Pornhub makes a splash at the AVNs, the Oscars for adult entertainment

This article contains sexually explicit material.

It’s late afternoon on a Thursday at the Pornhub booth at the 2015 Adult Entertainment Expo, and a gaggle of scantily clad women in stilettos are mimicking sex with a crude-looking blowup doll. They’re tossing her in the air, straddling her, and poking manicured nails at her various orifices as cameramen crowd around them, livestreaming the action to Pornhub viewers at home. Throngs of males in baggy jeans and indigo leisure shirts gawk around the booth.

In terms of brand recognition, the smut-streaming site Pornhub is basically the McDonald’s of porn. But in the tight-knit world of the adult industry, the name has far more ominous implications. Ask many performers or producers willing to speak on the record about Pornhub, and they’ll likely give a response akin to the following, from indie performer and producer Courtney Trouble: “Fuck them. I don’t like their parent company [Mindgeek]. I don’t like them.”

Pornhub’s cam show is part of a daily livestream from AEE, where Pornhub is hosting its own booth for the very first time. “We wanted an opportunity to interact with fans here, but we also wanted to bring the show to the convention,” Corey Price, Pornhub’s VP of marketing, told me as girls with back tattoos and stilettos squealed in the background. “So we’re streaming it on Pornhub, so everyone at home can be part of the show.”


EJ Dickson


EJ Dickson

Arguably the largest and most trafficked porn site on the Internet, Pornhub is the world’s best-known purveyor of Internet smut. In 2014, it got a whopping 78 billion pageviews, and its global Alexa rating of 75 easily outranks those of CNN, BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post. Part of the key to Pornhub’s mass popularity is how doggedly the website pursues mainstream recognition. In the past few years, Pornhub has launched a record label, a highly trafficked Pornhub Insights data analytics blog, and a (rejected) Super Bowl ad, all as part of its quest to bring online porn into the mainstream.

Because it’s a porn tube site, Pornhub will never quite become a household name, but that’s not to say it hasn’t come pretty close. To the “civilian” world, as the porn industry calls it, the Pornhub brand is virtually interchangeable with digital self-pleasure. But as the website’s dominance grows, many performers now believe Pornhub is directly contributing the economic decline of the adult industry. By serving as a platform for free online content, the argument goes, Pornhub and other tube sites are essentially taking money directly out of performers’ and producers’ pockets.

“There’s a separation between people in the industry who are making things—performers, directors, producers, makeup artists, lighting designers—and all these people on the exterior who don’t know us or understand us, and just want to make money off of us,” says Trouble. “That’s the tube sites. They are not one of us. They are not part of the industry.”

It’s inaccurate to say that Pornhub and other tube sites overtly steal from porn performers. The site offers an affiliate program for major studios, which receive a portion of advertising revenue. Pornhub also offers an “amateur program” for performers, and Price says the website set up a booth at AVN to “raise the program’s awareness to people attending the show.”

“Our amateur program is already composed of thousands of pure amateurs, models, and even well-known porn stars like Jessica Bangkok and Sophie Dee,” he told the Daily Dot via email. “We share a percentage of the ad revenue earned on their videos so they receive payments from us every month based on how well their videos do on the site.”

The trouble arises when full-length videos are pirated and uploaded to the website without studios’ or performers’ consent, which happens all the time, says adult performer Bonnie Rotten: “We’re put in the position where we’re basically trying to keep our stuff off the Internet for as long as possible.”

At the Adult Entertainment Expo, I keep hearing this sentiment over and over and over again from attendees, from performers to producers to photographers to publicists. That’s because it’s the first year that Pornhub has a booth at the expo alongside mainstream adult studios.

It’s as if the Pirate Bay showed up at the Academy Awards.

“There is a large and vast mixed opinion about Pornhub being represented here,” says Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who studies the adult industry and has attended AEE since 2006. “A few years ago, there wasn’t a booth for a tube site. There wasn’t sponsorship dollars on a lanyard. That wasn’t there. And now it is.”

Nate Glass, the owner of the anti-piracy organization Takedown Piracy, compares Pornhub’s presence at the Adult Entertainment Expo to that of the torrent site Pirate Bay at the Academy Awards. “You just don’t see this in the mainstream [music and film industries],” he says. “They might have issues with Spotify and Pandora and whatever, but at least they’re not fawning over themselves to give Pirate Bay booth space at their show.”

Pornhub’s presence at the Adult Entertainment Expo comes on the tail end of a near-decade-long slow burn in the adult entertainment industry, which has struggled in the wake of free tube sites and the 2008 recession. While it’s hard to gauge exact figures, some estimate that DVD sales have dropped by 50 percent since 2007, a decline in revenue that has also been reflected in performers’ plummeting salaries.

Bonnie Rotten.

Bonnie Rotten.

EJ Dickson


As the result of the decline of the adult industry at large, it’s become increasingly difficult for people in porn to make a living. “There was a time where anyone could get in and make money, and it didn’t matter if they were good at what they did,” says adult performer and former Penthouse Pet Chanel Preston. “Now I think the industry has weeded out a lot of people.”

There’s a prevailing sense in the industry that speaking out against Pornhub will endanger performers’ chances of working with them in the future.

While there have been some reports that the industry is slowly recovering, Pornhub’s presence at the Adult Entertainment Expo has stoked the fire of the never-ending debate over tube sites. Some saw Pornhub’s presence at the expo as an implicit endorsement of online piracy.

“[AVN] got a lot of blowback from [giving Pornhub a booth],” Glass says. “Some people said, ‘We won’t be there next year because they were here.’ People were saying they wouldn’t advertise in the magazine, but after people found out, it was already too late to cancel.”

When reached for comment, Theo Sapoutzis, the CEO of AVN, says that while some companies complained about Pornhub’s presence at the expo before the show, “we talked to them and addressed their concerns and they were fine.” He also added that most of the studios represented at the expo have done business with Pornhub at some point.

“If you go to Pornhub’s website, they have hundreds of partners and they work with every major company,” Sapoutzis said. “So it’s kind of ironic they were complaining, because everyone is working with Pornhub itself.”

If you’re a major player in the porn industry, working with Pornhub in some capacity is pretty much unavoidable. That’s because the site is owned by the Luxembourg-based congolomerate Mindgeek (formerly Manwin), which also owns studios like Brazzers, Digital Playground, and Reality Kings. Because these studios regularly employ top-earning porn stars, there’s a prevailing sense in the industry that speaking out against Pornhub will endanger performers’ chances of working with them in the future.

“There’s an entrapped feeling, like, ‘I don’t want to work for you,’ but also, ‘I have to work for you, because if I don’t I’ll never work for your network and I don’t know if I’ll ever get work again,’” says Tibbals.

This feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place is evident when you ask adult performers at AEE how they feel about Pornhub. “I don’t have a preference. I’m just doing my thing. I’m not gonna go there,” says Preston, who has shot for Manwin-owned Digital Playground.

Chanel Preston.

Chanel Preston.

EJ Dickson


That said, not everyone is uncomfortable working within an industry where giving your product away for free has become the norm. There can be some benefits to having your porn available for free online, even if the people who posted them are doing so without your consent. “I forgive the torrenting. I do. That’s how a lot of us indie porn stars get discovered,” says Trouble. “And I know our audience is the queer feminist set and not all of us have luxury entertainment money, so I’m actually pretty forgiving of theft of my own stuff.”

“Obviously when someone tries something new, some people aren’t too happy about it.”

Rotten, who has shot for the Manwin-owned Brazzers and Digital Playground, also takes a more generous view of Pornhub. “Pornhub has been used in a kind way, because it advertises our content,” she says. “But it can be used in an evil way as well. I don’t see anything wrong with putting a 45-second clip up there. But when people start pirating things and putting up whole movies, we’re put in a bad position.”

For its part, Pornhub itself doesn’t seem that concerned about the industry’s negative backlash to its presence at the expo. When I raised the issue of Pornhub’s controversial presence at AEE to Vice President Corey Price, he balked at discussing it in detail, but he did acknowledge that “obviously, some people aren’t happy” with the Pornhub booth.

“We try to work with the content partners and the studios so they do well and get a share of revenue, the same way YouTube does,” says Price. “We want to give content producers different avenues to market themselves … but [this booth] is something new, and obviously when someone tries something new, some people aren’t too happy about it.”

Although the porn industry tends to pin most of its economic woes on the proliferation of tube sites, no one harbors any delusions that websites like Pornhub will magically disappear into the ether, no matter how many anti-piracy hashtag campaigns are launched, or how many porn stars pen plaintive op-eds about not being able to pay their bills.

“The tube sites won’t go away. I don’t think anyone thinks that,” says Glass. “All we’re saying is, level the playing field. If they wanna license content legally, which they should’ve been doing from the beginning, they should be doing that.”

Glass also proposes that the porn industry fight the tube sites the same way that the film and music industries did by adopting an “iTunes/Netflix model,” a proposal that many adult content producers have attempted, to varying degrees of success. But now that free porn has become so ubiquitous, charging for a monthly subscription could be a risky move.

This suspicion becomes cemented in my brain toward the end of my time at the conference, when I meet Otto and Paul, two construction workers from New Jersey visiting the expo. Before they leave to catch up with their friends at the Pornhub booth next door, Otto tells me he finds the whole expo “kinda lame.”

“Why lame?” I ask.

“This is the thing,” he says, nursing his Cosmo. “You can go on-fucking-line and see naked women any time you want. I gotta be honest, they’re just naked fucking women. Here, they’re gonna try to bullshit you and say, ‘Blah blah blah, pay me and see me fuck,’ but they’re naked women. That’s all they are.”

A few minutes later, Otto excused himself to catch up with his friends. He’s meeting them at the Pornhub booth. He will leave having seen some more naked women, but he probably won’t buy any of their photos, or shake their hands, or learn their names. He will know them just as naked fucking women, because to him, that’s all they are.

Photo via Michael Dorausch/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)