The portal site Print magazine discusses in depth the phenomenon of an increasing number of young women joining the porn industry. It supplements their income and does not damage their reputation as it is done very discreetly and there is no compulsion involved.
DANCE BARS: From the dance bars to soft porn is a logical corollary of a large number of women taking part in porn videos. Among those who are very active in the video porn business is reportedly Raj Kundra actress Shilpa Shetty’s husband
By Bismee Taskin & Ishadrita Lahiri
Devar-bhabhi (brother-in-law and sister-in-law) is the storyline today. Petals have been showered on the floor and the bed, dimly lit by a single ring-light — a nice balance of salaciousness and sanskaar. The set is a single room, hired from a local property broker for the day. There isn’t much of a script; the dialogue, such as it is, is all extempore. Even though this is the first time the actors are working together, the on-screen chemistry has to appear spontaneous.
Then, the director, who also doubles up as cameraman, mounts his cellphone on a tripod as the two actors — one male and one female — down a mouthful of whiskey, and begin shooting the first of seven sex scenes.
Once the shoot is done, the man will be handed Rs 2,000 in cash. The woman will be paid Rs 10,000. This is among the few jobs where women get paid more than men.
Even though it isn’t a lot of money, Rajni doesn’t care. Her son’s school fee is due. And she has the unique distinction, amongst all her peers, of never defaulting.
Master’s degree to massage parlours: Rajni’s journey into porn
Dressed in a pink and white chiffon saree, with bindi, sindoor, and mangalsutra to match, Rajni, 32, scrolls through her phone. There are photos of her son in a shirt and jeans, and her daughter in a frill white frock. In 2019, though, her life was less than picture-perfect. She stood in a Lucknow hospital, wondering how she would manage the bills for the treatment of her son, who had suffered third-degree burns in a kitchen accident.
Her unemployed husband wasn’t in a position to pitch in; her family and friends didn’t want to.
That was when Rajni took her first steps into sex work. She landed a job at a massage spa in Lucknow, which involved calling potential customers, apprising them of discount offers, and convincing them to visit the spa.
She soon realised that the women who massaged the clients were making a lot more money, especially if they provided ‘extra’ sexual services. “I was in immense financial trouble,” she recalls. “I noticed that the other girls made twice or thrice as much by attending to clients later. If I worked more shifts, the maximum amount I could have earned would have been Rs 15,000. I could not have even paid the children’s school fees with this money.”
Once she moved from phone duties to massages at the spa, Rajni was able to build an independent network of clients for her sexual services. Soon, her networks in the unorganised sex trade led Rajni to brokers who would solicit customers for her.
While she eventually sidelined most brokers to save on the commissions she’d have to pay, she continued to keep in touch with the “friendly” ones.
As the pandemic hit, it was one of these “friendly” brokers who presented her with a new earning opportunity — acting in pornographic clips for the internet. She still makes more money as a sex worker, but the money from porn makes for a good “side income”. The visual work, though, does require some extra inputs. Rajni says she needs to keep up a more “maintained” appearance for shoots.
“The kaam (quality of sex) doesn’t matter here,” she says, “but your body should be attractive.”
Little in Rajni’s life had prepared her for these choices. Married at just 16, she went on to earn a masters’ degree in home science from a reputed state university. She was months into a doctoral programme when her son suffered the accident. Last year, she planned to take the Uttar Pradesh Teacher Eligibility Test in the hope of getting a government job. But the exam was cancelled due to the paper being leaked by what was later found to be a well-oiled syndicate.
Rajni now wants to make enough to open her own massage and make-up salon someday. Her husband continues to think that she makes money from non-sexual massages.
While speaking to ThePrint, however, Rajni makes an important distinction between herself and “those who do this for the money”.
“There are others in this profession, especially the college girls, who are doing this just for a more expensive bag or a trendy dress,” Rajni says. “These are the kind of people that are ruining this profession.”
‘If you want money and fame, you have to open up’
Dressed in a yellow crop top and pink jeans, styled with light blue sneakers, Priya looks resplendent even in what she calls “minimal make-up”.
A commerce graduate, who has done an Industrial Training Institute course and even interned at a reputed automobile company, Priya is clear about why she is in the world of adult entertainment.
“If you want the money and fame, you will have to open up. One has to get shameless in front of the camera. Doesn’t matter what the act is,” the 25-year-old says, matter-of-fact.
“Whether that is as Bipasha Basu, Sunny Leone, or Poonam Pandey, I don’t care.”
Priya has been associated with the erotica industry since she was 19. She, unlike Rajni, does not refer to herself as a porn actress because she has never acted in a full-blown sex film — not because she doesn’t want to but because the right opportunity has not presented itself yet.
“I was approached for a porn video two months ago by a Delhi-based agency,” she says. “The client company is based in the United States. I was offered an 11-month agreement, and the shoot location was outside the country. They offered me Rs 5-6 lakh for a 20-minute video.”
The deal, however, fell through when they asked Priya to “audition” by sending nude videos of herself.
“What guarantee did I have that they wouldn’t sell it, and then I wouldn’t even be given a cut?”
According to Priya, certain terms are used to classify content in the adult digital space. There is “bold content”, which involves necking and smooching, and maybe a few suggestive silhouettes. Then, there are “uncut” clips, which are topless scenes from longer sexual videos, and then there is actual porn, where nothing is off limits.
The first time that Priya made “bold” content was for a web series called Manorama Ki Kahaniya. “There was hugging, kissing, and smooching, but no nudity,” she says.
Then came Chakor, a web series for an OTT app called Lolypop, where she went topless. “All the women were paid Rs 10,000,” she recalls.
With her first cheque, Priya bought herself a brown Jupiter scooty. She says she hasn’t had a relationship in the last two years or so. “People don’t understand the work we do,” she says. “They don’t look at it with dignity.”
Side income: Khyati’s story
Last year’s lockdown led 27-year-old Khyati, who holds a law degree, to explore options for a side-income. One hustle she was drawn to was selling erotic content, featuring herself, on the subscribers-only website OnlyFans, where for between $5 and $20 per month, users can access a wide range of explicit material and even offer “tips” for custom content.
“I have a full-time job,” she says, “and I couldn’t find another source of income that would fit into my schedule.”
Khyati says she felt comfortable with the work: “The content was never a problem. Tomorrow I might want to do stand-up comedy.”
The men who subscribe to her channel, mostly Indians living in India, but also some NRIs, constantly demand new content. The pace can be “taxing, even exhausting”, Khyati says.
“There is no nudity bar for me, but unlike some other content creators, who post sexual activity with another person as well, I have so far only uploaded content involving my own body,” she explains.
The revenue model of subscription apps like OnlyFans is a source of contention. New subscribers can use the app for seven days and then ask for a refund. Last year, OnlyFans announced a ban on sexually explicit content — only to walk it back within a week after complaints from creators.
Still, problems remain. “Some users see the content and then unsubscribe,” complains Poonam, another woman who posts erotic content on OnlyFans. “One month, I lost Rs 45,000. Moreover, sometimes, the videos and images are downloaded and then uploaded elsewhere.”
The 20-year-old has acted in one film for HotShots App, which has now been banned. She took to the industry, she says, after her family incurred huge financial losses in business and her father fell sick.
India’s amateur porn boom
Among the outcomes of pandemic-related lockdowns has been a boom in the viewership of pornography in India. During the first wave of Covid-19, India witnessed a 95 per cent rise in pornographic content viewing, according to data from porn aggregator PornHub.
Although the Indian government has banned hundreds of pornography websites, some have bypassed this with name changes and new ones have cropped up too to cater to the demand for porn in India.
According to data from xHamster, one of the world’s top adult sites, “desi porn”, starring Indian performers, is the most popular category among domestic audiences.
Several home-grown platforms for adult content have sprung up, too, to meet the demand for Indian-on-Indian action. Some of them charge a subscription fee for well-produced erotic content that is a step above the basic do-it-yourself amateur videos of the kind in which Rajni performs.
Popular Indian platforms include the video streaming app Ullu, which runs on a Rs 297 yearly fee and hosts steamy series like Palang Tod (Bed-Breaker), Impotent, Majboori (Desperation), Kavita Bhabhi, Mona Home Delivery, and Charamsukh (Orgasm). Several other streaming apps, like Kooku and NueFliks, also offer risqué content for subscribers.
Last year, the Mumbai Police arrested businessman and HotShots app owner Raj Kundra and Rowa Khan of Hot Hit Movies, for allegedly distributing porn on their OTT platforms. However, these crackdowns seem to have done nothing to slow down the industry.
There is no shortage of performers either. Many sex workers, hard-hit by Covid-19 lockdowns, have shifted their business to online platforms as have people from other professions who want to bolster their income. This larger trend seems to have caught on in India as well.
Between coercion and consent
The women in the amateur porn industry occupy a small grey zone between coercion and consent. For many, it’s not their first choice, but it’s the best way they can make a decent living.
Some, like Rajni, reason that their consent matters more in the porn industry than it does elsewhere.
“I will get paid a maximum of Rs 10,000-12,000 if I work at a mall. What guarantee do I have that my employer won’t force me into sex there? In a 10-hour shift, hundreds of men will stare at me. While returning home late at night, I might even get raped. Here, at least, my consent matters,” Rajni says.
Rina, 31, is a friend of Rajni’s and a relative newcomer to adult entertainment. Her introduction to the industry came when her husband leaked her photos online and she started looking at pornography with a “new perspective”. She divorced her husband, but stuck to the work.
“None of us ever wanted to be here, but now since we are here, we can at least try to make the most amount of money in the fastest way possible,” she says.
Many other women enter the industry after falling for bait-and-switch tactics, often starting with offers of mainstream modelling or acting jobs from brokers.
Iman, who works as a casting director for adult films, says that at first “the women are told that it’s a photoshoot or an ad, and then when they meet after auditions, they are told about the other things in detail”.
If a woman takes offence, a deal-sweetener is quickly put on the table. “The most common expression is, ‘muh maanga paisa milega (you will get whatever pay you ask for)’. That is a big lure for anyone in need of money,” Iman says.
Despite their questionable practices, brokers are key to the functioning of the industry, right from fixing deals between clients and performers to handling shoots and even providing some degree of safety on set. Since brokers get a cut from the performers’ pay, they also push to ensure that money changes hands on time.
Rina says that the last video she made was a 10-minute movie, for which the budget was Rs 35,000, of which over half — Rs 18,000 — was her fee. The broker, in turn, received a commission on her earnings.
“The payment is dependent on the character, the act, the storyline, features of the woman, and the length of the video,” Rajni explains. “For example, if the video involves group sex, or a threesome, the budget is more.”
Few of the women, though, have any idea about which platforms a video ends up in, the total money the production makes, or if it is marketed overseas. Although much of the content shot in India has faces of performers pixelated or hidden by masks, the women are unclear about what happens if the videos go on the international market.
Law, the internet, and the male gaze
This economy of sex and desire, is, in theory, illegal in India. Shruti Shreya, a senior research associate at the technology policy think-tank The Dialogue, notes that the Indian legal position on pornography “has evolved over time”, through various judgments on the basis of Public Interest Litigations (PILS) filed in the Supreme Court.
“The courts have ordered a ban on certain websites based on these PILs. The Ministry of Broadcasting also issues orders over telecast of certain kinds of material that is deemed to be obscene or explicit,” she says.
“Legally,” Shreya notes, “any kind of act, expression or image that is sexually explicit is pornography”.
The law, though, hasn’t been able to stop the inexorable forces unleashed by the proliferation of digital technology over the last two decades. In the 1960s, video tape spurred an explosion in the United States’ pornography industry, taking it into high-street shops and middle-class living rooms. Now, anyone can make it and consume it with just a smartphone.
India’s desi porn performers are aware that they’re catering to men, and the male gaze. But they have taken on the onus of economising their own sexuality. In other words, these women are commodifying their own sexuality to meet their economic needs.
“I don’t have to beg or borrow from anyone now,” Rajni says. “I do my job and get paid in cash. I’m not exploited. I’m doing this to run my family.”
Some names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.
Courtesy : The Print