The x-rated world of premium Snapchat has spawned an illicit underground industry

Premium Snapchat might sound like an elite tier for the photo-sharing app’s most vociferous users, but it’s really something that the firm is not so keen to shout about.

Instead, this unofficial tier of Snapchat users is used mostly by people in the adult entertainment industry. These Snapchat entrepreneurs offer access to their uploaded photos and videos to small networks of fans willing to pay for it. For Snapchat, premium is the titillating cottage industry that just won’t go away.

Arie Saunders, an adult model, estimates that up to 90 per cent of those in the adult industry currently ran an unofficial premium Snapchat service or have done in the past. “Even mainstream and professional porn stars usually have Snapchats as a side hustle to generate extra income and to promote their indie sites so they can profit outside of their professional scenes,” she says.

And although premium Snapchat is technically against the social network’s terms of use, given that all the content is private it’s difficult for the firm to censor it – unlike other platforms like Instagram where content that contravenes guidelines is often swiftly expunged.

Ashley Tea is a webcam model whose livestreams a variety of content – from stripteases, to art and streams of her chilling in sweats. She advertises her premium Snapchat as a means for clients to get to know her more intimately. And while each performer takes different approaches, she allows a two-way channel of communication. “They can send me messages and reply to my snapchat story as much as they want, and I make a point to interact as much as humanly possible. That’s the meat of the service for me – one-on-one interaction.” She counts approximately 250 interacting members, and around 35 who she messages with on a daily basis.

But adult entertainers aren’t the only ones using premium Snapchat. “I think there’s this misconception that it’s all one thing, all intensely pornographic, when that is absolutely not the case,” says one user who asked to remain anonymous. She says her content could be described as ‘naughty Buzzfeed’ and calls herself a ‘meme burlesque artist’. But while some mild nudity may feature on her feed, there is no porn.

She says people might be drawn to this kind of content for its aesthetic appeal or for a form of intimacy that she describes as “the girlfriend experience”. “Maybe that’s not what the female creator intends, but that’s how they develop this kind of parasocial relationship with the girl that they follow, and they feel like they’re supporting her. They become emotionally invested in her and they become her clients,” she says. She only publishes to her story, doesn’t take requests from clients and speaks directly only via text. The ones that interact, she says, become her regulars – and to her, she stresses, they are effectively like friends. Albeit ones who have paid a fee for the privilege.

Tea agrees. People “want someone to respond to them. When they say ‘good morning’, they want someone to say ‘good night’ to them, right? I think this is very human and Snapchat addresses that need for a lot of people.”

But despite no easy way of Snapchat vetting the content shared on its platform, performers still have to be cautious. The fact that this use contravenes Snapchat’s terms of service means that Tea is discreet about how she advertises, because the more openly you advertise, the more likely it is that you’ll be reported – something that can happen at any time. She only advertises through her webcam streaming site. “I’m not going on Instagram like ‘hey, buy my Snapchat $5 (£4) on PayPal!’ because I’m going to get every one of my accounts shut down.” She also says she slightly raised her prices to reduce the possibility that someone would pay just to have her shut down.

Despite its underground nature, the world of premium Snapchat has attracted a satellite industry of websites looking to cash in on the adult entertainers. There are services that promote premium Snapchat accounts, such as Bae Snaps, True Snaps and XXXSnaps. Some performers also promote their Snapchat premium accounts prominently on their other social media, but this can be risky if the wrong person stumbles on it.

People with large followings can be especially vulnerable to this. “There are lots and lots of people out there that don’t like to see a woman monetise her body, or monetise things that they feel entitled to for free, right?” says Tea.

Performers’ most common forms of payment models for Snapchat content are subscription models or so-called ‘lifetime access’. The latter covers one-off payments that let people see content for the foreseeable future, whereas the former is a monthly payment to ‘unlock’ content. Lifetime access is more commonly used by career adult entertainers to keep in touch with regulars without the hassle of subscription based payments.

But because this use of Snapchat is technically prohibited, users can’t process payments through the app, meaning that a cottage industry has stealthily assembled outside of the platform. Sites like Fancentro, Erotofix, and Indiebill can take on the onerous task of handling subscriptions and payments. If not, performers could end up with a spreadsheet filled with names and payment information that could conceivably run into the thousands if they’re popular – a nightmare to handle independently on top of their day job.

However, using these services comes with a different kind of premium. “I call it the slut tax,” says Tea, referring to the refusal of many major payment processors including Stripe, Paypal and Venmo to process transactions relating to the rather amorphous ‘adult industry’. “In order to stay safe, we have to go through bonafide adult service platforms, which take a large chunk of our earnings,” she says. For example, Tea sells her premium Snapchat through MyFreeCams for 550 tokens. Of this, she receives $25 (£20), but the subscription is actually sold for $50 (£40), meaning she loses 50 per cent of what she makes. In the past, she has had her Paypal shut down.

“There is a huge over saturation of models who are very new taking payments through sites like PayPal, Square, and Venmo, and while I wish all performers could make 100 per cent of their money it’s simply not allowed right now,” says Saunders. However, she says that those who consider themselves professionals usually opt to take payments through platforms such as ManyVids, IndieBill, iWantClips, cam sites like Chaturbate or adult friendly Snapchat selling sites like FanCentro.”

There is much greater risk associated with chancing non-adult friendly sites. “They don’t protect against chargebacks, and if you have money in your account and it’s reported or marked as suspicious, there’s a chance of you losing all of the money in your account,” Saunders continues. Previous reports suggest that when accounts are reported to Paypal, it simply keeps the money.

The increasingly censorious attitudes permeating social media platforms are also hitting Snapchat, with a widely recognised crackdown on adult content making it a less appealing tool for adult entertainers. Saunders estimates that the ‘peak’ for Snapchat usage by the adult industry began to tail off as early as 2016. At this time, she says, the buying market was there, and a number of large accounts permitted ‘takeovers’, meaning that an adult performer could build a following solely through the app. Back then times, she could hope to make around $500 (£405) from a single session from new fans.

Some people had commented on Snapchat previously even being more lucrative than camming sites, but with a regular schedule, Saunders estimates performers can probably expect to make more on cam sites. Tea agrees that Snapchat used to be more lucrative than cam sites, but things are shifting a bit now. “A couple of years ago, selling your Snap, people would just eat that up you know.” However, she says there were cases of people on the purchasers side being duped, where they buy the Snapchat and then are told by the model that it was deleted, without offering a refund.

Lack of security for the model and customer, there is increasing migration over to new adult only sites. “Now that people have kind of caught on like, oh, Snapchat can make money. Why don’t I make a platform that’s similar to that with tips within the app? that’s starting to pop up now.” OnlyFans – resembling an ‘adult’ version of Instagram – is one of these. Tea has been set up on the service for three months, and says she can net from $2500 (£2025) to $3000 (£2430) per month, on top of her regular streaming income. She says this site more resembles Instagram than Snapchat.

Snapchat does still offer some advantages. “In terms of ease of use, having an HD quality phone seems to be much more common than an HD webcam. The software is usually right at your fingertips, and many people are already familiar with Snapchat and how it works. It’s definitely something that’s easy to start with as a new person in the industry.” Snapchat itself declined to disclose how many accounts it shuts down for pornographic or adult content.

But the internet is becoming an increasingly hostile place for sex workers and other adult performers. Those creating NSFW content for the internet, no matter where that falls on the spectrum of playful or artistic nudity to graphic hardcore pornography have faced censorship at every turn. “Patreon, unfortunately, built itself on the backs of sex workers and then kicked us off when it got popular enough to accept major payment processing,” says Tea of the platform’s increased censorship in line with Paypal stipulations.

This fate befell Tumblr users, when it was announced in late 2018 that the steadily increasing prudishness would be formalised in a flat ban on any nude or adult content, robbing many of a permissive place to experiment with sexuality. The anonymous premium Snapchat entrepreneur reflects says she misses those earlier, more carefree days online. “I really do miss the open, playful, fun web where we could just be crazy or playful, funny, random people, and everyone celebrated it or would laugh at it – maybe mock it, but not try to persecute you for it.”

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