Is the Porn Bubble About to Pop?


I went to the AVN Expo last week to teach a seminar on sex education in retail settings for Good Vibrations. I’ve been to a few shows before, so it wasn’t new. That’s a good thing because I find Las Vegas a bit much even without dozens of porn performers wandering around in skimpy clothing, hundreds of fans getting autographed copies of DVDs, flashing lights, loud (and bad) music, and giant screens showing porn clips.

I’m not the only one who noticed that this year’s show was a lot smaller than past ones. There were fewer booths and many companies had smaller spaces. There also seemed to be fewer fans and the awards show was in a smaller venue. Of course, no industry is truly recession-proof, but I think that the porn industry faces some unique difficulties.

Partly, that’s because of porn’s history. Until recently, porn was pretty much disposable. People (mostly, but not only men) bought it, watched it a few times and threw it out or hid it in the attic. The industry could constantly produce more and more magazines and movies because it was rare for people to keep them for long. The internet has changed that, though. These days, movies don’t go away to make room for new ones. Instead, they get shifted to a different webpage. That led to a glut and the industry hasn’t really figured out how to deal with that. This is made more complex by the increase in non-industry folks who film themselves having sex and upload it to a tube site like xtube.com, as well as clips of pirated movies. Why in the world should someone pay for porn when they can find lots of whatever turns them on for free?

In response, a lot of porn makers are responding in the same way that folks in other troubled industries do when they don’t know what else to do. They’re doing more of the same, faster and with more noise, but not really any better. The irony, of course, it that this usually leads to an acceleration of the problem. There are some companies that are looking to create a total brand experience and others are developing some innovative ways to promote their products within the industry. But I’m not sure that those will be more than delaying tactics.

For the most part, the old model relies on novelty. Hire new performers, advertise the heck out of them, keep pushing them to do more and more, and when they’ve done everything that viewers want to see, get someone new. In a way, it’s no different from how we treat other workers these days. Or, for that matter, athletes or mainstream movie actors. I know that a lot of people see this as more of a problem in porn than other industries and, of course, it is different when we’re talking about sex. But it’s important to acknowledge that many of these issues are a function of modern-day capitalism, rather than sexually-explicit media.

In any case, the “create novelty” approach seems to forget that after a while, people get bored with the same old thing, even if there’s a different face. At some point, we simply don’t care about the next new performer, any more than we care about the next flashing light. Eventually, we either numb out or walk away.

I have a suspicion that the porn industry’s bubble is about to pop. (The irony of that phrase isn’t lost on me, given that the “pop shot” is also a term for when a man ejaculates on camera.) It’s simply not sustainable because people can only watch so much of it before getting bored, especially given that so much of it is pretty much the same thing over and over.

If the industry is going to make it through this, there needs to be a paradigm shift. I’ve heard a lot of people say that they want to see people having sex that looks like they’re actually having fun. Or that looks like sex in real life looks. Or that features a genuine connection between performers. And I don’t think it’s all that hard to create.

One way to make this shift happen would be for the performers to heed Annie Sprinkle’s advice. Sex work is hard work. It challenges you physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s important for anyone doing it to take steps to reduce the stress and avoid burnout and Annie’ tips help a lot. (You can read all of her suggestions by clicking on the link or in the image to the left.)

The porn industry could create systems to help performers do what they need to take care of themselves. For example, when producers offer performers more money for more intense or challenging sex acts, they create an incentive for performers to do things that they don’t enjoy. I fully understand that some sex acts take more time to prep or recover from, and also that many performers enjoy what they do. But we need to acknowledge the negative side of the financial structure common to most porn. Some producers, such as FurryGirl, prefer to pay a flat rate and let performers do whatever they’re comfortable with. While I’m sure that this limits her choices of who to work with, it means that nobody has an incentive to do more than they want. In any case, there needs to be some acknowledgment that current practices promote making money over enjoying the experience.

Another example: when a performer’s only source of income comes from porn, it can become hard for them to take a break to avoid burnout, unless they’ve planned ahead. When porn performers or sex workers have other sources of income, it becomes much easier to make room to take care of themselves. The industry could set up a system where some percentage of a performer’s payment would automatically be set aside for times when they need to take a break. That would be especially useful for younger folks who may not have the habit of saving money. I’m sure that there are other possibilities, too. With a little creativity and a desire to care for the performers, folks in the industry could help create other structures to support the performers and Annie’s tips are a great place to start.

Of course, not all porn makers operate the same way. Good Releasing has three lines of movies: HeartCore, Reel Queer and PleasureEd. They feature performers who aren’t in the LA porn scene, as well as spontaneous, authentic, and passionate sex. [Full disclosure: Good Releasing is the movie production arm of Good Vibrations, where I work.] There’s also Pink & White, Crash Pad, Abby Winters, Tony Comstock, and others. Working with people who are enjoying what they’re doing means making room for sex that doesn’t always conform with standard notions of what it should look like. That requires more creativity from the director, but as someone who has spoken with plenty of people about porn, I can tell you that plenty of customers want it.

If the porn industry is going to survive, it’s going to need to find new ways of operating. Business as usual isn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s not just a question of finding better ways to do the same thing. It’s time to do something completely different. Building systems to support performers would be a good place to start, as would exploring ways to portray sex that showcases the diversity of bodies and sexual experiences that exists in the real world. I know that it can be scare to make changes like that, but the world has changed and the porn industry needs to do the same.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. Ron Zucker says:

    Charlie, you said, “That requires more creativity from the director, but as someone who has spoken with plenty of people about porn, I can tell you that plenty of customers want it.”

    How much do you think this is observation bias? The group of people walking into Good Vibes, or, for that matter, talking to and hiring a Sexuality Educator, might be a fairly unusual cohort in the porn customer’s world.

    I’m not doubting your experience. But I am curious whether you think that’s a representational sample, or if it’s skewed by your contacts. Just curious…

    Thanks!

  2. Charlie says:

    It’s true that there’s a selection process among Good Vibrations customers, but this is part of a trend that more folks have observed. Part of it is an increase in porn purchasing among women and the general tendency among women viewers to want movies with more creativity, connection between partners, and such. Of course, plenty of women also enjoy the movies that are already out there.

    Nobody is really sure what else is fueling this trend, but it’s significant enough to be a topic of some discussion within the industry. And the success of some of the companies producing these other movies also attests to the demand. I highly doubt that it will mean that there will be no more gonzo or wall-to-wall porn, but rather, that it will be its own genre and it might have a significant impact on the industry as a whole.

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