Sunday 6 September 2009

Hardcore Profits

Last Sunday's Hardcore Profits was must see viewing for anyone interested in the commodification of sex in contemporary capitalism. In Hardcore Profits, "Tim Samuels explores the rising pervasiveness of pornography, discovers how new technology is changing porn, and questions porn films' reluctance to portray safe sex on screen." All of this is linked to money - big money. According to a guestimate by the American porn industry's trade publication, Adult Video News, its value was somewhere in the region of $13bn. That was three years ago.

Samuels reveals there are some surprising names with their snouts in the porn trough. In Britain Sky and Virgin take a cut from individual subscriptions to the adult channels doing the rounds on cable and digital. So when Jacqui Smith's hubby went on an evening's fact-finding mission with
Dirty Debutantes, chances are some taxpayers' cash ended up in Rupert Murdoch's pockets. Google and other search engines also trouser porn money through adsense and preferential rankings. Samuels also brands the biggest purveyors of porn in Britain happen to be wholesome family-friendly companies like Vodafone and 3. According to an industry expert he interviewed, the mobile porn market is worth $1.7bn with projections of it rising to $4.6bn by 2012. On top of all this the big hotel firms make a packet from the pay-per-view porn they pipe to their rooms. And lastly Visa and Mastercard make a healthy margin from charging porn firms a premium on internet-based card transactions. According to Scott Cotman, CEO of the free PornTube site, this amounts to 1.5% extra over and above what straight businesses have to pay.

With this cash sloshing around Wall St have started showing an interest. Samuels meets up with Francis Koenig, founder of the
Adultvest hedge fund. It is unique because it only invests in the adult entertainment industry. Since launching in 2005 the fund has - according to Koenig - been catapulted into the top quartile for investment returns. Asked about who has invested in the fund Koenig keeps mum. This isn't surprising - the two funds he runs require $100k and $1million as base investment. The steep entry level rules out everyone but wealthy individuals and institutional investors.

The influx of big money and the demands for large returns has led to unforseen social consequences, quite apart from those
traditionally flagged up by feminists. The health of pornographic actors frequently comes second to the aesthetics of fucking. In short condoms are out because sex looks better without them. When three female stars contracted HIV in 2004, the studios adopted but quickly discarded condom use (Wicked Pictures remains the only studio where condoms are mandatory). The only precaution the industry has taken is compulsory monthly testing for all (registered) performers. One actor, Randy Spears, notes this is woefully inadequate. The big customers of porn - the hotels that buy it for pay-per-view for example, could make a difference by bulk ordering porn that promotes safe sex. And yet they don't, leading Spears to conclude another HIV outbreak is likely (in fact there was a small scare this June).

In the age of globalisation unforseen consequences can spread well beyond the porn sets of southern California. Samuels takes off to Ghana and finds how porn is invading even the most remote of villages. He meets up with Earnest who's trying to promote abstinence-based HIV prevention. But we soon find out he's competing with mobile porn cinemas that get hauled around the countryside. According to interviews with some of the villagers this has led to an increased frequency of rapes and marital breakdown. If this wasn't bad enough the Ghanese
AIDS commission sees the corrosive effect American porn has on its work. In the opinion of its director general, one legacy of colonialism and Western hegemony is an acceptance of the superiority of its cultural artifacts and norms over Ghanese customs. So when they see Americans having sex without condoms young men are likely to follow suit. Samuels speaks to Kofi and Frank, who are HIV positive. In the absence of sex education they learned about it via porn and did not pick up on the importance of condoms.

Unfortunately Samuels' report slightly disappoints on three counts. While the big firms are asked to provide statements on the place porn occupies in their business (Visa, Mastercard, etc. gave non-answers and empty spin) they are not challenged about the more testy issue of condom use. Second, little is given over to the misogyny underlying mainstream male-oriented straight porn. It is touched on occasionally in the discomfort felt by one actress and the objectifying/dehumanising reduction of women to genitals and sex acts, but more could easily be made of it. This is just as critical an issue as condom use - if porn is the main sex education received by millions of young men then it will affect their perception of and behaviour toward women. Third there is a question of timing. It would appear the film was shot before the economic crisis kicked in early Autumn last year. Since then the porn industry has proven to be anything but recession-proof. According to
this piece in the LA Times, the recession has driven traffic away from DVDs and paysites to free porn. The result has been falling revenue for the studios, fewer productions, declining rates for work and reduced hours for performers. If you're a top-ranking star you should be okay. But for those who are not there is an increasing competition among models, a competition favouring women willing to do more and more extreme performances. Despite this porn is more pernicious than ever. Ironically economic crisis is now driving its expansion as the main players fight for their share of the free to view market by offering up more material for nothing.

These criticisms might be unfair. After all I haven't seen the second part of the documentary yet. But whatever conclusions the film has reached, it offers a glimpse into a complex world socialists need to get a handle on.


Proper Tidy said...

I'm not going to pretend I've never used porn, but the last time I checked some out I was genuinely shocked at how brutal and overtly misogynistic it has become.

Very interesting post. I watched the show too, and felt particular revulsion at the possessive attitude displayed by the boyfriend of a porn star at the expo, who was clearly fed up and jaded by her career and looking for a way out. Brings it home really, it isn't just an innocent hand shandy.

HarpyMarx said...

Interesting review Phil. To put it bluntly 'sex sells..' and there is nothing that can't be commodified under capitalism, along with impact of globalisation.

Doesn't surprise me that it leaves out the objectification and degradation of women in porn. It is primarily about the all powerful male gaze and the reaction of men.
Did it mention lesbian porn, or gay men's porn?

Also, re the porn industry, I remember reading that the porn industry during the 70s was politically organised and unionised in some way. Unfortunately, that isn't happening now. I know, in the UK, that the IUSW/GMB are trying to make links with the porn industry.

But there are so debates to have esp. what porn represents in this society? Indeed it reflects the oppressive misognistic power relationships within the society and it is part of a continuum of sexist imagery. And let's not forget it is a billion dollar industry.
Porn is a fundamental distortion of sex esp. straight porn. It is a contradictory social phenomena under patriarchal capitalism. So what is to be done?

Phil said...

I plan on writing more about this when I've seen the second part tonight. But the piece I cited earlier (here) is well worth a read and has suggested to me a shift within porn aimed at straight men. I'll write more about that as well if I get time.

HarpyMarx said...

Sorry Phil, maybe it is me not getting it and it is a Monday .... so not totally in gear. But can you clarify what you mean when you say the article from Bitch mag has suggested 'a shift within porn aimed at straight men'..?

The article raises some interesting issues but I don't think it goes far enough re analysis such as the contradictory nature of sex etc.

Phil said...

I think the Monday go-slow on the brain is catching! I should have made my point much clearer instead of trying to get the reader to guess what's going on in my mind.

The Bitch article's account of modern porn was slightly at odds with my personal experience of it. When I was a young teen in the late 80s/early 90s me and a mixed groups of mates used to acquire porn mags and we'd regularly go up to where we stashed them to have a look. After a while I started reading them and, from memory, they placed much emphasis on the ability of a man to give a woman an orgasm. Implicitly this was one measurement of masculine sexuality - the ability to "conquer" the bodies of women by ensuring they climax, alongside but not totally separate from having sex with as many women as possible.

What struck me about the Bitch article were the claims about how the majority of mainstream porn is geared solely around male sexual pleasure. Women appear only as recepticles and/or the agents of that pleasure.

I'm not trying to idealise the porn we used to look at when we were young but comparing the two suggests to me there has been something of a shift.

Phil said...

Also the doc didn't talk about other forms of porn, though it's worth noting most "lesbian" porn is for the same audience mainstream audience. It would be interesting to know if a similar objectification/dehumanisation of men takes place in gay porn. Anyone know?

HarpyMarx said...

Well, the 'chick on chick action' is geared towards the straight male audience but there has been lesbian porn made for/by lesbians (Quim, for example).

Writing from a woman's point of view I have to say that is my experience of porn where the imagery and politics were/are geared towards male pleasure while the woman's was invisible, ignored and so on. There has been an influx of women's porn, which, to be honest, is much more engaging (??!!) than it was in the early 1990s. Oh, the days of women's porn mags were sealed in trasnparent material yet, oh the irony, the 'top shelf' was available for anyone to flick through. Yet women's porn was sealed mainly due to the obscentity laws.

But have to say the porn you were encountering Phil was kinda radical, a woman's sexual pleasure being perceived as important etc etc.

"It would be interesting to know if a similar objectification/dehumanisation of men takes place in gay porn. Anyone know?"

Dunno but will have a look through some academic bks on reading porn. I am sure there is.

Phil said...

I don't think the porn was radical. It was only the likes of Escort, Fiesta, Razzle and Men Only!

The mags were the usual fare full of naked women in gynaecological poses. Typically there was a short piece accompanying the model's spread talking about what she liked to do with the heavy implication she got down to it with the photographer afterwards. Alongside this were stories which typically featured an everyman ending up bonking a woman in the most unlikely of situations. But again there was a sense women had to be satisfied - not as a good in itself but rather as an adjunct inspiring greater male pleasure.

What was also interesting was this stuff differed markedly from some of the 70s porn mags we had. They had much less posing, the occasional shot of naked blokes and were more heavy on the text.

As an aside recently there was a big deal in the US when Rock Star games released a download adventure for Grand Theft Auto IV. This features a scene where a guy appears full frontal in a video game for the first time in a non-sexual context. What is it about willies that get the right so het up?

HarpyMarx said...

When I wrote 'radical' it was meant to be ....erm, tongue in cheek. Being a bit cheeky as well.

The 70s/early 80s porn mags were full of posed pictures in those full gynae shots.

Indeed why does the right get the willies over anything to do with that obscene thing called sex.

But the interesting thing is that there have been an influx of soft porn mags aimed at women (Scarlet... more writing less pix, the 'stories' aren't very transgressive nor that imaginative...Filament which has certainly got the censors all het up! Not sure if Quim still exists)

skidmarx said...

I thought both parts were rubbish. He had a 15 minute interview with Larry Flynt and used about 2 mins of it where Flynt said that Max Hardcore went a bit too far. Samuels constantly referred to the most extreme porn, but when he was talking about the profits gained by Vodaphone or Google,was assessing the value of all porn.

The boyfriend referred to above didn't seem very nice, but when you've already told Tim Samuels you don't want any involvement and he drags your girlfriend away from the stand you're at a trade fair, even he attracts some sympathy.

Tim Samuels had a mission to make a particular point and was willing to bias the evidence to fit his prejudgement. Not a good pair of films.I could cite more like his interview with an aspiring porn actress, but he's not worth it.

Brother s said...


Gregor Gall has written something fairly recently about the unionisation of sex workers. Could be worth looking in to.

Anybody ever watched Sexcetera on Virgin? I'd rather watch Accrington Stanley or even the Middlesex cricket team!

HarpyMarx said...

Brother S: Yeah I have read Gregor Gall's writings on the unionisation of sex workers (even spent a fortune to buy his bk on the subject!!). Interesting stuff. Have also read some of the articles from the IUSW.

I watched Sexcetera once on Virgin but, alas, I fell asleep half way through.

skidmarx said...

The link to the Ghana AIDS commission provides no information about the alleged link to American porn. Surely the Pope is a more serious retardation of safe sex? Should smoking be banned from films in case it encourages bad behaviour?A friend was telling me other day about a scene in The Battle of Britain where a downed RAF pilot is approached by a young boy with cigarettes and a lighter.Should this be banished from our screens?

The character Ari in Entourage tells his colleague Andrew "Do what every married man does:think of someone else while you're fucking your wife." This seems to be the function pornography mostly provides. Tim Samuels makes an attempt to show that participation is not really consensual: it's a damn sight more consensual than actual rape, which long pre-dates DVDs and the internet.
No-one dies in these films, and the acts described are a lot less extreme than those that led to the Operation Spanner trial:
Perhaps the default position of socialists on this should be to defend freedom of speech.

Louis Theroux made a much better film about the porn industry a few years ago (unlike his recent film "The City of Crystal Meth" which had more of Tim Samuels' superficiality) in which he showed the rigorous HIV testing of the industry, which Tim Samuels glossed over as it didn't suit his agenda.

Phil said...

i should have made it clear the guy from the Ghanese AIDS commission made the point about porn in his interview with Samuels. The link here is merely to the only web presence for the organisation I could find.

The point about testing in the industry is well made. Yes, it is good workers in porn have to register and take regular sexual health tests. But as Randy Spears in his interview says, your clean bill of sexual health is only as good as your last test.

If I was involved in organising porn performers this would be one of the top issues that needs tackling as a matter of urgency.

Phil said...

Finally seen part two of the above, which goes over the same ground - but with slightly more emphasis on the tendency toward more extreme stuff. Quite depressing.

Tim Pendry said...

Well, I had a nice long critical analysis of this piece which unfortunately (for me) could not be shortened to the requisite character length - such is life.

Basically, the Left is totally screwed up in its analysis of contemporary sexuality and is digging itself into a damn big political hole.

Phil said...

Care to expand on that, Tim?

iacb said...

Basically, what skidmarx said.

And I can't believe that an ostensibly progressive blog like this one would speak uncritically of "abstinence-based HIV prevention" and then accept Samuels' blaming the African AIDS epidemic on porn. Especially considering the *documented* and well-studied role that abstinence-based (rather than harm-reduction-based) AIDS-prevention efforts have played in keeping the AIDS epidemic going.

But, hey, why look seriously at the role conservative faith-based aid agencies and Western governments are playing, when is so much easier to simply demonize porn.

As for the rest of Samuels' documentary, there's so much wrong with it, I don't know where to begin. Its pretty clear that he supports some kind of censorship of porn, either through pressure on the market place (eg, having credit card companies no longer process payment, an unprecedented move for any industry) or direct state censorship, along the lines of UK laws against "extreme porn", but perhaps with wider reach. Samuels twists (or even wholly invents) facts to support this pro-censorship agenda.

Phil said...

Erm ... I find it surprising to be accused of excusing abstinence-based propaganda.

But I do believe Samuels has a point. Are you seriously arguing porn is entirely harmless and has zero effect on sexual behaviour?

iacb said...

Not surprising given what you've written:

"He meets up with Earnest who's trying to promote abstinence-based HIV prevention. But we soon find out he's competing with mobile porn cinemas that get hauled around the countryside."

It seems that, in fact, you do give abstinence programs a free pass here. Given that these have been documented to be not exactly helpful in preventing the spread of AIDS, I'm surprised that you're so willing to do this.

And as to your second point, before I even answer that, I have to say, I don't even accept how you've framed that question. Zero effect? What form of media does have "zero effect" and since when is that the criterion for what kinds of media deserve protection as free expression?

But yes, I would argue that pornography is neither more positive nor harmful than any other kind of media. I definitely don't buy Samuels claims about the effects of pornography, and I think he's cherry-picked statements based on moral panic and the evasion of individual responsibility.

Samuels argues that porn gets these African villagers so aroused they have to go out and rape women. Even putting aside the racism and paternalism implicit in his view of African villagers, this is an anachronistic view of the causes of rape – men don't go out and rape just because they're sexually aroused. Second, the bulk of scientific evidence is that porn does not cause sexually aggressive behavior in normal men. I don't think the anecdotal information given in Samuels program effectively counters this, and I think this is more a case where men who were already inclined to rape were simply making an excuse, if the description of events is even accurate.

As for the lack of condom use in Africa, I squarely put the blame on lack of safe sex education, or rather abstinence-based miseducation. The bootleg porn they've been watching certainly doesn't do anything to counter this, of course, but its not the root of the problem. It can also be argued that its not the job of pornography to provide sex education anyway, but simply to entertain. They should be getting that from actual sex educators (and clearly, not the idiots who are putting on the abstinence plays in the village square), which should include the message that one shouldn't blindly imitate what they see in pornography, especially the lack of condom use. The fact that there's no proper sex education in this part of Africa is definitely not the fault of the porn industry, and has everything to do with "global gag rule" policies about contraception that came out of the Bush Administration and conservative donor agencies.

Now if you want to talk about condom use in porn as a sex worker safety issue, that's a different discussion, really.

Phil said...

My sloppy writing aside, I think we're in complete agreement.