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How American Porn Came to Rule the Industry

“American as apple pie” is a phrase I’ve heard used to describe baseball, rodeos and — most recently — porn. While we as Americans might have a little less pride in the latter, it’s nevertheless true that we see porn as a uniquely American phenomenon. We have a foggy notion that porn exists elsewhere: for instance, that German smut is an over-the-top circus of sadomasochism and scat; that Japanese porn is equally obsessed with schoolgirls, bondage and prolific amounts of semen; and that French erotica is sophisticated, cinematic and existential. But the porn we consider “normal” is American, right?

AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Veagas

There’s good reason why we think that way: It’s legal here. And in California, it’s explicitly legal. In 1988, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Freeman that porn is protected by the First Amendment, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling when it was appealed. With porn protected in California, pornographers from around the world flocked to the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood — nicknamed “Porn Valley.” There, they took advantage of spillover from the mainstream film industry and began to dig in. “Thus, the porn industry in the U.S. is a highly visible, concentrated, identifiable one,” says Rebecca Sullivan, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Calgary.

By the start of the 21st century, 11,000 videos annually were being produced in Southern California and distributed internationally, as estimated by Katalin Szoverfy Milter and Joseph W. Slade in their 2005 essay, “Global Traffic in Pornography.” American porn flooded markets worldwide, competing only with porn from Japan for sheer volume. (For contrast, Europe as a whole produced only an estimated 1,200 films in 2001.) So it makes sense that we think of porn as American.

After all, we make enough of it.

But over the past decade, as the distribution of porn has migrated from brick-and-mortar stores and online sales — both bankable and trackable — to tube sites that serve up content for free, the distribution networks that American porn spent decades traveling have been destabilized. Plus, now that porn can be recorded easily on a variety of devices, uploaded to the internet by almost anybody and distributed worldwide, Porn Valley isn’t the only place to make adult content anymore. Today, porn is being made almost everywhere.

Our ignorance about this basic truth, says Lynn Comella, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, stems from our tendency to treat porn as beneath serious discourse. “In general, people [in America] don’t think a lot about porn, other than that it exists and that it involves sex,” she says. But in neglecting to think about porn critically, as we do most other forms of media, we’re missing the bigger picture. “The dominant narrative surrounding pornography — what it is, who performs in it, what those people are like and how pornography affects people — those views are widely shaped by a lot of misinformation, a lot of false claims,” says Comella. This kind of misinformation leaves us in the dark about the reality of porn around the world.

So here are the facts: America didn’t invent porn. Far from it. In fact, as Susanna Paasonen, a professor of Media Studies at the University of Turku in Helsinki, explains, “In Europe, there’s never been an understanding that porn is American,” because the European porn tradition is so much older and more deeply ingrained.

Before photographic porn, says Laura Helen Marks, a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University who focuses on sexuality in media, “France was the place that was associated with pornography. Pornographic literature would just be called ‘French books’ or ‘French novels.’ Even when they’d publish British pornography, they’d claim it was published in France so it was more titillating.” This tradition continued when photography came along, with early nudie photos labeled “French cards” for distribution in the U.S.

Erotic “French Cards” by Paul-Émile Bécat

Film technology was almost immediately put to use in the same sexy way that photography had been, with 10-minute stag films thought to have originated — you guessed it — in France before 1900. These films were quickly taken up by audiences and producers throughout the Western world, and they were relatively hardcore in nature. But they were shown only to private audiences, primarily in brothels and clubhouses, and there were just a few dozen in circulation at any given time.

After World War II, access to porn films — and the films themselves — began to evolve. Rebecca Sullivan explains: “This is when the United States broke down its studio system and made possible the rise of independent art cinema complexes. These independent art cinemas distinguished themselves by booking European films, and some of these films had looser restrictions [on sexual content]. And so European film became code for ‘sexy’ and ‘sophisticated’ [in America].”

Most of these films were softcore by today’s standards. The famed Swedish variety, in particular, tended toward vanilla sex captured without emphasis on genitals, often outdoors, in films like Arne Mattsson’s One Summer of Happiness (1951) and Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika (1953). But they were nevertheless exciting to relatively naïve American mainstream audiences throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, and — much to the delight of U.S. viewers — they began to trend in a more hardcore direction as time went on. Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 drama, I Am Curious (Yellow) veered into explicit territory that even European films had rarely explored on the big screen before, and sent shock waves through American audiences.

Then, in 1969, Denmark decriminalized video pornography; Sweden followed suit two years later. Around the same time, France, possibly offended by the influx of explicit film from elsewhere, levied heavy tariffs on imported pornography and, contradictorily, denied French porn producers government subsidies that had previously been available to all filmmakers. French pornographers, in effect, gave up even trying. “So for a while,” says Paasonen, “there was this kind of global monopoly for legal porn production in Denmark and Sweden.”

It didn’t take long for loops of 8mm and 16mm films from Scandinavia to be introduced to then-illegal peep show booths in sex shops across America, notably through Lasse Braun, a naturalized Swede of Italian descent who became one of Europe’s most celebrated porn producers. Braun found a workaround for hardcore film loops’ unlawful status in America, by — reputedly — working with the Mafia. “He would basically provide the material for the jerk-off booths,” explains Paasonen. “It was a big, sort of underground industry.” And, in the way of things people want but aren’t supposed to have, adds Paasonen, “It was massive.”

With the market for hardcore porn in the U.S. thus piqued, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “obscenity” applied only to materials that lacked “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” opening the possibilities for explicit film to American producers. Large-scale, big-budget, hardcore porn feature films such as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Doorsoon appeared in theaters around the country, along with European-made movies and, notably, films marketed as foreign that nevertheless starred American porn celebrities. The American company Caballero, for instance, produced Swedish Erotica, one of the longest-running porn series in existence, but, as Paasonen says, “There was nothing Swedish about the whole thing, except the name.” Still, the reputations of Swedish erotic films were so firmly entrenched in the American psyche by that point that the name was all audiences needed.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Europe, says Paasonen, “Mainstream porn started to be associated with U.S. porn in the 1990s because of the sheer volume. It was massive in California from the 1990s.” Local markets worldwide were inundated with the blonde American porn-starlet archetype, and a new paradigm took shape that remains with us to this day. “We have this idea that porn is American,” says Laura Helen Marks. “And the image of the stereotypical porn star is essentially Pamela Anderson. A blonde, white, big-boobed American, fairly physically formidable — that sort of California, healthy look.”

That said, it was never the only thing on the menu for Europeans. At the same time that Jenna Jameson was rising to prominence in the States, what Marks calls “the more slender, tan, completely natural, less-big-breasted sort of skinnier women” sprang into the spotlight in Hungary. The post-communist Hungarian government had, like many others, found itself in need of capital and decided to make money wherever it could. In 1993, says Marks, “All these television stations that were part of the communist regime were abandoned. The government decided that they would let any filmmakers, and primarily pornographers, use all of this equipment and all of these sets. So they made a concerted effort to create a porn industry in Budapest. And it was really cheap to do it.”

It paid off.

Budapest became a thriving center of pornographic plenty, with eager young would-be starlets flocking to the city to make the easy, legal money that “Budaporn” promised. Not to be outdone, international filmmakers rushed in to shoot, often bringing their best-known male talent along to be captured coupling with as much Eastern European female talent as possible, and in more explicit ways than they might back home.

Hungary had more lax laws regarding obscenity than America, which many filmmakers took as a carte blanche to film hardcore acts that were harder to distribute at home — or simply harder to talk American performers into. Primary among them? Backdoor action. Anal sex, though it’s been a part of human sexuality since time immemorial, wasn’t considered a normal part of our porn until the last couple decades, after it became so common in Budaporn that American directors had to incorporate it into their work or risk losing their competitive edge. The act, in turn, became so normalized in the American sexual repertoire that, these days, anal sex is the core selling point of even “celeb porn” a la Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom. More evidence: Any cursory look at any of the major porn tube sites (e.g., PornHub, YouPorn and XTube).

Farrah Abraham from MTV’s Teen Mom

Those sites in particular have fundamentally changed the relationship of consumers and producers to pornographic content. Porn is now, effectively, free to watch, and it’s being distributed by a whole new machine. As Sullivan says, “The tube model is a fundamentally different structuring of an industry, away from content and into transmission.”

Any place with smartphones is now a feasible site for porn production. With most countries’ laws struggling to keep up with the pace of technological innovation, and with international rules about the online distribution of obscenity — and what “obscenity” even constitutes — still nebulous, almost anyone can become a porn performer, director, producer or distributor. And so, while America played a big role in the development of modern pornography, we’re not quite Ground Zero for explicit imagery anymore. We just think we are. “The United States still dominates with content in terms of professionally produced, studio porn,” Sullivan says. “But we really don’t know anymore if there’s a content dominance in the world of the tube sites because people just upload stuff themselves.”

In other words: Now more than ever, there’s a much bigger (porn) world out there.

Here at MEL, that’s what we’re aiming to explore over the remainder of 2017. Once a month, starting tomorrow, we’ll be globe-hopping from continent to continent, investigating how the people there are making and consuming their porn — and how it’s influencing the porn we make and consume here in the U.S. It begins with Africa, specifically Nigeria, the youngest porn industry in the world (est. the mid-2010s), which has been led in part by a 45-year-old woman named AfroCandy. The Nigerian press frequently refers to her to as the country’s first porn star, and her music videos and films have revamped cultural norms in an otherwise highly religious nation — split between Christians and Muslims — where producing porn is still a major taboo (though not technically illegal).

“I’m not killing or stealing,” a man named Kingtblak tells me. But because he’s been making videos of himself having explicit sex with a rotating cast of women in various locations around Nigeria for almost exactly a year, he feels almost as though he were. “There’s been little issues,” he continues, “like some owners of hotels throwing me out of their hotels and arresting me for taking nude pics with girls in their hotel rooms and posting on social media, which resulted [in the] seizing of my laptop and iPhone 6s Plus, which is still currently in police custody.”

Porn Valley it’s not.

So join us for a spin around the world as we attempt to take in all of the sights and sounds its various porn industries have to offer.