The first time Frankie Quinn fucked on camera, he was terrified. As you might imagine, when preparing to shag for an audience of 15,000 people, a flurry of anxious questions would likely run through your mind: what if my face gets in shot and I’m recognised? What if I can’t get it up? What if I perform really, really badly?
It’s coming up to two and half years since Frankie and his girlfriend popped their camming cherries. They both had office jobs in Cambridge – Frankie, as an account manager, his partner working for an accountant – but after watching a Channel 4 documentary about webcamming, they decided to give it a go themselves. “These people were hiding their faces and in their late thirties or early forties,” Frankie says, “and they were making a good £500-plus a week, for just a few hours' work.”
Frankie and his girlfriend always used to joke with each other that they banged like porn stars. “We just looked at each other and said 'fuck it – we should look into it'.” Three months later? They were doing it full-time. And, the couple enjoyed it – certainly more than they did their 9-to-5s. Fears that they’d get bored of each other in the bedroom were never realised, and they were making good money from within the comfort of their own home. But after a while, doing webcam shows began to get tiring. The thing is, you’re constantly performing on an audience's terms, not your own. Tips come from doing what is asked of you, and you’re reliant on people tuning in at the right time. Sure, sometimes that meant Frankie would rake in nearly a grand after just a few hours in his bedroom, but on other days he’d struggle to make anything at all.
And then, Frankie stumbled upon a website called OnlyFans. “There was a guy with 200 fans, charging each of them $10 a month, and I did the maths… ” he says now, grinning. “I decided to stop what I was doing immediately and get onto that.”
Fan sits like OnlyFans and JustForFans are the new frontier for people looking to make a living from online sex work. The premise, if you’re yet to stumble upon these platforms, is simple. Rather than subscribing to a porn site, punters can pay to access content created by individual performers who upload their own self-shot videos directly to the site. When you log in to jack off, a real-time newsfeed with pictures, posts and videos awaits you. Sites like these are basically the same as Facebook or Instagram, except you pay to be someone’s friend. And, instead of #lifehacks and pictures of your mates on holiday, you log on to see people you’ve selected having sex.
Now 25, Frankie – who identifies as bisexual – lives in Manchester, and when we meet at his friend’s apartment, he couldn’t be happier with his line of work. “I work on my own terms, and I can take a break whenever I want to. Days off, too. I’ve built it up to the point now where I’ve got a good, loyal fan base. If I take a week off, they’ll stay subscribed.” Frankie’s making thousands of pounds every month from his accounts. But he’s keen to point out there’s more to the job than shagging. Unlike in shoots arranged by studios, everything from recording to editing, finding locations and post-production is done by the performers themselves. “I knew how to do marketing and promotion already,” Frankie explains, “so I invested in a camera and lighting equipment, taught myself how to edit, and started making my own videos.”
Keeping his fans engaged and entertained requires a regular stream of uploads. In the two weeks leading up to our meeting, I sign up to JustForFans, subscribe to his account and log in every few days to see what’s new. There are solo videos; there are videos of him having sex with other performers from the site; in some videos, he performs with models who clearly wish to keep their identities anonymous.
Frankie says he aims to upload something new, whether a photo or video, every day. “I try to do a full feature-length video with a model once a week,” he continues. “Nine times out of ten, it’ll be with someone with a similar page. Otherwise, it’s just people who want to have sex with me and are happy to be filmed.” Applications, Frankie says, inundate his social media inboxes: so far he’s made videos with guys he has met on Twitter, Instagram and Grindr. “A lot of people just want to have sex with a porn star,” he says, grinning.
As Frankie talks me through his daily routine, Xavier Sibley – another performer, whose apartment we’re in – returns from his bedroom where he’s been updating his page, and joins us on the sitting room sofas. Two years before his 21st birthday, Xavier starred in his first adult film. Raised in the outskirts of Paris, he’d been interested in the adult industry since the age of 13 – hardly surprising. But while for most teenage boys that fascination rarely leaves a locked bedroom and laptop screen, Xavier always knew that if the opportunity presented itself, he’d shoot one.
Today Xavier still does the occasional professional shoot, but fan-sites are responsible for the majority of his income. He and Frankie made a scene together just yesterday, he says. “Before I signed up to these sites, I was uploading short clips of my videos from shoots with studios,” Xavier tells me, “or maybe like 30 seconds of me just jerking off at home. Then I realised I didn't have to give it away on Twitter for free.”
Unlike Frankie, Xavier posts three times a week: a single scene chopped into three, and released on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. “If you post a video of ten minutes, people say it’s too long,” Xavier continues, “but if you make it two minutes, people say it’s too short.” After some experimentation, Xavier reckons he has found the ideal length for his films. “Most people don’t need more than five minutes to jerk off.”
When I first stumble across these new fan sites online, it’s something of an accident. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed in a busy office one afternoon a couple of months ago, something stood out among the mass of hot takes and quote tweets. It was a short video of a guy, I reckon in his early twenties, having a wank. Concerned someone I followed was helping spread private videos or revenge porn (and somewhat intrigued) I clicked on the account that had originally posted it, and soon found myself exploring the profiles of a whole lot of guys just like Frankie, using social media to entice people to pay them directly for their porn.
Without generalising too much, the guys I find using the site can be split into two distinct categories. Some, like Frankie and Xavier are in their mid-twenties or older, they'rgay or bisexual, and see what they’re doing as porn. There are, however, another group of boys on the site – a fair few years younger than the others (although over 18), and they’re straight. There’s a distinct difference in their output, too.
It’s almost entirely solo material. And many seem to have started out by posting topless selfies on Instagram, quickly realising taking it further attracted a wider audience and cold hard cash. Frankie and Xavier see porn as a career, but when I begin to chat to these younger guys, it’s obvious that they don’t. On the condition of speaking anonymously, most say it’s “just a big of fun”, or “I haven’t really thought much about the future”. “Lots of people make sex vids when they’re younger and then move on,” another suggests.
But the thing is, just a few years ago, shooting a couple of porn videos for a studio wouldn't attract too much attention. If you did a scene it would be locked behind a paywall, or it might potentially be found somewhere deep on a tube site. The likelihood of anyone you knew stumbling upon it was low, and if that did happen – well, the person who spotted it would have been looking for porn in the first place. But with sites like Twitter, which don’t ban explicit content, these young guys are exposing themselves to the entirety of the internet from day one.
For weeks I try to arrange to meet these non-careerist performers, but they're not interested. When I ask to speak to them on the record, most are concerned about the publicity they’ll then receive. And then, finally, a yes. A guy called Sam*, aged 21, offers to meet me in his hometown after work. He’s straight, and knows his solo teaser videos rack up a substantial following on social media. I take the train up to meet him, waiting for two hours after he finishes work as a builder – just as we agreed. He never shows.
I decide to get in touch with Dominic Ford. A self-described industry veteran, Dominic has been on both sides of the camera, and runs his own studio. And then, this Valentine's Day, he launched his new website: JustForFans. When I ask why, he simply replies: “I think that there’s just a perfect storm." By that, he means a few factors point to sites like JustForFans being porn’s future. Firstly, studios are making nowhere near as much money or as many films as they used to – tube sites have made sure of that. At the same time, people are uploading their own, amateur videos to sites like XTube. “Consumers have really got into the authenticity that these videos present,” Dominic continues. “They’re not well-lit, not great angles. Users are picking this over the produced work of a porn studio. It all came together, and models not getting paid by studios much realised they needed a platform to do it themselves.”
According to Dominic, internet piracy began to hit the porn industry back in 2008. Before then, models were making thousands of dollars per scene, and studios were raking in the money. Now a model is lucky to make $500 (about £380) for a scene. Meanwhile, models on his site are bringing in up to $8,000 (about £6,200) a month – and that figure is rising. There’s an online shop and video download options. You can pay extra to speak directly over the phone to your chosen guy. The site takes a 30 percent cut of whatever a performer makes.
Conversation then turns to the young men using his site, and in particular those who might one day take a breath and reflect on sharing their videos so publicly. Dominic sees it this way: “Imagine the scenario: a 19-year-old decides to get into porn. He gets hired by a studio, he’s filmed, paid, and he signs a release form. He turns 30 and regrets his decision. He doesn't own that content, and I can still do whatever I want with it. But fast-forward to now. At 19 he makes a video, and if at 30 he thinks it’s a bad decision then he can delete his account. He owes his content and image – he can do whatever he wants.” According to this model, performers do own the copyright to what they produce. As far as Dominic's concerned, models are being empowered as they’ve never been before – not just financially, but in theory in control of what they’ve made.
There are two other adult performers in Gabriel Cross’s central London flat when I meet him early on a Thursday morning. Unlike Frankie, Xavier and Sam, Gabriel’s career in porn has already spanned a decade. And he remembers the days when he could bring in thousands of dollars from a studio to shoot a scene. Now in his early thirties (he won’t be more specific), Gabriel has been using fansites for a year and a half. At first he thought they were a fad, a phase that would past. But it soon became clear these platforms are his professional future.
“Recently I’ve struggled, even though I managed to establish myself well, to get consistent work from studios,” he tells me. “I have a scene rate I won’t drop below, so now I just don’t work that much for them. The great thing about fan websites is I just don’t really care anymore.” Having established a big online presence through that studio work, he’s now happy to ditch them. “You’re even almost undercutting your own product if you’re available on too many other platforms,” he suggests. “If there’s loads of stuff you’re in on various different studio sites, why would anyone then individually subscribe to your fan sites?”
If you watch Gabriel’s videos, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing: ten years in the industry means he knows his way around. But DIY porn, he finds, is presenting new challenges. Take, for instance, finding partners. Just as with Frankie and Xavier, Gabriel won’t pay anyone to have sex with him for his site. “It’s always a going concern that I’ll run out of models, or people willing to shoot with me, because that constant turnover of content is demanding,” he explains. But Gabriel believes it’s not a business model that works if performers have to pay each other. Instead, it’s a form of mutual cooperation: neither are exploiting the other for their labour. Two people decide to have consensual sex with each other, in his view, and then each takes home a copy of the raw footage to do with what they wish.
“Paying would also take away from the realness of it,” Gabriel adds as I say bye, aware he’s waiting to shoot a three-way. “The idea that appeals to people is that this is an insight into the personal sex life of someone they like. That said very frequently I end up with completely unusable footage from guys who can’t, umm, multitask,” he says, laughing.
In a social media society, it’s hardly surprising consumers of porn want to be ever closer to the performers they get off to. We all overshare online, and it makes sense some of us want a more intimate experience. And fansites provide for that kink in a way that empowers the performer: stable incomes that cut out the middleman; performers can pick who they have sex with and when. Each I speak to says it’s much more enjoyable than camming or studio shoots. It’s a form of sex work in which those participating, at every stage, can feel as though they're in control.