Cyberpornography Essay

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Any discussion of pornography must include a clarification of what constitutes pornography. The word pornography is derived from the Greek word pornographas, meaning “writing about prostitutes.” While more modern definitions vary slightly, most tend to define pornography as media that is intended to evoke erotic excitation or sexual arousal. Cyberpornography can be defined as pornography that is uploaded, downloaded, or viewed on a computer or other device connected to the Internet.

The early development of the cyberpornography industry and the developing Internet shared a reciprocal relationship. As the Internet developed and attracted more and more users, the pornography industry identifyied it as a means of reaching a new market and began to operate within the realm of cyberspace. The Internet allowed the pornography industry a new means of reaching its consumers. For consumers, it offered convenience, efficiency, and anonymity. The development of the cyberpornography industry demonstrated that there were new online frontiers of commerce to be explored and contributed to further and faster growth of the Internet.

Today, pornography can assume a multitude of forms including the traditional formats—magazines, erotic novels, photographs, and DVD and VHS video recordings. However, with the creation of the cyberpornography industry, pornography has branched out into new cyberformats—digital morphed photographs, audio recordings, video clips, computer-generated photographs, movies depicting sexual activity, and even sexually oriented videogames.

It is estimated that 30 percent of data transferred via the Internet is pornographic in nature and that 12 percent of Web sites are pornographic (4.2 million Web sites, with an average of 10 Web pages per Web site, totaling an estimated 42 million Web pages with pornographic content). Furthermore, it is estimated that every month cyberporn sites receive 450 million unique visits. In terms of the numbers of people visiting pornographic Web sites, approximately 47 percent of Internet users report intentionally visiting a pornographic Web site. However, not all exposure to pornographic Web sites is intentional. Approximately 35 percent of adult Internet users report having been subjected to unwanted exposure to Internet pornography. The results of an analysis of the latest wave of the Youth Internet Safety Survey revealed that many youths between 10 and 17 years of age reported unwanted exposure to Internet pornography. Approximately 23 percent of the youth interviewed in 2010 experienced unwanted exposure to Internet pornography while online. This most recent figure represents a decline from the findings of the 2005 wave of the study, when 34 percent of participants reported unwanted exposure to Internet pornography, but was consistent with the first wave study results in 2000 that found 25 percent of youth reported such unwanted exposures.

One would expect that with so many pornographic Web sites on the Internet and so many visitors to those sites that detailed and reliable statistics concerning the revenue generated by the cyberporn industry would exist; however, this is simply not the case. There are a number of factors making it difficult to determine the amount of revenue generated by the pornography industry. Primary among these reasons is that no one keeps track of such earnings. While there are no detailed statistics of the revenue generated by the Internet porn industry, estimates do exist but these estimates vary considerably. Estimates range from $1 billion to $12 billion in annual revenue in the United States alone. Worldwide, it is estimated that the Internet pornography industry generates between $57 billion and $97 billion annually. However, while there is substantial variation in the estimates, what is clear is that even if one takes the most conservative of these estimates, the Internet pornography industry is indeed quite a lucrative industry.

Components of the Cyberporn Industry

Some of the above variation in the estimated revenue of the Internet pornography industry may be accounted for by different conceptualizations of the Internet porn industry. There are many types of market participants in the Internet pornography industry that are not readily apparent. Gilbert Wondracek and his colleagues have identified several different components composing the Internet pornography industry. Each of these components is discussed below.

The outermost component of the Internet pornography industry is composed of the pay sites, which function as the content providers of the industry. The content providers produce and distribute new pornographic content to paying members of their Web sites. Thus, these pay sites primarily generate revenue by acquiring members who pay a monthly fee in exchange for being able to access fresh content and in most cases gaining some limited interaction with the models (such as via live Web chats or Webcam shows).

A second type of market participant is the free site. These free sites do not produce their own pornographic material. Instead they display content produced by others (either professionally produced or even produced by amateurs) and thus help market the material produced by the pay sites and other professional producers of adult content. Free sites generate revenue through trading traffic—a process in which Web sites are paid based on the number of users they direct to pay sites.

Adult search engines serve much the same purpose as traditional search engines except that users can search for pornographic content using one or more keywords. As with the other components of the Internet pornography industry, adult search engines generate revenue. They do so in two ways: by allowing Web sites to purchase a higher rank in the search results (thus improving the likelihood that these sites will be seen and visited by users of the adult search engine); and through selling advertising space to pay sites and other adult-oriented businesses on their Web page.

Finally, there are those in the Internet pornography industry who generate revenue by trading traffic. As mentioned above, traffic trading involves directing visitors to other Web sites. One form of traffic trading involves services managing adult domain portfolios. These services allow clients to “park” domain names that they own but for which they do not have content. Any visitors that attempt to access the parked domains are redirected to other sites that pay a fee to have visitors directed to them. Other redirector services generate revenue by traffic brokering. These brokers allow clients with a great deal of traffic to sell some of their visitors to sites with less traffic and have placed an order for a specified number of visitors (usually in lots of 1,000) forwarded to them.

Each of the above components is an important part of the Internet pornography industry, and as such generates revenue for that industry. Unless concerted efforts are made to include them in calculations, estimates of the revenue generated by the Internet porn industry will be incomplete and thus inaccurate.

Legality of Cyberpornography

Despite a long-lived and ongoing debate about the possible detrimental effects that pornography exerts on its consumers, on their relationships, and even on society at large, it is important to note that pornography is not illegal. In fact, the term pornography has no legal significance at all. Instead, much of the legal debate concerning pornography has focused on the legality of those materials that have been deemed obscene.

In the United States the question of whether something is obscene relies on the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Miller v. California. The three-prong Miller standard defines obscenity as material that meets each of three criteria. First, “the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.” Second, “the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law.” Finally, “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Difficulties in Controlling Cyberpornography

The migration of the pornography industry to the realm of cyberspace has created several obstacles that have drastically hindered the efforts of the criminal justice system to control this developing industry, especially the illegal side of the industry. These obstacles prompted changes in the means by which the criminal justice system attempts to control the cyberpornography industry.

First, as the pornography industry became more and more “cyberfriendly,” the media of that industry shifted away from traditional formats (e.g., photographs, analog video recordings) to digital formats (e.g., digital pictures, digital videos and recordings). This transition to digital formats enabled collectors and distributors to amass huge collections of pornographic material with little concern for the logistics involved in storing such a collection. Collections that would have occupied several file boxes could be stored on a single computer hard drive. Furthermore, this digitization of pornography led to the immortality of pornographic materials. In other words, once the material was introduced into cyberspace via the Internet, those materials would remain there indefinitely, creating an ever-growing population of pornographic materials.

As the pornography industry made the transition to cyberspace, the medium by which pornographers communicated with one another as well as how they marketed, sold, and distributed their goods changed. Rather than relying on risky methods of communication and delivery such as through the postal service or through face-to-face contacts, which carried even greater risk, pornographers began to rely on bulletin board services and electronic mail to communicate with one another as well as a means to deliver the goods to the consumer. This shift to electronic forms of communication had two major impacts on the developing cyberpornography industry. First, it created a layer of insulation in which the buyer and seller, as well as collectors, could interact with one another in relative anonymity with little fear of being apprehended in a sting operation. Second, the use of electronic forms of communication via the Internet allowed pornographers to come together within the realm of cyberspace and facilitated the development of a global market for cyberpornography.

Despite the challenges posed by attempting to regulate the cyberpornography industry, the criminal justice system has begun to adapt to these challenges. For example, the shift from traditional media to “cyberfriendly” media required actors in the criminal justice system to become familiar with the workings of computer storage and retrieval, electronic mail and bulletin board systems, and the Internet in general. Today, many police officers are knowledgeable enough about the workings of the cyberporn industry to engage the cyberpornographer in chat room stings. Still, challenges continue to hinder those attempting to control the cyberpornography industry. For example, the creation of the global market for the cyberporn industry led to questions of jurisdiction. While the criminal justice system has found some answers for these questions (e.g., the creation of state and federal laws and the development of multijurisdictional task forces), the question of international jurisdiction and conflicting laws continues to be a hindrance to regulating the cyberpornography industry. Considering the challenges posed by the ever-evolving cyberpornography industry, it seems that the key to regulating that industry will be for the criminal justice system and its actors to evolve as well.

Cyberpornography and the Future

The future of cyberpornography is ever-changing and uncertain. Some have forecast the decline of the adult entertainment industry as a result of a relatively recent online phenomenon—the move to user-generated pornography. A variety of reasons have been offered for the shift to user-generated adult content as the dominant form of cyberpornography. First, most of it is offered free of cost to consumers. Second, it offers its consumers a sense of realism that consumers demand but cannot find in commercial cyberpornography. Finally, usergenerated pornographic materials offer a diversity of images and human behavior than is offered by the commercial cyberpornography industry. If these forecasts are correct, the future may find a decline in the commercial adult entertainment industry as more and more of the cyberpornography products are produced by those who were once consumers of that very industry.



  1. Jones, Lisa M., et al. “Trends in Youth Internet Victimization: Findings From Three Youth Internet Safety Surveys 2000–2010.” Journal of Adolescent Health, v.50 (2012).
  2. Little, Craig B. Deviance and Control: Theory, Research, and Social Policy. 3rd ed. Ithaca, NY: F. E. Peacock Publishers, 1995.
  3. Murdock, Vanessa, et al. “Search and Exploration of X-Rated Information.” WSDM 13 Proceedings of the Sixth ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining. (Accessed May 2013).
  4. Taylor, Robert W., et al. Digital Crime and Digital Terrorism. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011.
  5. Wondracek, Gilbert, et al. “Is the Internet for Porn? An Insight Into the Online Adult Industry.” Ninth Workshop on the Economics of Information Security. (Accessed April 2013).

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