Wide Angle 19.3 (1997) 1-12
Pornography in the Late Nineties
Joseph W. Slade
Pornography, always an engine of culture, cycles toward the millenium. Having built the videocassette industry and contributed substantially to development of the Internet, specialists in sexual representation seem poised for virtual reality, a possibility that leads to ever more hyperbolic predictions about eroticism in the future. In the next few years, the need for "safe" voyeurism in an age of AIDS and for a rich fantasy life in an age of corporate sterility will probably outweigh the demands of puritanism and political correctness. In the meantime, postmodern critics have seized on pornography with an appetite that is almost unseemly. To judge from the number of dissertations devoted to erotic representation, not to mention the hundreds of books and thousands of articles on the subject published over the last two decades, the flood of comment on pornography has probably not yet crested. The feminist anti-porn rendition of pornography, based on an equation of sex and violence, seems to have been swamped by the gender disputations that feminism itself set in motion. 1 Gay and lesbian discourse, once anathematized as pornographic by definition, has entered a new phase; historians are now reclaiming artifacts as their erotic heritage. The sheer weight of scholarship has sanitized genres previously under attack. [End Page 1]
But perhaps economics is a better indicator of the status of pornography in the nineties. The demand for soft- and hard-core pornographic films and videos, always mutable, now seems robust and diverse. According to the trade journal Adult Video News, which charts sales for the many genres of visual porn, renewed interest in classic soft-core exploitation films has led to their increased transfer to video. 2 That same interest adds to the cult following of classic exploitation filmmakers such as Ed Wood and David Friedman. Grindhouse Follies, a history of exploitation cinema by Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris, was respectfully reviewed by most of the major magazines. Even more respectful were the two huge pages devoted to Andy Sidaris, the current master of the topless adventure story, by the New York Times, which admires Sedaris's skill at niche marketing in America and Europe. 3 Americans also rented 665 million hard-core videos in 1996. 4 American cable services carry soft-core fare. The figures are difficult to compute, because costs for the services are worked out on the basis of a cable system's total number of subscribers, and some (e.g., Spice) are cheap, while others (e.g., Playboy) are relatively expensive, but Cable World put 1996 revenue at $95 million. 5 To those numbers can be added an estimated $175 million from cable-carried hotel-pay-per-view services. 6 Americans persuaded that cable TV is rife with sexuality will also point to the R-rated movies carried by HBO and Showtime, of course, but assigning an economic value to those would be impossible, since these movies are a) not necessarily regarded as adult in nature by subscribers and b) are mixed in with innocuous fare.
In 1980, Andrea Dworkin claimed that "in the United States, the pornography industry is larger than the record and film industries combined." 7 According to Eric Schlosser's "The Business of Pornography," published this year in U. S. News and World Report, Americans in 1996 spent $8 billion "on hard-core videos, peep shows, live sex acts, adult cable programming, sexual devices, computer porn, and sex magazines." 8 Presumably to capitalize on Dworkin's claim, Schlosser says that the $8 billion is "an amount much larger than Hollywood's domestic box office receipts and larger than all the revenues generated by rock and country music recordings." 9 Like Dworkin's, his comparisons [End Page 2] are colorful, and misleading. In actuality, the total revenues of U. S. media industries break out as follows for 1994, the most recent year for which "hard" figures are available: Book Publishing, $26 billion; Newspapers, $47 billion; Television, $35 billion; Magazines, $23 billion; Radio, $11 billion, Movies, $21 billion (includes world sales); and Recordings, $12 billion. 10...