RESEARCH SUMMARY: “The Rise of the Modern Online Pornography Industry: Descriptions and Implications”

This article summarizes key points made in a presentation by Dr. Jennifer Johnson at the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Global Summit (which can be watched above). The goal of the presentation is to help the listener and leaders in the #EndExploitation movement understand that online pornography is a highly organized industry directed by relatively few leaders, not a spread out enterprise made up of many different small business interests as it may at first appear to the public.

The online commercial porn industry (OCPI) began with the help of an organization called Manwin (which later became and is now known as MindGeek) created by Fabian Thyalmann. However, it was not started because Manwin/MindGeek wanted to help promote sexual health or free speech. The goal was to create a profit from their creation of the new software system called Next-Generation Affiliate Tracking Software (NATS).

In 2007, Dr. Johnson and a team of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University hand-collected data from adult video websites. Their goal was to look at the businesses involved in the porn industry and their relationships, if any. Dr. Johnson and her team visited each website and classified them by type of business. They classified them into consumer, affiliate, conglomerate, producer, distributor, financial, forum and mainstream websites. Their research found that all of these businesses were connected and had strong ties. Moreover, their study showed that all of the affiliate websites are controlling what consumers see through a “core business structure,” though the consumer is unaware. Therefore, NATS is the foundation of OCPI because it “facilitate[s] marketing and monetization across websites.”

Once free porn started becoming available around 2010, websites like used these algorithms from NATS to search for free porn and then put it all together in one site—their own site—so they could make a profit. “became an aggregator site” because after they had examined the internet for free porn, they put it “into one place for monetization via advertising[,] and [it] direct[ed] traffic to paid sites [that were] also owned by MindGeek.” This cut out the “middle-man” because the algorithms did all the work of finding the niche websites for the one conglomerate website.  

This then created a scale-free network. A scale-free network means that the network is controlled with total power. A random network is where anyone can search for and find anything equally. To the consumer it appears as if what they are seeing is totally random, but in reality everything is tailored to them. It may feel disordered and have no rhyme or reason, however, that is not the truth. 

With these algorithms created by NATS, wants to lead consumers towards the pornographic images that will make the most money. This creates a problem because the most popular images paid for by adult men are then easily accessible for young boys. It allows boys to “start their sexual journey where adult men end up” with hardcore porn. Then the question is this: if teens are starting where adults end up, then where do they go from there?

Further, the algorithms cannot compare legal versus illegal material, so both appear on websites. The consumer is not aware of which is legal and which material is not.

To sum up, the online pornography industry is not some sporadic and disorganized business. It is a very organized and tightly controlled business that is run in large part by MindGeek. It uses a scale network in order to have the most popular and profitable images appear first when consumers search for pornography online. This is important to understand because it is giving younger boys easy access to hardcore pornography as well as desensitizing them to it. Pornography is a public health crisis and something must be done to stop it. 

About Dr. Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer A. Johnson, PhD is an Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at VCU.  She received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Virginia in 2004, a MS in Sociology from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1993 and a BS in Sociology from Radford University in 1985.  She joined the VCU faculty in 2005.

Professor Johnson’s research interests focus on areas of gender, sexuality and networks.  Her present focus lies in analyzing the political economy of the online commercial pornography network by mapping the organizational network of its economic structure to better understand how it markets its product to men.   Currently, she is working with a colleague to build a data collection ‘scrapper’ to create a dynamic rendering of the organizational network to better observe the way in which the industry changes its marketing strategies in an effort to extract maximum profit from primarily male consumers.  Her work has appeared in Everyday Pornographies and International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics.  Professor Johnson’s other current work (with Chyng Sun, Ana Bridges and Matt Ezzell) surveys an international sample of college students to better understand the relationship between pornography and their sexual attitudes and behaviors.  Her findings show higher rates of pornography use by both men and women are associated with higher levels of bodily and sexual insecurity, a greater reliance on pornography for sexual satisfaction and a decrease in feelings of intimacy.  Her work is forthcoming in Annals of Sexual Behavior.

Previous work includes using social network analysis to analyze criminal and adversarial networks, the effectiveness of non-profit organizational networks, the impact of social capital on low income women’s changes of marriage and employment and the way in which social capital promotes educational success.  She has also trained the Richmond City Police Department crime analyst team in the use of social network analysis as an investigative tool.  Her work at the Department of Defense in the area of social network analysis won her the 2006 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award, which is the highest-ranking civilian service award given by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  She was awarded the 2004 Analyst of the Quarter and 2003 Merit Award by the Joint Warfare Analysis Center for her work on the social network analysis methodology team.  Professor Johnson’s teaching was also recognized by a 2002 Virginia statewide award for ‘Technology in Education” for her online instruction to sociology course.

Select Publications

Wright, P. J., Bridges, A. J., Sun, C., Ezzell, M., & Johnson, J. A. (2017). Personal Pornography Viewing and Sexual Satisfaction: A Quadratic Analysis. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1377131.

Bridges, A. J., Sun, C. F., Ezzell, M. B., & Johnson, J. (2016). Sexual Scripts and the Sexual Behavior of Men and Women Who Use Pornography. Sexualization, Media, & Society, 2(4), 2374623816668275.

Bridges, Ana, D. Condit, G. Dines, J. A Johnson & C. West. 2015. “Introducing Sexualization, Media & Society.” Sexualization, Media & Society. doi:1177/2374623815588763

Sun, Chyng F., Ana J. Bridges, Jennifer A. Johnson & Matthew B. Ezzell. 2014. “Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations” Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Johnson, J. A. 2011. Mapping the feminist political economy of the online commercial pornography industry:  A network approach.  International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, 7(2), 189-208.

Johnson, J. A., Honnold, J. A., & Threlfall, P. 2011.  Impact of Social Capital on Employment and Marriage among Low Income Single Mothers.  Journal of Society & Social Welfare, 38, 9.

Johnson, J. A. (2010).  To catch a curious clicker.  Everyday Pornography, 147.

Redford, J., Johnson, J. A., & Honnold, J. 2009. Parenting practices, cultural capital and educational outcomes: the effects of concerted cultivation on academic achievement. Race, Gender & Class, 25-44.

Johnson, J. A. 2009. The window of ritual: Seeing the intentions and emotions of ‘doing’ gender. Gender Issues, 26(1), 65-84.

Brubaker, S. J., & Johnson, J. A. 2008. ‘Pack a more powerful punch’ and ‘lay the pipe’: erectile enhancement discourse as a body project for masculinity.’ .Journal of Gender Studies, 17(2), 131-146.

Johnson, J. A., & Johnson, M. S. 2008.  New city domesticity and the tenacious second shift.  Journal of Family Issues, 29(4), 487-515.

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