Pandemic Impact Caps 2020’s Top Adult Industry Stories

LOS ANGELES—The year 2020 may not have been the worst year in history, but it was definitely in the running. The nearly 1.8 million deaths worldwide—more than 340,000 in the United States alone—from the global COVID-19 pandemic would qualify the now-expiring year for any all-time infamy list. The sex industry, and sex workers as a group, however, were hit particularly hard, as the economic devastation left in the pandemic’s wake took a terrible toll on people and groups on society’s margins.

While the pandemic dominated the news, and daily life, for the adult industry (and the world in general), there were other significant and often worrying trends. A Congressional and presidential effort to roll back the law known as “the First Amendment of the internet” threatened to increase censorship of online sexual content, while a California law restricting “gig workers” created confusion and uncertainty for adult performers. And on top of it all, one of porn’s most iconic performers was arrested and jailed on numerous, disturbing sexual assault charges.

Here, then, are 10 of the most significant stories affecting the adult industry in 2020.

Sex Workers Shut Out From COVID Economic Relief

As countries around the world shut down businesses and imposed social restrictions to combat the spread of the deadly, novel coronavirus starting in February and March of 2020, numerous governments put together economic relief packages, to help workers and business owners survive the shutdowns as their sources of income were cut off by the pandemic.

In many of those countries, including the United States, sex workers and adult businesses were shut out of the aid programs for no reason other than that they made their income from commercialized sex. In the U.S. for example, sex-related businesses were singled out for disqualification from the Paycheck Protection Program, a small-business loan fund created by the economic relief legislation known as the CARES Act. 

Some sex-related businesses were later allowed to apply for the PPP loans, and in Nevada, one legal brothel qualified for economic health through a state program that used federal funds. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, legal brothels and other sex businesses were initially placed at the back of the line for reopening after the initial business closures in March. 

As tough as the pandemic and its ensuing economic shutdowns have been on sex businesses, individual sex workers have paid a greater human cost. In countries as spread out as Germany, Bolivia, South Africa, India and the U.S., sex workers found themselves out of work due to pandemic-related government shutdowns, as well as simply from the reluctance of customers to risk contracting the coronavirus from a sexual encounter. In the U.S., France, Japan and other countries, sex workers were flatly excluded from pandemic relief programs. In other countries, the relief offered was highly inadequate.

In Bangladesh, when the world’s largest legal brothel shut down and laid off about 1,500 sex workers, the best the government could do was offer each the equivalent of $25 in cash, plus a single, 65-pound bag of rice.

Adult Video Production Shuts Down

As the coronavirus pandemic caused the shutdown of professional sports leagues, and Hollywood film and TV production starting March, the adult video industry was forced to follow suit. On March 15, the Free Speech Coalition imposed a stoppage—albeit a voluntary one—on all adult production in California, and other states where “non-essential” businesses were ordered to close.

The FSC said that the stoppage was “voluntary” only in the sense that the FSC’s “Performer Availability Screening Service” (PASS) remained online, and adult shoots involving cohabitating members of a single household were not banned

The production shutdown remained in effect through April and May, with FSC finally lifting the hold on June 12—but with strict health guidelines in place. In lifting the hold, FSC followed guidelines for the renewal of film production laid down by the California state government. 

In December, when a new wave of coronavirus infections swept through California making the state, and Los Angeles County—where most adult studio productions take place—one of the country’s worst pandemic hot spots, FSC, again following state guidelines, allowed production to continue. But the FSC warned that “just because production is permitted, does not mean that it is safe, ethical, or recommended.” 

Though the FSC refrained from laying down another production ban, the group asked the industry to “put off any production you can until the infection rate decreases.”

Worldwide Porn Banning Threat Continues

Last year, the global “War on Porn" topped AVN’s year-end list of 2019’s biggest stories affecting the adult industry. But even in the year of COVID, the porn-banning trend remains a serious threat to the industry, and to freedom of sexual expression of all types. Most recently, the government of Thailand banned more than 190 adult sites—a move which set off a protest in the streets of Bangkok by young Thai internet users wielding placards reading “Free Pornhub.”

In the tiny European country of Luxembourg (population 600,000), the six-member parliament in July took up a citizen petition to “protect minors and shield adults from ‘pornographic perversion,’” and in France, parliament gave approval to a proposed “age verification” system, similar to the one attempted but abandoned in the United Kingdom in 2019.

The Italian Senate also announced that it would consider legislation proposed by one of the country’s far-right-wing parties that would block all online porn sites in the country. In Australia, where the government there has also toyed with the idea of an age-verification system for porn sites, imports of Japanese hentai—that is, animated porn—were the subject of a crackdown by customs authorities. Live-action porn videos as well as certain sex toys from Japan, including “onahole” male masturbation devices, have alreday been barred from shipping into Australia.

Pornhub Comes Under Attack, Bans ‘Unverified’ Content

Early in 2020, a leader of the anti-porn group Exodus Cry posted an online petition calling for the largest porn site on the internet, Canada-based Pornhub, to be shut down, calling it a “superpredator” site, and alleging that Pornhub was “complicit” in sex trafficking and underage sexual abuse. 

Pornhub quickly responded, saying that it “has a steadfast commitment to eradicating and fighting any and all illegal content on the internet, including non-consensual content and child sexual abuse material,” and that it was developing “state-of-the-art, comprehensive safeguards on its platform to combat this material.”

Unsurprisingly, Pornhub’s response was not good enough for the anti-porn activists, whose petition ultimately accrued more than 2.1 million online “signatures.” Shortly after the petition appeared, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska called for then-Attorney General William Barr to start an “investigation” of Pornhub. Sasse claimed that the site’s “failure to remove nonconsensual pornography from its website is destroying lives.”

In December, the campaign against Pornhub suddenly accelerated when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a feature story titled “The Children of Pornhub,” making allegations that the company was being permitted to “profit off videos of exploitation and assault.”

Within days, Mastercard and Visa—the country’s two largest credit-card processing corporations—announced that they would ban the use of their cards to make payments on Pornhub, and other sites operated by MindGeek, Pornhub’s parent company. Within a week, Pornhub partially caved, announcing that it would now ban all “unverified” content from its site. Only uploads from “content partners or members of the Model Program” would henceforth be permitted.

Visa soon partially relented, saying it would allow Visa cards to be used on Mindgeek sites that included only “professionally produced” content—though what the credit card issuer considered “professionally produced” was not made clear.

Visa did make clear that it was continuing to ban Pornhub from taking payments via Visa card, however.

Taking things one step further, Senators Sasse and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley in mid-December introduced a new Senate bill, the "Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act,” or SISEA. The bipartisan bill would require anyone uploading sexually explicit content to provide detailed information verifying their identities, and any site hosting adult content to meet draconian record-keeping and staffing requirements—leaving all open to serious legal consequences if those requirements are not met.

Utah Porn ‘Warning Label’ Law Takes Effect, Adult Sites Comply

While 15 U.S. states have now passed measures declaring porn a “public health crisis,” those resolutions have been largely symbolic, and not resulted in any further anti-porn actions. Except in the state of Utah, where lawmakers in April put a new legislation on the books requiring online porn videos to open with a “health warning.”

Though the law targets only “obscene” material, the distinction between “obscene” content and legal porn can be fuzzy. Perhaps as a  result, several major porn sites—including Pornhub—decided to comply with the new law, adding an “opt in” message to the start of videos. The message states that in Utah, viewing adult material may be harmful to minors.

Sites that fail to include the warning labels could be subject to heavy fines—$2,500 for each violation, and would also be subject to lawsuits from legislators or even ordinary citizens. 

But the Free Speech Coalition has said that the law may violate the First Amendment, as an example of “compelled speech,” that is, the government forcing citizens to express a particular view. But, the FSC cautions, “until someone challenges the law in court, and wins, it remains the law.”

Ron Jeremy Arrested, Faces 35 Sexual Assault, Misconduct Charges

Longtime porn performer and industry icon, Ron Jeremy, had been the subject of sexual assault rumors and allegations for nearly two decades. But in June of 2020, those allegations became far more serious for the 67-year-old when Jeremy was arrested in Los Angeles on charges that he forcibly raped three women, and sexually assaulted another. 

Jeremy would spend the remaining months of 2020—and likely well beyond—behind bars, held on $6.6 million bail. He entered pleas of not guilty, but the situation only got worse for Jeremy.

In August, Los Angeles County prosecutors hit him with another 20 charges, followed by seven more in October. That brought the total to 35 charges of rape, sexual assault, or other sexual misconduct against Jeremy, with prosecutors saying that the incidents involved 23 separate victims. The youngest of Jeremy’s alleged victims is only 15 years old, while the oldest is 54. The incidents in which Jeremy is accused date back to 1996, with the most recent taking place, according to the charges, earlier in 2020.

In addition, prosecutors said that they had uncovered another 14 sexual assault and misconduct allegations against Jeremy, but those incidents took place so long ago that the statute of limitations had already expired. If convicted, Jeremy appears likely to spend the rest of his life in prison. He faces a maximum sentence of 330 years—and prosecutors said in October that they may have yet more charges to level against Jeremy as well.

‘First Amendment of the Internet’ Faces Repeal

A 24-year-old federal law, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, has become known as the “First Amendment of the Internet,” because it sets up protections that make the free exchange of controversial information and content—such as porn and other sexually frank material—possible online. But 2020 saw an all-out assault on Section 230, with both Donald Trump and Joe Biden calling for the law to be repealed, while members of Congress from both sides of the aisle introducing bills to scale back the free speech safeguards its offers.

In the weeks following his election defeat in November, Trump stepped up his attacks on Section 230, vetoing a bipartisan, “must-pass” defense spending bill primarily because, he said, it did not include a clause repealing the law as he had earlier demanded.

Though the law affects all online expression, and repealing Section 230 could result in a radical reshaping of the internet, the adult industry—which frequently finds itself under threat of censorship and outright bans (see above)—has a particular interest in preventing repeal of, or heavy rollbacks to Section 230.

“Efforts to roll back Section 230 protection will have a significant adverse impact on the adult entertainment industry if passed. Section 230 has been called the First Amendment of the internet for good reason,” First Amendment attorney Lawrence Walters told AVN back in August. “Any change to Section 230 could result in restrictive content moderation rules or elimination of the platforms, themselves.”

The law shields internet platforms—including social media sites, web hosting firms, ISPs and any online entities that allow content to appear on the ‘net—from legal liability for user postings. The U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protects freedom of speech from interference of regulation by the government, but the internet is controlled mostly by private corporations, who are free to censor whatever they wish. 

By shielding them from liability over user-generated content, Section 230 frees those private companies from the need to read and review every single piece of data that passes through their platforms—something that realistically could never happen. Due to the impossibility of reviewing every piece of content, platforms would likely just impose widespread censorship, to avoid potential lawsuits or even criminal prosecution.

“If platforms are made responsible for everything millions of users post on their sites, they will have to read it all first. This would mark the end of the internet as a forum for real time communication,” the authors of the 1996 law, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican former House rep Chris Cox wrote in a recent op-ed

“It would also force every website hosting user content to create round-the-clock legal and editorial review teams staffed with hundreds or thousands of people to continually monitor every message, video, photo, and blog,” Wyden and Cox wrote. “Alternatively, websites would face exorbitant legal damages at every turn. That is not realistic.”

The post-election attacks on Section 230 protections follow the introduction over the summer by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of the “Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technology Act,” or EARN IT Act, which would strip platforms of Section 230 safeguards, but allow them to “earn” those protections back by following a somewhat vaguely defined set of “best practices” aimed at supposedly curbing “online child exploitation.” But those standards appeared to target the online networks formed by sex workers to communicate safely online.

Meanwhile, in one more Section 230 development to close out 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill that would make repealing the law a requirement for passing a bill giving Americans economic stimulus checks of $2,000, rather than the $600 included in the just-passed COVID relief bill.

Backpage Execs Step Up Court Battle, Face Trial in 2021

Nearly three years after the founders of the online classified ad site were arrested, and their site seized, by federal agents, Michael Lacey and James Larkin have yet to face a trial. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in their federal trial being pushed back from April 2020 to the same month in 2021, a judge ruled in July. That means the two defendants will commence trial on money laundering and “facilitating prostitition” charges almost three years to the day after their initial arrest—and indictment on 93 separare counts. was considered a haven for sex workers to advertise their services, and the Free Speech Coalition called the site’s shutdown “a disaster for the health and safety of consensual sex workers,” saying that sex workers would now “be forced into increasingly dangerous workplaces, with fewer rights, fewer resources and fewer ways to protect themselves.” 

But Lacey and Larkin are not just kicking back and waiting to face the music. They spent the last three months of 2020 attacking the federal judge in their case, and attempting to have her removed.

The Backpage founders accuse Judge Susan Brnovich of bias against them, because she is married to Arizona’s Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who has been outspoken in his crusade against “sex trafficking.” The AG has singled out Backpage as a facilitator of sex trafficking crimes, through the clasisfied ads on its site.

Two previous judges in the Backpage case did, in fact, recuse themselves—one citing a conflict of interest, the other giving no reason. But Susan Brnovich, a 2018 Donald Trump appointee to Arizona’s federal bench, refused to step aside after Lacey and Larkin filed court papers accusing her of bias.

“The Court is an independent person from AG Brnovich, and the average person on the street would not reasonably believe that the Court would approach this case in a partial manner,” the judge wrote in her ruling, in which she declined to recuse herself.

But Lacey and Larkin appealed her refusal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After a December 4 hearing, a three-judge panel said that they would need more “answers” from Brnovich before deciding whether to hear the Backpage founders' case.

California ‘Gig Worker’ Law Creates Confusion for Adult Performers

On New Year’s Day of 2020, a new California law took effect, redefining whether freelance workers may operate as “independent contractors,” or if they must be classified as “employees.” Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) imposed a new, much stricter test, making it more difficult for companies to hire independent workers and, as a consequence, much tougher for freelancers—a category which includes most adult industry performers and support workers—to work legally.

Reportedly, at least two camming platforms banned California performers shortly after AB5 took effect, to avoid the potential requirement to hire them as “employees.” The law had also led to an exodus of dancers from California strip clubs.

But would adult performers really be restricted from working by the AB5 law? That remained unclear. Free Speech Coalition spokesperson Mike Stabile told AVN in September that his group was “working on” guidelines for how the adult industry should handle the law’s requirements.

“We've been opposed to the law as it relates to the adult industry. It doesn’t take into account the fact that most performers and crew are small business owners, and operate numerous income streams, from clips and cams to content trades and studio work,” Stabile said at the time. “We believe that any legislation put forward on behalf of workers should be responsive to workers' concerns.” 

The original AB5 law contained exemptions for dozens of industries, and new legislation, AB2257, passed in September with even more exemptions. But neither bill mentioned the adult industry or adult performers specifically.

The AB2257 law did, however, exempt “performance artists” from being classified as “employees,” as long as they were “performing material that is their original work and creative in character and the result of which depends primarily on the individual’s invention, imagination, or talent.”

COVID Pandemic Sparks Camming Boom

The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic hit sex workers hard, as explained at the top of this article. To deal with their loss of income and performing opportunities, adult performers went independent, taking their talents to online webcam platforms. In fact, thanks to their ability to give performances solo, or with close partners, in the privacy of their own homes, some porn performers were in a better position to ride out the pandemic than mainstream Hollywood actors, according to the entertainment industry news site The Wrap.

But the cam platforms became saturated early in the pandemic. Not only established performers, but newcomers who saw sex work as a quick, convenient source of cash during the pandemic, swarmed to camming. According to a New York Times feature, worldwide shutdowns and quarantines led to sharp increases in cam site viewership as well as performers—but not necessarily in money.

“I think people are not only hoarding toilet paper, they’re hoarding money, because no one knows when their next paycheck is coming,” one British Chaturbate performer told The Times.