Has porn become mainstream? Not really

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A rumor I’ve been hearing a lot lately, although I recall hearing it as early as 2003, is that “porn is becoming / has become mainstream” — or that it’s ubiquitous, unavoidable, the wallpaper of our culture. Like most alarmist ideas spread by the innumerate — failing schools, oral sex rampant among teenagers, the coming Islamic Caliphate — I assume it is a gross exaggeration or false. And as always, I’m right. It doesn’t take a genius: simply judge based on the track record of similar panics made possible by mass media, going back to the witch hysterias of Early Modern Europe.

I collected a bunch of data about a month ago and planned on doing some time series analysis, maybe showing how certain models (like epidemics or logistic growth) would fit the data, but the fall semester begins soon, and I’m preparing enough as it is. So nuts to the analysis; I’ll just present the data, since the picture is very clear. In brief, the popularity of pornographic movies has remained steady for over 20 years, and in a sense for the last 35 years — when the data begin. The popularity of print pornography fell sharply after its peak in the early/mid 1970s and has more slowly declined for about the past 20 years. Even non-pornographic but racy “lad mags” have seen their popularity tank, with only Maxim US holding steady.

Before getting to the data, though, how far back does the “porn has become mainstream” meme go? I didn’t conduct an exhaustive search, but I found a 1990 letter-to-the-editor in the NYT, as well as a 1998 news story in Time, so it’s hardly new. It’s interesting to note that most such articles feature a quote like this one from New York Magazine in 2003:

Over beers recently, a 26-year-old businessman friend shocked me by casually remarking, “Dude, all of my friends are so obsessed with Internet porn that they can’t sleep with their girlfriends unless they act like porn stars.”

The grave implication is: “Just think of what young people who grow up with this will expect!” But a moment’s reflection tells us that the same is true of men who visit prostitutes, who’ve been around forever. And yet men haven’t come to expect their wives to behave like wild whores inside or outside the bedroom — again, except for the handful of 20-something losers who New York Magazine manages to mine such embarrassing quotes from. Indeed, the universal Madonna / Whore dichotomy tells us that most men will continue to prefer their flings to act like call girls, pornstars, strippers, etc., while preferring their gfs and wives to act not whorish.

Enough gasbaggery; onto the data (and then more hot air). The “porn is everywhere” meme claims that a high percentage of people are infected by porn, whether through video or print. Obviously the claim is not that there’s a lot of porn out there, but which no one ever consumes — so we just look at the prevalence of porn-watchers over time. Fortunately, the General Social Survey, a large and representative national survey, asks Americans if they’ve watched an X-rated movie in the past year. To see for yourself, go here and type in, without quotes, “xmovie” in the row box and “year” in the column box. If you want to see male vs. female, type “sex(1)” for male or “sex(2)” for female into the selection filter box. Across the years, the response rate is 58%, from about 51,000 people — damn good for surveys. Here are the results for men and women (click on the image to see it full-size):

For men, porn-watching declined at least from 1973 until 1980, and increased until 1987. After that, you may be able to see fluctuations up and down but they’re around a pretty steady value of about 35%. The pattern for women is much clearer to see: essentially no trend, but cycles of varying period and amplitude. I interpret these patterns as a decline during the 1970s when porn theaters became unfashionable, an increase during the 1980s as porn became available on VHS, and no change afterward — in particular, no skyrocket due to the availability of internet porn, something I would not have predicted by intuition.

Also bear in mind that if porn were indeed “becoming more mainstream,” we should see a strong upward trend just because people are less embarrassed to admit they watch it. Only if people in the 1970s were hooked up to porn 24 hours a day but denying it, while people today admit to it at the same rate but are watching less, would we observe a lack of a strong upward trend. Even in that case, that means porn-watching was more prevalent in the past. I favor a simpler interpretation: that because porn has not become mainstream, nor more taboo, people tell the truth at the same rates from the sexually liberated 1970s up to today.

There are of course liars, but they don’t seem concentrated in one period or another. How bad is the lying in any period, though? — maybe all men are watching porn now but only 35% admit it. In 2003, the Nielsen Ratings people tracked the traffic of internet porn sites, and they found that 1 in 4 internet users visits porn sites (see here). That’s just what we’d expect from the GSS results, which show that of men and women combined, 24% in 2002 and 26% in 2004 watched porn. Traffic doesn’t lie, and because the numbers are virtually identical to what people say, we conclude that almost nobody lies about watching porn (at least in anonymous surveys). So not only have their proportions not increased relative to before, but porn-watchers are not even a majority of men — a bit more than one-third. For women, even less so — about one-sixth. Porn is not now, and never was, mainstream.

Turning to porn in print, I collected circulation data for Playboy for any year I could find. The data are from many sources — business sections of newspapers, histories of the magazine, etc. — and for some years I couldn’t find estimates. Still, there are plenty to see a clear pattern. I did the same for Maxim’s US edition, both shown here:

Playboy accelerated in popularity from its beginning in 1953 to 1973, after which it plummets until 1987, and then it slowly but steadily declines to today. I don’t have rich data to show it, but from what I read in my research, the same rough pattern holds for other porn magazines like Penthouse and Hustler. Maxim looks like it’s grown logistically, on analogy with a fad growing by word-of-mouth contagion. Maxim of course is not porn; the nearest thing might be 1940s pin-ups. I speculate that Playboy’s exponential growth was due to featuring young brunette girl-next-door types, and its crash due to using blonder and older “power bitch” types. Maxim has done well, in this view, for relying so heavily on dark-haired women. In any event, we see that porn has not become mainstream in print either — just the opposite.

One last batch of data mostly from the UK, home of the “lad mag.” Almost as soon as the fad had begun, it peaked and began plummeting, which has been well covered in the British press. I’ve shown it here for three of the most popular UK lad mags (I culled the data from various newspaper or other reports):

The US edition of FHM appeared to be doing well, even if it had begun to saturate. The drop-off I drew to show that it was abruptly canceled and only exists as a website now. Stuff Magazine, also once popular in the US, was cancelled in 2007. So even the non-porn but racy lad mags are dying off, save Maxim US.

Because the “porn has become mainstream” meme is part of a panic — either about eroding cultural standards, eroding barriers between public and private vis-a-vis sex, eroding relations between men and women due to unrealistic expectations, or the erosion of something else — most of those who already believe it will not be persuaded by the stark clarity of the data here. (Hopefully the open-minded ones will end up reading this.) Like witch-hunters, they will shift the goalposts perhaps by saying, “Well yeah, but that just means that porn’s influence is more subtle and covert, but no less pervasive and corrupting because of that.”

The first target will be female appearance, of course: as porn becomes more ubiquitous, they start dressing like sluts! Except that porn-watching increased most dramatically and reached a peak during the ’80s — the decade of high-waisted pants, granny-panties, and bulky manlike tops (baggy sweaters, shoulder-pads, etc.). I’ve written elsewhere about how girls don’t even dress like sluts anymore, a 5-year fad in thongs notwithstanding.

The second target will be sexual behavior: as porn becomes more ubiquitous, people will begin acting more promiscuously. But I’ve already shown that there was probably a single increase and single decrease in promiscuity, with the turning point around 1991. The popularity of porn either waxes and wanes for women or dips, increases and stays for men — it has nothing to do with how promiscuous people are.

Anyway, I could go on, but you get the idea. Let’s all be done with this “porn has become mainstream” nonsense.

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