LOS ANGELES—In terms of pure epistemological weirdness, it doesn't get any better than the specter of Gail Dines and Louis Theroux duking it out over the state of porn, but God forgive anyone who takes the colloquy as anything but an Oxfordian pissing match. The fact is, each of these pompous prudes sees sex through the prism of their own highly developed (and privileged) prejudices, and each, despite having contrary views on the state of porn, wants the state to step in and put porn in its place. They are both British, of course, which means they are inescapably wedded to the belief that it is their birthright to elucidate Truth for the riff-raff and then impose it upon us, but let's at least not confuse this "debate" for anything other than what it is—elitist and secular social engineering with a highfalutin accent.
Regarding Theroux's newest BBC documentary, Twilight of the Porn Stars, I have not seen it, but then neither did I see his first porn documentary from the 1990s, when, as the BBC put it, he spent time in California's San Fernando (i.e. Porn) Valley "to find out if being a male porn star really was one of the best jobs a man could have. He also explored the psychological effects of performing one of the most intimate acts of human behaviour in public and on film."
I have, however, read Theroux's recent Guardian article titled "How the Internet Killed Porn," and based on that reading I doubt I will watch Twilight even if given the chance, since it will surely not only repeat the same points made in his article, but more to the point, it will tell a story that has already been told many times before. To wit, the industry is in trouble; piracy is killing sales; revenue is down; people are hurting. Alert the media! Oh, sorry, Theroux already did. But what was the point other than to garner an audience while simultaneously kicking the business when it is down?
For kick it he has. Not content to declare porn dead, Theroux has now jumped on the "mandatory porn filter" bandwagon being promoted in the United Kingdom by publicly stating only a few days ago that now that he's a dad, and too lazy to work an internet filter, the government should take up the slack and make his ISP filter out the messy stuff for him and those like him.
"I’ve discovered I am quite a puritanical person," he said, stifling a yawn as he reached for the snuff box.
Of his earlier more mischievous self—the 27-year-old who, in 1997, allowed himself to be photographed naked (oh my!) by a casting agent, according to The Telegraph—the elder Theroux takes the more travelled road and chalks it all up to the vagaries of youth.
“I was puckish and playful, a bit silly back then," he explained. "And sometimes I didn’t seriously examine what I thought about things.” Now, of course, life and fatherhood have brought a sense of weight to his examinations. Like a politician, he does not want to be held to a puckish past, but wants people to take seriously what he is saying now.
Yet he builds his present verdict on the building blocks of his past findings, in spite of having relegated them to silliness. Further confusing the picture, a day or so after promoting the "opt-out" porn plan, but before this weekend's broadcast of Twilight, Theroux's "internet killed porn" article was published, presumably to pique interest in the documentary. In it, he recounts a visit to the States earlier this year, during which he revisited some of the same people he interviewed 15 years ago and meets some new performers.
According to the BBC's description of the film, "Now he goes back to find out what has changed over the last 15 years—and finds the porn business in crisis. New technology allows performers to upload their own films and have direct contact with their fans and piracy of professionally made films is rife. Nobody wants to pay for porn anymore.
"Louis catches up with some of the people he met before to see how they have fared over the years—and finds one has fled, one was sent to prison and another killed himself. He also meets some of the newer performers and finds out how they cope in a business that offers less money, more insecurity and more stress than ever before—and how that affects their relationships."
In between the ’90s and now, however, Theroux made another trip to America to gather material for yet another book. Call of the Weird, a play of course on Jack London's classic novel. He references his experiences during a 2004 visit to the States to research that book in a passage that sums up the downward trends in the industry:
"For years the porn industry was dominated by an anarchic anything-goes attitude to sex,' he wrote. "Directors competed to see who could stage the more outrageous stunts, pushing the performers to the limit of what their bodies could take. The scenes could be hard to watch, as I discovered for myself when I visited sets for a book I was writing in 2004. The sex acts seemed to owe more to reality shows where people eat live worms and pig vomit than anything conventionally erotic.
"But [sometime] around 2007, the 'business of X' started going into a commercial tailspin," he added. "The arrival of free YouTube-style porn sites meant that consumers could download pirated scenes from the vast backlog of old content for free. The phenomenon of DIY amateur sex—part-timers uploading their videos on sites such as clips4sale—also put a dent in the professionals' pay cheques.
"Suddenly," he concludes, "an industry that was a byword for easy money, raking in billions by exploiting the anonymity of point-and-click purchasing, was fighting for its life."
Needless to say, Theroux's scenario is accurate only if you know nothing about the industry and its tortuous slide to its current state. To use the word "suddenly" betrays the author, as does his easy use of "billions." His comments about tube sites, though generally accurate, contain not a whit of detail about how and who was responsible for the lion's share of intramural infringement of others' content, nor any indication of the industry's shameful participation in its own demise. For an outsider, the realization of a new reality may appear sudden, but for those who have lived through it, the decline has been slow and painful, like being roasted over a fire.
Despite coming off as a disinterested witness who only wants to reflect the state of the industry, Theroux's actual sloppiness in getting his facts straight reveals a lax eye for detail and a tendency to flatten out the world he is portraying and the people who inhabit it, removing the individual color from each in favor of an all-purpose gray that works to support his underlying theme that porn is depressed. It may well be, but that does not mean that the people in it are now throwaway subjects!
One suspects his subjects will come across more fully in the documentary, but in terms of attention to detail, a perusal of the Guardian article revealed the following errors, some of which are minor, others of which are not.
1. It's Aleksa Nicole, not Alexa.
2. It’s Wicked PictureS, not Wicked Picture
3. No issue of AVN, recent or otherwise, has contained just 14 movie reviews.
4. Rob Black has never made a movie for Vivid, or in 3D. [Ed. note: OK, our bad—he did make the seemingly vanished-from-existence Superheroine 3D late last year for Extreme Comixxx.]
5. Who refers to a movie’s box as a “CD case”?
6. JJ Michaels has not made a film since 2003. So where is he getting his figures from? Furthermore, a girl making $3,000 for a scene is almost unheard of, and no guys other than bukkake mopes make $150. Furthermore, guys have always been far more scarce and lesser paid than girls in this business.
7. Kagney Linn Karter is not the star of any movie called Racktastic or Pound Round. She does, however, appear in Rack-Tastic and Pound the Round, vol. 1 & 4.
8. Kagney’s boyfriend is named Montae, not Monte.
9. Nobody thought Jon Dough killed himself because of declining DVD sales. That’s just an offensive fabrication.
We could have plucked out more, but the point is made. Theroux was too busy soaking up the essence of decline to bother paying attention to the details. In precisely the same way, his observation that many people are hurting is spot on, but the reasons he gives for the industry's degeneration are devoid of nuance and utterly fail to paint an accurate picture of how and why it got like this. That story is ten times more interesting and a hundred times more complicated, involving an industry at active war with itself, with players at the highest reaches making conscious decisions that benefitted themselves (at least for the moment) to the detriment of the industry as a whole. Market forces and evolving technologies played a role, to be sure, as they have for the music and movie industries, but they did not come close to committing the level of self-inflicted injuries that porn has. Not even close.
The great irony, then, is that Britain's preeminent anti-porner, Gail Dines, in a Guardian response to Theroux co-authored by Dana Bialer, titled "Porn is in rude health," was able to recite a more viable picture of porn's recent devolution, if you will, than the documentarian. Though wrapped in an overall message that is as equally self-serving as Theroux's—that the internet made porn mainstream, and has not killed it—the Dines narrative is more accurate in detail while drawing the wrong conclusions.
"In a recent Guardian article," she wrote, "filmmaker Louis Theroux went as far as to argue that the industry was 'fighting for its life.' While profits may be down, it is a mistake to see this as evidence of a dying industry. Indeed, it is actually a sign of a successful, maturing industry that is moving from a 'mom and pop' model of small, backstreet players to a more legitimate, mainstream industry characterised by fierce competition and increasing concentration in the hands of a few large firms."
To help make that point, Dines quotes XBIZ editor Stephen Yagielowicz from an undated article he wrote, in which he waxes on about a porn evolution that saw "the independent owners, renegade mobsters and visionary entrepreneurs pushed aside by mega-corporations that saw a better way of doing things and brought the discipline needed to attain a whole new level of success to the remaining players."
Dines concurs with that assessment by saying, "What has happened to porn is typical as industries grow and mature."
With all due respect, this supposed maturation has been a common narrative espoused by people in the business for several years now, but it is also one of the industry's enduring fictions, perpetuated by those who refuse to acknowledge that many of the new power players got to where they are by exploiting the weaknesses of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to secure for themselves a dominance they would otherwise not have been able to achieve, at the expense of the rest of the industry.
Call it evolution or exploitation, what it is not is a maturing of the industry. One could just as easily say that the United States developed a mature economy during the 18th and 19th centuries, when in large part it was only able to do so because of the relatively free labor provided by slavery in the south and an indentured, immigrant population in the north. In fact, the rise to prominence of porn tubes worked to undermine one of porn's more impressive contributions to e-commerce, the robust affiliate system that helped it survive and thrive during the dot com bust of 2000.
No one in the industry is unaware of this history, or the relatively slow pace at which it unfolded, and Dines does acknowledge the friction that remains in the industry as "conglomerates" like Manwin change "the rules of the game" by, as she puts it, using free porn to expand the consumer base for its paid porn, writing, "Feras Antoon, CEO of Brazzers, told New York magazine that free porn sites had 'vastly enlarged the total universe of porn consumers that the number of those who pay has ballooned along with it.' The strategy is paying off for Manwin, whose pretax earnings increased more than 40 percent in 2010."
In a supposed revelation, Dines also mentions Manwin founder Fabian Thylmann as the successor to old guard Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt and Steve Hirsch, calling him "the Rupert Murdoch of porn," a reference that is not bound to go over well in the U.K., where Murdoch is being pilloried for corruption that everyone used to take in stride.
As with Theroux, therefore, there is much in the Dines article that rings true, at least as far as the basic outlines of her argument, but again, like Theroux, the take-away—though generally correct, that a few at the top now control what a thriving middle class used to produce—is shoehorned into a narrative that supports her underlying world view of porn's influence on the culture and the reason why governments need to intercede.
"Indeed," she writes, "the rules have changed, and now the industry that trades in the debasement and degradation of women is being taken seriously by Wall Street, the media and the political establishment. Rather than an industry in crisis, this is an industry that has reached a level of mainstream acceptance that Hefner and the old gang could never have dreamed possible."
In the end, Dines has taken a macro view of the industry and Theroux a micro, and in doing so each has thrown a small spotlight of truth on the industry, but that would miss the real point, which is that neither of these people cares about the industry, or appreciates the real story of the rise and fall of online porn. Each presumes to declare a resolution for porn—one says it's dead, the other says it has reached a new high—but neither can entertain the possibility that the story is still unfolding, or that the end has not yet been written.
More ominous is the endgame that both Dines and Theroux would like to see unfold, and lo and behold, it looks very much like that ghetto some in the industry have been warning about with respect to the .xxx top-level domain. Some people say that because it has not happened yet, it is not going to happen and the people warning about it should admit as much, but no one who understands the true pace of momentous change ever believed that the ghetto would come about within months or perhaps even years of the establishment of .xxx. The argument for such a solution needs to build systematically, and if it is to happen it can only happen with the assistance of companies in the industry who see a benefit for themselves in such a scenario.
This is actually how it happens. This is how the ghetto is finally conceived and constructed. Any headlines crowing about the death or rise of porn are only so much white noise provided as a distraction on the long. slow, fatal march to the ghetto.