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gay porn performers on pay
illustration Callum Abbott

Brokeback Union: the gay porn stars speaking out about performer pay

One actor investigates the changing landscape of the adult industry, and how technological advancement, discrimination, and a culture of silence impacts financial viability

TextTy MitchellIllustrationCallum Abbott

When people ask me about gay porn, they’re mostly curious about the sex, not about the admin. They want to know how I prepare, how long I’m on set, whether I think my scene partners are hot. They zone out when I talk about it like any other freelance gig – how uncertain future work can be, how bookings can abruptly eat up my calendar, or how hard it is to assess and demand your own worth.

These factors are obscure to most people outside the industry. For one thing, it’s difficult for us to openly express grievances about our labour conditions without being coopted by efforts to stigmatise and prohibit sex work altogether. For another, film tends to be glamorous. Then there’s the necessarily smaller scale of gay companies, where an ethos of queer family can keep many models beholden to employers that value them in ways they’ve rarely experienced.

Gay porn recently rung in its own awards season in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where performers from all over gathered, partied, and gossiped with each other outside of a porn set. The occasion stimulated more than a few conversations about work conditions and performer pay (in my own award presentation for Best Newcomer, I encouraged nominees to “ask for more money!”) In its wake, a few performers have grown more vocal about the subject, including gay porn wunderkind Joey Mills.

In less than three years, Mills has climbed to the top of the industry, racking up 14 awards, over 200k Twitter followers, a published biography, and a coveted exclusive contract at gay porn juggernaut Men.com. Mills recently shook up the gay porn world by tweeting a suggestion that “no one who is performing for a studio should be getting paid less than 1k a scene”. Speaking to Dazed, Mills elaborates: “Ultimately, I would like to see studios join together and agree that £1K will be their baseline publicly. If not all of them, at least the larger and more profitable studios. I would also like to see models banding together and not only agreeing on a baseline rate but standing their ground when it comes to negotiations with their studio of choice.”

Mills noted that his current employer pays him fairly, but that he was inspired to speak up by new models who reach out to him for advice navigating the industry. “A lot of times they will ask my advice on offers from studios and those often include the minimal scene rate offers. I have seen some rates as low as $100,” he explains. “It’s sad and frankly disgusting.”

Last October, another renowned performer, Pheonix Fellington, similarly raised the issue to over 150k Twitter followers while announcing his departure from studio productions. Fellington also started performing in gay porn only three years ago, and has worked for a breadth of companies big and small, including several black-owned studios. Fellington has since deleted his tweets and stayed focused on his own adult entertainment endeavour PlayFella.com, but spoke directly with me about the challenges of trying to be “a porn star 24/7”.

“When things started to slow down is when I started to see more issues and I began to look at stuff in the industry a little bit different in terms of the way that we are paid. Because we really aren’t paid that much, and there aren’t a lot of us that are fortunate like me to work that consistently or that much,” he explains. “The way that I see it is that as a porn star we should be able to live our lives off of it. We should be able to have livable pay through porn. There are no residuals or things like that like there are with music.”

It may seem like no big deal to complement a few days of shooting with another job, like many models and performers do, but productions often come together on extremely short notice and require extra days of traveling. Many performers do not have the skillsets or class privileges that can guarantee them tolerant, flexible work between shoots. I started my own porn career with a full-time office job, with employers aware and supportive of my triple-X ambitions, and still burned through so many time off requests that I had to eventually choose between work that I loved and work that kept me secure.

Many performers now supplement studio work with their own subscription-based fan sites on platforms like OnlyFans and JustForFans. Gay porn models in the UK, in particular, have developed a massive presence on these sites in response to notoriously sparse and underpaid work opportunities throughout Europe.

“Ultimately, I would like to see studios join together and agree that $1K will be their baseline, publicly” – Joey Mills

Manchester-based model Mickey Taylor has worked in the industry for six years, and chimed in to point out disparities between UK and US gay porn studios. “Models in the US are getting signed contracts with sex toy companies, exclusive contracts, flown around the world, book deals, shows, red carpets. In the UK it’s so hard for models to really make it ‘big’ and get a taste of that. When we do it’s a fight to hold onto it. There’s very few studios left.”

Taylor especially wants to bring awareness to the pay gap across the Atlantic. “You can work in the US and get paid anything from $500-2000 for the day/scene. In the UK, I’ve been offered scenes for £50! That’s totally wild! And not for just half an hour of my time. The whole day they wanted me,” he tells Dazed. “Of course it was a no. But to new models who are young to this business and don’t know better, this can sound amazing once you add a flight to Spain or trip to London to film it.”

Models typically have to learn industry standards, including pay rates, from each other, rather than trusting producers to be transparent. Fellington, for instance, has had success demanding a consistently fair rate from studios and receiving it, but acknowledged that from the start, he’d “been able to know certain people who are in the business” and determined his rates from privately approaching other models and asking. For me, I didn’t know anyone with much experience in the industry, and given how taboo it was to talk about pay on sets, it took me several years before I started asking what my scene partners were being paid.

I ask Fellington how this might impact models of colour, in particular: “Being a person of colour in porn, I do know that it is harder to navigate around. I just simply feel like – I wouldn’t call it a quota – but there aren’t really too many spaces open for us.” He adds: “I’ve always tried to be business-savvy from the beginning. But I will say if they can get one over on you, they will try.”

The subject of knowing your worth comes up a lot among sex workers, and it’s easier to say no to substandard pay when you’re confident you can still make a living without it. I struggled to get booked at all during my first year in porn, and accepted abysmal scene rates, feeling grateful to be hired and insecure that I was too replaceable to demand more. HIV-positive performers, non-American performers, performers of colour, and older performers all might struggle more to assert their worth when studios already appear reluctant to represent them.

So why isn’t there a SAG-AFTRA for gay porn? A labour union for porn performers does exist, the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG), as well as the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC). But neither organisation’s leadership includes gay men or people involved closely in gay pornography, and the former’s president has publicly clashed with gay performers over HIV prevention and discrimination against HIV-positive models. It doesn’t help that a large proportion of porn performers approach the industry transiently, with little investment in the porn world beyond a quick paycheck – and these kinds of performers can always replace the ones who start to complain.

“We really aren’t paid that much, and there aren’t a lot of us that are fortunate like me to work that consistently or that much” – Pheonix Fellington

Free Speech Coalition (FSC) is not a union, but a trade association best known in the porn industry for overseeing STI testing protocols. I reached out to deputy executive director Ian O’Brien, who’s worked in queer organising prior to FSC, what his thoughts were about how gay porn performers might organise for better pay. He advises: “Models should be talking about rates with each other, and I fully endorse coming up with a consensus value for what someone’s time and image should be worth… build connections with other models, and talk to each other about the business of being a model – there is incredible power in both knowledge and community.”

It’s tempting to have these conversations on platforms like Twitter, where we can reach performers who might not be as networked into the industry. However, it gets tricky addressing all the caveats to the matter in 280 characters, and it’s generally inadvisable to try organising workers where employers can see the process. “I would love to see these kinds of public conversations to continue,” O’Brien remarks, “but I also think there should be private (maybe offline?) spaces for performers to think and organise as well.”

Perhaps this is another good reason to support your favorite performer’s JustForFans page, one of the occasions he can meet and talk with other performers independent of studio supervision – you might be helping sex workers of the world unite.