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« "Shoes!" And More | Main | Elsewhere »

February 15, 2007

Is Porn Scarce?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Revealing an unexpected streak of wholesomeness, Tyler Cowen asks "Why is porn scarce?" Not a question that -- in this age of "type anything you want into Google Images" -- would have occurred to me. Since I find the general pornification of culture that we're living through fascinating, I dropped this comment on his posting:

Pornography is scarce? I feel like I must be missing something, or maybe misunderstanding something. Because what the web has done is make porn -- which historically had always been scarce -- available in endless easy ways. Where porn's concerned we've gone from a situation of scarcity to one of superabundance.

Which is interesting in a psychological/sociological and maybe even an economic sense. Shifting from conditions of scarcity to conditions of ease and superabundance creates whole new parameters, vectors, and puzzles for us to contend with.

Once upon a time you cherished and protected your porn stash. These days there's no reason to, since, if you're ever bored, all you need to do is a fast web-sweep in order to turn up tons of free and new material. This seems to mean that where in the past people protected and nourished their tastes and fetishes, people these days are more whimsical. You try stuff out, you're curious, you look into things. Maybe you stumble into something that you find alluring that you'd had no idea about before. ("Waterbondage" -- who knew?)

Your relationship with your own erotic being changes. Since you're no longer keeping anything under lock and key, nothing builds up. The erotic quest is no longer like following a complicated treasure map written in runes. Instead, you're like someone with a remote control connected to the most extensive cable system ever. You no longer delve into mysterious regions of Self and Being. Instead, you channel surf to check out what's being brought your way.

I suspect the analogy to food is a useful one. In the past the challenge for most people was finding enough to eat. Plus we're biologically programmed to search out sweets, salt, and fat, and to gorge when we get the chance. We're biologically programmed to contend with circumstances of scarcity.

When that changes -- when we're in a world of cheap superabundance instead -- it's great in many ways. But many people also find our new situation bewildering. For one big thing, we aren't biologically equipped to deal with it. We'll gorge, we'll search out sweets, and we'll do it over and over again -- and then wonder what's going wrong as we bloat up and become unhealthy. We learn that we can't trust our instincts any longer. So we start to tangle up. Instead of applying ourselves to the direct task of finding adequate nourishment, we find ourselves stuck applying our energies to the task of managing and defying our instincts. And that's almost impossible.

Same with porn, I suspect. Guys seem to be programmed to sniff around for arousing material. (Women have their own drives, god knows ...) It seems to be part of our drive to pursue sex 24/7/365. When arousing material is scarce, pursuing it is easy and fun despite the frustrations -- and even the frustrations can be fun. There are always barriers to encounter and overcome, which guys also seem to like. We're like terriers in that way.

So when the barriers come down and we're overwhelmed with easy goodies, we tend to flail. Paradise may be what we crave, but when it arrives it turns out to be too much. We're like terriers who -- instead of chasing down fast squirrels and rabbits -- are sitting there having food thrown at us. How to contend?

Some guys grow addicted. Others semi-blank out on the whole thing. And even if you enjoy the process of whimsically window-shopping your way through the cornucopia, nothing seems to matter the way it once did. It's there, it's easy, but it isn't special any longer. It's too easy.

The situation can even be a little un-manning. Guys like encountering barriers and working our way past them, after all. Gets the blood stirring, and engages the deeper regions of our psyches too. Where are we left when we can't engage in those ways? I gather from some young guy friends that they sometimes feel impotent in the face of all the easy porn.

Anyway, the biz economics of this are probably obvious. The web has made porn an even-tougher business than it has always been. Since an infinite, ever-renewed amount of porn is now available for free, how does a porn merchant get guys to spend any money on his/her product at all? And the basic marketing and product challenges! How to keep up with the latest fads and styles? And what to do with all the pressure to push boundaries -- to feature anything, anything that will snag attention for a few seconds? How do you stand out in that kind of crowd? And since there's so much competition -- coming from all over the world, btw -- profit margins for those trying to make money from porn have almost vanished.


By coincidence, I'm currently reading and loving a book by the super-sharp design critic Rick Poynor, formerly of Design Observer. Its title? "Designing Pornotopia."

I mean, what becomes of life when your fantasies -- be they of abundant food, endless titillation, or empowered visuals -- come true?



posted by Michael at February 15, 2007


And yet television, the most important communications/entertainment medium of all, is more rigidly censored than ever. Even the merest hint of nudity is absolutely taboo.

Posted by: Peter on February 15, 2007 1:26 PM

I guess this whole thing falls into the category of "luxury problem", huh?

I'm just puritannical enough to be unable to sympathize with poor porn merchants whose "profit margins have disappeared." ("What's to become of the poor small businessman???")

And, for all the bitching about wanting to be terriers and all, somebody is looking at all that porn all the time, so apparently the terrier has adjusted to its full and available bowl of gourmet kibble and is now flopped on the couch, chubby, sated.

However, in addition a luxury problem, this really is a guy problem. I don't know one woman who worries about the status of her "porn stash" and whether its changed from before, and what that means about Life. Another Mars-Venus thing.

Now, shoe-shopping online is a whole other thing.

Posted by: annette on February 15, 2007 1:59 PM

"What becomes of life when your fantasies become true?" you ask, at the end of your very thought-provoking post about the ubiquity of porn. However, the fantasies do not become true; I have yet to walk into my room and find two hot lesbians with come-hither looks actually waiting for me in bed! No, the fantasies become visual representations produced by other people that you can access at will. That's a big difference, my friend.

O.k., now going back to the food analogy, this is more than just a random comparison, because food and sex are critical for survival of individual and species, right? But something about it does not add up. The analogy is: our instinct to eat food was shaped for times of scarcity, so when food is in abundance, we overeat, get sick, and seem to be in a predicament, because it is impossible, as you say, to manage an instinct; same with porn -- our instinct to view porn was shaped in times of porn scarcity, so now that porn is everywhere and free, we overconsume, get addicted or bored, and seem to be in a predicament because of instinct again.

A male instinct to view -- porn? programmed to sniff around for arousing -- material? Hold on now! Isn't the actual male instinct to find pleasure by the sight (and smell) of an actual female body, not a fantasy or picture of one, but the REAL thing?

When you're hungry and you eat, you give the stomach what it really wants, even if you eat too much or eat junk food. However, with porn, you don't get what you really want, you get a false image and a forced experience, a manipulation of instinct, not a fulfillment.

What if there was a hungry man who, instead of going to the kitchen to cook himself a steak, went to the computer and looked at pictures of steak for half an hour or so? Then he took out a piece of styrofoam, cut it into the shape of a steak, painted it to look like steak, warmed it up in the microwave, and then ate it?

And now we have a multi-million dollar industry made from selling styrofoam steaks to hungry people. What becomes of life when this happens on such a big social scale? Fascinating indeed.

Love your blog, keep up the good work.

Posted by: Nate in LA on February 15, 2007 2:56 PM

i suppose when you look at porn and jerk off to it, you do get an orgasm; maybe that's the "junk food" equivalent, or at least "gum", if not food...

Posted by: anon on February 16, 2007 6:23 AM

Now I get it.
This post was in preparation for the upcoming premiere of MBlowhard&Wife film.
I assume it'll be of a soft porn kind.
But I'm willing to be surprised (and even prefer to be - I think both your talents are wasted on the industry you chose)

"I might be wrong, but I don't think so!"(c)Monk

Posted by: Tat on February 16, 2007 10:27 AM

Peter - It's a funny time, isn't it? Simultaneously lewd and out there, and very prissy. I get whiplash just thinking about it. I wonder how to explain it. Any hunches?

Annette -- A "luxury problem" for sure. Eager to hear about that online shoe-shopping. Shoes: porn for women?

LA Nate -- Thanks for stopping by and joining in. I wonder sometimes if ... Well, this is naughty of me, but I wonder sometimes if it doesn't go the other way. Maybe what men really crave is porn, and women are the substitute we put up with. Women are a virtual pleasure, where porn is the Real Thing. Eek, don't hurt me ladies!

Anon -- There's some kind of "real" payoff happening, isn't there?

Tat -- That's a shrewd guess!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2007 7:51 PM

Maybe what men really crave is porn, and women are the substitute we put up with.

Think of other things guys like -- hunting / killing and playing sports. The reason that first-person shooter video games are so popular is that they offer a superior alternative to suiting up and playing paintball with your buddies. If they designed a virtual reality version of pro football, it would be much more popular than getting together with a group of buddies and playing on a real court.

The simple reason is that most people aren't elite enough to carry out James Bond-ian spy missions or play pro sports -- or do whatever they wish with an endless variety of beautiful young women.

Posted by: Agnostic on February 16, 2007 9:31 PM

yeah, there's some sort of "payoff", alright, but like gum leaves a taste in one's mouth without satisfying one's hunger, porn and masturbation bring about a purely physical release of sexual tension, without the more deeply satisfying personal connection that even sex with a whore would partially satisfy (which might be "junk food" rather than "gum", and still inferior to the "meal" of sex within an emotionally satisfying love relationship, i.e. marriage, or at least long-term g/f & b/f.)

Posted by: anon on February 16, 2007 10:54 PM

Tat -- That's a shrewd guess!

Not really, just an ability to systematize observations (remember the test you posted here?).
I've been reading this long enough to notice when you start your marketing campaigns.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 17, 2007 8:50 AM

Hey, I saw your post at MR, and was surprised to see you there. Good post, though.

Maybe what men really crave is porn, and women are the substitute we put up with.

This is my feeling and it's a sentiment I never hear expressed in the media -- or even on blogs, much. I appreciate your honest attitude.

Posted by: Noumenon on February 17, 2007 12:12 PM

Does any man feel that a porn-fueled masturbatory orgasm is anywhere near as satisfying an experience as an orgasm experienced via actual intercourse? Ridiculous.

Posted by: James M. on February 17, 2007 1:49 PM

James M.

Does any man feel that a porn-fueled masturbatory orgasm is anywhere near as satisfying an experience as an orgasm experienced via actual intercourse? Ridiculous.

Than the better variety of those real life experiences? Absolutely not.

Than the worse ones, particularly when surrounded by lots of requirements? Sometimes yes.

Nothing beats good not to mention great sex when newly in really and genuinely in love. That's rapturous!

It goes downhill from there. Sad but true. Some individuals and especially couples are better at slowing or periodically reversing this trend than others. Most I think who stay together for longish periods or forever do some of both but mostly put up and emphasize a particularly intimate sort of friendship over time.

Posted by: dougjnn on February 17, 2007 8:03 PM

I'm feeling highly undersexed in the midst of all this. Am I the only guy around here who enjoys looking at provocative and sexy pictures purely for the pleasure of the looking? Well, 99% of the time ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 17, 2007 9:11 PM

why do most men look at porn, most of the time, if not to whack off to it? shit, same with art photography and "erotica", b&w photos of naked chicks. don't tell me that men don't beat off to that sort of stuff, because of course we do.

Posted by: anon on February 17, 2007 10:06 PM

"Does any man feel that a porn-fueled masturbatory orgasm is anywhere near as satisfying an experience as an orgasm experienced via actual intercourse?"

Of course not. But far easier to get. And without all the baggage and risks of real sex. And quicker.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on February 17, 2007 10:06 PM

So then, the appetite grows by what it feeds on.

Posted by: James M. on February 21, 2007 10:27 AM

absolutely, James M. porn is the ultimate vicious circle; it whets the appetite, yet fails to satisfy, long-term; one always has to search out novelty to satisfy one's cravings, because the old eventually bores, even if it can still get one up and off.

Posted by: anon on February 27, 2007 9:21 PM

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