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​Powered by Leone, India becomes third largest consumer of online porn

An explosion of smartphones, an inability to ban the medium, and an increasing population of women consumers has made Sunny Leone and online pornography competitors of cricket and religion in India.

No woman has controlled the dreams and desires of men (and perhaps more than a few women) in India as comprehensively as Sunny Leone. Her story, and that of pornography in India, is dripping with more ironies than you would imagine. I've already chronicled Leone's rapid rise as a celebrity and film star thanks to the hordes of enamoured Indian fans devouring her photos and videos online.

Today, she is an even bigger phenomenon -- so much so that she has propelled India into assuming the position of third largest consumer of pornography in the world behind the US and the UK, according to the always fascinating annual statistics revealed by US-based online pornography aggregator Pornhub. By doing so, this erstwhile, aspiring medical nurse -- who was born and raised in the tiny town of Sarnia in Ontario, Canada by Indian immigrants -- has helped bump her home country down a notch from the position that India now occupies in Pornhub's rankings.

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Sunny Leone

Leone, who was the Penthouse Pet of the year in 2003, one of Maxim's top 12 porn stars in 2010, and was given the name "Leone" by skin-mag impresario Bub Guccione, is now the fourth-highest searched-for porn star globally according to Pornhub. Indians can't seem to get enough of her; she is the most searched for name on Google in India. She is also the most searched Indian on Google globally, easily besting the relentlessly self-popularising Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Pornhub itself has become a major player in the porn industry today. According to The Economist, the site documented around 80 billion video viewings last year and more than 18 billion visits. Its sites, according the company, cater to more than "100m visitors a day, consuming 1.5 terabits of data per second -- enough to download 150 feature films".

Embracing Porn in India
Recent statistics reveal that the average Indian viewing time on Pornhub has also increased. Indians tacked on a whole minute to their habit, bringing their average to 9.30 minutes, behind the US at 9.51 minutes and Australia at 9.36 minutes.

You can actually picture telecom bosses rubbing their hands in glee, secretly doing Pujas (ritualized prayers) to their favourite Gods on behalf of Leone, praying she doesn't catch a cold, break a leg, or worse, God forbid. Pornhub's India findings mean that Leone is probably more responsible than any other individual for lucrative, high-margin fees collected from the one segment that telecom companies are single-mindedly focused on growing today -- the burgeoning business in data. India is the hottest smartphone market in the world today in terms of its stratospheric growth rate of phones sold, as well as the gargantuan potential in the number of people yet to migrate to these devices.

The penetration rate for smartphones is at around 35 percent, which means that around 800 million people will buy them in the near future and adopt a data plan. Telecom outfits will hope that all of them eventually discover Leone or people like her, thus bringing in data gold. Indians have largely skipped the computer revolution that China went through, with the phone being the predominant gateway through which Indians currently -- and will continue to -- connect to the net. Consequently, Pornhub reveals that at least 50 percent of its Indian users accessed its website from their phones. The site's Android traffic from India is the third highest after the US and the UK.

Call it post-colonial blues, misplaced nationalism, or what you will, but we Indians love celebrating our ascension in any domain, and there is an easy joke to be made about at least a few of us walking around quite chuffed that we've beaten our arch rivals, the Chinese, in porn rankings, at least if nothing else. However, in this day of increased addiction and mental health issues, logging more time watching skin flicks year-after-year for increasing lengths of time is hardly a joking matter to many and something that many doctors and psychiatrists are not very happy about.

Porn's dark side?

There are reports of how porn has a lethal effect on the brain by repeatedly triggering the production of dopamine, much like what happens when a habitual user of cocaine requires more and more stimulation for the same amount of the "feel good" neurotransmitter over time. By doing so, porn has a chance of destroying one's libido, catalysing depression and capsizing one's sex life, they say.

Yet, not everyone's convinced. The Economist said that "porn addiction, if it exists, is very rare". It cites one prominent academic who, after scanning the brains of those who identified themselves as overdosing on porn, found "no connection between the number and severity of the problems they reported and the 'drug-like' nature of their responses to pornographic images". Men's Health magazine, in a long, exhaustive and fascinating article on this issue discovered that "men who used internet porn for sexual education experienced an increase in real-life sexual activity with a partner. But those who sought it to cope with stress reported an increase in relationship problems."

If you're breaking out the bubbly at this piece of unexpected good news, there are those who will want you to consider other problematic issues such as self-esteem or a viewer's potentially unrealistic expectations and beliefs about sex which can cause long-term mayhem. Moreover, in India, where the incidents of rape have hogged the news, and where domestic violence and cases of female infanticide are some of the highest in the world, it would appear that a porn-consumption frenzy is the last thing you would want. Then again, maybe finding an outlet in a conservative society is just what the doctor ordered.

Empowering the individual

While this debate can go on endlessly, the nugget of interesting information worth reflecting upon is this: Women in India make up 30 percent of Pornhub users, and that statistic is climbing. In addition to making porn accessible to women, the internet has done more to democratise the porn industry globally, from a production standpoint, than any other phenomenon.

15 years ago, Sunny Leone was still an adult entertainment star with mega-porn company Vivid, which made large amounts of cash through DVD sales. Some pegged the industry at $50 billion at its peak before falling to a fourth of that figure post the brave new world of the internet. But the more realistic estimate of its zenith, most experts concur, was around $9-$12 billion in 2005, having fallen subsequently to around $5 billion annually since then.

This is partly because loyal foot-soldiers like Leone have now turned entrepreneur and are taking their future into their own hands, paying a cut of as much as 50 percent to the rulers of the porn universe -- the "aggregators" or "tubes" such as pornhub -- and pocketing the rest. In fact, Facebook and Twitter have essentially imitated this model of traffic brokering years after it was pioneered by porn aggregators. You could argue that the porn industry pioneered a lot of the business models you see around you today and was way ahead of the ecommerce game when newbies like Amazon were just breaking into it.

Isn't a man or a woman offering "Live Cam" shows via a camera on their home computer -- one of the most popular segments of the porn industry and 40 percent of its revenues today, with sites such as LiveJasmin attracting 40 million visitors a day -- a progenitor to Uber? There are other popular business models who discovered that, lo-and-behold, their services are in fact perfectly suited for this business. Photo sharing service Snapchat introduced Snapcash, a feature that lets users of the app send each other money in order to view risqué pictures or even a personal sex show, although apparently that has tapered off some.

This means that the Sunny Leones of the world are far more empowered in going about their business than they ever were. Leone, along with former co-star and now husband-manager Daniel Webber, pull in millions a year from their own website and that of aggregators. What is most astonishing is that in a conservative country such as India, currently ruled by a Hindu right-wing party, Leone has become an uber-celebrity because of her porn status, with endorsements and starring roles in many films, her latest being released as we speak. So, while grandma reads about her in the papers and watches her publicity campaigns on TV, son and grandson may well be appreciating her talents on a different kind of forum on their smartphones.

An industry in tatters

The fact is, the internet has also sounded the death knell for the industry where consumers of porn became too used to exactly the thing that decimated the music industry -- free stuff. None were bigger culprits of this than YouTube clones such as Youporn and Pornhub, with offerings that were apparently largely pirated back then, further squeezing the profits of pornographers and distributors. As you can imagine there was no one rushing to help pornographers with their claims of intellectual property infringement. When the economic meltdown happened, there was little desire in breaking out the plastic for access to sites, especially when there was so much free stuff floating around.

What's worse is that, as this excellent Wired Magazine article tells it, porn companies are now being overtly ostracised, barred from taking part in the great ecommerce game and shut out from having a presence where most people today hang out on the net and spend, such as the iPhone app store, Google Search, Facebook, and Amazon. Even gateway devices -- iPhones, Androids, Chrome browsers -- are vigilant about keeping them out.

"For adult companies, it's chaos. It's fragmented. It's broken. It's blocked," said Jesse Adams, owner of a porn app store MiKandi, in the Wired article, who once had the distinction of publicly incurring the wrath of Steve Jobs. "You have to build your own newsletter service. You have to build your own billing system. All the game tools for distribution and ads -- none of that is available to adult companies. All the awesome stuff that everyone expects you to have is blocked."

If it's individual Sunny Leone-esque glory you're seeking, it may require somehow being in the centre of the perfect storm, either by having Indian ancestry; being in the vortex of the biggest smartphone market in the world that once scripted the most sophisticated and technical manual for lovemaking; or residing in a country that, despite its conservatism, shows an ability to make a home for someone like Sunny Leone. The Hindu right-wing government found this out the hard way by attempting to ban 857 of the largest porn sites last year. They're fond of banning things -- having done so with beef, 50 Shades of Grey, movies that call cities by its erstwhile names, like Bombay for Mumbai, and scenes in the recent James Bond offering to name a few.

But, as we started this article saying, Indians apparently like their porn like their morning cup of chai, and the tsunami of fury directed at the government when they announced their porn-ban intentions was so swift and overwhelming that the government quickly retreated.

Leone has proven herself to have an extremely savvy marketing brain; a winsome personality; immense courage for taking the plunge in an alien, conservative land; and a cool and calm demeanour that has helped her maintain her dignity while successfully cashing in on her past exploits as a porn star through lucrative brand endorsements and film deals, rather than acting in porn films. It is something of an epic feat.

Today, the most famous Leone in the world is easily Sunny, not Sergio, the deceased, legendary director of Westerns. If there ever was an opportunity for box office gold in directing a homage to both Leones, set in India, and titled "Once Upon a Time in the East", this is it.