The Commercial Realities Of Feminist Porn

A week ago I hunkered down with ten of my fellow Australian female feminist porn makers to talk about what we do. Included in our group were filmmakers, webmistresses and models (and some were combintations of all those things) We talked business strategies, billing, search engine optimization and filmmaking techniques. We shared war stories. We also talked about the ethics of what we do. We didn’t get time to write down a formal code of practice but it’s now in the pipeline.

Today I read Melissa Gira Grant’s article Who speaks for women who work in the adult industry? In it, she discusses the idea that women taking control of the means of production is one way of creating fairer conditions for the performers in porn, short of creating a union. Certainly that’s what I’m seeing with the performers who are running their own sites and producing their own content. It’s also what I’ve experienced as a filmmaker attempting to make a better kind of porn.

There was also this quote from Bella Vendetta:

“Unfortunately, I have found that if the term feminist porn is being used, I can almost guarantee that it means I will be offered an incredibly low rate. To me, it is not empowering to accept half my rate to have sex on film.” Bella concludes: “Feminist porn is a labor of love.”

I wanted to address this quote and the suggestion it gives (at least to me) that feminist porn isn’t living up to its ethical ideals when it comes to pay. While I understand where Bella is coming from, I feel that it doesn’t give the full story. To do this, I want to give the perspective of someone who is a feminist porn producer, not a performer.

I am an independent operator. I don’t have the backing of a major porn studio or investment company. It’s just me operating out of my home office, using my own money. In making porn, I have two motivations. One of them is idealist: I want to create positive, artistic, female-friendly depictions of sex – a better kind of porn. Feminist porn.

My other motivation is monetary. It would be a lie to say otherwise. Almost everyone has a commercial interest in porn. I’m in this to make a living and – hopefully – a profit of some kind. I don’t have any other job other than making porn so I need to pay my bills and save for the future. Right now I’m trying to make money with my new site Bright Desire. It’s currently running at a loss but I hope that, over time, I can get into the black with it.

Bright Desire is only new. It doesn’t have that many scenes on it. To build up the base number of scenes required to even start the site I’ve had to invest my own money, time, skills and equipment and take a risk that I might never get any of it back. That’s the risk inherent in any startup. Mine is only a small site and as an indie operator I’ve done my best to keep costs down.

With each individual scene, I have to consider the cost of producing it compared to whether I can get my money back on it and how long it will take to get it back. Producing a scene doesn’t just involve paying performers; it also involves paying for a location, the time spent to make it and edit it plus the simple ongoing capital costs of equipment like lights, cameras, microphones, editing software and high-end computers plus hosting and billing fees and advertising. There’s also the cost of travelling to create each scene, as I can’t make them where I live.

Because it’s just me and my husband making porn, I carry all these costs personally. I have bought all my own equipment. I can’t afford a crew or staff so I do everything myself. It means it takes more time for me to produce finished work and put it on the site. This means I’m at a commercial disadvantage to those major companies that seem to produce a new porn scene every day. I’m only an indie producer; my work is the equivalent of a hand-knitted scarf, not a factory-produced jacket.

To make my money back I need to sell my product into a market that is currently very depressed. People don’t want to pay for porn anymore, they expect it all to be free and don’t consider the costs of production when they watch it on tube sites or torrent it. To make my money back I need to cover a lot of bases – I can offer the scenes on my own subscription site but I need to also consider video-on-demand, DVDs and cable TV. These options also don’t provide huge profit margins; indeed, in some cases its not worth doing. So right now, making porn is not really the gilded path to riches that the media so often make it out to be. It’s really more of a gilded path to break-even.

When it comes to paying performers, I do my best to offer fair rates. These may occasionally be a little lower than standard although – here’s the trick – there isn’t any official standard rate at present. There are averages and there’s also the performer’s asking rate. It can be a tricky business, negotiating pay, because I’m trying to keep my costs down (and labour is by far the biggest cost) while still paying my performers something decent. I’ve certainly never paid half. On a couple of occasions I’ve paid more than the going rate. And if a performer wants more money and I can’t afford it, I thank them and we go our separate ways.

I know of one feminist director who is able to pay her performers what they ask. She has the backing of a major studio so has the funding to do this. I know of other feminist porn producers who use volunteers in their productions. This is usually because they are dirt poor and are trying to achieve their vision on the smell of an oily rag. If people are happy to volunteer to be in porn, good for them and good for their producers. For me, I couldn’t use volunteers because I am trying to run a business and it would be unethical not to pay – even if I can’t pay as much as other companies.

I currently pay on a one-off basis. That is, I pay the performers as an independent contractor; they get a single amount for their time and the use of their image. I then have the use of that footage forever. I guess the question that needs to be asked about this method of payment is: is it exploitative?

If I look at it from a performer’s point of view, maybe it is. Their image is now out there permanently and can be used in any way that the producer wishes. But if I view it as a producer, perhaps not. In producing a scene, I’m bringing my skills, equipment, time and money to the table. I’m also taking a risk that I will make a loss. There is no guarantee that I will make my money back in creating a porn scene, Meanwhile the performer walks away with cash in hand, guaranteed.

Dare I say it, I’ve felt vaguely exploited filming a scene once – the couple I hired were difficult to direct, they fucked like rabbits, had a great time and walked away with their money. I was left with relatively dodgy footage and a much lighter wallet, wondering if I could make something of what I’d captured. My point being, the door can swing both ways.

As with all exchanges of money for labour, deals are done and compromises are made. The trick is to create an accord where both sides are happy. I do my best to reach that accord when I’m hiring.

There is only one porn company that I know of that pays up front but also gives revenue share to its models. That is Feck, the Australian company that runs I Shot Myself and Beautiful Agony. Feck puts aside a share of its profits and distributes the money to its models each year, based upon how popular each model has been. Making this work involves careful tabulation of page views and the subsequent calculations and distributions require the services of a full-time accountant.

I’ve been looking at Cindy Gallop’s alternative payment model on Make Love Not Porn TV with interest. This model requires couples or individuals to upload their self-made porn and pay $5 to have it reviewed. It then goes on the site where people can rent individual films for $5. The performers get half of that money. In this model, the risk of production is reversed; now it’s the performers who must make the film themselves and carry the risk that it doesn’t make any money. Make Love Not Porn, meanwhile, gets to feature a large amount of cheap, user-submitted content. Their costs are reduced to hosting and promotion, although the site had to invest in the script and payment infrastructure to make it all work and that is their primary hurt money. The site also had $500,000 seed funding and I’m assuming they need to return that money to investors in a relatively short amount of time.

Is this model exploitative? I’m not sure. The fact that Make Love Not Porn is getting so much publicity means a higher level of traffic and, thus, a better chance of profit-making for contributors. It’s possible that the performers can make many times more money over time than if they’d just received the initial amount up front. However this payment model isn’t as promising if used on a smaller, lesser-known site. If, for example, I offered it on Bright Desire, I suspect it wouldn’t work. I don’t yet have the traffic to guarantee good sales which would mean that the performers were putting themselves out there for very little gain other than exposure. Right now I think my performers are better off with the up-front payment.

I would one day like to organise some kind of a revenue sharing model with my performers and perhaps when I get into the black I’ll be able to set that up. In the meantime, I just can’t afford it and I don’t have the skills, the staff or the software to do it. And, as I said, it would leave the performers worse off.

One of the cornerstone concepts of feminist porn is ethical production. I’m doing my best to uphold that idea. I involve my performers in the production and collaborate with scripts and ideas. When it comes to sex, I have a hands-off approach and let them do what pleases them best. I make sure I meet or phone my performers before a shoot so we can get to know each other a little. I discuss the terms of my contracts beforehand and do my best to explain what I will do with the footage. My husband and I do our best to create a safe and comfortable space on set. There’s no creepiness, no surprises, no unexpected demands – just courtesy and respect. We try to give them accurate estimates of how long it will take to do the shoot and we don’t waste the performer’s time. On Bright Desire I present my performers in a respectful way because they deserve it; they’ve shared something very personal with me and the world and I want to honour that.

Making feminist porn is ultimately about making compromises in the pursuit of art and profit. Unfortunately it is subject to the same commercial realities of regular porn and this has an impact on the ideology behind it. Perhaps in the future, when feminist porn isn’t the boutique, niche industry it is today, we won’t be having this conversation because the goal of feminist porn is to become mainstream and to make ethical production a standard in the industry. Until then it will remain, as Bella Vendetta says, a labour of love.

 

Image credit: Dollar symbol by Svilen.milev via Wikimedia Commons

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4 thoughts on “The Commercial Realities Of Feminist Porn

  1. Great post. I agree that fair pay is absolutely central to feminist, ethical and fairtrade porn, and particularly porn setting out to be all three. In the spanking genre, rates vary from producer to producer, but not a huge amount. Most the variation is proportional to the severity of the spanking and bruising incurred, or the length of the shoot.

    As a producer, I have always paid my performers a rate which matches the highest daily rate I myself have ever earned as a performer. I think that paying your performers more than other studios, and more than they expect, is a good investment and results in better working relationships and better content. When you treat performers well, they are more willing to give you their energy, enthusiasm, time and labour. Good pay is part of that, and so is a friendly and supportive working environment, nice food on set, and other considerations such as facilitating and reimbursing their travel, making sure they have somewhere to stay if they need, and generally treating them like the stars they are.

    My ideal is to treat every performer I hire like royalty, and leave them feeling thoroughly spoiled and unable to wait to work for me again. I may not always achieve that ideal, but it is definitely worth striving for, and I know I’ve achieved it on multiple occasions.

    In the spanking genre as well as other porn genres, fair pay for men is a very hot issue. I believe that male porn performers should be paid the same rates as women. This will encourage a higher standard of male actors and models into the adult industry, promote the female gaze and the idea of men in porn as objects of desire, and counteract the idea that women are more sexually desirable (and in the case of kink porn, more sexually submissive) than men.

    For this reason hiring cute male subs who are talented performers and visually attractive to a female audience is absolutely crucial to making feminist kinky porn. I don’t think you can make feminist kink porn that only presents female submission as attractive and desirable. Paying a good rate to attract the hottest male performers is key to that.

    As a result I offer three standard rates. One is for spankees, or performers bottoming in at least three spanking scenes during a day, even if they also switch. Another, slightly less, is for switches, which is for performers doing 1 or 2 bottoming scenes and others as a top. Finally I have a third rate for tops and crew, since these are jobs that can be done on consecutive days without needing to leave healing time. These are the same regardless of gender. If that were not the case, I would not feel able to claim to be making either feminist, or fairtrade, porn.

  2. I should mention that, like you, my business is entirely self-funded and has no outside investment beyond a small loan from a friend to help pay for the web development. I have worked my arse off earning and saving to pour thousands of pounds and months of my life into getting my business off the ground over the last six years. Performer fees have been the biggest expense by a mile.

    The flip side is that after 14 months of trading I’m already in profit. Good performers are worth investing in.

  3. nother aspect to the payment in many indie porn (note, i’m not saying feminist porn here – because the larger world of indie porn is what we are really discussing when we talk bout the difference in rates between some porn and other porn) is that for the most part, the ethical indie companies will only have you on set for 2-3 hours, and not direct you to do anything you don’t feel like doing. So, you’re getting paid a little less in general, but it’s actually sometimes MORE PER HOUR than the time you would spend on a larger commercial porn set (which can sometimes be 12-14 hours, for a rate of 500-1000 – however you cut it, that’s not a lot of money for the time spent, depending on the company, project, scene.) – and you honestly get to say, OK, for this amount of money, I am interested in doing these sex acts – whereas on a larger commercial porn set, you’re rate is set around what sex acts you’re willing to perform – so you could be convinced to do things you originally didn’t agree to with the promise of more money – or, no matter what you’re getting paid, you don’t generally have ANY control over your outfit, your image, your co-star, barrier use, or the sex acts you’re supposed to perform. It seems to me like the more money you’re offered, the less control or agency you’ll have on set. Some people prefer the money and a hard day’s work – some people are willing to do it for less, make some boundaires for themselves (like, maybe you’ll only do one thing, or only shoot for 30 minutes, or whatever boundaries you make around what you’re getting paid) and go home and still have most of your day to do other things, go to work, et cetera) So it’s a give and take.

    Indie porn may pay less, but you’re bound to have more control over your image and only be on set for 2-3 hours, sometimes less. ***Ethically speaking, If that weren’t the case on my set, I would find a way to pay more – simple as that.*** Also something to think of is the number of members/customers/units sold – smaller sites that are often labeled feminist or indie may only have 50-200 members – whereas a large site that can pay $900/scene might have millions and millions of customers. I think it comes down to a matter of ethics – I pay what I am able (and keep it equal across the board, no matter how famous the performer is, or what they do on screen, or their gender or race, their agent, or whether it’s safer sex or barebacking – which are certainly things you’ll get more or less money for in mainstream porn) and I pay it faithfully. I keep the set clean, safe, and SHORT, and I make sure to get performers in and out fast so that their pay rate feels worth the 2 hours they spent with me. I think a critique on feminist porn-making funding is important, but we do need to consider what a day on set, creative investment, and financial investment is like on a lower-paying project vs. a higher-paying project.

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