Porn on pause: How coronavirus upended life for on-screen sex workers

It was supposed to be a big year for Jessica Drake.

The popular porn performer, director and sex educator had several studio scenes, dancing gigs, workshops and speaking engagements lined up for the year. Then the coronavirus hit North America and turned her life, the porn industry and the entire world upside down.

“It’s all come to a screeching halt,” Drake told Global News. “Basically, my whole year is cancelled.”

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Now she spends her days in self-isolation at her home in California, like so many others who are trying to avoid COVID-19. But for someone whose job is based on having sex with others, it’s been a particularly challenging period of self-isolation.

“On any given day, my emotions range from anxious, to panicky, to resolute and focused and occasionally even optimistic,” she said.

“It’s been a complete upheaval in my life and in the lives of everyone I know in the industry.”

The virus has had a particularly crippling effect on Drake’s line of work. All porn studio productions in the U.S. were halted on March 18, leaving thousands of performers — along with behind-the-scenes crews — out of a job for the foreseeable future, even as porn consumption skyrockets among quarantined viewers around the world. 

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daydreaming.

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Like Drake, performers have been told to stay home and avoid shooting scenes with anyone except people in their household, according to guidelines released by the Free Speech Coalition, the porn industry’s trade association in the U.S. That’s left many performers without studio work, thrusting them into the make-or-break world of selling their own content online — often while working alone at home.

But while porn production has gotten harder, digital traffic has gone way up.

More people are watching porn online than before the lockdown, according to data from several adult sites. The largest free site, Pornhub, says it’s seen a roughly 10-17 per cent spike in average daily traffic since lockdowns started sweeping around the world in mid-March began, along with a 30 per cent boom in performers uploading their own home-made content.

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Subscription sites are also seeing a surge in traffic.

OnlyFans, a paid service for content that’s too racy for Instagram, has also reported a spike in new model and fan sign-ups, particularly as adult performers like Drake look for ways to keep working through the pandemic. Users pay a monthly subscription fee to each model on the site in exchange for photos, videos or private messages.

“People are definitely still looking for an escape, definitely still looking for connection,” Drake said. She adds that she tries to go on OnlyFans and Instagram Live once a day because it means a lot to her followers.

“The thing about being accessible on Instagram Live or my OnlyFans is that people are getting the kind of attention they can’t download for free right now ,” she said.

Drake says she’s a “unique case” because she’s built a brand for herself over nearly two decades in the business of shooting studio porn. She also has job security as a contract performer for Wicked Pictures, one of the larger porn studios based in California. Most performers are freelancers, meaning they don’t get a regular salary, benefits or access to government relief funds.

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Interestingly, it’s the larger studios that are stuck in limbo right now, because they can’t get people in a room to shoot porn anymore.

In the meantime, many performers in the industry are shooting at home alone and building their own audience of fans — a change in dynamic that some believe might give sex workers more bargaining power when the lockdowns end.

“I’m almost seeing the future of porn because of this,” said Wolf Hudson, a male performer who’s been in the business for 14 years.

“Now, studios are a bit on the desperate side and are buying from content creators, and I think that in itself is changing the industry,” he said.

Hudson says he’s had tremendous success shooting solo content for people through OnlyFans, where he can showcase his personality and sense of humour alongside his sexual content. That content ranges from masturbation to a wide range of “very specific” requests, he says.

“ has definitely shot up because of quarantine,” said Hudson, who shoots gay, straight and bisexual content.

“People are at home, they have nothing else to do, so the go-to is porn.”

He thinks an extended lockdown might actually be good for some performers, because it’ll give them time to build an audience that they can use as leverage when working with porn studios in the future. They’ll be able to show studios that they have tens of thousands of followers, and use that to argue for more control over what they do on camera.

“At the end of the day, the consumer is buying porn because of the person, not because of the studio,” he said.

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Female performer Emma Hix, a 22-year-old from Canada, has been cultivating her online fan base for two years. She says she doesn’t mind working alone from her home in Las Vegas, but she does miss studio shoots.

“I’m really thankful because I’m still making good money,” she said. “I feel for the new girl who didn’t start doing content , and they’re used to doing the studio shoots, and now they’re like, ‘What do I do?'”

Hix also expects porn to take on a more do-it-yourself tone in the future, as at-home shoots start to outnumber studio productions.

“Actors are starting to realize how much money they can make doing their own stuff,” she said. “Everyone who used to judge OnlyFans sex workers — everyone’s jumping on the boat.”

OnlyFans started campaigning to get new models on the platform last month, just as the chilling effect of the coronavirus was settling in.

“All kinds of performers are having to deal with the loss of income, exposure and career satisfaction that live events usually provide,” OnlyFans wrote in a blog post on March 23.

“If this is you, we invite you to use OnlyFans to stream your performance online.”

It’s one of several avenues that porn performers are now using to survive the lockdown, along with sites like IsMyGirl, CamSoda and premium SnapChat accounts.

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While many porn performers are single and adapting to solo work from home, those with a live-in partner find themselves ahead of the game.

Aaron “Small Hands” Thompson, who runs the Burning Angel studio with his wife, Joanna Angel, says they’ve had a relatively easy time adapting to the shutdown.

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Thompson and Angel can shoot scenes together in isolation, they have a backlog of content for their website and they’ve hired a few other couples to produce new at-home work as well. They’ve also got a whiskey label that helps them supplement their income on the side.

“This is a fantastic time for performers who are already established because … customers can pay them directly,” he told Global News.

“I’m married to another very famous female performer, so we’ve been lucky because we’re living together already and we would be f–king each other anyway.”

Thompson says he doesn’t think the industry will change much after the coronavirus threat passes, because studio work is still the best way for a performer to build his or her brand.

“Just because you develop an OnlyFans doesn’t mean you’re going to make money or be popular,” he said. “If there’s no studios and you’re just an individual who’s making clips, how are you supposed to return to the world armed with this giant fan base?”

Thompson says he’s not looking too far into the future during this COVID-19 crisis, because there’s just no telling what the new normal will look like.

Adult film performers Jessica Drake, left, Small Hands, Emma Hix and Wolf Hudson are shown in this composite image.

Adult film performers Jessica Drake, left, Small Hands, Emma Hix and Wolf Hudson are shown in this composite image.

Via Wicked Pictures, Aaron Thompson, Malik Daniels and Wolf Hudson/Instagram

Whatever the future holds, people in and outside of porn are already learning new skills from this moment of sexual distancing, according to relationship and sex expert Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, host of the Sex with Dr. Jess Podcast.

“Some gains and losses will be temporary, but I do think the way we all interact when it comes to dating and sex will shift as we develop new skills during lockdown,” she told Global News.

“Sexting, sending nudes, explicit voice notes, visiting camming sites, phone sex and video sex are being revisited by amateurs and professionals alike.”

She adds that sites like OnlyFans were taking off before the pandemic, and she hopes audiences become more comfortable with paying for porn as the lockdowns drag on.

“The challenge, of course, is that people expect porn to be free,” O’Reilly said. “We pay for all sorts of entertainment, so we need a shift to see sex work as work, and pay for it accordingly.”

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O’Reilly also hopes that porn performers will come out of the pandemic with more opportunities to choose their work, and more skills to sustain their income without giving up too much to big studios.

In the meantime, people in the porn industry are in the same boat as everyone else: they’re trying to make ends meet, coping with the mental challenges of staying home all the time and finding community through technology.

Drake says she hopes this strange moment in history will help humanize on-screen sex workers, especially as more of them engage with fans over social media.

“It definitely gives them a window into the fact that I am a human being,” she said. “I think everyone — myself included — everyone needs reassurance on so many levels.

“I’m happy to help put a face on it and be more vulnerable, especially during this time.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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