Why You Should Pay for Porn

a chopped up $100 bill

Most people get porn for free—but feminist filmmakers are hoping to change that. Photo by taxcredits.com.

If you’re a progressive middle-class individual, chances are you think about where your food comes from. Maybe you try to buy shoes that are ethically made and do research on who grew your coffee.  

Studies show that consumers with enough spending power tend to make ethical choices about personal items they wear and eat, but think less about which dish detergent they buy or what brand of light bulbs they use. But how do personal ethics play into purchasing entertainment? Ethically minded media consumers probably take care to pay for movies, books, and TV they want to support and make a point to skip the offensive stuff. So what about ethical consumption of pornography, the most ubiquitous media on the Internet?

For two decades, the conventional wisdom has been that only saps pay for porn, since the internet is brimming with free naked photos and videos. But looking to the future, feminist adult entertainment entrepreneurs are counting on consumers being willing to pay for porn. More and more, being an ethical porn-watcher means ponying up to pay for it.

With adult entertainment actors like James Deen making it into mainstream films and Duke University student Miriam Weeks (otherwise known as Belle Knox) making the rounds on cable television shows, people are more aware than ever that real people are behind their porn. Thanks to Knox, whose career was vengefully outed to the wider public by a fellow student, porn consumers are forced to confront a certain reality: The people they watch in pornography are as real as they are. Performers do it, in large part, to pay the bills, like any other job. That may cause viewers to think about their consumption of free porn. 

Who actually pays for porn? It’s hard to get data on the economics of porn. However, there is some demographic research on this topic. One study showed that in states that have passed conservative laws about sexuality, residents are more likely to pay for porn—in those states, about five percent of internet users pay for porn. Other research has shown that people with college degrees and higher incomes are more likely to pay for all kinds of online content.  In a 2009 study, “Red Light States: Who Pays for Adult Entertainment?” by Benjamin Edelman, urban areas with high densities of young, college-educated people also have the highest rates of paid subscriptions to adult sites.  When you look at who pays for non-porn films online, 21 percent of people with a college degree bought movies online, compared to 10 percent of those with high school degrees. Young people said they paid for premium content at a higher rate than other age groups.

Naomi Rutledge is very aware of who pays for porn. She’s the creator of Sensory Fuse TV, an adult site that will officially launch in the summer. Though she wants her site to appeal to all kinds of people, she is zeroing in on young, urban, middle-class, college graduates—“craft beer drinkers,” as she calls them. She should know something about this customer base. Rutledge is a Harvard graduate who quit working in sales for a liquor and distribution company because she wanted to do something more socially conscious.

“We can be seen like a clean energy company, because we care about social impact,” Rutledge says. “It's not energy or adult media that is the problem. It is the lack of innovation and care in its production. We are a company that is aware of the effect our content has on society and we want that effect to be positive.” Her streaming video site will provide both aggregated content from other adult entertainment producers and in-house content. It’s a “freemium” model with premium and more explicit content behind a paywall. Her site’s first film has already been nominated for the Feminist Porn Awards.

a film shoot

A video shoot for Sensory Fuse TV. Photo courtesy of the site. 

“Quality will determine if people pay. With the ‘tube’ sites, it’s like people think, ‘Oh, it’s all crap so why should you pay for it.’ They feel like they are just exploiting the exploiter because of the reputation porn production has. With our content, yeah, some people will pirate it, that’s how it is, but our consumer wants to support and encourage artists,” she says. “Showing people the value of the production and the people behind it makes this real to them.”

For now, Rutledge is focusing more on curating videos and will produce two films a year, but she would like to eventually produce six projects a year. Sensory Fuse is using a revenue-sharing model, since the business is in its early days, but she may explore purchasing videos from creators upfront if the demand is there.

“We don't want to crank out low quality clips to fill a membership site. We want to carefully curate and create a high level of quality films, which, once we reach critical mass, may be converted to a membership model,” Rutledge says.

“Ethically made porn” is a term that encompasses a variety of business practices (including paying performers a decent wage and taking pains to ensure the safety and health of all performers) and content decisions, like focusing stories on female pleasure and including a diversity of body sizes, races, and sexual orientations onscreen. For example, the idea of featuring “genuine orgasm” and fostering a culture of consent has factored heavily into the creation of Kit Murray Maloney’s adult entertainment site, O’actually, which debuted in February of this year. 

For O’actually trailers, Maloney says it was important to choose people of all body types, ethnicities, races, and ages. “We’re looking for a range of beauty and people who are intellectually stimulating. Our actors span three or four decades in age,” says Maloney.

kit maloney

Feminist porn entrepreneur Kit Murray Maloney. 

Maloney first became interested in the idea of women creating adult entertainment for women while she getting her masters in gender policy and social policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. “We want to make sure there is no sense of coercion and that it is coming from a place of real enthusiasm,” Maloney says.

The internet has made it easier for women to seek out adult entertainment while, at the same time, the increasing ease of shooting and editing video has made it possible to indie porn operations to pop up. That’s all good news for adult entertainment start-ups focusing on women’s pleasure.

But historically, it’s also been hard for indie porn creators to get the financial backing they need to shoot adult films. Numerous women-oriented porn site founders, Rutledge among them, report that their more ethically focused porn sites have a more loyal customer base and less credit card fraud than traditional porn sites. But porn entrepreneurs in general have a hard time getting banks to back their ventures because of the relatively high default rates associated with porn sites, stemming from users paying for porn and then denying they bought the service when it shows up on their credit card statement. PayPal categorically does not process payments for the adult industry, either.

The number of female entrepreneurs starting adult entertainment sites is growing, says Candida Royalle, who began an adult entertainment company focused on female viewers in the 1980s. Before starting her own company with the help of financing from her father-in-law, executives of major porn production companies dismissed her. “They laughed me out of the room saying, ‘Women don’t want to watch that stuff,’” Royalle says. These days, even mainstream porn companies are changing their mind, recognizing that women and ethical porn consumers are a largely untapped market.

Pink Label, which distributes Pink and White Production's Crash Pad series, explicity bills itself as “high-quality, fair trade adult cinema.” 

But getting more quality porn out there means people have to be willing to pay for it. Taking care and diligence to pay performers, writers, and filmmakers fairly can cost more than less-ethical porn shoots and without the backing of traditional financial institutions to lean on, indie porn creators need their viewers to help foot the bill. Sites offering more diversity of content, from BDSM to reversal of gender roles—such as Pink Label, Bright DesireBeautiful Agony, and Indie Porn Revolution—have charged for their content and remained popular, proving that diversity and production quality is something viewers will still pay for.

Paying for porn is also important because sites that receive compensation are legally obligated to file a form under U.S. Code 2257, providing an age and legal name, which offers some accountability for the industry. When amateur porn is distributed, that accountability isn’t always clear. It’s also more difficult to tell which amateur videos were produced and distributed without the consent of all the featured performers. On some popular porn sites, you have to go to the original content creator’s website to find out if all participants are over the age of 18.   

That requires some work on the part of the consumer, whereas on sites such as O’actually, the print is big and available right under the video.

“I think people are motivated by the assurance that this a safe and trusted site. I also think in general people are paying for curation,” Maloney says. “People know they’re not getting some obnoxious portal. It’s leaving them in the driver’s seat. I think people will pay for trusted content.”

With hip graphics and an Instragram vibe, O'actually looks more welcoming than many larger porn sites.  

With amateur porn, it’s getting especially difficult for consumers to know whether parties are consenting to the release of videos or whether participants are 18 or older. Users can upload their own content and sometimes websites advertise their sites as places where men who record intoxicated women or ex-girlfriends can post their videos. For example, Girls Gone Wild was hit with several lawsuits from women who were filmed without their consent, driving the infamous video company into bankruptcy.

In addition to ensuring the ages and consent of performers, feminist porn creators also stress the need to pay their actors fairly. Sensory Fuse director Rutledge says she and her team have to get creative to keep costs low and still pay decent wages.

“We pay the talent fair wages, rent a location in New Hampshire, take care of accommodations and meals, and basically try not to spend money on anything else, which leads to some very creative production techniques,” Rutledge says. 

Tobi Hill-Meyer, creator of the site Doing It Online, which focuses on films that capture trans people's sexual experiences, says some performers have offered to work for free—but she always turns them down. She accepts volunteers in other areas, such as small voice acting jobs and sometimes she hires assistants at a far-below-market rate of $50 for a shoot.

“With sexual labor it’s important to be paid because it’s often a kind of labor that is undervalued,” says Hill-Meyer. “To accept free labor makes it a norm in the industry and I don’t want to encourage people to make those decisions when they otherwise would not do so.”

tobi on set

Tobi Hill-Meyer on set with performers Jiz Lee and Kimberly Gray. Photo courtesy of Hill-Meyer. 

All in all, feminist porn producers have an uphill battle to get an audience to pay for media they’re used to getting for free. For that reason, many feminist porn entrepreneurs say that marketing through social media is a much bigger focus for them than it would be for your run-of-the-mill porn producers and distributors.

“Social media reaches out far and fast,” says Jackie Rednour-Bruckman, executive vice president of Good Vibrations, which curates and creates feminist porn on their video-on-demand web portal. “Years ago, we used to have to buy ads in monthly magazines. The main obstacle was distribution back then. Queer porn, they didn’t even know what to call it. They called it ‘girl on girl.’” 

Ethical porn creators are experimenting with a couple different ways to get people to pay for porn.  Some sites have switched to having viewers pay per minute for videos, rather than buying the whole video at once. Many subscription sites and TV channels also try to encourage a community of users, who will then be more loyal to the site, by making their services more interactive. Sleek indie channel Dusk TV, based in the Netherlands, asks their female viewers for feedback online—their company slogan is, “You decide what porn is.” Beautiful Agony asks viewers to send videos of themselves masturbating while recounting moments of sexual pleasure or arousal in order to portray “eroticism” instead of a “charmless rendering of human sexuality.” Sensory Fuse’s engagement with its audience through other content themed around sexuality aims to create a community around a more stylish, ethical, and varied interpretation of adult entertainment. 

So will the craft beer drinkers of the world start pay up for ethically made porn? Feminist porn creators certainly hope so—they’ve got bills to pay.

Related Listening: We discuss many issues of feminist porn—including even the term “feminist porn”—in this podcast.

Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. She has written for publications such as U.S. News and World Report, the NY Daily News, The Toast, The Crime Report, Autostraddle and The Atlantic.

by Casey Quinlan
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