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Gay Porn Gets Creative Under COVID, With Lessons Learned From HIV

covid

If there’s any one business where social distancing just doesn’t work, it’s porn.

All the “stand here” queue line floor stickers in the world, placed six feet apart, can’t be adhered to long in an industry where human contact is practically a job necessity for most of its workers.

COVID-19 has affected the adult film industry just as it has your favorite restaurant, bar, and store. And while many would call porn “essential” — especially in times like these — Uncle Sam doesn’t agree.

Still, with so many people sequestered at home, demand for online entertainment — including porn — is most certainly up.

“We’re lucky to be in a business that people seek out in times like this,” Alison Boden, CEO of Kink.com, the largest purveyor of fetish and BDSM entertainment in the world, says. “Unfortunately, production is hugely impacted and will be for some time. But, our sales have had a slight improvement. Folks are home and there are only so many things you can do. You can bake bread, you can watch Netflix, you can masturbate…”

Boden says that while traffic to the Kink.com website has not increased since the pandemic, the amount of time people spend on the site and the number of times they’re returning are up substantially. Since the pandemic began, Kink.com has seen about a 10 percent increase in sales.

“That’s not a crazy amount,” Boden says. “We’re not making money hand-over-fist. Although I hear some folks are and I’m really happy for them, frankly.”

Dominic Ford*, owner and founder of the subscription content platform Just For Fans, has seen increases as well. (For the uninitiated, think of Just For Fans as an online version of Amsterdam’s red light district, but performers and viewers each stay on their respective side of the window.) He says the number of models who’ve signed up to provide their own page has at least doubled, if not tripled, since before the pandemic. He says the number of fans, or viewers, has also increased, as well as how much their spending and tipping performers. Overall, Ford says, sales are up 30 to 35 percent.

Typically, the Just For Fans site offers model search features allowing performers to locate potential on-screen partners. Those have been removed for the time being because Ford says encouraging models to meet up currently is “inappropriate.”

In mid-March, the Free Speech Coalition, the porn industry’s trade association, called for an industry-wide production hold, stating that new scenes should only be filmed solo or with partners who live in the same household. The decision was prompted by the state of California’s call for the suspension of all nonessential businesses. Recognizing that the economic impact the closure would have could be devastating, the organization quickly set out to develop plans to lessen the impact.

“Porn falls into this weird place between necessity and luxury,” FSC media spokesman Mike Stabile says. “Not only are we in a public health crisis, but we’re also in the middle of a financial crisis. You see a lot of traffic to free sites like Pornhub and xHamster because they are free.” Proving the adage “you get what you pay for” true, Stabile says his industry has seen that people who want higher-quality content and can pay, will.

“Purchasing a porn subscription, even if only for a few months or so, is a small amount to spend to entertain yourself,” Stabile says. “Especially during lockdown when you’re not going out to a bar, you’re not taking someone out to dinner, you’re not renting a hotel room. In terms of return on investment, sexually, it’s a small amount of money.”

Stabile adds that the industry has also seen an increase in sales of pleasure products, such as dildos, strokers, and other adult toys, anywhere between 30 to 50 percent.

“I spoke with a rep from one company with a large gay male customer base who said his company's daily sales during the shutdown were twice as high as they had been during their biggest sales day last year, which was Black Friday,” Stabile says. That same rep mentioned that the number soon doubled again. “Initially, the sales were fairly basic — lower cost items, dildos and vibrators. However, they saw a surge in higher-priced items like advanced BDSM equipment with the arrival of the stimulus checks.”

Stimulus checks indeed.

Like Hollywood, the adult film industry’s challenge is to continue to provide fresh content and to create that safely. The number of new scenes, and what they look like, has already started to change.

Famed director Chi Chi LaRue*, who films for numerous studios including Falcon, Noir, and Icon, says that nearly everything he filmed prior to the pandemic will be released by July. The shut-down may have thwarted plans he was developing to produce a timely porn parody of the hit docu-series Tiger King.

“People are going to become very frustrated if it doesn’t open up soon,” LaRue says. “People are going to start shooting without any guidelines, and take risks, which is scary.”

Formed in late-April, a special FSC COVID-19 task force — consisting of performers, producers, workplace safety attorneys, infectious disease specialists, and an industrial hygienist, among others — has been developing benchmarks to lift the production hold and guidelines to safely resume production. It’s not the first health-related challenge the FSC has faced. Originally founded in 1991 to fight obscenity and censorship laws, by the end of the decade, the FSC would establish protocols to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections among porn performers. These days, the organization offers a nationwide network of testing sites called the Performer Availability Screening System, or PASS, to provide a safe and healthy workplace for performers.

“Our testing system was forged during the HIV epidemic and has helped us create an industry that is a model for prevention,” FSC Executive Director Michelle L. LeBlanc said in a statement. 

LaRue remembers when HIV first affected the adult film industry, finding many parallels to this new health crisis. He says anyone who worked on a gay adult film, no matter their orientation, was ostracized and that it took time to educate those in the industry about transmission; that HIV wasn’t just “a gay disease.” A former self-proclaimed “condom Nazi,” LaRue now shoots bareback films, a change he credits to increased implementation of tests and HIV-preventative treatments such as PrEP.

But COVID-19 presents a unique set of obstacles. 

“With an STI, you have limited points of contact where it can be transmitted,” Stabile says. “With COVID, it’s not just the person you’re performing with, it’s also the crew, the caterer, or the person whose house you’re renting.” Stabile says that discussions on health and safety “come naturally” to the adult film industry and that this most recent health scare is an opportunity to lead the way for mainstream Hollywood.

“I think the things we’re discussing for our sets go far beyond anything they’ve ever thought about,” Stabile says, especially now that filming a love scene in a mainstream film production has as much potential exposure to COVID-19 as does a sex scene in an adult film production. “We’re almost like a graduate course in set safety. A lot of mainstream sets have never had to think about some of these issues before.”

After nearly two months of research, the FSC just released its “Preliminary Health and Safety Guidelines for Adult Film Production.” At 32 pages, it’s a COVID greatest hits setlist of suggested, but not mandated, protocols: mask-wearing, cleaning and disinfecting, social distancing, personal hygiene, and loads of additional testing, now extended to all on-set personnel. The production hold, in place since March 15, has been lifted. However, filming should only occur in jurisdictions where mainstream film production is again permitted. Additionally, companies and producers should provide their own written safety plans addressing COVID-19 infection prevention and responses.

An increased use of PPE is also encouraged; Boden says Kink crew members already wear gloves on set, and eye protection and face masks are worn “if a scene were expected to have bodily fluids maybe flying around.”

Despite its risk-reducing guidelines, the FSC admits that shooting is still not safe. Most adult film production takes place in areas where the number of cases continue to rise, such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and south Florida. The FSC says it is safest to create content alone or with people who live in your household. Also, each performer added to a scene, and each crew member added to a set increases the risk of infection… so it may be some time before gang bangs and other group scenes return to the screen.

In an industry that already thrives on it, the pandemic has forced the adult film industry to become even more creative than ever before in order to keep performers and crew safe.

“Production is going to proceed gingerly,” Stabile says. He points to one production company that, for the time being, is going to shoot everything outdoors. Filming with drones or directing a scene behind plexiglass are options, and both Boden and LaRue have already experimented with directing scenes remotely via video conferencing.

“When the shutdown happened, we assessed and figured out that we could probably stretch what we had for several months,” Boden says, which will include re-releasing some of the company’s 20 years’ worth of back catalog. At its core, BDSM is typically a partner sport, so Kink isn’t known for releasing solo scenes. Thanks to COVID-19, that has changed. They recently launched a performer-driven channel called “Kinky Bites,” which are primarily self-directed and shorter in length.

“We’re lucky at Kink that we work with models who enjoy BDSM in their actual lives,” Boden says. “A lot of them are sheltering in place with their kinky partners and that really helps a lot. We’re trying to be really careful about who we work with because we want to make sure they are actually sheltering in place, especially if they’re doing non-solo content. It’s really important to not put anyone’s safety at risk.”

For now, Kink is only working with performers who’ve been able to provide their own equipment. But Boden says she’s not opposed to copying American Idol or The Voice, which shipped out DIY studio kits to their performers in order to continue production.

“A lot of kink is very, very psychological,” Boden says. “One of the genres that took off before the pandemic was JOI, which is short for Jerk Off Instruction. Essentially, it’s the dom telling you, the sub, the viewer, what to do with yourself. It tends to be a fem-dom genre, but there’s no reason why it would have to be a woman.”

For years, Kink has offered a series of BDSM workshops that were only available at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. Classes — such as How To Bring Out Your Inner Dom, Bondage Basics, and Mindfuckery — are now available online, Zoom-style. Students can also purchase school supplies from Kink’s e-commerce site, when applicable.

“We can ship everybody who wants to participate a Kink intro rope kit before the class,” Boden says as an example. “They’ll have all the materials they will need, including safety scissors, of course.”

“For the top 20 to 30 performers on Just For Fans, this is their full-time job,” Ford says, adding that most film “non-stop” and have an unreleased back catalog of four-to-five months’ worth of footage. Beyond connecting with fans for a monthly subscription fee, Ford encourages models looking to increase revenue to live cam or produce custom movies. Here, the model sets a per-minute charge for a personalized fan video with a menu of potential add-ons, such as saying the fan’s name or using a toy.

But for as many performers who can professionally produce their own material, or something close to it, there are an equal number who cannot and are struggling financially. Thanks to member donations, the FSC has as of early June disbursed over $150,000 to 500 talent and crew members in need.

Boden has also offered assistance, such as a free month’s membership, to some Kink.com members because, as she states, “Who needs that distraction more than the person who just lost their job?”

The government has been less clear about its financial assistance to the industry.

Wording in the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program initially appeared to specifically discriminate against adult businesses. Though the FSC advised its members looking to apply for CARES Act SBA loans to seek counsel from a First Amendment attorney, it did help provide clarification in the context of previous court rulings on obscenity.

“The Small Business Administration relief loans contained a provision barring businesses that were in the prurient interest,” Stabile says. “While many originally believed that this necessarily excluded adult businesses, others pointed to the narrow legal definition of prurience — "a shameful or morbid interest" in sex or nudity — and suggested that it might not apply to many businesses.” The FSC further advised potential loan applicants to speak with an experienced First Amendment attorney.

The Paycheck Protection Program, however, is administered by banks, rather than the SBA. According to the FSC, some banks are disqualifying any “sexually oriented businesses,” which is not a requirement of the federal government, but instead private discrimination by certain banks. Saying it is unclear if there are legal avenues to address that private discrimination, the FSC has also advised members to seek legal counsel in these areas.

Despite the many hurdles, Stabile says he knows of several adult businesses that have received the loans. Among them, several Midwestern exotic dance clubs that were forced to sue the SBA to obtain the funds and won.

Thanks to successfully starting his own porn company during a recession 12 years ago, Just For Fans’ Ford is optimistic that the entire adult entertainment industry will remain profitable should a second wave — be it health or economic — hit.

“The markets that are typically recession-proof are alcohol, tobacco and porn: the vices,” Ford says.

LaRue, for one, is already finding inspiration in our new normal, specifically from a restaurant that had hung plastic shower curtains between tables for safety.

“Me and my sick mind thought about filming two boys wrapped in see-through shower curtains having a full sex scene, La Rue says, “Where they never really touch each other but they can still do everything…pretty much.”

*Editor's Note: Interviews for this story were conducted before both Ford and LaRue were accused of sexual assault. Ford has denied the allegations and LaRue has admitted to inappropriate behavior but not an assault.

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