Geographies of Pornography
Assoc. Prof. Paul Maginn
Here’s a question for you: What has geography got to do with pornography?
NO! It’s got nothing to do with the fact that geography and pornography rhyme with one another!
If you were thinking that a number of performers’ have a country, city or physical geographical feature within their name then you are getting hotter. Here’s a short list of some geographically-inspired performer names: Alexis Texas; Phoenix Marie, Savanna Samson, Asia Carrera, Houston, Aletta Ocean, India Summer, Madison Ivy, Kylie Ireland, Bambi Woods, Pandora Peaks and Christy Canyon. I wonder
And who said geography was boring! In fact, I wonder how many adult performers have majored in geography whilst at University.
To Pornlandia and beyond
As an academic geographer-planner, geography plays a vital role in understanding the where, why and how of the production, distribution and consumption of pornography. For example, most people will probably know that Los Angeles, the ‘San Pornando Valley’ to be more precise, is the global epicentre of porn production. Relatedly, San Francisco is the home of queer and fetish porn production.
Whilst porn is produced in Australia there is no ‘porn valley’ per se. Instead, the porn industry and production is highly dispersed – largely because, as Zahra Stardust, an Australian-based performer and scholar, notes: ‘In most states in Australia, the production, exhibition, advertising and sale of pornography is criminalised’
The spatial concentration of the porn industry in LA/San Francisco did not just happen by accident. Rather, the emergence of the San Pornando Valley is a result of an inter-related set of legal, economic and social processes.
First, the right legal and regulatory frameworks need to be in place in order to ensure that commercially-produced adult films can be legally produced on a film set or on location; that production crew and performers are permitted to be on sets and take part in productions and that appropriate occupational health and safety regulations are in place and adhered to.
Next, economic factors such as land costs and rents for production and distribution facilities need to be right in order to ensure that costs are not prohibitive.
Finally, there is a comparative advantage of the adult entertainment industry being based in LA due to the agglomeration and spillover effects that stem from the mainstream entertainment industry being located in Hollywood.
As the porn industry flourished in Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s it attracted hundreds, if not thousands of women and men from around the US and the world. An analysis of the profile of adult performers listed on the Internet Adult Film Database (www.IADF.com) by John Millward (2013) found that almost half (48.3%) of performers (N=1,941) were from California. This was followed by Florida (11.1%), Texas (8.9%), New York (7.6%) and Ohio (4.7%). These five states alone accounted for four out five US-based performers.
In terms of the nationality of porn performers (N=5,291), Millward found that almost 54% were from the US. The next most popular countries of origin were: (i) Hungary (13.3%); (ii) Czech (10.1%); (iii) UK (4.8); and (iv) Russia (4.6%). All up, these 5 countries accounted for approximately 87% of all performers.
This geographical pattern of adult performers raises the question of why are so many performers from these relatively few locations. Is it because they are sexually liberal environments? Or, is it because they are sexually repressive societies and doing porn is a way of rebelling against so-called social norms? Did they get into the adult industry intentionally? Or, did they fall into the industry by accident? Or, are there some other interesting factors underpinning things.
There is a growing body of scholarly sociological (think Chauntelle Tibbals and Shira Tarrant), cultural (think Clarissa Smith and Mirielle Miller Young) and film studies (think Linda White) research on pornography. You may have noticed that these various scholars are all female. Despite all this research there is an absence of systematic scholarly research on the social, cultural and economic geographies of pornography.
Adult Performers: A minority migrant Community?
Given the various geographical backgrounds of adult performers based in LA it is probably fair to view them as migrant sex workers. For those performers that work in LA, but live elsewhere, in say California, interstate or even internationally, they can be seen as DIDO (drive-in drive-out) or FIFO (fly-in fly-out) workers. There are clearly some porn-related puns to be derived from the terms DIDO and FIFO… but I’ll let you decide on what they might be.
Furthermore, given the fact that only a small proportion of the population are employed in commercial porn, performers can be seen as a minority community. This minority status is compounded further by the social stigma that often surrounds performers and porn more broadly. This is something of a paradox when one considers the mass consumption of porn in the 21st century.
In other words, we seem to live in a world where it’s perfectly fine to watch porn – data from Pornhub (www.pornhub.com/insights) for example indicates that millions of people access their websites on a daily basis. Furthermore, there has been what I call the pornification of suburbia. That is, it appears that many couples are exploring their inner porn star if the the sale of fetish and kink-related sex toys and products since the publication of 50 Shades of Grey, and the number of people who record sex acts on their smartphones are any measure of things.
Despite all this, there still appears to be a reluctance within society and amongst policymakers to acknowledge that consensual commercial porn constitutes a real job or a professional career. Furthermore, there is a need to recognise that just because someone is in porn that porn completely defines who and what they are as an individual. There is a need to look beyond the porn aesthetic as presented on the tube sites, DVDs and magazines and recognise that adult performers are essentially just ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds.
As a minority migrant community where the majority of performers live in LA/California this raises a number of interesting geographical and sociological questions about the migratory pathways, settlement and housing patterns and social networks within the performer community.
We know for example from studies of other minority migrant communities such as African Americans, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Koreans, Jews and Muslims that such groups tend to initially cluster in certain neighbourhoods. Such clustering provides an opportunity for intra-community support and to sustain cultural practices and a sense of identity. In short, and to use a sociological term, it’s all about building social capital!
Furthermore, after migrant communities have established themselves, secured employment and gained an education they have a tendency to move outwards and upwards to newer and better housing and neighbourhoods.
Conversely, when some minority communities move into an established area this may provoke negative attitudes, claims and reactions from pre-existing residents thereby stifling their chances of realising their dreams and aspirations.
Towards a Geography of Pornography
So, all of this has got me thinking over the last couple of years about whether some or all of the above applies to adult performers in some way:
Do adult performers live and concentrate in particular neighbourhoods – i.e. porno-burbs?
Do performers, especially those new to the industry and LA/San Francisco, live as roommates with one another?
Do performers tend to date other performers thereby maintaining tight social networks?
What type of social relations do performers have with their neighbours, especially when/if their neighbours find out that they work in porn?
When performers become successful and financially secure do they move house and suburb?
What other career and study paths have performers taken prior to, whilst in and after working in the adult industry?
As a ‘sexademic’ with an interest in the geographies and regulation of the sex industry, exploring these questions and others about the who/what/when/where/why of the adult industry and porn performers can help challenge the stereotypical perceptions that wider society tends to have about porn and those involved in it.
I realise of course that developing such an evidence base is a major challenge. For a start, porn performers along with other sex workers have long been suspicious of researchers on account of how research has often been used against performers and the sex industry.
This piece is part of my efforts to develop further some initial conversations I have had with a number of US- and Australian-based performers over the last year or so about the need for some research on the geographies of pornography.
In order to ensure that the research that I am trying to develop is robust it is important that it is performer- and industry-informed. To that end, if you’re a performer, an agent, director or producer based in Australia or Los Angeles/San Francisco and interested in hearing more about what I am trying to achieve and assisting or partnering in some way I want to hear from you.
I will be at SEXPO in Melbourne in late November 2017 so can meet up with any Australian-based performers and adult industry representatives. And, I am also hoping to be in Las Vegas in January 2017 to work on another project with colleagues from UNLV and John Jay College, New York to look at fans attitudes and experiences of the AVN Expo – the ‘Oscars of the porn industry’.
Assoc. Prof. Paul J. Maginn is Programme Co-ordinator of the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Western Australia. His co-edited book, (Sub)Urban Sexscapes (Routledge), won the Planning Institute of Australia (National) Cutting Edge Research and Teaching Award in 2016.