The Business of Pornography
Most of the outsize profits being generated by pornography today are being earned by businesses not traditionally associated with the sex industry
Porn has become so commonplace in recent years that one can easily forget how strictly it was prohibited not long ago. The sociologist Charles Winick has noted that the sexual content of American culture changed more in two decades than it had in the previous two centuries. Twenty-five years ago, a federal study of pornography estimated that the total retail value of all the hard-core porn in the United States was no more than $10 million, and perhaps less than $5 million.
During the 1980s, the advent of adult movies on videocassette and on cable television, as well as the huge growth in telephone sex services, shifted the consumption of porn from seedy movie theaters and bookstores into the home. As a result, most of the profits being generated by porn today are being earned by businesses not traditionally associated with the sex industry--by mom and pop video stores; by long-distance carriers like AT&T; by cable companies like Time Warner and Tele-Communications Inc; and by hotel chains like Marriott, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn that now reportedly earn millions of dollars each year supplying adult films to their guests. America's porn has become one more of its cultural exports, dominating overseas markets. Despite having some of the toughest restrictions on sexually explicit materials of any Western industrialized nation, the United States is now by far the world's leading producer of porn, churning out hard-core videos at the astonishing rate of about 150 new titles a week.
Parallel universe. In the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, near Universal City and the Warner Bros. back lot, an X-rated-movie industry has emerged, an adult dream factory, with its own studios, talent agencies, and stars, its own fan clubs and film critics. Perhaps three quarters of the hard-core films made in the United States today come from Los Angeles County. Sound stages, editing facilities, and printing plants are tucked away in middle- and working-class neighborhoods, amid a typical Southern California landscape of palm trees, shopping malls, car washes, and fast-food joints. You could hardly choose a more unexceptional spot for the world capital of porn.
Nevertheless, strange things are happening in the valley, behind closed doors. Every few weeks, in the upscale suburb of Sherman Oaks, there's an open casting call at the industry's top talent agency. Scores of young men and women crowd its small offices, undressing for producers and directors who audition promising newcomers and inspect them for tattoos. At the sleek headquarters of an adult-film company in Chatsworth, the hallways are lined with autographed basketball and hockey jerseys, expensively framed. There is not an obscene image in sight. It could be the headquarters of ESPN. In addition to hard-core videos, the company's state-of-the-art, $30 million duplicating equipment also copies videos for government agencies and local church groups. At a factory in Panorama City, near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, shelves are lined with plaster casts of the buttocks and genitalia of famous porn stars. The casts are used to make sexual devices, lifelike reproductions packaged with celebrity endorsements. A rival L.A. company sells a plastic, inflatable woman that speaks with an English accent. The factory calls to mind the set of a science fiction movie: Wires peek from battery-powered devices; metal cages on the floor are filled with rubber body parts.