'Pleasure and Tedium': What Porn Reveals About the Future of Work

Image: UNC Press/Photo by Kit Smemo

“Every porn scene is a record of people at work,” begins Heather Berg’s Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism, a deeply researched book examining the nuances of labor within the adult industry. This declaration echoes the familiar rallying cry that “sex work is work,” but Berg immediately complicates it. “Sometimes it is also something else,” she adds. “Again and again, porn workers told me that they left straight (non-sex-work) jobs for porn because they ‘hated working,’” she explains. It was an escape from the nine-to-five grind. Then again, many porn workers also told her that it was “a job,” “a gig,” one with all the potentials for monotony, as well as exploitation, that come with any job or gig.

In her interviews with 81 performers, managers, and crew members across genres—from mainstream to amateur, and in gay, straight, queer, and feminist productions—she found reports of enjoyment and hatred, “pleasure and tedium.” These tensions are familiar to work in general, because the adult industry “is not exceptional,” argues Berg.

That said, porn is exceptional for being steeped in societal shame and taboo. It bucks the convention that sex should be “private and free,” as Berg puts it. Porn also appears to fail to conform to dated office-job cliches of staid cubicle farms and sober TPS reports. But, in fact, Berg shows how the experiences of porn workers are revealing of a broader “moment in late capitalism.” Workers of all sorts are “called to ‘do what you love.’” Authenticity “is a work requirement and one that can serve to extract more from workers, for less.” The many tensions in porn work fundamentally reflect the “deep contradictions at the core of (late) capitalism,” she argues. Workers flee the constraints of traditional jobs only to “find precarity on the other side.” People seek pleasure in work, which both makes it more “livable but also gets us to do more of it.”

Porn workers have long faced the realities that are now considered indicative of a new economy in which “intimate life is increasingly brought to the market; individual workers, rather than employers or the state, assume the economic and health risks of doing business; and a hypermobile gig economy is eclipsing more stable ways of working.” Having lived for decades in this “new” reality, porn workers have “found ways to hack and reshape its conditions for as long,” she writes. This includes everything from mutual aid for out-of-work performers to whisper networks of insider information around everything from unscrupulous talent agents to the potential side-effects of herbs used for erectile dysfunction. Berg also points to organizing efforts, like the recent formation of the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, which seeks to address industry racism.

Berg has a sober view of the limitations of “hacking” and “reshaping” within capitalism. These efforts are “not always transformative—sometimes intervening means ascending hierarchies rather than dismantling them,” she writes. Many of these “strategies chip away at the status quo, even as they sometimes also maintain it.” Berg argues for the importance of acknowledging sex work as work, and improving the conditions of that work as a “politics for the meantime,” while also crucially and radically imagining a post-work reality. The epilogue of the book is titled, simply: “Fuck Jobs.” The phrase was taken from an interview with performer Conner Habib who said, “I don’t like the idea of jobs. The most obscene thing is ‘working for a living.’”

Jezebel spoke with Berg by phone about the nexus of labor and pleasure, and what porn reveals about the future of work.


JEZEBEL: You write of an interesting tension between the need to recognize sex work as work and many of your interviewees expressing that they chose porn because they “hated working.” Can you explain that seeming contradiction?

Heather Berg: This tension can’t really be resolved. What became really important for me in the book was to frame the reality that porn work not only is work but also feels like work, often in its tediums and hierarchies and forms of exploitation. In all of that, it is a job like other jobs.

It’s also true that it is absolutely a way to refuse other, and worse, straight jobs. That is a tension that can’t and shouldn’t be resolved. It became really important for me to frame that tension not as a miscalculation on workers’ parts, but instead as struggle. It’s this thing that so many workers in sex industries and outside of them are grasping at—the hope of doing something that feels more autonomous, that feels more pleasurable. There are these moments in porn where that delivers and other moments where it feels very much like the kind of retail, food service, and office work that people leave behind.

Your book is full of these tensions. One of them is the subject of authenticity, which can be both an extractive demand and a sustaining part of porn work. Can you explain what you found there?

On the one hand, as various labor scholars have been writing for the last twenty years or so, we’re in this moment in which more and more workers are expected to do their jobs not because they need money but because they love them, because they feel like a vocation. For you and I, in journalism and academia, we have a much longer history of that, and there are all sorts of workers for whom that’s not new, that’s not a product of neoliberalism. But that’s always been the case for various forms of service work, domestic labor, teaching, and certainly for unpaid care work in the home. Those expectations around the affect that you bring to work are being democratized where all workers are expected to perform authenticity.

That’s more intense sometimes in sex industries because the weight is so far in the direction of disproving anti-sex worker ideas that people only do sexual labor because they desperately need the money, and also disproving the idea that the sex that happens on-set or for in-person work with a client is devoid of any kind of human connection. One response to that, particularly among feminists and queer pornographers, has been to really highlight the authenticity at work in their scenes and also to demand that performance of performers. It’s a PR strategy, but it’s also a labor market strategy, because performing authenticity makes it harder to ask about pay, it makes it harder to say you need to go home at the end of the day. That can create really significant burdens for workers. In the parts of the industry in which authenticity is most prized and also most celebrated by folks on the outside, pay tends to be lowest. That’s a classic dynamic—anyone who has worked for nonprofits or independent bookstores knows what that feels like.

On the other hand, authenticity sometimes matters to workers, which is why so many of us come to these industries in the first place. For autonomy and also for a sense that you can bring some part of yourself to the job, that the job doesn’t feel alienating in the classic sense. I want to take that seriously too. These glimpses of connection between costars and pleasure on the job, they’re not just disciplining, they don’t just get more work out of people but they can also be a foundation for organizing and community building. On the individual level these moments of pleasure can make the workday less bad for people and that matters. It’s both a thing that gets them to work more and something that lets us leave a little bit less of ourselves at work.

In the book, you hit at the idea that for viewers the demand for authenticity might arise from a discomfort with sex work, with commercialized sex. And that this wish might arise from a place of shame.

Absolutely. Anti-porn feminists have engineered that shame and consumers absorb it in all sorts of ways, the idea that having sex for money is bad and that paying people to have sex for money is maybe even worse. Management’s response to that is to offer up to consumers products that make them feel ethically safe. There’s this unholy collaboration between anti-porn feminists and managers, who agree that money is a bad reason to have sex and who together coordinate, without ever talking to each other, to in some ways compel workers to pretend to work for some other reason.

On fan chat boards you can see all sorts of discussion around people who are “dead in the eyes” or don’t seem to be into it, or who at conventions don’t seem to really like their fans. That’s primarily mainstream fans who are demanding a ton of unpaid labor from performers, either chatting with them on OnlyFans or Twitter. On the other hand, you have self-identified queer and feminist consumers who seek out this content, which in some ways does have better working conditions, but in others is much like buying fair trade coffee. It’s more for the consumer’s ego maintenance than anything.

Similarly, how does pleasure play into work in the porn context?

Often the narrative on the part of labor scholarship is that anytime we feel pleasure at work—whether it’s the Google slide or Casual Fridays, these kinds of cheap gestures toward worker pleasure—it’s only a transparent effort to try to get people to work more. Sometimes that’s true. Anyone who has been in a workplace like that knows how thin it can feel. At the same time, again, I don’t view any of these processes as only top-down, as only management figuring out better ways to exploit workers and workers passively accepting that.

The counter to that, which exists not in contradiction but alongside it, is that pleasure can make not just work but also life more livable. That matters for people. That certainly can get folks to work more for less, but there is something about life under late-capitalism that is profoundly pleasureless and un-erotic, and that expects workers to grind themselves into dust. In that context there can be something really resistive about claiming pleasure in your work day.

You write about the blurred line in porn, increasingly, between life and work.

Another tension, and the book is full of them, is that folks often come to porn work with the promise of more money and fewer hours, a job that pays in five or six hours what they used to make in a week. That’s really crucial for folks dealing with disability or chronic illness, who have caretaking responsibilities, who are artists who need time to pursue other things, and also, I always want to add, just for people who want to work less who don’t necessarily have some lofty reason but want more time for the rest of their life. Sometimes porn delivers that, but it does so, like a lot of creative work and gig work, at the cost of any boundary between your job and your life. That offers some real benefits to people insofar as much of the work can be done at home. As people have found during the pandemic, there’s some pleasure in that for some people. All of that’s true and at the same time it can be really hard never to be able to clock out. Workers talked about how they navigated these demands where, unless you have really strict boundaries around your time, you’re never really on vacation.

You’re always uploading content to your OnlyFans or updating your subscription site or quoting fans on social media. People have a lot of smart hacks around that, you can automate a lot, but it can feel difficult to have any sense of separation. But that’s not unique to porn, that’s something all sorts of freelancers identify. I’m not framing that only as something that takes more from people, there are real benefits. It’s not just a neoliberal managerial perspective to say that no one wants to go into an office—that’s actually true for people and I don’t think we should pretend it’s not.

What are some of the issues with looking toward the state for support and protection?

The primary consideration here is that employment law is set up to force a choice upon workers in a really artificial way born out of a very brutal compromise between industrial labor organizers and capital during the New Deal era. It forced this choice between autonomy and some semblance of protection. That is the origin of the distinction between independent contractors and employees and the longstanding rule that it’s only people designated as employees who are nominally protected at work. In order to get access to that protection, whether it’s around anti-discrimination law or occupational health or protections from wage theft or access to social security, you have to give up control over your labor, which is why some people have always refused that.

At the same time, it’s also true that even for people designated as employees, those protections are slimmer and slimmer by the day and they’ve been so eroded under neoliberalism. Even at their height, they were only designed to benefit the white male industrial worker, so they always left out domestic workers, migrant workers, racialized workers, gendered workers, and sex workers and other folks in the informal economy. You give up a lot in name in not working under a boss, but as mainstream workers have learned over the course of the pandemic, plenty of formal employers can put you at risk with no liability, can lower your pay with no responsibilities to you. The risks of relying entirely on state protection are two fold. One, that it forces this choice and, two, the crumbs you’re given on the other side are so paltry.

What is it about porn work itself that adds an additional challenging dimension to reliance on the state?

Porn workers, like other sex workers, have had this longstanding antagonistic relationship to the state because the state regards sex workers primarily as unruly bodies to be controlled rather than workers who need workplace protection. There’s this tricky dynamic where workers often ally with management to resist state interference in ways that would look very strange to a labor organizer outside sex industries. The reality is many workers make this calculation that they would rather have no state intervention than state intervention that treats them solely as vectors of disease.

You can see that in the state’s incredibly single-minded focus on STI transmission over and above all of workers’ mundane health concerns—but also concerns around discrimination and wage theft—that, if you ask workers, they’re much more concerned with. Legislators are just obsessed with the idea of rampant HIV transmission on porn sets, for example. Workers are right that the state’s interventions there will be violent ones rather than pro-worker ones. On the other hand, it does create this dynamic that looks like libertarianism from the outside, but I don’t think is, in which you have workers with no ability to appeal to state response when their legal rights are violated.

So much state policy regarding porn work has actively made conditions worse. One example of that is FOSTA-SESTA, which have not only materially made it harder for workers to work, but also harder to work independently without giving some of their pay to management, whether platforms or individuals. It’s also made it harder to organize.

Absent state assistance, you write about collective and individual struggles in porn work. What approaches have been most effective?

For a time, porn workers had really tight networks of mutual care and community and had figured out ways to take care of each other when the state and employers had failed to do so. That looks like information sharing, daily acts of mutual aid, teaching each other how to do the work in ways that are less extractive, whether that be tips for performing in ways that protect your body or letting people know how to get out of work with a bad agent.

Now, with the overwhelming transition to digital, some of the in-person network has dispersed, but much of that has moved online. In the early days of the pandemic, so many people were figuring out how to make ends meet and sites like OnlyFans were oversaturated. Even then, porn workers were sharing information with either sex workers who had primarily done in-person work before or folks who were newly out of work in their straight jobs and trying to make some money on digital sex work hustles. Seasoned sex workers were sharing information on how to do it safely, how to make money. It was such generosity, even amidst the labor market compression and scarcity, in ways I don’t think you would find in many jobs.

Recently, we’ve seen the resurgence of an anti-porn movement targeting tube sites. What do you make of this in the “porn work” context?

Part of the problem is that anti-porn campaigners, even those who say they’re trying to protect workers, don’t talk to them. They have not just inaccurate but also outdated ideas about how any of this works. If anti-porn campaigners had been paying attention fifteen years ago when workers were starting to organize against tube sites, there might have been some possibility of making themselves useful, if what they actually wanted to do was make it harder for tube sites to steal content and allow fans to consume sex workers’ labor without paying them. But we’re not there and, of course, that’s never been their genuine aim.

In this moment, tube sites are so ubiquitous and sex workers are so crafty, they have spent years cultivating strategies that make tube sites work for them. Now, the primary effect of anti-porn intervention into tube sites specifically is to shut down all of those hacks that workers have already devised. That’s one issue, the other is the implications this has for legal precedent. Historically, struggles over free sexual speech have often focused on studios and traditional managers, but as more and more sex workers have access to class mobility within the industry through producing their own content, then those assaults on sexual speech have a direct impact not on some big studio head, but on sex workers’ own ability to make a living.

What lessons can be drawn from porn workers’ navigation of these tricky tensions around work, life, authenticity, and pleasure?

First, porn workers and sex workers more broadly have already been living in the conditions that are just now hitting other kinds of workers in straight industries. The kinds of trends that labor scholars and activists are observing in other fields as a recent crisis have been par for the course for sex workers since the inception of the work. That is, again, these blurred lines around life and work, and this total lack of state support for worker safety. It’s also blurred boundaries around class—we don’t have one tidy community of workers and another of management that can be easily organized against. Also, this double bind where we want work that feels pleasurable, but then that pleasure can be used against us.

All of these conditions—especially these recent concerns that civilians are just figuring out, like, “Oh, it’s a problem for Uber drivers that the state doesn’t see them as workers”—sex workers have been figuring how to survive in spite of that forever. Straight workers can learn so much from those strategies.

In terms of what that looks like around surviving state violence and neglect, porn workers’ strategies around mutual aid, information sharing, and subtle ways of intervening in their conditions that don’t rely on the protection or permission of the state are so inspiring. My two cents are that other gig workers would be served in not asking for recognition and permission, and taking what they want in less direct ways. In terms of navigating the blurry boundaries between life and work, it’s less that porn workers have figured out some secret, because it’s something folks talk about struggling with all the time, and more that they just remind us that life isn’t better when you have that clear boundary, necessarily. So many people leave jobs that they did clock into, that weren’t at home, that had nothing to do with their own desires, and those jobs were awful too. The main lesson is that work sucks and nobody wants to have a boss.

This economy is set up to punish people who try to escape that. You can’t have total autonomy and also security under capitalism. That’s not a porn problem that’s a capitalism problem. Porn workers reveal the impossibility of that and are also really smart about how to survive in the meantime.

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel

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