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Why Is Offline Porn Still A Thing?

Despite countless advances in the smut industry, some still spend money on the real thing.

by Kari Paul
Mar 4 2016, 10:00am

Image: Flickr/Jesus Corrius

When Playboy announced in October of last year that it would no longer publish nude photos, company executives hinted that the last true holdout of old school analog smut had fallen victim to the internet.

"You're now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free," Playboy Enterprises CEO Scott Flanders said of the decision at the time. "And so it's just passé at this juncture."

Flanders may be right, but even though countless free tube sitessites that allow anyone to upload video clips without necessarily clearing it with the content creators—and porn sites that require a paid subscription are seemingly rendering analog porn an anachronism, a handful of nude publications remain on stands in truck stops and head shops. Although Penthouse recently announced the end of its print edition, smaller publications like Cheri Magazine and Barely Legal are still in circulation, and adult stores continue to stock porn DVDs. Who is buying them?

As it turns out, that answer is a function of nostalgia, limited internet access, the need for privacy, and quality preferences.

The remaining customer base for physical porn is mostly older and less affluent, according to Mike Stabile, a documentary filmmaker who focuses on pornography and works as communications director for adult industry trade group Free Speech Coalition. Although many of us take our smartphones and laptops for granted, 15 percent of Americans still didn't use the internet in 2015 due to their age and its perceived difficulty, and many of those who did lacked a private connection or secure means of viewing adult content.

"I'm a gay man and I can tell you if I grew up in a household without access to my own computer I'd be way more wary of going online"

The issue can be particularly fraught for people who are unable to openly consume pornography due to their niche or stigmatized interests—like gay pornography or specific kinks like BDSM—or living in intolerant communities. For them, physical copies of pornography offer a level of privacy that the internet lacks.

"You can be pretty clear if you have an adult DVD whether it's hidden or in your possession versus a website that might pop up after you go there in cookies or browser history," Stabile said. "The same goes for magazines: they are often easier to stash, there's not a lot of tracing that can be done. I'm a gay man and I can tell you if I grew up in a household without access to my own computer I'd be way more wary of going online to look at gay content than to have something concrete like magazine."

Physical copies can also be more affordable in the long run, with a one-time cost to purchase a porn DVD making it more affordable for some than the recurring price of a monthly internet bill just to connect. With a DVD player as cheap as $20 and a dollar bin porn DVD, you theoretically could be set on adult content for life, and the same goes for hard copies of magazines.

That might not seem like an attractive option to most, but some folks actually prefer analog pornography for its quality, Stabile said: They know when they tune into a DVD they purchased, they'll get full-length, high-quality production film they can come back to again and again versus a blurry clip on a tube site that could later be taken down without notice.

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Analog and vintage pornography also offer a certain nostalgic appeal for people who started getting off in the era before PornHub, according to Carol Queen, a staff sexologist—someone who scientifically studies human sexuality—at San Francisco sex store Good Vibrations. She told me many customers find the physical copy creates a tangible connection to the pornography the digital version just can't compete with.

"It's not just that you're looking at pics of sexy people doing sexy things; you can still do it the way you first discovered it, and that might affect a person emotionally, something like the way listening to the music of your youth does," she said by email. "Whatever you experience now, it doesn't hit that highly emotional discovery note that it did when you were a teen, college-aged, et cetera."

There is also an erotic draw to the process of physically seeking out pornography, Queen said, like the act of physically going to an adult store in person, perhaps with a partner, to find something on the shelf that appeals to you.

"Acquiring [the DVDs] was a sort of foreplay, requiring you to find the right mail order venue or going to a porn store," Queen said. "For some, that process of seeking was eroticized too."

Despite these draws to the old school process, DVD pornography use is certainly waning. Porn giant Vivid entertainment CEO Steven Hirsch estimated in 2015 that the company's DVD sales have decreased 80 percent in the last five years, and Stabile said he has spoken with a number of sources in the adult industry who say 2016 will be the last year for a DVD market.

"As long as retail stores are buying DVDs in bulk, these companies will continue to produce them, but those orders are getting smaller and smaller, and soon they will get to a point where they cease to order it," he said.

This is not great news for performers, because buying physical copies of pornography, whether a magazine or DVD, is one way to ensure that they get paid. As the vast majority of porn consumers have switched to pirating pornography the industry has declined on a major scale, with as much as 80 percent of adult companies struggling or out of business, 72-year-old porn actor Dave Cummings suggested in 2013.

But there will always be a place in the world for the hard copy, according to Sarah Forbes, a former curator at New York City's Museum of Sex. She said she even envisions a comeback of analog porn similar to the recent rebirth of vinyl among hardcore music collectors and Urban Outfitters shoppers alike.

"With a magazine like a 70s Playboy you're almost able to, through these objects, transfer to another time and place when it comes to sex and sexuality," she said. "As a curator of sex I have a sweet spot in my heart for these kinds of collections and it's really important to preserve them, even though they do seem archaic, because with a little time they'll be so important to telling our stories."

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.