The Adult Industry Doesn’t Pay! (As Much As You Think)

The rise of Internet porn has really put a dampener on the adult industry. Your favorite porn star might be doing it for a lot less than you think.

11.23.13 10:45 AM ET

No one makes a fortune in porn. Despite the misleading publicity surrounding Jenna Jameson and Teen Mom’s Farrah Abraham, the hundreds of girls who enter the industry every year may never see six figures. Your favorite porn star might be doing it for a lot less than you think.

How much an adult star makes is something of a secret not just outside the industry, but within it as well. Few girls will admit to doing a sex scene for $500, but it happens. Performers and production companies have been raking in significantly less dough since the rise of Internet porn. Piracy means less money for the industry. That means tougher negotiations all around.

People are often surprised to hear that a famous porn star may perform a sex scene, headline a film, and even get on the box cover, all for one flat rate with no residuals. Usually, a female charges $800 to $1,000 for a boy/girl scene, $900 to $1,200 for “backdoor” action, and an additional $100 for each added scene partner. Rates for a girl/girl scene are significantly lower, averaging from $600 to $900. Rates dip even lower yet if it’s an oral-only scene, starting at $250.

Men charge $200 to $600 (almost half that of their female counterparts), though men are hired more frequently. Some male performers have been known to show up for $100. Others provide their equipment for an oral scene for just $50. The cream of the crop usually garners a few hundred more than your average person. Out of the hundreds in the business, only a handful work regularly. Most struggle to work more than a few times a month, which in turn creates a bargaining tool for companies to hire talent at lower rates.

Few agents were willing to go on record to disclose the reality of what porn stars make these days. Mark Spiegler, however, was quite forthcoming. Spiegler, is a veteran of the business who represents a small percentage of girls in the porn industry (he has 24 on his site now). “An average girl makes about $40,000 to $50,000 a year,” he says. “But most of our girls make more than that because they are famous. The lower end of our scale is around $50,000.”

The business has changed in the last few years. More performers are in search of work than there are jobs. A performer has to stand out and create momentum to achieve the any sort of riches, especially considering the average length of a career today. Spiegler says it’s “probably four to six months.”

Myths about making an easy one hundred grand a year still persist, and this idea is still used to entice new girls into the industry. Ten-year veteran Eric John of Erotique Entertainment says, “The problem is there are still recruiter people, people on the fringe of the industry. Hangers on who get in touch with girls and still write things like, ‘If you get into the industry you can make $20,000 a month.’ I’ve actually seen these ridiculous scam letters.” Recruiters want the finder’s fee that accompanies a new girl. Some recruiters are actually male performers looking to collect percentages of a new girl’s wages or ride on her coattails by doing her first few scenes (for some male performers it’s the only way to get hired).

While there are some girls who might make $20,000 a month, those are the exceptions. As John says, “It’s like the NBA. A few people are going to be like Kobe but most people will be on the end of the bench not making much. For some reason everyone gets into the business thinking they’re Kobe… but there’s only one of him and lots of bench players.”

Greedy companies are not solely to blame for dwindling pay rates, some companies just can’t afford it anymore. Profit margins have grown exceedingly smaller. “Those responsible for the tubes sites have learned that if you actually produce scenes at what they cost and pay people standard rates, with all the free stuff out there you can’t make any money,” John says. And it’s not just the reduced rates that are cutting into a porn stars bottom line, it’s also the cost associated with being a performer as well. 

When I was an active performer we tested every 28 days and it cost around $120. These days performers are shelling out between $150 and $175 per test and as Spiegler notes, “You have to get tested every twelve days. That means a girl has to test two and a half times a month.” Testing alone could cost between $300 and $350 a month. Never mind the agent fees which cost anywhere from ten to fifteen percent (and sometimes twenty percent) of a gig.

Award-winning porn star Courtney Cummz doesn’t see the point of working for low wages. “The same company that used to pay my rate is now trying to get me to do a scene for $600 dollars,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ I can sit home and do cam shows for five hours or so, and make that much money and not have to have sex with this guy that’s a $200 performer.”

Because of her notoriety, Cummz probably can make more on a webcam show than what companies can afford to pay these days. A new girl without the clout might not be so lucky. When Cummz was a director for Zero Tolerance, she was required to pay rates she herself would’ve turned down. “I wanted to pay girls a higher rate but my hands were tied,” she says. “I had to follow the company rules and the rule was not to pay an amateur girl more than $500. The amateur guys were paid $100 to $200.” This is a common practice, but very few performers will openly discuss accepting low rates. Everyone wants to be seen as on top.

Porn can be a costly adventure. There are appearances to keep up. Porn lingerie and porn clothes and porn shoes to buy, and the initial investment can be several thousand dollars. But there’s also a hidden cost that often sneaks up on porn’s freelancers—it’s the taxes everyone forgets to pay. Taxes are rarely taken out and very few girls think to put away 30 percent of their earnings. Years can pass, along with hefty tax penalties for those blissfully unaware, before companies receive letters of intent to garnish wages. Tax liens have cost many performers a job, because once a company receives those letters they often stop hiring that performer.

That porn star is not only out of work, but buried under a mountain of debt. It’s a vicious, messy cycle that many fall into. Spiegler gives girls this advice: “I tell a new girl you got two choices in porn: You can either work hard and put a lot of money away and make the rest of your life easier. Or you can do what most of the girls do and end up 40 years old, working at Denny’s wondering what the fuck happened.”