profile looks at the online 'adult content' industries,
variously described as having a trillion dollar turnover,
a model for commoditisation of cyberspace and an object
of journalistic hype or political disinformation.
contents of this profile
This page considers the overall shape of the online
adult sector, debate about its size and regulatory issues.
The following pages cover -
content production, distribution and before the net
- audiences, consumption patterns and consumer issues
- an introduction to the adult content industries
- the distribution side of those industries
- debate about online adult content as a driver for
commercialisation of the web, profitability, economic
relationships and pointers to major resources
- the people in front of the cameras (and behind the
digital cash-registers), along with pointers to some
- questions about amateur and professional adult content
in venues such as xtube and youtube
What are the 'adult content industries'? The lack
of agreement about basic terminology bedevils much of
the writing about what one purist dubbed the 'X Internet'
and others have sought to quarantine in a special X gTLD.
Few government statistical collections offer a tight categorisation
of 'adult' goods and services, including online content
and retailing of tangible products. In reading the following
paragraphs and some of the cited writings it is worth
noting that some authors bundle everything from fees for
hosting amateur erotica through to fully commercial (pay
per play) streamed video and Amazon.com style etailing
of vibrators and knickers.
Some key sectors are -
of erotica (eg text, still images, film/video and games)
for free or paid access
of that content (eg video producers and syndicators)
verification services (AVS)
that underpin restrictions to online access
providers of services, such as intermediaries for the
processing of payments
discussed particular sectors in the following pages. There
is a complementary profile about online
How much is the online adult sector worth?
Your guess, we suspect, is likely to be as accurate as
that of most commentators. Uncertainty reflects -
lack of comprehensive government or academic studies
absence of basic metrics
about the value and prevalence of non-commercial self-publishing
(much of which appears to involve content appropriated
from commercial sites or offline publishers)
dubious (and often notably self-serving) nature of many
industry claims - "an industry where they exaggerate
the size of everything"
innate difficulty of tracking consumption patterns,
investment and revenue that is often illicit
promoter claimed in 2002 that
Adult Internet industry generated over US$900 billion
in revenues in 2000 making it account for 13% of all
revenue generated on the internet and making it the
#1 product/service on the Internet today!
pornography industry in the United States earns revenues
of over $10 billion annually. Of that amount, it is
possible that up to $2 billion is spent on porn Web
sites, with steady growth forecast
went on to claim that US Baby Boomers account for most
of an estimated US$5 billion per year on adult videos.
In June 2007 AVN claimed that US sales and rentals of
pornographic videos in 2006 were US$3.62 billion, down
from US$4.28 billion in 2005. Revenue from online subscriptions
and sales in 2006 was supposedly US$2.8 billion, up from
US$2.5 billion in 2005.
William Lyon of US industry advocacy group the Free Speech
claimed that the online sector had a gross annual profit
in 2001 of between US$10 and US$12 billion (significantly
more than that of Microsoft).
A 1999 White Paper from the FSC and Video Software Dealers
Association had claimed that adult video sales/rentals
from adult product stores in the US were around US$4.1
billion, with around 70% of the films being produced in
California and mail order video sales amounting to an
estimated US$400 million.
Jason Hendeles referred
to an unidentified source in estimating that
in 2000, the adult-content industry accounted for more
than 30% of all Internet traffic worldwide, and for
the majority of spending for online content including
subscription and pay-on-demand services.
Lane, author of Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs
of Pornography in the Cyber Age (London: Routledge
2000) and the Sexbizlaw.com site,
claimed in 2000 that the global "online adult market"
was worth around US$2 billion a year, about three-fourths
from subscriptions. There are similar figures in Eroticabiz:
How Sex Shaped the Internet (New York: iUniverse 2002)
by Lewis Perdue.
In 1998 Datamonitor forecast that by 2000 adult content
would generate US$1.7 billion revenue and claimed that
it accounted for 70% of the aggregate European online
content market (estimated at £900 million).
Lane had elsewhere referred to the operators of "porn
sites" as riding high on a sea of cash although,
alas, has not provided a detailed map of that sea's depth
or extent. One sounding was provided in claims
during litigation over the Sex.com domain
name that the portal generated revenue of at least US$95.5
million in a year and scored 25 million visits a day.
Another sounding was testimony, in 2004 litigation
between Australian telco Optus and adult content operator
Gilsan, that the latter's global revenue was upwards of
Donna Hughes' 2000 paper
The Internet & Sex Industries: Partners in Global
Sexual Exploitation highlighted claims that the US
market for adult content involved annual sales of US$10
billion to US$14 billion.
Such estimates are questioned in Blaise Cronin & Elisabeth
Davenport's thoughtful paper 'E-rogenous Zones:
Positioning Pornography in the Digital Economy' in volume
17(1) of The Information Society, in Laura
Kipnis' Bound & Gagged: Pornography & the Politics
of Fantasy in America (New York: Grove 1996), in the
2002 An Economic Map of the Internet (PDF)
by Shawn O'Donnell and other studies noted in the Censorship
& Free Speech guide
on this site. There is a perceptive discussion of data
collection and analysis challenges in the 2002 US National
on Youth, Pornography & the Internet.
A 2001 article
in Forbes, an upbeat publication generally not distinguished
by its scepticism, attributed claims of US$10 billion
pa for online erotica to uncritical recycling of news
about a 1998 report by Forrester Research and assertions
by Adult Video News (AVN)
that US consumers spent US$4 billion on adult video rentals
That report concerned the online "adult content" industry,
with annual revenue estimated at US$750 million to $1
billion, with three groups of sites enjoying revenue of
US$100 million to US$150 million. Forbes claims
that a higher figure is improbable - even if turnover
for adult video, sites, phone service, sex toys and publications
was bundled together - and questioned claims about sale/rental
of adult videos. It was echoed in commentary (here)
in the Online Journalism Review.
Specific features of the Forbes analysis were not
particularly convincing for us but the article usefully
places claims by adult content industry proponents in
The US consumer magazine market for example grossed US$7.8
billion (sales plus advertising) in 1999, with broadcast
television at US$32.3 billion, cable tv at US$45.5 billion
and professional / educational publishing at US$14.8 billion.
Sale and rental of 'legitimate' videos were estimated
at US$20 billion in 2000, with cinemas turning over US$7.67
billion. Historian of science Donald MacKenzie noted (PDF)
that by June 2000 the total notional amount of derivatives
contracts outstanding worldwide was $108 trillion (equivalent
to around $18,000 for every person on earth); Helen Reynolds
suggested that in 1986 there were 0.5 million sex workers
in the US, with annual revenue of US$20 billion. A 1999
estimate by Jupiter Communications, a competitor of Forrester,
was that the US market for online pornography was under
Interactive Consumer Broadband: Sex, Sport & Shopping,
a 2001 report from UK group Analysys,
bravely forecast that broadband erotica would be worth
US$3 billion by 2003 on a global basis. Competitors have
simply added another digit to such figures.
In February 2003 VisionGain
forecast that the value of the "online pornography
market" will be US$70bn (£44bn) in 2006, and that
US$4bn (£2.4bn) of that "could come from mobile services".
In 2005 Informa claimed that the market for "erotic
content" would be worth about US$2.3bn by the end
of the decade; Juniper Research claimed in 2006 that the
market for "mobile adult services" was worth
US$1.4bn, rising to US$3.3bn by 2011.
how many sites?
The answer to that question is that no-one knows.
We have noted claims that there are 30,000 to 60,000 "pornography
sites" on the net. Researchers at the OCLC
suggested that globally there are around 74,000 commercial
sites; US industry group UAS/IFA offers an "educated
guess" that there are around 200,000 sites. The 2002
US Youth, Pornography & the Internet report
noted above suggested that there were over 100,000 subscription
sites in the US (with around 400,000 sites across the
globe), possibly with aggregate revenue of US$2.4 billion
That reflected research such as the 1999 Accessibility
& Distribution of Information on the Web paper
by Steve Lawrence & C Lee Giles discussed in our Net
Metrics & Statistics guide
and Childproofing on the World Wide Web: A Survey of
Adult Webservers, a 2001 paper in Jurimetrics
by Daniel Orr & Josephine Ferrigno-Stack.
Others assert that 'adult content' (however defined) is
available on millions of pages, in line with estimates
of a billion-plus pages on the web, with much of that
content being published by enthusiasts and having an ephemeral
existence. One 2001 back-of-the-envelope study reported
that an AltaVista search for 'porn' identified three million
pages. That was roughly half the number for 'god'. (A
search for 'Hitler' produced 1.7 million pages, ahead
of 1.2 million pages for 'kitten' but behind 17 million
for 'dog' and 132 million for 'sex'. A Google image search
found 0.126 million 'porn' images at that time).
A 2003 search using the Domainsurfer
engine (a tool for identifying variants on domain names)
found 167,171 domains that include 'sex', 32,972 with
'anal', 19,268 for the F word, 407 for 'bestiality', 53,194
for 'porn' and 39,495 for 'XXX'. Those figures should
be considered in conjunction with Matthew Zook's 'Report
on the Location of the Internet Adult Industry' (PDF)
at 103-121 of C'Lick Me (Amsterdam: Institute
of Network Cultures 2007) edited by Katrien Jacobs, Marije
Janssen & Matteo Pasquinelli.
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.
How many people?
Figures for the number of people employed producing, distributing
or otherwise involved in the online adult content sector
vary widely. Few are supported by details that would allow
a rigorous assessment.
Australia's Eros Foundation, promoting the sector as a
non-marginal industry that deserves respect by government,
that 640,000 Australians are on adult video mailing lists,
with around 250 adult shops having a turnover of A$100
million. Supposedly there are 800 legal and 350 illegal
brothels, escort agencies and sexual massage services,
accounting for 12 million visits to sex workers.
how many consumers?
A much quoted figure is that "four out of every ten
people using the Web have visited an adult site in the
last week". That appears to be well off the mark,
based on extrapolation from a problematical sample and
inconsistent with a range of studies about normalisation
of the online population. Consumption of adult content
is, however, mainstream: recent Australian figures are
supplied in The Porn Report (Carlton: Melbourne
University Press 2008) by Alan McKee, Kath Albury &
The following page of this profile examines particular
claims in more detail.
We have highlighted online content regulation regimes
in our Censorship and
Key features of those regimes are -
often quite successful, to exploit regulatory choke
points or otherwise establish borders in a supposedly
borderless and unregulated cyberspace
about whether online content requires special treatment,
with claims for example that in an effort to address
substantive problems regulators have prohibited online
content that would be legitimately accessed offline
because what is illicit in one jurisdiction is legitimate
in another nation/state (or merely that restrictions
are not enforced).
cost of regulation is unclear and is as contested as its
benefits. Some observers have tried to attribute regulatory
costs on a per site or enforcement action basis, with
for example a problematical claim
in 2002 of $14,364 per item 'taken down' under the Australian
An historical perspective is provided in 'Pornography,
Technology, and Progress' by Jonathan Coopersmith in 4
ICON (1998), 94-125.