For the new pornographers like Adam Sutra, technology can erase the material world. In virtual reality, there are no limits, not even when it comes to sex. “If you can meet in your virtual-reality space, anything’s possible,” Adam observed coolly as the man bore down upon the woman, her prerecorded moans filling the air.
Porn wasn’t always like this. It used to be real. Real people made real porn movies on real movie sets in the San Fernando Valley, earning the area the nickname “Porn Valley.” Now virtual reality is their competition. Start-up bros with computer-science degrees and blockchain fetishes are hoping they can sell virtual sex to the masses.
Whether or not people get turned on by VR pornography, the technology is changing the places where adult content has traditionally been created. Porn Valley is being displaced by porn’s uncanny valley—an X-rated version of the theory holding that a robotic or simulated entity that appears to be human, but not quite fully human, revolts us. Losing a connection to the material world—the skin and sweat of reality—may also lose what makes porn alluring.
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The 1960s and ’70s were the Golden Age of Porn. Back then, adult movies were shot on film and the business of producing pornographic movies was decentralized, operating primarily out of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In the ’80s, adult-movie production was centralized in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of the Los Angeles Basin. Cheap rent and the proximity to the entertainment industry made for an ideal location. Porn Valley was born.
In 1998, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was born and raised, to Los Angeles. I was a freelance journalist with an interest in the adult-movie industry. By then, the business had grown exponentially. The barrier to entry was lower due to the newly affordable video camera, the internet was delivering adult content directly into consumers’ homes for the first time in history, and a two-term liberal administration in the White House and an attorney general who had little interest in pursuing federal obscenity prosecutions had combined to create an “anything goes” atmosphere in the manufacturing of pornography. Business was booming.
Every so often, I headed over the Cahuenga Pass and descended into the Valley, where I watched as porn movies were shot in rented, ranch-style homes and on massive soundstages, as cowboy-boots-wearing adult-talent agents in wood-paneled offices hosted cattle calls in search of fresh-off-the-bus talent, as cavernous warehouses were stocked to the rafters with dirty movies.
When I moved back to Los Angeles last year, I rented an apartment in the Valley. I wanted to know what had become of the adult-movie business. As it turned out, Porn Valley had changed. Technology had transformed it. A perfect storm had slammed the industry. The Great Recession had hit it hard, a handful of federal obscenity prosecutions during the Bush administration had caused a chilling effect, and widespread digital-content pirating had oversaturated the market and devalued the product, decimating the competition and slashing profits by the double digits. Once upon a time, porn had led technology, adopting VHS over Betamax in the video-format wars of the late ’70s and ’80s. In the new millennium, technology was porn’s undoing.