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The Erotic Engine

How Pornography Has Powered Mass Communication

Patchen Barss

C15 Book of Hours hand-made for a rich Italian woman had a couple of illustrations of the baby Jesus apparently sporting a porn-star sized erection. But very close examination shows that it is actually something else (the Madonna's arm, or a surgeon's knife). The point is that you could do this because it was a personal volume, designed by someone who knew the patron's sense of humour. But once books began to be mass-printed, couldn't get away with this without someone objecting. The content had to be sanitised for the small number who might be offended (Texas Board of Education syndrome).

Part of the difference was that while books/manuscripts were only read by the well-educated upper classes, the church was unworried. It was only when mass-market, cheap literature became available to the great unwashed, that attitude changed. A bit like going to an art gallery and looking at historical paintings of nude or semi-nude men and women. All acceptable because for the sophisticated end of the market.

Common understanding that every new invention pertaining to image reproduction is co-opted by the porn industry early on. One unusual feature was 1863 invention of 'Stanhopes': micro-photographs sold with a special magnifying viewer. These were originally developed for porn, but ended up changing the way that librarians and archivists preserve documents.

Porn movies had to be low cost. There were profits to be made, but only to groups like stag nights or men's clubs, but the risks were high.

But that changed with the invention of the coin-operated private booth, stocked with twelve-minute repeating loops. Invented by Robert Sturman, who at its height was estimated to be making a million dollars a day. He wasn't great at paying taxes, however, and in 1989 jailed for evading $29 mill. He died in prison eight years later. But he showed the way - millions of tiny transactions made the adult film industry into a business.

Urban legend that porn industry caused the defeat of Beta by VHS. Because porn was by far the biggest driver of early adopters, the extra length of VHS tapes was valued more than their lower quality. But porn was freely available on both formats, and in fact it was technical issues that had the impact on VHS win.

But it was porn that sustained the VHS market until manufacturers could bring the price down enough to appeal to the mass market. Men were prepared to pay top dollar to be able to watch porn in the privacy of their own homes. But the adult film industry made even more. They had 6 decades worth of porn movies that they could transfer to video and sell for up to $300 a time.

Same thing happened with the dawn of the Internet. Millions of people bought modems and paid for Internet access so they could have private, convenient access to porn.

"If you pay for porn, you've failed the Internet". But this applied to millions of people, which made many online entrepreneurs very wealthy.

Porn industry invented affiliate marketing. Started as informal cross promotions and referrals, then developed sophisticated software tools to track who clicked on which links, and enabled reliable commission payments.

"Fucking is God's Great Gift, it's the world's most interesting subject. Lots of religions try to control it, and so some of the social structures around it can be quite grievous. So, at every stage, as soon as people can make images, they make pictures of fucking. Think of where human life would be if we didn't eat and we didn't fuck. There is so much cultural confinement of this natural impulse, it has to find expression in some form of media reproduction. And, the thing is, the history of media is about getting closer and closer to the real thing." (Moses Znaimer)

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