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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
Most campaign ads, like most billboards or commercials, are unimaginative and formulaic. Our candidate is great! Their candidate is terrible! Choose us!
With the huge majority of political ads, you would look back on them long after the campaign only for time-warp curio purposes—Look at the clothes they wore in the 80s! Look how corny “I like Ike!” was as a slogan! Look how young [Mitch McConnell / Bill Clinton / Al Gore] once was!—or to find archeological samples of the political mood of a given era.
The few national-campaign ads that are remembered earn their place either because they were so effective in shifting the tone of the campaign, as with George H. W. Bush’s race-baiting “Willie Horton” ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988; or because they so clearly presented the candidate in the desired light, as with Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad in 1984. Perhaps the most effective campaign advertisement ever, especially considering that it was aired only one time, was Lyndon Johnson’s devastating “Daisy Girl” ad, from his campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964. The power of the Daisy Girl ad was of course its dramatizing the warning that Goldwater might recklessly bring on a nuclear war.
Even in big cities like Tokyo, small children take the subway and run errands by themselves. The reason has a lot to do with group dynamics.
It’s a common sight on Japanese mass transit: Children troop through train cars, singly or in small groups, looking for seats.
They wear knee socks, polished patent-leather shoes, and plaid jumpers, with wide-brimmed hats fastened under the chin and train passes pinned to their backpacks. The kids are as young as 6 or 7, on their way to and from school, and there is nary a guardian in sight.
A popular television show called Hajimete no Otsukai, or My First Errand, features children as young as two or three being sent out to do a task for their family. As they tentatively make their way to the greengrocer or bakery, their progress is secretly filmed by a camera crew. The show has been running for more than 25 years.
Who will win the debates? Trump’s approach was an important part of his strength in the primaries. But will it work when he faces Clinton onstage?
The most famous story about modern presidential campaigning now has a quaint old-world tone. It’s about the showdown between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the first debate of their 1960 campaign, which was also the very first nationally televised general-election debate in the United States.
The story is that Kennedy looked great, which is true, and Nixon looked terrible, which is also true—and that this visual difference had an unexpected electoral effect. As Theodore H. White described it in his hugely influential book The Making of the President 1960, which has set the model for campaign coverage ever since, “sample surveys” after the debate found that people who had only heard Kennedy and Nixon talking, over the radio, thought that the debate had been a tie. But those who saw the two men on television were much more likely to think that Kennedy—handsome, tanned, non-sweaty, poised—had won.
The Texas senator’s about-face risks undermining his political brand and alienating the supporters who hailed his defiant stand in Cleveland.
Ted Cruz set aside his many differences with Donald Trump on Friday to endorse for president a man whom he once called a “serial philanderer,” a “pathological liar,” “utterly amoral,” and a “sniveling coward”; who insulted his wife’s looks; who insinuated Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy; who said he wouldn’t even accept his endorsement; and who for months mocked him mercilessly with a schoolyard taunt, “Lyin’ Ted.”
The Texas senator announced his support for the Republican nominee late Friday afternoon in a Facebook post, writing that the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency was “wholly unacceptable” and that he was keeping his year-old commitment to back the party’s choice. Cruz listed six policy-focused reasons why he was backing Trump, beginning with the importance of appointing conservatives to the Supreme Court and citing Trump’s recently expanded list of potential nominees. Other reasons included Obamacare—which Trump has vowed to repeal—immigration, national security, and Trump’s newfound support for Cruz’s push against an Obama administration move to relinquish U.S. oversight of an internet master directory of web addresses.
Early photographs of the architecture and culture of Peking in the 1870s
In May of 1870, Thomas Child was hired by the Imperial Maritime Customs Service to be a gas engineer in Peking (Beijing). The 29-year-old Englishman left behind his wife and three children to become one of roughly 100 foreigners living in the late Qing dynasty's capital, taking his camera along with him. Over the course of the next 20 years, he took some 200 photographs, capturing the earliest comprehensive catalog of the customs, architecture, and people during China's last dynasty. On Thursday, an exhibition of his images will open at the Sidney Mishkin Gallery in New York, curated by Stacey Lambrow. In addition, descendants of the subjects of one of his most famous images, Bride and Bridegroom (1870s), will be in attendance.
How Washington men working in national security dress—for better or for worse
In 2017, shortly after the next president is inaugurated, thousands of newly appointed federal officials will struggle with the same existential question: What do I wear to my first day of work? I understand their anxiety, having languished over wardrobe during eight years of federal service and pondered the fashion choices of my male colleagues during the interminable meetings that are the hallmark of government work. It’s hard to point to a solid “real world” professional competency that I learned during those years of meetings and memo writing, but one skill I developed is an uncanny ability to tell you where any man in the national security community works based on his apparel. But first, to understand the fashion choices these professionals make, you must understand the culture—and keep in mind that not every employee falls into these stereotyped camps. (I’m also leaving a thorough assessment of female fashion to other writers more qualified.)
In Greenwich, Darien, and New Canaan, Connecticut, bankers are earning astonishing amounts. Does that have anything to do with the poverty in Bridgeport, just a few exits away?
BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—Few places in the country illustrate the divide between the haves and the have-nots more than the county of Fairfield, Connecticut. Drive around the city of Bridgeport and, amid the tracts of middle-class homes, you’ll see burned-out houses, empty factories, and abandoned buildings that line the main street. Nearby, in the wealthier part of the county, there are towns of mansions with leafy grounds, swimming pools, and big iron gates.
Bridgeport, an old manufacturing town all but abandoned by industry, and Greenwich, a headquarters to hedge funds and billionaires, may be in the same county, and a few exits apart from each other on I-95, but their residents live in different worlds. The average income of the top 1 percent of people in the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metropolitan area, which consists of all of Fairfield County plus a few towns in neighboring New Haven County, is $6 million dollars—73 times the average of the bottom 99 percent—according to a report released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in June. This makes the area one of the most unequal in the country; nationally, the top 1 percent makes 25 times more than the average of the bottom 99 percent.
I wake up one morning certain that I’ve become three months pregnant overnight. The farting starts immediately. I skip breakfast, spend a half hour searching for pants I can zip over my bloated stomach, and then hurry to work and sit at my desk by the door of a tiny office crammed with four editors. My belly doesn’t rumble, but buzzes and shrieks. I shift in my chair to hide the cacophony.
Four hours pass. I take trips to the bathroom to stand in the stall and let it all out. My boss calls me into her office and I rise, suck it in, and waddle to her. Yes, of course I’ll look at the brochure. Lunch time arrives. I cautiously eat some bread and peanut butter, then smell something rankish and panic. Did I just leak gas without knowing? No, someone is heating a cheesy burrito in the microwave.
Campus life is too diverse at most schools for dorms to serve as a place of respite from uncomfortable ideas.
Last week, I got an email from Decker O’Donnell, an economics major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He was troubled by my claim that dorm life at residential colleges cannot be like home. “We live there 30 weeks a year,” he wrote. “I know people with abusive or homophobic families who couch-surf in the summer.”
College, he observed, “is the only home they have.”
There is, of course, a subset of college students whose troubled home lives cause them to feel more comfortable on campus than in the households where they grew up, and the escape that higher education affords them is very much worth celebrating. But those cases are not the core of O’Donnell’s disagreement with me.
By way of background, I wrote about home during last year’s controversy at Yale, when students protested the faculty-in-residence at Silliman College after his wife sent an email that upset them. She argued that Yale undergrads, not administrators, should shape the norms around what Halloween costumes are appropriate. “As master,” a student retorted, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman. You have not done that. By sending out that email, that goes against your position as master. Do you understand that?!”