Porn's dirtiest secret: What everyone gets paid

There's a well-worn porn cliche about the college student-turned-actress who decided to have sex in front of a camera in order to pay off her student loans. Like many cliches, it's rarely true — but it's worth wondering: How big are paychecks in the porn business, anyway?

Money is a topic that's shrouded in mystery in the adult entertainment world. While it's widely presumed to be a multibillion dollar industry, there's no real firm accounting to back that up. Companies regularly inflate their numbers when speaking publicly and may deflate them at opportune times as well. The same is true of performers.

The median household income for the United States was $53,657 in 2014 (the most recent data available), according to a Census Bureau survey. While that report breaks down average salaries among several careers, there is no data about adult performers.

So to determine who makes what, CNBC spoke with a number of individuals who work in all aspects of the adult world to get a sense of what sort of money trades hands. While there's no way to say with absolute certainty that the figures are correct, they were supported by enough people to at least seem roughly right.

Actresses

Source: Rising Star PR

Women are, of course, the main attraction in mainstream porn — and, as you might expect, the amounts paid to actresses span a wide range. A superstar performer — one who has name recognition that extends beyond adult entertainment — earns considerably more than a newcomer or someone who is well-known only among porn enthusiasts.

The performer's representative/agent is also important. There are a number of top agencies, such as LA Direct and Spiegler, whose actresses (again, excluding the top stars) earn what could be called the industry average. But some naive or desperate performers will associate themselves with fly-by-night individuals or agencies, who ask a much lower rate, often in hopes of earning a quick buck.

The determining factor is the sex act performed and whether the actress has done that act on camera before.

"When the girls first get into the business and they're new, I think they can command additional money for different sex acts," said Steven Hirsch, owner of Vivid, one of the biggest adult entertainment studios. "Initially they make more money, then it depends on how popular they become."

Here's how things break down. For a "traditional" sex scene between a man and a woman, the average actress' compensation is typically between $800 and $1,000, depending on the studio's budget. Top-tier performers can earn as much as $1,500, occasionally $2,000, while newcomers with bad representation might earn as little as $300.

More extreme acts, as you might expect, command higher rates. The most extreme — unsuitable for describing in polite conversation — can go for $1,800 to $2,500.

Talent Salary
Female performer, man/woman scene $300-$1,500
Female performer, all-woman scene $700-$1,200
Male Performer $500-$1,500
Director $1,000-$3,000
Cameraperson $500-$700
Sound Technician $300-$400
Production Assistant $100-$250
Writers $250-$400
Still photographers $500
Makeup artists $500

Male performers

Men might be a critical part of porn films, but this is one industry where the balance of pay certainly leans toward women.

With men, there's no pay differential depending on the sex act. Generally, male performers receive a fixed amount per scene or day, depending on how the shoot was booked.

And while there are a few top tier actors, such as Manuel Ferrara, who command top dollar, most earn considerably less.

In general, males average $500-$600 per scene or day. Better known male performers can earn $700-$900; superstars up to $1,500.

Behind the scenes

It takes more than performers on screen to make an adult film, of course. While the production values typically aren't on the same level as a Hollywood film and the writing is generally skipped via the fast forward button, they're still roles that need to be filled.

One difference between an adult film and a more mainstream one, aside from the sex, is that directors are a lot more hands-on when it comes to the filmmaking process, sometimes securing locations, ensuring lighting is correct, picking up the food for the craft services table and sometimes even acting as the film's cameraperson.

In general, a director of a porn film — an actual film, rather than a short — will earn $1,000-$1,500 per day. In extreme cases, when he or she is required to do dramatically more than direct, that can go as high as $3,000, though few studios will pay that amount.

Writers earn considerably less, pocketing $250-$400 per day. Shoots for most productions typically last two to four days. Tentpole porn films can take four to eight days.

Camerapersons, when the director's not filling that role, can earn $500-$700 per day; those who own their own camera, generally a Canon 5D Mark III, get the higher end.

Sound technicians can get $300 and $400 per day, while production assistants pick up $100 to $250.

Virtually all film shoots include still photograph sessions, which are either sold separately or used to market the film online. Those photographers earn $500 per day.

And, of course, every actor and actress needs their makeup done just right. Makeup artists can earn $500 for working a full day on set, but many prefer to do what's known as a "come and go." That brings them to a set for a shorter period, where they charge $100 to $150 per person, then are free to move on to other work.

Adding it up

While films and scenes from them are the most visible part of the industry, smart performers don't limit their revenue streams to just that part of the business. Feature dancing and product endorsements, among other things, can be ancillary income streams, which can equal or even exceed the amount made doing shoots.

Feature dancing can be especially lucrative if you've got a large fan base. Performers earn an appearance fee, which varies widely, as well as any tips from patrons. And many performers bring along merchandise to sell to fans. One actress/dancer said she regularly earns $7,000 to $10,000 per feature-dancing appearance, which can last two days.

Affiliating with a line of adult novelties can also be lucrative. Generally, there's a base payout for that, but some companies offer a percentage of each product sale. The more items that bear an actresses' name, body and face on the packaging or the product, the bigger the check.

So how much does a porn star make? Six-figure incomes are likely common for popular stars, though that's far from an industry average. Ultimately, assuming they have a decent agent, a performer's salary comes down to three things — two of which are in their control: Their work ethic and frequency, their entrepreneurial spirit and their popularity.

There's also a fourth intangible: their longevity.

Porn is an industry that regularly chews up and spits out performers. Many quit after just one scene or after a few months. Some stick around for a few years, but then disappear. But a select few have chosen to make this a true career — and as in the mainstream world, those are the ones who tend to pocket the most.