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Performance Anxiety: Will the Adult Film Industry Survive the Pandemic?

Even porn actors must work from home as one of the most intimate industries remains in lockdown.




Before the Outbreak: Actress Ivy Wolfe at the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, January 2020. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Like most businesses, the adult movie industry began to seriously discuss the COVID-19 crisis in late February. Keiran Lee, a veteran porn actor-director, relates an incident from that period before the lockdown. “We had a girl call in [who] said, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling too great this morning. I’ve got flu-type symptoms.’ The first thing we said was, `Don’t come to set.’ Because it’s not worth the risk – in our industry, we’re intimate, we’re up close and personal with each other, even the camera guys. So we just canceled the scene that day.”

Two weeks later the pandemic hit.

In a time when a simple touch can kill, one might think a pandemic might be the death knell for a business that relies on physical intimacy now that the industry has instituted a voluntary hold on video productions. But for the time being, this sector of the greater porn industry seems to have landed on its feet, thanks to a decade-long shift in content distribution that has favored performers over large video producers like Vivid Entertainment and Wicked Pictures. Today performers are increasingly able to disseminate their content directly to consumers on a variety of cam and so-called tube sites similar to YouTube, as well as on their social media accounts.

Lee sees the trend continuing through the pandemic – especially for women, who earn about twice what their male counterparts make. “Some of these girls are earning over $40,000 to $50,000 a month from their social,” he says. “Instead of going to work for these companies and being on set for 10, 12 hours a day, earning $1,500 to $2,000, they’re now staying at home and making maybe $1,000 or $1,500 – but they own that content and they make royalties on it.”

Or, as Kevin Blatt, another longtime industry insider puts it: “Cam sites and tubes are absolutely proving that porn is 100 percent recession-proof.”

But not everyone in the adult film industry is recession-proof. Lee admits that “the average male performer is probably seeing his income drop 60 to 70 percent. The average scene rate is maybe about $900 to $1,000 a day, and [before the pandemic] he was probably doing a minimum of 20 scenes a month. So he’s losing a lot.”

The pandemic has completely shut down gay porn star Ray Diesel’s routine. A performer for six years, Diesel usually travels the world doing, he says, “live shows, hosting events and even escorting.”

Former gay performer Leo Forte now works behind the camera. He’s found other ways to pay his bills, including helping his boyfriend do maintenance work on rental properties.

“My subscriptions have doubled on [online sites],” says Diesel, “which is amazing, and fans are actually tipping me more, so that’s great, but I’m not making nowhere near what I usually will make a month. I would say I’m making a little less than half of what I was making.” The coronavirus has hit video crew members even harder. They have seen all their employment disappear virtually overnight. Former gay performer Leo Forte, who now works exclusively behind the camera, has had to try and find other ways to pay his bills. He’s helped his boyfriend do maintenance work on rental properties. He’s also one of the 489 people who have applied to get some help from the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the North American trade association for the adult industry. The FSC Emergency Fund was organized on March 23 to help the industry’s hundreds of out of work crew members.

As of May 12, the fund for this multibillion dollar industry had raised little more than $146,000, with 400 of 489 applicants each receiving a $300 stipend. “It’s probably unrealistic to expect adult businesses to be better than their mainstream counterparts in this respect,” says Frederick Lane, an attorney who has written about the porn industry for 25 years and is the author of the book Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age. “It’s all reflective of an economic system that has gotten badly out of whack.”

“It’s not a lot, but it’s a grocery run for the week or couple of weeks,” says Forte of his stipend. “It’s better than nothing.”

* * *

As with most of the economy at large, the pandemic has produced winners and losers within adult entertainment. Straight porn couples like Brad Newman and Laney Grey have the luxury of being able to film together while sequestered. Newman says that even though the production hold is voluntary, he believes everyone is following it. “I think it’s kind of a faux pas to shoot [on set] right now. It might be a career suicide kind of thing.”

The Porn Stipend: “It’s not a lot, but it’s a grocery run for the week or couple of weeks. It’s better than nothing.”

Since the pandemic began, Newman and Grey have been shooting themselves together “in the bathroom or out on hiking trails,” Grey adds. Besides posting their X-rated trysts online, the couple also appears on a dozen platforms where they can reach their fans, which is de rigueur for modern porn stars, and a practice that has dramatically mitigated some of the economic effects of the pandemic. Yet even Newman and Grey are feeling the pinch. After initially seeing an increase in online activity, two months after production was halted they have lost two-thirds of their income.

Similarly, porn star and cam performer Blair Williams has enjoyed a dramatic increase in her online income since the shutdown. She sees the platform as “a coping mechanism for dealing with fear or isolation. People are stuck inside; people are trying to kind of escape from their problems.”

The San Diego resident keeps $100,000 in the bank in case, she says, “I was ever not to be able to work for any reason again. Because we rely on our bodies. What if I were to get hurt or, God forbid, anything were to happen?”

Since the pandemic began, porn star couple Brad Newman and Laney Grey have been shooting themselves together “in the bathroom or out on hiking trails.”

And, while Williams, 25, hasn’t had to dip into her savings yet, she is afraid that privileged situation won’t last. “I do fear a domino effect as our consumers start coming upon economic hardship, which is inevitable…I mean, with our economy kind of going down the path where everything is falling apart.”

* * *

Because of existing institutional safeguards and policies that protect performers from infectious diseases, as well as the technological influences on the way content is delivered, the adult film industry has been better positioned to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 than most other businesses.

“I thought it was really hysterical that you were starting to see articles about how the porn industry could serve as a testing model for the rest of society,” says Frederick Lane. “One of the themes of Obscene Profits was they’re always on the cutting edge of technology. Now they’re on the cutting edge of health care, which is just bizarre, but it makes sense, right?”

The testing model Lane refers to emerged from the cauldron of the AIDS epidemic. Between 1985 and 1992, about 30 adult performers, straight and gay, died of AIDS, including the era’s undisputed male superstar, John Holmes, who – like some other actors – is known to have performed in films without informing his producers or cast members of his HIV status.

As a result, the industry began standardized 30-day performer testing in 1998. After another outbreak of HIV in 2004, the protocols, currently called “PASS,” which involve testing and contact tracing, became more formalized. Finally, after half a dozen performers tested positive during a 2013 HIV flareup that was not related to on-set transmission, the current system was put in place, one that sees performers tested every 14 days for a variety of diseases. If a performer tests clean, he or she receives a green check in the system’s database and can film for the next two weeks. If the performer tests positive, they receive a red X and is immediately banned from filming.

Existing policies that protect performers from infectious diseases have left the adult film industry better positioned to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 than most other businesses.

“You have to keep in mind that this is an industry that has constantly fought for their freedom to perform their ‘art,’ says Kevin Blatt. “They have endured herpes, HPV, syphilis, HIV and AIDS. No industry has a better mindset when it comes to communicable diseases.”

Which may explain porn’s rapid response to COVID-19.

“We started putting out advisories saying if you don’t have to shoot, avoid doing it,” says Mike Stabile, communications director of the Free Speech Coalition. “We call it a voluntary production hold because we’re not going to compound the situation by shutting down our testing system and exposing people potentially to HIV.”

Stabile says the clinics that test adult film actors plan to add COVID-19 screening to their list of test categories.

* * *

Although actors and crew alike are eligible for state unemployment benefits, the companies that have employed them have feared they were ineligible for funds from the Small Business Administration, which excludes loans to businesses of a “prurient sexual nature.”

“By the definition of ‘prurient’ that the Supreme Court adopted, no adult company fits that bill,” says Mark Kernes, editor emeritus at the trade journal Adult Video News, who blasted the policy in a March 30 editorial on AVN’s site entitled “Congrats, Adult Industry—You’re Officially Second-Class Citizens! Again.”

The adult film industry’s current testing model emerged from the cauldron of the AIDS epidemic.

“Many politicians – and certainly almost all Republican politicians – hate the adult industry with a passion,” Kernes contends. “Hence the ‘prurient sexual nature’ bullshit put into the SBA application process. There’s no good reason for it, since adult businesses will be losing income right along with all the other businesses affected by the pandemic.”

At least two federal judges have issued preliminary injunctions barring the SBA from automatically denying strip clubs Paycheck Protection Program funds; the Justice Department is appealing the injunctions, but the FSC now claims that, in fact, loan applicants within the industry are receiving SBA loans.

The coalition’s Stabile feels the initial exclusion was a holdover from the late ’80s, when the National Endowment for the Arts had its funding cut because of its support of controversial artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. “Could this be looked at as a way to shut down all business, without engaging in traditional censorship?” asks Stabile. “All I know is I don’t think that we’re a priority on the Hill right now. But we are a legal business that operates in the open . . .with employee protections just like any other business.”

Diesel sees hypocrisy in it all. “We pay taxes,” he says. “People who are buying the videos are paying taxes. We bring money into the county. The same people who are saying no to helping us are the ones who are watching our videos.”

“No industry has a better mindset
when it comes to communicable diseases.”

(The SBA did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)

Meanwhile, although the industry continues to bring in millions of dollars in online revenue, Diesel and other performers are worried about what the future holds as the economic effects of the pandemic start to spread almost as insidiously as the virus.

For now at least, Blair Williams’ income from personal online channels has improved by 66 percent, allowing her to break even by making up for the lost revenue she normally would earn shooting on sets. For Leo Forte, however, the only money coming in is the FSC relief stipend. And all his behind-the-camera colleagues seem to face an uncertain future. “Here I am out in the cold,” says Forte. “What is my next step? What should I do so this doesn’t happen to me again? I just don’t know. You don’t plan for pandemics.”

Most people interviewed for this article feel the adult film industry as a whole will emerge slightly better than most businesses in the coming months and years, especially as people long for personal yet anonymous connections in a future that will surely emphasize social distancing.

“People are going to be assessing physical spaces in very different ways, “says Frederick Lane, “and the vast majority of strip clubs are not places that [are conducive] to social distancing. I think it’s going to take a long time before [something like] that looks like a fun thing to do, particularly if you can have a meaningful conversation with somebody on a cam site and not die of COVID.”

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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