“Porn is the billboard. Cam is the product,” my housemate and porn performer in Las Vegas tells me.
She makes most of her money from camming: a form of live streaming, where viewers tip for a sexual performance via webcam. For her, performing in porn films is now more of an ad rather than a source of income.
Performers today are better thought of as internet entrepreneurs, generating income from a range of activities beyond porn and using social media to market themselves.
Or, as I have named them, “porntropreneurs”.
Due to internet piracy and the widespread availability of online amateur pornography, today’s commercial porn studios face ever-narrowing profit margins. The studios are no longer able to provide a stable income and regular shoots for most porn performers.
Porn performers now earn income from camming, self-produced videos, subscriptions from monetised social media platforms such as OnlyFans, escorting, phone sex, sexting, dating “sugar daddies” and selling their underwear to fans online.
Read more: Why adult video stars rely on camming
Once, porn stars were simply performers. Now, being successful means managing a small online business – requiring a whole new range of skills to succeed.
Performers today have to be technically savvy in operating numerous online platforms and apps like OnlyFans and NiteFlirt. They have to be responsive to changes in remuneration models and algorithms, and prioritise the most profitable income streams to optimise revenue and minimise workload. They also have to be self-disciplined when it comes to scheduling and producing their own productions.
It’s all about the brand
In this online world, porntropreneurs crucially rely on self-branding as the glue that holds their diverse range of sexual and erotic services together.
Just as Apple invests resources in marketing to garner a devout following, a strong personal brand allows performers to attract loyal fans with a promise of high-quality content and the fulfilment of a particular fantasy. This, in turn, helps performers to stand out from the many amateur pornographers who constantly upload free material.
“Fans seek you out to learn more about you,” one performer tells me. “You are a fantasy and you’re building that world for them.”
From platinum blonde Baywatch bombshell, to 1950s pinup model, to tattooed rock chick, to Midwestern girl-next-door, porn is about selling fantasies. The ability to embody a particular fantasy especially well is what distinguishes the porn performer from the porn star.
To brand themselves and create this online persona, porntropreneurs use social media in much the same way other online influencers do.
Performers organise photo shoots for their various social media accounts, do Q&As with fans on Instagram, post behind-the-scenes material on Twitter, and vlog about their daily lives on YouTube.
“I do [Instagram] stories every three hours,” a performer says. “It’s a lot of work. Doesn’t matter if you’re ill, you have to do it. Consistently.”
More content shared translates into more followers, which ultimately means more income. Viewers click on links during videos or in posts that take them to websites where they can buy clips or join the current cam show.
Similar to other social media influencers who advertise sponsored products, performers may lock in sponsored partnerships from sex toy brands, beauty clinics and even marijuana dispensaries.
In many instances, performers have to be careful as social media platforms increasingly target sex workers and shut down their accounts.
“It’s frustrating, because you’ll see these movie stars naked in sexual ways on their Instagram posts, and everybody will be like ‘You’re a beautiful, strong woman! How brave of you to do this!’ and then I pose in an artistic way and my stuff gets flagged,” one performer laments.
Porn is a mirror of our times
Pornography is a set of cultural practices reflective of our political, economic, technological and social circumstances.
From being a battleground against rapid social and economic changes in the late 1800s to becoming a flashpoint in the 1970s and ’80s around issues of sexism and violence against women, porn has always been about more than just smutty images. It is part of society, and so reflects society.
The rise of the porntropreneur can, in a similar vein, be used to understand some of the broader economic and social issues of today. From freelance journalists to aspiring academics, professionals in today’s gig economy are expected to be independent, flexible, constantly online, always hustling and able to market themselves.
Porn performers, as my research shows, are no different.