Sunday, May 13, 2001

Home is where the porn is


New ways to deliver muddle 'community standards'

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The last of Hamilton County's peep shows and adult movie theaters lost their fights with the vice squad long ago.

        And in the next few weeks, two video stores will face obscenity trials for selling X-rated movies.

        But despite decades of conflict with law enforcement - and despite the community's conservative reputation - the pornography business is alive and well in Hamilton County.

        Tens of thousands of Hamilton County residents buy pornographic movies every year from mail-order companies, satellite dishes, cable TV and countless Internet Web sites.

        The transactions are quick, quiet and home-delivered.

        It is the kind of business that has taken the nation's adult movie industry from annual sales of about $10 million in 1970 to well over $4 billion today.

PORN FINDINGS
  To evaluate Hamilton County's community standards, the Enquirer measured the availability and popularity of sexually explicit material here. Findings:
  • The Internet: 182,000 Internet users in Greater Cincinnati visited an adult web site at least once in January.
  • Mail Order: More than 21,000 Hamilton County residents ordered a total of 26,000 adult videos last year from one of the nation's largest mail-order companies, Adam & Eve.
  • Pay-per-view: Viewers in the Hamilton County TV market purchased adult pay-per-view movies at a slightly higher rate than residents in other mid-sized markets, according to a company that provides pay-per-view content.
  • Hotels: A telephone check of 20 Hamilton County hotels — from Sharonville to downtown Cincinnati — found that 11 offered guests some kind of adult pay-per-view movies.
  • Magazines: More than 20 stores and newstands carry explicit magazines in Hamilton County. On any given month, as many as 25 different magazines and 3,700 copies of those magazines are on store shelves. Home circulation figures show Playboy outsells Money, Seventeen and U.S. News and World Report.
        The boom is the product of a high-tech, borderless world that has fundamentally changed the concept of community standards — that hard-to-quantify line in the sand that defines a community's tolerance for pornography.

        “(The technology) has broadened the audience in a way that was never really possible before,” says Barry Parr, an e-commerce analyst in Boston. “It requires us to re-think what we mean by community standards.”

        Although no community defines its standards in writing, Hamilton County's are consistently portrayed as among the most conservative in America.

        They have been used to justify vice squad raids, Larry Flynt's obscenity trials and the prosecution of the Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibit.

        But the notion of a strict community standard is open to question when thousands of Cincinnatians log on to adult Internet sites and order movies like Naughty College School Girls as easily as they can order the latest John Grisham novel.

        How does a community set a standard — let alone enforce one — when residents no longer buy or watch most sexually explicit movies in public?

        To gauge today's standards, the Enquirer examined the popularity of adult movies and products in Hamilton County.

        As it turns out, the rapid growth of the nation's adult industry didn't stop at the county line. Consider:

        • Last year, more than 21,000 Hamilton County residents purchased 26,000 explicit videos from one of the nation's largest mail-order companies. A company spokeswoman described those sales as typical for a community of this size.

        • In January of this year, 182,000 Greater Cincinnati residents — an estimated 70,000 from Hamilton County — visited an adult Web site at least once. Nielsen/NetRatings found that 21.8 percent of all residents here who went online visited an adult site. The national average for January was 21.4 percent.

        • In recent months, Hamilton County residents bought adult movies on pay-per-view TV at about the same rate as viewers did in other mid-sized TV markets.

        The numbers suggest county residents are quiet contributors to the adult industry's rapid growth.

        And with every purchase, they change Hamilton County's long-held notion of a community standard.

Market grows

        The technology that fuels the adult industry also provides a new way of measuring Hamilton County's interest in, and perhaps tolerance for, sexually explicit material.

        For years, movie ticket and video sales were key measures. Now, the market is defined by the same ratings system used by network television.

        According to Nielsen/NetRatings, a branch of the Nielsen TV rating service, Hamilton County residents browse adult Internet sites from home about as often as Web surfers do anywhere else.

        Of the 839,000 Greater Cincinnatians who went online in January, 182,000 visited an adult web site at least once, Neilsen says. An estimated 40 percent of those — roughly 70,000 — were from Hamilton County.

        “That doesn't surprise me,” says Larry Flynt, the Hustler publisher who has battled county authorities since the 1970s. “You can download all the smut you want on your PC, even if you live in Hamilton County.”

        Nielsen tracks hundreds of sites in the adult category, covering everything from porncity.net to electrosmut.com. The sites invite viewers to download photos, share their fetishes or buy the latest installment of the Kinky Mature Women video series.

        The nation's largest adult mail-order company, Adam & Eve, relies on the Internet to help distribute millions of videos, sexual aids and condoms every year.

        Last year, the North Carolina company shipped 34,000 items to 28,000 different customers in Hamilton County. That total includes more than 26,000 videos purchased by 21,000 customers.

        All of the videos feature explicit sex scenes, ranging from couple-oriented movies to more explicit themes. Adam & Eve spokeswoman Katy Zvolerin says sales in Hamilton County, which has 845,000 residents, are typical for a community of this size.

        “This is about average,” Ms. Zvolerin says. “There's always going to be that element of naughtiness, wherever you are.”

        Although still dominated by male customers, the audience for adult movies has become more diverse as the products have become more accessible. Adam & Eve claims women now make up 20 percent of its catalog customers, and 30 percent of its online customers.

        “There's just been an incredible increase in exposure to the material,” says Jennifer Bass, spokeswoman for The Kinsey Institute for research in sex, gender and reproduction at Indiana University. “That loosens the buying patterns among people who might not normally have bought pornography.”

Digital delivery

        Those who can't wait for a video to arrive in the mail turn to pay-per-view on cable and satellite TV.

        New Frontier, a Colorado company that provides adult content for satellite and cable, would not disclose subscriber numbers for adult pay-per-view in Hamilton County. But a company spokesman says monthly “buy rates” indicate viewers in Greater Cincinnati buy at least as much adult pay-per-view as those in other markets of this size.

        “Your area does very well. It performs better than the majority of other markets similar to yours,” says New Frontier spokesman Mitch Miller, whose company is one of the major suppliers of adult content for pay-per-view. “People say (adult movies) are not mainstream, but that's ridiculous. It's big business.”

        Nationally, he says, a typical Hollywood movie on pay-per-view is purchased by about 5 percent of subscribers, while the most explicit adult movies attract up to 20 percent.

        On any given night on DirecTV, the nation's largest satellite TV company, viewers can choose from a variety of pay-per-view movies that promise “hot, erotic entertainment.”

        The cost typically runs from $4.99 to $8.99, and the choices range from The Wicked Voyeur to Hot Body, Hot Booty.

        Customers who don't want adult programming can opt out of the service or use “parental blocks” to bar access by children. Many customers, though, keep the pay-per-view option.

        “We carry adult programming for the very same reason we carry sports and entertainment packages,” says Bob Marsocci, a spokesman for DirecTV. “There is a very strong demand for it.”

        More than 165,000 Time Warner cable subscribers in Hamilton County also have access to adult pay-per-view, but the movies are not as explicit as those on satellite. The cable movies show nudity and sexual situations, but not the graphic close-ups that are hallmarks of X-rated programming.

        “All of our adult programming is edited Hamilton County-style,” says Time Warner spokeswoman Jennifer Mooney. “It's the tamest in the U.S.”

        Ms. Mooney describes adult pay-per-view as “a popular service,” but she would not disclose how many subscribers use it.

        Pay-per-view is not limited to the home. At hotels, adult movies account for 90 percent of pay-per-view revenue.

        A telephone check of 20 Hamilton County hotels — from downtown Cincinnati to Sharonville — found more than half offer guests some kind of adult pay-per-view service. The national average is about 40 percent.

        Mr. Miller says the key to pay-per-view's popularity is the promise of anonymity for those who buy it.

        “The technology has helped us tremendously,” he says. “It's very private now.”

National industry

        The success of the adult industry here mirrors its recent success in communities across the country.

        Since the arrival of the videocassette recorder in the 1980s, adult businesses have been evolving from small-time shops on the edge of town into major companies that trade on the Nasdaq.

        The VCR changed everything because it gave producers of adult movies a direct pipeline to customers' homes, making it possible to see a XXX movie without going to a public theater.

        The industry's fortunes improved again in the 1990s as satellite, cable and Internet technology became more available to the masses.

        “It's been big for the industry,” says Mark Kernes, a senior editor at Adult Video News, which tracks industry statistics. “Now you can get everything at home.”

        Adam & Eve's Ms. Zvolerin describes the typical customer as between 35 and 49 years old, married, college-educated and a parent.

        According to Adult Video News, this customer buys a lot of adult movies:

        • Adult videos account for 28 percent of all video sales and rentals at U.S. stores that carry both adult and mainstream movies.

        • More than 11,000 different adult movies were made last year, up from 2,200 in 1992.

        • Sales volume for adult videos reached $4 billion last year, up from $1.6 billion in 1992. Those totals do not include mail-order sales.

        As in any other sector of the economy, the top adult companies are those that take advantage of new technology. Adam & Eve has transformed itself from a mail-order condom company into a major distributor of adult products.

        The company now boasts $65 million in annual sales, 350 employees and a modern, three-story office complex in North Carolina. It even hires psychologists and sex therapists for quality control, ensuring that products meet the company's “sex positive” standard.

        “Everything we sell is for cheerfully consenting adults,” Ms. Zvolerin says.

        Corporate policies and standards were virtually unheard of 20 years ago in the adult industry. But that was before so many corporations got into the adult business.

        AT&T owns the Hot Network, an adult cable channel. Time Warner offers explicit films to cable subscribers around the country. And New Frontier is a publicly traded company that serves 27 million households nationwide.

        “We would not have grown this fast if our product was not very popular,” Mr. Miller says.

        It's certainly popular with guys like Phil Morris, a 40-year-old White Oak man. The father of four buys explicit material from mail-order companies and is a regular customer at Elyse's Passion in Pendleton, one of the stores facing obscenity charges here.

        He says he views an explicit video about once a week, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes to “liven up” the marriage.

        “Getting it at your doorstep saves you time,” Mr. Morris says. “You can order what you want, when you want.”

Legal impact
        While the business boom has transformed the adult industry, it ultimately may have just as much impact on the legal concept of community standards in places like Hamilton County.

        For decades, county law enforcement and anti-porn activists waged war against sexually explicit material, claiming community standards here were the highest in the country.

        But the question now is what happens to those standards if Hamilton County, as the numbers suggest, is actually an average market for adult entertainment.

        “It's everywhere now,” says H. Louis Sirkin, a lawyer who has represented Mr. Flynt and others accused of obscenity. “I don't think the concept of a local community standard is really valid any more.”

        The community standard is more than just a catch phrase. It's part of a legal test the U.S. Supreme Court established to help juries decide whether a particular movie or product is obscene, and therefore against the law.

        In a 1973 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unreasonable to require that “the people of Maine or Mississippi accept public depiction of conduct found tolerable in Las Vegas or New York City.”

        Some anti-pornography activists complain that the court's 28-year-old ruling no longer is the best way to measure or regulate explicit material. They advocate a more specific, national standard — one that lists sex acts that are obscene no matter where you live.

        “You have to get away from the subjectivity of it,” says Jerry Kirk, chairman of the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen says more federal involvement is a good idea, but others say local authorities can do more to enforce local standards.

        Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, an anti-porn group, argues that law enforcement must prosecute all high-tech pornography, even if it means taking on one Web site at a time.

        “Does this mean our community standards are different? Of course not,” Mr. Burress says. “It just means law enforcement is overwhelmed, and we have work to do.”

        The adult industry is working, too. Industry officials say they will continue to look for new ways to expand their business. More satellite packages. More Web sites. More choices for their customers, including the tens of thousands in Hamilton County.

        “The interest is there,” Mr. Miller says. “Sex sells.”

Legal standard full of confusion
Hamilton County's battles over porn



- Home is where the porn is
Burned body of child found in park
Taft criticized as ineffective
Cincinnati is greater than we think
Editorial: We need a regional strategy
How metros in our region rank
Lynch draws on lessons of civil-rights movement
History student meets his subject
PULFER: Fear, guilt just part of mother's job
BRONSON: A Mother's Day story
Jewelry favorite gift for mom
Reds, concert will jam riverfront
WILKINSON: Despite unrest, Luken is no loser
CROWLEY: When does growth become bad?
Congrats
Court battle over 1808 house
Crestview Hills celebrates 50 years as community
Drowned man's body recovered from river
Gypsy moths on way to central Ohio
Kentucky Education Notes
Local Digest
Locked-out steel crews attend rally
Power poles not wanted
Pro-gun women plan rally
School plans new rankings
Walk-ins more than levy margin