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.
Beginning in July of this year, most everywhere we look, there will be a giant number on our food. The change will affect hundreds of thousands of edible products, and, so, hundreds of millions of people. It will affect the way we think about food for decades. (This update is the first in more than 20 years—so long ago that the FDA earnestly describes its current label design as “iconic.”)
Current nutrition labels, legally required on all packaged foods, are to be be replaced with the explicit purpose of improving people’s health. As Michelle Obama said at the unveiling of the new labels on Friday, “Very soon, you will no longer need a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition to figure out whether the food you’re buying is actually good for our kids.”
Why aren’t the critics comparing Donald Trump to a fascist acknowledging that the office he seeks is too powerful?
Wake up, establishment centrists: Donald Trump is coming!
After the Vietnam War and Watergate and the spying scandals uncovered by the Church Committee and the Nixon Administration cronies who nearly firebombed the Brookings Institution, Americans were briefly inclined to rein in executive power—a rebuke to Richard Nixon’s claim that “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” Powerful committees were created to oversee misconduct-prone spy agencies. The War Powers Resolution revived a legislative check on warmaking. “In 34 years,” Vice President Dick Cheney would lament to ABC News in a January 2002 interview, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job. I feel an obligation... to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors."
Petty political fights distract from the Vermont senator’s goal of a long-lasting movement.
Bernie Sanders’s beliefs have been obvious from the start. He thinks wealthy elites exert too much influence over American politics. He wants the U.S. government to lessen income inequality. He believes climate change is a pressing threat to the world. The clarity and overarching ambition of his agenda has been central to his appeal and expectations-defying political success so far.
If Sanders wants his political revolution to last, he will need to win widespread support for his ideas well into the future. Yet as the primary election draws to a close, the campaign has increasingly made arguments that may undercut the long-term viability of the movement that has coalesced around the Vermont senator.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
How a strange face in a random 19th-century newspaper ad became a portal to a forgotten moment in ASCII art history
One of the joys of modern technology is how easy it is to immerse yourself in the past. Every day, more libraries and archives are pushing pieces of their collections online in easily browsable interfaces.
The author Moira Weigel argues that the various courtship rituals of the past hundred-odd years have reflected the labor-market conditions of their day.
Love, it turns out, has always been a lot of work.
While every generation will lament anew the fact that finding love is hard, history seems to indicate that this particular social ritual never gets any easier or less exciting. In Labor of Love, a new book documenting the history of dating in America, Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University, confirms this lament: Since dating was “invented,” it has always been an activity that required a lot of effort.
As part of her research, Weigel read dating-advice books from the 1800s and hundreds of articles on dating from teen and women’s magazines over the years, and she found two common themes: First, there is usually an older part of the population that perceives dating to be “dying,” or, at least, as not being done “appropriately.” Second, Weigel found that the way people date has almost always been tied to the market forces of their era.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Door,” the fifth episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
A small but intriguing study done in West Philadelphia points to the importance of what researchers call microenvironments.
Social scientists and economists have been fascinated by the idea that a city—even a neighborhood—can shape someone’s economic success in life. Until last year, research linking neighborhood conditions to economic mobility was hardly conclusive. Then, a group of Harvard economists made a compelling case that poor children who grow up in more affluent neighborhoods (with better schools, less crime, and larger public budgets) end up earning more money later on than if they had stayed in a poor neighborhood.
A group of researchers from The University of Pennsylvania is now taking that idea a step further, showing that a similar pattern might even apply on the level of the city block. They studied West Philadelphia, which is largely made up of poor, African American families and where poverty is passed on from one generation to the next. Yet even within West Philadelphia, poverty, crime and education levels vary from block to block. These areas are what researchers are calling “micro-environments.”
The show had some bright spots—such as Larry David’s work as Bernie Sanders—but it largely failed to capture the zeitgeist in the year of Trump.
As Saturday Night Live wrapped its season last weekend, it made sense that it led off with Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) and Bernie Sanders (Larry David) bidding each other farewell, and Donald Trump nowhere to be seen. The 41st year of SNL has struggled to find its voice during this demented election season, a time when the show usually taps into the zeitgeist, but if there’s anything it’ll be remembered for, it’s the inspired casting choice of David as an avatar of grumpy disgust with the nation’s political process.
And yet David isn’t in the main cast of Saturday Night Live—technically, he’s an alumnus of the show, having written for its 10th season. Darrell Hammond, who impersonated Donald Trump for most of the year after Taran Killam’s early attempt, is another veteran brought in for a specific role. And the 41st season finale, easily one of the best episodes of the year, worked mostly because its host Fred Armisen brought back many luminaries from his time on the show to help recall his own glory days. In the three years since Armisen departed, Saturday Night Live has struggled to define its new era, and the joy of seeing its old cast return has only helped to underline that troubling fact.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”