Saturday, November 13, 2010
Ethics Part I
I strongly advocate comments and suggestions for this piece. But when you get to the end, you may understand why I will probably not be keeping my weekly schedule with the next entry. I'm guessing it's going to take me a little while longer to compile the necessary information.
But please read...
Ethics Part I
A friend and fellow adult performer, Paris Kennedy, invites me over one evening for dinner. Amidst a meal of home-cooked, vegetable lasagna, she and her partner, (adult fetish producer) Alex Bettinger, propose to me an idea.
“We want to start a book club,” they tell me. “But for people in the industry.”
“Sounds like fun,” I reply.
“It would be more than just a club,” adds Bettinger. “I'd like us to have filmed, round-table discussions on each book we read. And I'd like to put some excerpts online for people to watch.”
“So what would we be reading?” I ask.
“I'd like to start with this.” Bettinger hands me a paperback by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Chris Hedges, titled, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
It's not what I'm prepared for. I thought we'd be picking out cherished novels from our past and sharing them with a group of friends. But what Bettinger and Kennedy have in mind is something different. They want a relevant discussion on the nature of our industry. And they want it to start with Chris Hedges' stance on pornography. That stance, I soon learn, is one of blatant pessimism.
“I recommend reading the whole thing,” says Bettinger, “but I'd like for you to at least finish the chapter on porn.”
“It's actually very interesting,” Kennedy tells me. “It takes a lot to hold my attention when I'm reading something like that.” By that, she means a fierce critique of her own, chosen profession.
“Hedges has some valid points, but it's not an academic article,” says Bettinger. “It's a polemical piece. He takes what I believe are extreme examples, and from them, builds the foundation of his argument.”
“Well, let me write down the title, and I'll see if I can pick it up at the local book store,” I tell them.
“No,” says Bettinger. “This copy's for you.”
I thank him, and we continue on with the rest of our evening. Not until the following day do I begin my relationship with Hedges' work.
It doesn't take long for me to find I'm looking for. Stacked towards the beginning of Hedges' cultural commentary, the second chapter of his book, “The Illusion of Love,” deals exclusively with pornography. Like the title suggests, it centers on the notion that porn strips away such human qualities as love and intimacy in exchange for cruel and superficial sex. Hedges writes this of female, adult performers: “The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the women's physical and emotional degradation” (57).
Of the individuals interviewed for his piece, Hedges gives primary voice to those who share his own beliefs. Shelly Lubben, an ex-porn star and founder of the Christian outreach program, Pink Cross, is quoted saying, “'...this is a whole generation raised on porn. They're jaded and don't even ask if it is wrong. They fall into it. They get into drugs to numb themselves. They get their asses ripped. Their uterus hemorrhages. They get HPV and Herpes, and they turn themselves off emotionally and die. They check out mentally'” (60).
Another ex-porn star, Patrice Roldan (aka Nadia Styles), who Hedges writes, “had a difficult and troubled childhood, including a physically abusive mother,” recounts her own experiences (58). “'I thought roughness in porn was OK,'” she tells Hedges. “'I would say, “Treat me like a little slut,” or “I'm your bitch,” or “Fuck me like a whore.” I would say the most degrading things I could say about myself because I thought this was what it meant to be sexy and what people wanted to hear, or at least the people who buy the films. You are just a slut to those who watch. You are nothing. They want to see that we know that.'” (62). While Roldan speaks about men ejaculating on her face, having penises forced violently in and out of her mouth, and performing oral sex immediately after anal penetration, Hedges makes the following observation: “As she talks of her career in porn, her eyes take on a dead, faraway look. Her breathing becomes more rapid. She slips into a flat, numbing monotone. The symptoms are ones I know well from interviewing victims of atrocities in war who battle post-traumatic stress disorder” (60).
The accounts of contemporary industry professionals presented in the chapter do nothing to paint a brighter picture. Adult film director, Jim Powers, tells Hedges that “he 'makes stupid content for stupid people,' that porn is a prime example of 'the stupidification of America'... 'There was a day when porn stars were veiled actresses'... 'They took the job seriously. They were twenty-four or twenty-five years old. Now they are nineteen. They are hookers. They don't care. They are a throwaway commodity in a throwaway world'” (78).
Hedges goes on to describe the racist depictions of ethnic minorities in many porn films, the equivalent of sexual circus acts performed on set, the misogynistic selling points plastered on DVD box covers and websites, and the seemingly atrocious exploitation of borderline-unwilling participants. He concludes that “Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan... The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy” (72-73).
After setting down my copy of Empire of Illusion, I'm nearly convinced that porn is a malicious force, worthy of scorn by most any ethical standard. But then reality kicks in, and I remember that I am a pornographer, and that I feel a significant lack of guilt despite Hedges' allegations.
While my own experience is duly subjective, I would like to believe that I am not a psychopath, but a human being capable of love, empathy, and remorse. And by the only experience I have to rely on - my own human experience - I will conclude that this is true.
It is not, then, by lack of ability that I feel no guilt. I am armed with a conscious, I feel responsibility for my own actions, and yet I am entirely comfortable with making this statement: I am a pornographic performer and I do not regularly participate in the exploitation or degradation of fellow performers. That said, I do not necessarily dispute Hedges' findings. In fact, I have experiences that may validate them.
Recently, during a live cam session, a fan wrote to me about a scene I had performed in with an older, gay man. I did not remember doing such a scene, so I asked the fan to provide more information. He sent me a link to a website where a frightened-looking, nineteen-year-old version of myself was depicted receiving oral sex from a man in his mid-fifties.
My memory had not lapsed. I recalled the situation just fine. In fact, I had written a short story about it, titled, “Not The First Time, But Close.” The man had lured me to his apartment through an ad on Craigslist. I was under the impression that I would be auditioning for a role in a future pornographic production. In fact, I was told it would be a heterosexual film. But halfway through, I discovered that I was acting as a hustler, or prostitute, for the man's own personal pleasure. He offered me extra money in exchange for sucking my cock. I was poor, so I took the cash. But five years later, I learned that I was wrong on both accounts. The man not only lied, but continued to profit off me by hosting the video on his paid, subscription website. His actions were exploitative in every sense of the word.
Needless to say, I felt taken advantage of. Someone had claimed one agenda, and then waited until I was naked and vulnerable to reveal another. Had it been my first experience in the porn industry, I may have never ventured back.
But I had already worked for a company that was honest about its intentions, paid me well, and treated me with respect. I had seen proof that porn could be a legitimate business. Yet, to the casual observer, I may have appeared in better hands with the old man.
During my first porn shoot, for Kink.com (Cybernet at the time), I was tied up, whipped, electrocuted, and then fucked in the ass. Sure, some of it hurt. But I was informed of every act before it took place, given options and safe-words, and surrounded by professionals who's job it was to ensure my physical well-being.
On some level, one could argue that I participated in the depiction of sexual abuse. But it was a far cry from Hedges' claim that “the woman is stripped of her human attributes and made to beg for abuse... She exists to gratify any whim that a male decides is pleasurable. She has no other purpose” (73). My co-star was female, and the film was directed by a woman. Even the talent coordinator who helped me fill out my paperwork was of the sex opposite mine. If anyone was asked to beg for abuse, it was me. But just as I was then, I am now, and will be until the day I die, a biological and self-identified male.
That is not to say that sexual abuse is okay if perpetrated against men, or by women. Or by any transgendered identity for that matter. My point is that Hedges never writes that SOMETIMES women in porn serve no other purpose but to satisfy men and beg for sexual abuse. He doesn't even write that OFTEN or USUALLY women serve such a purpose. His claim is all-encompassing: Porn is about sexual violence against women. Or just sexual violence. And in the latter case, Hedges might still have a case against me if I were to end my argument here. After all, my first and self-proclaimed, positive, porn experience was of a certain violent nature.
Kink.com, and specifically the website, meninpain.com (now divinebitches.com), on which I made my pornographic debut, produces content for the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and submission; Sadism and Masochism) niche. This niche derives from a greater sub-culture in which many sexual activities are widely practiced. Among them are scenarios wherein partners take on dominant and/or submissive roles. Sometimes these scenarios involve bondage, flogging, caning, and other use of implementation designed to cause pain, or “sensation,” as many BDSM enthusiasts prefer to call it.
Such activities can appear violent. After all, one person beating another to achieve arousal may come off as barbaric. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that such actions are, for the most part, consensual within the BDSM community. Couples workshops, such as those hosted by the San Francisco art gallery, Femina Potens, work to enrich kinky relationships. Night clubs exist around the world that cater to the BDSM lifestyle. Men and women work as professional dominatrixes, charging substantial fees to those who wish to be put in a state of sexual submission.
Hedges argues that “Porn has become so embedded and accepted in the culture, especially among the young, that sexual humiliation, abuse, rape, and physical violence have merged into a socially acceptable expression, once fear of retribution is removed” (74). But in doing so, he negates the fact that such desires far precede pornography. The 19th century, Austrian writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, often wrote of a sexual pleasure he associated with pain, most notably in his novella, Venus in Furs (first published in 1870). The French aristocrat, Donatien Alphonse Francois, otherwise known as the Marquis de Sade, combined philosophical discourse with explicit erotica, often depicting fantasies analogous to contemporary BDSM practice. His writings date back to the mid-18th century. Neither man was privy to hardcore porn. And neither man lived in the United States, the culture of which Hedges claims to be “seduced by death” (87).
So while Hedges has a point, in that aggressive pornographic images are now widely available, he discounts the probability that their associated desires may be innate to human sexuality. But innate or not, the more important question seems to be whether they are ethical. I may have an innate desire to lash out at someone when I am angry, but it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.
That said, I'm discouraged by the fact that pornographic directors will refer to performers as “throwaway commodities.” I think it's unfortunate that companies must advertise their product with write-ups like this: “'As many of you will remember, for quite a long time superwhore Ashley Blue was the official JM contract whore. But like the sole of an old shoe, porn whores eventually wear out and have to be thrown away. So our way of throwing a retirement party for Ashley was to have her head pistonfucked one last time'” (63). I do not doubt that performers like Patrice Roldan have felt physically and emotionally violated. By my own admission, there is a great deal of porn that refrains from any positive association with sex.
Pornography is an industry like any other. It is comprised of businesses and corporations. And like Hedges points out in a later chapter of his book, “The corporation is designed to make money without regard to human life, the social good, or the impact of the corporation's activities on the environment” (162). If violent, dehumanizing pornography sells, there will always be a corporation to supply it.
However, I feel that I am proof that other porn sells just as well. I am regularly employed by one of the largest providers of internet pornography, Naughty America. It is their company policy that male performers do not spit on, choke, or slap female performers. A female performer may be slapped on the ass, but she must ask for it first. A male performer cannot call a female performer a “bitch,” “cunt,” “whore,” or any other derogatory term. In fact, it is preferred that he say as little as possible throughout the scene.
I have been hired by directors for Vivid, Heartcore Films, Madison Bound Productions, Sweet Sinner, and others who facilitate discussions around sexual desires, turn-ons, attraction to fellow performers, limits, and so on. Some of these companies will gladly film acts of rough sex, but only if those involved express a sincere desire to participate.
My experiences suggest that porn does not have to be a process of human degradation. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. There is no inherent harm in filming two people have sex. But there may be a gray area for those who have aggressive sexual fantasies, and yet view themselves as ethical consumers.
Let me make an example by referring to the book, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Through his investigative journalist account, Foer reveals many of the negative impacts factory farming has on our health, society, ecosystem, and more. He writes, “If we are at all serious about ending factory farming, then the absolute least we can do is stop sending checks to the absolute worst abusers... We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history” (257). It is for these reasons that I, amongst thousands (perhaps millions) of others, have ceased to consume factory farmed animal products. But for those, like myself, who wish to continue eating meat, a certain responsibility now befalls us. We must become extremely conscious of our meat's history, where it comes from, and how it was raised. Otherwise, we risk financially supporting one of the world's most devastating industries. We also risk the loss of its competition. By supporting local, ethical farms, we ensure, with our consumer dollars, their prosperity. We ensure their growth.
The same goes for any commercial product, including porn. If the consumer buys more of it, then more of it will be produced. However, unlike food, porn lacks the support of consumer advocates who might designate which studio, director, or line of films is essentially safe to purchase from an ethical standpoint. I'm not even sure such a standard exist. And if it does, I imagine it difficult to regulate.
So here is my self-assigned homework: Talk to those who produce what I believe to be “ethical porn,” interview performers on what they feel differentiates a safe work environment from one that is degrading or dis-empowering, and do my best to figure out if there is any discernible way for consumers to figure out what type of product will get him/her off and still provide a clean conscious.
I want to be able to return to Kennedy and Bettinger armed not only with opinions and commentary. If at all possible, I'd like to come prepared with a tangible solution. This is my goal. And by writing it down, by sharing it, I enact a sense of accountability. Please help me keep it.