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Has Porn Gone Mainstream, or Is It the Other Way Around?

Has Porn Gone Mainstream, or Is It the Other Way Around?

Main-stream-i-fi-ca-tion noun. 1. To be accepted, implicitly or explicitly, by the majority of society. 2. An organic process in which people, activities or ideas lose their unique identity and become indistinguishable from the staus quo. 3. Exploitation of taboos by the media for the purpose of boosting ratings or increasing profit margins. 4. Total assimilation; being here to stay. 5. Social death or irrelevance.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of monopoly, it was the age of bankruptcy, it was the epoch of partnerships, it was the epoch of lawsuits, it was the season of independence, it was the season of prosecutions, it was the spring of new releases, it was the winter of diminished sales, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was at a tipping point for the pornography industry. It was the year of our Submissive, two thousand and ten. It was also the beginning of the end of the mainstreaming of porn.

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The internet is mostly to bless and blame. At the dawn of the second decade of the second millennium, the internet has turned 40, its last dozen or so years changing not only the way we live, but the course of history altogether. The subtler effects of its penetration into our lives are only starting to be realized, but others are more than obvious. The market for recorded digital content of all types is undergoing a sea change, with another under way as mobile networks blossom. Unique among digital content industries, adult struggles mightily with content piracy, a simultaneous glut of self-produced content, the global recession and dwindling credit, all of it stoked by an almost universal failure to adapt quickly enough to the new realities. Meanwhile, the same delivery systems that threaten so many of its businesses are also hand-delivering millions of people to virtual and actual markets with the promise of social and business networking and the instant fulfillment of any sexual or social taboo they wish to explore.

The internet has also ushered in the age of assimilation for the pornography industry. Because of it, porn permeates all aspects of culture. In sports, Tiger Woods may be in a class by himself, but he is hardly the only A-list superstar who can’t resist porn girls. In politics, Sarah Palin criticizes Levi for dabbling in porn, and yet still invites him to Thanksgiving dinner (he didn’t go, but neither did he go full frontal). In the entertainment world, Oprah hosts a show on pornography for the first time ever, invites Jenna Jameson on to discuss the tribulations of being a bona fide ex-porn star celebrity, gets royally reamed for her trouble by her loyal fans, and then immediately follows that up by inviting ex-porner Penny Flame and “sex addiction” celebrity Dr. Drew Pinksy, who happens to have a sex addiction reality show, on which Penny Flame also appears. (One begins to wonder precisely who is addicted to what.)

Not to be outdone, the news media, which can never get enough porn, is showing more flesh than ever. The New York Post hired 24-year-old Ashley Dupre, the former call girl whose tryst with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer led to his resignation last year, to write a weekly advice column dealing with sex and relationships. The Huffington Post adores porn stories and posts them up regularly, but it also crossed its own panty line recently when it started posting images of topless young women to the site. Not porn, per se, but pushing the envelope.

On the flip side of the sexual coin, the movement to redefine pornography from a moral issue to a public health hazard escalates as the therapy industry sits up and takes notice, and those hostile to sex-positive attitudes and policies find the resulting confusion ripe for exploitation. The outcome of that battle could truly fuck with porn’s world, but the truth is that, as this issue goes to press, it is just one more illustration of America’s minute-by-minute mania for all things sexual.

The best and worst of times, indeed.think that porn has become more mainstream and far more acceptable to the general public than it ever was before; however, porn and things that are not porn are two very different things and the line is very clear,” says Joanna Angel, one of only a handful of adult performers who manages to thrive at the intersection of Main and Porn.

“Last night, I was in the mood to watch a movie with a friend and we went to see Transylmania,” says the founder of Burning Angel. “The movie was kind of stupid but funny—but that’s besides the point. Had my friend at the last minute said, ‘Hey, why don’t we watch your latest edition of Fuck Me in the Bathroom instead,’ well, that would have panned out to be a very different evening. Porn will never be able to substitute for a Hollywood movie—and vice versa. I mean, if someone did want to watch Fuck Me in the Bathroom 3 and you handed them Harry Potter 3, they will be quite pissed. I think there is a need for porn and a need for movies that are not porn, and they will not just blend into one big category no matter how good our industry gets at lighting, set design, acting or editing.”

Where does she stand, if the line is so clear? “I do a lot of mainstream media and press and have appeared in many non-porno magazines and made appearances in a few non-porn movies; however, I do them all as ‘Joanna Angel,’ and Joanna Angel is a porn star. Mainstream media has the ability to reach more people than any kind of media associated with porn (more people watch Fox News than watch Playboy TV—it’s just a fact) and I try to use these mediums to promote my porn company—I am not using them as a way out of porn.”

When we ask her if we will see her five years from now on The Sarah Palin Show, she finds it to be an especially unlikely scenario considering she has always run her own business. “The industry has been very good to me—not to mention, I have really been working for my own company since day one, so if I publicly talked about all the horrible things my own company did to me—well, I would really look like a moron.”

Not likely. It is precisely this unabashed embrace of their porn calling that sets apart some of the newer performers, including Joanna Angel and Sunny Lane, who are referred to by legendary Penthouse photographer Earl Miller as “sexual revolutionaries.” Miller, whose enthusiasm for the business remains infectious after 36 years of shooting erotic stills and video, says the new crop of girls is something special. “The biggest part of what’s happening today is the fact that there are so many more good girls to work with who are exciting and beautiful and bring their A-game to the set. Porn has become such a meaningful and accepted industry that it has attracted a much better pool of talent and beauty than it once did.”

For Miller, the new breed of performers—like 21-year-old sensation Sasha Grey, who shot for him recently in Earl’s Naughty Girls 2—are building on the qualities that have always been essential for success in porn, and now have more opportunities to put those qualities to use.

“When a girl decides to do porn, she’s already breaking rules and taboos she grew up with, and that takes a free thinker who’s more open and more adventurous, and that leads to more excitement on film,” he says. “Today, there is a better quality of girls of that nature being drawn into the porn business, because it also now promises a career. And when you have people like Sasha and others crossing over into mainstream, which used to shut the door on a girl’s career in mainstream, well, now it’s just another door to it.”

While it might seem like a Catch-22 that the straightforward embrace of porn and the implied rejection of a mainstream career that makes these girls so special is precisely the quality that opens mainstream doors for them—and that the very wanting of mainstream acceptance might ensure that it remains out of reach—for the girls themselves, as well as for the media professionals who represent them, there is no conundrum, no conflict, and no Catch-22.

“Two of the great examples of the industry’s evolution are Sasha Grey and Joanna Angel,” says Brian Gross of BSG Public Relations, which reps both women, “because while each have different businesses, followings and mindsets, they are each in this business to be in this business. They don’t half-ass it, and there are no second jobs or get-in-to-get-out agendas. These are two women who are strong individuals with clear goals, who have created opportunities for themselves. If even x amount more women in the industry had their mindset, it would be a different industry.”

Celebrity sex tape broker and longtime adult marketer Kevin Blatt agrees. “Joanna and Sasha are two performers who are comfortable in their own skin, and you can tell that they are not being exploited. Rather, they’re not out there exploiting themselves for other people; they’re doing it for themselves, and there’s a big difference in that.”

Comfortable or not, self-exploitive or not, mainstream savvy or not, these women still have to maintain their “outlaw” identity ... don’t they?

“There is a big difference between people getting caught doing promiscuous things and then the media writing about it—it’s another thing to see the person doing it,” says Joanna Angel. “There is a very big difference [between] people wanting to watch you fuck because you are kind of famous and somewhat of a novelty—and being that element of fantasy people go to every time they want to masturbate. For celebrities who do scandalous things, it’s like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe they did that.’ For a porn star, it’s like, ‘Wait, she can do something else that is NOT that?’ We are introduced to someone with how we fuck—everything else is beside the point.”

“My criminal record was wiped clean when I was 18,” deadpans Sasha Grey, at the mention of outlaws. (It sounds plausible, anyway.) “Labels are used for marketing, so people will label me whatever they need to sell their product. I’m fine with that because I understand that is what’s needed to become a commodity. Personally, I don’t identify myself as one thing ... except of course being a female ...”

“I really do hate defining myself—I let other people do the defining,” says Joanna Angel, Grey’s marketing doppelganger in so many more ways than they differ. (There, I went and defined her!) “Some people call me the ‘alt porn queen,’ some people call me a ‘punk rock porn princess’—OK, fine, I admit it, I coined the term. A new term I hear since my article in Details came out is ‘JILF,’ meaning a Jew I’d Like to Fuck, which I think is pretty awesome. Then I have heard something like, ‘anal hardcore porn star,’ which to me sounds more like I am just really neurotic rather than take it in the ass—or maybe it means both, because I kind of am both. I like to just call myself Joanna Angel,” she says, and then recalls watching a TV show where Jenna Jameson used her name only, sans label, to identify herself, “and I thought to myself, that must be really awesome to have that big of a name where you can just say your name and that’s it—so I guess that is what I would like to aspire to one day.”

It’s an entirely reasonable aspiration. For Blatt and Gross, the mainstream is basically a state of mind governed by marketing, where new opportunities will always exist for the person who does and says the right things. In the new celebrity paradigm, porn is just another storyline that can lead to potential stardom, and it’s only those who lie about themselves who will be voted off the island in the end.

“One thing I believe is that you have to be true to yourself or you will be found out,” cautions Gross. “These are two people who have been true to themselves and true to others, and the media wants to tell their story. They want to tell the story of a young woman who had an article in Los Angeles magazine—talking about how she got into the industry and what her aspirations were—that was then seen by Steven Soderbergh. [Grey later starred in Soderbergh’s 2009 The Girlfriend Experience.] And you want to tell the story of a girl whose adult business was started in a Rutgers University dorm. For me, it’s always been as simple as ‘tell the truth and tell the story.’”

Once the person—or company—and the story is accepted as legit by the mainstream press, Blatt says, the sky’s the limit, something that all the adult exposure in the world can never deliver. What’s more, he insists, embracing the new B2C model is no longer an option for adult companies or personalities. “Because the affiliate side of the business is dead,” he says, “it’s all about mainstream eyeballs and attention, and the only way you get that is free, through the tube sites, by looking at Radar Online, TMZ, National Enquirer, Us Weekly, or by typing in a domain that we are able to get out there.”

According to Blatt, there are only a few places where you can attract 25 million eyeballs to read a story about porn stars, and none of them exists in adult media. “There just isn’t that much traffic covering the adult realm,” he says. “It’s mainstream people that consume this stuff anyway, the same people who go to see The Girlfriend Experience in the movie theaters, who for the most part are people who are curious because they heard about this porn star who’s in this mainstream film, and so they go see her and then go home and buy her porn. That’s wonderful for her, that’s fantastic. That’s what it’s designed to do, when you become mainstream. For Jenna Jameson, it’s designed for people to say, ‘Gee, I saw her on this talk show and she seemed so smart, she seemed to have business savvy, but I’ve never seen any of her porn movies. Let me see if I can find any online.”

The thought of those 25 million eyeballs, and the fact that porn stories can generate that much attention, is of course of interest to public relations professionals and their clients, but it is also of interest to those who do not share an enthusiasm for the product and instead see it as a public health hazard akin to cigarette smoking—or much worse.

According to Dr. Marty Klein, a sex-positive therapist who speaks and writes frequently on issues of interest to the industry, including America’s war on sex, what used to be a battle against porn using morality as the main argument is shifting in an insidious direction. “We’re at a historical crossroads where [porn] is moving from being a tangibly harmless product with morality implications to a consumer product that is being positioned as being demonstrably dangerous; therefore, not only will it have no First Amendment protection but the efforts to control it are rising to the crest of consumer populism.”

The shift, Klein says, was one of necessity. “The anti-porn people have topped out in their ability to use morality as the story about what’s wrong with pornography,” he says. “About three or four years ago, they stopped talking about morality as much and started talking about pornography as a public health problem. Now what we hear is that porn is bad because it contributes to very pragmatic social problems—such as violence against women and divorce—which is much more appealing to the public and has been a brilliant strategy to turn the left against pornography and to get people to say, ‘Normally I’m not against censorship, but here’s a product that’s actually damaging people, couples and women; obviously we have to do something about the product.’

And as a result, our defense against the morality question is far less powerful when we’re dealing with a public health problem.”

It would be, he says, like saying that cigarette smoking is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment. “No one would say that; you can’t say that. It’s not protected expression. If you move pornography from protected expression to a consumer product that’s perceived to be dangerous, we don’t have a good answer to that.”

There is a problem in the country, says Klein, but it one of monogamy, and not pornography.

“The two main issues that therapists see about pornography are, one, men coming in and saying, ‘I’m out of control. I sit down for 15 minutes and five hours later, I realize I’m still doing this.’ And that is a problem; I don’t think the problem is pornography, but it is a significant phenomenon that the porn industry doesn’t talk about ever. The second configuration that therapists see is men who look at pornography on the internet, jack off a lot and don’t have a lot of sex, or enough sex, with their sweethearts, and women are in pain about that and are demanding that men stop masturbating and stop looking at porn. And the therapy industry has completely bought into the idea that [porn] is this product that snares men and pulls them away from women, and the addiction model is very comfortable for therapists and patients in that configuration.

“What nobody wants to talk about,” he continues, “is what could possibly be going on in a sexual relationship that a person would choose to turn away and look at pornography instead of fuck his wife. And because that is so uncomfortable for couples to look at and for therapists to look at, everybody is colluding in this alternate model—which is, the problem is not that people are making these decisions; the problem is that the product is so seductive that it is taking away people’s decision making.

“Everybody wins with that model. The woman wins because she hasn’t been criticized or abandoned; the man wins because he’s not a selfish bastard, he has an illness; and the therapist wins because he gets to treat an illness and doesn’t have to deal with sexuality as a force to be reckoned with, or deal with what you do when people have been together for eight years and the sex sort of fades away,” Klein explains. “What do you do about that? Because the therapy industry does not have an answer to that, and American culture does not have an answer to that.”

In the old days, men would deal with monogamous marriages by having affairs or going out to clubs or brothels, all of which entails expense. The internet steals time but expense is ridiculously reduced, with relative anonymity a fabulous perk, though at a cost.

“The problem with pornography is that it provides men with a sexual outlet when the sex in monogamy fades that women for the most part do not find nearly as satisfying for themselves,” Klein says. “So suddenly, men have this extraordinarily low-cost way of coping with the most common sexual effects of monogamy, but women do not have a commensurate way of sliding out of their sexual difficulties, so they are complaining about it. But for the most part, men don’t want to give it up.”

Adding to the problem, Klein says, the therapy industry remains uneducated and biased on the subject of pornography; it was only recently that therapists began looking at the question of sexuality as a vehicle for growth, change, personal transformation and pleasure.

“To this day,” he says, “you can get a license to practice psychotherapy without having one moment in your training when the word pornography is mentioned. Now, most therapists do hear about pornography during their training, but it is almost invariably problematized and there is rarely any conversation about the healthy use of pornography, or about what kinds of decisions people can make about pornography that are reasonable or sensible, or make the best of an imperfect situation.”

The ignorance of the therapy industry is a problem, he says because of the prevalence of pornography and its status in the culture.

“The amazing thing about pornography is that it is a $9 billion or $10 billion industry, yet everyone likes to pretend that it’s some marginalized thing off to the side. But for a lot of people, pornography is their single most common form of sexual expression. We can demonize it, but what the therapy industry and the rest of the culture have never come to terms with is what it means when you demonize the central sexual expression of half the population. Because if you were to ask the average 24-year-old guy who he would rather sleep with, he’ll say porn stars. In my day, it would have been movie stars, but it makes perfect sense that if your primary cultural reference is porn rather than movies, and you could sleep with anybody, that’s who you’re going to fantasize about,” says Klein.

With a new porn zeitgeist in play, Klein says, the adult industry can ill afford to take a passive position in the face of a coordinated and serious attempt to move its product into the category of a public health hazard, or take the position that it’s too late to stop the runaway train of pornography. ‘What you and I have been talking about is the fact that this is a train that can be stopped,” Klein says.

First, he recommends, the industry needs to realize that its product is rapidly becoming the tobacco of our age. Second, he says, it needs to get involved with social science research, to commission, investigate and collect whatever research is currently available, and to support the sex-positive social scientists who exist around the country.

The industry also needs to look at the ecology of the way its product is being used, he says. “It’s no longer reasonable to say, ‘I manufacture these widgets in my shop, they go to retailers, people buy the widgets, and then whatever the people do with them is not my problem.’ It turns out the internet itself is a problem. The human race has invented a device that the human brain is unable to handle. We have not yet adapted our brain to the internet. It has given people the experience of unlimitedness—you can now have sex with an limitless number of women, any minute of any day, for free—and people are unable to deal with that. And when American society says the problem is that people can’t handle pornography on the internet—no, people can’t handle the internet!”

“I’m not predicting what’s going to happen to the industry or what the availability of pornography is going to be five years from now,” he adds, “but if five years from now there is going to be a universal condemnation of pornography as a dangerous product, where we are now is exactly what the cultural zeitgeist would look like: everybody uses porn; everybody agrees that boys will be boys; but this public health argument has developed and no one is trying to stop it or even talk about whether there’s a problem with the paradigm.”

If the porn industry ultimately does decide to respond to the argument that it is a pubic health hazard, it will join  all the other sin industries that, rightly or wrongly, have felt the sting of society’s displeasure. Adult likes to think it’s special—and of course it is—but tobacco feels targeted too. Gun makers cling to their Second Amendment as tightly as porn clings to its First. And the fast-food industry is currently public enemy number one as health officials eye the consequences of unchecked obesity.

“I have yet to see any hard evidence,” Sasha Grey responds, when asked what she thinks of the growing criticism of porn as a health hazard. “These statements sound more like opinions to me. However, I do feel too much of anything is a bad idea, especially if it’s a solitary activity. If there was more evidence, I’d consider putting up a warning.”

Joanna Angel isn’t as inclined to take responsibility for someone else’s addiction—whether to sex, porn or internet—and when it comes to porn freeloaders, let’s just say that sympathy from the “punk rock porn princess” isn’t likely.

“I don’t think my content could lead anyone to have an unbalanced life. I really don’t believe that porn can do that to anyone at all,” she says. “Porn is not heroin—I mean, I could even see how someone could get addicted to a strip club or getting escorts before getting addicted to porn. It’s something you see on a screen—it’s just a movie when it comes down to it. If porn is getting in the way of your personal life, then there is probably something seriously wrong with your personal life that was not caused by porn that needs to be fixed. With the way things are these days—I mean, I can definitely say that I am totally not worried about anyone BUYING too much porn. If someone is watching too much free porn and it’s hurting their life—well, then, they deserve whatever mental anguish it will cause them. HUMPH!”

“I agree with Marty,” says Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the industry trade association. “I think the way people are communicating now is problematic in relationships. However, it’s not just adult entertainment but the platform itself that is getting people into trouble. The fact that sex is such a big part of the platform has only pushed it to the front of everyone’s agenda. And I also think it’s wrong for our industry to ignore the fact that people are having problems and obsessing about things—whether it’s cycling or washing their hands or adult entertainment—because it’s easy to just blame the porn and we obviously get the brunt of that. We shouldn’t ignore the larger problem, but, you know, it also isn’t exactly a problem that the industry can solve.”

Of course, the adult industry isn’t going anywhere, and Joanna Angel is right: The two—mainstream and adult—may flirt and kiss, but they’re never going to be a real couple. They have changed one another for better and worse, though, and some of those changes are sticking. Signs of creative decay are everywhere, most notably in the industry’s inability to focus on little more than XXX parodies of old TV shows, pop culture and the latest celebrity meltdown, and originality, a former hallmark, is fleeting.

“The porn business, the studio side of this business, is done; it’s done, and it’s never coming back, it will never thrive like it once did,” says Kevin Blatt, with Old Testament certainty. “Celebrity sex, on the other hand, is definitely mainstream; it’s everywhere and it’s never going to go away. People will be more cautious, but with all the technology these days, they will never again be certain; it’s George Orwell meets Andy Warhol.”

Earl Miller is an analog guy making a go of it in a digital world (www.earlmiller.com), and adamant about sticking with the original game plan—quality. “When the economy returns, I think the quality sites will continue to grow, because where else can porn go? It’s gotten as grotesque as it can get in terms of humiliation. I think growth will come with a better-quality product.”

Not everyone believes that, of course, but the internet is so vast in its offerings that there’s room enough in it for everyone to be right, and for everyone to have a page of their own. The internet just is. It doesn’t judge. If we can imagine it and make it, it will accept it—and that ultimately is what we find so seductive about it, and why the adult industry has taken to it like a duck to water. We are never rejected. We have found a home. We are equal to others. We are whatever we want to be. There is no mainstream.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of AVN.






Related Content:

Diane Duke
Joanna Angel
Earl Miller
Sasha Grey
Tom Hymes

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