Mainstream Equation

Q. Boyer

Multiple browser windows pepper the screen, which is also festooned with dialog boxes tracking the progress of downloads or prompting the user to click additional links, which the surfer does dutifully and frenetically, all the while hunched over his desk in the darkened confines of his home office.

“If I don’t pay, it’s OK, if I don’t pay, it’s OK,” the man repeats to himself as her peruses the plethora of options available to his frantic, mouse-wielding hand.

Ultimately, we are the ones who trained consumers to think “If I don’t pay, it’s OK,” and so it lies with us to figure out how to change that perspective.

Checking his watch, he briefly bemoans the time he has already spent seeking his ideal free porn fix that day — without stopping the hunt, naturally.

“Four hours of my precious holiday wasted,” he thinks. “Face it, the day’s a write-off; might as well just carry on. Must be something to penetrate my thickening shield of numbness.”

Finally, a knock at the front door spurs a frenzy of window closing and minimizing, while he reassures himself that even if he’s caught in the act, it’s no big deal.

“This is fine, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about nowadays,” he thinks.

“Looking at porn is just like lying to Parliament; it used to be wrong, but now it’s just a great big funny joke.” The above is a scene from the hilarious and highly recommended British sitcom, Peep Show, in which one of the show’s main characters, Mark Corrigan (played brilliantly by actor/writer David Mitchell) whiles away the hours of an all-too-short break from his dreadfully dull office job. It’s a minor set of quips in an episode filled with far bigger laughs, but its point about the relative acceptability of porn in the modern world, paired with the way it perfectly captures a common consumer mindset about porn’s value as a commodity, struck a chord in my ‘adult industry insider’ brain that inspired this month’s column.

If you’ve been around the adult industry long enough, you probably remember the days when the “mainstreaming of porn” was like the Holy Grail crossed with a pipe dream; a laudable marketing goal that likely couldn’t be attained, due to the seemingly unshakeable stigma attached to pornography. Back then, you never would have expected so many references to pornography to soon be found in pop culture; back then, the appearance of any porn star in a mainstream creative context was seriously newsworthy; and back then, industry profits were on the climb with no apparent ceiling in sight.

Flash forward to 2012, and references to porn are everywhere in pop culture, from sitcoms and TV ads to Broadway musicals and Hollywood blockbusters. Just about everyone short of the people who run Morality in Media, it seems, is at least “OK with” the presence of pornography, if not an active viewer of it. Yet, at the same time, there’s no question that the adult entertainment industry is struggling to maintain profitability, despite its greater-than- ever visibility.

What happened? How did the adult industry reach the promised land of greater social acceptance without receiving the many anticipated financial benefits of having so increased its visibility?

The answers to that question are many and nuanced, of course, and include contributing factors ranging from an overreliance on free content as a promotional device, content piracy, greatly increased competition in the market and widespread mistreatment of customers on the part of adult site operators, among many other things. The answer might also include another aspect that hadn’t occurred to me until more recently: the possibility that the mainstreaming of porn itself might have produced an undesirable impact on industry revenues.

Consider the statement from the scene described earlier that Mark Corrigan repeats to himself in mantra-like fashion: “If I don’t pay, it’s OK.” This ethos, while designed to draw a chuckle in the context of Peep Show, actually nails one of the prevailing consumer attitudes about adult entertainment (and online adult porn in particular) today: “Who pays for porn these days?”

That attitude has many fathers, of course. Certainly, the ready availability of free porn, much of it pirated, plays a huge role in fostering a consumer expectation that porn should be free. Just as certainly, judging by the sort of comments one sees from users of various porn forums and message boards, mistreatment (both actual and imaginary) at the hands of porn paysite operators has created some backlash in the form of willful ‘revenge piracy’ on the part of some purchasers-turnedpirate.

Where consumers once felt a thrill stemming from the naughtiness of merely watching adult entertainment, has porn viewing now become so expected, so ubiquitous — so normal — that watching porn is now less about exploring a taboo fantasy and more about completing a mundane masturbatory task? If so, is it any surprise that consumers would look for the cheapest, most efficient way to go about completing that task, and cringe at the very idea of dipping into their wallet along the way to finding the right tool for the job?

In looking at what has happened to the market for adult entertainment, and within the online sector in particular, people within the industry tend to arrive at the most visible and tangible external influences on the market; it’s the tubes, it’s the torrents, it’s the recession, or some combination thereof. What we don’t often do is examine our own assumptions, or consider how some of our envelope-pushing ways may have come back on us in ways unanticipated.

That’s what comes to my mind when I watch the scene from Peep Show; opportunities missed, blowback not foreseen, paths to sustainability not taken. As a result, here we stand as an industry, more visible and more acceptable than ever, yet struggling to keep ourselves in the black. It’s an odd position to be in, one that unfortunately has less to do with external forces that can be fought in court (as content pirates and government regulation can be) than with internal forces that resemble the proverbial genie which cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.

Ultimately, we are the ones who trained consumers to think “If I don’t pay, it’s OK,” and so it lies with us to figure out how to change that perspective. How do we change it? I’m not sure; what I am sure of, however, is that we’d better figure it out, and figure it out quick, or the industry’s current level of visibility will end up being squandered nearly as quickly as Mark Corrigan’s fictional holiday.

Q Boyer, an online adult veteran, he leads Pink Visual’s PR efforts.