Beyond Pornhub: The sex rebels reclaiming adult film

Ron Jeremy is on the phone, talking about fish. He’s just launched a new virtual-reality porn venture, and is excited about what it could mean for the industry.

“This is a whole new world,” he says. “You can shoot the couple, messing around. If you turn to the left, you can watch a bowl of fish swimming around a little jar. Then go back to the couple, or to someone watching television; a beautiful girl, watching TV, masturbating.

“Everywhere you go, you’re discovering new territory, sexual or non-sexual.”

Having appeared in more than 3,000 films, Jeremy is moving into 360-degree video as a director. He tells me virtual reality is a way to save the industry; to fight piracy and combat the domination of free streaming sites. Immersion. Connection. Intimacy. These are all words that get kicked up. “It’s time for something new,” he says. “Companies are actually going out of business because of piracy. This is going to save that.”

The decline and fall of the industry has been widely reported. In 2012, Louis Theroux’s documentary Twilight of the Porn Stars charted a Californian business decimated by the rise of video streaming. In the years since, DVD sales have wilted, with analysts from as early as 2013 pointing to a 50% slump in sales. The industry of the age of VHS and DVD is all but dead, and in its place has risen the likes of MindGeek: a self-professed leader in search-engine marketing, and owner of a ream of studios and distribution platforms including Pornhub, YouPorn, RedTube, Tube8, PornMD, Brazzers and Digital Playground, to name a few.

This is the new pornographic order, but it’s an uneasy balance. The domination of MindGeek, as well as sites like xHamster and XVideos, has led to accusations of a monopoly over an industry that relies on it to stop from collapsing entirely. Performers are paid less, with the whole concept of a “porn star” dissolving among the constantly rolling bodies of free-to-watch porn sites.

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(Above: Ron Jeremy (r) directing. Credit: RonjeremyVR)

Against this backdrop, the novelty of virtual reality is being held up as a potential saviour. It’s not without reasoning. MarketWatch claims adult VR content is forecast to be a $1 billion business by 2025, making it the third-biggest sector after video games and NFL content. 

The cracks between the keywords

If you saw Ron Jeremy on screen, there’s every chance you might recognise him. Yet in an age of Pornhub and its X-rated Library of Babel, this is a rarity. As you close the laptop on your bedcovers, can you remember the faces you’ve seen? Could you say their names? While the proponents of VR porn may be focused on the financial domination of ad-based streaming sites, other voices in the industry are taking aim at the wider, existential crises that the age of Pornhub has induced around performance and personality.

Saskia Vogel is a novelist, a former editor at Adult Video News and is now part of the collective that organises Helsinki’s Viva Erotica Film Festival. She points me to a documentary by the French director and former feminist-porn actor Ovidie, titled Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals. It examines the “Uber-ization of labour in porn” by companies such as MindGeek.

“It’s so easy to stop thinking of the videos having any origin”

“Ovidie laments what I understand to be an emerging namelessness and facelessness in the mainstream industry,” Vogel tells me. “With so much free, disposable content, are we, on a conscious or subconscious level, learning that the people in porn are disposable bodies, part of a never-ending stream? And so we don’t need to care or even think about them as people?

“In namelessness and facelessness, it becomes easy to not care about labour conditions and intellectual property issues,” she adds. “In a tube-site environment, as a user, it’s so easy to stop thinking of the videos having any origin – no producers, directors [or] performers with histories and distinct identities beyond what you see being performed – and therefore, it’s easy not to care, and easy to lose sight of the basic humanity of sex. This is dangerous.”porn_law_uk

At the core of this conceptualisation are keywords. ANAL. LESBIAN. ASIAN. THREESOME. These are the words that segment our desires, where performers and performances are indexed and presented to the user as a bumper catalogue. “I think among people who make porn, there’s a consensus that the proliferation of ‘free’ instant access porn on streaming sites has forced porn (and therefore performers) to become increasingly reduced to keywords and categories,” says Vex Ashley, head of porn outfit Four Chambers. “This means that anything that subverts stereotypes or keyword trends is lost in the expansive tube-site archives.”

“Because porn has been dismissed as culturally worthless, it has infinite unexplored potential.”

The domination of keywords can also be an opportunity to create a new territory elsewhere, though – one that’s harder to serve within the business model of MindGeek. Four Chambers bills itself as “post-porn”, and started as an passion project by Ashley to explore the potential of porn as a creative medium, outside of what you might normally find on traditional porn sites. “I think we often see porn as a purely functional product, I think it can have the potential to do more, say more, and be more than just something to quickly jerk off to, then clear the browser history and close your laptop (not that that obviously isn’t good sometimes),” she explains. “Because porn has been dismissed as culturally worthless, it has infinite unexplored potential.

“The anonymity of instant access clips of contextless fucking on tube sites has heralded a kind of counterculture of more personal, more DIY – for want of a better, less pretentious descriptor – ‘artisanal, farm-to-table’ porn being made directly by performers.”

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(Credit: Four Chambers)

Bedfellows is a research project investigating sexual identities, led by artists Chloe Cooper, Phoebe Davies and Jenny Moore. They also see an opportunity in the cracks between the keywords; creating spaces for sexual identities that are often sidelined on streaming sites. “People watch everything in smaller chunks, have loads of windows open at once, get to the money shot quicker,” they tell me. “But [the internet] has also made things available to watch that were never accessible before. It’s connected groups of women, trans folk, queer folk, people of colour, people of different abilities, and allowed them to make hot, nasty, powerful images of their own sexual lives in ways that they have some control over.”

They tell me that queer, DIY porn made by queer people, “as opposed to ‘girl-on-girl’ scenes made for hetero-male consumption”, claims space and agency for performers and filmmakers to tell stories about sex that are often squeezed out of mainstream porn. “As Jiz Lee and Shine Louise Houston say, when we don’t see ourselves represented anywhere, queer folk start to feel like they can’t be sexy; they can’t have a healthy, fulfilling sexual life with meaningful relationships.”

More connection

One performer embracing this DIY approach from a different angle is Harriet SugarCookie. Her videos are a mix of the sexual and the non-sexual, pairing YouTuber-style conversations about video games alongside clips of sex. Instead of an anonymous body, her videos are a multidimensional showcase for her personality, inside and outside of sex. “Performers are interesting, lovely people and I want all my videos, porn or not, to give them that dimension that you don’t always find in pornography,” she says.

“I think people want more connection in pornography”

“I think people want more connection in pornography. The new age is looking for more than just nude photos or plain sex. Look at how popular cam girls are. People want that extra connection, that intimacy. The whole industry is moving towards providing products that cater to the growing demand.”

I ask SugarCookie if she considers herself to have a similar outlook to Four Chambers. While she finds them interesting, she makes it clear that her work is less about making statements on the creative potential of porn, and more about building a successful career: “Running a company, being a successful, young, female leader in this industry, takes hard work [and] dedication. I want to show that you can be successful in this industry doing things your own way. I’m deadly serious about what I do.”future_of_porn_harriet_sugarcookie

(Credit: Harriet SugarCookie)

While SugarCookie’s site doesn’t pivot on a keyword-heavy approach, her videos do appear on Pornhub, and streaming sites have been a vital part of her studio’s development. “I don’t think we would have our business without Pornhub,” says Tommie McDonald, head of marketing for SugarCookie.com. “We wouldn’t have had the money to reach so many potential members. To put it in context, one of our channels on Pornhub had 12 million views this year, and our XVideos channel had 75 million views this year, with every video carrying an advert for our site. We couldn’t afford to build that traffic as beginners.”

The idea of MindGeek as an X-rated evil empire may not, therefore, be so easy to square. “The wealth they’ve created is staggering,” notes McDonald, adding that the tube-site strategy gives plenty of scope for studios to find an audience and make a living from advertising.

Pornhub’s vice president, Corey Price, also tells Alphr that his site does help models make an income from their work: “Anyone can sign up to our model programme, upload their content and start making money. We give out almost all the ad revenue earned on views from models’ videos. Many models use the platform to promote their cam sites, clip sites, pay sites etc.”

SugarCookie’s approach is therefore less a reaction against Pornhub, and more an embracing of its playbook to create something new. Sex is at the heart of what she does, but her videos ricochet beyond the bedroom. Much like Ron Jeremy’s bowl of fish, it suggests there is space in porn for reality as well as fantasy, the banal as well as the carnal, and this presence of the everyday could soon become an even larger part of the porn we watch, with the advent of nascent technologies such as augmented reality. The fish in that tank could soon be your own.

“We believe there is a lot of opportunity with augmented reality and porn,” says Xavi Clos, head of production for adult VR studio BaDoinkVR. “The one thing about wearing VR goggles is that you are completely shut out from the environment around you. The ability to interact with content within the context of your bedroom could be a powerful thing that also lends to more shared interactions with other people.”

Regardless of how porn evolves around and against the domination of streaming sites, whether it gives rise to new experimental territory or tech-heavy reimaginings, one thing that all of these voices champion is connection. More connection. New spaces for connection. A sincere illusion of human connection. And this, ultimately, hinges on the power of a person’s performance.

“The most glorious performances are when you feel the essential generosity of the performer: that they’re giving themselves to the act for their pleasure, the partner’s and yours,” says Vogel.

“I don’t think this can be lost. Like with any kind of art or performance, some people just have ‘it’. But it’s possible with the changing economics of porn, and changing distribution models, that this type of sex on film can become harder to find, less seen or less represented. Maybe even less prioritised in a production? We get what we pay for, really.”

18/12/17 13.30: Updated with comments by Tommie McDonald. 19/12/17 16:30: Updated with comment by Corey Price.

Lead image credit: Four Chambers. 

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