An isolated audience of millions met next-gen sex content creators. Welcome to the adult entertainment renaissance.
By Phil Rosen
LOS ANGELES — In the 14th century, the Black Death tore across the globe, killing an estimated 25 million people and dismantling the underpinnings of civilization. When the plague finally subsided, a changed world emerged, quickly transforming society and culture. The Renaissance would bring a new epoch of art, ingenuity and human production. Hardship beget creation. Artists and laypeople expressed themselves in dazzling new ways. Prolific creators thrived. History’s most renowned creators — Donatello, Bosch, da Vinci — made a name for themselves after a pandemic.
At some point, our present world will be through the worst of COVID-19. It might be too much to expect another renaissance, as we don’t much care for fresco paintings these days. But the pandemic, nonetheless, has brought change to much of the modern media people care about — that is, media that pertains to sex.
COVID-19 has caused an oddly perfect storm for next-generation sex content creators. Porn stars and amateur artists alike have enjoyed their own pandemic renaissance. There are more in-house creators, at-home consumers and unfilled down-time than ever before.
"The pandemic’s actually been really good," says adult film actress Rachel Swimmer, "for the porn industry." Performing under the name Tasha Reign, Swimmer knows what she’s talking about. Her Instagram and Twitter accounts have over 1.3 million followers. "The pandemic normalized porn in a way nobody saw coming, because there’s more people openly watching it and creating it."
Media consumption across the board skyrocketed when state-mandated lockdowns first began, with total internet visits jumping from 43 billion in February 2020 to over 64 billion in April. The increase was similar in adult content. PornHub received an average of 120 million visits per day in 2019. That jumped 25% in March 2020.
Pornography has been popularized in part because, for many, sex and casual hookups have been put on hold by the pandemic. Pornhub capitalized on this: they offered free premium memberships soon after tens of millions of people began to self isolate.
This move came shortly after an influential New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof accused PornHub of being "infested" with illegal child rape videos and revenge porn in late 2020. PornHub insisted it had attempted to purge all content that raised troubling consent questions from its server, yet MasterCard, Visa and Discover eventually stepped in and blocked the use of their credit cards on the site. Several legal sex content creators called this a detrimental financial hit to their livelihood. In an attempt to prevent further illicit content from appearing on the site, PornHub has since restricted all uploads to verified users only. Seen from a producer’s point of view, fewer people could efficiently upload videos accessible by large audiences.
The New York Times exposé and the move by major credit card companies made the digital porn space primed for a more grassroots-style insurgency. With the pandemic as an added kicker, the industry would tilt further in favor of smaller-scale performances that could reach consumers without the threat of legal reproach. A key part of the solution: leaning further into live performances.
Enter OnlyFans. Low-budget and easily accessible, OnlyFans offered an alternative, artist-controlled digital space for sex content creators. The site has undergone tremendous growth with nearly 8,000 new creator accounts joining the platform per day. OnlyFans has gone from 7 million users to over 85 million during the pandemic. Low overhead costs for at-home videos and sex content became especially alluring for creators who have struggled economically during the pandemic.
Consumers have become more engaged with interactive platforms such as OnlyFans, which has features that allow interaction between the artist and the audience. Creators, too, see OnlyFans as a unique opportunity.
"I make about $2,000 per month," said Rob, 25, who created an OnlyFans account in July. Rob, who requested to be cited by first name only, works full-time at a hospital. Like Swimmer, he uses his Instagram — which has over 13,000 followers — to drive traffic to his OnlyFans profile. Although he does not invest too much time into uploading content, he is able to make steady money month after month from an audience that skews female.
"I started it once I broke up with my ex [girlfriend], but I didn’t do it for the money," said Rob. "I’m single, and I’m a fan of sex. People are just paying me to see what I do."
In part, the democratized business model of OnlyFans gave momentum to the pornography rebirth. While most creators do not make nearly a full-time income, anyone, in theory, can put their hat in the ring.
And in an economically punishing pandemic, those who can try, will try.
"OnlyFans has little overhead because you can just take videos at home," said Swimmer, who posts content regularly on the platform. "Filming for a site like PornHub can be like shooting a television show with a huge budget and a full day of work. There’s a whole crew of people. The consumer on OnlyFans looks more to support creators instead of a large company."
Swimmer noted that OnlyFans has provided most of her income during the pandemic. Because of her large online following from pre-pandemic days, she is able to drive traffic and customers to her OnlyFans profile from various platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and her personal website. Users who cannot draw large audiences, comparatively, face less lucrative returns because creators are paid per subscriber.
"OnlyFans has such little overhead because you can just take photos or videos at home." — Rachel Swimmer
The average monthly earnings on OnlyFans sits at about $180 per month, which, for many, may not be enough to cover the already-low production costs, bedroom toys or satin sheets. Still, its soaring popularity has cloaked much of the inequities on the platform — the top 10% of accounts make 73% of the money. Though OnlyFans takes a 20% cut of user transactions, a rate that Swimmer praised, the platform nonetheless empowers individuals to monetize and own their own content without having to answer to a boss or corporation.
"Now, there’s a lot more competition on OnlyFans because there’s just a lot more people on there," said Swimmer. "More people want entertainment. I feel like I have to come up with new stuff more often."
Sounding the Alarm
Imagine a teenage boy sitting in a dark room. The young man’s face is illuminated by the screen before him. He wears headphones, and beside him are paper towels and lotion. He turns around to double-check the door is locked. The keyboard rattles as he types his sex fantasies into the search bar. His pulse elevates and his breath quickens.
The routine does not take long. The young man can go through the whole practice in a matter of minutes, not for intimacy but out of habit because it's the same thing he does every single day. With extra time at home during the pandemic, he runs through the drill several times between morning and night.
Now consider another young man. He stands in a well-lit room with soft music playing. He films himself with a smartphone and a selfie stick, and he is naked. The home video takes no more than 15 minutes to put together, and by the time he uploads it onto his OnlyFans profile, not even half-an-hour has elapsed. The time and effort within this single hour makes this young man several hundred dollars over the course of the month. And with a few extra videos created over the next few days, his monthly earnings jet into the thousands, as subscribers watch his content over and over again.
The above scenes are not unique vignettes. They have become staggeringly pervasive throughout the pandemic. They represent two sides of the same coin: the consumer and creator of pornography during the pandemic.
As rewarding as the pandemic may have been for the industry, some pornography consumers have struggled to control their consumption habits during the same span. Addicts and anti-porn groups constitute the troubling flip-side to this viral porn boom. When consumers are offered more content than ever during a stretch when they have more time than ever, the floodgates open for increased pornography addiction and abuse. A study conducted by BBC Three for the documentary "Porn Laid Bare" found that nearly a quarter of pornography consumers believe they are addicts.
During the pandemic, anti-porn subcultures have redoubled their efforts. Many of those sounding the loudest alarms about pornography hail from the same demographic as porn’s biggest customers — nearly 80% of PornHub’s audience is male, and nearly 60% of them are between the ages 18 and 36.
The Reddit page NoFap is a popular online forum (it boasts nearly one million members) that discusses porn addiction and methods to overcome it — and Reddit users skew heavily to young, male and heterosexual. Light-hearted memes like the one below can be seen next to substantive discussions, personal anecdotes and links to academic articles. "Fap" is slang for masturbate, and some say it is an onomatopoeia for male masturbation.
The NoFap community alleges concerns over deleterious neurological effects and social implications of pornography — misperception of intimacy, depression, abuse of sexual partners, sexual dysfunction — and advocate not for abstinence or celibacy but against pornography use.
"I’ve probably watched more pornography in the last few months than I have in the last few years combined," said William, a 20-year-old college student and a long-time member of the Reddit NoFap group. Though he requested for his real name to be omitted, he spoke of NoFap with reverence, explaining how beneficial it was to him during his own battles with porn addiction when he was 18.
Before lockdowns began, it had been nearly a year since William last watched pornography. Increased amounts of downtime and remote school spurred more "relapses," to use the hackneyed NoFap terminology, because he had fewer alternative outlets. When deprived of ordinary socializing, porn becomes a much more attractive and accessible pastime.
"I’ve probably watched more pornography in the last few months than I have in the last few years combined," — William
"I’ve had a really rough time during the pandemic," said William. "Way too much time on my hands. With nothing to do, my demons have got the best of me."
Health professionals remain conflicted on what constitutes porn addiction — Recovery Village, an addiction rehab website, defines it at around 12 hours per week, while the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases does not even list it as an official medical ailment. Though self-reported porn addiction remains generally low (one report concluded it was 5-8% of the adult population), the urgency of online forums such as NoFap suggests something more insidious.
"Sure, porn is normalized, but I don’t think in a positive way," said William. "People openly talk about porn as if we shouldn’t think twice about watching it regularly. Then, addiction isn’t talked about because most guys think they can just stop whenever they want, but they never actually try to stop because it’s part of their routine."
For over a year, William had Covenant Eyes installed on his iPhone and laptop — a paid software that sends random screenshots of your screen throughout the day to someone else’s email, usually a friend or family member, as a way to outsource accountability for porn addicts. Only when he stopped trying to circumvent the software (he says he did so several times) did he believe he had overcome his addiction.
"Watching porn can get you more and more disconnected from real-life sexual experiences," said William. "It’s like living in a fantasy land. Today, most boys' first sexual experience is with a computer screen."
When asked about the potential for porn addiction, Rachel Swimmer compared it to alcoholism, compulsive gambling and other dependencies. "I’m no addiction expert, but I’d assume that any outlet you could become addicted to has increased this year, just as a consequence of the pandemic," said Swimmer. "And that includes pornography."
In altering the dating landscape, the pandemic has created concern not only for porn addicts, but everyone that they interact with in the future. "Sexual activity doesn’t equate to intimacy," said William. "People crave intimacy, that bond with someone else. Porn doesn’t give you that but since it’s sexual, people mistake it for the same thing. That can really mess up your perception of relationships."
Researcher Joshua B. Grubbs believes that, once Covid-19 subsides, pornography use will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels. In an article on The Conversation, Grubbs explained that, for many people, "pornography is probably just another distraction — one that might actually help 'flatten the curve' by keeping people...socially distanced."
Notwithstanding, the pornography boom could be at least partially responsible for limiting the viral spread. The New York City Health Department voiced support for masturbation in the name of COVID-safe sexual activity: "You are your safest sex partner. Masturbation will not spread COVID-19, especially if you wash your hands (and any sex toys) with soap and water…"
While there are no data yet to back this supposition, PornHub has used it as a selling point since March — the company name is now synonymous with "Stay Home Hub." The pandemic gave PornHub the opportunity to unmoor their brand from their content in the name of altruism.
While it isn’t clear whether OnlyFans viewership numbers will shrivel when the pandemic subsides, its big stars seem primed for continued dividends. Many of the low-income performers and some of their fans may look back on this time as a passing fling, one that either helped them tolerate the isolation or exacerbated their more compulsive tendencies.
From the casual consumers who want it to the addicts who need it, it remains unclear what the porn renaissance might mean. But for many it seems to have been just what they needed to get through the night — and the pandemic.