In 2009, I wrote and self-published "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?" It's a 10,000-word longform investigation of how the Great Recession impacted the adult movie industry. It was written for a specific publication, but I ended up publishing it myself. What I've written here is sort of an addendum or annotated-ish version of it. (Of course, this is how annotation should be done, but nobody asked, so I figured I'd do it myself.)
I wrote "They Shoot Porn Stars, Don't They?," a longform piece on the Great Recession's impact on the adult movie industry, in 2009. [I decided to take out the specifics regarding the publication for which it was originally written, since I'm trying to be less of an asshole, which is working only intermittently and mostly unsuccessfully.] With a question -- How did the Great Recession impact the adult movie industry -- some experience -- I'd been writing about the porn industry since 1997 -- and a plan -- as mentioned previously -- I got on a plane and got off it in Los Angeles. I spent a week there, doing interviews, and visiting sets. Then I got on another plane and went home. I don't recall when the idea for the title came to me, but it is obviously a redux of the title of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which is about a dance marathon during the Great Recession and the great lengths to which people will go in order to survive when survival seems nearly impossible.
When I first went to write the piece, I believe I spent time doing what I describe as "writing it wrong." Oftentimes, I don't get the voice, initially, or the point of view, or I get anxious about how someone might respond to the piece, so I play it too safe. I think I spent maybe two weeks "writing it wrong," before mostly tossing that version out (or perhaps it was entirely), and then starting all over again. In my experience, it's best to lead with what my shrink would describe as what's "hot" -- which is to say, the piece of the story that generates the strongest emotional reaction within you. The moment in Los Angeles that had impacted me most significantly was when I visited a man who showed me an extremely graphic and emotionally complicated porn scene on a laptop. Obviously, I'm tough to shock or offend or even vaguely stir, but this footage was beyond the pale. It had been directed by someone in the industry who was widely disliked. The man who showed me the clip asked me not to identify him, and I wasn't entirely comfortable identifying the director, so that opening scene -- "Outside, a woman whose hair has been dyed the color of cherry Kool-Aid is smoking a cigarette on a narrow balcony overlooking a half-empty parking lot" -- is written somewhat in the abstract, although details bring it alive. By the time I sat down to write, I had a copy of the clip of the scene itself, so I was able to watch it again later and render the actions and dialogue accurately: e.g., "Absolute whore, right?" The heart of this scene within a scene -- it's probably worth nothing that in the real scene in my writing (i.e., we're sitting in a living room watching a porn movie), nothing actually happens, and all the action takes place in the porn movie itself -- is the idea of someone breaking someone else. I chose this scene as the opener because it showed how challenging conditions had become for pornographers and performers, and I wanted to really home in on how "we" (what people in the industry call "civilians") merely look on passively while people struggle. As I write: "There can be no mistake. This is when he breaks her."
The second section begins by going back in time, so you get how I wound up in this place: "It had been a long time since I first set foot in the adult industry." I'd visited my first porn set 12 years earlier, so I wanted to go back and explain: how the industry had changed, how I'd ended up hanging around on porn sets, and give readers a better understanding that this is an industry with a long, interesting history. The third section, which is more like a subsection of the second section, focuses specifically on the first porn set I visited. That was "Flashpoint," which was made by Wicked Pictures, and which featured seven people having an orgy on a firetruck in a parking lot. Since it had been a dozen years since I'd been on that set, I paid to rewatch the movie online (I'm pretty sure they sent me a copy years ago, but I'd long since lost that VHS tape), so I could get the details right. I wanted to bring to life what it's like to be there: surreal, fascinating, interesting. "'What’s a FIP?' I whispered to the nearest porn writer. 'A fake internal pop' was the answer." My hope as a journalist is to play Virgil to the reader's Dante. I'm not a fan of this sort of gotcha, giving funny looks to the camera journalism. I don't care how "terrible" or "great" you think your subject is. If you get in there and tell me what to think, I never have a chance to think for myself. (Also, every subject is interesting. No thing is "terrible" or "good." Interesting things are complex and should be rendered as such. I don't see the porn industry as "good" or bad," and to discuss it as such would be the height of lazy, stupid journalism. Porn is complicated. It is my responsibility as a journalist to render it as accurately as I can, and let the readers draw their own conclusions.) In this section, I get more at what's behind my interest in porn: "Despite the smoke and mirrors—the fake orgasms, the unreal bodies, the cockamamie premises—something else altogether lay behind the curtain." In other words, in porn, I suggest in this piece's thesis, we see ourselves as we truly are.
The Wide Shot
Arguably, I should've started the entire piece with the first line of the fourth section: "In the late 19th century, California State Senator Charles Maclay stood atop the Cahuenga Pass that runs between Los Angeles proper and the San Fernando Valley and, of the pastoral landscape that lay before him, proclaimed: 'This is the Garden of Eden!'" If this was a movie, this would be your wide shot, a vision of the grand, sweeping San Fernando Valley in all its sprawling glory, panoramic and once pastoral. If I had the opportunity to write the piece all over again, I might start here. Since I'm older now, I'm probably more likely to start slower and less inclined to reach out and throttle someone in the lede, as I did. This section is short and conveys how the Recession impacted the entire landscape, not just porn: "'FOR SALE' ranch-style houses and bloated McMansions; 'FOR RENT' strip mall stores and closed gas stations; 'FOR LEASE' warehouses and empty gravel lots." If this was TV, I'd call this B-roll of the Valley as a kind of post-economic collapse dystopia.
The Medium Shot
The fifth section, again, functions as a kind of subset of the fourth section. Now that we've seen the Valley in all its expansive beauty, I place myself in a car, heading west, going deeper into the Valley in order to go to a set. To note the obvious: SCENE. No one wants to hear what you think. They want to feel what you feel. This is action: the car is moving, I am driving, the road unfurls before us. Now we are moving together, looking for the center of the action. We find it in a house on a hill. It was a really wonderful location, from a journalistic standpoint. A big house, rose bushes, weirdly decorated rooms. The house is interesting because it is not being used as a home, it is being used to make porn, and it is doing so not in a production facility but next door. Somebody once told me that I write about the ordinary in the extraordinary, and I suppose that is correct. There are senses in here, and a sense of creeping, spying, being somewhere we're not supposed to be: "I step into the foyer. It’s cool and quiet." There's boring shit, like a foyer, but then there's a door with glory holes cut into it. Where are we? Some kind of fun house? Let's explore it together. I've pulled you out of judgement (thinking) and into exploring (feeling). That means this story is something we are sharing. (Or, put more roughly, I've made you complicit.) This scene features Jim Powers, one of my favorite porn directors to interview. At this point, I'd been visiting his sets for nine years, I believe. Jim is always doing something crazy, and he certainly was on that day as well, making scenes in which robots -- or dildos attached to machines -- were having sex with girls. There were stained couches and a ceiling swing, and Jim's mad scientist approach to making porn is always contagious. I make it clear that porn has changed, and in no small part due to technology. "[T]he mecha-dildo thrusts robotically in Hunter’s direction, its engine whirring softly." The star of this scene is a young woman named Ryan Hunter. She appears to be conflicted about her role in porn, and there's a difficult scene in which Jim needs Hunter to do something, and Hunter seems unsure how she feels about that. At one point, the sex machine accidentally gets kicked into overdrive, nearly goring Hunter, who bursts into tears. This scene is tricky. These are people, but at the same time, this is business. Is this exploitation or survival? I'm not going to tell you. I'm going to let you decide for yourself.
The sixth section -- now a scene within a scene within a scene -- features Jim, who is something of a quote factory, complaining about how content piracy, the recession, and various other factors have made it much harder for him to make money in porn. Jim complains about how the bolts keep falling off the sex machines. "[W]e're just living in piles of shit," Jim observes of the state of his business. A redhead appears at the door to do the next scene. A double-headed dildo awaits her. This is the sausage factory, and this is where you get to see the strange process of exactly how porn sausage gets made.
This seventh section is a classic vignette of me on a porn set: I wander. This is micro: "a copy of Deepak Chopra’s The Return of Merlin, the back cover of which promises readers 'the resplendent peace that each of us enfolds within our own hearts.'" Is this funny? Probably. It is contrast. There's nothing less interesting than reading a one-note. There's also a fun exchange in which I try to interview the guy who owns the house, and he's too distracted because he's trying to hit on one of the girls. "'So,' he asks her, 'you choose the machines over me?'" The recession has impacted gender, as well; now men must compete with robots for pussy.
Here, I interview Hunter. The eighth section consists of Hunter and I talking at a table. This is after her sex scene. She reveals her history with drugs, her desperation over money. This isn't meant to be archetypal of the female porn star; it is but one example. (There'll be another later, and she'll be quite different.) Hunter also articulates the anxieties of the common man/woman in the post-Recession era: She is financially imperiled, and she is trying to survive. Ergo: Who are we to judge her? Are we not her? (She's not Other, she's us.) She indicates she's thinking about escorting, which has become far more prevalent in the years since, so it's a nod towards a piece of that transition into what the biz will become. (More ... entrepreneurial, if you will.)
The Overhead Shot
I step outside, hear the thudding of helicopter blades, and, lo' and behold, there's an LAPD bird circling overhead. Not passing by. It's taking a look. "Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the helicopter turns tail and leaves, heading for the Hollywood Hills, the great divide between Hollywood, where the real stars live, and the Valley, where the porn stars reside." The lesson for journalists in the ninth section is: Serendipity is your BFF.
I think this tenth section is the shortest. The PA washing dildos in the kitchen sink. Nuff said.
The Sit Down
The next day, I meet Jim at his offices. He makes me get there early. *shrug* Here you get quite a bit about Jim. He's very over-the-top, sort of like a circus ringleader, and I've always felt sort of inexorably drawn to him as a subject. He has never failed to deliver. And because we're talking about porn in this story, it's important to include some of the filth. So, let's look at the bookshelf: "The bookshelves are lined with rows of binders, their crudely rendered titles scrawled upon their spines: 'Black Snake Boned,' 'Escape from Women’s Prison,' 'DP Virgins: The Classic Years,' 'Fuck Pig: The Movie,' 'Garbage Pail Girls #1,' 'Mouth Meat #6." We learn how Jim got into the business. This longer scene isn't afraid to stretch, as Jim stretches himself and those around him: "Equal parts freak show, horror movie, and Russ Meyer-on-crack, his X-rated visions are deranged, demented, mind-boggling expeditions into the dark, unexplored continent of human sexual perversity. Fascinating, horrifying, and amusing—oftentimes all of those things at the same time—Powers’ celluloid world is one populated by midgets, bald chicks, and crazed men outfitted with monster-sized papier-mâché phalluses which spew torrents of goo onto the naked bodies of supine women, movies in which everyone has sex all of the time, and in which, most of the time, no one appears to win." Welcome to mystique de la merde. We're pigs wallowing in shit. "In this canon, the real subject is not human sexuality but humanity itself. The products that Jim produces are videotaped vivisections, studies in which homo sapiens lie upon the operating table, the director is the doctor, the camera is the scalpel, and the only question worth asking is, How far will we go if we are pushed to our limits?" Jim reminds us that he's just one more businessman trying to make money. He recalls the good old days -- "'It was like the last days of Rome,' he says wistfully. 'We were in the vomitorioums.'" -- and decries the new era -- "'Everybody talks about content,' Powers bemoans, disgusted. 'What the fuck is content?' he sneers." What journalist among us has not voiced the same complaint?
The Long Arm of the Law
This twelfth section is about the history of obscenity in Porn Valley, and I believe this one took me the longest to write. I'd watched the whole thing play out over the years -- from Bush's anti-porn strategy to the indictments and convictions -- and I finally got a chance to write about it here. "What fresh hell would the Bush administration bring?" The Obscenity Prosecution Task Force! The War on Porn! At the end of this section, I indicate Obama would likely not crackdown much on porn, and he certainly didn't.
We return to my conversation with Jim in the office. More abstractedly, I'm drawing a link between Bush and his buddies and this pornographer sitting in front of me. These groups are inextricably conjoined, despite their mutual dislike. Possibly because we were in the more formal setting of Jim's office, he was a bit less colorful than he can be on set. And he was being a little nonchalant. I listen for quotes when I'm interviewing, and something was missing. I think I asked Jim what he dreams about at night, in an attempt to prod him, which I think he took to mean, How do you sleep at night, which isn't a question I would ask, and he took that and ran with it. "'We are helping these girls! Anybody that comes into this business, for the most part, is a broken toy.' He leans towards me, earnestly attempting to make himself understood. 'We’re giving them a place where they can make money, and get by, so they’re not standing on line in a welfare department. Thank God for people like me!' He bangs the desk." Jim doesn't exactly see a rosy future for porn. He equates his situation to the plot of "Rollerball." Jim notes of "Rollerball"'s dystopic vision of the future: "'People still went to watch gladiators in the future … to see if they could persevere.'" The internet has change the medium, not the interest. "'Pandora’s box has been opened,' Powers observes darkly. 'The Internet did that.'"
The fourteenth section is short. And another "wandering" episode. I meander through Jim's warehouse, where I spot a giant vagina costume hanging in the gloom of the rafters. “'You’re always welcome on my sets, Susannah,' Powers calls after me as I walk out the door.'"
The Scene of the Crime
This section is a stomach-churner. It starts with a scene I didn't witness. I met Jim years ago because he used to let me visit his bukkake shoots. This scene takes place at a gukkake shoot, where someone robbed the gukkake: "'It just goes to show we're in a recession and people are taking desperate means.' It was one more sign that hard times had hit Porn Valley." More importantly, this fifteenth section includes the most notorious incident in the entire 10,000-plus words of this piece, and it is the one people who've read it most frequently mention to me. It is the "sperm omelet." (Someone on set used the phrase, and I dutifully wrote it in my notebook.) The woman who'd eaten the sperm omelet was at the shoot with the robococks in the house on the hill, so while I wasn't at the gokkun, I got to meet the girl who'd eaten the sperm omelet. (Jim said it was her idea. She said it was Jim's idea. You figure it out.) She had red hair and described herself to me as "an attention whore." Here's a bit from our chat about the sperm omelet incident: "I asked Emerson what the experience had been like. She took a moment, then replied matter-of-factly, 'I like that I set the cum omelet eating record.'" Porn: The quotes just write themselves. The redhead was doing great financially and gave me hard numbers. The following week, she'd be making six grand doing a gangbang and a blowbang. "'I'm doing this to afford my starving actor lifestyle,' she told me, and smiled."
The Health Issue
The sixteenth section is about porn, HIV, and condoms. It is too short and not enough in depth. If I had this to do over, I'd go deeper on this. It includes a question that wouldn't get answered for years (last year, actually). I'd been asking people if they thought porn would one day die, if porn stars would someday be replaced by pixels. And it's an interesting thing to consider in the context of the health issue. Digitize the business, and you negate the risk. But then ... it's no longer human.
The Bottom Line
On my last working day in the Valley, I visit a set where a male and a female porn star -- James Deen and Tori Black -- are doing a scene. I pass Rocketdyne to get there. The set is classic, in that there are various rooms with three walls, and each is a set pretending to be something it isn't. Because the director -- who goes by Quasarman -- is a smart ass, there's more joking around. The shoot is for an interactive video, and I ask Quasarman about the title. "We were going to go with 'Existential Musings of a Porn Star,' but we thought we’d dumb it down," he cracks. "If you want to have sex with Tori Black and don’t have chloroform, this is your next best option." It also bears mentioning that writing about people having sex is no easy task. I mean, what are you going to say? I watched the sausage slide in and out of the sandwich? The ceiling had a hole in it and so did my brain? It was a rare moment of beauty that reminded me of swans mating in the woods and music played softly? Sex scenes happen several times in this long piece, and I deal with it primarily by being clinical and/or mechanical. I also use humor. You can also use imagery. "Deen plows away at his costar like the man whose assigned task is to dismantle the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner" is my contribution to the genre. I'm trying to capture this very intimate physical act, but the crew is totally bored and you're trying to stay engaged and wondering if you're going to get a parking ticket.
In the dressing room of that set, I hang out with Black and take some photographs of her. I'm not a photographer, but I think the shot I took of her at the mirror is the one I like the best. It shows how complicated being a woman -- and being a woman in porn -- can be. There's her, and there's her reflection, and there's these images of different faces hanging on the wall. Who is she? I then mosey over to where Deen is hanging out. He gives me sort of the master quote on porn and money, as far as men are concerned: "If I was a billionaire, I'd still do porn." That said, he isn't making much per scene. When he says, "My job is contingent upon my dick working," you get a sense that this is a tough career choice. Oh, you want to have sex with women for a living? That's a nice fantasy. But you probably aren't up to it, buddy.
The nineteenth section is this story's last. I suppose it is the part that I like the least, and the one I would be most interested in rewriting. It ends with bukkake, and the DoJ, and something a pornographer once told me: "If people didn't want it, it wouldn't be made." This is my other core point about the porn business. Frequently, the business is treated like it's something different, and its performers are considered to be Other. But the argument I'm making here is that porn isn't about them or their business -- it's about you. It's about a group of people who are contracted to act out other people's fantasies that for one reason or another can't be realized. Why we demonize people for acting out what we want is beyond me. If we negate what they do or the choices they've made, we're projecting our sexual pathologies onto them. And nowadays, the situation is all the more acute, as people no longer feel the need to pay for porn, and pornographers, performers, and everyone else in the business are left holding the short end of the stick. You value what you do. You think it has worth. But you deny those who work in the porn business the ability to make a decent living because of your own guilt and shame and self-loathing. That's America: a self-aware human that denies its true status as a beast.
I came home, like I said, and wrote one version of the piece, and then I wrote this version. I submitted it to the editor, and then, as I recall, I didn't like the feedback I got. If I remember correctly, there was talk of it being run as a series. And that wasn't going to happen, as far as I was concerned. So, in a fit of pique that everyone could've lived without, I withdrew it. I spent six frustrated, depressed months shopping it around to various publications. Mostly, editors didn't bother responding. A few did, and declined. Why? I don't know. I seem to remember that it was too seedy for the papers and the ladies' rags, and the men's pubs had their designer pants wedged too far up their ass cracks to dig it. Finally, I decided to publish it myself. At the time, I found that choice humiliating and frustrating. I had spent all this time working on something that I thought was really good and really important, and people just didn't give a shit. So I got the amazing DC-based artist and designer Chris Bishop to build a standalone site for the piece and illustrate it. And when I finally self-published it, I think it was October. The day it launched, I was so frustrated that I walked into the tiny kitchen of the one-bedroom apartment in which I was living, jerked back my head and rocked onto my heels, and slammed myself forward and rammed my head into the cupboard as hard as I could. I was at my wit's end. But then, something happened. I got a headache. And people read it. People appreciated it. People linked to it. Over time, it reached hundreds of thousands of readers, and it grew a long tail. Readers seemed to especially appreciate that it was self-published. It ended up getting on several best of lists. Six years later, the fact that a Pulitzer Prize-winner had read it years ago got me invited to spend a month at an amazing nonfiction writing residency in upstate New York. I love the piece like it's a child, one that I gave up and shared with the world. It isn't normal. It isn't traditional. It doesn't have one main male character. It's graphic. It lacks a traditional "plot." It's not that ever popular true crime. It never got nominated for an award in part because it wasn't produced by a machine. It was a thing that I made. And you can make things, too.
[Don't read this part if you're a man: If you're a woman, and you write longform journalism, or you want to write longform journalism, please, please keep writing it, and keep publishing it, and keep trying to make it your career. It matters. You matter. I know it's hard with all these fucking asshole male editors picking their junior versions of themselves to publish their shitty true crime or jerk off to a vision of manliness pieces, but I want you to know that I'm with you, girl, and I see you, and I hear you, and I want you to keep going. This is really hard. I'm still struggling. But you're not alone. I don't know you, but I'm cheering you on, because this is the important stuff; the short stuff, the garbage stuff isn't worth your time. Go long, girl.)