The Working Girl Diaries: How Much Do Porn Stars Actually Make

February 14, 2019
Posted in Everything
February 14, 2019 Sydney Leathers

Men think of sex workers as wealthy goddesses, but we’re actually working class. Like most middle-income Americans, we’re afraid to discuss money, but twice a month, my column “The Working Girl Diaries” will cover porn stars’ wallets. From how class affects porn stars’ financial habits to how much we spend on lube and kitty litter, I’ve got you covered. There is no taboo (economic) topic I won’t touch. You used to think of me as the Weiner girl, but now I’m the Barbara Ehrenreich of sex!

Once upon a time, porn stars earned most of our income from hardcore video shoots and kitschy pictorials. Girls could make a small fortune in the golden age of porn, because production companies, most notably Vivid, paid contract girls monthly salaries to shoot exclusively for their house. These financials changed in the aughts when ingenious streamers, including heavyweights XTube and PornHub, offered all the porn a man could desire—for free. Long before Netflix decimated movie studios, tube sites toppled the porn giants.

According to the Archives of Sexual Behavior, only 10.5 percent of men pay for porn, making it difficult for sex workers to subside on shoot fees. Adult performers were some of the first working-class Americans to face the gig economy, which Forbes defines as the “increased tendency for businesses to hire independent contractors and short-term workers, and the increased availability of workers for these short-term arrangements.” But whereas Uber drivers are struggling to survive, porn stars are thriving again.

Performer Charlotte Sartre has exemplified how porn workers have reinvented themselves. Although she still shoots for old-fashioned production companies, she relies on video for less and less of her income. Videos now function as ads for her more lucrative offerings: homemade clips sold on her clips4sale; her manyvids; her merch store, Gothcharlotte.com where she sells T-shirts, signed photos, and signed DVDs; and prostitution services. Several times a year, Sartre sells sex at the Alien Cathouse Brothel. As former Alien Cathouse owner Dennis Hof wrote in his memoir, The Art of the Pimp, porn performers can charge more than other prostitutes because men place a higher value on an evening with a star.

Like most sex workers, Sartre’s income varies drastically, but she brings in an average of $8,000 a month. Much of her income goes to expenses. “Before I do absolutely anything else, I save 33 percent of my income for taxes and emergencies,” Sartre says. “I also spend $155 every two weeks getting tested for porn. For brothel testing, it’s about $90 per week.” This month, she also will pay $150 for pet supplies. “I have a lot of cats and tarantulas,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sartre

Kendra Lee Ryan, another diversified porn star, sees varying income, estimating she earns roughly $6,000 a month from porn shoots and much more from escorting. The later has led to banking problems. “I got Paypal, Google Wallet, and Venmo taken,” she says. “I fought Venmo and got it back, but that’s it.”

Ryan’s not alone. “I’ve also had my Cash App deleted without warning or reason after only using it to pay rent,” Sartre says. (Cash App, Venmo, Paypal, and Google Wallet did not return requests for comment.) When Sartre has walked into banks, tellers have asked her invasive questions. “Even when depositing normal checks without anything suggestive in the notes or company names, I feel pressured to lie about what I do and say I’m a musician,” she says.

As a precaution, performer Sofia Rose keeps two bank accounts and a third account in her husband’s name. She still worries. “I’ve spoken to the branch manager several times at my local bank and asked him point blank about this,” she says. “He said, ‘This is Vegas, and no one is really paying attention.’” No reassurance is enough.

Porn stars’ business models have evolved, but the industry’s public relations problems have remained the same. Women’s studies scholar Dr. Heather Berg believes our banking issue stems from bad public policy. “Dozens of banking and finance services have terms of service agreements that exclude sex workers,” she says. FOSTA/Sesta has intensified the problem. FOSTA/SESTA is a law meant to curb sex trafficking, but sex workers say it unfairly targets them and doesn’t differentiate between consensual sex workers and those who are trafficked. “If the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act goes through, it will be even harder for sex workers to access their own funds,” Berg says. “These policies are marketed as a way to reduce trafficking, but they actually make sex workers more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”

Senators Kamala Harris and Senators Bernie Sanders have endorsed FOSTA/Sesta in the name of women’s rights. Instead of helping women, they’ve hurt female porn stars’ ability to make money. Although sex workers have excelled in the gig economy, our occupation remains stigmatized. Some people may see sex work as easy money, but porn stars are small business owners. If we are going to survive in this gig economy, we have to keep diversifying and stay on top of the politicians. (No pun intended.)

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Sydney Leathers

Sydney Leathers

Sydney Leathers is a writer, sex worker, and cat-mom from the Midwest. Follow her @sydneyelainexo
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