It is no accident that the International Consumer Electronics Show takes place in Las Vegas at the exact same time as the expo. Porn has helped drive the technologies that expand its own market. According to Jonathan Coopersmith, a historian of technology, porn has proven to be a reliable, highly profitable market segment that has accelerated the development of media technologies, from VCRs and DVDs to file-sharing networks, video on demand for cable, streamed video over the internet for PCs, and, most recently, video for mobile phones. Video uses vast quantities of data, and the demand for porn has driven the development of core cross-platform technologies for data compression, search, transmission and micro-payments. File-sharing networks such as Kazaa, Gnutella and Limewire are better known for music, but are widely used for porn video files too.
Some of the themes that ran through many of the seminars at the expo were how to integrate porn into pop culture, create a favourable public image for the business, and sidestep regulation. The pornography industry, unlike most other industries, can't directly advertise its products on television or in newspapers, so it has to rely on PR companies such as BSG Public Relations to place porn-friendly stories in the mainstream media. There are hundreds of examples to draw from here: Jenna Jameson on the Oprah Winfrey show talking about how empowered she feels from making porn; Hugh Hefner being interviewed by yet another newspaper; an article in Cosmopolitan on how watching porn is a fun way for women to spice up their sex lives; or the popular T-shirts with "Porn Star" written across the chest.
The cumulative effect is what the journalist Pamela Paul calls the "pornification" of our culture, wherein porn images, messages and stories seep into our sexual identities and relationships. This trend can be seen in the ever-higher heels that are now popular with women, the hypersexed look of younger and younger girls, celebrities such as Miley Cyrus pole dancing, and – in what is probably the most blatant example to date – the popularity of genital waxing among young women.
This practice became widespread in porn about a decade ago and now is so commonplace that it is almost impossible to find female performers with pubic hair. Meanwhile, shaving has become so accepted among my female students that they tell me they are repulsed by their pubic hair. And so are their sex partners, some of whom refuse to have sex with them if they are not fully waxed. This makes perfect sense, given that many of these men got most of their sex education from porn.
This phobia has ironically given women one unexpected, if meagre, weapon in their struggle to maintain a semblance of sexual autonomy: "The Trick". I learned about it at a college lecture I gave a few years ago. A student in the audience started talking about "The Trick" as if everyone knew what it is. And, in fact, most of the other women nodded their understanding and familiarity with the practice. Well, it turns out that women who want to avoid sex on a particular night out purposely don't shave or wax beforehand, so that they will feel too embarrassed to participate in casual sex. When I asked them why they couldn't just say no to sex, they informed me that saying no was too difficult, given the pressure to have sex, so they pulled "The Trick" on the guy. Of course, "The Trick" really demonstrates just how little sexual autonomy and control the porn culture affords young women.
One of the seminars at this year's expo is called In the Company of Women. Here academics will mix with pornographers to share ideas on how to develop niche products targeted to women. I'm sure there will be lots of talk about how women can be empowered by watching porn, because the pornographers, being the savvy businessmen they are, like nothing more than telling women that porn is actually good for them. This is their "trick", and one we must resist if we want to replace the plasticised, formulaic and generic images of the pornographers with an authentic sexuality based on our own experiences, longings, and desires.