Economy

Porn Stars Turned Escorts: The Risky and Lucrative New Trend

In ailing porn industry, actors turn to prostitution with higher health risks.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ileela

In 2007, the former adult performer Mariah Milano returned to porn after a seven-year hiatus from the industry. A voluptuous brunette with a passing resemblance to “Millionaire Matchmaker’s” Patti Stanger, Milano shot her first adult film in 1998 when she was 18, appearing in 240 movies before retiring two years later. When she returned to porn in the mid-aughts, a co-worker approached Milano with a query she had never heard during her first few years in the industry: how much she charged as a private escort.

“At first I was like, ‘What? This is weird,’” says Milano, who retired for good in 2011. “But then girls would text me all the time being like, ‘Hey, Mariah, what’s your rate?’ I’d get hit up on Twitter, through email, asking how much. People were just assuming that I escorted.” Even her agent at the time, she says, approached her to see if she was interested.

When Milano first entered the industry, an adult performer openly escorting was relatively rare: “Escorts were considered dirty, bottom of the barrel. Nobody was open to admitting they did it.” Yet by the time she returned less than a decade later, the industry had changed drastically: the talent pool was larger, the number of available roles much smaller, and the advent of digital piracy had driven performers’ rates down. Escorting, or “working private,” has become one of the most lucrative ways for adult performers to supplement their flagging incomes, with many earning up to thousands of dollars for a single booking.

Because escorting is illegal in the state of California, the trend is rarely openly discussed outside industry circles. Yet the rise of escorting is something of an open secret in the San Fernando Valley, where an estimated 90 percent of pornis shot. “If you look at the escort sites, pretty much every porn star is on there,” the adult performer Houston told me a few months ago. “I think pretty much everyone is doing it now.”

Stormi Mountain, the spokesperson of adult entertainer directory Eros.com, sees the rise of performers escorting as a reflection of a greater shift in the industry. While performers have previously focused on offering prerecorded content, the advent of camming and social media have increased the emphasis on interacting with fans.“A new type of adult star is emerging,” she says. “Before, you just had to look good on film. Today’s bigger stars are more comfortable with that type of interaction, and that sometimes means they’re more willing to go on paid dates.”

The practice is also cause for concern for a handful of industry insiders, who view the prospect of performers having bareback sex with “hobbyists,” a slang term for those who frequent escorts, as a potential health risk. “On the surface, you don’t really hear about [escorting], because it’s not something that the [adult industry lobbying group] Free Speech Coalition or any of the big agencies or studios are gonna bring front and center,” says Mike South, a former adult performer who runs the gossip blog MikeSouth.com. “But when you talk to the performers and the people most at risk, the whole escorting thing is one of the really big issues when it comes to transmitting STDs on set.”

The issue of escorting is fairly divisive among performers, in part because it’s a relatively new phenomenon: While some performers have presumably been covertly working private for years, the practice was largely stigmatized within the adult film community until recently. “It used to be that [performers] who escorted, if that was known, weren’t hired, because they were considered a higher risk factor w/ STDs,” says adult performer Kayden Kross, who entered the industry in 2006. “No one wanted them on their set.”

Even those who did legal sex work were shunned by many industry higher-ups, says adult performer Sunny Lane, who broke into the industry after a stint at Nevada’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel. “They thought it looked bad on the business,” says Lane. “It was like, ‘Ewwww, you’re an escort? Ewwww, you’re seeing your fans?’”

That was a time, however, “when the industry could afford to be a lot more discriminating,” says Kross. In the mid-aughts, it became clear that the industry no longer had that luxury: Waning DVD sales and the advent of free streaming tube sites prompted the porn business to fall into a steep decline, with DVD sales decreasing by an estimated 50 percentsince 2007. Around the time of the recession, “the cracks started to show in the economic model,” says Michael Whiteacre, a writer and industry activist who helps run the website the Real Porn Wiki Leaks. “You had piracy. The Internet that made the industry all this money was killing it.”

In the days before the Internet, well-known female performers could earnthousands of dollars per scene, and could supplement that income by doing promotional appearances at exotic dancing clubs across the country, known in the industry as the feature dancing circuit. Yet the industry’s financial struggles also coincided with an influx of new talent hoping to become the next Jenna Jameson or Sasha Grey, leading to the depression of even the highest-earning performers’ salaries.

“When the bottom started falling out of the porn industry, work started drying up, and you had an oversaturation of girls who wanted work,” says South. “You had people who were shooting 25 percent of what they were the previous year, so what you had was a lot of hungry girls who needed to pay the rent.”

With fewer available shoots and performers’ salaries plummeting (some are now earning just a few hundred dollars per scene), actors looked for other ways to supplement their incomes. By working private, high-end performers can earn up to $3,000 per hour — far more than the price of the average “provider,” as escorts are called — thanks to their built-in fan base and name recognition.

“Being a starlet or having a background in adult film gives you a little bit of a leg up [compared to other providers], because the people who want to see you have other places where they can view their body of work,” says Donia Love, the director of community outreach at adult entertainer directory Slixa.com. Love estimates that Slixa gets twice the amount of traffic for its XXX escorts than its regular providers, attributing it in part to curious fans Googling their favorite performers.

Because escorting is more profitable than shooting films, many view it in the same vein as feature dancing or doing interactive cam work: as a way to advertise themselves and earn extra cash in an increasingly competitive market. “The vast majority of performers who escort see it as part of one of their multiple revenue streams, because that’s what you need in the adult industry today,” says Whiteacre. “If you’re just waiting around for a booking from adult producers, it’s very hard to make ends meet.”

While performers can independently advertise as escorts on traditional escorting sites, like Eros or MyRedBook, many advertise on sites that cater exclusively to porn fans. Although most of these escort listings are intentionally vague, some performers’ back-page listings make no secret of the services they provide, with a few offering BBFS (“bareback full service,” or sex without a condom) for a nominal fee.

It’s important to note that escorts offering BBFS is relatively rare, and those who do offer the service generally require an up-to-date STI test before meeting the client. It’s difficult to gauge how many of the performers who escort offer this service, and many industry insiders I spoke with refuted the notion that the practice was widespread. “I see a lot of fear-mongering about it: ‘My God, they’re out there, these Typhoid Marys,’” says Whiteacre. “For sex workers, their body is their business, and it doesn’t make sense to have their bodies fail on them if that’s what’s making them their money.” Derek Hay, a former adult performer who runs the talent agency LA Direct Models, agrees: “It would surprise me a great deal if escorts are offering to see clients without a condom,” he told me.

Yet the fact that some performers advertise themselves as offering BBFS has sparked some debate within the general sex worker community, particularly among professional sex workers who do not offer the service. Because adult performers are tested every 14 days and generally do not wear condoms on set, the consensus among hobbyists on sites like the Erotic Review seems to be that adult performers who escort are more likely to provide the service than escorts who do not work in the adult film industry. “You have a lot of girls coming in the business from porn who are actually kind of fucking it up for professional escorts, because they were doing bareback, while your longtime professional courtesans, whatever you want to call them, wouldn’t do it, and now their customers are expecting them to,” says South.

To outsiders, the debate over performers having unprotected sex with hobbyists may be in some ways a corollary to the industry’s debate over Measure B, a hotly contested 2012 ordinance requiring performers to wear condoms on set. Although Los Angeles County voters passed the measure in 2012, it is rarely enforced on set, and the vast majority of performers do not wear condoms during shoots. Many adult industry performers, lobbyists and studio heads have bitterly fought the initiative, and some have threatened to relocate to Nevada or Florida if the measure were strictly enforced.

Because performers are subject to rigorous testing standards, they are at relatively low risk for contracting STDs, with one study estimating that performers have alower risk of contracting HIVthan members of the general population. Yet some, like Milano, believe performers who offer services like BBFS while simultaneously shooting threaten the efficacy of the industry testing system.

“What’s happening is that girls would go and do a trick for the night, and then the next morning leave their house and go on set,” says Milano, who penned two Op-Eds for the industry gossip site Luke Is Back sharply criticizing performers’ escorting. “And nobody’s using condoms, because clients pay more for that, so it’s like, just because your test was valid a week ago, what if you caught something that night? You’d bring it on set the next day.”

Others refute the notion that performer escorting poses any threat to the adult film community. In an interview with Forbes’ Susannah Breslin last month, one adult performer/escort, Adahlia, said that she considers escorting even safer than shooting on set: Because many production companies will not hire performers who demand condoms during shoots, private work gives her more freedom to practice safer sex.  “I have always felt much safer and protected because I am able to choose what kinds of safer sex practices I wish to utilize, and I don’t lose business by choosing to be safe,” she said.

There is also some debate over whether the practice is endorsed, or even encouraged, by those at the upper echelons of the adult industry. “It’s frowned upon by some of the production companies and can be taboo for porn stars who are under contract,” says Mountain. “For others, including some of the agents, it’s part of the business.” While the consensus is that most agencies will turn a blind eye to escorting, Kross says that some agents will actively do double-duty, booking their talent for shoots as well as for privates. “They’ll lock girls into a contract and literally hold them hostage if they don’t agree to escort for them,” she says.

In the midst of a decade-long battle against piracy, not to mention the war against outside legislation in the form of Measure B, the extracurricular activities of adult performers is probably the least of the industry’s concerns. But in the wake of news last December that yet another performer had tested positive for HIV (the fourth performer to have a positive test in 2013, prompting the Free Speech Coalition to issue three separate production moratoriums), some are wondering if the industry should be more attentive to those who engage in potentially risky practices off set, up to and including bareback escorting.

“I have no problem with escorting or prostitution,” says South. “It makes no sense whatsoever that selling sex is illegal and selling it with a camera in the room is legal. But I believe, like any profession, it should be practiced responsibly. When you are in the adult film industry and primarily shooting without condoms, it is your responsibility when you escort to wear a condom, and take into consideration that if you don’t, you might be endangering your co-workers.”

“We’re already barely legal. We’re already fighting so much legislation,” says Kross. “There are already so many things against us. To tack on escorting on top of it is not the best idea. I don’t judge girls who do it, and I get why they do … Unfortunately, the industry has come to the point where [many performers believe] it’s not just a free choice and money really does factor into it.”

But as long as the economic model of the porn business stays the same, it’s unlikely that escorting in the San Fernando Valley will come to an end any time soon. “I don’t think there’s any stopping it,” says Milano. “There’s too much demand, too much money. Not enough shoots.”