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Ex-porn star Mia Khalifa wants to move on with her life. Why won’t we let her? | Michael Segalov | Opinion

It’s hard to get a clear picture of how many adults are watching porn on the internet. A study by the Observer back in 2014 suggested 56% of us had done so; in 2018, American researchers found 73% of women and 98% of men had done so in the last six months. I would put money on the real numbers being even higher. That’s what makes listening to social media personality Mia Khalifa talk about her struggle to move on from her time in the porn industry so uncomfortable.

Speaking in an interview published on YouTube, the 26-year-old opens up about how appearing in porn over a period of just three months in 2015 continues to affect her life today. “People think I’m racking in millions from porn. Completely untrue,” she tweeted, alongside a clip of the video. “I made a TOTAL of around $12,000 in the industry and never saw a penny again after that. Difficulty finding a normal job after quitting porn was … scary.”

When someone pointed out her porn website is still live online, Khalifa said: “I do not own the site/profit from it any way. I’ve never seen a penny from it. All I’ve wanted these last years is for the site to be changed from my direct name. (Porn) corporations prey on callow young women & trap them legally into contracts when they’re vulnerable.”

There’s no denying the industry is rife with exploitation, although one needn’t be a fully fledged Marxist to accept that exploitation sits at the heart of most labour that offers a wage. Getting paid to line someone else’s pockets is the bread and butter of capitalism. Some of us get screwed by profit-hungry multinationals or minimum wage-paying bosses, others decide they’d prefer it was done by an overly well-endowed and muscular man. Sex work is a form of work. That said, what Khalifa identifies – and she’s by no means the first – is that the porn industry today exploits performers in ways that are unique to the sector, and also that our willingness to judge people for opting to work in porn is bizarre given just how much of it the vast majority of us consume.

A brief look at how the porn world has changed in recent years provides an explanation for the first issue. As technology has developed, so too has the way we both make and consume sexually explicit films. Before the advent of the internet pornography was harder to come by, and if you wanted to watch porn you’d have to spend some money to get hold of it first. This meant people could perform in porn with a level of anonymity and privacy – someone would have to purchase the VHS you could be seen on to see you, not just stumble across you on the web. And because watching porn involved a purchase, there was good money to be made, too.

The web, and piracy in particular, has made pornography much less profitable. And as Khalifa herself can attest, once something is on the internet it’s almost definitely going to be there forever (unless you own the copyright). There is, however, a new frontier of pornography growing rapidly, one that is already radically changing the industry for the better. Websites such as JustForFans and OnlyFans (known as fansites) are feeding our appetite for X-rated content, but do so in a way that gives more power to those getting down to it for our screen-based pleasure.

Last year, I spent time with young Brits making a career in the industry using these websites. The premise is simple: performers upload their content to the platform, and if you want to follow their sexual exploits you pay them directly through a self-set monthly fee. It means they are selling their product directly to consumers, helping mitigate the problems Khalifa has experienced, while democratising the industry in the process. Rather than being told who to have sex with by a studio or director, through these sites performers can decide for themselves who they’d like to film with.

In fact, what I found in practice is that this means performers are shooting scenes on the basis of mutual cooperation: neither are directly being paid. Videos are created with no money changing hands, and whoever is involved takes the footage away to edit and upload to their personal sites in whatever form they please. If you’re someone who feels uncomfortable with two people being told to have sex by another for your pleasure, this is a more palatable way to go.

There’s no one-off fee for a video, either; instead people can create a sustainable monthly income from your entire back-catalogue depending on the size of their fanbase. Without the studio lights and direction the results are also more lifelike. Sure, bits are bigger and tighter and bouncier than for most of us, but with concerns about unrealistic expectations of sex being set by pornography, something a little more real has to be good. And most importantly, performers, rather than studios, keep control of the copyright: if you ever want to delete your page and its content at the press of a button, you can.

What these sites can’t do, however, is fix how judgmental we are about those who opt to make porn for a living, or those like Khalifa who wish to start a new chapter. With so many of us watching pornography, sending nudes and using technology to enhance our sex lives, it’s about time we stopped getting all high and mighty on the people who help us to get off.

Michael Segalov is a contributing editor at Huck magazine, a freelance journalist and author



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