film & video
Adult Content industry
This page considers some questions about online content
It covers -
online and offline is a mechanism for restricting access
to content that is deemed offensive.
Many claim that online censorship is antithetical to the
spirit of the net. Others,
more credibly, question whether the shape the global information
infrastructure enables meaningful enforcement of rules applying
to particular jurisdictions.
We've explored broad issues of governance
in a separate guide. Later pages of this guide explore specific
legislation, codes of practice, reports, advocacy bodies
As an introduction to that material you may wish to consider
is offensive material available online (and what is its
what is the prevalence of that material (and can it be
can it be regulated?
what is pornography?
Linda Williams' Hard Core: Power, Pleasure & the
'Frenzy of the Visible' (Berkeley: Uni of California
Press 1989) claims that
is simply whatever representations a particular dominant
class or group does not want in the hands of another,
less dominant class or group. Those in power construct
the definitions of pornography through their power to
Curry Jansen's Censorship: The Knot That Binds Power
& Knowledge (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1991) argues
that censorship is
socially structured proscriptions or prescriptions which
inhibit or prohibit dissemination of ideas, information,
images or other messages through a society's channels
of communication whether these obstructions are secured
by political, economic, religious or other systems of
definition that encompasses everything from assassination
and the secret policeman's red pencil to the 'broadband
divide' is not, perhaps, particularly meaningful. It does
however highlight the interrelationships between censorship,
secrecy, freedom of information and concepts such as intellectual
A sense of disagreements about the nature of pornography
and its impacts is provided by works such as Dirty Looks:
Women, Pornography, Power (London: BFI 1993) edited
by Pamela Gibson & Roma Gibson, Sex Exposed: Sexuality
& the Pornography Debate (London: Virago 1992)
edited by Lynne Segal & Mary McIntosh, On Pornography:
Literature, Sexuality and Obscenity Law (New York:
St. Martin's 1993) by Ian Hunter, David Saunders & Dugald
Williamson, Gay Male Pornography: An Issue of Sex Discrimination
(Vancouver: Uni of British Columbia Press 2005) by
Christopher Kendall, Governing Pleasures: Pornography
& Social Change in England, 1815-1914 (New
Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 2002) by Lisa Sigel, The
Problem of Pornography: Regulation and the Right to Free
Speech (London: Routledge 1994) by Susan Easton and
Bound & Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of
Fantasy in America (Durham: Duke Uni Press 1999) by
Laura Kipnis. Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming
Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families (New
York: Times Books 2005) by Pamela Paulis is, for us, overly
is offensive material available online?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. We've referred later
in this guide to changing perceptions of what is offensive,
most succinctly characterised by US Supreme Court Justice
Potter Stewart's comment that he could not intelligibly
define obscenity but "I know it when I see it".
There's an ongoing debate in Australia, the US and most
other countries about free speech, the definition of obscenity
and the nature of content that should be restricted.
In January 2001, for example, a Victorian magistrate called
for bans on online publishing of bomb-making
instructions. Overseas, a group of activists acknowledged
that the US 1999 federal law prohibiting such publication
had been a failure, accordingly campaigning for action by
internet service providers.
German courts and politicians have recurrently sought to
extend anti-Nazi law to other jurisdictions in restricting
the online Holocaust denial industry. The French government
has pressured eBay and Yahoo! to restrict online sale of
And in Turkey an ISP's offices were demolished after criticism
that it allowed access to images of women whose arms and
faces were uncovered. (Offline, South Australian police
confiscated and then - oops - returned a book of Mapplethorpe
photos available in other parts of Australia.)
While estimates of the size of the web vary significantly,
it is likely that there are more than 500 million pages
online as at mid 2000. That number is growing rapidly. The
web contains text, still images, audio and video that many
people would find offensive. Some of that content is illegal
in Australia and other jurisdictions. Bulletin boards and
other parts of the web include statements or images that
are similarly objectionable.
The impact of access to that content is contentious. Later
pages of this guide point to official reports and to polemics
by the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon.
Donna Hughes' 2000 paper
The Internet & Sex Industries: Partners in Global
Sexual Exploitation is one example. A somewhat more
nuanced account was provided by Clive Hamilton & Michael
Flood in the Australia Institute's 2003 Regulating Youth
Access to Pornography study (PDF)
and Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on
the extent of exposure and likely effects (PDF),
with the former lamenting that
in Australia have extensive exposure to pornography. Just
under three-quarters (73 per cent) of boys and 11 per
cent of girls report that they have watched an X-rated
video. Eighty-four per cent of boys and 60 per cent of
girls say they have been exposed accidentally to sex sites
on the Internet and two in five boys deliberately use
the Internet to see sexually explicit material, with four
to five per cent doing so frequently.
would note that the 1970 report of the US Presidential Commission
on Obscenity & Pornography indicated that 80% of US
boys and 70% of girls had seen visual depictions or textual
descriptions of sexual intercourse by age 18, and that more
broadly the circumstances of most children throughout history
exposed them to adult reproductive activity (often in the
same room or even same bed).
The Australia Institute report commented that
In seeing X-rated videos or Internet pornography, young
people are exposed to explicit images of a wide range
of sexual acts that are deemed unsuitable viewing for
youths under 18. There are special concerns regarding
violent and extreme material on the Internet including
depictions of non-consenting sexual acts such as rape
The research literature's documentation of significant
associations between use of certain types of pornography
and sexual aggression provide grounds for real concern.
Apart from the intrinsically disturbing nature of much
Internet pornography, regular consumption of pornography
and particularly violent and extreme pornography is a
risk factor for boys and young mens perpetration of sexual
assault. In addition, it may foster greater tolerance
of this behaviour by others.
promoting an article
about online child porn in 2003 Michael Malone wrote
is the very heart of darkness. These are images that are
more than shocking and repulsive. They kill your soul,
in part because you know that every poor child you see
on these sites is dead, if not now at the hands of a sadist,
then decades from now from drugs, alcoholism or suicide.
The pictures first make you sick, then angry, and finally
homicidal. If you could get ahold of the people perpetrating
this, you would kill them with your bare hands. But you
can't; the best thing you can do is expose them. So you
go on. ... There were already certain unspeakable images
so burned into my brain that, even now, I wish I could
take a scalpel and cut them out. But Bob had no choice.
He had to look. Only his fury and hatred of these people
and his desire to destroy them kept him going — and when
that wasn't enough he'd go out at night and get drunk
to try to destroy the memories.
contrast we recommend the thoughtful paper 'E-rogenous
Zones: Positioning Pornography in the Digital Economy' by
Blaise Cronin & Elisabeth Davenport in volume 17(1)
of The Information Society, the 2001 Nordic Council
Child pornography on the Internet report (PDF)
and the 2002 US National Academies' report
on Youth, Pornography & the Internet.
The latter considers approaches to protecting kids from
net pornography and other inappropriate content and threats
from online sexual predators, including educational strategies,
technological tools and policy options - in particular how
to teach kids to make appropriate decisions about what they
see and experience online.
We've considered some security issues and statistics here.
This site also features a profile
on the online 'adult content' industries, questioning some
of the hype about supposed facts and figures.
what is its prevalence?
Our Metrics & Statistics guide
highlights the uncertain nature of many internet statistics.
Information about the nature of content (as distinct from
more readily identifiable data such as the number of domains)
is particularly problematical.
However, it appears that the notion of the net as awash
hate sites, bestiality, child pornography and DIY explosives
guides is strictly mythological.
In 1995 Time and other magazines promoted a report
by entrepreneur Marty Rimm purporting to demonstrate that
much of the web consisted of 'adult' material, including
violent erotica. It claimed for example that 83.5% of all
photographs on the net were "pornographic" and
that paraphilic or paedophilic images accounted for around
half of downloads on bulletin board systems.
figures recur in the mass media, with Jerry Liao for example
exhorting parents to "put God into the center of your
family" in 2006 after asking
you know that there are 4.2 billion pornographic websites
that is equivalent to 12% of the total websites on the
Internet? That there are 372 million pornographic pages,
68 million daily search engine requests, 2.5 billion daily
pornographic emails, and 1.5 billion peer to peer pornographic
The Rimm report was methodologically flawed, internally
inconsistent and poorly based, failures demonstrated in
cogent studies by Donna Hoffman, Thomas Novak and others.
The major Hoffmann critique
for example suggested that under 0.5% of newsgroup messages
relate to groups that contain pornographic images and that
the vast majority of web sites concern non-Adult content:
everything from the New York Times (NYT)
to this site or your local Airedale club. Usenet
is not restricted to alt.sex; it also encompasses discussion
about knitting patterns, cucumber sandwiches and the born-again.
The 1997 study
by Boehringer & Harmon on A Content Analysis of Internet-Accessible
Written Pornographic Depictions explored some research
issues. Romin Alavi's 2000 Pornography & the Internet
conclusion is the precise methodological equivalent to
(a) restricting a study of printed pornography to magazines
located in the "adult" area of a bookstore,
(b) finding that 83.5% of the reader submissions during
a one-week period were to magazines that contained "pornographic"
material, and concluding
(c) that 83.5% of all reader submissions to all magazines
studies also offered a more nuanced analysis of the distinction
between commercial publishing and 'backyard' image trading
by consumers, explored for example in Max Taylor's 1999
paper The nature & dimensions of child pornography
on the Internet and the 2004 NZ Department of
the Interior report on Internet Traders of Child Pornography
and other Censorship Offenders in New Zealand (PDF).
Official and academic reports
similarly debunked fears about the availability of bomb-making
instructions. However, what Mike Godwin labelled The Great
Cyberporn Panic of 1995 was followed by a wave of online
censorship legislation (identified in the next two pages).
Our assessment is that such legislation, although much derided
and clearly often flawed, was an inevitable result of normalisation
of the web.
It followed traditional models, with governments concentrating
on 'choke points' in the information cycle. Sanctions against
site operators saw them move to friendlier jurisdictions
and/or screen access, pressure was placed on intermediaries
such as ISPs and existing prohibitions on for example child
pornography were reaffirmed.
One consequence has been that commercial erotica has effectively
moved behind closed doors: access involves subscription
fees and often requires use of a commercial identification
service (AVS) such as AdultCheck.
That has boosted the revenue of vendors of 'adult' content
services, discussed in a more detailed profile
on this site. It has also reduced the likelihood of minors
accidentally encountering large amounts of the more extreme
erotica and increased the difficulty of assessing how much
smut is online.
Estimates remain contentious but it is likely that 'Adult'
content comprises less than 5% of the web (several million
pages), with only a very small fraction (some analysts suggest
1%) of that figure involving prohibited content such as
The October 2001 Web Characterisation report from
the OCLC claims
that around 2.5% of the 3.11 million publicly accessible
sites are devoted to adult content (defined as "sexually
explicit text or images"). The 2002 paper
by Michael Mehta, Don Best & Nancy Poon on Peer-to-peer
sharing on the Internet: An analysis of how Gnutella networks
are used to distribute pornographic material covers
a very small sample of video files but suggests that much
P2P swapping is innocuous.
Sexual and pornographic Web searching: Trends analysis,
a 2006 paper
by Amanda Spink, Helen Partridge & Bernard Jansen considered
studies of web search logs from 1997 to 2005, suggesting
that the "level of sexual or pornographic searches" has
declined as a proportion of all queries since 1997 and currently
representes less than 4% of queries. Testimony by Philip
Stark to the US Congress during 2006 (PDF)
claimed that around 1% of sites indexed by Google and Microsoft
were "sexually explicit" and that 6% of searches
yield at least one explicit site. The figures were criticised
by the ACLU and third parties, which noted that art work
by Michelangelo would fall into the 'explicit' category
and that the sample of 1,382 URLs appeared to include substantial
double counting. Use of the Google SafeSearch facility more
than halved the search results.
Globally, complaints to regulatory agencies such as the
Australian Broadcasting Authority and to public/private
sector hotlines appear to amount to a few thousand each
year. Successful prosecutions or 'take down' action in response
to those complaints appear to be significantly lower, broadly
comparable with figures for action against print and video
Exercises in quantifying the production/distribution of
illicit content prior to the net are problematical. However,
some sense of volumes is provided by the seizure of 324,000
in London and New York alone during 1874.
who creates it?
Questions about the creation of offensive online content
presuppose agreement about the nature of offensiveness,
a problem that bedevils much media hype about the online
Some people would regard any use of 'strong language' (or
disagreement with their views) as liable to corrupt or otherwise
deserve suppression. We've - somewhat ruefully - dealt with
an author who appears to consider that free speech is freedom
to publish only highly positive reviews of that author's
work, suppressing critical comment and any indication that
leading academics disagree with aspects of that work.
In the Adult Content profile
on this site we have highlighted some figures - which vary
significantly - about the size and shape of the online porn
sector, which embraces a range of commercial bodies, amateurs
who consumes it?
The answer to questions about consumption of offensive online
content is deeply disappointing to some people.
Put simply, it appears that appetites for heterodox religious
content, 'alternative' political statements and erotica
(including content that is publicly stigmatised or illegal)
are not restricted to particular geographical, ethnic, income,
age, gender or education demographics.
Consumption of 'mainstream' erotica online in advanced economies
is not restricted to male teens (and is becoming less so
as the overall online population normalises). That is consistent
with demographics for consumption of free-to-air and pay
television broadcasts and print publications.
Commercial or other access to non-mainstream erotica similarly
doesn't appear to be quarantined within a particular demographic,
although some demographics have easier access than others
(eg because they have broadband, greater experience or online
or are not on the wrong side of what we have characterised
as the 'credit card divide').
A useful 2002 review
of research into media violence up to 2002 is available
as part of the Free Expression Project.