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The Perils of Covering Porn
Rash of recent dotcom-angle stories perpetuate myths about the industry

I know from experience how hard it can be to report on the porn industry. Take the time, for example, when noted French director Pierre Woodman threatened to "gouge" my eyes out.

Early on, I trusted too many things people said while looking me right in the eye, not realizing until later that many porn professionals actually believe their own lies. Still, I ended up having some great experiences with remarkable, complicated persons such as French actor/director Christophe Clark, who would typically wind down after a tough day of sex by watching Jeopardy with his wife and going to bed by 9.

These memories have come to mind over the past few months, as mainstream publications have tripped over themselves to run a rash of stories contrasting the allegedly booming porn business to the deflated Internet economy. Some of the articles have been excellent, but many created or perpetuated the very myths that continue to obscure an already opaque industry.

Now that news organization like the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC have established new porn beats, and everyone from The Guardian UK to The New York Times are analyzing how the adult industry has survived the Internet bust, I thought it might be useful to list the four most commonly repeated myths about the sex business.

Myth 1: Porn is a $10 billion industry

"The $4 billion that Americans spend on video pornography is larger than the annual revenue accrued by either the NFL, the NBA or Major League Baseball. But that's literally not the half of it: the porn business is estimated to total between $10 billion and $14 billion annually in the United States when you toss in porn networks and pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, Internet Web sites, in-room hotel movies, phone sex, sex toys and that archaic medium of my own occasionally misspent youth, magazines."

"Naked Capitalists: There's No Business Like Porn Business,"
The New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2001

Is the porn business really worth that much? This cover story by Times senior writer and former theater critic Frank Rich triggered a latent, mostly online debate about the real size of the industry. Cyber porn reporter Luke Ford ("Another Brash Web Columnist," OJR, July 9, 1998) wrote that "Rich did exactly what many journalists had done before: trotting out tired and unchecked numbers from a 1998 Forrester Research study ... and video sales stats from AVN."

Adult Video News (AVN), the porn industry "bible," estimated last December that Americans spent $4 billion on adult video rentals in 2000, and that number has been widely quoted ever since.

Forbes.com "Top of the News" columnist Dan Ackman, for one, says that number is "baseless and widely inflated." In a point-by-point deconstruction of Rich's figures on May 25, Ackman cobbled together a estimate for the whole industry (including video, pay-per-view, Internet and magazines) at between $2.6 billion and $3.9 billion.

"The idea that pornography is a $10 billion business is often credited to a study by Forrester Research. This figure gets repeated over and over. The only problem is that there is no such study," wrote Ackman, a lawyer-turned-journalist who had never previously covered porn. "In 1998, Forrester did publish a report on the online 'adult content' industry, which it pegged at $750 million to $1 billion in annual revenue. The $10 billion aggregate figure was unsourced and mentioned in passing."

Ackman put the video segment at $500 million to $1.8 billion -- much less than AVN's $4 billion. "How Adult Video News gets this number is not clear. We asked Adult Video News' managing editor, Mike Ramone. 'I don't know the exact methodology,' he said, 'It's a pie chart.' Asked to break the figure down into sales versus rentals, a standard practice among those who cover the video industry, he said he didn't think it was available and suggested we call the editor-in-chief, who didn't return our calls."

In rushing to cover an interesting new subject, journalists have left their skepticism at the door, Ackman suggests: "Many have claimed [the porn industry] is large and profitable, especially on the Internet. Many of the claims are cut from whole cloth, but are accepted without question by the legitimate press. ... Certainly, self-interested statements by pornographers merit a second look."

AVN executives lashed back May 31, defending their figures as "absolutely correct," and suggesting that "people who sit and throw stones and do absolutely no research ... should not be taken seriously."

In an interview, AVN Editor Mike Ramone charged that Forbes.com ran a story a few days before Ackman's piece quoting an equity analyst as putting the size of the porn industry at $11 billion. "Ackman had no objectivity, and was out to do a smear piece on AVN in an attempt to save face after being scooped by a major competitor, The New York Times Magazine," Ramone said by e-mail.

Ackman acknowledged Ramone was correct to point out Forbes.com's inconsistency. "I couldn't swear the number I produced there is right, because no one knows, but I think it's a reasonable estimate," he said in an interview.

Ackman got the idea for his article after thinking the Rich piece "sounded kind of very phony," he said. When he saw Rich was citing Variety as a source for the $10 billion number, he was even more suspicious. "I was surprised to learn that Variety reported on porn. ... I found out very quickly that they don't, and yet Frank Rich cited them as a source, which was nonsense because he knew that the number he used came from Adult Video News."

The debate spilled over to eYada.com's Lovebytes show, in which veteran actor and porn personality Bill Margold told Ackman: "In an industry predicated on screwing, you're going to get f*****. You honestly expect us to tell the truth about what we're making?"

To which Ackman replied: "I expect people to lie to Frank Rich but I expect Frank Rich to exercise a little scrutiny and skepticism."

In an interview, Rich says he stands by his figures. "The genesis of my story is the realization that [porn] is a bigger business than what people tend to think," he explained.

Rich said he worked on the story off and on for four months, and that his year of experience covering show business taught him to always be skeptical of sales numbers. "I did a tremendous amount of reporting on this," he says. "I used the Forrester Research figure, and there were larger figures that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Economist. I didn't talk to rival research outlets but I talked on background to a prominent research firm I can't name, and I went to companies involved in mass distribution of the products. I'm pretty comfortable with this figure."

Other journalists familiar with the industry say Ackman, in fact, nailed it pretty well. "It's the kind of piece I wanted to do," says David Whelan, an editor for American Demographics, who once pursued putting together an infographic on the real size of the porn industry when he worked for Inside.com. "When we realized we couldn't find reliable numbers we just canned the whole idea."

So, how big is porn? Tom Rhinelander, an analyst at Forrester Research, says he doesn't know whether the $10 billion figure mis-attributed to his company is true. "Since that study a few years ago, we just haven't revisited the numbers, we haven't updated it and we don't plan to from the supply side," he says.

"I don't think anybody really knows," says Gerard Van der Leun, director of Penthouse.com. "If you talk about the whole industry, from Penthouse.com to a small foot-fetish site -- how you go around and make a real figure on that is beyond me. [Ackman] needs to smoke the clue-bong as much as anybody."

Gus Mastrapa, entertainment editor for Hustler, whose Hustler Video Guide competes with AVN, says he doesn't think sales are as high as the industry claims: "They're kind of following the example of Hollywood, that exaggerates budgets of films, grosses. It's called creative accounting, whatever they call it. It's exaggerations or downright lies."

Even if reliable numbers are hard to come by, it would stand to reason that if porn was so lucrative, the industry would be crawling with rich people. Anecdotally, at least, that's not the case.

"They are not multi-zillionaires," said legendary 48-year-old actor Ron Jeremy. The owners of video companies like VCA, Leisure Time and Vivid might make seven figures, and a handful of Internet-porn queens might make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, but the rest of the pack is merely comfortable, he said. "Maybe some girls own their own home, or bought condos and live off the rent money. Maybe their mortgage is over, maybe they got a nice car."

Myth 2: Online porn is immune to the dotcom bust

"The porn companies, many of which produce X-rated videos and popular erotic Web sites from San Fernando Valley industrial parks, have not been hit by the faltering economy. Instead, porn is one of the few profitable enterprises on the Internet."

"Dot-Com Refugees Find Welcome in Porn Industry Jobs,"
Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2001

"While the rest of the net is reeling from crumbling ad revenues, the sex industry has not even taken a hit because its main revenue stream is subscriptions, not advertising."

"Pulling the Porn,"
The Guardian (UK), May 7

That old adage again: sex always sells, especially on the Net. But just because X-rated sites are everywhere doesn't mean they're all profitable, nor are they invulnerable to the legions of competitors who offer similar content for free. And recessions rarely spare consumer industries.

"Have we felt the effect of the faltering economy? Oh certainly," said Penthouse.com's Van der Leun. Traffic, he says, has dropped from 2.7 to 2.3 million visitors per month. "A lot of our membership comes from people with fast Internet connections, and a lot of dotcom people got laid off. In this economic climate people look to try to save discretionary purchases."

Penthouse has minimized the damage by offering a greater variety of subscription packages, Van der Leun says. "We're not recession-proof, but we're highly recession-resistant."

Danni Ashe, the mediagenic cybersex entrepreneur, agrees that the slowdown has in fact hurt the industry. "Some of the adult business is suffering," she said at the Internet Content West 2001 conference.

Online publications have been more skeptical than their print counterparts about online porn's invincibility. Wired News published a story about the "smut glut" March 9 that detailed the "mounting evidence that prurience driven dot-com profits may be getting harder to come by" -- tighter competition, revenue shortfalls, delayed IPOs ... in short, problems that sound all too familiar to sexless Silicon Valley sufferers.

Myth 3: Laid-off dotcommers are flooding into the porn industry

Displaced dot-com employees and nervous Hollywood technicians have found an unlikely shelter from the economic downturn: the porn industry.

"Dot-Com Refugees Find Welcome in Porn Industry,"
Los Angeles Times, April 23.

Thousands of dotcom workers who have been sacked in the recent wave of redundancies in the US are besieging the Los Angeles pornography industry trying to get work.

"Naked Ambitions,"
The Daily Telegraph (UK), April 26

Are disillusioned dotcommers indeed "falling over themselves" (in the words of The Guardian) to find stable jobs posting naughty thumbnails?

It's hard to say, but probably not, given the tight job market in porn, and the way the original, cautious L.A. Times article by Ralph Frammolino and P.J. Huffstutter was immediately seized on and expanded by a ravenous international press.

The French daily Liberation, for example, asked me to write a version of it, but I refused, being suspicious of any article that found it "unlikely" that 'Hollywood technicians' would work in porn.

In Hungary, while working on stories about the European adult industry, I met many mainstream film and TV technicians from France and Italy who moonlighted on porn sets to make some extra tax-free cash.

There's no reason to think this doesn't happen in Southern California as well. Ron Kaye, managing editor of the Los Angeles Daily News -- which is based in the porn capital of the world, the San Fernando Valley -- says he regularly bumps into mainstream production types who do a little adult-work on the side.

"It's just pretty common, and people here don't make a big fuss about it," he said.

The U.S. adult industry started with pretty direct ties to Hollywood -- porn pioneers like John Leslie and Kay Parker had training and experience outside of the skin-flick circuit, and adult actor/director Paul Thomas even played Peter in the 1973 film version of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Still, a quick check with some local companies suggests that the Los Angeles Times, at least, was right about the adult industry receiving resumes from dotcom layoffs and nervous Hollywood technicians -- who were then dreading a since-averted labor shutdown.

"Especially prior to the threat of the screenwriter's strike, you would get people nosing around porn companies," says Hustler's Mastrapa. "Like a couple of people who would say, 'Hey in case I don't have a job, I should talk to a friend of a friend who does porn.' I heard the story from everyone." But, he adds, "It pretty much disappeared with the menace of the strike."

As for dotcom refugees, "A lot of my friends that were working for Net startups have resumes sitting on my desk right now, because they've been through three or four Net jobs in the past year," Mastrapa says. "But there aren't that many jobs over here. They are all filled."

Indeed, if there is a flood of Web designers rushing down from San Francisco, they are finding the gates of Porn Valley are not necessarily open.

"I don't need people right now," said Penthouse.com's Van der Leun.

"I just hired two designers, but that's it," said Danni Ashe.

Huffstutter stands by her story. "We talked to a dozen studios. We made it very clear in the story that there were no numbers to be able to track the trend, and that all the information we were getting was anecdotal."

Too bad other media understood her story as cold, hard fact.

Myth 4: Porn is going mainstream

"At $10 billion, porn is no longer a sideshow to the mainstream, like, say, the $600 million Broadway theater industry. Porn is now the mainstream."

"Naked Capitalists: There's No Business Like Porn Business,"
The New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2001

"Is porn really mainstream, Frank?" Talk of the Nation host Juan Williams asked Frank Rich during a June 14 National Public Radio special on the adult industry. Rich's response was more nuanced than his prose. "I don't know if it's really mainstream, but clearly it's mainstream in the sense that Middle America is watching it. A lot of people are watching it, and one of the things I learned in doing this piece is, I realized it was all around me in my daily life, more than I thought."

(Didn't Rich work near Times Square for years?)

The L.A. Daily News' Ron Kaye says he loved how Rich's story portrayed the industry as being essentially normal. "It showed how porn professionals were living an everyday life in the San Fernando Valley, without being judgmental," Kaye said.

"People I met for this story were middle class, fairly diverse, ethnically diverse, diverse in age and gender, including some Republicans," Rich explained in an interview. "They're more in touch with Middle America, I suspect, than people on the other side of the Hollywood Hills are."

Luke Ford agrees that polite society is embracing porn like never before. "It's true porn has become chic. Howard Stern, the Man Show on Comedy Central feature porn actresses. It's becoming more mainstream in the past five years," he says. "[But] to actually say that the industry is actually mainstream ... I would call that the biggest myth of mainstream media!"

Forbes.com's Ackman argues that Broadway is far more influential than porn. "I disagree with [Rich's] general thesis that [porn] is generally mainstream and has a reflection in the culture," he said on eYada.com's Lovebytes show. "I don't think any porn movies or Web sites or anything else bleeds into the wider culture. ... Everyone in America knows that The Producers won all those Tony awards. ... It was in every newspaper and on every TV news show. Broadway is mainstream because people come from Broadway and the songs become hits."

Porn professionals themselves disagree about how "mainstream" they have become -- or should be: Veteran porn figure Bill Margold, for one, frequently tells the media that porn is better off being underground.

"I understand his point," says porn star Jeremy. "But we are getting well known, with Boogie Nights, Howard Stern, the Larry Flynt movie. People are learning what freedom of speech is all about, what censorship is all about, people are getting a good attitude about it."

Says "Chloe," a popular actress: "I like the way this is becoming mainstream, but I mean, they will never accept this industry, and that's fine, it was never meant to be that way. Our target group is male, single or divorced or unmarried, and for the most part I don't see why we should go mainstream. It's exactly the way it should be."

What the Porn People Say About Myths

Of course, everyone from feminists to Salon columnists have their own pet theory on which myths are perpetuated by or about pornography. The stars themselves usually have a different perspective.

"The biggest myth? That we need to recruit girls," says Ron Jeremy. The actress pool, he explained, is constantly replenished by strippers who come voluntarily to make a name for themselves to be able to charge higher rates on the road.

For adult screenwriter Rodger Jacobs, the biggest myth is that "adult movies are plotless." "It's not that some people don't try, however, to make the most superior product available with their meager offerings," he says.

For porn star Chloe, the biggest myths are about the long-rumored existence of "fluffers" (women supposedly hired to "prepare" male actors), and the widespread use of hard drugs on sets. "When I was new, I was looking for it (drug use), but it's not really happening," says the 29-year-old former heroin addict, who says the adult industry has been a positive influence in her life.

But mostly, the topic of mainstream press coverage doesn't come up often on porn sets. Rich's article, for example, was barely mentioned on industry discussion groups like Rame or on Lukeford.com, aside from a few comments about it being a "puff piece" and a "wet kiss."

"I'm constantly amazed by how porn people don't care about what's written about their industry," says Susannah Breslin, a sex reporter who works for Playboy TV.

Porn professionals were far more reluctant to be interviewed for this article than journalists.

"You know, I've pretty much stopped giving interviews to the mainstream press," said Chloe. "They never want positive stuff. They keep you talking long enough so that you say something that they can take out of context and that's what they use."

Slumming in Freetown

Breslin says journalists don't use their usual standards when reporting about porn. "For them, porn is a joke and they don't take it seriously, they don't care about getting their facts right," she says.

Unlike in Hollywood, the porn industry doesn't have armies of aggressive public relations people scanning the press every day and doling out punishment for negative coverage. This makes porn far easier game.

"Occasionally a tony author -- David Foster Wallace, George Plimpton and Martin Amis, most recently -- will go slumming at a porn awards ceremony or visit a porn set to score easy laughs and even easier moral points," Rich wrote.

But Breslin includes Rich on that list of literary heavyweights who have made "a hobby of venturing into erotic territory under writerly guises." In an article for UK Arena, Breslin roasts Amis' reportage in February on the porn industry for Talk magazine.

"[Amis] puts in a half-day on a porn set, lunches with a sex starlet titled 'Temptress,' and shows off his learning in what he calls 'the dialect of the tribe' with terminology like 'ass-buster,' " she scoffs.

Even during that foray into the adult world, Amis couldn't escape from the shadow of his novelist father. "I was more familiar with Kingsley's work," says Chloe, who agreed to have Martin on one of her sets and is currently taking writing classes at UCLA. "I went to buy books by Martin but I found his style too modern for me."

Chloe was more concerned with the author's tactics than his story. "Amis was pretty fair in his assessment of the industry. My problem with him is that he uses a notebook to take notes. And in this day and age, there's really no need for that. Bring a tape recorder for Chrissakes!" She also thought Talk used a double-standard when they tried to get her permission to reprint her license plate. "I said, 'No way. Would you print the Angelina Jolie's license plate?' We have stalkers that are crazy out there!"

Reporters' Handbook for Covering Porn

Obtaining accurate figures is the number-one problem journalists say they have when reporting on the adult industry.

"Like other industries that are dominated by smaller mom-and-pop shops or privately owned companies, you don't have the public disclosure as you do in the ... technology world" says the L.A. Times' Huffstutter in a telephone interview. "Numbers and figures are very hard to acquire in this industry. I've only been on the beat for about seven weeks, so I'm still trying to figure out how we're going to be getting larger industry trend numbers."

Mike Brunker, who covers the industry for MSNBC.com, says the personality feuds are sometimes hard to follow. "I was surprised by the camaraderie that goes on on the one hand, but there's also a lot of backbiting that goes along with that, and constant changing of alliances. Things can really change overnight as far as who's in bed with who business-wise."

Lewis Perdue of WSJ.com found a way around the usual roadblocks by focusing instead on the Web hosting industry's reliance on adult sites, which he estimates (in a very detailed column March 21) in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not the low billions.

"Getting solid data is tough. Pornographers avoid the mainstream media, and the few Internet-industry research firms that once monitored the adult online sector -- such as Forrester Research and DataMonitor -- have stopped covering those companies," Lewis wrote.

Tom Rhinelander of Forrester -- which studies porn by measuring the habits of the 19% of Websurfers who admit to visiting at least one site -- advises reporters to focus on "not the people making [porn], because they are kind of hard to track, but the companies such as DirecTV and EchoStar Dish who provide various forms of content and that are part of public companies. They probably don't like to talk about it, but it's probably the best source of information."

The whole concept of covering porn as a legitimate business is relatively new. The online media has led the way, which is natural given the technical issues and political controversy surrounding Internet porn. In spring 2000, MSNBC.com created a new recurring feature called the "Sultans of Smut."

Explains MSNBC's Brunker: "We try to cover the Internet itself, and porn has been and is still a big player, and it's still debated -- 'Gee how big is it, how successful are these guys?' The legal issues around this industry are fascinating. Some people [at MSNBC] are uncomfortable with it, but nobody has ever come to say we shouldn't cover it."

Brunker says he's discovered an interesting world he didn't know much about before: "It's been an eye-opening experience at times. I guess I still go in not really being sure who I can trust. I do find this is an area where it pays to go slow and double-check your sources."

Closer to home, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter don't cover porn, although Variety did for a while in the 1970s, "when it looked like porn was becoming mainstream," said Managing Editor Timothy Gray. The L.A. Daily News doesn't cover this multibillion-dollar industry in its own backyard partly because many of its readers are "conservative," Kaye said.

But this spring new L.A. Times Editor John Carroll judged the industry worthy of more regular coverage and assigned Huffstutter and Ralph Frammolino to the beat.

"Ralph had been writing about the entertainment business. I had covered technology," says Huffstutter. "It's a local business. We're both business reporters, so it seemed like something we needed to do."

Whatever the new porn-beat reporters write, you can bet that it will end up linked, excerpted and discussed at LukeFord.com, a unique and rather disorganized goldmine of real-life interviews, scoops, scurrilous gossip, typos, essays, corrections and letters from angry lawyers.

"The media don't catch the baloney, the lies, the true horror of this industry that you capture when you go on sets and you mix with the people, and you just see the cavalier way they deal with life," Ford says. "Every one of these people lie. Everyone. They lie by habit. When their lips move, they're saying lies -- they can't help it. ... If the greatest reporter in the world decides to make porn his beat, it would still take him a year or two to get up to speed."

American Demographics' Whelan, for one, says it doesn't feel right to read about porn in The New York Times. "I almost would rather read about the industry in a LukeFord.com," says the reporter. "It's more in line with the industry -- sketchy journalist and gossip sheet covering a sketchy industry."

Rodger Jacobs also appreciates the value of Ford's first-hand experience, but wonders if porn can ever truly be covered. Like Breslin, who praises stories such as "Scenes From My Life in Porn," by former Hustler employee Evan Wright, Jacobs thinks it's impossible to gain full knowledge of the business and its personalities without a true insider's view:

"Luke can't even do that," Jacobs says. "Did you know that both Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson have flirted with the idea of writing about the industry and given up? If those two titans can't do it, no one -- except an insider -- can."