Friday, March 27, 2009

Sex drives the Internet

Uncomfortable as it might be to some readers, there are good reasons to believe that adult entertainment (sex!) is one of the main drivers in the development and diffusion of technology.

Johnson (1996) argued that the availability of adult movies on VHS was a key factor in the early growth of the market in home video recorders; Mearian (2006) suggested that the success of the Blu-ray high-definition DVD format over the rival HD-DVD format could be put down in large part to the adoption of the Blu-ray format by adult entertainment studios. The growth and development of the Internet too, at least in some phases, has been bound up with the demand for and supply of pornographic images and video sequences. During the first phase of the commercialisation of the Internet in the 1990s huge numbers of websites sprung up around the world purveying pictures and video clips of sexual activity. Bill Tancer of Hitwise notes (in Tancer (2008)) that "sex" is one of the commonest search terms on the Internet, reporting that a Google search on the word in the summer of 2007 produced 445 million entries (admittedly some of the sites found might have been related to sex education and health rather than "raunchy" material). And much of the huge volume of spam that clogs up e-mail traffic is sex related, either attempting to direct you to pornographic material, or seeking to sell you Viagra. While it is difficult to know how much of the diffusion of webcam technology can be attributed to the establishment of web sites by amateur web cam girls, they were certainly amongst the early adopters of this innovating technology. The spread of broadband Internet access, offering high-speed data transfer to replace dial-up ISDN connections, may also have been driven to some extent by those wanting access to online adult video material. Edelman (2009) makes this point in his recent Journal of Economic Perspectives paper. He notes that in June 2008 broadband users outnumbered narrowband users by a factor of 18 to 1 at sites that comScore classifies as “adult”.

Edelman’s paper is interesting because he has managed to obtain (anonymous) subscription data across the United States for a top-10 online adult entertainment provider. The figures go right down to zip code level, and after adjusting them so that his dependent variable is the share of subscribers per 1000 householders with broadband, he is able to use regression analysis in which variables such as income, age, education, as well as other variables to represent the influence of religious beliefs, marital status and urban (or otherwise) location, are tested for their statistical relevance. Income has a positive effect on subscription rates, as does location in an urban area (after controlling for broadband access). Subscriptions are higher amongst the young (15-25 year olds) and lower for the old (over 65 years old) Subscriptions are higher in locations with a higher proportion of the population who are college graduates, although this effect is dampened when there is a high proportion of people with (post) graduate degrees. Although the coefficient of the religious convictions variable has the expected sign (negative), it is not significantly different from zero (it has a probability value of 0.848). However, overall the rate of adult entertainment subscriptions across the states is pretty similar and there appears to be no evidence of a major divide.


Edelman, B (2009) Red light states: who buys online adult entertainment? Journal of Economic Perspectives Volume 23, Number 1 (Winter) pp209-220.

Johnson, P (1996) Pornography drives technology: why not to censor the Internet. Federal Communications Law Journal Volume 49 Number 1 pp 217-216

Mearian, L (2006) Porn industry decide battle between Blu-ray, HD-DVD. Computerworld May 2nd.

Ropelato, J (2006) Internet pornography statistics.

Tancer, B (2008) Click: what millions of people are doing online and why it matters. Hyperion Books, New York.


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