Porn: Though Mainstream, It's Still Dehumanizing

Jenna Jameson
Sex

The truth about the porn industry, from a writer who's covered it for more than a decade.

There was a point at which porn hadn't simply gone mainstream, hadn't yet jumped the shark, but had somehow lost its taboo altogether, and that was November 17, 2009, the day Jenna Jameson appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

I remember watching it with a mix of bemusement and sadness. I first met Jameson in the summer of 1997, when she was dancing at a strip club in San Francisco. The Las Vegas-born daughter of a police officer and a showgirl, Jameson entered the adult movie business at 19 and became the most famous porn star in the world. In the 12-plus years since I began writing about the adult movie business, porn's place in American culture had changed as dramatically as Jameson's seemingly much-altered face.

In the early 90s porn was still shocking. Now a porn star-turned-mother of twins was telling Oprah her life story while an audience of Middle American women looked on, nodding sympathetically. Apparently, porn was no different than baking a cake or knitting a sweater. Porn had transcended its own bad reputation.

Today the Internet, TV and the pages of glossy magazines are peppered with tales of porn stars who claim to have found their feminist emancipation by getting paid to have sex on camera. In reality, the myth of porn and the reality of porn are as far apart as ever. The Simplest Answer To The Eternal Question: Why Do Guys Love Porn?

Maybe to distance themselves from their mothers' feminism, a new generation of young feminists decided porn wasn't misogynist, after all. It was empowering. In their view, porn is an X-rated Garden of Eden where women can reclaim a female sexuality long repressed by the patriarchy, the result being so-called "feminist porn" movies like Penny Flame's Expert Guide to Hand Jobs for Men and Women and Perversions of Lesbian Lust Vol. 1.

In 2008 blogger Megan Carpentier wrote on the neo-feminist blog Jezebel, "Say what you will about pornography, objectification and exploitation, the growing legitimization of the pornography industry – which led to much more government- and self-regulation – also led to a significant decrease in the kind of exploitation described by those performers as well as increased opportunities for women to participate in the higher-earning aspects of the production." How Carpentier came to her conclusion is a mystery.

The porn industry has succeeded in selling a new story about itself – that it's a business like any other. But, especially for those who perform in it, it is back-breaking, emotionally exhausting, deeply challenging work. Of course, you don't know that unless you're around when it's being made, and most outsiders don't know what it's really like inside the porn machine.

The majority of journalists who are interested in writing about the world of porn are men, and porn insiders aren't too keen on letting random, "outsider" guys hang out on their movie sets, seeing as, they figure, those guys are really there to ogle girls, get laid, or get off. Most women journalists aren't interested in immersing themselves in the world of porn, interviewing pimps, and standing by while a young woman who may or may not be old enough to drink grits her teeth through a two-hour anal sex scene. I was interested. Over the last dozen years, I've hung around on adult movie sets, interviewed a multitude of porn stars, and watched the business grow and, more recently, contract. I know porn starlets and porn directors, talent agents and producers, production assistants and industry veterans. To me, the world of porn is familiar.

Over time, there have been some dramatic changes in the adult movie industry – the recession hit porn like a hurricane: production companies are going bankrupt, performers pay rates have plummeted, and the industry seems unable to rebound now that vast quantities of its product are pirated and downloaded for free. Still, the bottom line hasn’t changed: X number of people have sex in X number of positions for X number of cameras to make X numbers of movies which will sell X number of units to X number of people to make X number of dollars.

Women get into porn for all kinds of reasons. Because they like to have sex and they're exhibitionists. Because they were having a lot of sex and figured they might as well get paid for it. Because they wanted to be famous and were willing to have sex on camera to get there. Because they're free-spirited, out of control, depressed, addicted, wild. Because they were sexually abused. Because their boyfriend or husband talked them into it. Because they decided being a porn star meant they were being a feminist. Australia's Female-Friendly Porn

Has porn become an empowering workplace for women over the last decade? Hardly. Porn is an equal opportunity dehumanizer. It dehumanizes the women who work in front of its cameras as routinely as it does the men who work in front of its cameras. Those who are employed on the periphery of the action – the sound guy, the director, the production assistant – aren't immune to the porn virus either. If you look around at the crew on porn sets, you can expect to see faces inured to human emotion: to pain, to ecstasy, to loneliness. Meanwhile, the comparatively few camera-ready porn performer-turned-pop culture pundits who have "crossed over" to the mainstream, think Jameson, Sasha Grey, and Stormy Daniels, are the exceptions and in the business of marketing half-truths to Americans eager to believe them.

The public buys this porn-as-self-empowerment story for the same reason that it's easier to pretend your steak wasn't once sentient as you take a bite out of it. We have enough to worry about already: mortgages, shopping lists, endless trips to daycare and home and back again. Caring about what happens to porn stars is not on our to-do list, not today or any other day.

Maybe it should be. Every few years, another porn star turns up HIV-positive. That the porn industry is spiraling downward economically at an accelerated rate does not bode well for the welfare of porn's workhorses. Yet we believe a girl who claims doing double-anals is emancipating. We buy into the fantasy that most porn stars are in the business because they really, really love sex. We suspend belief that porn stars are actually human beings because porn only works if its consumers can shut off their sympathetic impulses and tune into their inner-sociopathic tendencies. Guilt is not particularly conducive to an erection.

Perhaps in future years this won't be an issue. Porn will be computerized. Porn Valley will be virtual. And a class of human beings we paid to act out our fantasies will no longer exist.

Photo Credit: INF

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