The Future of Porn Is on Indie Social Media

New platforms are providing creators with a chance to bypass pirate sites and platform rules, and connect directly with users

Illustration: Molly Dyson

AA common criticism of mainstream porn is that it’s unrealistic. Detractors argue that everything from the clichéd storylines to the fake orgasms combine to create depictions of sex which are void of intimacy at best, and downright harmful at worst.

It’s true that porn has its problems. Fetishization and violence (although research shows this is decreasing) are still regular fixtures on “tube” sites — the free, largely unregulated sites like Pornhub and Xtube. Those sites also frequently feature pirated content. But the industry is largely changing for the better as platforms, creators, and studios merge with the social media movement.

In 2009, entrepreneur Cindy Gallop launched MakeLoveNotPorn, a video site filled with crowdsourced “real world” sex scenes. The idea came from her discovery that, in lieu of comprehensive sex education, young men in particular were using porn as an instruction manual. Lovers were literally trying to fuck like porn stars — and unsurprisingly, the results were disastrous.

Gallop concluded that cultural anxieties around sex and pleasure were doing us all a disservice; they were (and still are) repressing valuable conversations, leading us to confuse the curated fantasies of porn with the messy intimacy of real, unscripted sex. Her solution was to invite the public to share sex scenes like they would social media posts; these would be vetted by a curator and, if approved, published and monetized. A crowdfunding campaign was launched, and MakeLoveNotPorn was billed as a “social sex revolution.”

“It’s a transition from ‘free the nipple’ to ‘pay for the nipple’ — here, we can make money for the extra millimeters of flesh which would be censored elsewhere.”

The years since have proven this to be true. Sites like Lustery have followed suit by spotlighting real couples, and progressive directors like Shine Louise Houston and Erika Lust have launched campaigns to fund their work through fan donations. This approach allows them full creative control, as well as the chance to write storylines most mainstream backers wouldn’t touch.

The evolution of social media has also given rise to new alternatives, like the subscription model pioneered by sites like OnlyFans and JustForFans. Decidedly more sex-positive than counterparts like Patreon, these platforms offer users the chance to create an account filled with private content that fans can pay a fee of the user’s choice to unlock. It’s a blueprint custom-built for the age of the influencer.

According to porn performer, educator, and podcast host Lina Bembe, these sites are increasingly necessary as other social media platforms — most notably Tumblr and Instagram — crack down on adult content. “It’s about offering channels for performers to capitalize on their exposure,” she explains. “It’s a transition from ‘free the nipple’ to ‘pay for the nipple’ — here, we can make money for the extra millimeters of flesh which would be censored elsewhere.”

Influencers monetize their following through ad revenue and affiliate links, or collaborate with brands to make cash — options not often available to most adult performers, whose content is at disproportionate risk of being censored explicitly or surreptitiously through “shadow bans,” which limit the visibility of users’ posts by banning their hashtags or blocking some of their content, often without letting them know.

“I’ve definitely been shadow banned,” Bembe continues. “On Twitter, I’m banned as a search suggestion, and Instagram has played disgusting tricks on me — I was banned from logging into the app on my phone for 10 days, and my handle has become practically unsearchable. My increase in followers has dropped dramatically, and so has engagement with my posts.”

Hashtags can be hidden entirely, and any post related to sex work — be it educational, political, or promotional — risks being removed. “Social media has become unashamedly hostile to sex workers and queer people,” summarises Bembe, hinting at other censorship scandals which cracked down on queer and trans creators for merely discussing their identities.

BloggerOnPole, the alias of a pole dance performer and writer who asked to remain anonymous, has been similarly affected. “If I post a shot of myself in underwear with my butt visible, or if I share a video of me pole dancing, that gets shadow banned and my engagement drops.”

She explains that the problem isn’t so much the banning itself, but the lack of clarity — even after Instagram’s “vaguely inappropriate content” policy made headlines for being sexist (hazy guidelines made it easy to weaponize the rules against women and sex workers, in particular), she reached out for an interview only to find that brand reps “denied that shadow banning is a thing.” Whatever the case, she highlights that fellow pole dancers are also turning to subscription sites anyway: “they’re sick of it all.”

A Twitter representative responded to clarify that the platform “does not arbitrarily censor content or engage in so-called shadow-banning,” describing the practice as “anathema to our philosophy and that of our founders.” This echoes the claims of an official statement issued last year, entitled “setting the record straight on shadow banning” — though other investigations, including one on OneZero, have found users who have experienced something similar to shadow banning.

Instagram told OneZero that it wanted its discovery tools to highlight safe content. “Unlike Instagram’s feed, Explore and hashtags are places where we recommend content to people who have not yet chosen to follow it,” said a spokesperson. “We’re working to ensure that the content we recommend is both safe and appropriate for our community, and that means we are stricter about what content is recommended to people on Explore and hashtag pages. This does not affect Instagram’s feed, and we will continue to show you posts from accounts you have chosen to follow.”

Adult-centric subscription sites like OnlyFans are less predicated on reality than their “social sex” predecessors. They’re a mixture of traditional porn content sites and social media timelines; here, hardcore porn clips are interspersed with Insta-worthy selfies. It’s a way to maintain direct access to fans without navigating the complicated web of social media censorship rules, similar to the “private Snapchats” being set up by adult workers, but more permanent. Fans get full access with a 30-day subscription, and then choose whether to renew.

However, the risk to performers comes in the level of access that fans are given to performers. Ignoring private messages can even be cited by subscribers (via a multiple-choice response box) as reason for canceling their subscription, which opens up the question: how close is too close?

“We aren’t allowed elsewhere, so we have to work with platforms who only accept us on their terms; there’s no real competition in terms of fees, services, and options.”

Cam performer Antella Pearson notes that this direct line is nothing new in terms of online porn — streaming site chat rooms have always given users the chance to directly contact performers, and in her experience, fans are respectful. “If you don’t want to do something, you don’t have to,” she said. “There are more platforms now, but that doesn’t mean that clients should or do expect more access.” Pearson also explains that she only uses social media professionally, describing it as “a gateway for online bullying — why would I risk opening myself up to that negativity in my downtime?”

But Antella is represented by an agency, which sets her apart from performers who need to self-promote online. Bembe argues that options are currently scarce for cam performers without representation, meaning they have to work with the cards they’re dealt. “These platforms are mini spaces for the marginalized, and that capitalizes on stigma,” she says. “We aren’t allowed elsewhere, so we have to work with platforms who only accept us on their terms; there’s no real competition in terms of fees, services, and options.”

When it comes to fan boundaries, Bembe explains that she’s also fortunate — subscription sites aren’t her core moneymaker, meaning that she can afford to lose fans if they try to exploit her. “I make the rules; I don’t bend them for anyone, and I certainly don’t lament if people decide to leave.” Still, she does see potential for fans to pressure performers. “I hope it can be solved through clever branding strategies, or more opportunities to capitalize on the more demanding fans.”

Bembe and Pearson aren’t beholden to their subscribers, but sex workers pushed out of vital platforms by the controversial U.S. FOSTA-SESTA bill might not have the choice to ignore demanding subscribers. The 2018 bill aimed to tackle sex trafficking (a problem exaggerated by poor-quality research statistics in the U.S.) by cracking down on sex work sites. Consensual sex workers were caught in the crossfire; overnight, they lost vital online resources allowing them to vet clients, create crowdsourced support network, and solicit work safely.

Research soon found that workers were being pushed offline into more dangerous street scenarios, and that pimps were largely the ones profiting. It’s not hard to see that the workers taking these risks offline are more marginalized — they’re workers who may not be able to drop a client for being too demanding, or crossing preset boundaries. In this sense, there’s a hierarchy of risk based on factors including race, class, and gender identity which can’t be understated.

These risks of abuse, harassment, and stalking are prevalent across all social media, but they shouldn’t stop creators from migrating to social sex sites, where they’re able to work with less censorship than other social media platforms and are shrouded by a paywall from the lethal consequences of FOSTA-SESTA. After all, Gallop’s hypotheses have proven true: fans evidently do want more genuine, unscripted content and a greater feeling of connection to performers.

These more recent subscription sites might be more filtered and polished than the “real world” sex videos that kick-started the revolution, but they share similar principles and therefore represent a continuation of Gallop’s logic. Better still, the steadily-growing market is giving adult content creators, silenced by other platforms, a chance to monetize their outputand in some cases, earn thousands of dollars a month. Social sex platforms aren’t just eroding the notoriously opaque veneer of mainstream porn; they’re offering a lifeline to performers still being disproportionately punished elsewhere.

Freelance writer of all things weird, queer and horny. Expect politics, culture, kink and whatever I can’t write elsewhere!

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