Does the world really need porn in 3-D? This question was answered pretty definitively by the 1976 feature Lollipop Girls in Hard Candy, which starred adult film legend John Holmes and was filmed in the filthy-sounding “Deep Vision 3-D”. The answer, not surprisingly, was “Ewww, no!” Though it’s become a cult classic, still playing to enthusiastic crowds at midnight screenings across the country, Hard Candy was never embraced by porn’s core audience—namely, people who like to masturbate. This was probably because the only real innovation of 3-D porn was the illusion that John Holmes was shooting a gigantic, gooey pop shot directly at you. Which, unless you’re into that sort of thing, is kinda gross.

3-D was eventually abandoned by the adult industry, partly because consumers started getting their porn from video stores and not at theaters, and partly because 3-D porn is just unbelievably stupid. Thirty years passed without anybody mourning the loss of three-dimensional smut or wondering “What ever happened to those movies where it looks like a cock is gonna jump off the screen and poke out my eyes?”

But then James Cameron made Avatar, and everything changed.

As you’re likely aware by now, Avatar smashed all box office records and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. The rest of Hollywood promptly sat up and took notice, muttering like a toothless prospector, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” A flood of 3-D features followed, including Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3 and this August’s Piranha 3-D.

The porn industry, like an inevitable punchline, is close on Hollywood’s heels, producing dozens of 3-D films to be released in 2010. Hustler Video is working on a 3-D porn parody of Avatar, called This Ain’t Avatar XXX, to be released later this summer. Porn actor Tommy Gunn formed a production company solely to create and release 3-D porno films, including sequels to his AVN-nominated 3-D hit Cummin’ At You! Tinto Brass, the 76-year-old Italian director of Caligula—the 1979 classic that featured Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole—has announced plans for a 3-D remake, which is purportedly already in production. And the list goes on and on. Like it or not, 3-D porn is making a comeback. But should you even consider spending your hard-earned money on any of these movies? Or is this just the death knell of an industry making a last gasp plea for your smut dollars?

Lance Johnson, a producer and president of Bad Girls in 3D, a new company that’s selling home entertainment systems with a subscription to downloadable 3-D adult content, insists that 3-D porn lives up to the hype. And he promises that the technology is used for something more than too-close-for-comfort pop-shots. “It’s more of a voyeuristic experience,” he explains. “If you’ve seen any 3-D Hollywood films lately, you know how good the quality has gotten. It feels like you’re watching two people through a window and you could reach out and touch them. There’s a lot of depth to it. It really feels like you’re there.”

Krissy Lynn, a porn actress who’s performed in several 3-D movies for Bad Girls, including What My Baby Wants and Girlfriends are a Good Thing, has witnessed firsthand the staggering advances of 3-D pornography. “I got to go to their studio, where they have the Samsung televisions all set up,” she told me. “And they let me watch my first scene, with the 3-D glasses and everything. It was really cool. It was like a Mini-Me. It felt like I could reach out and touch myself. It was like a real person, just in a smaller size, floating through the air. It was so cool.”

It’s a stirring endorsement, particularly if you’re a pornographic actress who’s always wanted to watch herself having sex in three dimensions. “I wish everyone could have the experience of watching themselves in 3-D like that,” she says. A bold vision of the future, perhaps. But a realistic prediction of porn’s immediate future? Not so much.

Rob Smith, the Director of Operations for Hustler Video Group, is a little more practical about the appeal of 3-D porn. “The eroticism is only enhanced because there’s so much more for your eyes to feast on,” he promises. “It’s high quality and visually dynamic. There’s a lot of interest for the eyes.”

His optimism is addictive, until you start to wonder if all that digital technology is being wasted on the wrong audience. Maybe it’s just, to paraphrase Jesus, pearls before swine. After all, porn—even really, really good porn—has never been about jerking off your eyes. Has anybody in the history of porn consumption ever said, “That was the most unerotic, idiotic video I’ve ever seen, but the visual effects were just stunning?”

If history has proved anything, it’s that people who love porn are less interested in quality than they are with quantity. “The last twenty years have popped an overinflated bubble, a la the real estate market,” says Damon Brown, author of the book Porn & Pong. “VHS tapes were running up to $80 when the cost should have been about half, and the overpriced trend continued with DVDs. In fact, new technology became the ultimate excuse for overcharging the horny customer. The Internet became the great equalizer, and it became clear that the porn audience didn’t mind the low-fi, grainy visuals—as long as they were free.”The genie is out of the bottle,” he adds. “I can’t see people paying a serious premium until there is some amazing new technology. We’re talking full virtual reality with suits.”

Virtual reality suits probably won’t be happening anytime soon. But what about genuine 3-D graphics, with the same attention to detail we’ve seen in mainstream films like Avatar? “Porn’s status as a private medium is a distinct disadvantage,” says Lux Alptraum, an editor and writer at Fleshbot.com. “In order to truly enjoy a 3-D porn, you really need to have a 3-D home set up and not, for instance, the shitty laptop monitor that I watch all my stuff on.”

And the cost for that at-home experience? In all likelihood, considerably more than you’re paying for porn right now. The price for the complete Bad Girls in 3-D system, with a 60-inch Mitsubishi 3D-ready HDTV and shutter glasses that synch with the screen, is just under $4000. That’s a lot of cash, especially for something you probably can’t deduct on your taxes as “masturbation expenses.”

The good news is, 3-D technology is still in its infancy. It wasn’t that long ago that iPods and laptops were still oppressively expensive. Now they’re practically giving them away. There are hopeful signs that 3-D will become the technological standard of tomorrow. Panasonic and Samsung both began selling 3-D TVs in March—Panasonic reportedly sold out in the U.S. in their very first week—and Sony followed suit earlier this summer. By some estimates, sales of 3-D televisions could reach 4.2 million this year, possibly hitting 12.9 million in 2011.

Which could translate as good news for the porn industry. “I think it’s going to create new life in physical media,” says Rob Smith at Hustler. “I’m talking about media that exists in your home and is something that you’ve purchased. The people buying these 3-D televisions need content. They want something to watch. And people like porn.”

It could be good business sense. Or it could be evidence that the adult film industry is losing its confidence. Historically, porn has always been at the forefront of technological trends. Every major media format, or at least the formats that’ve survived, were at some point championed by porn. Porn tipped the balance in favor of VHS over Betamax, Blu-ray over HD DVD, and the Internet over… well, paper. But 3-D marks the first time that porn has actually waited in the shadows and looked to Hollywood for cues. The French director, Tom Sridix, spent over a year working on his adult feature Shortcuts 3-D, and stalled its release because, as he admitted, “We had to wait for Avatar to come out and be huge.” That sure doesn’t sound like the ballsy confidence of porn directors and producers of the past. It’s a shocking sea change in entertainment. The new wave in 3-D started with Hollywood, and porn, for the first time in its existence, is struggling to catch up.

It’s just another sign that porn as a business might be in trouble. Last summer, CNBC predicted that the $13-billion-a-year adult industry was being “brought to its knees” by amateur filmmakers and free Internet content. It didn’t help maters that Hustler icon Larry Flynt and Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis were begging Congress for a $5 billion bailout in 2009, claiming that DVD sales were down as much as 22%. But 3-D, at least in theory, could be the technology that saves porn from total irrelevance. It’s the last and only compelling reason why anybody who loves pornography might consider paying for it again.

Not so, says Bill Margold, a 40-year veteran of the adult industry and the star of such 3-D porn cult classics from the 70s as The Playmates in Deep Vision 3-D and Blonde Emmanuelle. “I don’t think the world is going to put up with this 3-D phenomenon for too long,” he sniffs. “It’s a gimmick. It’s the hula hoop, the Pet Rock, the two-headed dog. I suffered through Clash of the Titans, and I still have a headache three days later. You’re telling me porn’s gonna come up with better technology than that?”

He’s equally cynical about what 3-D porn has to offer that’s any different from the 3-D porn of his youth. “I don’t want to see a pop shot in my face unless it’s my own,” he laughs. “And looking at a vagina in 3-D? I’d sooner go to the Grand Canyon! At least there I’ll get some fresh air.”

The problem, he says, is not with the technology, but the entire concept behind 3-D. Audiences don’t need higher definition in their porn, but more mystery. “The less you see, the more you’re aroused,” Margold insists. “Until you saw the shark in Jaws, you wouldn’t have taken a bath. But the moment you saw that stupid rubber thing with bad teeth, it’s like, ‘Aw, who cares?’ What you don’t see is what scares you. And quite frankly, you jack off to what you’re thinking about, not what you see.”

Maybe 3-D porn won’t save porn after all. At least not in America. As Bad Girls in 3-D’s Lance Johnson is happy to admit, his best hope for a big profit is probably the European market. “There are still adult theaters throughout Europe,” he tells me. “We’re very interested in Russia, Spain, Germany and France. I got an email from a guy in Australia today, and he had some great ideas. He wants to see 3-D porn involving lactating and squirting.”

American audiences probably won’t pay for porn featuring lactating mothers, at least not in the kind of numbers Bad Girls in 3D needs to survive, but Johnson seems confident that somebody will. “Our next round of shooting will probably be a bunch of fetish stuff,” he says. “We’re trying to do something that’s more diverse, with a more European taste.” He pauses and laughs, pondering the eclectic sexual tastes of the audience he’s trying to satisfy. “It just gets weirder every day,” he says.

I share this story with Stephen Gibson, the director who sometimes goes by the porn nom de plume Norm De Plume and directed the 3-D epic Lollipop Girls in Hard Candy, the film in which John Holmes first aimed his spooge at audiences in the late 70s, and he just laughs politely. “I think the philosopher George Santayana said it best,” he tells me. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the July 2010 issue of Details magazine.)