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Nerd Herder
May 27, 2020
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A Brief History of Porn on the Internet

Pornographers developed many early innovations in internet marketing, like pop-up ads and subscriptions. And women were among the most successful entrepreneurs in the business.Alyssa Foote; Getty Images
This story is adapted from The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise, by David Kushner.

“Almighty God, Lord of all life, we praise You for the advancements in computerized communications that we enjoy in our time. Sadly, however, there are those who are littering this information superhighway with obscene, indecent, and destructive pornography.”

It was June 14, 1995, inside the Senate chamber in Washington, D.C., and Jim Exon, a 74-year-old Democrat from Nebraska with silver hair and glasses, had begun his address to his colleagues with a prayer written for this occasion by the Senate chaplin. He was there to urge his fellow senators to pass his and Indiana senator Dan Coats’ amendment to the Communications Decency Act, or CDA, which would extend the existing indecency and anti-obscenity laws to the “interactive computer services” of the burgeoning internet age. “Now, guide the senators,” Exon continued his prayer, “when they consider ways of controlling the pollution of computer communications and how to preserve one of our greatest resources: The minds of our children and the future and moral strength of our Nation. Amen.”

As the stone-faced senators watched, Exon held up a blue binder that, he warned, was filled with the sort of “perverted pornography” that was “just a few clicks away” online. “I cannot and would not show these pictures to the Senate, I would not want our cameras to pick them up,” he said, but “I hope that all of my colleagues, if they are interested, will come by my desk and take a look at this disgusting material.”

They were interested.

One by one, they flipped through the pages of “grotesque stuff,” as Coats put it, that innovation fostered. He cited figures—albeit dubious—from a study that found more than 450,000 pornographic images online that had been accessed approximately 6.4 million times the previous year. The main source had been the free newsgroups—alt.sex, alt.bestiality—and so on, that remained a Wild West of flesh and filth. “With old Internet technology, retrieving and viewing any graphic image on a PC at home could be laborious,” Coats explained, forebodingly. “New Internet technology, like browsers for the Web, makes all this easier.”

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As urgent as the situation seemed to the senators, however, such concerns over pornography and emerging technology were far from new. John Tierney, a fellow at Columbia University who studied the cultural impact of technology, traced what he called the “erotic technological impulse” back at least 27,000 years—among the first clay-fired figures uncovered from that time were women with large breasts and behinds. “Sometimes the erotic has been a force driving technological innovation,” Tierney wrote in The New York Times in 1994, “virtually always, from Stone Age sculpture to computer bulletin boards, it has been one of the first uses for a new medium.”

Such depictions emerged, predictably, with every new technological advent. With cave art, there came sketches of reclining female nudes on walls of the La Magdelaine caves from 15,000 BC. When Sumerians discovered how to write cuneiform on clay tablets, they filled them with sonnets to vulvas. Among the early books printed on a Gutenberg press was a 16th-century collection of sex positions based on the sonnets of the man considered the first pornographer, Aretino—a book banned by the pope. Each new medium followed a similar pattern of innovation, porn, and outrage. One of the first films shown commercially was The Kiss in 1900, distributed by Thomas Edison, which depicted 18 seconds of a couple nuzzling.

“The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting,” one critic wrote, while Edison celebrated how the film “brings down the house every time.” The first erotic film, a striptease called Le Coucher de la Mariée, released in 1896, was also heating up audiences.

By the late 1950s, the advent of 8-mm film put the power of porn in anyone’s hands—and launched the modern porn industry. When videocassette recorders entered homes 20 years later, more than 75 percent of the tapes sold were porn. It became widely accepted that Sony’s decision to ban porn from its competing Betamax format doomed it to oblivion. More recently, the breaking apart of the Bell phone system in 1984 spawned the explosion in 900 phone-sex numbers. And so it was no surprise that the dawn of the internet was giving rise to the same kind of innovation, demand, and outrage that had been going on for eons.

The furor over internet pornography had started with the publication of a study, “Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway,” in The Georgetown Law Journal. The authoritative-sounding study, written by a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate, Marty Rimm, claimed to be “a Survey of 917,410 Images, Description, Short Stories and Animations Downloaded 8.5 Million Times by Consumers in Over 2000 Cities in Forty Countries, Provinces and Territories.” Rimm asserted that 80 percent of images on newsgroups, the primary repository of pictures online, were porn.

That shocking figure caught the attention of Time magazine, which published a cover story on July 3, 1995, just in time for holiday readers, announcing the soon-to-be-released findings. The cover photo showed a young boy at a computer keyboard, bathed in blue light, eyes wide, mouth opened in horror. “CYBERPORN,” the cover line screamed, “a new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is. Can we protect our kids—and free speech?” As the writer put it in the piece, “If you think things are crazy now, though, wait until the politicians get hold of a report coming out this week.”

He was right. Despite the outcry of civil libertarians and skeptics (“Rimm’s implication that he might be able to determine ‘the percentage of all images available on the Usenet that are pornographic on any given day’ was sheer fantasy,” as Mike Godwin wrote on HotWired), Rimm’s study became the basis of the Communications Decency Act proposal. And, as Exon put it during the Senate gathering, their responsibility was clear. Despite objections over the restrictions on free speech, the CDA would target the burgeoning purveyors of porn online, who would now face up to two years in prison for posting obscene material that could be accessed by anyone under age 18. When the vote was taken, the answer was overwhelming: The Senate, and later the House, approved the CDA.

By summer, however, the basis of the law had been resoundingly discredited. Rimm’s paper, savaged by critics, was found to have been published without peer review—feeding conspiracy theories that it was all the machinations of anti-porn activists. The New York Times dismissed the study as “a rip-snorter,” filled with “misleading analysis, ambiguous definitions and unsupported conclusions.” Attacked by internet trolls, Rimm went into hiding. But his work, and the senators,’ was done.

On February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act into law. “Today,” he said, “with the stroke of a pen, our laws will catch up with the future.” For Exon and the others, it couldn’t have come soon enough. “If nothing is done now,” as he had urged his colleagues during the hearing, “the pornographers may become the primary beneficiary of the information revolution.”

One day in Boca Raton, Florida, in May 1996, Jordan Levinson, the owner of AIS Marketing, a startup that brokered ads for adult websites, received a call from a man who wanted to benefit from the burgeoning underworld of the information revolution: Stephen Cohen.

Levinson, who had worked with his father running a phone-sex company, had encountered plenty of wannabe pornographers in his day, and he sensed that, as he later put it, Cohen “didn’t seem too knowledgeable of the industry.” But Cohen had something more valuable: the one domain that anybody with a computer and a modem would type if they were looking for porn, www.sex.com. So he readily struck a deal to buy, sell, and collect ads for what Cohen promised would be the single greatest destination for “sucking and fucking” online.

Despite the federal regulation, there was simply no way to stop the flood of porn online, let alone determine or enforce the age of consumers. And now more people than ever were online. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of homes with computers was skyrocketing—approaching 36 percent of US households, up from 22.8 percent in 1993, and just 8 percent in 1984. One in five Americans were now using the internet.
A stripper named Danni Ashe read a book on HTML programming and launched her own fan site. She started charging $15 a month for access, and before long, Ashe was making $2.5 million a year and reportedly using more bandwidth than all of Central America.​

Of these, most reported using it for email or, as the Census Bureau catalogued it, “finding government, business, health, or education information,” though anyone online at the time knew exactly what they were really seeking—just as generations had on every new medium before them. Even better, as Cohen learned, they were willing to pay for porn. When he launched Sex.com as a business in the spring of 1996, an underworld of outlaws, innovators, and entrepreneurs was racing to cash in. But first they had to do what no one had reliably done before: figure out how to make money online.

While Cohen might sell membership subscriptions to his site—charging visitors a monthly fee to access photos, videos, and so on—as Levinson explained, the trick was getting surfers to click a banner ad, the interactive billboards of the information superhighway, and visit a site. A banner ad on one page could be clicked and take a visitor to the other. The value for the advertisers came two ways: in “impressions,” meaning the number of times the banners loaded up for visitors to see, and in “clicks,” the number of times someone clicked on the ad, which would take him to their site. “They pay for the advertising,” as Levinson put it, “they pay for their banner spot to be there.” Levinson would be his ad guy—buying, selling, and collecting money, all for a 15 percent cut. How much could Cohen get? With a site like Sex.com, Levinson thought, upward of $30,000 per ad.

Cohen didn’t even need to make porn, he realized, to make money. He could make money just by selling ads on his site and cashing in on the traffic he sent to others. Cohen took one look at his blank webpage and knew exactly what he wanted to do: sell as many banner ads as possible, and rake it in. All he needed to do was get the word out to the nascent pornographers online that he was open for business. And the place to do this was Vegas.

The burgeoning moguls and fans of internet porn gathered there for their annual convention, AdultDex, which coincided with Comdex, the annual computer trade show that drew 200,000 technology enthusiasts to town. Porn had long been a welcome draw at electronics shows since fueling the VCR boom in the 1980s. But times were changing. Two years earlier, AdultDex exhibitors got banned from Comdex for showing too much nudity, both on CD-ROMs and with scantily clad porn stars in their booths. (When the porn companies wouldn’t leave, Comdex organizers had to unplug their electricity to get them out the door). “Their stuff is obscene, and we don’t need them,” a Comdex spokeswoman told the Las Vegas Sun after the convention in 1995, and if that meant losing $500,000 in booth rental revenue, so be it.

But to the relief of Comdex attendees, AdultDex refused to go for good. In November 1996, instead, they simply moved their computers and dominatrixes across the street to the Sahara, the Moroccan-themed hotel casino made famous in the 1950s by the Rat Pack. Cohen would be among the throngs streaming in and out of the porte-cochère entrance under the flashing lights of the yellow-domed minaret.

Across the smoke-filled casino floor, these were his people: the quick-talking moguls with fat wallets and chunky cell phones, the slinky adult actresses and actors at the slots, the wide-eyed Comdex attendees from Iowa with their laminate tags deftly flipped to hide their names. On the small exhibit floor, they showed off their software titles on smudgy screens: The Dollhouse, Men in Motion, Virgins 2. In another booth, a company was demonstrating Showgirls Live, a live video feed, albeit painfully slow, that showed a stripper disrobing onscreen—an experience that could be had for $5 a minute. Jenna Jameson, a doe-eyed buxom blonde and the industry’s most popular adult star, preened for photos as she extolled the wonders of her electronic mail. “It’s so much easier than fan mail,” she told a reporter from CNN, “let me tell you.”

For Cohen, it was a chance for him to be king. And he would be king of it all, he determined, because he had the most desired clubhouse online of all, the one that would be the first stop for the Iowans and their ilk online. He had Sex.com, and they would bow to him. Among those who were seeking Cohen out was Yishai Hibari, an Israeli musician turned adult webmaster who wanted to take out ads on the site. Word was that Cohen was doing three times the traffic. Among the porn stars in bikinis and guys with greased-back hair, he saw what he recalled to be “a funny chubby guy with an important look on his face,” walking a small white Chihuahua with a red ribbon around its neck. Cohen was always chatty, and chummy, friends never saw him in a bad mood. “I heard you own Sex.com,” Hibari told him.

“I don’t know,” Cohen replied, vaguely.

Hibari couldn’t understand why he was being so circumspect. “Everything was unclear,” he later recalled. But that, he learned, was Cohen’s way, a tactic, however strange, for keeping people on edge and maintaining leverage. A few weeks later, Cohen relented—instructing Hibari to contact Levinson about buying precious space on his site—to the tune of $50,000 a banner. Sex.com wasn’t pretty, Hibari could see, but Cohen’s barebones use of it as a “banner farm” was a business coup. “It was genius,” he said. Kevin Blatt, a marketing executive for adult sites, thought Cohen was, in his own way, a visionary: someone who saw the value of the traffic and realized that the best way to cash in was by cramming as many possible banners on his site as he could.

It didn’t take long for the success to go to Cohen’s head. He became known for wandering porn shows with a smug smile, his polo shirt embroidered with the Sex.com logo. Even among the rulers of the Wild Porn West online, he soon gained an unseemly reputation. He sued anyone, and everyone, who had the word "sex" in a domain name. Serge Birbair, the owner of Sexia.com, was among those who, as he put it, was “harassed by Stephen Cohen.” When hit with Cohen’s lawsuit, he didn’t have the money to fight back against the traffic king—and chose instead to relent, handing over Sexia.com to Cohen. “It cost me money to defend myself, and it cost me a lot of grief,” as one pornmaster put it after caving in. “Eventually, I decided it ain’t worth the fight.” Cohen reveled in the power. No one could stop him with Sex.com on his side.

The world at large was taking notice of the online porn explosion, too. The Wall Street Journal marveled at how cyberporn was "fast becoming the envy of the Internet. While many other Web outposts are flailing, adult sites are taking in millions of dollars a month. Find a Web site that is in the black and, chances are, its business and content are distinctly blue.”

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The article detailed how the innovators in porn had done more than just slap dirty pictures online. Pornographers had figured out nifty innovations in internet marketing, created ads that “popped up” in front of webpages, and succeeded in upselling visitors to actually shelling out money for subscriptions. They’d also created new kinds of delivery mechanisms, secure credit card payments, and live videos. “Internet pornographers deploy savvy tactics that mainstream sites would do well to imitate,” as the story put it.

Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who represented the old-media sex empire, put it succinctly to the Journal when he said, “There are a lot of computer nerds emerging as porno kings.”

And, for that matter, porno queens. Women were among the most innovative and successful entrepreneurs in the business. Beth Mansfield, an Army brat and Nascar fan from Alabama, was a single mom and unemployed accountant living in a mobile home when she heard of people making money in porn online. Mansfield didn’t want to make porn, however, so she began carefully curating pages of links to other sites. A concerned mom, she refused to use profanity on her pages, and would substitute asterisks to cloak sh*t and f*ck. But perhaps her greatest innovation was branding—naming the site Persian Kitty, after her cat. Something about the mystique of the name, the idea that a woman was behind the site, went viral—even more so because Mansfield kept her real identity anonymous. Before long, she was selling ads across the web to sites that paid a premium to be listed on her page. In her first year, she made $3.5 million.

A few miles from Mansfield’s mansion in Seattle, an ambitious young stripper named Danni Ashe read a book on HTML programming during a beach vacation. She launched her own fan site online, Danni’s Hard Drive, in 1995 as a place to put her own promotional pictures. Then Ashe struck on a more lucrative idea— charging for membership, still a new idea at the time. She hired models and posted pictures, audio interviews, and videos, and then charged $15 a month for access—becoming one of the first subscription sites on the internet, besides The Wall Street Journal (which later profiled her in a page-one story about online pornographers, called “Lessons for the Mainstream”). Before long, Ashe was making $2.5 million a year and reportedly using more bandwidth than all of Central America.

As the moguls of porn became the envy of the internet, the federal government conveniently got out of their way. On June 26, 1997, after more than a year of heated debate about the censoring of the internet, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act for violating the First Amendment. It was a landmark decision, protecting the young medium from government regulation. As humorist Dave Barry put it a few months later, after visiting that year’s AdultDex convention, “this fast-growing billion-dollar industry will undoubtedly come up with newer and better ways to help losers whack off.” For better or worse, online porn was here to stay.
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