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Just How Big is the Porn Business?

Last Updated: April 7, 2015

Finding reliable statistics about the production and consumption of pornography is difficult to do. A cursory glance around the World Wide Web yields different results. Just how many billions of dollars does the adult film industry make?

To be sure, there are the “accepted” statistics that get passed around from Web page to Web page, but are they trustworthy?

Confusing Numbers

There are many reasons why statistics can be confusing. What market size are you looking at? Is this revenue from worldwide sales or U.S. markets? What counts as “pornography”? Many statistics reflect only a certain niche of sales, while others include everything from Internet Web sites, pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, in-room hotel movies, phone sex, magazines, and sex toys.

Then there is the tendency to inflate: bigger numbers grab more attention. I get wrapped up in this as easily as anyone. It is easy to take a quote and run with it. In a recent interview with The Plow I said, “There’s no debating the size of the pornography industry.” Apparently there is. I stand corrected.

A popular site for pornography statistics is from TopTenREVIEWS. This site reports that while statistics are compiled from credible sources, “statistics are hard to ascertain and may be estimated by local and regional worldwide sources.” Several statistics on this site clash (or at least aren’t properly defined).

The 2001 Forbes article, “How Big Is Porn?” reflects this controversy. When you combine the statistics from Adams Media Research, IVD, Forrester Research, and the Veronis Suhler Communications Industry Report, pornography made no more than $3.9 billion that year. The Internet, according the article, contributed about $1 billion of that revenue. This is a far cry from the $10-14 billion that some sources reported that year.

The thesis of the Forbes article is that much of our statistics about porn sales come from members of the adult film industry itself. The article concludes: “Certainly, self-interested statements by pornographers merit a second look.” Perhaps pornography, from a business perspective, isn’t the enormous corporate giant it is made out to be.  But then again, these figures are 7 years old.

In 2002, The National Academies Press agreed with this Internet porn $1-billion figure and further states, “The industry is highly fragmented and information about it is meager.” Now, the Internet market for pornography has certainly grown in the past seven years. TopTenREVIEWS and The New York Times report that the online porn brought in $2.5 billion in 2005 and $2.8 billion in 2006. (These statistics, unfortunately, come from the Adult Video Network, the same pornographers who have been known to fudge their statistics.)

Money is Not the Measure

However, revenue is not the only measure of the consumption of pornography. Because of the Internet, the availability of free pornography is greater than it has ever been.

  • The number of adult pay Web sites is growing rapidly. In 2001, there was 70,000-74,000 adult pay Web sites (NY Times, 2001; The Guardian, 2002). In 2002, it was estimated that there was as many as 100,000 pornographic websites hosted in the US, 400,000 globally (The National Academies Press, 2002). In 2004 there were nearly 1.6 million (SignOnSanDiego, 2004). Each site hosts multiple Web pages, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. These stats do not count the not-for-profit sites.
  • In 2001, a study by social psychologists at the London School of Economics showed that nine out of 10 children, ages 11-16, had viewed pornography on the Internet (The Guardian, 2002). In 2001, 70% of online youth, ages 15-17, said they had accidentally stumbled across pornography online, with 9% saying this has happened very often, 14% somewhat often, and 47% not too often (Kaiser Family Foundation 2001).
  • At a 2003 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, two thirds of the 350 divorce lawyers who attended said the Internet played a significant role in the divorces that year, with excessive interest in online porn contributing to more than half such cases (Divorce Wizards).
  • In 2006, there were 68 million daily pornographic requests on Internet search engines—25% of total search engine requests (TopTenREVIEWS).

While the information is scattered and scarce, the trends in the statistics we do know reflect the same thing: pornography consumption is on the rise. The fact that we cannot completely keep track of the money trail is itself a scary thought: it may mean that people have discovered more ways of getting pornography in less detectable ways (Web sites, file sharing, peer-to-peer downloads, etc.) and for cheaper (or free).

As always, comments are open. Does anyone have reliable pornography industry statistics that I am unaware of?

  1. Nick

    Thank you for your good article. I appreciate the research and integrity.

    What about the sex toy industry? Sexual enhancement products? We live in a sex-fueled world these days, it seems. If you have any references that would help me I am looking to start a blog that does a comprehensive fact-based analysis to answer the big question in my mind “How much of Americans $$ go to sex?” and “Is sex recession proof?”

    Thank you

    • @Nick – Try doing some research through AVN (Adult Video News). They might have accurate stats about the sex toy business. Usually these stats about the adult industry encompass those sort of businesses as well.

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