That Old Feeling: Porn Again

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Congratulations, excavators of the erotic. Thanks to your support, the last That Old Feeling column, "When Porno Was Chic," was's most popular (hit-on, linked, downloaded) story for the month of April. That's right: porn beat the Pope —both of them.

The column was inspired by a film and a book. Inside Deep Throat, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, is a documentary on the making and impact of the 1972 porn comedy Deep Throat, which starred Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems and was written and directed by Gerard Damiano —porn icons all. The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, by Legs McNeil, Jennifer Osborne and Peter Pavia, is an expert weaving of testimony by porn actors, directors and producers, and of their nemeses-promoters in federal and local law enforcement. I wrapped reportage on the documentary and the book around my memories as a film critic and appraiser of early-70s triple-X movies.

The story cued a big batch of e-mail. Many thanks, readers! Some of you gently chastised me for omitting porn monuments of the 70s, like Debbie Does Dallas (that was later, 1978, and I confess I never saw it; by then I was out of the business). A reader named Tom declared himself "disappointed you didn't cover the gay male porn scene in any detail. You should have stated at the beginning that you were only really going to talk about straight porn." Sorry, Tom, but the book and the documentary are about hetero hard-core, and as a straight male I don't have much to say about the few gay 70s porn films I saw —except that they too were artful and subversive in their own right. I did cite the artsy SM film LA Plays Itself, and might have mentioned a Peter deRome short that shows two men at their pleasure on a late-night subway train. That's pretty much it.

One or two correspondents complimented me and my employers for standing up to a vast conspiracy. "Enjoyed your porn article immensely," Bob Page wrote. "Got more enjoyment, though, out of the realization that Time would have guts enough to print this, despite the outcry you must be experiencing from the Religious Right (Wrong)." Actually no. I would never underestimate the sturdy intestines of my bosses, but it happens that most of the messages I received were favorable, helpful and worth answering online. A column on porn movies would be nothing without full disclosure, so I'll be including the negative mail as well.

1. Do people watch blue movies in red states?

I began the story with a recent finding that porn accounted for most of the money spent on movie rentals in hotel rooms that offered hard-core. "The image instantly summoned," I wrote, "is of the traveling businessman who wants a smidge of sexual exercise before retiring, but who is too tired, timid or cheap to summon a call girl." A few readers had different images. "What about the more obvious issues reasons not to hire a call girl," asked William S. Fulton, Jr., a Minneapolis attorney, "such as a businessman's concerns about the ethics, morality, and criminality of the transaction?" Michael Neumann concurred: "It's odd that the motive of staying faithful to one's spouse doesn't occur to you as a reason for not summoning a call girl. I'd expect that to be a motive at least some of the time." Noted: watching porn can be an act, not of cupidity, but of fidelity.

Extrapolating from the hotel-room survey, I surmised that the porn "phenomenon can't be simply a big-city, left-wing perversion; a good many of those renters, those consumers of hotel porn, have to be red-staters."

"Interesting article," writes Paul Benjamin, "but based on a premise that isn't necessarily true. My experience is that the consumption of porn is far higher on the coasts than in the red states. I lived in Oklahoma for three years, and never even saw a video rental store with an adult section. I travel on business to a number of red states, and the hotels I stay in don't even offer any X-rated things on their in-house TVs. It doesn't have to be 800 guys renting a million apiece. It could be 8 million guys renting a hundred apiece, and there are easily 8 million guys in the right demographic in the big cities of the east and west coasts. It still seems very possible to me that the whole porn phenomenon was just a bi-coastal thing all along, so that it was just a fad that faded like so many other fads have faded."

For a start, this fad hasn't faded. Porn is pervasive —big, if not $10 billion big. And following Mr. Benjamin's logic, I added up the number of people in coastal states' big cities (those with a population of 200,000 or more). It came to about 24 million. Dividing that in half to get the males (consumers of the overwhelming majority of porn), subtracting another 2 million for those underage, I get 10 million —of which, Mr. Benjamin guesses, 8 million rent 100 pornos a year!

A few caveats: 1. We'll learn in the next note that the number of porn rentals is probably exaggerated. 2. There are plenty of Democrats in states whose majority voted Republican, plenty of Republicans in Democratic states. As Randi Rhodes says, most states aren't red or blue, but purple. 3. I didn't do a lot of research on the subject, but I don't think porn proclivity is political. My only evidence, and it's anecdotal, comes from reader Vic Petersen, 25, of Salt Lake City, Utah —could a city or state be redder than the Mormon capital of the world? He writes: "me and my wife get the porno every time we stay in Vegas."

2. How big is the porn video industry?

"Pornography is big business," I wrote in the last column, "an industry that earns an estimated $57 billion worldwide annually —$20 billion just for adult movies in the U.S., where some 800 million videos are rented each year, according to Paul Fishbein, the founding president of Adult Video News."

Some readers questioned whether the porn industry was quite that extensive. Tony Comstock writes: "I know there have been cuts to the Time Inc. research staff, but you should really check those figures Fishbein gave you. They're wildly exaggerated, probably by an order of magnitude." In fact, the research staff for this column is me; and Fishbein gave these stats not to me but to CBS News. (Could this have been another network bollox-up, like the one about Bush in the National Guard?)

A more commonly cited number, from a Frank Rich story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is $10 billion annually. This stat was widely challenged: by Vivid Video president Bill Asher, who put the take at $4 billion, by porn journalist Luke Ford, who estimated the take at about $3 billion, and by Forbes Magazine's Dan Ackman, who calculated it at about 5% of Rich's figure: "the adult video business grosses at best $520 million" annually, he wrote.

I think Ackman is mistaking grosses for what Hollywood used to call "rentals," the studios' share of the gross ticket sales, which it splits with exhibitors. The porn equivalent of "rentals" is the income a company like Vivid Video of VCA receives from its sale of movies to video outlets. A video store may buy a porn title for $10 or $20, then rent it out indefinitely, earning hundreds per cassette over time. Surely we want to know what people spend on porn, not the percentage that dribbles back to the producers.

I floated the high number, so I'm stuck with amending it. My updated guess would be near Ford's number —which is about what the Lord of the Rings trilogy earned in theaters. Not bad for a segment of the film industry that spends thousands, not a $100 million or more, on an average title. The strongest case that hard-core isn't as big as Rich said it was: Where's the Bill Gates of porn?

3. Where do you find this stuff?

"The major research website makes it difficult to find 70s-porno data," I wrote. "if you go to IMdb and type in the words Deep Throat (or School Girl, or Behind the Green Door), you will not find the movie; porno is listed only under the actor or director's name." And it can't be a matter of bandwidth; the actor Peter North is credited with 1,587 porn movies, and each title has its own listing. I surmise that IMDb doesn't highlight porn pictures because they aren't offered by the site's parent company,

I got a clarification from reader Ben Jennings: "In order to search for adult titles on IMDb, you simply need to enable it in the Search Preferences section of your personal account options." Sorry, but... "personal account options"? It sounds like Bush's plan for Social Security. I have used IMDb dozens of time a day, nearly every day, for 10 years, and never needed —or known of —this premium service.

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