Why is pornography scarce?

"Playboy Archives Go Digital," so read The Wall Street Journal headline from last week.  That’s right, 636 issues, on six discs, $100 per disc.

Have you noticed that storage is really, really cheap these days?  Have you studied the durable goods monopoly problem?  Once you’ve accumulated a stock of durable material, at some point you will sell off successive units very very cheaply.  Have you noticed that costs of electronic reproduction — call it marginal cost — are really, really low these days?  Have you noticed there is a massive stock of accumulated pornographic images?

Hmm…try graphing that equilibrium.

Call me clueless, as I have very little direct knowledge of pornography.  But I don’t understand why buyers demand such a regular flow of material.  Why don’t they just buy a single dense disc of images and keep themselves, um…busy…for many years?  I believe also that fetishes are fairly stable and predictable.  You don’t need to see "the new porn" to know what you will want to get off on.

As I observe the sector, buyers cough up new money all the time, and they buy relatively small units of output, and at relatively high prices.

Please "splain" it to me, as they say…

One possibility is the neuroeconomics explanation that buying the material yields more pleasure than "using" it.  Maybe porn and cookbooks have something in common after all.


Coolidge Effect.

I thought marginalrevolution was supposed to be a family blog? At least that's what TC said a month ago:


Inconsistent positioning is a dangerous thing...

Talk all you want about demand, there are two blades of the Marshallian scissors...and of course we would never *show* you porn in the post...surely little Junior can still contemplate why it is not scarce, even if he hasn't seen any...

Van Gend is right; the internet makes impulse buying easier than ever, and what impulse is stronger than sexual desire, especially in the face of such omnipresent and tempting ads?

As far as the regular flow of material ... why don't you just find one album you like, and listen to it over and over? Your libido doesn't even factor in, when explaining that $1k iTunes collection.

A few guesses.

1) I can certainly understand the need for new material; you get used to looking at the old stuff. Someone who's been following Playboy for years might have felt they've seen it all.

2) Maybe the idea of looking at pictures of those who are older than you isn't much of a turn-on. Perhaps even a fear of seeing a relative.

3) It could also be the same thing with the condoms, see


with respect to link #2. Spending $5 at a time on a magazine is one thing, but $100 in one shot for a whole cd of images is another. Although, can you buy the discs individually?

4) There isn't as much desire for a tribute to Anna Nicole Smith.

5) Centerfolds aren't as good in on a cd-rom. Either you see it shrunken down, or you have to scroll.


With Playboy, a lot of people use the excuse that they got it for the articles. I wonder how many people will buy the archive disc that includes 1976 and say it's because of the Jimmy Carter interview.

I have no idea why people pay for porn, as opposed to downloading it for free. You don't even need BitTorrent.

The worst part is you never know before you try porn a few times whether it's going to continue to seem hot to you. If I bought that six-CD set I would copy it all to hard drive and delete/delete/delete until I had about 600 images left. And in a couple of years only 300 of those would be left, because my tastes would change. For one thing, the more porn you buy, the pickier you can be. I can open a Maxim and not even find it hot, because I know how much better you can do online.

I'd say I spend about 66% of my time with old porn and about 33% looking for new stuff. All depends on whether you're looking for familiar or novel, and how much positive reinforcement you got from your last porn search.

Also, porn is not just repetitions on a formula. New stuff comes around, like videos from Brazilian topless beaches and amateur webcams, that delivers porn in fresh and more lifelike seeming packaging. Heck, http://www.idonothingallday.com/ just goes out and films women walking down the street in New York, and that can be enough of a twist to make it worthwhile.

For me, porn gets 'worn out'. What used to stimulate no longer does.

"Why don't they just buy a single dense disc of images and keep themselves, um...busy...for many years?"

I already have a sexual partner that I need to remain faithful to. Now you're saying that I should be faithful to a cache of pictures of women too?

How is this puzzle different for porn movies/photos than for regular movies/photos? The marginal costs to replication are equally low. The "equilibrium" price (per DVD, etc.) is also similar for new movies, regardless of the rating. You can get both types of movies for free online. We know many people don't simply download these movies for free for a number of factors: copyright worries, it is time consuming, there's always the risk to get a virus, not everyone has the technical savvy. Why is this a "special" puzzle for porn flicks?

I used to work in computer security, and one of my first gigs was monitoring Internet usage. Six months in that position and I fired a dozen people for habitually looking at porn while in the office. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that porn is an addiction for many people.

I have to agree with several of the posters here: there is no question that porn, like any other addictive activity or substance, builds up a "tolerance" in the user, such that more and more--or, in the case of porn, more and more extreme--forms of it are needed to produce the same "high".

In this sense, Playboy (or, perhaps, the Victoria's Secret catalog) is the equivalent of the "gateway drug": it leads to the racier-but-still-mainstream Penthouse and its equivalents, then on to Hustler, and so forth.

There are studies that document this, though I haven't seen any lately.

I hasten to add that--as a good "small-l" libertarian--I have nothing against people consuming porn in moderation (so long as they do it with the blinds down and don't frighten the horses...): it's no different in that regard than booze. But porn addiction is very real, and extremely destructive.

Single DVD + repeat viewing = marriage

Call me clueless, as I have very little direct knowledge of pornography.

Well this explains how TC gets so much reading done in a day.

(1) Don't confuse the pornonomics of movies with the pornonomics of photos. Six dvds of pictures (that is an enormous number of pictures) have near-infinite replay value, and can be produced fairly cheaply; six dvds of movies have only medium replay value, and are not at all cheap to produce.

(2) Technical change seems to be porn-biased. A grainy film from the '60s is not nearly so... pornographic... as a film from the '00s. So we have not been continuously accumulating pornography at the rate that Playboy has accumulated back-issues.

(3) The mystery that needs to be solved is not "why do people pay for pornography" but "why do a very, very small number of people pay for pornography"? Explaining the existence of outliers requires less rigor than explaining the normal behavior; there will always be outliers. For example, someone perusing the last few decades of quantum physics literature might wonder, "Why do so many people cultivate an understanding of advanced mathematical analysis?" This isn't as large a puzzle when you realize that we are talking about a tiny tail of the distribution of porn-users.

(4) Storage costs for goods need to be calculated in a way that includes storage risks. Granaries are a cheap way to store grain only if no one comes and robs my granaries. CDs are a cheap way to store porn only if my girlfriends don't make me throw them out.

I think the supply side question is also interesting: why is there so god-awful much out there for free?

"Lesbian Motorcycle Bondage" 933,000 hits on Google!

"I have very little direct knowledge of pornography."
"Why don't they just buy a single dense disc of images and keep themselves, um...busy...for many years?"

Question answered, Question asked.

As others have mentioned, who the hell wants to watch the same porn over and over? I don't even want to see the same girl more than once or twice.

I am always a little surprised that so many people pay so much for it. There might be enough supply for free to cover 24/7 viewing of new material. I realize it's not trivial to get it, but it's not rocket science either. Well anyways, those people subsidize my free viewing so thanks to them.

1) When you want it, you *really* want it, you aren't rational at all, and care little about price.

2) When you don't want it, you don't want to see it or think about it. Bargain deals are unappealing. Also, keeping stockpiles of porn is extremely distasteful to many, even on unobtrusive discs.

3) There is no resale market for used pornography.

4) Usually people like variety and would get sick of a gazillion issues of one magazine. Also, if people had a huge amount of content in a convenient form (discs), they would binge, and consume it very quickly, which would negate the cost benefits.

I would say that storage costs are a significant feature in answering why pornography isn't bought in bulk.

If your girlfriend/wife/mother(!) finds your collection of 30 images, you will have some explaining to do. If they find your collection of 32 000 images, including all sorts of wierd fetishes that were included in the bulk purchase that you haven't sorted out yet... let's just say you may have more of a problem.

I watch the same 5 or 6 porn clips over and over (have for years).

But there is something about the quest for something better, sometimes I browse new stuff, it's sort of like new music, why do I spend all this time downloading and screening new albums and bands when I should just wait for the top 100 lists at the end of the year and that would cover about 95% of the good stuff?

I don't get guys spending all this time watching porn. For me, if I feel compelled to masturbate it's just something I want to do quickly and efficiently, two minutes tops, and get it over with.

As others have stated, pornography is far from scarce.

Giovanni says:

3) There is no resale market for used pornography

but that is dead wrong. As my gf just sold 6 19th century postcard sized pornographic lithographs at ~ $250 US each (you think it might have been used in the last 125+ years?) illustrates.

Top quality mags run above cover price (but not necessarily above in constant dollars). Large pieces retain value. Most depreciates significantly, but much remains in trade.

Can someone explain why comments on this topic are so abundant? I have not done a relative count but would risk a small wager that the number would be amongst the highest Tyler has got to date......

One who speaks of "porn" as a single presumably-fungible commodity is by definition one who is unfamiliar with the dynamics of the market.

Porn is not fungible. Material from one supplier is not a substitute for material from another supplier. Material from a previous era is not a substitute for material produced more recently (nor vice versa). And although in many markets a great deal of material is available for free, it is not a substitute for that which requires payment.

The type of miscellaneous porn featured in mainstream mags like Playboy isn't my thing, so I wouldn't presume to speak with pretended authority on the market for it. But I have no trouble presuming that its consumers are at least as segmented as consumers in the porn markets I'm more familiar with. And just as what they sell is not remotely a substitute for what I sell, nor is what I sell a substitute for what they sell.

It's not so much that free porn is necessarily of inferior quality (it isn't), as that it's simply _different_.

I'd be happy to go into details about how and why...but this is, after all, a family blog, and a precise answer would not be appropriate for such a forum.

I have to agree with many posters here that Playboy is not the same as porn in the modern sense of the word. Playboy is really just the NC-17 version of Maxim. Each magazine probably has an equal number of hot women in it, the difference is really in the fact that Playboy shows a little more of their goods.

So for that reason, I would suspect that potential customers for Playboy's CD archives are not porn hounds, but Playboy collectors, and thus much more willing to shell out cash money for a nice handy substitute to bookcases stuffed with back issues.

I don't get guys spending all this time watching porn. For me, if I feel compelled to masturbate it's just something I want to do quickly and efficiently, two minutes tops, and get it over with.

Gee, if it took me two minutes each time I would never get any work done!

"As I observe the sector, buyers cough up new money all the time, and they buy relatively small units of output, and at relatively high prices."

Er, um, you're observing the small fraction of the market that's buying new porn.

Porn is a BIG market with lots of market participants. I sell porn for a living (actually, I'm a middleman, a professional porn affiliate) and I can tell you for sure that the people who actually PAY for new porn are a tiny tiny minority of the people who like to look at porn.

Many of the rest have assembled their own substantial collections, and can't imagine (as commenters upthread have indicated) why anybody actually buys porn at new retail price. Others are too guilt-ridden, lazy, or otherwise constrained by storage problems or a hostile storage environment, so they rummage through the nearly infinite free porn on the internet and also marvel at the folks who pay.

The porn consumers who DO demand novelty -- despite being a minority of porn enjoyers -- demand a LOT of it, and are willing to pay for it. I don't think that's a sign of addiction, any more than insisting on fresh vegetables (rather than eating out of a pantry full of cans) is a sign of food addiction. It's merely a market preference, like any other.

If there's a question here, it's "Why don't more porn sellers sell in bulk to the collectors / hoarders, the way Playboy now does?" I can think of several reasons, but at the end of they day, I think it's a market failure; there's an untapped market there.

Possible reasons:

1) When you're in the business of selling new stuff, there's a fear that selling huge piles of old stuff could cannibalize your business.

2) Paperwork and copyright issues. When you're not Playboy, when you're in a traditionally fly-by-night industry, there's a risk that you don't have all the paperwork you need to sell thirty year old porn in today's hostile regulatory environment.

3) Fear of piracy. The content industry is notoriously afraid to release large libraries of content. I suspect everyone here knows the ins and outs of that argument and has an opinion on the merits of this concern. But be aware that piracy is traditionally a big issue in the adult industry -- bigger than for music -- and adult content producers tend to take a very un-relaxed view of it. Also, being always on the cutting edge of technology, adult producers understand better than the music industry that DRM does not help, much.

I have a related question too: Why don't Matt and Bacchus give a fuck about women?

Bacchus, thanks for the comments.

1) I think your 'Possible reasons' are very likely to be actual reasons.
2) That's a good point about why people buy new porn, and how they are a small portion of the market that none the less keeps it afloat.
3) In response to the person above who says that free porn is different than paid for porn: If you have bittorrent and know where to go, you can access just about any porn that exists in digital form. It doesn't not take long for someone to pirate the newest non-free porn. I would not be at all surprised if it were possible to right now to access enough porn for free online to watch 16 hours a day for 60 years.
4) That sounds like a brutal business Bacchus. I bet there was a time not long ago when self-imposed barriers to entry made it quite profitable, but now you make it sound so super competitive. And with all the piracy, it's like you have to produce 1000 cars just to sell one.

The demand for pornography causes massive exploitation of children, women and men (in that order). None of you need it you know.

Can't speak for Bacchus, but the reason I don't start a blog about it is because my sub-field is unlikely to be of much insterest to people outside of it, and virtually everyone inside of it got tired of hearing my stories (and in many cases experiencing them) sometime around 2001.

As for jo...well, I suppose it depends on how you define "exploitation". I happen to be a firm believer in freedom of contract...whatever takes place between two uncoerced adults is fair game. I can't speak for every producer of every variety of porn, but none in my sphere have ever grabbed women off the street and held them down at gunpoint to force them to perform in front of a camera. I know I certainly haven't. And given that I'm paying girls between $50 and $250 per hour to sit in my studio doing things that they've been doing for years for free, I don't exactly have to intimidate anyone in order to get them to participate.

These girls are mostly college kids, and they can make more in a single two shoot weekend than they'd earn in a month of full-time work at any other job they'd be able to get before graduating. And not one has ever been asked to do anything she was remotely uncomfortable with...indeed, if they were uncomfortable with the details of my sort of content, I'd never have recruited them to begin with.

Working for government department where each and every word is confidential. Knowing that your shredded documents cannot be reassembled and that your confidential information is safe is worth every cent of the cost of a paper shredder

The saleman told me from whom I bought the shredder. All office shredders roll on casters for convenient sharing among offices. Every shredder model has a 10-year warranty on cutting heads and can take staples and paper clips which saves office stationary too.

The average office shredder does nothing to alter the computers where the vast majority of those paper documents originated.

According to the investigations Andersen partner David Duncan allegedly headed an effort to destroy documents related to Enron after learning the Securities and Exchange Commission had requested financial records from the company.

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I grew up with the flood of internet porn back in the 90s. And have to say that those days were very liberating but also very limiting. Looking at pictures and movies becomes so passe that most people hooked on the stuff want the next scintillating kick. So for me it went from simple nudity to sex acts, to voyeurism, to hardcore sex acts. I never quite got into bondage and still don't get those who love that stuff. But I did see alot of other things. Ultimately a lustful mind is never satisfied. But this is human nature. Not a failure of what pornography is.

I think in the future pornography will decrease and sex will increase. Pornography is but a poor mans substitute for sex. And people have to understand that most people indulging in pornography cannot get sex so readily. Otherwise pornography would be secondary. Even nowadays camchat cybersex is preferred over porn. And this trend will merely increase instead of porn.

Perhaps 10,20yrs from now when the internet is sufficiently equipped and fast enough, we will be seeing whole rooms of cybersex where people plug in with virtual reality photorealistic scenarios and you won't be able to tell the difference between the real thing. If this is some form of escapism...then sociologists shouldn't be looking at the symptoms as to why this is, but rather if society is becoming so repressed that escapism is the only way out. And for this, we are talking about a whole different subject entirely.

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