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June 01, 2017

What's Up, Docs? Three Takes on the Adult Industry

This article originally ran in the June 2017 issue of AVN magazine. Click here to see the digital magazine. Earlier this year, South Dakota, Virginia, and Utah all passed measures declaring porn a public health crisis. In addition to being labeled “evil, degrading, addictive, and harmful” (per Utah), porn consumption allegedly leads to “risky” sexual activity, low-self esteem, and—sometimes—eating disorders (South Dakota). It’s also responsible for “lessening desire in young men to marry, dissatisfaction in marriage, and infidelity” (Virginia) … again, allegedly. Though unscientific, subjective, and largely silly, these declarations come from highly legitimized entities. Just like we listen when elected officials and experts issue statements about the Zika virus, lead paint and bird flu, many people internalize public health crisis messages. And for good reason—where else would they come across a counter narrative? One easy and obvious answer is documentary-style filmmaking. Though often as inventive as any Hollywood narrative, the documentary style is considered tantamount to factual, unbiased information—especially when addressing subjects that are unfamiliar to viewers. Thus far, 2017 has been a boon form adult industry docu-syle exposés including Pornocracy, After Porn Ends 2, and Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. Industry insiders may find these films to be everything from old news to downright enraging; however, we must consider seriously the information conveyed therein. Beyond public health crisis rhetoric, these types of narratives are often an “average” viewer’s only source of information about the adult entertainment industry. Pornocracy Pornocracy: The New Sex Multinationals was spearheaded by French feminist filmmaker, author, and former performer Ovidie. In the film, Ovidie investigates changes in the international adult entertainment industry, focusing on how a “group of geeks” hijacked porn via piracy-based tube sites, dramatically reshaping the general public’s relationship with sex in the process. It’s a story we’ve heard before, a sort of downward spiral wherein greed and social issues tied to consumer behavior land on the backs of performers. Per Pornocracy, it goes like this: As tube sites make adult content more and more accessible, hyper-stimulated yet desensitized consumers are primed for increasingly hardcore content. Consequently, increasingly hardcore content gets made. At the same time, regardless of why they’re accessing content without paying, viewers are conditioned to believe porn is something they’re entitled to have. Within the industry then, as fewer and fewer consumers pay for their porn, it becomes increasingly difficult for producers to recoup costs associated with production. This, in turn, makes work increasingly difficult to come by for performers, increasing workplace competition and driving scene rates down. Though Ovidie romanticizes the industry’s most recent turn-of-the-century Golden Era, her work in Pornocracy tells the story of piracy in a concise yet sufficiently complex, non-jargony way that will make even the most cavalier tube-site watcher pause. The film explains the way non-payment impacts performers, the literal faces of adult entertainment and often the extent of a viewer’s relationship with the business of porn. Sadly though, without media access (which I had) or a pricey film festival ticket, Pornocracy is fairly challenging to track down and view. The best I could tell, upon writing this copy in early May, there was only one place you could view it online—and it was pirated. After Porn Ends 2 After Porn Ends 2 is a heartfelt and balanced film. Working from a place of increased access and understanding since 2012’s After Porn Ends, filmmaker Bryce Wagoner presents a more balanced series of perspectives from a broader scope of performers. (Click here for photos from the L.A. premiere.) “My biggest regret from the first film was... I wanted to show a fuller spectrum of performers in the industry,” Wagoner explained. “And we have Johnnie Keyes, and also Venus Lux, who comes from an area [of the industry] where there’s not too many alumni.” The structure of the film is much easier to follow than the first installment, allowing viewers who may be unfamiliar with the performers and personalities being showcased to fully absorb their impact and commentary. Powerful career stories from the likes of Lisa Ann are juxtaposed with insights from newer performers still testing the waters. Janine Lindemulder shares an almost impossible story of cruel circumstance and social stigma with absolute grace. Johnnie Keyes speaks to the evolution of porn, race, and culture. Darren James recounts infecting three women performers with HIV on set—and is followed by a succinct explanation of STI transmission and condom use from a respected scientist. According to Wagoner, the intensity of society today has an appreciable impact on performers, one that marks a noticeable difference between those currently in the industry relative to those from previous eras. “The Janines and the Ginger [Lynn Allen]s were protected,” Wagoner explained. “They didn’t work as much, and they weren’t as exposed to the public. Now [performers] are thrown to the wolves and have to be ‘on’ at all times.” “I don’t know if people get to ‘learn this’—being a constant public figure, the stigma of sex work, managing the resulting scrutiny, and so on—they just know that they have to do it,” he continued. After Porn Ends 2 is worthwhile viewing for industry insiders and civilians alike. It showcases a multitude of standpoints and career trajectories—the good and the rough, the unfair and the serendipitous. And though porn performers certainly deal with a multitude of issues that make their lived experiences unique and far more challenging than, say, your average postal worker, this film also shows the crapshoot that is life for every person, in every business. Unlike Pornocracy, After Porn Ends 2 is easily accessible on iTunes, Netflix, and other platforms. Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On 2015’s Hot Girls Wanted was nothing short of a hot mess. The film relied on unsubstantiated proclamations masked as statistics, slut shaming, and fear mongering to investigate what’s described as “pro-am” in South Florida. Rather than exploring the lives of sex workers in an even-handed manner, or even considering wider social issues that shape human behavior, it’s a judgey, slanted debacle that foregrounds “correct” ideas about sex and sexual expression. I am not sure why anyone expected Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On—a six-part series currently streaming in Netflix—to be any different. Turned On considers various aspects and corners of sex and sexual expression in today’s technology-saturated world. In a few instances, the filmmakers did do less of an overt hatchet job than they did in the film. They discuss a multitude of porn-related topics while also dedicating full episodes to wider social issues, like dating apps and over-Periscoping. The opening credits are more subdued/less alarmist than its predecessor’s. The series’ problematic aspects, however, grossly overshadow these small positive elements. Each and every episode of Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On delivers the same exact message: There is a “correct” version of sexual expression, and then there’s all this other stuff. Consider, for instance, the episode “Women on Top.” The comparison of an exuberant Erika Lust, who arguably creates content that the filmmakers approve of, with a downcast Holly Randall, who in spite of being a “woman on top” is positioned as a proxy for “conventional” porn, is contrived and purposive. Or, in “Take Me Private,” cam model Alice Frost is pained by feelings of preventing a long-time client from finding “real” love. Here, the filmmakers are quite clear about what sorts of relationships count as “real,” and Frost (the sex worker) is shown as culpable in sustaining some sort of fictitious relationship that allegedly stunts some poor tragic dude—who, to his credit, seems just fine. These are just two instances; there are many more. Couple the litany of “correct sexuality” messages with the repulsive irony of outing, exposing, and exploiting sex workers (see allegations made by Gia Paige, Tyler Knight, Autumn Kayy, Effy Elizabeth, and more), and the message is clear: If you want to do the “right” thing, here is a series of sexual expressions you should avoid. And this message is what’s currently streaming at the top of Netflix, feeding a viewing public within a wider public health crisis context. “The viewing public has absolutely no frame of reference to evaluate the adult business,” AVN award-winning performer Casey Calvert asserted. “I’ve said it a million times—you never know what it’s like on a porn set until you’ve been there. The problem with Hot Girls Wanted is that it doesn’t just show what it’s like on a porn set. It carefully, sneakily edits what’s it like to fit the narrative the producers want to push.” “I don’t think [the series] does anything positive for the porn industry,” Calvert continued. “It maybe doesn’t outright say that porn is awful, but it certainly doesn’t present any visual evidence to the contrary. The producers haven’t been shy in sharing their feeling about the business. There’s education in repetition, and that’s what’s so harmful.” Which is precisely why the industry must remain engaged and mindful. On the basis of hype and access alone, Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On is the narrative speaking to the current state of porn and sex in contemporary society—and it will be viewed more frequently within the context of a public health crisis than it will be seen as sex worker exploitation or propaganda for sex normativity. This is, in a word, frustrating. Though it may be tempting to throw up one’s hands regarding the sustained prevalence of anti-sex narratives, this is actually the time to highlight useful contributions like Pornocracy and After Porn Ends 2. Maybe a few people will pick up on the irony that comes from watching Pornocracy online, unauthorized and for free. Chances are, though, they won’t. Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals is a sociologist and author. Find her on Twitter: @drchauntelle. Read more about Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On in articles about some of its subjects—Salena Storm; Riley Reynolds and Gia Paige; Bailey Rayne—and Free Speech Coalition’s reaction to the series and its attempts to meet with the filmmakers.

 
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