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Sex Isn't Selling

Several months ago, rather on a whim, I subscribed to Canadian Business magazine. It was one of those deals where I’d only pay a couple of bucks for the first 6 months and then the price would increase to normal levels. And for the first time ever, I actually went for it. But it’s worked out well; it’s quite a good magazine and I’ve been enjoying it. The very first article of the very first issue I received gave me a great starting point for a chapter in my book. That alone made it worth it to me.

This month’s issue features an article titled “Sex Isn’t Selling.” Of course it’s long been one of the truisms of marketing—sex sells. But this article contends that, for the first time in recent memory, sex is no longer selling. Sex no longer accomplishes what it once did; sex no longer piles up the profits.

The focus of the article is pornography and its coming decline. It seems that pornography has been unable to adapt to the realities of Web 2.0, realities that dictate that everything must be free. Or nearly everything. Porn producers are saying that they have seen revenue fall 80% over the past three years; Playboy is bleeding money and laying off staff; actors who were once paid $2000 a scene are now being paid just half of that; revenue for major distributors has fallen 30% in just the last year.

Pornography’s woes can partly be blamed on the economy—when people are in danger of missing a mortgage payment or are out of work, splurging on porn can be a bit of a stretch. But even more so, pornography has been victimized by a cultural shift. “The characteristics that once made sexual content a valuable commodity—the inaccessibility, the taboo—have evaporated. Cable television now offers naked vampires (HBO’s True Blood), naked gladiators (Startz’s Spartacus) and naked polygamists (HBO’s Big Love).” Such a change has been rather swift; it wasn’t too long ago that a movie like Basic Instinct was considered shocking and edgy; today it would barely make a ripple. “In 1995, Calvin Klein faced an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department on allegations its advertisements constituted child pornography; now, American Apparel can barely draw press coverage by using actual porn stars in porny poses in its ads.” The dirtiness of what made porn enticing, the allure of it, is now gone, lost in the background of a sexualized, pornified culture. That’s not to say that people don’t want sex and porn anymore—just that they won’t pay for it and that it won’t compel them to spend money. It’s become a boring kind of addiction or obsession, not a particularly interesting or exciting one.

There is a third factor cutting into porn’s profits and it’s the simple reality of Web 2.0—people want everything to be free and if it’s not, they’ll simply take it. We have grown accustomed to hearing that pornography is a business that grosses $10 billion a year in the United States. Pornographers say this is ridiculous; some suggest the actual number could be less than $1 billion. Not only is pornography pirated in a huge way, but it has also been unable to make the leap to Web 2.0. “Porn has been at the forefront of every modern leap from VCRs to the Internet, but Web 2.0, dominated by these tube and file-sharing sites, is the first technology in a century that pornographers have failed to exploit.” The industry has been forced to react by giving away more content for free which necessarily cuts into profits. There’s an old saying on the Internet: if you paid for porn, you flunked the Internet. This is more true today than ever. The new reality on the Net is that if it’s not free, people will either ignore it or pirate it. But they won’t pay.

This article in Canadian Business suggests that the porn industry is not only in decline, but in danger of imminent death. Unless it finds a way of reinventing itself, and doing so soon, it will go into eclipse. The dollars and the cents of it dictate a decline.

This is a good thing, obviously. Of course pornography itself won’t go away entirely. It’s too compelling, too alluring to just disappear. But it seems that, as with so many other areas, it will go from the realm of the professional to the amateur, from the big industry to the cottage industry. Many of us will cheer to see the industry crumble and fall apart.

And yet it’s not all good. What struck me as I read this article is this: I’m glad that the porn industry is struggling. I’m glad that they are going through particularly difficult times and I’m glad that people are beginning to forecast the end of the status quo. And yet I see as well that it is all happening for the wrong reasons. Pornography is suffering because of reasons related to morality, and yet it is a lower rather than a higher morality that is making the difference. It’s not that as a culture we are objecting to pornography on the grounds that it objectifies women or hardens the hearts of men. Rather, the culture has decided that it won’t pay for what it consumes and that it will take whatever it desires. And even worse, the culture has become so hardened to what used to be shocking, that no allure remains. “Sexual content has gone from scandalous to stale. It’s become the background noise of the culture.” Against the backdrop of all the smut around us, the mainstreaming of what used to be shocking, few consumers can muster outrage at much of anything.

In other words, pornography has succeeded so well that it has forced itself into decline. It has made sex so pervasive that it has become boring, so omnipresent that it no longer entices. It has no one but itself to blame.