For one brief moment here at the 2011 Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas, America’s porn performers can forget about the Golden Decade of the Teen Wanker and remember when they were stars. Tonight, all of them, the whole porn carnival, are vamping down the red carpet at the Palms Casino. There are actual midgets. There is self-styled fakir Murrugun the Mystic, who has been nominated for Most Outrageous Sex Scene: swallowing a sword “while she swallows my sword,” as he puts it. There are the Oscar-ishly glammed-up ladies with titanic breasts and twitchy Restylane smiles. There is—yes, here he comes—Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy: The starriest living male porn star ambles along the carpet in a sad, grubby collar and with an air of existential depletion. And now, the announcer is introducing Joslyn James as “Tiger Woods’s ex-girlfriend,” fresh from her appearance in the scandal-milking The Eleventh Hole.
Maybe you’ve seen it. Did you pay for it? This evening, if only for a few hours, the industry is doing its best to ignore the explosion of free porn online that has made the early-21st century such a bonanza for masturbators. It’s difficult. The Adult Entertainment Expo taking place simultaneously at the Sands has scaled back dramatically; Vivid and Adam & Eve, two of the best-known companies in the business, didn’t even have booths on the main floor this year. There are no Jenna Jamesons on this red carpet, and even the idea of a porn A-list seems dated. Performers are making less money, working harder for it, getting fewer jobs. “It doesn’t affect me that much—well, I guess less work—but my friends with companies are being put out of business,” Ron Jeremy says, pausing before the media gauntlet. He mentions one who has been forced to diversify into “cookies, penis pills, and a blender.”
For a decade or so, to the porn industry, the Internet looked like the best thing ever invented—a distribution chute liberating it from the trench-coat ghetto of brown paper wrappers and seedy adult bookstores, an E-Z Pass to a vast untapped bedroom audience. If it was equally apparent that the web would prove as destabilizing as it has for other media, the money was so good that the industry could ignore the warning signs. Now the reckoning has arrived.
The chief culprits in the eyes of the porn Establishment are the “tube sites,” YouTube-like repositories of content that is often free, and often pirated. “Tubes are going to destroy our industry,” says Sunny Leone, 29, an Indian-American knockout who is celebrating eight nominations this evening. “Fans don’t understand that if they don’t pay for porn, we can’t make a living. They’ll have to watch crazy European porn.”
Farther along the red carpet, as the porn parade navigates the throng of gawkers to enter the Pearl Theater, actor James Bartholet shouts to the onlookers, “Buy your porn, don’t download it illegally!” During the impressively slick ceremony, piracy is an anxious leitmotif. “Thank you for paying for porn,” says Joanna Angel, accepting the award for Best Porn Star Website. Then, with a less-carrot-more-stick approach, an anti-piracy PSA plays on the big screen, ending with the admonition: “Buy the fucking movies.”
The audience erupts in cheers.
There you are, Porn Surfer, Googling your way to a little adult material—you know, a little plain-vanilla, middle-of-the-road grown-up content—when, wham, you’ve dropped acid and been astrally projected into a triple-X pachinko parlor. One minute you’re trawling for a simple NSFW divertissement, and the next you’re in free fall through this insane, cross-linking wilderness-of-mirrors chaos of pop-ups and pop-unders and portals and paysites. And, wait, why is someone named Jasmin talking to you in that browser window that just opened, as if you’d accidentally paid for a live cam show? Even after you figure out that she’s a canned come-on for a streaming site, you’re still befuddled. You click on an image, only to find yourself being shuttled from one site to another, unsure of what’s free and what’s not, what’s a destination and what’s merely a billboard for one, who’s an amateur and who’s a pro, who owns what and how it’s all connected. You start to nurse a deep suspicion that there’s more going on here than you can see—that there is some intricate, invisible web of revenue-sharing and traffic-trading and content-licensing at work. Which, of course, there is.
Until the invention of the tubes, online porn was relatively simple to watch and lucrative to sell. With very little money and a For Dummies–level understanding of HTML code, anyone could put up a web page featuring a list of text links to other porn websites. If a surfer clicked on one of the links, he would be directed to a paysite; the paysite would pay the referring site a tiny amount for the traffic, and kick back a more substantial amount if the surfer ended up subscribing to the site. Over time, link collections evolved to the more visual formats of “thumbnail-gallery pages” and “movie-gallery pages,” where instead of a list of text links, you’d see a mosaic of snapshot links or, say, eight-second movie-clip links. TGPs, as they were called, drew more traffic than link collections and “converted” better—that is, a higher percentage of surfers signed up for billed memberships. MGPs were more effective still. The paysites would supply these “affiliates” with the snapshots and clips for free, and the online porn universe came to consist of a relatively small number of paysites surrounded by many thousands of affiliates.