Is There A Wage Gap In The Porn Industry?

Photographed by Kate Anglestein.
As the gender-wage-gap debate rages on in courtrooms, at pundits’ tables, and on bitter Reddit threads, there’s one idea that has gone unchallenged: Porn is the one industry where women benefit from better pay than their male counterparts. It’s treated as a fact, sometimes used to deny that women suffer any systematic wage discrimination at all (see: Reddit), or it’s tossed in as an aside in reports on the adult industry’s fiscal health, such as in this January 2016 CNBC piece on per-day earnings of adult film stars. In 2012, a controversial Equal Pay Day PSA ran in Belgium, featuring porn star Sasha Grey telling women that if they want to earn as much as their male colleagues, they should do porn. But is this even true?

Locating exact figures is a difficult task since few in the industry like to disclose their salaries, and none of the major studios have been public with pay data. The most reliable estimations come from insiders who inflate or deflate numbers when convenient, or from pieces like the one on CNBC, which surveyed performers and crew members to break down what producers pay per scene.

The latter bolsters the assumption that women make more than men because, on a scene-by-scene basis, they usually do. Men are paid a fixed rate per scene based on their reputation (gay male porn has a separate pay scale that, for sake of brevity, isn’t explored in this story), while women earn different wages based on their star power and the sex act. For example, an unknown performer filming a girl-on-girl scene might make as little as $300, but if a popular star is involved in double penetration, she can rake in as much as $4,000. Men earn between $500 and $1,200 for the same scene, with the big stars maybe hitting $1,500.

The trouble with relying on these numbers as the sole evidence that women out-earn men is that daily figures don’t account for career opportunities or longevity — two factors that influence potential lifetime earnings and favor men. In a 2013 Daily Beast article, top industry agent Mark Spiegler (oh yeah, the most powerful people in porn are all men) speculated that there are more women performers than there are available opportunities. That same year, data journalist Jon Millward conducted the largest study of porn actors thus far by using a sample of 10,000 performers listed on the Internet Adult Film Database. He found that 70% of performers were women and the average career span of a porn actress was between six and 18 months. He also found that 96% of the most prolific performers were male.

“Women and men performers in ‘straight’ porn have very different paths when it comes to career longevity,” says Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment. “Certainly there are ‘lifers’ — as [sex-positive activist and porn actress] Nina Hartley likes to say — but the vast majority of women come in and out of the industry in a few months to a few years.”

Linda Williams, a professor of film and media at UC Berkeley and editor of the academic journal Porn Studies, echoes Tibbals’ sentiment. “Female careers are short. Male careers, if they can consistently get and remain hard, can be long.”

And yes, to be fair, that part about getting and remaining hard is a serious threat to some men’s careers. “In a lot of porn (but not all porn), male cum is considered a necessary hallmark of production. If a guy is hired for such a scene, then he’s generally expected to complete that part of the performance,” Tibbals says. “Men may be penalized in the sense that, once a guy performer gets a reputation for not being able to complete his job, he will get hired less.”

Still, if a man can prove his ability to achieve that crucial money shot, he will likely be hired for more films than most women over his career.

Additionally, competition among women for paying roles has likely increased in recent years due to the onslaught of amateur porn and illegal streaming. In short: the internet.

“Piracy-based tube sites populated with stolen content that viewers assume is ‘free’ have resulted in many challenges, including making it challenging for producers to recoup their costs, much less make a profit,” says Tibbals. This resonates with Speigler’s estimation that most successful women performers today make between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, which is nearly half of what a popular star made in the early 2000s. Women who entered the industry based on assumptions that the pay is still as high as it was back then might leave sooner than anticipated due to frustration.

“I have a very firm understanding of what a scene costs to make and what the profit margin is, and the performers are definitely getting paid fairly,” says Joanna Angel, a director and performer and founder of punk porn site BurningAngel. In many ways, Angel represents a new generation of performers who, faced with a worldwide financial crisis and an industry deeply wounded by online piracy, has had to improvise and cultivate an entrepreneurial approach in order to be successful.

“I have basically been a director and producer since day one of my career,” says Angel, who started her own website in 2002 and began directing in 2005. “I really wanted to make a porn, and thought, How the hell do I make this happen?” Since then, she’s built an “alt-porn” empire, earning several AVN Awards (the Oscars of porn) and crossing over into mainstream film, television, and other media.

Ironically, it’s the same platform that afforded Angel the creative freedom to launch her brand that now limits what she can pay her actors today. “I do see a lot of male and female performers starting their own production companies and then stopping after about a year,” she says. “It is incredibly hard to turn a profit in the porn industry these days, and a lot of performers get discouraged by that. Quite frankly, I don't blame them.”

That’s not to say that getting behind the camera can’t be a sensible evolution in a performer’s career. In fact, directing can be quite lucrative, as it pays between $1,000 and $3,000 per day, according to CNBC. And there’s evidence that women directors are better for women performers. A 2008 study conducted by Psychology of Women Quarterly found that female porn directors hire twice as many women performers as their male counterparts and nearly 30% of female directors film women-on-women scenes as opposed to just under 7% of male directors. But, again, there’s a gender gap. The 2008 study found only 4-5% of porn directors were women.

“The more fans and followers you have, the easier it will be to get a directing deal,” says Angel, highlighting a mysterious discrepancy since, with a few exceptions, women tend to amass larger fan bases. “While more famous girls are the ones given directing deals, from what I have observed, the men with the deals usually have more longevity.”

Angel also sees hidden opportunities for women to profit from amateur sites such as Clips4Sale, since they won’t have to share any earnings with producers. And then she points out all the alternative revenue sources available to adult porn stars: feature dancing, sexting, and selling worn garments from scenes. But you need to hustle if you want to make ends meet.

There are reasons, however, to be cautiously optimistic that women can capture the estimated 40-50 million porn consumers in the U.S. and close the wage gap in the industry. In December 2015, one of the industry’s first unions, the International Entertainment Adult Union, formed in part to help subsidize the cost of STD tests that performers are required to take every 12 days. The union also pledges to support performers in bargaining for film and website royalties, even when their names are only used as clickbait. Hopefully, they’ll also be advocating for women.

But until then, it’s time to stop with the mythology that porn is the only place where women outearn men. Whether it’s called a wage gap or a longevity gap or something else entirely, things are still not equal, and women still face more obstacles in the adult film industry. Until there are more women behind the camera and more women enjoying the same career success as men, female adult film stars will continue to struggle to get their fair share of what’s estimated to be a $14 billion industry.
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