What trends in porn can teach us about life today

We spend a lot of time watching Game Of Thrones and reading Harry Potter and scrolling Facebook … and watching porn (one hundred million people visit pornhub.com a day). Yet while the first three are seen as apt objects of cultural criticism, the latter isn’t. We read economic analyses of Game Of Thrones, or about the politics of Harry Potter, or how Foucaultian Facebook is, but we seldom read about what tastes and trends in porn can teach us about economics or politics or philosophy. This is a mistake: looking at trends in porn promises to provide explanations in all these areas and more.

Of course, it’s understandable that people neglect porn: it’s embarrassing to talk about and opinions vary about its morality. While some want to reclaim and make better porn, or simply to make us realize that it’s probably not going away and so we should make its institutions better for those who work in it, others, both feminists and anti-feminists, think that porn is bad for producer and consumer alike.

I understand this reluctance — and to some extent feel it myself — but I think the matter is too important to ignore, and the above just gives us better reasons to think and talk about it. We are, after all, creatures of embarrassment and shame (among other things), and if we overlook these features of our lives, our perspective on what it’s like to be human will be warped. To understand politics we need to understand both press releases and the wilds of 4chan; to understand ourselves, we need to know both what we say on our well-crafted social media profiles as well as what, under cover of Chrome’s incognito mode, we put into porn sites’ search bar.

Similarly, any attempt to assess the morality of porn — whether your perspective is anti- or pro- porn or just that it’s more complicated than that — needs to have an accurate and up-to-date understanding of what porn is actually like. If you think that treating porn dispassionately as a cultural object is too glib or offensive, I can see where you’re coming from, but you need to know your enemy (/friend), and data can help.

And today that data is not so hard to come by. The porn tube site pornhub.com has, for the past six years, been doing end-of-year reviews about trends in porn in the preceding twelve months, including what’s popular and where, information about peak times and usage volumes, and much else (the 2018 post is here, and the others are easily findable).

I will look at this data in the hope of providing answers to the following questions that are both interesting and, I think, of existential significance for how we live our lives and understand ourselves.

  • the sex question: how does the porn we watch influence our real life sex lives, or how does our real life sex lives influence the porn we watch?
  • the economic (user) question: is the porn one consumes influenced by one’s economic status?
  • the economic (producer) question: is the porn one consumes influenced by the economic status of the producers — are there porn monopolies, for example, that get most of our attention?

Along the way we’ll discuss, and provide new perspectives on, questions such as the supposed sex recession among young people today, the way in which the economy influences our desires, and the status — and future — of porn as an industry. I will begin with the first question.

(This post is more or less SFW; it contains some terms for types of porn, but no media. That said, you might think about whether you want your boss looking over you shoulder at it.)

Porn As A Window On Our Private Selves

Our lives are to a large extent anti-private today. It’s already a cliche that Google is the greatest mass surveillance instrument the world has ever known, a fact you can be reminded of if you want, say, out of a mere formicological curiosity, to learn about ‘ant colonies’ and are, before you’ve even finished typing, met with the autocompletion (based on your past history): ‘antidepressants that don’t cause flatulence’. Google knows your secrets, and it monetizes them.

Privacy is also undermined by social media. It’s also a cliche that young people reveal anything and everything about themselves, but more subtly, if privacy is keeping things for yourself, then one can argue that social media erodes it by eroding the very self you want to keep private.

That sounds a bit fancy, but consider: saying something on social media is saying something to hundreds of mostly strangers (and possibly thousands of even more strange strangers if you go viral), in an environment where interpretative charity isn’t exactly widespread. It encourages — indeed rewards — hiding your thoughts, being obsequious to those with more clout than you, biting your tongue, and so on. That, I’m kind of tempted to think, has a tendency to tamp down your real self, by compelling you not to express it.

So here’s a question: what are we, in the ever diminishing periods of privacy, actually like? Looking at our porn searches promises to answer this question, because consuming porn is fundamentally a private activity. We don’t broadcast our tastes on social media — you probably know, or could guess at, most of your online friends’ movie or book tastes, but would have no idea about their porn preferences — and we even, as already mentioned, hide it from google by using incognito browsing and clearing history. Porn is when we’re at our most alone these days. So what are we like then?


The answer provided by the pornhub.com data is both surprising and suggestive, and sheds light on and corroborates the idea that there is a ‘sex recession’: that young people are having less sex that other generations. What the data show, I will argue, is that people are fleeing from real sex not only in life, but also, and perhaps equally surprisingly, in their fantasy life. Before taking a look at the data, ask yourself this question: what do you think Pornhub’s most searched for terms were in 2018?


Well, here’s the answer, showing the terms, and their ranking, as well as their ranking for the previous five years:

Graph showing popularity of the top five keywords for the last six years (1 is most popular)

(An important caveat: if you know anything about data science, you know more than me, and there’ll be no regressions or chi squares here — I heartily encourage those more able to do better (if the data allows it, which I doubt).)

Some of this graph isn’t too surprising. I take it that many of you might have included ‘lesbian’ and ‘milf’, at least, on your list. And to the extent that ‘step mom’ is at least close to ‘milf’, it is also arguably not so surprising (although see below).

But it is, I take it, very surprising to hear that ‘hentai’ was the second most searched term online. In case you don’t know, hentai is animated porn, and particularly, but not exclusively, Japanese animated porn. Some of them are parodies, using characters from established anime, but there are also dedicated pornographic series. For more information about hentai, check out the wiki.

Not only is its mere presence interesting, but ‘hentai’ displays, among the top five, the greatest shift in popularity. In 2013 it ranked a mere 22, while two years later it was in number 2, and stayed there. There has been, the data tells us, a rapid rise in the popularity of animated porn. What does this mean?

Here’s my interpretation. People who study these things have presented a lot of data indicating that young people today are having sex less than their predecessors (see the Atlantic article linked above for this). What this data suggests is that not only are people not having sex in real life, but even their fantasy lives they are moving away from realistic depictions of the sort of sex they might possibly one day have.

The sex recession, I think, has invaded our minds and taken over. It’s not the case, as you might have thought, that part of the reason people are not having sex is because online porn now offers a more than adequate virtual replacement. It’s not that porn now offers something that satisfies the same desires as real life sex but without the awkwardness and vulnerability of being with others. Instead, porn now offers something only roughly tethered to reality, a world of sex with ‘demons’ or ‘beasts’ or … pokemon (these three examples taken from the most viewed videos, of all time, in the hentai category). People find themselves not wanting to engage with real life sex but still stuck with all-too-human desires, and so they seek to satisfy them with media that are maximally divorced from real life. That is my, admittedly very speculative, theory.

Let me respond to some objections, along the way presenting some more data. Firstly, you might think that this says nothing about broad and general trends, but is, perhaps, just a reflex of the fact that anime and hentai are long established mediums in Japan (and perhaps other east Asian countries).

But more fine-grained data shows that’s not right. Hentai is popular everywhere. The same (2018) survey tells us that it is the second most searched term in Spain, third in Canada, fourth in Australia, fifth in the US, eighth in Germany, and tenth in France, for example, as well as being first in Mexico and Brazil and Russia.

In sum, there is no clear geographical pattern that could explain away the popularity of hentai. It is popular all over the world (similarly, it’s worth noting, the sex recession is also widespread).

Here’s another objection. I said people are fleeing sex in their fantasies as well as reality. But that’s not really what the data shows. Arguably, it only shows that people, in addition to actual, milfy lesbiany sex, are also looking at animated sex. Nothing in the data, or indeed common sense, suggests that these categories are exclusive, and that if you search for one you can’t search for another.

I concede the point. But I don’t think it matters too much. These, surely, are the facts: many, many more hours are spent watching animated sex than we would expect. This is weird, calls for explanation, and an explanation is that people, in so doing, are withdrawing, partially, from real sex. Even if they then go and look at normal porn, it will still remain a fact that their sexual fantasy life is more filled with unreal fantasies than we would have expected ex ante.

Not only that, but I think we can furnish other evidence in favour of a move towards the unreal. Looking again at the graph above, you’ll note that ‘step mom’ has increased in popularity markedly over the years. This is a fact even more pronounced (and more disturbingly) for ‘step sister’:

‘Step sister’ moved to position 5 in 2017 from being in position 66 in 2013, a huge move (it is not listed in the top 20 at all in 2018 (which I just represented as an arbitrary lower number; see again my disclaimer about data science), but I suspect they have stopped counting it. I asked pornhub.com if this was so but they didn’t get back to me.) In the same vein, of the 32 videos listed as most watched in the US this week, fully 12 of them contained some family terms in their title. These videos are produced by big studios, and have high production values and famous actors — they are completely mainstream. By contrast, compare the ailing fortunes of what one would surely expect to be a more traditionally popular category, ‘teen’, surely a paradigm of close-to-real-life porn

Is there anything that ‘incest’ and ‘hentai’ have in common? Well, here’s a suggestion: they can’t be acted on. You can’t have sex with cartoons or your family. People are putting themselves out of the sex game by filling their heads with fantasies that they can’t act on, out of fear or distaste for eventually having sex.

So that’s claim one: the recent worldwide trend in animated porn (and possibly incest porn) shed new light on the sex recession, indicating that it’s not that porn has replaced sex, but that the same turning away from real sex people have noted has infected our fantasy lives.

The Economic Questions

I’ve so far been concerned with our fantasies, deep and private and particular aspects of ourselves. I want now to zoom out and see if the Pornhub data can tell us anything instructive about how our fantasies are formed by social or economic factors. The answers are interesting.

The first question is whether our pornographic tastes vary depending on our economic situation. Think about it yourself for a second — do you think they do? Do poor people and rich people like different things?

I thought it was possible. For example, consider the following line of reasoning. We like porn that features people like us (this is born out by the data — for most countries, one of the most searched terms is that country, or rather the adjective for that country). Moreover, it makes sense (and is again born out by things I’ve read) that performers earn more money for doing more extreme things — more for hardcore than for solo, and more as one does more extreme sorts of acts. A porn producer, then, who wants to film extreme acts, might find themselves unable to afford the rates of performers from rich countries, and accordingly going to poorer countries to film where those acts go cheaper.

The hypothesis might be suggested then that people belonging to poorer countries prefer watching more extreme porn, because they prefer to watch people like them, and people like them disproportionately star in extreme porn. In this way, one’s sexual tastes would be determined by broad macroeconomic facts, a depressing possibility.

(Let me make it explicit that I in no way endorse or think that — if the above story were true — it would be good, as some libertarians might. I don’t, I think it’s gross and exploitative.)

As against that, one might think that economic factors have no — or at least a different — economic role to play. One often hears that, say, German pornography is especially perverse, but Germany is a prosperous country, and one hears the same about Japan, but at least taking the longer view Japan has underwent many economic vicissitudes. As far as I can tell, the porn industry in Japan has been going strong since at least the 80s when Japan was thought to be the next world-leading economy. So which is it — is the porn we watch determined by economics, or nah?

I think the data suggests nah, although more research is needed. I looked at the varying popularity of ‘anal’, taking it i) as an exemplar and proxy for a more extreme sex act but also ii) one that is sufficiently popularized to be likely to appear in most searched lists. Here is what I found (for individual countries, Pornhub tells us the twelve most popular terms for that year; na below means it’s not on the list):

We have the ranking for ‘anal’ in the left column and the IMF’s ranking of countries by per capita GDP (culled from here) in the right, and while this isn’t an amazing comparison (many more countries are in the GDP rankings than the porn ones, for one) I think it’s probably already enough to see that there’s no clear patter in the data.

Although it would be foolhardy to draw too much from this one example, at least at first glance it seems that pornographic tastes might float free from one’s economic situation. (Further weak support for this is that ‘gangbang’, again an extreme sort of act, is represented in few countries’ top ten lists, but is in both Sweden’s and Germany’s, which are two of the strongest economies on the list.)

The Uber of Porn

(Note added day after publishing: I just learned that the company that owns Pornhub owns many studios. Were I to rewrite this, I would take this into account, and I think it at least partly casts doubt on some of the below. I don’t think it affects the main point I make, however.)

The second economic question I was curious about was whether there were a number of monopolizing pornography companies that receive a disproportionate amount of attention. For this, I had to go beyond the Pornhub data, and, owing to the lack of any neat way to collect lots of data, the following has, perforce, to be somewhat impressionistic. If I continue to think and write about this, I will attempt to find easy to collect data that can help shed light on this question (suggestions very welcome!)

So, another question for you, reader: Pornhub offers a ‘popular in X country over the last time period’ search option which you can ask to list the most watched videos over the last week/year/all time. We can then ask: is there some pornography producer or website that predominates?

Here’s a closely related question. Money buys most of the things we’re interested in. As one would expect, there’s a positive correlation between budget and box office success for movies, and, even more grimly, people have argued that, typically, the amount spend on the campaign predicts the president.

This of course has significance for how we live our lives — there is no reason to think that the best movies are the most expensive, nor the best candidates the richest. Accordingly, if pornography were the same, so that what was watched was a function of how much money was thrown behind it, we might be faced with the grim conclusion that our very desire is up for sale. So: is that so?

In order to answer this question, I looked at the videos which were most popular this week in the US.

There were 32 videos on the front page, and I — lazily — looked at only 20 (eyeballing the rest revealed a similar pattern). 6 were from amateurs who are registered with Pornhub and who receive some of the ad revenue (more on this below). 11 were from studios and were uploaded by the studios. 2 were from studios but uploaded by non-studios, and 1, while professional, wasn’t from a recognizable studio and were uploaded by users.

Doing unscientific tallies like this seemed to show that this sort of distribution was pretty common: most popular videos are either by studios and uploaded by studios, or by registered amateurs who are in a business relationship with Pornhub. By contrast, and again with the caveat that we’re talking about most watched videos, both genuine amateur (uploaded by someone not registered with Pornhub) and pirated professional (uploaded by someone who doesn’t have the right to distribute the file) were rare.

The data here are inconclusive, but I have included this section for a reason. Almost all the popular videos are either by professional companies, or by verified amateurs. Although that partly seems to disprove the thought that it’s purely money that buys success, it does suggest another one: that it’s Pornhub which is the economic determinant of what we watch. Their search engines prioritize — I hypothesize — legitimate content, content uploaded by the content owners. When you search for something, you’re not necessarily getting the video what will best satisfy your desire, but the non-copyright-infringing video that will satisfy your desire.

Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing: if you are pro-porn, you should be happy that money is going to its creators. But it has a very important consequence.

Going into this, I assumed that pornhub.com was a quasi-legal instrument of piracy, a tube site like the sort on which you can download recent television. It’s not. I think the best way to think of it is that Pornhub is essentially trying to Uber-ize porn. Pornhub itself doesn’t produce porn, it doesn’t pay actors, but instead offers them a means to promote their services, just as Uber don’t employ drivers or maintain cars, but gives drivers a way to sell rides. Pornhub is a platform business, like Uber, Airbnb, even social media sites, the crucial feature of which is that it relies on others for content and provides for them merely a place to get their content seen.

Realizing this, we make predictions about the future of pornography and, thus, to some extent, the future of desire. Just as Uber’s eventual end game is to get rid of cabs, and then get rid of drivers, so Pornhub’s eventual goal, surely, must be to wait until they’ve got as much free and user-generated content as they can until they become a more attractive proposition than any studio. No one will subscribe to websites or buy DVDs because they can get everything from pornhub.com. Studios and producers will go out of business, and then any aspiring porn stars will have no other option than to produce porn themselves, bearing all the costs of production and promotion, and put it on Pornhub, all the while paying Pornhub for the platform. And Pornhub will develop a monopoly on pornography, enabling them to give their content creators worse deals.

The pornographic future, then consists of amateurs (like Uber drivers) compelled to use the dominant platform. They will — just like Airbnb hosts offer more options than hotels — offer more options to viewers. But they will increasingly be caught in a race to the bottom, as lower barriers to entry will lead to more people trying to sell pornography, and that increased supply will lead to lower earnings for the producers, and the corresponding necessity of performing more niche (thus probably extreme) sex acts to make money.

Porn might seem much closer to TV or movies than to services like accommodation or transport. If I’m right, this is not so, and this fact will become apparent in the next few years.


About a hundred and twenty years ago Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, offering a way to understand ourselves and what we desire than looked beyond what we publicly said and concentrated on our private and strange moments, most notably dreams. And what he found, famously, was sex. He formed theories about the unconscious to make sense of the desires our dreams communicate and would later go on to use those theories to analyse civilized life and art, and was followed by many who did the same in philosophy, literary studies, and beyond.

That movement is kind of moribund, the occasional hirsute Slovenian notwithstanding. What I’ve suggested here, though, is that something like it should be resuscitated and upgraded for the 21st century. But we don’t need the knotty complexities of psychoanalysis to see what people desire— we can just see what they search for. And what they search for, if you buy the arguments of this article, has much to teach us about desire and its industry today and tomorrow.