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The porn we see — and sex we have — is influenced by the adult industry’s biggest spenders

Or, how spanking went mainstream.

“Whales” who tip cammers and clip-makers large sums get to determine what people see in sex online.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The early internet era was a Wild West of adult content experimentation. Cheap and discreet distribution tools made it easy for new players to get into porn, throw outlandish ideas at the wall, and make bank either off novelty or by tapping into previously obscure fetishes. Early streaming and chat tech opened the floodgates for everyday people to share their sexual peccadilloes with the world via amateur porn, and even rudimentary webcam shows.

A few insiders still operate within that innovate-and-profit paradigm: “If you want people to buy your porn, it’s simple,” argues porn and cam performer Kimber Haven. “Give them something they have never seen and can’t get for free” elsewhere.

But the rise of “tube” sites and easily accessible free porn over the past decade pulled the rug out from under the porn world, allegedly contributing to a drop in industry profits from (by some rough evaluations) about $12 billion annually in the aughts to about $5 billion by the mid-teens. Some insiders estimate that as few as one in 10,000 porn viewers actually pay for content now.

Simultaneously, the rise of freemium cam sites has made it easy for most viewers to watch or interact with models without ever paying a dime. The number of people trying to cam for cash has also grown much faster than paying audiences. As their profit pies shrink, most adult content creators feel pressure to move away from pure experimentation, passion projects, or even attempts to appeal to the broadest audiences.

Instead, they increasingly focus on figuring out — and catering to — who exactly still pays for adult content and “which demographics are the most profitable,” as indie performer and producer Meana Wolf puts it. Which means that big and regular spenders’ habits and desires increasingly influence what we see in porn, and as a result, what many of us think it’s normal to want or do.

Ironically the most visible, and arguably most successful, leader of this push in the traditional porn space is MindGeek, the notoriously opaque company that owns Pornhub and a number of other leading free porn tube sites — as well as a number of major porn production houses, like Brazzers and Digital Playground. They (and other multi-site networks, like Gamma Entertainment and WGCZ Holdings) collect troves of data on what their users watch and how they engage with it, then feed this data back to the content producers working within their networks. MindGeek did not respond to a request for comment from Vox, but researchers Chris Sprigman and Kal Raustiala spoke to MindGeek’s team about how they use their data to drive content creation for a 2018 paper. They found that the company often hands down scripts from on high that specify every detail of a scene, down to the color and style of clothing performers should wear.

Sprigman told me that MindGeek did not want to reveal exactly whom they tailor their content toward, or to what ends. (“The concern that they voiced to us,” he said, “was that they don’t want to be lumped in with Google, Facebook, etc. in the current panic about tech platforms” and their data usage.) Still, given that MindGeek has said in the past more than half of its revenue comes from people paying for accounts on its sites, Sprigman and others believe it’s likely they’re trying to create and promote content that will draw in viewers who are most likely to convert into paying subscribers.

Few networks, much less indie sites or performers producing their own content, have data as rich or analytic teams as robust as MindGeek. So many producers look to MindGeek to get a sense of how to attract paying porn viewers.

“Their reach has the power to create trends” across the industry, said Bree Mills, Gamma’s head of production. “Family role-play content” — i.e. simulated incest scenarios — “has dominated Pornhub’s popular results over the last five years, which has had a tremendous influence on the number of related scenes being produced to satisfy perceived demand.” Pure Taboo, one of the series Mills has helmed, features a ton of fauxcest scenes.

Even when producers don’t look to titans like MindGeek for guidance on profitable trends, they often focus on what they know about their current or ideal paid users to try to consolidate their hold over them. “My target customer is in his late 20s to mid-30s — old enough to probably have some spending money and young enough to still possibly be single,” noted performer and clip maker Jessica Starling. She makes sure her personal image and content reflects the sorts of things she has gleaned that this demographic is into, although that can be a moving target.

Performer-producer Lance Hart argues it’s so difficult to truly discern who buys porn, much less who doesn’t but might, that it’s hard to trust that even a firm like MindGeek has solid info on the subject, much less that it makes the right plays to draw in likely big spenders. “Ultimately, it’s still an art,” says Mills, “not a science.”

But regardless of their sophistication, tailoring efforts still effectively elevate some fetishes that may not actually be widely popular in a bid for profitability.

Custom videos, created to patrons’ specifications by small studios or adult performers who also produce their own content, are at times described like antidotes to data-driven porn. So are live cam shows, during which viewers can interact with models. Both offer people a chance to see exactly what they want, even if they’re not part of a big, juicy potential porn payer demographic. (They also offer the appeal of direct connection with an idealized figure, which is why so many personalized clips and cam shows focus on intimacy and emotional support over the sexual hydraulics that define porn, and some are entirely non-nude.)

Clip makers run the risk of making tiny fetishes seem larger than they are. Small groups with deep pockets may order tons of content suited to their unique tastes. When they allow producers to sell those clips to others as well in the hopes of making a few extra bucks, as often happens, they can functionally create a distortionary glut of hyper-niche fetish content. In one notable case, a single German man with a penchant for watching a man dressed in a swamp monster-style Halloween costume creep and grind on naked women ordered so many clips catering to his fetish that it created the impression this was actually a small but vibrant kink that many people held.

Cam platforms like LiveJasmin and Streamate focus on connecting viewers with models whose personas fit their interests. They then move customers into one-on-one private chat rooms where they pay for connection by the minute (and occasionally offer extra tips), which may lead to a truly bespoke experience. But folks seem increasingly drawn to freemium platforms, like Chaturbate and MyFreeCams, that let hundreds or even thousands of viewers sit in on a performer’s show for free, all interacting with each other and the model, occasionally sending tips and requesting specific acts.

The quest to convert as many viewers as possible into (ideally regular) tippers has led to the development of an impromptu field of cam consumer psychology, with consultants peddling and performers sharing advice. As a result, says Aella, a former top performer on MyFreeCams turned entrepreneur, you’ll see the same tricks — countdowns and games — in most rooms, as well as a few overrepresented sex acts, which models have learned garner tips especially well.

“Spanking is way more widely performed on cam than in real life,” she told me, explaining it’s usually in the form of models offering to spank themselves in exchange for a set tip fee. “It’s relatively non-sexual … It is dramatic and loud and a way to get a strong reaction out of the girl you’re tipping.”

The scramble for tips also means that, as Aella puts it, “we meet the demand of tippers more than non-tippers.” Many regular tippers send cash to models they like sans strings, just to show their support, but just as many want specific bang for their bucks. Models occasionally describe doing things they’re not comfortable with on cam to earn these transactional tips — subverting their desires and boundaries to a paying viewer’s — when facing a major crunch to hit a goal.

Whales, a term some cammers use to describe big spenders, might drop $1,000 in tips per show, and occasionally even more. LittleRedBunny, an award-winning cammer who’s been active since 2009, tells Vox that a viewer once gave her a $21,000 tip. Because those big tips can make or break a performer’s night, month, or year, performers on some platforms reportedly try to poach whales from each other. At times some will allegedly allow these patrons to functionally control their rooms, booting out fans whose voices or desires they don’t like. Others even let whales invade their off-cam lives.

If they can figure out, by polling their rooms, who their most reliable and sizeable tippers are, then many successful models will try to create environments or personas that appeal specifically to them. “One top-earning girl once told me that she knew the demographic of men aged 45 to 60 were her highest tippers,” Aella recalled. “So she played ’80s rock to trigger their nostalgia.” Others hyper-exaggerate or reinvent their personas to jibe with what sells, like one occasional pot smoker who cam researcher Paul Bleakley encountered. She transformed herself into a “performative” stoner, covered in tie-dye and backed by Bob Marley music, to please her prime tippers. That’s a risky move when one considers, as LittleRedBunny noted, that any major branding change risks jettisoning entire blocs of one’s overall fan base.

The traditional narrative of camming holds that there’s a model out there who’s right for every viewer, and an audience for the niche or persona every model’s most comfortable adopting. As LittleRedBunny explains it, this means that one person might be a big, regular spender on one platform or with one model, but not on another, rendering demographics nearly meaningless outside of one’s own chat room or fan base.

But in 2019, Stripchat made a huge effort to survey its user base and learned that there do appear to be demographic differences between different types of spenders across its platform. People who identified as very religious, for example, appeared two to three times more likely to spend at least $1,000 a month on the site compared to their peers. Younger audiences were more likely to pay for privates, while older audiences were more likely to tip — and those over 65 often tipped more than those ages 35 to 64.

Many performers (who don’t dive in blindly) try to build their personas around what they at least believe they know about high paying demographics. There’s a ton of pseudoscientific babble on camming blogs about the assumed profile of the average whale and how to craft identities or acts that manipulate his alpha male mentality. (Stripchat’s survey actually suggested that women only make up 7 percent of their user base but 17 percent of their big spenders, challenging this and many other male-centered assumptions in the camming world.) New models also often sit in on big and successful performers’ rooms and try to emulate what they do to bring in big tippers.

The allure of high-income submissive men willing to drop big whale money in particular has led to an explosion in the number of cam performers trying to adopt financial dominatrix, or findom, personas in recent years, adopting glam, haughty, and unobtainable airs and bossing their rooms around. Granted, they are all vying for a small but lucrative pot of men, and few of them actually have much experience as dominatrices, so this bid rarely ever works out for them in the end. The scattershot run on them sure does make the fetish seem more prevalent than it really is, though.

Ultimately, all of these manifestations of the mad dash for profitability in the cam world inject a degree of homogeneity into an adult realm ostensibly built on diversity and malleability. They make it hard for people whose personas or interests don’t align with the interests of profitable demographics to succeed, and lead to the overrepresentation of certain sexual acts and tropes. Or as Aella put it, “a lot of the core behaviors within top [cammers] are nearly identical.”

None of the data- or demographic-driven trends in the adult space are immutable. Tastes change with time for many individuals and for entire cultures alike. And of course, demographics are always evolving. Over the last couple of years, millennials have started to buy more porn than other demographics, on at least some platforms, leading folks like Mills to start thinking about how to cater to that generation’s tastes more than ever before.

But even if a trendy distortion only colors the adult world for a few years, that can have a real effect on society. No one is certain about the effects that adult entertainment does or could have on us. Still, anecdotal reports suggest that many people, for lack of other reference points, learn about sex and intimacy — develop ideas on what it’s normal to like or to do — by watching porn or cam shows. The elevated visibility of certain acts in adult content (notably blow jobs in early legal porn and heterosexual anal sex over the past two decades) also seems to track at times to a rise in their prevalence in real life, even among older people who have already developed sexual scripts. (Though no one knows whether this is because adult content normalizes and encourages people to explore desires they already had, or habituates them to an act until they come to desire it.) So there’s a chance that the tastes of the most profitable adult content consumers (or at least their perceived tastes) could increasingly drive the norms of many people’s actual sexual experiences.

“I’ve heard men say that seeing so much spanking in the cam world has made them more interested in it,” Aella noted. Thus, a common camming trick becomes an actual sexual trope.

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