Pornography and the butterfly effect

“Whatever happens to musicians happens to everybody,” said Bruce Sterling years ago, referring to the effects of free downloadable music on their industry; and so it has come to pass for pornographers, as depicted by the great Jon Ronson in his equal parts charming and spellbinding podcast series “The Butterfly Effect.”

Pornography, however, is much weirder than music, both as concept and as industry; and so, unsurprisingly, the emergent properties of the overturning of the porn industry are much weirder too, and the full extent of their ripple effects have yet to be measured. It’s at least plausible that the latest salvos in our intensifying culture wars, the subjects of “incels” and “enforced monogamy,” stem from touchpaper lit long ago by the butterfly in Ronson’s story.

That story seems simple in outline. A Belgian named Fabian starts trading in passwords to porn sites in the 1990s. Next decade, he purchases a relatively small company in Montreal which offers porn online for free; it faithfully complies with DMCA takedown requests, but they have no hope of keeping up with the firehose of uploads. He applies modern data science, A/B testing, SEO, etc., and his business grows from “substantial” to “enormous.”

Based on that he gets a $362 million loan, which he uses to purchase essentially all of his competitors. Ultimately, this cornucopia of free porn makes Fabian very, very rich, while impoverishing the American porn industry, headquartered in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. It is the tale of a transfer of colossal amount of money, and viewers, from the Valley to Montreal; from porn directors and performers to buttoned-down data scientists and infrastructure engineers.

It is also, more interestingly, a tale of the emergent properties of free content. For instance: there is so much free porn that it had to be taxonomized; this, in turn, trained users to focus on and search for particular categories and keywords; this, in turn, forced the industry to adapt to those keywords. Ronson finds a director (Mike Quasar, the find of the show) working on a movie called Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy 2. “I guess the first one left a lot of unanswered questions,” Quasar cracks, but in fact it’s called that because titles have become strings of keywords. Ronson discovers that because porn viewers search for either “teen” or “MILF,” performers in between those ages, i.e. women aged between 24 and 29, find themselves effectively shut out of the industry for those years.

(It should be noted that Ronson talks to quite a few women, and does not depict the industry as the exploitative nightmare that, say, the movie “Hot Girls Wanted” does, though he doesn’t especially depict it as uplifting and empowering either. What first drew him to the subject was the raw contempt with which many “normal” people treat porn performers.)

Another emergent property of free porn is that porn now reaches enormous audiences. Pornhub, which is just one of dozens of porn brands owned by this same Montreal company, has a higher global Alexa rank than LinkedIn or eBay. 4 of the top 50 US sites are porn. Studies show that 90% of men in college, and a third of women, have watched porn within the previous year. We can conclude that a substantial majority of the entire adult population — and, awkwardly, probably the teenage one, too — indulges in pornography, while much to most of that same adult population simultaneously treats the porn industry as fundamentally contemptible and shameful.

That neo-Victorian attitude towards sexuality and porn performers, our collective cultural madonna/whore complex, may be changing, but not quickly. Note that Fabian got a $362 million loan, while porn performers have trouble getting leases, or small business loans, and/or get fired from other jobs, when their profession emerges. Which makes the siphoning of pornographic income away from performers and towards data scientists especially problematic.

And so, what happened to musicians happened to porn stars: they found other forms of income, especially niche or live performances. A great deal of “The Butterfly Effect” is devoted to bespoke videos crafted for specific individual customers, known as “customs.” I won’t spoil the show more than I already have, but they’re even more … idiosyncratic … than you might imagine. While porn is often accused of being depersonalizing, “customs” are very personal indeed. There has also apparently been a sharp rise in “escorting” among porn performers, and, of course, a movement towards carefully curated personal social-media brands.

Is this a stable and beneficial state? Doubtful. There probably aren’t that many unique and wealthy fetishists out there. As for beneficial — well, as a good San Franciscan I am of course sex-positive, pro-sex-workers, and pro-porn as a concept … but it would be disingenuous to pretend that Ronson doesn’t show a lot of dubious-trending-negative emergent effects of essentially unlimited free pornography.

Did you know that teens are having substantially less sex than the previous few generations? It’s true! And generally interpreted as a good thing. But Ronson suggests that this is in large part because porn is replacing sex, and, in fact, making real sex with real woman seem alienating and difficult. Did you know that erectile dysfunction rates have risen tenfold among young men since the rise of free porn? Correlation does not prove causality but it’s hard to imagine that those two things aren’t somehow related.

I’ve seen a few references myself over the last decade or so, on sites ranging from LiveJournal to Reddit, from men who said they had to teach themselves how to have sex with real women after imprinting on porn, and how it did not feel easy or instinctive to do so. These are anecdotes, but the erectile dysfunction studies are data, and it’s difficult to interpret them as healthy.

Perhaps the most volatile question: does widely available free porn encourage “incels,” the latest boogeymen from the Internet, and the calls for “enforced monogamy” from e.g. blowhard academics who people inexplicably take serious?

I’m inclined to tread cautiously here before I even ascribe any correlation, much less causality. Porn is also frequently viewed as a safety valve for sexual frustration. As Ronson points out in the series, violent porn is actually much less common than it was fifteen years ago. And “incels” — who basically started out as a thoughtful support group for people of any gender who found themselves unable to get laid (the woman who coined the term is an acquaintance of mine, and has recently launched a new site called Love Not Anger) — are much, much weirder than free pornography.

I’ve spent some time reading incel sites, out of pure horrified fascination, before they became a hot-button issue. Their body dysmorphia, their bizarre obsession with concepts like “canthal tilt,” and the language of hate they have developed, are all so weird that they do not lend themselves to any easy explanation at all. It’s true that the number of young men who are not having sex at all seems to have risen in the last decade. But only a tiny fraction of such men are actually “incels.”

Nonetheless, it’s hard to escape the awkward bad-San-Francisco-liberal conclusion that porn, as is, has both positive and negative aspects, and that the latter are neither trivial or tiny in number. In particular, it seems pretty apparent that porn is not good in excess; that free-porn revolution has made unlimited excess available at the tap of a button; and that teenage brains are, to understate, not good at avoiding excess.

But there’s some good news. I like to think solutions are being born. See, especially, Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn, her struggles getting funding, her recent success, and her attempts to provide superior sextech alternatives to porn as we know it. (MLNP seems to be moving from strength to strength recently; in particular, they’ve hired Charlotte Reid, former Director of Project Management at MakerBot, as their COO.) Their slogan — “Pro-sex. Pro-porn. Pro-knowing the difference.” — could hardly be more timely, in this strange new sexual world.

On the one hand, the audience for pornography and sex tech alike is beyond immense; on the other, both find themselves in a kind of perpetually fraught state of unpredictable transformation, constantly revolutionized by both technical and social changes, their business models endlessly overturned even as they slide along the spectrum between anathema and respectable. It’s awfully hard to predict what will happen to that industry or to our culture; but I think we can say with some confidence that neither status quo will last. Let’s hope what comes next is an improvement.

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