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When taboo meets tech

Erotic content is as old as humanity, but when it’s supercharged with high technology, all kinds of other issues arise

Take two dolphins and give them a big mirror and they’ll watch themselves having sex. Big-brained mammals apparently take an interest in watching “The Act”. So we shouldn’t be surprised that sex-related content has lead the way when it comes to the evolution of media technology – probably since the Venus Of Willendorf was carved. But it was the advent of home video where erotic content became a force that could make or break an industry. The accepted wisdom – virtually urban legend – is that in the home video format wars of the 1980s, Sony’s Betamax tape was finally beaten out by VHS as the accepted home video format, because the exploding LA-based porn industry had decided that VHS was its format of choice for release. 

The truth is a bit more complex. Sony had been trying to corner the market with its proprietary Betamax format. Rival companies, such as JVC, decided to throw their weight behind VHS, though it was an inferior format. VHS quickly became an open standard for distribution and easily adopted. The porn industry turned the VHS edge into a landslide victory and certainly had an effect in accelerating the uptake of VCRs. It’s not an understatement to say that home video created a booming porn industry – and far from destroying the movie industry, as was once feared, gave it a new revenue stream.

Enter the internet

As soon as the internet appeared, it was used as a means to access adult content. The worldwide distributed discussion board, Usenet, built in the 1980s, was an early place for people to exchange text-based content. The world wide web and image-based content quickly followed and soon after came downloadable video. As quality streaming hit the internet, it was adult content that pushed the limits of CDNs and hogged bandwidth, well before the advent of YouTube and Netflix. 

By one estimate, 30% of all bandwidth on the internet is taken up by porn.

Pornhub offers an ‘Insights’ page ( in which the company self reports some of its numbers. There’s no telling for certain whether this is Pornhub just bragging about its size, but given all the other data we have access to, the size of the numbers looks reasonable.

In 2018, Pornhub registered 33.5 billion visits (an increase over 2017 of five billion), a daily average of around 92 million visits. Pornhubs servers returned 30.3 billion searches (962 searches per second). There’s more: in 2018, 4.79 million new videos were uploaded to Pornhub, totalling more than a million hours of content, with the company transferring a total of 4403 petabytes of data – 147 gigabytes per second – over the year. And as we know from the discussions featured in this issue, a portion of that – big portion – is pirated.

Searching for romantic 4k

Pornhub’s Insights report also noted some of the key search terms for 2018, the most striking of which was ‘Stormy Daniels’, the adult film actress, allegedly bribed by US President Donald Trump. People may love erotica, but they love a scandal even more. ‘Fortnite’ was also a popular search, as there is a sub-genre of animated erotic content, based on the world of the game.

‘4K’ was another trending search for 2018, which is surprising given that most adult content is watched on mobile phones and smaller devices. Earlier in this issue, adult filmmaker Fivestar says she and other filmmakers have been avoiding 4K as it’s seen as an impractical format. Pornhub Insights’ own statistics show that of viewers using computing devices, 71.6% of those are viewing the site on mobile, with 19.7% watching on desktop computers and 8.7% on tablet. The largest mobile users are in India and the largest desktop computer users in the UK. Gaming consoles are also used to access the site, with Playstation being the most popular. It’s probable that these are the viewers registering the 4K interest. 

Other year-defining searches, according to Pornhub Insights, were ‘romantic’, ‘trans’, ‘outdoor’ and ‘tattoos’. In terms of raw numbers, the top three searched terms on the site were ‘lesbian’, ‘hentai’ and ‘milf’, so there’s that.

The Pornhub audience consists very largely of US residents, followed by the UK, India, Japan, Canada and France. The biggest boom in viewership was in Kazakhstan, whose ranking in 2018 rose by 33 places over the previous year. It would be interesting to find out whether that jump correlates to any data infrastructure changes in the country.

Age appropriate

Pornhub, via deeper user data acquired through it’s online community, can now give statistics on the age of its users and what kinds of content they are watching. The average user age in the US is 38, and that average is about the same across most territories. India rated the youngest average user age at 29 and the Philippines the oldest at 40.

These age numbers would have been generated from data collected from Pornhub users who are signed in to the platform and, of course, there are a large number of users of the site who don’t have accounts – and a percentage of these will be underage. Even if it’s just a small percentage of total traffic, that is a huge amount of content consumed by under 18s and available to any child with an internet connection.

The UK has passed a Digital Economy Act 2017, fulfilling one of the promises made in the UK Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto. Among the Act’s provisions is the requirement that adult-only websites confirm visitors are aged 18 or over. Sites that don’t comply will be blocked by UK broadband providers. The appointed regulator, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has yet to establish how these checks will work and the implementation of the law has been pushed back. 

The Act has had a mixed reception with civil liberties groups suggesting that collecting data on users is at odds with online privacy, as well as a clear understanding that if anyone can figure out how to set up a VPN in a jiffy, it’s a 16 year old boy. 

Also, the Act defines pornographic material as anything ‘produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’, which covers an awful lot of ground. Who is going to be the arbiter of what’s hot? As US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography in the famous case against Louis Malle’s’ film The Lovers, ‘I know it when I see it’. Surely, porn is in the eye of the beholder.

This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of FEED magazine.