Yesterday I attended the premiere of the documentary Exxxit: Life After Porn. I learned some disturbing things about what it's like to have sex on camera — and to stop.
Director Bryce Wagoner — whom Sean Macaulay quoted for his Daily Beast piece on post-porn life — turned up several common threads in his interviews with performers and ex-performers. Many got into porn in a sort of sidelong fashion, starting with modeling or stripping, and many were attracted by the offer of good money for fairly short hours. Once in the industry, some grew to love the attention. Ex-porn star Houston says she became so used to marketing her celebrity status that when she got a labiaplasty, it was a no-brainer to encase her labia "trimmings" in lucite and sell them.
Others, however, weren't so comfortable. Crissy Moran speculates that she was popular in her performing days precisely because she wasn't confident in front of the camera. And a significant number of performers reported abusive childhoods, and addiction issues that appeared or worsened during their time in porn. Some also described porn as a way to counteract early self-esteem issues — ex-star Richard Pacheco said people once teased for their weight "are the people that become centerfolds, because they've got something to prove."
But those who leave porn face a new kind of stigma. Houston heart-wrenchingly described being fired from her job because she was "too recognizable" — right before she was diagnosed with cancer. Former porn star Asia Carrera joined Mensa, but had to make a new website with no mention of her porn career before their site would link to her. She also moved to Utah and went by a different surname, but still encountered people who had dug up her past. Porn director Bill Margold summed up the hypocrisy of a country willing to consume porn but not to accept its performers: these performers, he said, were "blighted by a society that jacked off to them."
During the Q&A after the show, I asked Wagoner and some of his subjects what the solution was. I was curious not just about how to relieve the stigma porn stars and ex-porn stars face, but also how to fix an industry many ex-performers looked back on as degrading. Several former stars in the film were so disturbed by their time in the business that they joined anti-porn campaigns like XXX Church, but I wondered if there was a way to make porn more humane for its performers rather than rejecting it entirely. Bill Margold mentioned his work for the organization Protecting Adult Welfare (their goal: "improving the quality of life for the workers in the adult entertainment industry [...] as well as improving an understanding of our industry by the public at large"), and stressed the need for a safety net for porn stars in crisis, "a place where when the star crashes and burns they can go for sanctuary." But how to prevent performers from crashing and burning in the first place?
One clue comes from self-described feminist porn star Nina Hartley (pictured, although not from premiere). While many of Wagoner's subjects got into the business for the money or because of lack of other options, Hartley started in porn because she "had something to say about sex." During the Q&A, she explained, "I'm a nurse, and in our culture sexuality is sick" (she is, in fact, an RN). Hartley continues to act in porn and was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise downbeat documentary, perhaps because unlike many of the performers featured, she has made a career doing what she genuinely loves. Still, it's not easy for a woman in our society to own an exhibitionist sexuality (Hartley also describes herself as an exhibitionist and a voyeur), and there may always be those who prefer to watch someone "uncomfortable" in front of the camera, like Moran, rather than someone who clearly loves being there. One reason porn performers are so denigrated is that our culture still prizes unwilling or faux-unwilling female sexual partners, and this will have to change before those who willingly have sex for money gain full acceptance.
On thing Exxxit didn't really address was the rise of Internet porn and its depression of porn stars' salaries. For better or for worse, in the coming years fewer and fewer people will go into porn because they can make a week's salary in a day. This could mean more people will do porn for the sheer love of it — but it could also mean young people hoping for mainstream fame will be exploited for little money or none at all. Whatever the case, porn performers may need support now more than ever — and porn consumers would do well to recognize that they're jacking off to human beings.
Life After Porn [Facebook]