Since the rise of porn in the 70s, companies who make a profit portraying sex have largely been happy running their well-oiled machine.

In the pre-Internet age, all of that porn was largely produced in the same way — in well-lit, well-managed studios spinning out the same limited tropes of big breasts, blonde hair and glass-bottomed heels. The sameness of porn and erotica at the time can be chalked up to the desire to reach the masses. Why develop a DVD series for a core few when you can mainstream and please many?

While the Internet has certainly boosted the proliferation of porn (research compiled by OnlineMBA two years ago indicates that porn makes up 12% of all running websites), it has dramatically restructured not only the content and stylization of sex but also the mentality and profit streams of the erotica industry. Big players in porn, such as Vivid Entertainment or Playboy, have ported the old model online, offering subscription-based services of the same slick productions and parodies. But independent and DIY porn video hubs, websites, gallery curators and communities are cropping up quickly, all looking to grab a piece of the multi-billion dollar industry. The new frontier of online porn is hinting at a widespread future for the big business of erotica — one that takes a dramatic turn from the old profit models of decades past.

The seminal example: SuicideGirls

You don’t have to look far to find success in the indie porn world: one of the biggest and most popular online erotic websites, SuicideGirls, started out as a two-person operation looking to shoot women with alternative looks in a Portland loft. Now, more than a decade later, SuicideGirls is a lucrative, subscription-based erotica website featuring more than 2,300 pierced, dyed, and tattooed women in pin-up style nude shoots and videos available to more than five million unique visitors per month.

“I believe that SuicideGirls resonates so strongly with its audience because we have been honoring the beauty of tattooed and alt girls and the indie lifestyle since 2001,” says Missy Suicide, co-founder of SuicideGirls. “This was well before it was so popular, which has made our brand so recognizable.”

And that recognition has empowered SuicideGirls to cash in on DVDs, art books, radio shows and features in Rolling Stone, Wired and The New Yorker. The formula for SuicideGirls’ success is archetypal of the ways that indie outfits have worked around the traditional methods of big porn companies: an avenue for SuicideGirls hopefuls to produce their own content, a bustling online community, and a well-crafted wheelhouse of “female empowerment.”

“To me, female empowerment is about women embracing their bodies and themselves,” says Suicide. “I think that SuicideGirls’ sets depict how each girl feels sexiest about herself showcasing that confidence is the sexiest attribute a person can have.”

The profit lies in niches

The female empowerment factor has also boosted the success of more hardcore websites all across the professional porn spectrum. Two seemingly opposite websites, the soft x-art.com and BDSM fetish hub Kink.com, both market themselves as filming enthusiastic real women. Kink.com, which began 10 years ago as hogtied.com and now boasts live and taped shows of fetishes of all kinds in a 200,000 square foot BDSM playground, even features a “Model’s Bill of Rights” — a waiver all models must sign that acknowledges their rights to a safe word, toy tests and personal sanitization of all products. And it stresses that all models are fetish enthusiasts themselves.

“The whole time it’s so apparent that the girls are so into it,” says Karley Sciortino, writer and creator of sex and erotica blog Slutever. “The porn stars talk about the experience and they always say they have the most amazing time during it and they orgasm during it. That’s the kind of BDSM porn I want to see.”

X-art.com also makes sure its women are having a great time — the website’s natural models are produced in ways that look more like short films rather than hardcore sex scenes. Many models are allowed (and even encouraged) to shoot scenes with their boyfriends, which has proven to be a boon for the company: the subscription-based website regularly sees more than 1.5 million monthly unique users. Sciortino says that x-art.com is successful because it promotes one of the most important things that users look for when they’re viewing porn: happy people having real sex.

“There seems to be a rise in more sensual art-based porn,” Sciortino explains. “Everyone looks very clean, and the whole idea is that people are in love and having sex, and it’s not as grotesque — there’s no spread-vagina shots.”

Beyond pornography and into blogging

The variety of porn on the internet has also spawned peripheral websites — social networks, forums, blogs and groups dedicated to sex of all kinds. It’s in this realm where Sciortino herself has made a name, talking about her own sexual experiences and giving advice online through Slutever. While Sciortino frankly admits that she doesn’t really know what motivated her to blog about her own sexual experiences, she feels that her curation of erotica and frank style is contributing to the Internet’s movement towards empowering real sex.

“I’m really drawn to sexual images,” Sciortino adds. “If I’m pulling from other people’s images to put on my blog, I’m drawn to ones that show the consensual beautiful side of BDSM rather than the opposite.”

The twenty-something writer has parlayed her blog into a popular web video series on Vice.com, where she documents some of her most famous blog posts. In one of the early episodes, she visits her “online slave,” who paid her rent for months in exchange for sending degrading text messages and humiliating in public. Another one has her discussing her gleeful “pee slave,” Brad, a submissive man who pays to drink Sciortino’s urine and happily tells her that she should “bottle it and sell it for gold.” In addition to regaling tales of her own personal sex life, she contributes advice to a multitude of online and print magazines and hopes one day to make Slutever a community affair.

“It’s the major question of my life, ‘What am I doing?’” Sciortino jokes. “I think the goal is just to create a place where people can talk about sex in the most open and honest way — the discussions in the comments are always something I’m really excited about and I want to do more of that.”

Porn still rules Internet traffic, but profit isn’t always the motive

However, despite these websites’ success, none of them come remotely close to the highest viewed porn websites in the world. In fact, big pornography brands aren’t even top cat on the Internet. According to webpage measurement website Alexa, five porn websites – xhamster.com, xvideos.com, LiveJasmin.com, PornHub.com and RedTube.com — are in the top 100 most trafficked pages on the Internet.

To put that in perspective, these websites crush The New York Times, Instagram, Bank of America and Imgur in traffic by as much as 15 times over. They all also have one defining characteristic: they’re absolutely free and feature primarily amateur uploads and live cams. These websites are more accurately called “hubs,” as they serve merely as a platform for porn rather than a more traditional production house. Sciortino says that these hubs are capitalizing on the desire for people to make and watch amateur porn.

“I wouldn’t be able to say if there were more people doing homemade porn now than five years ago,” Sciortino says, “but there’s just an infinite amount of ways to upload it and share it with the Internet.”

As for profit and revenue, all of these websites make money strictly through online advertising and the sheer volume of the user base. And, unlike subscription-based pornography sites, rarely do these funds trickle down to the actual people performing the act. Cam girls, women who live video chat and broadcast their exploits to willing voyeurs, can make hundreds a day depending on their popularity and viewership. Otherwise, those who broadcast on hubs are doing it more for the pleasure than the cash. Even more mainstream social networks, such as Tumblr and Reddit, also have massive porn sub-communities — meaning that the market is as saturated as ever with free and easily accessible content. Through all this, though, Suicide isn’t fazed or concerned about her website.

“Tumblr and Reddit tend to aggregate content from diverse sources all over the world so they have the ability to find sexy images throughout all types of digital media while commercial outlets create original content that is based on their branded idea of beauty,” she explains.

So what does it all mean for the future of Internet porn at large? While nothing has indicated that free outfits have the muscle to completely eclipse all other forms of porn, camming and amateur videos are challenging the way that websites can and will make money. But on the other hand, niche websites that value high production are changing the way that porn looks, feels and acts — quite a far cry from the familiar tropes seen frequently on Pay-Per-View. It’s safe to say that porn isn’t what it used to be, and Sciortino agrees.

“I very rarely watch porn that looks glossy — and probably the best porn online is amateur porn anyways.”

Image Credit: Fermando Tolosa

 The rise of alternative porn: Communities, boundaries & profits