Sean Oliver/Flickr; Graphic by Editorials Editor Asher Smith
How can we know that the recession is real? Because not even sex sells anymore. Despite having survived through economic downturns in the past with barely a scratch, even the porn industry seems to be feeling the crunch this time around.
As the notorious Steve Orenstein, who has worked in the industry for almost 30 years and is the president and founder of Wicked Pictures, put it: “As long as I’ve been in this business, this is the first time I can say that we’re absolutely feeling the effects of the economy.”
Once recession-proof, our sinful vices are now noticing drops in revenue in line with other enterprises. Alcohol sales are down. Casinos are pulling in fewer visitors. Strippers are being put out of business and even Joe Camel is having a hard time.
It’s terrifying, really. Even the most stringent social conservatives and the rest of the porn industry’s most prominent critics can look at the statistics and recognize a certain gravity. After all, Playboy Enterprises’ stock dropped 90 percent in a single year — and it’s hard to see a reason for a revival anytime soon. Before this year Playboy’s stock had never dropped — at least considerably — within living memory.
As one might expect, many executives in the adult video business cite Internet piracy as a main challenge to their business. As free clips, pirated videos and leaked content abound at the fingertips of any World Wide Web browser, who is really going to drive over to the Insurrection on Cheshire Bridge and pay $12.99 for a DVD with a bad pun in its title? Both the inconvenience of traveling for smut and the potential embarrassment of purchasing pornography in public has been eliminated, as practically all desired content is only clicks away.
Thus, even as the porn industry takes a nosedive, those who are or once were its most ardent supporters shrug it off. It’s not their responsibility to dig adult industries out of their downward spiral; they’re still getting their, ahem, fill. As viewers turn to free, albeit often illegal, sources of pornographic content, the industry falls deeper and deeper into disrepair — a relentless cycle that’s not specific to this one example.
Despite these struggles, those on the more conservative end of the spectrum shouldn’t be rejoicing quite yet. While the porn industry suffers on the one hand, the pressures of the economic situation have driven a few entrepreneurs with sex on the mind to turn their creative energies toward new business ventures on the other — most noticeably, for example, the recent explosion of bikini-clad baristas at formerly innocent coffee shops across the country.
Coffee shops featuring employees donning scanty, themed get-ups (my favorite being the infamous Washington-based “Cowgirls Espresso,” which promises something called “School Girl Thursdays!”) have cropped up across the country, as a response to dire economic conditions — proving, yet again, the truth of Hunter S. Thompson’s famous maxim that “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Of course, this junction of two seemingly extremely unrelated industries poses some problems. Probably meant to just be some cute, quirky business snag to lure in more customers — even if they tend toward the creepy side — some have just let desperation drive them over the edge.
Take one particularly memorable example from Everett, Wash. In late September of this year, five baristas at Grab-N-Go Espresso were actually charged with prostitution after they began licking whipped cream off of each other for under-the-table money in front of undercover detectives. (As if willingness to wear a bikini to work in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t already living too far into the danger zone.)
Still, however, it seems counter-intuitive that as adult industry giants like the Playboy enterprise are withering under financial pressures, related endeavors like sexy coffee shops are flourishing. This doesn’t seem to make sense, considering that they cater to serve the same basic interest. However, maybe the reason for this seemingly nonsensical discrepancy is more evident and telling than it appears at first glance.
Though I’m tempted to condemn an institution like Cowgirls Espresso on ideological ground, I must also commend them for their creativity and their ingenuity in pulling off a business model as old as time itself (it’s not the “world’s oldest profession” for nothing). Bold, new, out-of-the box ideas that push the limits — and run the risk of blowing, literally, right past those same limits — are the only new business models managing to survive present conditions.
At last, the paradigm has shifted in a way that finally renders Playboy antiquated — in the only way, aside from being abandoned by his favorite bunnies, that Hugh Hefner would be forced to notice.
Asst. Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College sophomore from Atlanta.