I was in a rented home being used as a set somewhere in the hills north of Los Angeles. “You have to say ‘stepmom’ three times before we get to the sex, then you can just call her ‘mom,’” the director told the younger of the two actresses. “Also, remember to say, ‘This is wrong!’ or ‘This is fucked up!’ once or twice, but never the word ‘No!’ because that messes up the consent.” The director then told the other actor there, who was playing the stepson, to refer explicitly to “being home from college” in order to establish that his character was over eighteen.
For three years, I covered the adult industry for LA Weekly as a writer and photographer. As porn professionals became comfortable with my presence on sets, photoshoots, and at award shows, I was allowed a rare level of access into a production process that, for obvious reasons, tends to be secretive. Producers, directors, and performers would often tell me things, share gossip, and answer questions—both on- and off-the-record—about the many aspects of the business that often baffle outsiders.
Over the course of these experiences, I learned about a major new force reshaping the industry: data. That day on set, the director’s instructions came directly from the production company, which decided on the topic and vetted the script. And the company based its creative direction on specific fantasies proposed by paying customers on an online forum that it owned. (“The stepsister should catch her stepbrother masturbating and she should humiliate him for being a dork,” one commenter suggested. And that was cut, pasted, and embellished into the script emailed to the director.)
In the pre-internet days, a producer might notice that a particular kind of porn movie sold well, and then try to make more like it. Today, a corporate porn conglomerate can analyze a continuous stream of information from online viewers, who supply feedback in the form of comments, and leave behind a data trail as they travel around porn sites.
The internet isn’t just revolutionizing how porn is distributed and consumed. It’s also revolutionizing how porn is made, by enabling companies to cater more closely to the perceived tastes of their audience.
Rise of the Tube Sites
The epicenter of porn production in the US—and, due to the size of the US porn industry, the world—is the San Fernando Valley north of the city of Los Angeles. Before 2006, the Valley was also the heart of the business side of porn. Trade publication AVN’s headquarters is still in Chatsworth and the sign for Vivid Entertainment, a key brand during the DVD years, can still be seen across the street from Universal Studios, in Studio City.
But between 2006 and 2007, the adult video business changed dramatically. Internet porn swallowed up the entire industry through the “tube sites”—porn-specific YouTube knockoffs like YouPorn, RedTube, and the unquestioned winner of the competition among them, Pornhub. These sites are owned by larger entities that are typically not based in the Valley.
The aggregator sites, much like YouTube, were first pitched as a way for people to upload content that they owned. But they quickly grew, Pornhub in particular, by not particularly enforcing the removal of copyrighted material that was being uploaded. Initially porn producers decried the practice as outright theft, but a few years back they were forced to make peace with the unstoppable hegemonic forces of what everyone in the industry calls “the tube era.”
MindGeek is a Montreal-based juggernaut that owns most of the top-ten tube sites, including Pornhub. It also owns key LA-based studios like Brazzers, Reality Kings, Digital Playground, Mofos, and the gay-focused Sean Cody. Its major competitors include Gamma Entertainment, another Montreal company that provides affiliate services (the standard marketing monetization scheme that allows people to collect money for online customer referrals) and owns several popular studios; and WGCZ Holdings, which owns XVideos.com, Porn.com, the BangBros studio, and recently acquired the Penthouse brand.
Big Porn’s new business model is online advertising. MindGeek boasts that it employs over 1,000 tech workers worldwide, with its main center of operations in Montreal. Many of these employees are tasked with compiling, analyzing, and interpreting the data generated by users, which is then used to sell targeted ads.
In other words, the tube sites make money the same way that Facebook does. And the fact that the same companies also own many of the big studios means that they can use the data they collect not only to sell targeted ads but to make their videos even more engaging so that users spend even more time watching them, thus generating even more data. They are creating a vertically integrated data porn empire.
Don’t Fight the Data
While a lot of people (most likely you and everyone you know) are consumers of internet porn (i.e., they watch it but don’t pay for it), a tiny fraction of those people are customers. Customers pay for porn, typically by clicking an ad on a tube site, going to a specific content site (often owned by MindGeek), and entering their credit card information.
This “consumer” vs. “customer” division is key to understanding the use of data to perpetuate categories that seem peculiar to many people both inside and outside the industry. “We started partitioning this idea of consumers and customers a few years ago,” Adam Grayson, CFO of the legacy studio Evil Angel, told AVN. “It used to be a perfect one-to-one in our business, right? If somebody consumed your stuff, they paid for it. But now it’s probably 10,000 to one, or something.”
There’s an analogy to be made with US politics: political analysts refer to “what the people want,” when in fact a fraction of “the people” are registered voters, and of those, only a percentage show up and vote. Candidates often try to cater to that subset of “likely voters”— regardless of what the majority of the people want. In porn, it’s similar. You have the people (the consumers), the registered voters (the customers), and the actual people who vote (the customers who result in a conversion—a specific payment for a website subscription, a movie, or a scene). Porn companies, when trying to figure out what people want, focus on the customers who convert. It’s their tastes that set the tone for professionally produced content and the industry as a whole.
By 2018, we are now over a decade into the tube era. That means that most LA-area studios are getting their marching orders from out-of-town business people armed with up-to-the-minute customer data. Porn performers tend to roll their eyes at some of these orders, but they don’t have much choice. I have been on sets where performers crack up at some of the messages that are coming “from above,” particularly concerning a repetitive obsession with scenes of “family roleplay” (incest-themed material that uses words like “stepmother,” “stepfather,” and “stepdaughter”) or what the industry calls “IR” (which stands for “interracial” and invariably means a larger, dark-skinned black man and a smaller light-skinned white woman, playing up supposed taboos via dialogue and scenarios).
These particular “taboo” genres have existed since the early days of commercial American porn. For instance, see the stellar performance by black actor Johnnie Keyes as Marilyn Chambers’ orgy partner in 1972’s cinematic Behind the Green Door, or the VHS-era incest-focused sensation Taboo from 1980. But backed by online data of paid customers seemingly obsessed with these topics, the twenty-first-century porn industry—which this year, to much fanfare, was for the first time legally allowed to film performers born in this millennium—has seen a spike in titles devoted to these (frankly old-fashioned) fantasies.
Most performers take any jobs their agents send them out for. The competition is fierce—the ever-replenishing supply of wannabe performers far outweighs the demand for roles—and they don’t want to be seen as “difficult” (particularly the women). Most of the time, the actors don’t see the scripts or know any specific details until they get to set. To the actors rolling their eyes at yet another prompt to declaim, “But you’re my stepdad!” or, “Show me your big black dick,” the directors shrug, point at the emailed instructions and say, “That’s what they want…”
We Know What You Like
The data collected by porn companies doesn’t just shape what happens on set, however. It is also starting to shape how the media understands the state of sexuality today.
In mid-2013, Pornhub launched a sister website called Pornhub Insights. Unlike their main product, the high-traffic aggregator of sex videos, Pornhub Insights is designed to be safe for work. Its mission is to provide “research and analysis directly from the Pornhub team… to explore the intricacies of online porn viewership.”
Pornhub Insights posts regularly, but its greatest hit is its “Year in Review” article, which offers crunched numbers and spiffy graphics about its viewers’ habits over the previous twelve months. “Welcome to Pornhub’s 5th annual Year in Review,” Insights posted in January 2018, “the best place to discover and reflect on what we’ve collectively been searching for and how we’ve been viewing porn in 2017.”
These discoveries and reflections included self-reported traffic numbers (“28.5 billion visitors, which turns out to be an average of 81 million people per day!”), a ranking of “the searches that defined 2017” (#1 Porn for Women, #2 Rick and Morty, #3 Fidget Spinner), most searched terms (lesbian, hentai, MILF, stepmom), most searched porn stars (female and male), countries by traffic (#1 US, #2 UK, #3 India), top searches by country (e.g., Netherland’s #1 search is for “dutch”), and many other easily shareable graphics and numbers. The Year in Review also offers in-house analysis: “2017 seems to have been the year where women have come forward to express their desires more openly,” wrote Dr. Laurie Betito, who is credited as “sex therapist and director of the Pornhub Sexual Wellness Center.”
Noticeably absent in the Pornhub Insights reports are links to any of the actual data about porn consumption gathered by the company, however. This is unsurprising: the actual user, traffic, and search data is one of the company’s most valuable assets. MindGeek’s dominance over the industry is based on its ability to monetize content via targeted advertising and an algorithm that delivers certain videos to certain customers, not to mention its treasure trove of unique consumer data.
But the Year in Review’s lack of substantiating information doesn’t stop reporters from repeating its claims as facts. Nor does it stop them from extrapolating those claims to stand in for all of online porn, or to speak definitively about “our” sexual predilections.
Over the past few years, a new genre of story about sex has become widespread in the mainstream press. These stories purport to tell the general public about what “people,” “women,” “gay men,” “people in Southern states,” “Russians,” “Mormons,” “millennials,” “Americans,” or any other broad category of humans—including sometimes an absurdly universal “we”—are really into sexually. The italics on really are important, because the assumption of most of these articles is that “people” have a public self that is either asexual, ashamed of discussing sexuality, or vanilla—but that there is another self, a more “true” or “real” self, that comes out at 2 a.m. when these same people search for porn on the internet.
This Victorian Jekyll-and-Hyde model of desire and sexuality informs the recent bestseller Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Stephens-Davidowitz, who holds a PhD in economics and worked briefly at Google as a data scientist, claims that for his sections on pornography he was given access to “the Pornhub data,” though his method and data sets are unclear from the endnotes or accompanying website. His argument is simple: people’s public personas are deceptions that conceal a secret, more “truthful” self obsessed with taboos, kinks, and unconventional sexual desires.
The many pieces of clickbait that claim to illuminate these desires by drawing on Pornhub Insights are often ridiculous. “While interest may be hot and heavy,” Mashable wrote in 2017 about the supposed rise in searches for fidget spinner porn, “what you’ll actually find on Pornhub is pretty hilarious. It’s just a lot of video of fidget spinners…spinning. […] For instance, a video called ‘1000MPH Fidget Spinner Bisexual Threesome’ literally features three spinners ramming into each other with excellent narration.”
More often than not, Pornhub Insights press releases get spun into stories about broad trends in human sexuality. On August 2017, for example, Insights published a post called “Boobs: Sizing Up the Searches” looking at data about “the most popular breast related searches.” The post revealed that “Pornhub visitors between the ages of 18 to 24 are 19% less likely to search for breasts when compared to all other age groups.”
A Maxim writer then turned that single line in the report into the headline “Millennials Aren’t All That Interested in Breasts, According to Pretty Depressing New Study.” Playboy’s popular Twitter account received almost 10K likes, 2.8K retweets, and 2.4K comments for an 100% on-brand tweet that read “Millennials aren’t as interested in breasts as older generations. Why?” In fact, if you search “millennial” and “breasts,” Google will return countless hits about this supposedly data-based “fact,” all clustered around August 2017 and all sourced from a couple of quotes from that one Pornhub Insights report.
Ever since Pornhub Insights launched, a large number of articles in the mainstream press about sexual proclivities in the US and around the world have drawn their sourcing from it, or from press releases sent to journalists by Pornhub. This is the other side of data-driven porn. Not only is it changing how the industry makes porn—it’s also increasingly changing the popular narrative about sexuality, by supplying the fodder for sensational stories about people’s “true” kinks.
The resulting dynamic benefits both Pornhub and the media. Pornhub strategically releases “reports” they know will make good clickbait, based on proprietary data that is not independently verifiable. The clickbait, amplified by Twitter and other social media (because sex always sells), then drives traffic both to the news sites that produce it and back to Pornhub itself. In the era of the attention economy, media and porn are in the same business, and have forged a symbiotic relationship to their mutual benefit.
After the Fall
It would be easy to see the rise of data-driven porn as a familiar internet narrative: the corporate betrayal of a digital utopia. Online porn was supposed to give everyone unfettered access to their own particular kinks, with tech-hippies sharing a new world of hyper-specific fetishes with a like-minded crowd of early Burning Man adopters and subscribers to Mondo2000 magazine via newsgroups with names like alt.sex.aluminum.baseball.bat (an actual newsgroup).
In this account, the prelapsarian idyll of internet porn seems to have suffered the same fate as the internet as a whole: corporate consolidation and the monetization of our attention. A few massive companies control the online porn industry, and use sophisticated techniques to grab more of our attention and sell it to advertisers, or to coax us into becoming paying customers.
The story, of course, is more complicated. Internet porn has become a big business, but amateur communities are thriving. Just as millions of little-known SoundCloud musicians didn’t prevent the rise of a megastar like Taylor Swift, the ready availability of free amateur erotic content on spawn-of-newsgroups megasites like Reddit coexists with the unstoppable rise of Pornhub. The spirit of the older internet endures there, albeit in a different form.
As for the performers, many are torn between endorsing the “success” narrative being pushed by Big Porn outfits like Pornhub and voicing very real grievances—some of them brought about, in their opinion, by the rise of the tube sites.
In September 2018, Pornhub produced their first award show at a historic theater in Downtown Los Angeles, enlisting a large number of actresses and actors with the promise that the winners would be “decided by the viewing patterns of the site’s millions of visitors and loyal members.” Shortly before that, Kanye West had mentioned the site on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show. West referred to “Pornhub” as a generic term for online porn, much like older people in the 1990s would call the internet “AOL.” Pornhub promptly scrapped their original plans for their event, and made West “artistic director” of the evening.
The Pornhub Awards afterparty, a swanky affair held on the rooftop of affluent hipster mecca the Ace Hotel, was organized by Greg Lansky. The 2018 porn industry includes larger-than-life characters like Lansky—creator of big international brands like Vixen, Tushy, and the biggest interracial brand of all time, Blacked—who are attempting to be to today’s digital porn content what Playboy was to an earlier era of paper-based erotica.
Obviously inspired by Hugh Hefner in terms of exposure, projected lifestyle, and the desire to be embraced by mainstream publications, the French-born Lansky is known to pay top rate to his performers and spends lavishly on promotional stunts and PR. By crowning girls “Vixen Angel” of the month or the year, Lansky deliberately fosters an old-fashioned, glossy star system of sorts within the industry. His graphic design and aesthetics owe a lot to early 2000s French Vogue and American Apparel billboards.
The partnership between Big Porn outfits like Pornhub and ambitious entrepreneurs like Lansky is lucrative. As of September 2018, Lansky’s Pornhub channels Blacked (mentioned by Kanye West as his favorite “category” of Pornhub), Vixen, and Tushy, which drive content to his sites, are ranked #4, #6 and #9 on the tube site. The videos on the Blacked channel, founded four years ago, have 892,613,843 views.
These are rarified success stories in an industry that, at the production level, has a habit of complaining about its perceived “collapse” from the halcyon days before the internet changed the game—especially when talent or crew wants better pay or better working conditions. By all accounts, the rates usually paid to performers (even those featured on the trendy sweatshirts that Kanye West designed for the Pornhub awards) have been stagnant for a decade. If the new tech overlords in Montreal are doing as well as their PR blitzes imply, it might be about time to spread the wealth.