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Obscene Profits
The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age
By Frederick S. Lane III
Routledge
305 pg. US$17.95

Making money the old fashioned way

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 12, 2001

Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber AgeThat any available canvas has been used for the more libidinous aspects of human life shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Early man created highly sexualized figurines while homes in ancient Rome featured lurid murals and phallic symbols. More recently the daguerreotype ushered in the era of capturing our memories in a more permanent form ... and the images of women willing to disrobe for the primitive cameras. With humanity's long history of using new mediums for the the gratification of its baser instincts, no one should have been shocked to learn that one of the early uses of the internet and the World Wide Web was the transmission of pornography.

Frederick S. Lane III's Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age, released in paperback in August, focusses its attention on the men and women who have decided to cash in society's ever-growing fascination with sex and the medium that brings it to their homes anytime they want it. Where only a few decades ago they would have faced criminal charges, today's pornographers are covered dispassionately by mainstream publications like the Wall Street Journal and have proved – Lane contends – that the World Wide Web is also a commercially viable marketplace, as embodied by people like Seth Warshavsky and Danni Ashe.

That Internet commerce and pornography should capture the interest of the mainstream shouldn't be altogether surprising to anyone. Sex and money have revolved around each other since the dawn of trade and even the power of religion couldn't suppress the exchange of one for the other. As societal mores began to break down in the 1950s, thanks in part to Hugh Hefner and Playboy, mainstream America began to open up to pornography. That trend has continued to this day with the Internet, and like every business, a need is filled by enterprising people. Unfortunately, those looking for real insight into these new entrepreneurs will be sadly disappointed by Lane's effort.

Billed as an inside look in the industry, Lane unfortunately spends most of his time with a thorough retelling of the history of pornography. Just under two-thirds of the book details the history and fight against of sexual material, leaving only a slender final third to deal with the world since the introduction of the Web. Admittedly, the history was engaging at times with interesting tidbits: While the Gutenberg press is famous for its first product, the Bible, it also prompted the Catholic Church to create a list of printed salacious material that was banned for its sinfulness. The history of sexually explicit literature in America stretches back further than most people realize: the early 1800s.

That slender remaining third fails to deliver on Lane's implicit promise of in-depth analysis of pornography today. Spending most of his time profiling Ashe – owner of the popular Danni's Hard Drive web site – and Warshavsky – the man responsible for releasing to a wide audience the infamous videotape of Pamela and Tommy Lee's honeymoon adventures – and their of-told stories, Lane fails to provide any real insight into the industry as a whole. While he admittedly does a fair job recounting the early years of online pornography, the rise from stand alone bulletin boards to today's gargantuan web sites, Lane drops the ball when it comes to the personalities behind the web sites. The pasts of Ashe and Warshavsky are well known to anyone who's opened a popular magazine or newspaper in the past five years so his brief sketches add little in the way of insider knowledge.

Lane also seems a little too willing to believe that the online industry is as profitable as is claimed. Given that most of the self-proclaimed successes own companies that aren't publicly traded, it's impossible to know whether claims of millions of dollars a month in profit are true. Similarly, it's a matter of faith that only pornography is consistently making money on the Web but more skeptical readers will wonder if the claims that the pot of gold really was discovered at the end of the rainbow are true after all. What's Lane's evidence that it was found? The same figures that the mainstream press has bandied about for years. As Christians might tell you, Lane's claims are the equivalent of a home being built on sand instead of a rock.

Of course, few efforts are complete failures. While Obscene Profits doesn't impart on the reader the secrets, assuming that's their interest, of making money off pornography on the web – the best Lane does is to repeatedly regurgitate the old capitalist rule that an excess of product usually leads to a decrease in price – it does provide enough information for the reader to be able to at least understand the subject of online pornography better. Obscene Profits also gives us a clue as to why there are anywhere from 30 000 to 100 000 sexually oriented web sites on the internet. It's the age old story repeated once again. Technology is being used to gratify sexual desires and someone is there willing to make money feeding those desires. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor of Enter Stage Right.

Buy Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age at Amazon.com for only $12.56 (30% off) in paperback or $19.25 in hardcover (30% off)

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