How the pandemic could forever change the way porn gets made

How the pandemic could forever change the way porn gets made
The pandemic has started to reshape the porn industry.
The pandemic has started to reshape the porn industry.
Image: Shutterstock / LightField Studios

By Mark Hay

August 8 is International Female Orgasm Day, and we’re celebrating with an entire week dedicated to exploring the business and pleasure of porn.


The adult industry as a whole has done surprisingly well during, and in many ways thanks to, the coronavirus pandemic. 

The stress, isolation, and boredom of lockdown life have prompted huge spikes in overall porn site traffic in recent months, with viewership up by at least 20 percent at some points this spring over the same time periods last year. Adult site payment processors “have reported historic high profits” over the same time period, says Alejandro Freixes of the industry trade publication XBiz. And performers like Carmen Valentina tell Mashable that sales of their content have “doubled, even tripled, on some platforms” since the current crisis set in as well.  

Yet for all these success stories, not every part of the porn world is thriving right now. The pandemic has “radically restructured the industry,” says Mike Stabile of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), an industry advocacy group. And that upheaval has left certain categories of content, producers, and performers struggling to stay afloat. It may even force some out of business for good.  

Perhaps the most striking trend of the pandemic has been the massive growth of premium adult fan sites, like OnlyFans. (A shocking number of articles, all published in May, have chronicled this rise.) That site reportedly netted 3.5 million new subscribers in March, got a shout out in a Beyonce song in April, and claimed that it was receiving 200,000 new users every day in May. Many of these viewers are likely seeking “the twin pillars of authenticity and intimacy,” which Freixes says drive most porn sales, and which these sites provide through direct communications with stars and, by offering troves of self-shot and seemingly raw content. Hunger for this sort of access and content is especially keen when we all feel anxious and isolated, he adds. 

A whole new kind of “safe sex”

These platforms have also become especially important to adult performers during the pandemic, many of whom are getting on them for the first time — because of the impact the coronavirus has had on traditional porn production studios. In mid-March, the FSC called for a shutdown of all on-set productions, in line with wider social measures underway to attempt to blunt the spread of the pandemic. 

As in any industry, not every studio complied. Some tiny porn production outfits whose members all share the same house also kept on shooting content, while complying with pandemic restrictions, by drawing on the small pool of people in their socially distanced bubbles, Freixes adds. But for the most part, the gigs that many performers relied on for part of their income, and as functional high-profile promotions for their personal brands, independent content, and live appearances at clubs, suddenly just vanished. 

The FSC lifted its moratorium in mid-June and published a set of guidelines for maintaining safety on sets — but still noted that they didn’t think it is safe to start shooting with people beyond one’s bubble yet. In mid-July, the organization warned that it had learned of over a dozen individuals who had recently worked on porn sets and later tested positive for the coronavirus 

The costs of shutting down production

Despite the moratorium’s end, many content producers have opted to stay offline indefinitely, thanks to the costs and complexity of implementing coronavirus safety and testing protocols, or to their firm beliefs that no mitigation strategies can really, reliably keep workers safe yet.  

Studios are used to closing down, sometimes for weeks on end, when industry health monitoring systems detect HIV infections in their performer pools. (The last such shutdown occurred in 2018.) They stockpile scenes that they can keep churning out even during a shutdown — big studios may have enough content to last to the end of the year. Major production companies also tend to have rainy day funds or diverse investments and side hustles, like their own fan site platforms. Performers also often turn to side hustles, or dip into their savings, during those shutdowns. But they’re usually only off for a couple of weeks at a time, and on rare occasions.

But this functional shutdown has lasted so long that small-to-mid-tier studios are starting to run out of content. Performer and content creator Joslyn Jane notes that some are already recycling old scenes, a move that does not often go over well with paid subscribers. Some of these studios “were already in a precarious position pre-pandemic, or just getting by — maybe had 10, 20 percent profits,” explains Freixes. And it has been difficult for them to acquire pandemic relief funds, thanks to structural anti-adult access barriers

No one Mashable spoke to for this story has seen a studio go under thanks to the pandemic yet. But Jane is already predicting that “about a third of studios, the member sites,” or more will have closed up shop permanently, or get absorbed by the biggest industry players, by the time the pandemic fades. J.W. Ties, the producer behind the mid-sized fetish studio Desperate Pleasures, says that, after over a decade in the industry, he is “actually teetering on the edge of solvency,” and that he’s “seen several producers in my regularly group talking about… quitting because of the uncertainty” afflicting the industry right now. And some industry observers worry that many small-to-mid-sized studios that do come back will do so with decimated audiences and budgets

The pain may not be temporary

Freixes stresses that the decline of studios and rise of premium fan sites is really an old trend, led by the growing consumer demand for authentic and intimate content over heavily produced and mediated studio fare. He argues that the pandemic has just accelerated it by five or ten years — albeit in uniquely painful ways.

Most porn viewers may not even register the fall of these studios, as they often have niche followings, or operate entirely behind the scenes, making content for big brands. The gap between studios and independent content creators is also shrinking, as performers gain access to better and cheaper recording and editing equipment, hone their production skills, and increasingly sell their self-produced content to major studios and distributors, who even before the pandemic were eager to tap into their fanbases, and the growing market for raw and intimate clips. “In many ways, the top [independent] clip producers will become the studios of tomorrow,” if these trends continue, Freixes argues.   

But this trend will hurt the crews — the camera people, makeup artists, production assistants, and so on — who build the quality studio content is known for. It may also lead to the decline of certain kinds of fetish content that mid-tier studios have historically produced for small but loyal audiences, like sci-fi porn that requires specialized or labor-intensive prop building and special effects work that might not gel with the low overhead of independent performer-producers.

Shifting interests in difficult times

Speaking of genres, Alex Hawkins, of the prominent porn tube site xHamster, notes that viewers have not been searching for usually popular content like MILF and incest roleplay porn over the last few months. He suspects this is a response to the fact that many people are spending more time than they’d like with their families, making these sorts of adult fantasies less appealing than they usually are. 

It is also likely the result of shifting interests, driven by other realities of pandemic life. Hawkins notes that searches for public sex scenes are up 87 percent since the spring, and interest in kissing, not usually a key porn search term, is up substantially as well. So are searches for medical-, pandemic-, and quarantine-themed porn. People often seek out porn that reflects and riffs on the zeitgeist, or that delivers them the things they crave but cannot currently access. 

Hawkins suspects that genres whose viewership numbers have been hit by the pandemic will bounce back once our lives return to some semblance of normalcy. A few key search terms are already beginning to climb, he notes. However, the safety precautions put in place by independent actors and studios that have started shooting may make it functionally impossible to film certain types of sex acts — like golden showers or anything that involves a lot of bodily fluids; like group sex or anything that involves a ton of people in close proximity to each other — for the foreseeable future. 

Performers may come out on top

Performer and producer jessica drake argues that the industry always finds a way of catering to fans’ desires, and fans always have a way of finding what they’re looking for. But, depending on whether or not some pandemic-era set safety protocols become new norms, and on the content restrictions newly dominant platforms impose on creators and distributors, certain types of content could grow rarer in a post-pandemic world. 

Even if studios and their staff and some specific genres suffer, prevailing cultural and industry narratives still maintain that “performers are by far the winners” in the pandemic-fueled upheavals facing the industry, as Kat Revenga of the premium site FanCentro puts it. Sure, a lack of studio work, restrictions on who they can shoot with and where, and temporary changes in audience demands may force them to explore new platforms and types of content. But studio work was always scarce, expensive (as performers often have to pay for their own STI tests, hair and makeup, wardrobe, and more), and limited (as performers usually just get one check up front and no residuals on future sales of their scenes). 

“It’s really empowering during this time for performers to understand where the power lies.” 

The premium sites many are flocking to rarely offer performers guaranteed income, but they may ultimately offer many greater flexibility in when, where, what, and how they shoot content — which usually translates to more opportunities to shoot. They also offer more earning potential, as performers can secure rolling subscription payouts, and the proceeds from the passive a la carte sales of new and old content that they own the rights to. (Most premium sites take a fairly modest cut off the top of their profits.) “It’s really empowering during this time for performers to understand where the power lies” within the industry, and to seize autonomy, says drake.  

As performers take control of their own work and content, they get to bypass agents and other gatekeepers, and ideally to work and speak more freely. Queer porn producer and performer Jiz Lee notes that this is empowering performers to speak out more often “against injustices experienced in the industry [and finding] time to come together to strategize to create systems of mutual aid, resource and skill sharing, and more.” Drake adds that many also seem to be using this freedom to make more diverse content, and work with more diverse co-stars, than these gatekeepers would have let them pursue in the studio-centric past. They’re also finding new ways to integrate SFW hustles into their NSFW brands, like Twitch channels and Etsy stores.

“Myself and many others who were professional studio performers before COVID are unsure about whether or not we’ll return to studio work after this,” says performer Kate Kennedy. 

But not every performer is thriving in the pandemic era. Hustling for fans and producing your own content requires its own skill set, which not all existing performers have. Rather than shake things up, performer Kiki D’Aire says that she knows a number of performers who, for lack of studio work and uncertain prospects, “have gone into retirement or semi-retirement” recently. 

Increased viewership also does not always lead to increased profits, for platforms or performers, as many site visitors never turn into paying customers. Many performers have also tried to keep new, paying eyes on them by slashing their subscription or a la carte content and services prices to work with tight budgets. Partnered sex clips usually sell better on these platforms than solo performances, says Kennedy, especially now, when people in isolation crave depictions of the type of intimacy most of them cannot get. So, performers quarantining with partners that they can shoot content with may on average have an easier time making money than their fully isolated peers. 

Perhaps most importantly, the coronavirus has led a ton of out of work individuals to try their hands at digital sex work, especially on premium fan sites. OnlyFans alone reportedly registered between 7,000 and 8,000 new creators every day in May, many (but not all) of whom are taking a crack at making porn. Most amateurs will not succeed in making a living on these platforms because they don’t have the exact hustle or skills it takes to hack it in adult work, especially in these environments. But as long as they’re around, they will siphon eyes and dollars off from other established sex workers using these platforms, at times sparking tensions with them. 

Big and established performers have large and loyal enough fan bases that Kennedy and others believe they’ll be able to weather a little market saturation and global economic hardship just fine, seeing only slight dips, no change, or even increases in their profits throughout the pandemic. However, Kennedy believes that new professionals, especially those who have not had the chance to build up their profiles through studio work, will suffer disproportionately.

Because no one knows how long this pandemic, or the economic crunch it’s creating, will last, it is hard to figure out exactly who and what in the industry will suffer, or suffer the most, because of it. If the U.S. government fails to provide further economic stimulus and one of the world’s largest adult markets contracts, or if the coronavirus continues to surge in the fall, the industry’s current trajectories could shift dramatically once again, exacerbating existing or creating new pandemic trends and pain points. None of these pandemic trends are developing in a vacuum either, as reckonings around race, consent, and wider power dynamics are also rocking the adult industry now.

The only general trend that seems firm and clear is that the pandemic will likely spare (or even help) the people, genres, and platforms that were ascendant in the industry. Meanwhile, it will squeeze the smallest, already most precarious people, genres, and platforms. It will accelerate trends and hurt the vulnerable. Just as it has throughout the wider economy.

Thanks to performers Jayden Cole, MelRose Michaels, and Sarah Vandella, and to producers Freakmob of FreakMob Media and Zsolt Abraham of MixedX, for commenting for this piece too. 

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