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Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age

Author: Frederick S. Lane III
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1999
Review Published: January 2001

 REVIEW 1: Donald Snyder

In his book Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age, Frederick S. Lane III, an attorney and computer consultant specializing in Internet legal issues, sketches a well-researched portrait of a fast-developing industry. Pornography, as Lane mentions in his introduction, has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise (15-20 billion dollars), and Web sites alone have been reported to contribute nearly two billion to that total. As positive proof of the financial success and importance of online pornography indicated by these numbers, Lane points to a 1997 front-page article that ran in the Wall Street Journal focusing on the success of Danni Ashe, an ex-stripper, whose Web site, Danni's Hard Drive, earned more than two million dollars in 1997; Lane writes, "The goal of this book is to illustrate the various social and technological developments over the last 50 years that have made it possible for a former stripper and now pornography entrepreneur to wind up in an unabashedly positive front-page article in the Wall Street Journal" (xiv). This study is valuable not only because of a story about an ex-stripper turned techno millionaire, it is also important in order to understand how an American culture previously labeled as "puritan" becomes obsessed with pornography.

The absolute strength of the book is in its ability to place Internet pornography in a well-defined historical context. Lane does a superb job of researching the ways in which technology and society has shaped the pornography industry. One of the major mistakes in many books focusing on "cyber" topics is the desire to only relate the topic to the Internet, divorcing it from its past; Lane does not make this mistake. In his first chapter, "A Brief History of Pornography and Technology," Lane efficiently traces a record of his subject, highlighting key events he sees as leading to the creation of the industry. Beginning with material relics and poems created by the Greeks and Romans and continuing through puritan America to the present, Lane demonstrates the way in which pornography has always had a role in society. The second chapter, "Voyeur Viewing Pleasure," focuses on several of the technological developments, such as the invention of photography, video, and BBS, and shows how entrepreneurs utilized these scientific advances in order to create the billion dollar success of the World Wide Web.

In addition to providing a solid context for his study, Lane also does an excellent job in the later chapters examining and classifying the different types of Web sites featuring pornography. Lane identifies at least five major online pornographic ventures which include amateur sites, online image galleries and virtual clubs, professional adult videoconferencing, online stripping, and webcams. For each type he also addresses issues of marketing and legal risk that help the reader understand the nature of the business. Lane often frames each site in terms of economic success by providing concrete figures in terms of money invested and money made. At times, however, the examples and the economic focus borders on becoming a "how to" book for creating your own pornographic Web site for profit.

The strength of the book as a history also becomes one of its weaknesses from a cultural studies and humanities point of view. Several times Lane begins to approach several interesting issues surrounding the questions of agency and exploitation, but he never gets much farther than the surface. For instance, in his discussion of the positives and negatives of online stripping, Lane discusses both ideas of increased security (the stripper does not have to be in the same room as the audience) and loss of control (the stripper puts on a show in real life and takes orders from the customer in cyberspace) (248). Lane makes some really interesting points but fails to investigate the issue in depth. Another more specific critique is that Lane views "pornography in the cyber age" from an extremely heterosexist position. This is extremely evident when Lane presents statistics of the numbers of kind of adult sites Yahoo! has organized in its listing of online picture galleries. While Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual ranks second in having the most galleries archived on the site, Lane fails to include any of these examples into his discussion, focusing instead on heterosexual women (maybe one or two brief mentions of bisexuality here) and hetersexual couple Web sites (224). The study would have been more complete if the author had dealt with examples outside of a hetero-normative location.

For anyone in the humanities interested in examining aspects of pornography in cyberspace, Frederick S. Lane III has provided some very good foundation research. Lane covers a lot of ground in Obscene Profits and there are more than several sites and topics mentioned that could easily warrant a focused academic study. Pornography, as documented in this text, has become a huge part of our culture, and the racial, gender, and sexual issues surrounding this growing industry and its use of the Internet needs to be examined at length in order to understand new and changing issues of power, agency, and abuse. Lane successfully points to a number of places where this work can and needs to be done.

Donald Snyder:
Donald Snyder is an advanced Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. He is currently doing research on the topic of webcams. He is also the co-president of the Cyberculture Working Group and the Chesepeake American Studies Association.  <djkay@wam.umd.edu>

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