Mensa Gathering Examines State of Adult Entertainment

Jul 5, 2016 2:57 PM PST

SAN DIEGO — The 2016 Mensa Annual Gathering took a peek up the skirt of the adult entertainment industry this past weekend with a session presented by industry insiders.

Membership to the high-IQ society is open to those who have attained a score within the upper two percent of the general population. Begun in 1963, Mensa’s Annual Gathering travels to a different city every year to offer its members a diverse collection of programs, networking and more.

Kelly Shibari, XBIZ Awards winner and CEO of adult PR agency ThePRSMGroup, organized the panel along with one on “Porn Performers & Parenting,” both held on Saturday, July 2, at the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center in San Diego.

“The State of the Adult Entertainment Industry” panel examined the challenges and opportunities facing today’s business of bawdiness, and featured a range of industry experts including CAM4VR’s Ela Darling, XBIZ Publisher Alec Helmy, Evil Angel director Aiden Starr and Mark Kernes, AVN’s senior editor.

After a brief introduction of the panelists, Shibari kicked off the session by asking, “How has consumption of adult entertainment changed over the past 10 years?”

Darling said that “in the past seven years, things [such as] piracy and tube sites have really impacted careers for performers,” and noted the rates they are paid have declined 30-40 percent over that time.

Despite the falloff in performer revenue from traditional studio productions, Darling said that other opportunities have arisen, adding new life to the industry and more choice for consumers.

“The industry has changed and grown with the advent of sites such as Clips4Sale, which is a place where pretty much anyone can be a porn producer,” Darling said. “You shoot the porn, you get the necessary paperwork, you post it. They handle the hosting, the payment processing, everything — and with that, we’ve seen a lot more diversity in terms of the porn that’s being produced.”

Darling explained that in the past, porn was produced to be sold in stores, where there was only so much shelf space available, so producers had to make videos that had a mass appeal to a very broad audience.

“And now because you can create something on a shoestring budget and post it immediately, we’ve got people making the kind of porn that they always hoped they could find in stores,” Darling said. “Things that are very niche — things that you wouldn’t even think are ‘a thing’ — and then you find out that it’s ‘your thing.’”

While such diversity is good for consumers, other aspects of today’s marketplace are not so positive.

For example, technology has proven to be a double-edged sword for the industry — on the one hand, it has dramatically expanded market reach; but on the other hand, it has liberated fans from the need to pay for their fix of fornication.

“It’s been good in terms of appealing to a broader audience, and being more inclusive in terms of performers and producers,” Darling said. “But because of the way people consume the content, we’ve got this whole generation of people who find it audacious to pay for porn. We’ve definitely seen a fall, in some ways.”

Helmy, a witness to the birth of the online adult industry, has enjoyed a front-row seat during its evolution — including how it has shaped consumer culture and personal perceptions.

“The internet allowed for the proliferation of online porn by providing ease of access,” Helmy said. “It has empowered people to explore their sexuality like never before.”

Beyond this empowerment, Helmy noted that porn has jumped on the radar of many and is an integral part of pop culture, fueled in part by social media.

“What social media has done is interwoven porn into other forms of media,” Helmy said, “so porn is more mainstream than ever before.”

This normalization of consumption doesn’t mean that everyone has become more willing to publicly discuss their own particular perversions, however.

“Consuming porn is just like consuming any other type of media, such as news, movies or music,” Helmy said. “[But] I think people are still squeamish about discussing it — it’s something that remains private — and I’m not sure whether that’s going to change in our lifetime.”

Starr looked back to the early days of New York “rag mags” and her time working in a dungeon where porn was being shot.

 "They were these beautiful, really nasty pieces of smut that you had to go to a store to buy,” Starr recollected. “You had to leave your house and go to an environment with other perverts, to find your perversion.”

Starr said 4x6-inch photos from the rag mags were digitized and turned into a website.

“The internet really revolutionized what porn looked like, what content was available in porn,” Starr said. “It expanded it in some ways — and narrowed it in a lot of others, that had to do with laws as well as Visa/MasterCard processing [requirements], which changed how I was able to put out what I wanted to.”

This thumbprint of corporate censorship complicates and constricts the marketplace, while hurting consumer choice and increasing the burdens on producers.

“You can find what you want, but I can’t find what I want,” Starr said. “It’s a Catch-22, because there’s a lot of freedom that’s available because of the internet — but it cracked it down a lot, [too].”

For his part, Kernes discussed the changes in the industry since he began reviewing adult videos 33 years ago, including the impact of the Reagan-era Meese Commission and resulting (and long-contested) 18 U.S.C § 2257 federal recordkeeping requirements, which placed onerous burdens on producers in regards to collecting and maintaining performer age verification.

Kernes said porn has driven technology and consumer trends for at least the last 50 years.

“The reason that an awful lot of people got VHS players is because porn was on it,” Kernes said. “When people started getting internet connections fast enough that you could download a movie or a scene, they were downloading porn.”

Kernes discussed the industry’s brief fling with 3D in the mid-1990s, as well as its current fascination — virtual reality.

“The most recent thing is VR, where you put on these goggles ... and people are a little freaked out about it because the basic VR scene these days is a woman bouncing right in front of you, supposedly on your penis — and [the stars are] so large!” Kernes said. “That’s what freaks out a lot of people — they’ve never been that close to a porn star before.”

In terms of the current market scene, Kernes pointed to lackluster DVD sales and some of the ways that producers are adapting to changing consumer demand.

“A lot of companies now are first putting scenes on the web and then compiling them on to a DVD, so that the DVD is now the second thought, instead of the first thought.” Kernes said. “[DVDs are] still selling, but watching scenes on the internet is probably the main way that a lot of people are watching porn these days.”

The panel also explored the changing roles of performers, which has seen talent taking more control over their careers, the ongoing regulatory challenges posed by Cal/OSHA and whether or not porn has become “feminist.”

Starr, who does not consider herself “a feminist” but rather “a humanist,” stated that in terms of being a performer, she has never had a man or woman act negatively towards her on-set; while rate-wise, she noted that although the pay scale “was really bad” a decade ago, today, she said “we’re all doing really well, rate-wise.”

As an example, Starr said that the average rate paid by a reputable company for a boy/girl scene gives $800-$1,000 for females and $500-$1,200 for males.

Shibari noted that plus-size performers may work for half as much, with rates of $450-$500 for BBWs performing in a boy/girl scene.

For her part, Darling sees feminist porn as a double-edged sword.

“[Feminist porn is] introducing ideas that aren’t typically found in a lot of porn: it’s showing more body types; it’s more inclusive of your gender identity; your cultural identity; your racial identity,” Darling said. “But at the same time, a lot of these companies that pride themselves on being ethical and being feminist, are also paying rates that are so low, that [performing becomes] basically a hobby.”

“While [a feminist porn company’s] mission statement is a really great ideology,” Darling said, “their business practices don’t always end up being as progressive as we might like.”

Shibari pointed out that compared to the previous stereotype of women in porn only being porn stars, women today take on a wider variety of roles within the industry, including managing and owning porn companies, as well as being directors, performers and producers.

“The norm now for female directors is to be college educated and very intelligent, and to be sex workers by choice — and ‘sex workers by choice’ is definitely a newer term that’s come up in the last 20 years, specifically about women, and not just about men,” Starr said. “Everyone always assumed that men really fucking wanted to be there, but nobody ever assumed that women really wanted to be there — and that’s become more of an accepted idea, which would be a feminist idea.”

Helmy noted that although adult is a heavily male-dominated industry in terms of company ownerships, it has become much more female friendly and empowering towards women.

“You’re seeing more and more females becoming power players, with [Penthouse owner] Kelly Holland being a great example,” Helmy says. “Many women are going behind the camera and doing great work.”

Part of the reason for this evolution may be due to the unglamorous realities of being a porn star, where ego-driven desires of fame and fortune collide with the mundane demands of working in a highly competitive marketplace.

“The real porn star life is actually a 16-hour day, working at home and having absolutely no social life whatsoever, and you have no time to go out and party,” Starr said. “That is the real porn star life.”

Another dose of reality came in the examination of tube sites and the twin issue of content piracy, where out of desperation, many producers have adopted an attitude of “if we can’t beat them, we might as well join them.”

Helmy explained that although tube sites have gotten a bad rap for many reasons, they are only the latest example in an ongoing trend of making access to porn easier and less expensive.

 “We would have reached this point sooner or later, via a tube site model or some other platform. This is just a trend within the business and part of the business model,” Helmy says. “[Because of loopholes in the DMCA], content producers are unable to do anything meaningful about piracy.”

Kernes said that while a lot of adult tube sites started out by offering stolen material under the guise of “user uploads,” many tube sites now seek legitimacy through licensed content and original productions.

“Several of these sites these days are now actually developing their own content, which is to say that they are paying somebody to perform and putting it on the site, but there is still much too much piracy out there,” Kernes said. “It is ruining the industry, because who is going to want to pay someone to do a scene, if it is going to get uploaded to a tube site for free, where anybody can watch it without paying a dime for it?”

This led into a discussion of the next phase of adult entertainment production and consumption, where producers are adopting new technologies and delivery systems in hopes of turning a profit.

Shibari cited the industry’s changing economics, where once an average DVD might have cost $10,000 to produce and returned $200,000 in sales, might today only return $30,000 in revenues on that same investment — setting the stage for an industry that is now doomed to just “scrape by.”

“I started doing VR because producing regular content was basically going down a path to having your shit stolen, and I wanted to do something that would have a little more protection, at least in the immediate future, because people are going to find ways to steal it,” Darling confided, explaining that because of the large file sizes associated with VR content, “Going through the piracy process is just not worth it.”

Darling, known as “the world’s first VR cam girl,” explained how she moved from recorded content to live VR cam shows, in part to avoid the threat of content theft.

“You can’t pirate a living experience. You can’t pirate a conversation. You can’t pirate something that is a reciprocal experience,” Darling said. “I think that virtual reality is a great track for the future of porn.”

Helmy also finds VR extremely promising for the future of adult but says that we’re a few years away from hitting the tipping point where it becomes commonplace.

“The trouble is that on an aggregate level, the profitability of companies is pretty much at an all-time low, which makes it extremely difficult for companies to allocate proper resources dedicated to being cutting edge,” Helmy said.

Helmy noted that while the size of the pie remains very large, with a lot of money being generated, there’s big turnover as new firms enter and older firms depart the industry on a regular basis.

Starr said that that this turnover can be good for business, with today’s porn producers including many talented filmmakers who are producing much higher quality content than was the norm in the past, and this is driving continued sales.

“People really do buy a lot of porn. Every month my profit margins are going up, not down,” Starr said, “because I pay attention to what is current in the marketplace and make things people want to see.”

“The way for ‘dinosaurs’ to come into the modern age is to realize that everything is going digital, and personalized experiences and star power is how porn will live in the future.”   

Kernes appealed to sci-fi fans in the audience by stating that “the real future of porn is the holodeck.”

“There will become a time where you can walk into a room — you won’t have to wear any headgear or anything like that — and you will be able to look around and see people having sex right in front of you,” Kernes predicted. “That’s the future of porn.”

The discussion was then opened up for questions and answers, with the highly engaged audience making the most of the panel’s expertise as they drilled down into the current state of the industry.

With the mainstreaming of porn now well underway, highly distinguished groups such as Mensa are taking increasing notice — a trend that will only accelerate as the adult industry drives consumer adoption of cutting-edge technology and embraces new business models.

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