BuzzFeed News has reporters across five continents bringing you trustworthy stories about the impact of the coronavirus. To help keep this news free, become a member and sign up for our newsletter, Outbreak Today.
Aleah Jasmine makes a lot of money from what she likes to call her “fuck machine.”
Jasmine works as a webcam model, shooting porn from her home, so when quarantine first started, she was still making plenty of money. But the broken fuck machine — a motorized sex toy — was a problem.
“My number one tipping thing was my fuck machine,” said Jasmine. “But then COVID happened, March happened, everyone was tipping for it, and I broke it.”
She tried to get a replacement online, but Amazon deliveries have slowed because of the crisis, and the factory that makes the sex toy is based in China, so it looked like she wouldn’t be able to get a new one until nearly June.
“Last I checked it said it will be here May 25. But it keeps getting more delayed,” she said.
Usually it would be too weird to ask a friend to help her fix the sex toy, but the pandemic has scrambled social norms and Jasmine, 31, who lives in British Columbia in Canada and spoke to BuzzFeed News over the phone, was losing a lot of money, so she took a friend up on the offer to repair it. He’s an essential worker at a power plant, so he said it was no problem to venture out to Home Depot for the parts.
“#wereinthistogether,” texted Jasmine, jokingly.
It’s a common refrain that porn is a recession-proof business, and while that hasn’t always been the case, there’s some truth to it right now. The global economy has been turned upside down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but much of the porn industry has — not so surprisingly — benefitted from a world in which everyone is stuck at home and increasingly horny on main.
“It’s sad to say you can be in a good situation right now, with everything that’s going on, but certainly the cam industry is based in that zone,” said Adrian Stoneman, vice president of ImLive, a cam site for live sex shows that’s been around for nearly two decades. “Obviously with everyone being at home, it creates an environment where people are looking to reach out to people.”
But behind the industry’s resilient facade, porn stars and academics who study the industry say the pandemic has accelerated major changes in the way porn is produced and distributed.
Jasmine got into making porn about 10 years ago. She had a child at 20, and after googling how to make money at home, she learned about camming and clips sites.
Now, while traditional porn studios are learning to work from home, some performers say they are making tens of thousands of dollars each month without ever setting foot on set. And the pandemic has fueled a wave of people joining Jasmine on sites for amateur porn.
The website OnlyFans, in particular, has become massively popular, with subscriptions up 50% in April. After getting a mention in a recent Beyoncé lyric, its chief operating officer Thomas Stokely told BuzzFeed News the site is seeing about 200,000 new users every 24 hours and 7,000 to 8,000 new creators joining every day.
“Hips TikTok when I dance / on that Demon Time, she might start an OnlyFans,” raps Beyoncé in a remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Savage.” “Demon Time” is a reference to the nightly livestream of strippers dancing on Instagram that grew out of the pandemic.
Shooting on porn sets screeched to a halt in mid-March as President Donald Trump declared travel bans, and cities shut down overnight. Falcon/NakedSword, which is one of the largest gay porn studios, had one crew of performers and producers who had to be evacuated from Austria when the White House decided to block travel from Europe. The crew had shot all of the sex scenes, but the film was intended as a narrative feature — the big-budget kind you don’t see much these days — so it’ll remain on the shelf until shooting can be resumed.
“We had drones — some of the footage looked like National Geographic with the drones flying and those mountains like I’ve only seen on PBS specials. It was so amazing, and kind of heartbreaking to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got to stop doing this,’” said director Steve Cruz.
Cruz and his team went into quarantine when they returned, and by the time the required two weeks had passed, the rest of the studios had been asked to shut down too. Much of the industry is still based in the San Fernando Valley in California, and the Free Speech Coalition — a trade association for the adult industry — called for the shutdown on March 16 in response to orders from the governor of California.
According to Toby Morris, Falcon/NakedSword’s vice president of sales and marketing, the company is typically shooting 48 or 49 weeks out of the year, and it puts out a new release every week or so on four different sites. To satisfy subscribers who pay for regular content updates and to keep paychecks coming for performers, studios like Falcon/NakedSword have had to adapt.
“We’ve all had to get very creative,” said Morris.
In many cases, this has meant studios asking performers to film at home. But the content they can make now depends on whether a porn star has roommates to film with and if they’re any good at lighting the shot.
Lance Hart, 41, who runs two subscription sites called Sweet Femdom and Man Up Films and is known as a performer for things like gay robot and hypnotist porn, said he has enough content already shot to keep updates going through July, but he’s started working with a few guys who are quarantined together.
“It’s risky because the content I get could be subpar because I wasn’t there,” said Hart. “So far it’s been good. Parts of it are way better than anything I would have shot because it’s new, and you know, ‘I didn’t think of doing it that way. That’s cool!’ But other stuff it’s like, ‘Ugh, they didn’t do the light right so I’m going to have to spend hours color-correcting this … but okay!’ You just kind of roll with it.”
Hart said people living with partners or roommates have an advantage, but some technical ability is still essential.
“If you happen to be quarantined with roommates, or maybe you’re in a polyamorous thing where you’ve just got a whole bunch of people quarantined together...you’ve got a leg up right now, for sure,” said Hart.
“You’ve gotta have some kind of light. And the creativity and ability to produce, well, we’ll call it film, but it’s porn. At the end of the day, technically you produce an .mp4 file that’s good to jerk off to. That’s what we’re really talking about, so they need to know how to do that,” he said.
Vixen, a company that focuses on high-production-value porn with pretty lingerie and good lighting, announced in early April that it planned to spend about $250,000 to launch a new series called “Intimates” that featured performers at home. To keep brand standards high throughout the pandemic, the company will spend some of that money on providing equipment to performers.
Kayden Kross, who is a former porn star and now a director with Vixen’s Deeper brand, told BuzzFeed News that it’s been a learning process with performers, but she’s having fun trying out genres that she wouldn’t normally spend time on.
“One example is a JOI — that stands for jack-off instructional, essentially one model interacting with the camera as if it’s the viewer, and she’s telling him how to jack off,” said Kross.
“Now I’m going to do that with the Deeper branding on it, try to give it a really beautiful aesthetic, mess with the language a little bit ... I wouldn’t spend an entire production day creating it, but I would absolutely love to see a solo model create it at home with my meddling to make it look the way I want it to look,” she said.
A spokesperson for the company said Vixen plans to keep the Intimates series going beyond the pandemic and will include the series as part of its other brands going forward.
Porn has been moving in this direction for a long time. In many cases, the distinction between professional and amateur content is now more of an aesthetic judgment than a meaningful description of how the work was produced, but with studios starting to work from home, those lines are becoming even blurrier.
Lynn Comella, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who studies the industry, said the path was paved during the 2008 recession. The industry was already weak when the financial crisis hit because online piracy had led to a drop in DVD sales.
“2008, 2009, 2010, large porn studios started to just close up shop. That was one of the big shifts, [that marked] the diminishment of the power and maybe status of traditional porn studios in the industry,” said Comella.
As streaming behemoth MindGeek — which owns numerous sites and production companies like Pornhub and Brazzers — profited off pirated content, scene rates for performers plummeted and stars had to look for ways to supplement that income. A representative from MindGeek told BuzzFeed News by email: “MindGeek and our brands take all means necessary to prevent pirated content from reaching our sites. Anyone uploading content to a MindGeek site must abide by the Terms of Service of the site which requires users to assert that they have rights to distribute the video.”
Live webcams and sites to sell homemade clips provided a way to combat piracy with something unique. Performers could interact directly with their audience or create custom clips, providing a more personal experience that could not be replicated by simply watching a pirated video.
In recent years, both parts of the industry have fed off each other, with performers making extra money selling behind-the-scenes clips that promoted their studio work, and studios functioning as a launchpad for stars, driving attention and traffic to their personal accounts.
Now, just over a decade after the last economic crisis and about two months into a new one, that balance has shifted. Amateur sites are growing rapidly, and with millions of people now stuck at home and out of work, starting an account on an amateur porn site has begun to cross over into mainstream culture.
“Subscription sites are doing well, but not having the leaps and bounds growth of the individual cam producers,” Cathy Beardsley, who is the CEO of SegPay, a payment processor that serves the adult industry, told BuzzFeed News. Beardsley said that as a whole, the company’s adult clients have seen revenue grow by about 10% in the last two months, while cam sites have grown by 32%.
A newer breed of sites that allow amateur performers to sell subscriptions to their content has also been growing rapidly. The most popular of these, OnlyFans, has been around since 2016 and has become a meme during the pandemic, with celebrities joking about joining up.
The site now has more than 30 million users and Stokely, its COO, told BuzzFeed News that subscriptions were up by just over 50% in April alone. The site is not all porn. Stokely said via email that musicians, fitness experts, and reality stars are also posting on the site, and that he estimated that adult material makes up about 50% of the site’s content. But, with 450,000 creators, that’s still a lot of porn.
Sophie Pezzutto, who studies the porn industry as a PhD candidate at the Australian National University, calls this trend the rise of the “porntropreneur,” and connects the growth of amateur and performer-produced porn to the broader gig economy.
It’s “part of that change in the economy toward casualized labor,” said Pezzutto, comparing the move toward performer-produced porn to apps like Uber and TaskRabbit. “We’re all becoming more commodified.”
“It’s sex worker language — ‘you’ve got to hustle,’” said Pezzutto. “But now it’s not just sex workers who have to hustle. We all have to hustle. We’re all just working in really underpaid garbage casualized jobs. Sex work is just another avenue for the average worker to make ends meet.”
For example, one site, IsMyGirl, made a special offer to former McDonald’s employees to join the site after reports of layoffs. “It’s pretty incredible, in the new gig economy, this idea that people can be supported by their fans and their followers,” founder Evan Seinfeld told Vice.
The transformation of the industry has been beneficial for performers in some ways. They have more control over when they work, what kind of content they make, how they brand themselves, and they can also resell content rather than being paid just once for a scene. But, as with the gig economy elsewhere, the work is less predictable, with cam profits swinging wildly from day to day, and it has become more complex.
MelRose Michaels, 29, who is one of the top performers on FanCentro, a site for premium Snapchat accounts similar to OnlyFans, said she’s making around $20,000 a month right now. She bought property with her partner in Tennessee, and they started building a new home, which they’ll finish once the pandemic passes, she said.
To make that money, though, Michaels has to be much more than just a porn performer. She is also a director, producer, and a savvy marketer. And she’s great to talk to, an attentive listener who responds thoughtfully.
Michaels makes a commission by referring new performers to join FanCentro, including Jasmine, who recently started posting on the site. FanCentro typically takes a 25% cut of what performers make, according to their user agreement. When performers make a referral, they get 10% of that for the first year.
Michaels works two hours a night to make a video for her Snapchat, and then repackages the video three more times: selling it in direct messages, streaming it for followers on FanCentro, and finally, making it available for download. She said the idea is to squeeze as much money out of the video before she makes it available to download, when it will inevitably get pirated.
“There’s an assumption that anyone can do what we do, and that it doesn’t take any skills or any experience to do it well, and I think that’s a huge misconception,” said Michaels.
“Yeah, we’re...making porn, but at the end of the day we’re CEOs of our own company, we’re our own product, we’re our own service, we have to market ourselves, brand ourselves, do the sales, do everything,” Michaels explained. “It’s a lot more involved than people understand it to be.”
Michaels has never done mainstream porn, but she said that especially in the wake of the pandemic, she can’t imagine why anyone would go back. “The only thing that mainstream, the way it was structured, has to offer is that they can distribute it widely, that you kind of blow up and can get a large fan base very quickly,” said Michaels.
The influx of newcomers in the midst of the pandemic has spurred a mix of solidarity and tension, as people with experience in the industry try to support others who are out of work while grappling with the fact that new faces may mean they make less money.
Jasmine said she had been camming and making good money through March, but when April hit things suddenly dropped off. She attributed it in part to the broken fuck machine, but she also said newcomers mean viewers are spending less on people who have been on the site for a while. “Lots of new people on streaming sites, it’s more fascinating [than] somebody who’s been on there for 10 years. They’re like, Ooh, a newbie, let’s check them out,” she said.
Performers also worry that as the pandemic drags on, subscriptions might drop off as money becomes tighter.
Mutual aid groups for sex workers, sex educators, and industry professionals have stepped up to help educate people who may have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, organizing Zoom webinars to help colleagues make the transition online, and in doing so essentially helping out the competition.
The webinars have included a mix of practical advice about things like contracts and how to stay organized with Google Calendar and reminders that the industry still faces a great deal of stigma.
“If you’re getting into adult entertainment right now, make sure that you’re not going to talk shit about it in two months. If it paid your rent for these times, at least have some level of respect for it and yourself,” said Romi Rain, during a webinar organized by the Free Speech Coalition.
Rain, Beardsley, Hart, and Kross also participated in a town hall meeting in early April about the future of the industry hosted by Xbiz, a news site covering the sex industry.
It’s impossible to predict how many of the people who join sites like OnlyFans will continue to make porn after the pandemic ends, but experienced performers have also warned that anyone joining now should not expect to remain anonymous online, and should seriously consider the potential consequences.
Mike Stabile, who is the communications director for the Free Speech Coalition, said that is one of the things that has always drawn people toward the formal part of the industry. “That is all well and good until you get fired or you get attacked online … That may scare people away, they may leave entirely and decide not to. But, if you’re going to produce, you need people around who know what you’re going through,” said Stabile.
Stabile also told BuzzFeed News that even though many performers are well-versed in using various platforms, there is also a good portion of the industry that never made the jump and is now struggling to get by.
“There are a lot of people who are really eager to get back to work,” said Stabile, but he acknowledged that even when the shutdown ends, the pandemic would still have a lasting impact because of the awareness that something like this could happen again.
“As much as this is going to affect a generation of Americans, in terms of maybe being more cautious with their spending or having a different understanding of what the role of government is, I think the same thing is going to happen with the people in the adult industry,” said Stabile.
Stabile said that while the industry had become much more performer-centric, he doesn’t think this is the end of the studios as such.
“I don’t think this is the end. I don’t think this is a meteorite with some dinosaurs,” he said. “I think it’s a really interesting time for the industry, where the entire industry rethinks things and decides to become more creative.”
Morris, from Falcon/NakedSword, agreed. He said the company still has a significant direct mail business and makes about 10%–15% of its revenue from DVDs.
“We muse about the day when the DVD is gone, and it’s no longer a reality, but nothing in our data shows us that it’s any time soon,” said Morris.
Morris said the most recent DVD had been held up because the facility that replicates the discs was in California and had been closed. The company has made the movie available to download, but Morris said even now people don’t want to make the switch.
“I just got an email from our customer service guy who is like, ‘Can we put something on our site that says we just haven’t been able to receive these DVDs yet?’ because he’s getting a lot of calls from people wanting the DVD,” said Morris.
“And they’re not interested, he tells them it’s available for download, but they don’t want anything to do with that. They want the DVD.” ●