake Tapper finally declared, “You did not address the issue” and moved on. Chris Christie on ABC and Kellyanne Conway on CBS were no more coherent. The Daily Beast summed up the morning with the headline, “Immigration Flip-Flop Leaves Trump Campaign Flailing on Sunday Shows.”
But focusing on Trump’s “flip-flop” misses the point. Trump’s real problem isn’t that he’s changed his position on immigration. It’s that he’s trying to formulate one at all.
What the commentary of the last few days has generally overlooked is that while immigration was key to Trump’s success in the Republican primary, Trump never actually offered an immigration policy. To the contrary, his success rested in large measure on his ability to avoid one. Trump’s strategy on immigration, as on other key issues, was to cut through the Gordian knot of public policy with aggressive, quick fix solutions. Terrorism? Ban Muslims. ISIS? Bomb the hell out of them and take their oil. Loss of manufacturing jobs? Slap massive tariffs on companies that outsource American jobs.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
Marketing ditties once had a distinctive, hokey sound, but today’s advertisers have ditched them for standard pop songs.
Most Americans can recite their share of jingles. Perhaps they can’t remember their partner’s cell phone number, but they know every digit required to reach Empire carpet. Or every word of “I’m a Toys ‘R Us Kid.” Or that the best part of waking up is Folgers in their cup.
And yet, despite its effectiveness, the jingle has become a relic of the mid-20th-century commercials it once dominated. Today’s pop songs and yesterday’s classics have effectively replaced the jingle: A Kanye West song plays in an ad for Bud Light Platinum, Lady Gaga’s “Applause” is a party anthem for the Kia Soul’s spokeshamsters, and a Bob Dylan track helps advertise Victoria’s Secret. Amid all this, Oscar Mayer decided to retire two of the most popular jingles of all time, “My Bologna Has a First Name” and “I Wish I Was an Oscar Mayer Weiner.” In 2010, the company announced a new ad campaign, sans the old tunes. “What we did not want to do was write jingles,” an ad exec told The New York Times.
What to do if you’re a Hillary fan seated next to a Trump supporter at a wedding
When America is finally great again, they’ll make the latte with soy milk like you asked.
All those political cracks, not to mention earnest proclamations, mean that for the next 10 weeks, many casual interactions run the risk of erupting into full-blown partisan warfare. It’s more of a danger for those with family members or close friends who support opposing candidates and views. But on Facebook, hot-button scuffles can break out between almost anyone. (I recently witnessed a college friend who lives in Europe arguing about gun rights with a random guy from my high school in Texas, whom I myself have spoken with only a few times in person.)
One reason Americans find the other side’s views so inflammatory is that increasingly, they view their political party as more of a tribe than a checkbox. “People start seeing themselves or their political views as the main representation of their values, and what is right and wrong,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Economics hasn’t been able to explain irrational choices. Can neuroscience?
Humans often make bad decisions. If you like Snickers more than Milky Way, it seems obvious which candy bar you’d pick, given a choice of the two. Traditional economic models follow this logical intuition, suggesting that people assign a value to each choice—say, Snickers: 10, Milky Way: 5—and select the top scorer. But our decision-making system is subject to glitches.
In one recent experiment, Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University, and collaborators asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite—say, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, a Milky Way and an Almond Joy, participants would always choose the Snickers. But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers, even though it was still their favorite. When Glimcher would remove all the choices except the Snickers and the selected candy, participants would wonder why they hadn’t chosen their favorite.