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Pornography is booming during the covid-19 lockdowns

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PORNOGRAPHY IS HAVING a good pandemic. As an industry, it is well adapted to a world in lockdown. It has already largely moved online; and its consumers often voluntarily self-isolate. Now, as Mike Stabile of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), an industry group in Los Angeles, puts it, legions are “stuck at home and looking for an outlet”. Most online porn is free. Last month traffic on Pornhub, a giant website, for instance, was up by 22% compared with March. But this traffic drives revenue at smaller sites, which have to adapt their business models.

It is hard to know exactly how good business is. Gene Munster, a managing partner at Loup Ventures, an American investment firm, reckons that since the pandemic began, spending on porn worldwide has nearly doubled. That may be on the high side. But few porn outfits reveal revenues, both because many are privately held, and because no industry wants to be seen to be benefiting from loneliness and other ills. Andra Chirnogeanu of Studio 20, a firm based in Bucharest that streams clothed and nude models online, concedes that profits have risen along with the marital strife and breakups precipitated by lockdowns.

Social-distancing rules are accelerating change across the porn industry. Restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 have halted filming at most production companies. Studios are editing and releasing backlogged footage, but that cannot continue for ever. Many are now sending professional cameras and lighting rigs to actors who live together and can therefore film themselves at home. To help performers shoot and edit, the FSC produces online tutorials. But the resulting scenes typically offer fewer camera angles and, as Mr Stabile puts it, a feel that is “more raw” than slick.

Despite such efforts by established producers, lockdowns are encouraging efforts by freelancers and smaller firms, too. Actors increasingly cut producers out of the loop by filming themselves on smartphones and uploading the homemade footage, which they own, to newish websites that host “adult” social media. On these so-called premium sites, fans aged 18 and older pay subscriptions to watch performers. The sites take a cut of transactions (20% or so is typical). But other than that, the system removes middlemen.

The approach is catching on. Ella Hughes, a British porn star, says she has quit performing for traditional producers because so many admirers now pay $12.99 a month to watch videos that she shoots of herself at home and uploads to a premium site called OnlyFans. Some subscribers pay an additional $40 to $500 for short bespoke videos of Ms Hughes that only they can view. On a recent weekend, she made ten of these private videos, charging higher fees for uttering a fan’s name or acting out dominatrix fantasies. Almost all porn performers, she says, now sell homemade material on premium websites.

Revenue from direct interaction between performers and fans has been growing for years. But the covid-19 pandemic has given the trend a shot in the arm. A dozen years ago, roughly three-quarters of most performers’ earnings came from production companies paying for work on their sets. The remaining quarter was from direct transactions with fans and merchandise sales. Those ratios are now reversed, says an executive at Private, a large porn producer with its headquarters in Barcelona. Today, he says, actors see professionally produced work as advertising to drive traffic to their premium social-media accounts.

Edgar Allan pole
Traffic on premium sites is soaring. This is enticing all sorts of new performers to open accounts in the hope of profitably reinventing themselves online. In coming days, the Berlin Strippers Collective, a group of dancers for clubs that are now closed, will film its first show, a mixture of classic striptease and “stripperature”, which will include, for example, an item where members will hang upside down from a dancing-pole while reading aloud from Hermann Hesse and Edgar Allan Poe. The video will be uploaded to the collective’s new account on Patreon, a premium website that hosts conventional and adult works. Access will cost between €5 ($5.40) and €15 a month.

Some performers will find the transition to digital tricky. Mia, a stripper in the Berlin collective, foresees a struggle. She laments that she cannot promote the online venture on her usual social media without her family in Spain discovering what she does. Beyond that, as Edie, another stripper in the collective, notes, online imagery can be illicitly copied and posted elsewhere amid unsavoury content.

Prostitutes, for their part, are likely to find converting clients from analogue to digital experiences to be especially difficult. France’s lockdown has led a third of the country’s more than 35,000 prostitutes to seek work online, typically via webcam streaming, estimates STRASS, a French sex-worker union in Paris. Of those, only one in ten are getting by, reckons the union’s boss, who calls herself Amar Protesta.

Some no doubt lack the gift of the gab and whatever else it takes to achieve customer satisfaction through a webcam. But multitudes of newly unemployed women, and some men, are making a go of it. Désir-cam, a relatively small site that streams 3,200 French-speaking erotic “hostesses”, typically charging €50 per 15 minutes of private show, hired 128 women in April, more than triple its monthly norm, says its founder, André O’Bryan, who lives in Sydney. Revenue last month was more than double that in February. Greed-ella, as a Désir-cam performer based near Lyons styles herself, says her earnings have recently quadrupled. Some of the site’s “camgirls” now earn €12,000 a month.

With “camming” traffic also up on far bigger (and typically cheaper) sites, such as Chaturbate, MyFreeCams and Streamate, streamed porn is on a roll. To sign up more talent, a company called BongaModels offers its cam performers 5% of the earnings of anyone new they introduce to work for the firm. Most cam models work from home, but some “camming studios” in buildings with dozens of staged bedroom sets have managed to continue round-the-clock streaming during the lockdowns. To pull this off, Romania’s Studio 20, which runs 24 camming studios, each with ten to 32 sets in Colombia, Hungary and elsewhere, has cleverly kept some locations humming by turning them also into places to live. Consenting performers have simply moved in.

For an inkling of what is in store, consider FanCentro, a website with offices in Barcelona and Limassol, Cyprus (whose website offers “social distancing at its finest”). In the past two months more than 19,000 new models have joined the site, for a current total of more than 191,000. FanCentro’s Kat Revenga attributes the surge to workplaces shutting down, and to the company’s decision to forgo for now its cut of new models’ earnings. Within six months FanCentro expects to switch on a feature that will let models also stream erotic performances, alone or with partners.

Rachel Stuart, a PhD researcher of sex work at the University of Kent in Britain, believes that, by revenue, webcam shows have already eclipsed traditional scene productions. Anti-porn campaigners will not be heartened, however. As Ms Chirnogeanu of Studio 20 points out, hiring is up and half of new performers have no prior experience in such work. So the pandemic is not just increasing consumption; it is expanding and diversifying the workforce.

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