Tuesday, January 28, 2020

At This Year's Vegas Porn Expo, Everything People Think They Know About the Internet and Porn Is Wrong

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown - January 28, 2020 at 11:25AM

Technological progress often brings mixed blessings. For more than a decade, I've witnessed firsthand how this progress has disrupted journalism careers and made media enterprises less reliable and more decentralized. At the same time, it has opened up so many possibilities that previous generations were denied. Discussion of these tradeoffs is now a staple at news industry events.

As it turns out, the same holds true for the porn business.

Last week, I attended the annual AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, where I spoke with porn industry workers about their business. It felt much like being at a journalism conference, albeit with flashier outfits and more offhand comments about anal sex.

In ways both depressing and refreshing, the struggles facing porn performers, creators, and companies echo those heard from those in journalism and many other industries where old business models were upended by the internet and modern technology.

In popular culture, the conversation around these changes centers on potential social harms from widely available online porn. To the extent that porn performers (or aspiring performers) are considered at all, people tend to worry about potential avenues for exploitation created by online porn. It's not uncommon to hear social-justice activists or moral-majority scolds invoke "human trafficking" as a reason why adult content on the internet should be more strictly regulated or even entirely banned.

Certainly, concerns about consent and physical safety are something those in the industry are highly invested in. But among porn performers and others in the industry, the tech concerns take on a much more mundane nature—things like copyright violations and exclusion from social media sites; declining money to be made from long-established platforms and venues; how political attacks on new employment models and web platforms could threaten their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, they also speak of the huge range of positive opportunities created by the digital era, thanks to the decentralization of adult content and the ability of content creators and performers to now reach audiences directly. As in journalism, the internet has turned porn performers into media entrepreneurs.

Porn Meets the Gig Economy 

For performers, most of the money in porn used to come from appearing in content made and distributed through a relatively small number of companies (perhaps also lending one's likeness to sex toys and other products once a certain level of fame was reached). And for a relative few, this could be very lucrative. But it often meant minimal control over one's career trajectory and dependence on outside gatekeepers for opportunities.

With the rise of "tube sites"—websites like Pornhub, XVideos, and YouPorn that developed as clearinghouses for free porn clips of the pirated, promotional, or amateur variety—things looked like they may get even worse, as these sites siphoned away audiences and profits for both professional porn producers and entertainers.

But then things started to change. For one, some of the tube sites started cleaning up their acts—cracking down on copyright violators and creating ways for performers and production companies to work with them to monetize content. In addition, new ways of being a porn star started to gain ground.

Webcam sites became popular, allowing people to work in a more private way and around their own schedules. Clip sites and "fan clubs" started making it easier for performers to directly market their existing content and create new bespoke content for fans. And social media platforms such as Twitter provided ways to get one's name out there without relying on big-name backers.

"Cam sites you can compare to virtual strip clubs," explains performer Alix Lynx. "It's a personal interaction experience" in which cammers perform live in private "rooms" and collect digital tips from remote viewers.

There's "a lot of work and a lot of hustle" involved in camming, says Lynx, but it also gives performers a very safe and controlled environment in which they ultimately call the shots.

In a clip store, performers sell pre-made video scenes that can be purchased individually. "Everyone's got their own style," explains Lynx. "I do a lot of niche-specific fetishes," because people with specific fetishes are the most likely to be looking for custom content.

On the "fan club" platforms, audiences can sign up for subscriptions to an individual performer's private content page—think Patreon but for porn.

"Some girls post full-on scenes to their wall and fans can just watch the scenes on there," explains Lynx. "I post every day on my wall—short video clips and teasers—and I make all my money privately selling [content] you can't see anywhere else" via direct messages.

Like most performers she knows, Lynx participates in a number of these platforms and still does outside porn films from time to time, too. "When you are your own business, you want multiple streams of income," she says.

Therein lies, perhaps, the crux of the current moment in porn panic versus reality. While much of the media still portrays porn stars as hopelessly damaged or passive people—women just waiting to be commodified and spit out by sex traffickers or late capitalism or Big Tech—I've yet to talk to an adult performer at AVN or elsewhere who doesn't view themselves as a serious business professional and talk the part, too.

"I think things are really changing," says Casca Akashova, an adult model who branched out into porn around a year ago and was attending the AVN expo for the first time. "For instance, lots of people now have Only Fans [accounts], which provide additional income," and the popularity of Only Fans prompted some bigger companies "to take notice" and let performers host and sell content in similar ways through their platforms.

"It's interesting how many small things are changing" to give performers more control "over creative content," she adds.

Putting Performers in Control

In the old days, aspiring porn stars had to simply hope that an established company would cast them. This created more room for exploitation, less room for performers to totally set their own boundaries, and less diversity in the types of beauty, bodies, and sexual expression deemed fit to be shown on screen.

Sure, big-name porn stars who break through to mainstream consciousness may still represent a relatively narrow range of looks. But walk by the AVN expo booths and you see a range of bodies, races, styles, and erotic specialties, especially at the many tables sponsored by cam and clip sites.

The fact that performers can sell to fans directly is "such a game changer," says Lynx.

It's changed the types of content being produced and drastically changed the way women in porn make money, with many performers selling content through multiple platforms, from the sex-industry specific to services like Premium Snapchat. It's also empowered them in other ways.

With a porn film, "you go to set and yes, obviously, you have a say" in who you perform with and what you do, says Lynx. But working in the porn gig economy, "I'm literally in control of everything."

One more perk: content ownership. "Ultimately, you spend what, six to eight hours at a studio and, you know, you get a flat rate, you have no royalties, that's it," says Lynx. "Or, you spend an hour filming at your house, a scene that you can continue to resell forever."

The internet and social media have put more economic and creative control in the hands of individual adult entertainers, providing them with new means to market themselves, reach fans without relying on middlemen, and speak out about their personal lives and experiences.

It shouldn't fall on porn performers to provide sexual education in America—but it often does. "Whether people like it or not, porn is a form of education," said performer Katy Jayne at an AVN panel on "consent and sexualized leisure."

Consent "is something [porn performers] navigate all the time," said performer and educator Jessica Drake, who joined Jayne on the panel. But many viewers wind up "watching porn with no context." Through mediums like Twitter, people working in porn can provide that context, stressing how no matter what's being shown on screen in a porn scene, explicit consent was negotiated in advance.

Both Drake and Jayne said they use Twitter to teach people proper etiquette for approaching them and other performers at in-person events like the AVN expo. Having an open platform to speak directly to fans—many of whom already follow their favorites on social platforms for updates on new content and appearances—lets them explicitly lay out rules for in-person interactions and draw distinctions between their on- and off-camera selves.

The intersection of adult entertainment and sex work with digital technology is often painted as a purely losing proposition for participants. But the digital problems plaguing porn aren't all that exotic; in fact, they mirror shakeups seen across the media and entertainment industries. And while tech changes have upended the porn industry in some negative ways, they've also made it safer, more conducive to creativity and connection, and more open to diversity and entrepreneurship.

Business and tech innovations like cam sites and fan clubs give audiences "a more intimate experience with their favorite porn star," in addition to providing a more direct income source for those stars, says Lynx. "At the end of the day, I just think that's where the whole industry is going."


from Reason Magazine Articles
via IFTTT