Porn is broken; the internet is fixing it

By James Cook on August 14th, 2013

In 1972, the film Deep Throat heralded a dramatic change in the way that pornography was viewed by the general public. Here was a pornographic film that was beloved by America’s rich and famous: John Lennon, Martin Scorsese, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote – all had been charmed by a new twist on a hackneyed format.

But watching Deep Throat today, it feels twee and over-produced. The soundtrack rises to the fore, with the director cutting sex scenes to meet musical cues. But it’s this strange film from 1972 that commences with a jazz cover of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” that is symptomatic of excesses of the porn industry that are now being stripped away.

According to a post on prominent anti-porn activist Gail Dines’ website, men who become addicted to porn “increasingly seek out more extreme material – the kind of material that in the past disgusted them”. Porn addicts are seeking out something that they feel is missing.

Enter the amateurs. A new era of DIY porn is arriving, enabled by technological advances and corners of the internet begging for porn without the dodgy soundtracks. Thanks to community sites like reddit and webcam porn sites such as Chaturbate, it’s easier than ever for someone to enter the adult industry.

Today, the potential porn career of a young man or woman determined on baring their body to the internet is not decided by their industry contacts or glamorous LA lifestyle (nor by their willingness to submit themselves to sweaty, overweight producers), but by their influence online and their knowledge of the darker corners of the internet.

reddit is a huge force online. A link submitted on reddit can easily bring in millions of views, everlasting fame and a career in new media – or the post could simply fade into obscurity. Increasingly, however, reddit users are exposing themselves to quite a different sort of risk: they’re setting up their webcams, slipping off their clothes, and creating photos to submit online. reddit prides itself on its range of communities, or “subreddits”.

One particular subreddit is called /r/gonewild, and its description reads as follows: “Gonewild is a place for open-minded Adult Redditors to exchange their nude bodies for karma; showing it off in a comfortable environment without pressure.” Across the /r/gonewild community, a revolution is fomenting.

Only a tiny percentage of the women who post on /r/gonewild are anything other than bored pedestrians. Some are professional pornstars, some have full body tattoos or cosplay outfits. But most of the women posting in the subreddit are refreshingly normal, a quality that has been largely lost in the professional porn industry as audiences seek ever more extreme thrills.

Jess has made several posts on Gonewild. The most popular submission reached the front page of the subreddit. A link right at the top of the /r/gonewild community means thousands of views, comments, upvotes, and often a torrent of private messages. For Jess, her most successful post was an Imgur album of her in bed, in varying states of undress.

When asked why she posted to Gonewild, Jess told me about a friend who criticised her body. Her first post was intended to prove him wrong. According to Jess, the reaction was “totally overwhelming”.

Jess explained to The Kernel some of the reasons why she continued to post on /r/gonewild: “I wanted to get my posts up to the top of /r/gonewild again. There were girls that got more upvotes than me, I thought I could do better. In a way, I was testing myself.”

We asked Jess if she would return to the subreddit: “I’d like to do it again. People on reddit said I have to show more flesh to make my posts successful, though. I’ll probably do it when I need a pick-me-up.”

There’s a theory on reddit that posting on /r/gonewild makes users more likely to enter the porn industry on a professional level. We asked Jess if she had thought about that: “Posting on reddit made me realise that porn is an easy thing to get into. I’d probably be quite welcome there. After I got a boyfriend, reality kicked in. I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Posting on reddit feels safe, it’s pretty secret and I know who uses it and who doesn’t, there’s nothing to worry about there.”

reddit isn’t the only site that’s fostering communities around the new breed of porn star. There’s an entire economy built around “cam” sites: places where anyone can turn on their webcam and solicit donations.

Webcam sites offer the passing masturbator a view into the lives of people that take their fancy, perhaps the most amateur of amateur porn.

Sites like Chaturbate operate a payment structure that’s not dissimilar to a strip club. Performers build an audience, and the audience can choose to tip. Sometimes those tips are rewarded with special favours from the performer. Viewers can pay for private viewings, where they’re often able to interact directly with the performer. But unlike traditional strip clubs, there’s no hiring process. There’s no need for a special costume and no carpeted walls or dodgy soft lighting rigs.

Because punters pay with tips to help performers reach their tip goal, most sex acts are only carried out after a performer has been tipped. Scrolling down the homepage reveals row after row of bored, unsmiling faces. Sometimes couples sit on beds with their arms draped around each other. They absentmindedly talk to their webcams, waiting for the tips to come in.

With the viewers unable to respond, it can become a revealing monologue. Particularly haunting when we visited was the girl who bemoaned the weather, reminded herself to feed the fish, worried about paying the rent, and missed her dead dog – all with her legs spread in front of the internet.

chaturbate

This isn’t the polished world of professional porn: high-definition videos are replaced by pixellated webcam broadcasts. High heels and lip gloss give way to pyjamas and bed hair. Webcam sites offer the passing masturbator a view into the lives of people that take their fancy, perhaps the most amateur of amateur porn.

Not just for girls

Having examined the wholly female world of /r/gonewild posters, it was time to seek out a man who was getting involved in an amateur porn community.

“Camming allows me to work anywhere. It’s on my own schedule.” Joshua is a married father of a six-year-old, he performs on a popular webcam site for tips from users. I asked Joshua how old he was. “My profile says 33. I haven’t been challenged on that yet. I’m 40.”

Joshua uses a cam site to pay the bills for his family. His only other source of income is adverts on a blog he runs. On a good month he makes $20 from them. For Joshua, camming is his job. His audience is mainly gay men. He recounted a recent encounter that he said “shows why I do it all”.

“In the public room, a guy started calling me fat. I assumed it was a troll, but decided to keep going. Eventually he paid for a private session with me. Forty minutes later, I had my single best-paying performance. It was easily enough to pay for a dinner to celebrate.

“In the session, he told me to insult myself, to call myself names. And as I was doing it, it made me realise that a lot of the things I didn’t like about myself were silly, especially when spoken aloud.”

“Camming allows me to work anywhere. It’s on my own schedule.”

And does Joshua find that posting online had made him more likely to go into the porn industry, as Jess did? “There’s a disdain for cammers in the porn industry. They don’t like us. Would I like to be involved in professional porn? Sure. There is one large drawback though; I need to be home to look after my daughter. Perhaps porn would pay for both the bills and the babysitter.”

With Joshua’s young family, I asked him if he had any worries about his online life crossing over into reality. “I worry about it impacting on my wife and daughter. We’re lucky to live in a very tolerant part of America, but if a town official or school administrator found out … I do worry about that. But there’s such a stigma around the long-term unemployed now that I’m not sure it could be much worse.”

Unlike the rather isolated community of /r/gonewild, cam sites can be supplemented with promotional activity. Popular cam girls and guys maintain Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, posting snaps of themselves, just like the pros do. Interestingly, many cam site members eschew the tip format, instead requesting purchases from their Amazon Wishlist. It’s another glimpse into the personal world of the people in screen.

This list, for example, reveals a cam model’s full name, something that he took great efforts to conceal on the website itself.

It’s clear that the amatuer porn found on reddit and cam sites is the antithesis to the factory-line erotica featured on the traditional tube sites. But how do they see this threat to the industry? On record, standard porn sites have no official response to the rise of amateur porn communities. Seeking a comment from them is incredibly difficult. Nobody from any of the large tube sites will go on record to discuss the changes in the industry, a telling sign of the fear with which they regard these new competitors.

Popular tube site PornHub has created an account on reddit, hoping to ensnare the users who frequent /r/gonewild. Their posts are met with many downvotes, meaning that their link submission score is kept relatively low. The strategy isn’t working.

The balance of power in the porn industry is shifting. No longer do the studios and production companies dictate who can and can’t create pornography. The production values of classic films like Deep Throat still exist, but these films are rapidly falling out of favour. Almost all the revenue of the popular tube sites comes from on-site advertisements. An expensive production fails to pull in enough click-throughs to cover its costs, meaning that the industry is having to shift focus to survive.

The future of porn isn’t in emerging technology. Google Glass apps, 3D printers, 4K video, Oculus Rift… none of these will change pornography in the long term. A more meaningful shift has been brought about by the communities fostering mass participation. Inclusion and acceptance are the change-drivers here, not circuitry and technology.

While technological advance is inevitable, we’re seeing two dissonant forms of entertainment emerge from the communities found on reddit and cam sites. That’s why the new generation of porn stars aren’t “stars” at all. They’re blank-faced men and women in front of webcams, hoping for either a donation from a stranger or personal gratification. Sometimes, they receive both.

Names have been changed to protect identities.