Porn becomes less seedy, but not quite mainstream

Adult film actress Chanel Preston, who is concerned that performers don't have enough control over health issues.
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Adult film actress Chanel Preston, who is concerned that performers don't have enough control over health issues.

On the surface, it would seem like 2015 is an ideal year for porn to break into the mainstream.

Adult actresses are becoming increasingly well known—making cameos on popular TV shows and sometimes trending on Facebook. Meanwhile, one of the year's more anticipated movies—50 Shades of Grey—is an erotic tale that explores themes previously relegated to the world of adult film.

Porn has come a long way from the years when it was associated with seedy movie houses and red-light districts, like those in New York City's Times Square, many of which have since disappeared.

But as some parts of the broader society appear more open to adult entertainment, others seem to be renewing the cultural war against it. Vibrators, for instance, can now be found at most corner drugstores and shopping malls at stores like Brookstone and Spencer's. Still, Chase has reportedly shut down the accounts of adult performers at its banks.

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"What we were seeing in adult, in terms of mainstream acceptance, was a lipstick acceptance," said Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist and former visiting scholar at the University of Southern California who studies the adult entertainment industry.

"It was novel to read a book by a porn star or edgy to hang with them," she said. "But when you get down to it, the nuts and bolts of our culture have not changed much, in that we are allowing legal discrimination to exist against adult entertainers."

Mainstream? Not quite

Laszlo Czero, CEO of Docler Holdings and Jasmin.com—a video chat and live sex site—puts it more succinctly: "We are pretty far from being mainstream."

Porn certainly has had its challenges in the past couple of years. Beyond run-ins with the banking industry, the U.K.'s four biggest Internet Service Providers began automatically blocking access to porn sites for both new and existing connections in 2013. Last year, major search engines threw up barriers that impacted traffic to porn sites.

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In July, Google modified its policy for AdWords to disallow sexually explicit content, and prohibited the promotion of most sexually themed sites. The company said it was the continuation of a long-standing guideline, but porn insiders say they were caught by surprise.

"This is another example of a mainstream company turning its back on the industry that has supported it," said Michael Fattorosi, an attorney with Fattorosi & Associates, a boutique firm that represents the adult industry, at the time.

After Google's action, Yahoo followed suit in October, discontinuing adult content listings for its directory program.

As a result of Google's sanctions, many adult-focused companies have begun shifting their ad budgets to other mediums, including magazines, newspapers, late night TV, radio and online ad networks. They concede the need to adjust their explicit content to meet different editorial guidelines.

Big companies: Don't mess with our rep

One theory in the porn community is that the resistance from big companies about adult entertainment is largely due to advertiser concerns. In short, they fear a reputational backlash.

"Look at Facebook," said Jenny Gonzalez, vice president of sales and marketing for DatingFactory, a white label technology company for adult dating sites. Gonzalez called the social network's stance on the porn industry "extremely conservative," and shaped in part by Facebook's relationships with mainstream dating sites.

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The fear that Google's action could be the first step towards restricting search results for the porn industry helped give a boost to Boodigo—a porn search engine founded by porn producer and director Colin Rowntree and a group of former Google employees.

The engine eliminates results from known piracy sites, and focuses on hits for the specific type of adult entertainment the user is looking for. Since its mid-September launch, it has logged 5.2 million sessions, with over 24 million page views.

"I've created our own little porn ghetto," joked Rowntree.

So what has led to this dichotomy? Did a renewed interest in bondage cause some porn companies to push the boundaries too far?

While some recent porn themes may push the boundaries of good taste (or even happily sprint right past them), Tibbals said that has nothing to do with it. Ultimately, she said, it's that Americansand especially American businessesstill have a problem when fantasy meets reality.

"A lot of it has to do with different media and the way we think about sex and the performance of sex," she said. "50 Shades is not real. It was a fantasy story. It didn't exist."

By contrast, however, porn has "actual nakedness and actual sex acts that are given a dollar amount," she said. "People's performance of those acts have variable rates and it makes us uncomfortable, because it's an industry situated around this idea and practice that we, as a culture, aren't comfortable with to begin with."