The Report

Selling sex to Web 2.0

Posting in Design

Cindy Gallop wants to change the way the porn industry, and the tech industry, approach sex online.

“Tech world, I call bullshit,” Cindy Gallop proclaims. The former chairman of the ad agency BBH and 2003 Advertising Woman of the Year perches next to me in the corner of a large gray furry couch in her boudoir-chic Black Apartment.

“I should have been every venture capitalist's wet dream,” she continues. “I have an idea, enabled by technology, designed to disrupt a sector worth billions of dollars.”

My eyes wander across the massive wooden coffee table in front of us. Beyond the glass of water Gallop has brought me, I note a symmetrical display of two stacks of clothbound books, two vases of pastel-colored roses, and a centerpiece with a stuffed mongoose frozen in an eternal battle with a preserved cobra. To the side of it rests a polished gray stone dildo.

The billion-dollar sector Gallop hopes to disrupt is the porn industry.

“The moment you utter the word 'sex', the shutters come down,” Gallop recalls of meetings with supposedly progressive entrepreneurs. She leans her hand against her bias-cut helmet of blonde hair, “It took me two years of pitching this to find one angel investor who got it and put up the small amount of seed money we needed to start this.”

Gallop introduced the “Make Love Not Porn” online campaign in a 2009 TED Talk. As she stated in her first line of that talk, Gallop dates younger men. She'd noticed first-hand that porn clichés often dominate young men's bedroom habits -- many had gained the majority of their sexual knowledge from online videos. Gallop felt concern for a generation who approached intercourse from the lens of the porn industry rather than concern for real people's needs.

She decided to turn this concern into a business venture. Gallop founded the Web site MakeLoveNotPorn.tv along with Corey Innis (CTO), Oonie Chase (UX Lead) and Sarah Beall (curator). The new online video startup aims to shake up the way we consume sex on the Internet. It features what Gallop calls "real world sex" videos, created by users. The site launched in closed invitation-only beta last August, 10 months after receiving seed funding from that still unnamed investor. It went open beta this January.

The site invites visitors to submit sexual videos of themselves having sex. The only stipulations are that the sex is non-performative, consensual, and involves people over 18. The site staff watches every video to police these rules and assure legal compliance. MakeLoveNotPorn.tv charges a “curating fee” of $5 per submission, which can quickly be earned back: visitors rent videos for three weeks at $5 each. Contributors, whom Gallop calls her “make love not porn-stars,” receive half of the revenue each time someone rents their video.

MakeLoveNotPorn.tv made its first payments in December. A number of contributors earned incomes in the four-figure range, Gallop says.

That shared profit model, which the site dubs “The Etsy of Sexy” makes MakeLoveNotPorn.tv decidedly unlike the traditional porn business model, where most stars receive a one-time fee for making a video. There's another way the site is different from other places you can pay to see sex online: it has yet to suffer from chargebacks.

Chargebacks are what put the adult industry in the high risk division for banks. They occur when a person refuses to pay a charge on their credit card by arguing that the purchase wasn't actually made by them. Gallop attributes such a response to porn viewers who want to deny their habit to their significant others. But MakeLoveNotPorn.tv doesn't suffer from chargebacks, she says, because people don't have to feel ashamed for watching sex-positive videos that emphasize both male and female pleasure.

But still, traditional banks have denied accounts with MakeLoveNotPorn.tv. Both PayPal and Amazon have refused to route their user payments. The site now processes credit cards through European payment processor Sankyu, and in the U.S. works with PayPal competitor Dwolla for both payments in and MakeLoveNotPornstar payments out.

“Those are the battles that we fight every day,” Gallop says of her banking hurdles, pointing the toe of her patent leather motorcycle boot for emphasis. “This entire process, which I have to be honest I had no idea it was going to be this difficult, means that I am now ferociously interested in the future of money. So I am always looking for the people we can work with who want to work with us, to change the world through sex. And I am ferocious about championing every other entrepreneur who wants to change the world through sex and has problems doing it because of of the obstacles the business world is putting in our way.”

I have to ask her though, isn't there already plenty of porn, and amateur sex videos, available online for free?

Gallop clasps her hands together. “This is not porn, this is not amateur, this is real world sex,” and it aims to satisfy voyeurism as well as provide titillation, she says. Gallop hopes MakeLoveNotPorn.tv's videos exist not only to arouse viewers, but provide examples of how other couples navigate the awkwardness and messiness of sex.

More than that, Gallop wants to combine sex with social media. “We're taking everything that makes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter so addictive to people,” she says, “and applying it to the one area those guys will never go.”

Users can build profiles based on their sexual preferences. Further down the line, Gallop says they will be able to curate their own playlists, create video “mixtapes” to send to their lovers, and will be able to earn badges for skills, talents and pushing their sexual boundaries. Also, users will eventually be able to share which parts of a video they like best with a timeline scoring system, designed for one-handed use. Gallop notes that data could be a future revenue stream for the site.

When I point out that $5 might be considered a steep fee for online videos, Gallop leans forward, “I believe that when you create something that gives people pleasure, you should be rewarded for it. It's five bucks to see something you won't see anywhere else.”

“And it's very easy to watch our videos for free. All you have to do is contribute your own real-world sex videos, and then use the money people pay you to watch anything you want.”

“But that's hard,” I interject.

Gallop leans into the couch, “People say to me all the time, 'Oh Cindy, who's going to do this?' And the answer is everybody, ultimately. We're for everybody, but our core target is Gen Y, millennials. This is the generation who has grown up video-sharing everything, and almost expects that there will always be a video phone, video camera there capturing it.”

I interrupt again. We're well over the time limit I was promised for my interview, should we wrap things up? She has another hour until her next meeting, she assures me, and continues.

Gallop believes we are in a zeitgeist moment for sex online. Gallop points to the success of the new Facebook app Bang with Friends as evidence. As younger generations become more comfortable with sharing online, she sees open sharing of sex as the next logical frontier. “All we're doing,” she explains, “is creating a platform to celebrate that last area of relationships that nobody will let you [share]. All of the motivations and the social dynamics are exactly the same.”

Still skeptical, I ask half-jokingly, “But what about when I have my future media empire, and somebody sees my videos?”

“By the time that comes, it won't be embarrassing,” she says with a nod. “We're out to make it not shameful and embarrassing to have anything like that posted on the Internet ever again. Also, you can be anonymous, wear a mask, or face out of frame. And we have every security measure in place.”

I'm curious if Gallop has concerns for her own professional reputation. MakeLoveNotPorn.tv's staff have so far refrained from submitting videos of themselves, because she feels for now their efforts are controversial enough. But Gallop says she hasn't felt stigmatized in her other business dealings. She still pays her mortgage as a brand consultant, and clients have responded positively to her new venture.

“Do you think if you were a younger woman earlier in your career this might be more of a risk?” I ask the 53-year-old.

“Probably,” she answers right away. “But the attitude I'm bringing to this is, so many people get sucked into the way society handles sex currently without realizing it. I refuse to bow to society's existing biases and prejudices; I want to blow them apart.”

Gallop is hesitant to voice her current projections for when MakeLoveNotPorn.tv will start generating income, although she says she does have those numbers at the ready. She's happy to say that so far viewership has been quite evenly spread between genders, with slightly more males than female users.

In addition to future plans to generate revenue from sexual preference data, Gallop hopes to grow the site through brand partnerships. She even has interest from people trying to do new things within the porn industry. It can be difficult for viewers to find those people she says, because porn is usually absent from the water cooler buzz that drives other media.

“Porn lacks curation,” Gallop explains, with her hand resting on her black leather pants. “There is no Yelp of porn. There are adult sites that curate porn, but they're still adult porn sites. It's okay to step into the office on a Monday afternoon and say, 'I'm really bored with all the restaurants I've been going to; who knows a new restaurant?' It's not okay to come in and go, 'I'm really bored with all the porn I've been watching; who knows a new porn [video]?' ”

Gallop says this attitude has created a lack of diversity in porn. People keep going back to the same type of videos. And this has caused porn-makers to overlook entire demographics. “Porn has not even begun to leverage the female experience of arousal and desire and sex,” she says. “And men have not even begun to realize how hot they would find that.”

That's why Gallop says her next project, after MakeLoveNotPorn.tv succeeds, will be to become a launchpad for creative porn efforts. “One day I want to start an incubator accelerator for radically innovative porn startups,” she announces. “I want to be the Y Combinator of porn.”

And with that, she's off to meet with a potential business collaborator.

On my way out the door, she hands me a business card. It's of traditional size, but the center is cut out leaving a quarter-inch border of cardstock. When someone holds the card up to see the border text, the card frames her face. “You should be on MakeLoveNotPorn.tv,” it reads.

Photo by Ioulex

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure