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.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
That's not a harsh assessment. It's just a fair description.
Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They're for smaller government, unless budget cuts scratch a program they've heard of. They'd like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn't run anything.
That's all from a new Reason Foundation poll surveying 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Millennials' political views are, at best, in a stage of constant metamorphosis and, at worst, "totally incoherent," as Dylan Matthews puts it.
It's not just the Reason Foundation. In March, Pew came out with a similar survey of Millennial attitudes that offered another smorgasbord of paradoxes:
Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.
Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.
Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country ... even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare.)
When people see themselves as self-made, they tend to be less generous and public-spirited.
I’m a lucky man. Perhaps the most extreme example of my considerable good fortune occurred one chilly Ithaca morning in November 2007, while I was playing tennis with my longtime friend and collaborator, the Cornell psychologist Tom Gilovich. He later told me that early in the second set, I complained of feeling nauseated. The next thing he knew, I was lying motionless on the court.
He yelled for someone to call 911, and then started pounding on my chest—something he’d seen many times in movies but had never been trained to do. He got a cough out of me, but seconds later I was again motionless with no pulse. Very shortly, an ambulance showed up.
Ithaca’s ambulances are dispatched from the other side of town, more than five miles away. How did this one arrive so quickly? By happenstance, just before I collapsed, ambulances had been dispatched to two separate auto accidents close to the tennis center. Since one of them involved no serious injuries, an ambulance was able to peel off and travel just a few hundred yards to me. EMTs put electric paddles on my chest and rushed me to our local hospital. There, I was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a larger hospital in Pennsylvania, where I was placed on ice overnight.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A shepherd pulls a lamb into the sea in Gaza City, President Obama meets Prince George in London, the aftermath of Ecuador’s earthquake, and much more.
A shepherd pulls a lamb into the sea in Gaza City, President Obama meets Prince George in London, the aftermath of Ecuador’s earthquake, rescue operations in Aleppo, Syria, after increased airstrikes, NASA’s space shuttle external tank hauled through the Panama Canal, the “Solar Impulse 2” flies over San Francisco, and much more.