Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Defending the Indefensible: Amateurs Threaten the Porn Industry

Pity the poor professional pornographers. They have come a long way since the days when the only markets for what used to be called "stag films" were certain men's clubs in big cities and a few shady movie theaters. The advent of the home videotape player in the 1970s, and then the Internet in the 1990s, made it possible for people to view dirty movies in the privacy of their own homes. Now the production of pornography is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that sells millions of DVDs and even more images directly over the Internet. But as a recent New York Times article noted, sales of pornographic videos fell 30% from 2005 to 2006, down to a measly $3.62 billion. The reason? Competition from amateurs.

Back when it took a camera costing several thousand dollars, time on a video editing suite costing even more, and a modicum of professional skill to produce any movie, pornographic or otherwise, the entry barrier to making porn movies was pretty high, which limited the supply (not to mention social opprobrium and legal restrictions). But now that there are few social or legal barriers in this country to making and selling porn, the economic barrier is falling too, as high-quality digital video cameras and editing software have become cheap and simple enough for anybody with a few hundred bucks to buy and use. And pornography is the one kind of movie for which untrained actors, directors, and editors can draw as well as professionals.

It's funny to listen to how the pornographers think they're going to compete against two guys and a gal armed with a $300 camcorder and iMovie. David Joseph, president of an outfit called Red Light District, says, "We use good-quality lighting and very good sound. . . . We use different locations, rooms and couches." I'm sure that Mr. Joseph's customers are paying lots of attention to the production values, upholstery, and backgrounds. Surely those things will do the trick, so to speak.

Another pornographer complains that a lot of online porn outlets give away too much free material. Harvey Kaplan, a man who earns his bread by processing payments for pornographic websites, says that circulating free clips in hopes of attracting paying customers is a failed strategy. Many surfers just watch what they want for free and then take off for the next site without spending a dime. Brand loyalty is not a prominent factor in this business.

This problem should sound familiar to any woman who has listened to the line, "If you love me, you'll prove it to me by . . . ." How many times has that worked? And how many times has the woman watched the man walk away afterwards? A lot.

Pornography is bad. Everybody knows that—people who watch it after promising themselves for the thousandth time not to, people who make it and sell it, people who act in it. Everybody who deals with it does so, not because of a principled belief that pornography is a benefit to humanity, but for some other thing they perceive as good—a cheap (or free) thrill, easy money, a start in the movie business, or something else they see as good or valuable. In essence it's no different from drug dealing, in that anyone who makes money off it profits from the enslavement of others to a pernicious habit.

I confess to having mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, I have no sympathy for people who exploit women and make a living off the moral weaknesses of millions. To their complaints that amateurs are ruining their business, I reply, "Tough bubkis." But on the other hand, I am not entranced by the prospect that the house down the street rented by four or five college students may become a secret pornographic movie studio.

Where you stand about pornography depends on your worldview, and I can think of two different worldviews that give diametrically opposite conclusions about it. If you subscribe to a secular liberatarian worldview, then pornography is one of those "victimless crimes." As long as the pornographers or those indulging in their wares don't bother anybody else, they should be permitted to go about their business. In that worldview, this judgment makes sense.

But if in your view, the world is fundamentally spiritual, occupied by eternal spirits temporarily inhabiting bodies, and this world is a training ground for achieving perfection in the next by the grace of God, then virtue is an eternal value that counts more than money, reputation, health, or physical life itself. The Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor once said that purity is the most mysterious of the virtues, and that is especially true for those outside the faith, who simply can't see what all the fuss is about. But purity is nonetheless real. In this view, to make, sell, or watch pornography is to fail in the virtue of purity, which makes it that much harder to become what God wants us to be. That is the real damage that pornography does—it damages souls. But if you don't believe in souls, you're not going to see the point of this argument either.

As long as there are people, there will be sexual misbehavior. (In the Christian worldview, that is a point of doctrine known as original sin.) But laws and customs and standards for interstate commerce and so on are teachers. Back when most of what shows up on pornographic websites was illegal even to send in the mail, your average guy growing up learned that such stuff was dangerous to your legal health and socially unacceptable in most circles. Guys growing up nowadays learn something entirely different, thanks to the ubiquity of Internet porn. And engineers bear some of this responsibility, whether they like it or not.

Sources: The New York Times article appeared online on June 2, 2007 at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/02/technology/02porn.html?hp. For an in-depth look at the intimate connection between the rise of home video and pornography, see the historical article by Jonathan Coopersmith, "Pornography, Video, and the Internet," in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 19, no. 1 (2000), pp. 27-34.


  1. How do engineers bear this responsibility, then is everyone at Ford and GM responsible for car crashes?

    Cameras and the internet serve many purposes other than porn.

  2. Also, your personal thoughts on pornography are archaic and just wrong. To view it as enslavement and an addiction does your cause no service. Porn is big business and the demographic grows and changes every day. It can be a healthy way to explore ones sexuality, and not everyone who watches it is a pervert or about to act it all out in real life.

    You seem to have the classic engineers attitude, cocky and stubborn. As someone in the engineering field myself, I'm beginning to realize why young people in the U.S. don't go to this profession in college. Its a decidedly conservative profession, where new people in the field constantly have to deal with an old guard that has archaic beliefs.