Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has upended the adult content industry, pushing thousands of new people to present adult performances online to make money while also creating more ways for viewers seeking intimacy while in lockdown to make personal connections with performers online.

Why it matters: The result has been a shift in power from the big porn producers and distributors to thousands of individual performers and models. Executives at several adult websites tell Axios that they're seeing explosive growth in part because the industry is moving to more individual engagement as a result of the pandemic.

  • "Porn is free on the internet, nobody needs to pay to see sex video or nudity," IsMyGirl CEO Evan Seinfeld tells Axios. "But people will pay to have an interactive experience and to feel acknowledged and to be engaged."

How it works: Being "acknowledged," as Seinfeld says, often means that adult entertainers are pivoting from traditional porn exhibitions to more personalized experiences.

  • Daryn Parker, VP of adult website CamSoda, says the site has launched cooking dates for models to have with users on a paid basis.
  • Gunner Taylor, director of strategic development for FriendFinder Networks, says a lot of the engagement the company is seeing now during the pandemic "is more about people sharing things online, even down to training classes for their pets."

Details: Executives at several other adult sites tell Axios that they've experienced record traffic, and that performers are earning record pay.

  • "Days after the stimulus check, we were four times where we were this same time last year," says Parker.
  • In the week after Americans started receiving their stimulus checks, Tayler said Cams.com saw a 22% uptick in traffic to their live streaming site cams.com and tips to models increased by 40%. 
  • Since February 2020, IsMyGirl's web traffic has increased 500%, and since early April, a 40%-50% increase in model signups. About 250,000 new models have signed up since February.

Between the lines: One company that’s gotten a huge boost is U.K.-based OnlyFans—something of a cross between Instagram and an adult “camgirl site,” with paid subscriptions. 

  • Though its marketing features wholesome content creators like comedians and other artists, OnlyFans has made it name by enabling adult performers and sex workers to create and monetize content. 
  • Created in 2016 by parent company Fenix International Limited, OnlyFans lets content creators keep 80% of the revenue, though the company told the New York Times last year that its cut is closer to 12% after payments processing fees.
  • As of sometime this month, OnlyFans, which has more than 30 million registered users, has paid out $725 million in revenue to its more than 450,000 content creators. 

Be smart: The story of OnlyFans and rival sites is about payments — and their rules. 

  • The biggest hurdle for creators of adult online content and products usually comes from the payments processors and credit card networks that make it hard for most web services to allow such content. Those that do charge significantly higher fees.
  • In 2018, Patreon tightened its rules around “not safe for work” content (angering producers of such content), which it blamed on its “payments partners.”
  • Parker says that users of CamSoda pay U.S. dollars for tokens upon entering the site, and use tokens to tip models. Models cash out those tokens every week and are paid in cash.

Yes, but: There are still hurdles for these types of websites, namely that the main mobile app stores don’t allow adult streaming apps. 

  • OnlyFans, even though it is a child of the social media and influencer age, doesn’t have a mobile app right now. That undoubtedly limits its growth and makes it harder to use for both creators and subscribers. 

Moreover, critics worry that the rise of OnlyFans and other adult fan sites is a sign that the pandemic's economic woes are driving more people to sell their nude images for an income.

  • And some of the original OnlyFans community resent the platform's newcomers. Some celebrities, like social media influencer Caroline Calloway, have tapped the site to generate additional revenue and interactions with fans, eliciting annoyance from sex workers on the service.

The big picture: The surge of these services represents the rise of a new generation of the gig economy, one where it may be easier and more lucrative for influencers and gig workers to cash out by providing services online than doing so in real life.

  • Even after the pandemic is over, it's unlikely that creators will go back fully to in-person performances and services when they can prosper online.
  • “Online camera models are going to earn a lot more than a model who goes to her local strip club,” says CamSoda's Parker. “Our best models make over $20,000 per week.”
  • "They make 10x more money than leaving their house," says IsMyGirl's Seinfeld.
  • The phenomenon has already entered the lexicon of pop culture, with OnlyFans making its way into a Beyonce lyric recently, for example.

The bottom line: “I do see it as a lasting trend,” says Parker. “This is the new normal. It’s never going to go back to where we were in January and February.”

Go deeper: Everyone is becoming an online creator during the coronavirus

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