For one brief moment here at the 2011 Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas, America’s porn performers can forget about the Golden Decade of the Teen Wanker and remember when they were stars. Tonight, all of them, the whole porn carnival, are vamping down the red carpet at the Palms Casino. There are actual midgets. There is self-styled fakir Murrugun the Mystic, who has been nominated for Most Outrageous Sex Scene: swallowing a sword “while she swallows my sword,” as he puts it. There are the Oscar-ishly glammed-up ladies with titanic breasts and twitchy Restylane smiles. There is—yes, here he comes—Ron “The Hedgehog” Jeremy: The starriest living male porn star ambles along the carpet in a sad, grubby collar and with an air of existential depletion. And now, the announcer is introducing Joslyn James as “Tiger Woods’s ex-girlfriend,” fresh from her appearance in the scandal-milking The Eleventh Hole.
Maybe you’ve seen it. Did you pay for it? This evening, if only for a few hours, the industry is doing its best to ignore the explosion of free porn online that has made the early-21st century such a bonanza for masturbators. It’s difficult. The Adult Entertainment Expo taking place simultaneously at the Sands has scaled back dramatically; Vivid and Adam & Eve, two of the best-known companies in the business, didn’t even have booths on the main floor this year. There are no Jenna Jamesons on this red carpet, and even the idea of a porn A-list seems dated. Performers are making less money, working harder for it, getting fewer jobs. “It doesn’t affect me that much—well, I guess less work—but my friends with companies are being put out of business,” Ron Jeremy says, pausing before the media gauntlet. He mentions one who has been forced to diversify into “cookies, penis pills, and a blender.”
For a decade or so, to the porn industry, the Internet looked like the best thing ever invented—a distribution chute liberating it from the trench-coat ghetto of brown paper wrappers and seedy adult bookstores, an E-Z Pass to a vast untapped bedroom audience. If it was equally apparent that the web would prove as destabilizing as it has for other media, the money was so good that the industry could ignore the warning signs. Now the reckoning has arrived.
The chief culprits in the eyes of the porn Establishment are the “tube sites,” YouTube-like repositories of content that is often free, and often pirated. “Tubes are going to destroy our industry,” says Sunny Leone, 29, an Indian-American knockout who is celebrating eight nominations this evening. “Fans don’t understand that if they don’t pay for porn, we can’t make a living. They’ll have to watch crazy European porn.”
Farther along the red carpet, as the porn parade navigates the throng of gawkers to enter the Pearl Theater, actor James Bartholet shouts to the onlookers, “Buy your porn, don’t download it illegally!” During the impressively slick ceremony, piracy is an anxious leitmotif. “Thank you for paying for porn,” says Joanna Angel, accepting the award for Best Porn Star Website. Then, with a less-carrot-more-stick approach, an anti-piracy PSA plays on the big screen, ending with the admonition: “Buy the fucking movies.”
The audience erupts in cheers.
There you are, Porn Surfer, Googling your way to a little adult material—you know, a little plain-vanilla, middle-of-the-road grown-up content—when, wham, you’ve dropped acid and been astrally projected into a triple-X pachinko parlor. One minute you’re trawling for a simple NSFW divertissement, and the next you’re in free fall through this insane, cross-linking wilderness-of-mirrors chaos of pop-ups and pop-unders and portals and paysites. And, wait, why is someone named Jasmin talking to you in that browser window that just opened, as if you’d accidentally paid for a live cam show? Even after you figure out that she’s a canned come-on for a streaming site, you’re still befuddled. You click on an image, only to find yourself being shuttled from one site to another, unsure of what’s free and what’s not, what’s a destination and what’s merely a billboard for one, who’s an amateur and who’s a pro, who owns what and how it’s all connected. You start to nurse a deep suspicion that there’s more going on here than you can see—that there is some intricate, invisible web of revenue-sharing and traffic-trading and content-licensing at work. Which, of course, there is.
Until the invention of the tubes, online porn was relatively simple to watch and lucrative to sell. With very little money and a For Dummies–level understanding of HTML code, anyone could put up a web page featuring a list of text links to other porn websites. If a surfer clicked on one of the links, he would be directed to a paysite; the paysite would pay the referring site a tiny amount for the traffic, and kick back a more substantial amount if the surfer ended up subscribing to the site. Over time, link collections evolved to the more visual formats of “thumbnail-gallery pages” and “movie-gallery pages,” where instead of a list of text links, you’d see a mosaic of snapshot links or, say, eight-second movie-clip links. TGPs, as they were called, drew more traffic than link collections and “converted” better—that is, a higher percentage of surfers signed up for billed memberships. MGPs were more effective still. The paysites would supply these “affiliates” with the snapshots and clips for free, and the online porn universe came to consist of a relatively small number of paysites surrounded by many thousands of affiliates.
It was inevitable, once YouTube launched in 2005, that someone would start a porn equivalent. Sure enough, over two months in the summer of 2006, three different sites launched that would become major adult-only tubes: PornoTube, RedTube, and YouPorn. Like YouTube, the porn tubes were flooded with free content—some of it licensed for pennies from older companies that didn’t understand the web, much of it pirated from paid sites. The tubes had a new business model: They made most of their money by keeping surfers on their sites and selling banner ads, though they also put some content behind a paywall. Porn surfers migrated en masse from the old TGPs and eight-second MGPs to free movies on tube sites that could run upwards of 30 minutes. Traffic to the affiliates and conversions to paysites both plummeted. The proliferation of cam sites (where you can video-chat with a live model), together with the waning popularity of DVDs, compounded the industry’s problems. Steven Hirsch, president of Vivid Entertainment—who five years ago was called “The Porn King” by Forbes—says his company’s online revenue projections are off 50 percent. Other companies report declines closer to 80 percent.
When the old porn companies complained that the tube sites were stealing their content, the tubes claimed, as YouTube did, that the “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act absolved them of responsibility for “user-uploaded” content. Never mind that industry consensus was that the sites were doing the uploading themselves. (How else to explain tube sites full of content from day one?) The sites could simply deny it—or point to YouTube, which had launched using a similarly shady business model and was now owned by Google.
Content thieves “will not steal it and get away with it,”Brazzer declared. “Their days are counted!”
The furor over the tubes began to dominate discussions on GoFuckYourself.com (GFY), the main online industry forum, and finally someone took action. In December 2007, nine months after Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, Vivid sued PornoTube. Around the same time, an anti-tubes diatribe was posted on GFY by Ouissam Youssef, a co-founder of Brazzers, one of the most successful new companies producing and branding online content. In a thread on piracy earlier that year, “Brazzer,” as Youssef called himself on GFY, declared that content thieves “will not steal it and get away with it, their days are counted!”
In fact, Youssef had already helped launch a tube site of his own. In January 2007, Matt Keezer, another of Brazzers’ creators, had bought the domain name pornhub.com for $2,750 from a speculator Keezer had met the previous year at the Playboy Mansion. PornHub went online as a tube site in early 2007. It was owned by a separate company called Interhub, but the Brazzers group were silent partners. Brazzers and the tube sites were owned by the same people and run out of the same office.
The Brazzers founders had gotten their start in the industry four years earlier, as 22-year-old Montreal techies bonding over a bar game. Youssef and Stephane Manos, friends at Concordia University, had met Keezer on, of all places, the competitive-Foosball circuit. Keezer was the best player and biggest enthusiast—he had helped stream live Foosball-training sessions online, and drawn praise for his wicked push shot—but all three liked to play, and Keezer and Youssef traveled across the States to compete. In 2003, while still students, Keezer, Manos, and Youssef, along with Youssef’s brother and another friend from Concordia, started some TGP and MGP sites including Jugg World, Ass Listing, KeezMovies, and XXX Rated Chicks. At first, they focused on busty women, “because the big-tits niche was so cheap,” explains Feras Antoon, the company’s current CEO. Then “they saw, wow, that tit niche is huge. Then they realized that the MILF niche—the older-woman niche—is even bigger. And they became the masters of the big-tit–MILF niche.”
They were making good, easy money, and they rapidly expanded, creating their own affiliate network (Jugg Cash) and their own paysite, Brazzers. Several of the founders were of Middle Eastern extraction, and the name was their private joke, a throaty immigrant-Arabonics version of “brothers.” They contracted with producers in Los Angeles, and later Las Vegas and Miami, to create content (which they charged for), and Brazzers drew notice for its high-quality productions. “They changed the face of porn,” says Lux Alptraum, editor of Fleshbot, who ascribes the resurgence of breast implants in the industry to the Brazzers signature look.
“They never imagined they would grow that big,” Antoon says. “Who would have?” Soon Brazzers was rolling out more sites: JugFuckers, DoctorAdventures, RacksAndBlacks … Eventually, in addition to the Brazzers paysites, the company would build a second network, Mofos, featuring lesser-known girls doing more-extreme things. They slept in the office, worked weekends, bought houses near each other in the Montreal suburb of Laval. As their need for manpower exploded, they hired friends, neighbors, classmates—loyalists who could learn on the fly and pitch in as needed (Antoon, for instance, is Manos’s brother-in-law). Every year, the company nearly doubled in size. They had 80 employees in 2007, 150 in 2008, 250 in 2009. Youssef was the business visionary, Manos the salesman and motivator, Keezer the savant of search-engine optimization. “He’s a master,” Antoon says. “By far the best in the world, in my opinion. Who can get ‘porn’ and ‘sex’ to be No. 1? We’re the No. 1 result [for each]. You know how hard that is?” (In a recent search, Pornhub.com came up as the No. 2 Google result for “sex” and No. 3 for “porn.”)
In December 2007, the same month that Vivid sued PornoTube, rumors began to circulate in the industry that Brazzers also owned the increasingly successful and much-loathed PornHub. When GFY’s amateur sleuths turned up connections between domain names and corporate registrations that suggested common ownership, “Brazzer” (a.k.a. Youssef) responded vaguely that he had been “approached” about starting a tube site but had “refused” because “it would be 100 percent against the core interests of our business.” This answer did nothing to dispel suspicions, and Brazzers quickly came to be viewed by its many industry critics as an almost The Firm–like criminal corporation. On GFY, the founders were scorned as “thieves,” “a cancer,” and “foosball faggots.” At trade shows they kept a low profile. “They’d probably get their asses beat,” says Jason Quinlan, from LordsOfPorn.com, who says traffic to his company’s paysites has declined 40 percent in the last four years.
But the Brazzers crew, who were adding other tube sites to their portfolio (Tube8, ExtremeTube), took it all in stride. And plenty of companies did do business with PornHub, unable to resist the lure of its traffic. “We call them keyboard warriors,” Antoon says of the GFY trash talkers. “When we see them, they buy us drinks.”
The woman on my MacBook screen, whose username is xTattooSurprisex, has punky two-tone hair and wears a scoop-neck top that reveals her ample chest and a clavicle tattoo reading BEAUTIFUL DISASTER. I chose xTattooSurprisex for my “private chat” because she looked American. (Most of the girls on LiveJasmin.com, the biggest cam site, seem to be from Russia.) When I tell her I’m a journalist and just want to talk, Roxy, as she introduces herself, immediately types that she is camming “not by choice.”
Roxy moved to New Mexico from Washington State to get away from her alcoholic mother, who, she says, was stalking her and caused her to lose her job at the Cheesecake Factory. She’s 20, and has been doing this since July. She says that she was going to lose her house if she didn’t get a job, and the money’s not bad. I’m paying LiveJasmin $1.99 per minute, of which Roxy receives about 70 cents. She tells me she might make $1,200 a month. She doesn’t want to do this forever, but at times it can be fun, most of the guys are nice, and she just ignores the mean ones. Some of her orgasms are fake, she says, and some are real.
Unlike recorded porn, live cams are immune to piracy, which has made them especially successful as a business proposition. In this sense, the cams function as anti-tubes, but the two technologies have together opened up an entirely new frottage industry, so to speak: a grassroots, DIY porn democracy where anyone with a bedroom, a cam, and a web connection can set up as a one-woman or -man operation. LiveJasmin has some 40,000 registered cammers. “Today,” porn distributor Farrell Timlake says, “cams are the closest thing to amateur.”
“Amateur” is a semantically slippery term, as Timlake will tell you. A graduate of the Kent School in Connecticut, he spent a good deal of the early nineties submitting his own home sex tapes to Homegrown Video, which functioned as a kind of VHS video exchange for swingers. In 1992, he and his brother Moffitt (Exeter and Stanford), bankrolled by their mother, bought out the company, which they run together and which has, so they plausibly claim, the largest library of amateur videos in the world. Since then, Farrell and Moffitt have watched “amateur” move from almost a fringe fetish to one of pornography’s most popular aesthetics—and, as such, one co-opted by the pros.
Pretty much all the porn labeled “gonzo” and “reality” these days is a put-on, Timlake insists. In the Dancing Bear series, a male stripper wearing an enormous bear head performs for a bachelorette party until several fairly respectable-looking women suddenly lose control and start fellating him. “That stuff looks pretty real,” he says. “It takes a minute, but where are there roomfuls of women willing to have sex with a guy?” Watch a few of them, and you’ll notice the same women reappearing. Another series, Dare Dorm, claims to pay real college kids for tapes of campus orgies, but Timlake isn’t buying it. “I can always tell, because most college kids can’t afford as many tattoos as those people have.” Occasionally, as in Fuck Team Five and Fuck a Fan, a series will be a pro-am hybrid, in which porn stars have sex with civilians (though even they are likely cast). A recent vogue for “ex-girlfriend porn”—purportedly uploaded by vengeful former boyfriends—democratizes the celebrity sex tape but is also phony (actual unauthorized home videos would pose legal risks to the hosting websites).
If you expand the idea of amateur, though, to encompass a whole new set of outsiders for whom cam sites and tubes have provided a cheap, almost barrierless way to make, distribute, and sell videos of themselves having sex, well, then, we’re living in a grand age of micro-smut, a burgeoning empire of lemonade-stand porn. xTube, for instance, offers a mix of straight and gay movies, some of which are free, others pay-per-view. The majority of xTube’s content was made by a professional studio, but the site’s “amateur” section allows any of its visitors to upload content. A frequent uploader with the username Tnhotbtm has been on the site for six months. “I enjoyed the videos I was viewing personally, so I decided to add my own,” says Tnhotbtm, whose real name is Rob. “I never really liked mainstream porn. I always like guys that look like you could walk up and talk to them in a club, not the perfect shaved guys that never give you the time of day.” Rob had dabbled in shooting his own, self-starring movies, and for the last ten years he had sold them as DVDs through his website atticmen.com or streamed through video-on-demand companies. Then he lost his job as a corporate auditor and started trying to use the tubes to do this full-time. Rob lives in a “small, small town” in the Bible Belt, and when people ask him what he does, he says he shoots wedding and special-event videos. (“If they only knew how special …”)
On xTube, he puts up free previews meant to lure viewers to his pay-per-view content, which he sells for 50 cents a minute. Rob says the average viewer watches ten minutes; of that $5, he gets to keep 50 percent, minus a small processing charge. A video he uploaded the week before we speak has been viewed 2,470 times, but a lot of the viewers watched only the free preview, so he has made just $125 from it. But he says he’s earning around $1,500 every two weeks from xTube, more than he was making in his corporate gig. “The key is keeping new stuff up and answering your friend requests and private messages,” he says. “It’s good to know just how much they like my stuff, and what they would like to see in the future.”
If Rob is just getting started on xTube, a Boston male couple who go by the names Cole Maverick and Hunter are its Tila Tequilas. Cole, a former welder who got his masters in psychology, met Hunter, who had grown up in a devout Mormon family, when he was a college freshman. They’ve been together for ten years. Cole had always been a compulsive picture-taker, and four years ago, on a whim, he uploaded a few snapshots to xTube, followed by some movie clips and, later, movies featuring them with other men, often fans. They weren’t prepared for the enormous popularity that has ensued. Their videos have been viewed more than 90 million times on xTube, where they are currently the “most favorited” submitter. “I remember the first time we posted one and got our first check. I said, ‘Why doesn’t everyone do this?’ ” Cole says. They now film full-time and clear “a nice six-figure income,” according to Hunter.
“Our main goal,” Cole says, “was to take gay sex out of the dark, leathery guilt-ridden realm, into fun sex, in the sun, in an honest, open relationship. We get so many inspiring messages from guys and girls who love what we’re doing.”
Paradoxically, as Cole and Hunter have thrived on the tubes, they have experienced the underbelly as well, increasingly finding their films pirated on tube sites, including xTube and PornHub. “They’re big thieves,” Cole says of the tubes.
In October 2009, the U.S. Secret Service’s Organized Fraud Task Force in Atlanta seized about $6.4 million in funds from two Fidelity bank accounts controlled by Mansef, the Brazzers holding company. By this point, the company was already experiencing internal troubles. Matt Keezer had left earlier that year; his brother Phil then joined as CEO, only to leave within a few months. At least some of the founders had grown concerned for their safety and hired security guards, who for several months patrolled their neighborhood 24 hours a day in SUVs with tinted windows.
In response to the asset seizure, Mansef claimed that it had opened the Fidelity accounts simply to ease payment processing in the U.S., but the Feds said that more than $9 million had been wired into the two accounts over a three-month period from banks in Israel and other countries on financial-fraud watch lists. The founders decided it was time to sell the company and get out of the industry altogether, and within a few months, the auteurs behind TeensLikeItBig and InGangWeBang had receded into a search-engine-optimized fog of web spam and redundant social-media profiles. One of Ouissam Youssef’s LinkedIn appearances states that he obtained his M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business and is a special consultant at Accenture Plus Limited in Monaco. (Wharton has no record of his attendance, Accenture Plus Limited doesn’t exist, and plain old Accenture says he has never worked for the firm.) Only near the bottom of page three of Stephane Manos’s well-scrubbed Google results does one glimpse his connection to Brazzers. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t believe how philanthropic these guys are. Youssef hopes to build “a foundation that will help impoverished children play organized sports,” his website announces. Manos, per his blog, is a “charity contributor.” As for Matt Keezer, he “strongly believes in our children of the world and supports UNICEF’s Canadian programs.”
Mansef’s and Interhub’s assets were sold to a German named Fabian Thylmann. One of the less heralded aspects of the migration of the world’s skin flicks online has been a sociological shift among those who make and distribute them. Unlike the gold-chain-wearers of yesteryear—the Boogie Nights–style performers turned directors and photographers turned producers—the new pornographers are as likely to be software engineers: masters of affiliate marketing, search-engine optimization, and traffic-conversion ratios. The Brazzers founders were hardly lady-killers. (According to Antoon, not one ever set foot on a porn set.) And Thylmann is blunt when talking about how he got into the business: “I was a geek,” he says, from his home in Aachen, Germany.
Thylmann has been programming since he was 17. He began writing software to collect Internet-traffic statistics, and because porn was generating most of the web’s traffic, he ended up getting work writing code for adult websites. In the early aughts, he wrote an affiliate-tracking software package called NATS that came to dominate the industry. By late 2006, he had cashed out of the company he had co-founded and started looking around for other companies to buy.
His first purchase was PrivatAmateure, a micro-smut site that “was doing tube-ish logic, it just wasn’t free.” He found that by making some simple tweaks he was able to double profits within three months. “That’s basically where I figured out that it seems to be an awfully good thing to buy adult websites in the current climate, because you can get things cheap, and there are obvious ways to improve what they’re doing.” In the last few years, Thylmann has been on an acquisitions tear. He bought another European amateur site (MyDirtyHobby), a cam site (Webcams.com), and xTube. By March 2010, he owned both Mansef’s and Interhub’s assets, too, including the Brazzers and Mofos paysite networks and four tube sites. GFYers gossiped that he spent $140 million on the purchase, which Thylmann confirms is “close enough.”
“I get excited making videos. xTube gave me another outlet for my sexual energy, so I stopped slutting around in real life.”
Since then, the company has been making a strong bid for respectability. Right away, Thylmann changed the corporate name to Manwin and sponsored a safe-sex campaign, “Get Rubber,” featuring porn-star PSAs and a billboard in Times Square. He spent $1 million to license nonexclusive content, buying 22,000 DVDs containing 100,000 scenes, and adopted anti-piracy digital-fingerprinting software.
Between December 2009 and December 2010, Manwin says, its pretax earnings increased more than 40 percent. The tube sites are responsible for half of that growth—and now for half of the company’s bottom line. But Manwin is also diversifying, from a Fleshbot-style industry blog called ZZ Insider to more mainstream fare. In June, Manwin launched Videobash.com, a Funny or Die knockoff, and in November it rolled out TMZ-like Celebs.com. The company is also one of the two leaders in mobile-phone porn in North America, handling 4.5 million visitors a day. And Thylmann has continued to make acquisitions, both within the Manwin corporate umbrella (a tube site named Spankwire) and without (a company called Eurorevenue, with a network of European paysites). Thylmann now has 500 employees, including 324 in the Manwin office in Montreal. He owns four of the ten most trafficked tube sites. His Brazzers and Mofos brands shoot around 120 scenes a month. At 32, he is likely the biggest porn tycoon on the planet.
“It’s a huge misconception that the industry is doing badly,” Feras Antoon tells me over rib eye and lobster tail at Delmonico, the Emeril Lagasse steakhouse at the Venetian in Las Vegas. “It’s moved on. It’s as simple as that.” And he insists that the tubes haven’t cannibalized paid content: People who consume only free porn, he argues, are people who, in the past, would not have consumed any. The people who paid for porn then will still pay for it now. Plus the tube sites have so vastly enlarged the total universe of porn consumers that the number of those who pay has ballooned along with it. Ten years ago, total daily adult-site traffic averaged less than 1 million unique visitors—on the entire Internet; today Manwin’s tube sites alone get 42 million daily uniques. “I personally have one or two memberships,” Antoon says jovially, “and I still go to the tubes. I get my appetizer on the tubes, my main course on one of the sites.”
This line of reasoning makes sense to Farrell Timlake, who uploads sponsored clips to PornHub and credits the brand exposure with a 50 percent increase in “organic” traffic—the desirable, high-converting surfers who start by typing a paysite’s name into a Google search box—and a 100 percent increase in video submittals to Homegrown. “One thing is for sure,” he says. “ ‘Free porn’ has not killed the industry. It has killed those unwilling to realize that it was just as easy to jerk off for free to the TGP-MGP stuff.”
But this is hardly the consensus opinion. Allie Chase, operator of solo-site NaughtyAllie.com, takes issue even with the five-minute trailers that plenty of producers deliberately upload to tube sites in the hope of whetting appetites. “Do you honestly think that your average guy watching a five-minute porn, or several of them, won’t be able to get off? Of course he will. And once he’s shot his load all over his keyboard after watching my free five-minute video, he certainly isn’t going to be pulling out a credit card to join my site.” Manwin, in fact, has studied the question of optimal clip length. “We tested one minute, three minutes, five minutes,” Antoon says. “The best converting for the content owner is three minutes. The best for the tube sites—for the surfer to come back and back—is five minutes. So we always ask for three to five. We don’t mind if they send us seven to nine.”
It’s also unclear whether piracy can ever be contained. Besides tube sites, the industry must contend with torrent sites and cyberlockers. And for every tube that goes legit, a hundred new rogue ones pop up. Vivid’s Steven Hirsch sees it as a cat-and-mouse game. Under the DMCA, the onus is on piracy victims to monitor tube sites and send takedown notices. Hirsch has nothing bad to say about Manwin (“My dealings with them have been very fair, and our stuff isn’t up on PornHub, so I take them at their word,” he says), but even if the sites are good about complying, the content can be reuploaded minutes later. Hirsch holds out hope for legislation, passed by a Senate panel in November, that would allow victims to get pirate sites shut down entirely.
Marc Randazza, a San Diego–based First Amendment lawyer who represents porn companies and sued Manwin in November, citing pirated content on Spankwire, remains unconvinced by Manwin’s conversion to solid corporate citizen. “I guess they’re trying to come to the surface,” he says, “but I still think they have a toxic business model.” We are sitting at a cluster of slot machines in the Venetian and discussing the woes of Porn Valley, as the traditional bricks-and-mortar, L.A.-based industry is known. For all the work-from-home opportunities afforded by the new universe of micro-smut, professional porn continues to hold an allure. A few minutes into our conversation, a middle-aged guy in a plaid shirt walks hesitantly toward us, leering at our trade-show lanyards printed with the logo bang bros. Almost shyly, he asks, “How would I get into that?”
“You mean become a performer?” Randazza asks.
The man nods.
Randazza looks at him wearily, like he gets this all the time. “Honestly,” Randazza says, “the gay side’s where all the money is. There might be 30 straight guys who can make a living at it, but if you’re willing to get fucked in the ass, I can get you five grand right now.”
The man’s smile quavers, and he backs away.
However the industry ultimately reshapes itself to accommodate the twin threats of free and stolen content, the broader legacy of the tubes may have little to do with the high-gloss, professionally made porn that they have imperiled. More than anything, the tubes have the potential to change the viewer’s relationship to erotica itself. On some tubes, gigabytes of home movies are being uploaded and streamed without any money changing hands. There, consumers can also be producers. Posting can be as arousing as watching. We are all porn stars, if we want to be. Maybe porn isn’t even really the right word for it anymore, as it evolves from something made to be watched to something made to be shared.
On xTube, of the videos submitted to the amateur portion of the site, only 20 percent are pay-per-view; the other 80 percent are evidently uploaded for kicks. Consider AlphaHarlot, a regular contributor to the site. Her real name is Liz. She’s 30 and lives in Clifton, New Jersey, where by day she works as an accountant. Two years ago, she started uploading videos to xTube, which her boyfriend at the time had done. “When I joined I was in kind of a weird place,” she says, “dating that guy plus a bunch of others that were more like one-night stands than relationships. And xTube gave me another outlet for that sexual energy, so I stopped slutting around in real life. xTube made me feel better about myself.”
She eased into it, starting with photos. After loving the response she got, she moved to faceless videos, and ultimately to showing her face. She now has over 4,000 “friends” following her on xTube. She has been recognized twice in public, once in the Bath & Body Works at the Garden State Plaza. Some of the nearly 150 videos she has posted show her with a woman or with a man—she lives “a polyamorous lifestyle”—but most show her alone, masturbating or performing a fetish at the request of one of her fans.
Liz has never sought to make money from her videos. “I get excited making them, posting them, and seeing how people react,” she says. She fears it would be less fun—more like a job—if she charged. “xTube is my family. It has completely altered how I see people. It’s made me realize there are people out there who understand there’s more to the world than black-and-white sexuality, that everyone fits in somewhere.”
Still, even Liz, who lets people watch her videos for free, doesn’t like to see her content show up on other websites. A few times a month, one of her vigilant xTube fans will alert her to an instance of piracy. Usually, after she contacts a site, they’ll remove the video; sometimes they argue. “You want control of where your stuff appears,” she says. “Stolen porn irks the hell out of me.” She tries, at least once a month, to buy a DVD from an adult video store, “so I feel like I’m giving back a little.”
Note: This article has been updated with the following correction. Vivid Entertainment’s online revenue projections are off 50 percent, not its online revenues.