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
Hartley spends about half of her year on the road, dancing in strip clubs four to six nights a week. Like many porn actresses, that is how she earns the bulk of her income. The huge growth in the hard-core-video business during the 1980s coincided with the opening of large strip clubs all over the country. Hard-core videos now serve as a promotion for live performances. According to Rob Abner, a former analyst at E.F. Hutton who now publishes Stripper magazine, a trade journal, the number of major strip clubs in the United States roughly doubled between 1987 and 1992. Today there are about 2,500 of these clubs nationwide, with annual revenues ranging from $500,000 to more than $5 million at a well-run "gentlemen's club." The salaries of featured dancers have risen astronomically. The nation's top five or six porn actresses earn $15,000 to $20,000 a week to dance at strip clubs, doing four 20-minute shows each night. Another five or six porn actresses earn between $8,000 and $15,000 a week. Featured dancers are now paid, for the most part, according to the "credits" they have accumulated--their appearances in hard-core films, on video-box covers, in men's-magazine photo spreads. In the hierarchy of sex workers, strippers always used to look down at porn stars, viewing their work with distaste. Now strippers from all over the United States are flocking to Southern California and competing for roles in hard-core films.
The uncontrolled, and perhaps uncontrollable, nature of today's sex industry is best illustrated by the thriving trade in home-made hard-core videos. During the 1980s the camcorders advertised as a means of recording weddings, graduations, and a child's first steps were soon used to record sex. People began making and exchanging tapes of themselves in bed. An underground market arose for these crude but authentic sex tapes, and companies began to distribute them. Today anywhere from one fifth to one third of the hard-core videos being sold in the United States are classified as "amateur," featuring to some degree the work of nonprofessionals. Most of the companies that distribute amateur porn are located in Southern California. But there are hard-core amateur-video companies distributing tapes from Vandalia, Ohio, and Wentzville, Mo.; from Wichita, Kan., and Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; from Woodridge, Ill., and Chattanooga, Tenn. Americans who like to be watched and Americans who like to watch are now linked in a commerce worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The oldest, and one of the largest, amateur porn companies is based in San Diego, not far from the Salk Institute. Homegrown Video offers more than 500 different tapes of ordinary people having sex. The company's current owner, Tim Lake, is 31 years old and could easily pass for a drummer in a Seattle rock band. Lake and his wife, Alyssa, sift through the new tapes that arrive at their office each week from around the world. The people who appear in these videos are of every race, size, and shape. Their bodies are different from those seen in typical hard-core films, in which the performers often look like parodies of the reigning masculine and feminine ideals. People who send tapes to Homegrown hope to break into the porn business, or earn a little extra money, or show off. The company pays them $20 for every minute of video it uses; about half the tapes that Homegrown receives are eventually released in some form. In a sense, the company serves as a clearinghouse for the democracy of porn, supplying hard-core videos by the people, for the people.