You Should Pay For Porn

Why “Tube” sites and pirated porn might present a market failure.

I have always been fascinated by the pornography industry, just as I have the drug trade, and not only because of their products. These industries are intriguing for several reasons: black and gray markets present interesting test cases for economic and legal theories, and stigma and social norms complicate the regulatory response to both markets. There’s also something about the mundanity of “work” in such thrilling and dangerous settings. There are many reasons to be interested in these industries but I think there are two that stand out, though they do not apply equally to both: 1) they are ubiquitous and taboo and 2) we regulate them without talking about them. As film scholar Constance Penley put it: “As a society, we debate, legislate, [and] regulate pornography in almost a total vacuum of knowledge about what it really consists of historically, textually, [and] institutionally.”

I came across the above quote in Shira Tarrant’s The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know,* which I just finished and would recommend. It’s short (178 pages) and written in a rhetorical question-style that is equally comfortable to modern consumers of listicles as well as Platonic scholars (“Is Pornography a Crime, a Sin, a Vice, or a Choice?” begins one section (the answer depends), “Is It True that Men Are More Visually Aroused than Women?” begins another (the answer is no)). There is much to take away from this book, but I will focus on one recurring thought I had while reading: you should pay for porn.

Chances are you have watched pornography, and chances are that you have not paid for it at least once. As bedevils all dispassionate inquiry into taboo product consumption, good data is hard to come by. A Pew Research Center study from 2013 “indicate[d] that in 2013, only 12 percent of adult Internet users in the United States spent time watching sexually explicit content.” Anecdotal evidence would suggest that is a bit low. So would a 2004 US Congressional report which found that “70 million individuals visited porn sites every week,” or roughly 60% of adult Internet users. Still, I think I can justify a “chances are” statement by assuming that at least 50% of those reading have watched pornography.**

It is harder to assume based on statistics alone that you have more likely than not pirated pornography. The overall (economic) size of the porn industry is “notoriously difficult to ascertain,” with numbers ranging from $5 billion per year to $12 billion to earnings surpassing “Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined.” (that last claim is not true). What is less difficult to ascertain is how prevalent piracy is in the porn industry. The major “tube” sites, which operate as clearinghouses for stolen porn content, are by far and away the most popular porn websites. Xvideos garnered more than 4 billion independent hits in one month in 2012, making it at the time the world’s most trafficked website. Pornhub had 23 billion visits in 2016. USA was by far the number one provider of viewers to Pornhub (per capita. Iceland was second). While the statistics are hard to come buy, the anecdotal evidence is not. I once told a group of friends in a taxi that I had, once in my life, paid money for pornography. That admission was met with outright laughter.^ I believe one of them said “why in the world would you do that?”

There a few reasons.

In 2014, a coalition of porn actors and industry types started the #PayForYourPorn campaign in an effort to combat piracy. The rhetoric of the campaign was the traditional argument against piracy that we had seen in the music business: value and scarcity. The value argument is simple and compelling. If you value something you should support it. The “sharing” economy is always in danger of becoming a “scamming” economy and we should support journalism, podcasters, or musicians that we value even if we can get the content for free. The scarcity argument is often specious, whether the fear is that people will stop making music, or porn. As one article threatened: “For now — like with games, music, movies, and TV — if you use something and don’t support it, it might not be around for you to use. Even porn.”

That simply isn’t true. Roughly 136 billion videos were seen online in 2015, and that number is expected to near 200 billion by 2020. People make porn on their phones. Rule 34 exists for a reason. Furthermore, by frequenting “tube” sites you are paying for porn. Mindgeek, which owns all the major tube sites, makes millions of dollars in ad revenue (and is a bit of an antitrust problem, for anyone in need of a great law review article topic). Your clicks are paying someone for something, and you should be doing so consciously for at least two reasons.

First, free riding cedes your preferences to a minority. If “mainstream” pornography makes you uncomfortable but you don’t pay for pornography, you are akin to the citizen who is perennially unhappy with political candidates but doesn’t vote. There is good reason to be uncomfortable with mainstream pornography, and it should be acceptable to say as much without being labeled a prude or an illiberal moralist. As Tarrant puts it: “[A] pro-porn alliance . . . seems at times to gloss over legitimate concerns about the industry.” These include: objectification of women, legitimization of rape, racism, neocolonialism,^^ and exploitation — to name a few. Some people get off on such things.` My hunch, and hope, is that many do not, but rather deal with these uncomfortable moments and tropes in anticipation of, well, other moments and tropes. Then again, maybe I’m old fashioned.

Ceding preferences to a minority could also lead to proliferation of particular fetishes, as well as the creation of a feedback loop that then normalizes those fetishes in problematic ways. The uncomfortable themes in pornography present a chicken-or-egg question that is very difficult to solve given the dearth of real data (and conversation) surrounding pornography use. Put simply: are “we” aroused by these tropes, or do we see these tropes presented as what “we” are aroused by–because some people are willing to pay for that content–and then “we” conform to that behavior? It is fairly clear that at least some of what any given culture finds sexy is a learned trait that is devoid of biological impulse — simply look around the world and throughout history as to what is “sexy”. It seems plausible to me that what our culture learns, through pornography, as constituting “sexy” is the result of a relative minority of paying users.

Similarly, there is a problem with the traditional porn business model, especially for actors. Porn producers will often pay by the sex act, with riskier and more dangerous activities costing more. One can make a coherent argument that such a practice makes sense. People generally are paid more for more dangerous work, and we don’t clutch our pearls for those who choose to work on offshore oilrigs or as security contractors in war zones. That analogical framework breaks down, however, when we engage in free riding. Again, it is not that “we” value particularly dangerous sex practices (or at least that is not necessarily true). Rather, those who pay value more dangerous sex practices.

In short, we have a market failure. Many people have preferences for renewable energy, but the physics of electrons and the regulatory structure of power markets make it impossible for us to voice that preference in the market, with the result being that our consumption of a good (electricity) does not accurately reflect our desire (more renewable power). I would proffer that the same is true for pornography, but luckily the porn problem is more easily solved. The industry could make some simple changes. “The industry needs to adopt ‘Netflix’ pricing,” opined one porn exec. But a lot of this issue is just cultural. There are many who are culturally liberal but won’t talk about pornography except to shame those backwards conservatives who lecture them about its ills. Yet those same cultural liberals who signal their virtue through their support of porn in the abstract, scoff at the idea of supporting porn with their hard earned cash. According to Tristan Taormino, a feminist porn producer (among other things), “People put their money where their politics are to support local, artisanal, and independent small businesses. If they care where their coffee came from, how it was made, and how it got to the marketplace, they buy local organic, and fair trade.” According to Shira Tarrant, “By this logic, porn users need to do the same thing.”


Endnotes

*Speaking of the similarities between these two industries, this is part of a series that includes Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Beau Kilmer, and Mark A. R. Kleiman.

**And if I can assume some demographics about the readership of this blog, that is an even safer bet. “[B]oth college grads and those with advanced degrees are significantly more likely than high school graduates to approve of watching pornography.”

^Since writing this piece a few weeks ago I’ve had a similar conversation a couple different times, wherein I mention the title of this piece and its subject matter, and am promptly laughed at and ridiculed until I give up.

^^ “Where as gay, transsexual, and bisexual are tagged categories of porn, heterosexual is not. Although Latina, ebony, and interracial are tagged, white is not. This reveals the implicit race and sexual bias embedded in pornography vis-à-vis keywords and tags.”

`And whether that is ok is well beyond the scope of this post.