Forgotten Women of Porn

The topic of pornography has a stigma attached to it in the United States. Some insist that it is a moral plague on society while others call for the embrace of porn and those who star in it. Porn has a long and complicated history in the United States, with modern day pornography having its roots in the founding of Playboy in 1953. Porn stars themselves are rarely asked to comment on the industry by those who write about it on either side. There is a common idea that women are exploited into performing or that all porn stars absolutely love performing; those who make these arguments use anecdotal evidence by a few scholars to prove their point. Porn stars go into porn for a variety of reasons – being forced into it, being in debt, wanting to become a star, or because it is the next logical step to some after dabbling in stripping or nude modeling being the most common. They are not consulted by scholars on either side who want former porn stars to be fully against or fully support the industry. Performers are shunned by the business for expressing their concerns as well as shunned when they try to leave the business by society, creating a vicious cycle that forces women to continue working in porn. Because of all of these reasons, these women are forgotten by our society and deserve to have their voices heard when it comes to matters that directly affect them and their chosen profession.

Why Women Go into Porn

The most common reason cited by anti-porn advocates for women going into porn is that performers were exploited or forced into it. The late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin insisted that female performers felt “embarrassed… ignorant” about their careers.[1] She insisted that women in porn are almost always forced into it, whether by childhood molestation or prostitution, by citing testimonies from the Minneapolis “Public Hearings on Ordinances to Add Pornography as Discrimination Against Women” in 1983.[2] Linda Lovelace, star of 1973’s Deep Throat, shares how she was forced first into prostitution and then pornography by her boyfriend and eventual husband Chuck Traynor in her book, Ordeal. Deep Throat’s producer, Lou Perry, did not want Lovelace for the role until Traynor arranged for him to receive oral sex from Lovelace; the agreement of Lovelace performing fellatio on Perry continued every day until Deep Throat had been in theatres for nine months.[3]

Linda Lovelace would eventually become the poster child for what was wrong in the porn industry and would speak out against porn after leaving her abusive relationship with Traynor. On September 12, 1984, Lovelace spoke at the Meese Commission hearings.[4] The Messe Commission was created by the U.S. Attorney General and would result in the Meese Report which detailed what pornography was, how it was made, and how it affected civilians. Lovelace famously said, “The film, Deep Throat, still shows, and virtually every time someone watches that movie, they are watching me be raped.”[5] Lovelace was quickly picked up by Dworkin and Dworkin’s partner in the fight against pornography, Catherine McKinnon, as their poster child for what was wrong with porn.[6] In April of 2000, Lovelace sat down with author Eric Danville and made wildly inaccurate claims about porn being primarily kiddie porn, “piss and shit videos”, or violent.[7] Danville asked if she had ever watched modern porn or been to a porn store (Lovelace claimed that one could buy kiddie porn at any porn shop) and Lovelace replied that she hadn’t.[8] Lovelace also eventually admitted that she believed if a woman was comfortable and wanted to be in porn than she should be able to do so.[9]

Yet this view of why women go into porn is narrow and does not cover many who go into the businesses willingly. In her autobiography,  Lights, Camera, Sex, Christy Canyon admits that her first pornographic scene wasn’t fully explained to her (she had been a figure model and was instead booked on a porn shoot) but states that she enjoyed performing, saying it was “fun, and lucrative.”[10] Swedish porn star Puma Swede explains that, although had been a successful glamour model, she had wanted to do porn to become famous and make more money.[11]

Nevertheless, there is a dark side to women who go into porn willingly. The 2015 Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted followed four young women who worked for Hussie Models. Expecting fame and fortune, the girls quickly learned that they would have to go into more extreme pornographic situations to keep a career in the business.[12] Not every girl who goes into porn is going to be the next Jenna Jameson and many do realize this. Christy Canyon explains that she “knew that my personal gravy train would not last forever. Whether I chose to quit the business, or the business would tire of me, I knew [porn] definitely had a time limit.”[13] On the other hand, how is this different from the thousands of women who have traveled to Hollywood in the hopes of being the next Bette Davis or Meryl Streep? All career based on physical appearance have a time limit, with a few notable exceptions. Hollywood, modeling agencies, and television have turned out hundreds of so called “it-girls” over the last hundred years, but most fade out after a few months or a couple years. Porn is not an exception to this rule nor should it be expected to be unique in its treatment of women when mainstream entertainment plays by the same rules.

Some women go into porn to pay down debt. Belle Knox, who became known as the Duke University Porn Star, started performing in pornography because of “how fucking expensive school is. The fact that the only viable options to pay for college are to take out gigantic student loans, to not go to college at all, or to join the sex industry really says something.”[14] Knox faced severe bullying for her decision. She received death threats from fellow students and went to the police, who, according to Knox, proceeded to do nothing but question her relationships. Knox eventually wrote a piece for the website xojane.com explaining that she wasn’t ashamed of her career choice to pay her tuition and that she was comfortable with her appearance and sexuality.[15]

Puma Swede, Christy Canyon, and Jenna Jameson considered porn to be the next logical steps in their careers. Jameson started out as a stripper, became a glamour model, then made the jump to becoming a porn star.[16] All three agree that there is more money to be found in porn than glamour/figure modeling and that, since they were having sex anyway, why not be paid? Tera Patrick, one of the most famous porn stars of the 2010s, started out as a glamour model as well[17] but decided to do porn for a more socially acceptable reason: she enjoys sex and wanted to live out her sexual fantasies.[18] Patrick may just be the best counter to the argument of forced exploitation. She is honest about loving her career and that is what most people want from their professional lives.

Why Don’t Advocates Interview Porn Stars?

Porn has been written about by academics and trade authors for years, yet very few consult the women they are speaking for. Some pull quotes from an interview by a third-party source but only if these quotes fit their agenda. Any respectable author or journalist knows that they must get as close to their subject as possible, but female pornographic performers are blatantly ignored by many.

Andrea Dworkin latched onto Linda Lovelace during the 80s and had her testify before the Minneapolis City Council on the dangers of pornography. Lovelace looked back on the feminist movement as “[getting] a good start on what they were trying to go because of me. They Haven’t really helped me. They’ve all made a lot of money off me…. I guess I’m more disappointed in the women’s movement than anything else.”[19] In her book, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin used the Minneapolis City Council testimony transcripts but not one porn performer was interviewed by Dworkin.[20] The same can be said for the current generation’s Dworkin, Gail Dines, who, like Dworkin, did not interview a single porn performer in her book on porn, Pornland.[21] Alison Assiter, an anti-porn advocate based in the U.K., also chose not to interview a single porn star for her book, Pornography, Feminism, and the Individual.[22]

Pro-porn advocates don’t do any better. Laura Kipnis’ Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America included no interviews with porn stars for her book, [23] nor did Shira Tarrant in The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know.[24] Interestingly, Tarrant was willing to conduct an email exchange with Dines for her book (and did pull from a variety of porn star interviews but conducted none herself). Kipnis and Tarrant both claim to support women in the porn industry and both write positively about the business but neither seems to have felt that their subjects were important enough to be consulted directly regarding their work. Porn performer’s feelings do change on a variety of subjects, including past and present job satisfaction and using old interviews does not always show one’s true feelings.

While an exact reason for the blatant ignoring of the opinions of women who perform in porn is difficult to pinpoint, it seems that their opinions are never quite good enough. No one has complete job satisfaction which can lead to grey areas. With porn being such a divisive issue, authors lean towards performers who blatantly dislike the industry such as Lovelace or who are willing to sing its praises like Tera Patrick. The majority of female performers fall somewhere in the middle about the industry.

Shunned

Women in porn regularly face shunning by the industry if they speak out against it. On December 5, 2017, August Ames, a twenty-three-year-old performer from Canada, passed away by hanging herself in a park near her home. Ames had been honest about battling bi-polar disorder as well as multiple personality disorder a few months before her death but many of her friends as well as her brother attributed it to bullying she had received over a tweet on December 3, 2017.[25] Ames had said: “Whichever (lady) performer is replacing me tomorrow for @EroticaXNews, you’re shooting with a guy who has shot gay porn, just to let cha know. BS is all I can say. Do agents really not care about who they’re representing? #ladirect I do my homework for my body.”[26] Ames found herself at the center of a fire storm. Trenton Ducati, a male performer replied: “Wow the hate within our own community. Actually if the model tested clear before your scene it’s none of your business what they have done in the past. This discrimination needs to stop. Go work at Wendy’s.”[27] Another performer, Sinn Sage, insisted “this is blatant discrimination.”[28] Finally, gay male porn performer Jaxton Wheeler stated, “@AugustAmesxxx the world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill. Either or we’ll take it.”[29]

Some female performers came to Ames’ defense, including Alana Evans[30], but most of the replies were overly negative. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on February 12, 2016 about HIV transmission among adult male performers[31]. The report focused on “Patient A,” a twenty-five-year-old male performer who had tested negative for HIV but was in fact positive. He had performed with 12 male colleagues as well as five personal sexual partners. He infected two of them.

It is likely that Ames knew about the multiple infections in the gay sector of her industry. This easily could have made her unwilling to perform with someone she considered to be high-risk. Shira Tarrant acknowledges that as of 2009 there were no STI testing standards in the gay male porn community and that as of 2015, straight STI testing was voluntary every two weeks.[32] Again, it seems likely that Ames would have known these facts about her business. Just because a woman does porn doesn’t mean she loses autonomy of her body. Ames did not deserve to be bullied for refusing to perform with someone she felt uncomfortable with nor was she wrong for sharing her experience so that whomever replaced her could make an informed decision about their sexual partner’s history and if they were comfortable performing with them. Dworkin’s argument about a performer losing the rights to their body is illustrated by incidents like this.

Porn stars also face an incredible amount of backlash from society. Porn performers are routinely ostracized from professional organizations and charities. In After Porn Ends, Asia Carrera, formerly one of the most popular porn stars in the world, explained that she chose to move to Utah because she was less likely to be recognized. Carrera is a member of MENSA and admitted that MENSA wouldn’t link to her website because of her porn past. She was forced to create a separate website for them to link to.[33] Carrera’s story is not unique. On November 10, 2011, Sasha Grey, who had been out of porn for several years, read to school children in Compton as part of the Read Across America program.[34] The school district denied that Grey had participated although this was easily disproven through pictures and tweets of Grey reading to the school children in their classroom. No other legal career will cause women to be denied the ability to participate in these organizations or charities. Yet it’s not just school organizations that deny former performers the ability to do something other than porn. Performers also face scrutiny when they try to find a job outside of the industry.

Many women are forced to return to porn because of concerns about financial security. Mary Carey was forced to return to porn after her mother’s attempted suicide.[35] Brittany Andrews returned to porn after other business ventures, including working as a dj, failed to work out.[36] Chasey Lain turned to escorting and stripping in addition to working in porn to supplement her income which led to her being ostracized from the business.[37] High school biology teacher Tiffany Shepherd was actually forced into porn after she had posed for some bikini pictures before becoming a teacher.[38] After she was fired, Shepherd lost custody of two of her children and sent out 2500 applications with no response. On porn she said, “I’m not particularly proud of it. To be honest, I hate it.”[39] Stacie Halas, a middle school teacher who was fired for her pornographic past, found the superintendent of her school district celebrating her firing, when he said, “[Staci Halas’ decision to] engage in pornography was incompatible with her responsibilities as a role model for students and would present an insurmountable, recurring disruption to our schools should she be allowed to remain as a teacher…”[40] Any person who chooses to do porn does not deserve to be fired because of their former profession. By pigeonholing these women into porn careers, they’re never given the chance to leave the porn industry. Discrimination against porn stars is one of the few remaining legal forms of discrimination and one that tends to be celebrated by many.

Conclusion

Women choose to go into porn for a variety of reasons. Those who choose to do porn do not deserve to be ostracized for the rest of their lives because of what they chose to do for a profession. They do not deserve to be ignored by pro- and anti-porn advocates’ writings on the business that they are directly involved in. Women who do porn have been forgotten unless their past comes to light and then they are forced to wear a scarlet “P” by the very same public who have no problem with masturbating to their work. Society needs to stop fighting porn and treating it as a dirty little secret. Instead, those who perform deserve to be embraced just like those who are savvy in “normal” careers.

[1] Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Plume, 1989), xv.

[2] Ibid., xvi-xxiii

[3] Linda Lovelace and Mike McGrady, Ordeal (New York: Berkley Books, 1981), 121-122.

[4] Eric Danville, The Complete Linda Lovelace (New York: Power Process Publishing, 2013), 188.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid., 174

[7] Ibid., 197

[8] Ibid., 197

[9] Ibid., 198

[10] Christy Canyon, Lights, Camera, Sex (Sp., 2004), 261.

[11] Puma Swede and Jan Ekholm, My Life As A Porn Star (Sp., 2014), 75.

[12] Hot Girls Wanted, directed by Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus (Netflix, 2015), Web.

[13] Christy Canyon, Lights, Camera, Sex (Sp., 2004), 261.

[14] Tyler Kingkade, “Duke Porn Star Reveals Her Identity,” Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/duke-porn-star_n_4898544.html [accessed April 8, 2018].

[15] Belle Knox, “I’m Finally Revealing My Name and Face As the Duke Porn Star,” xojane, https://www.xojane.com/sex/belle-knox-duke-university-freshman-porn-star# [accessed April 8, 2018].

[16] Ibid., 132-135

[17] Tera Patrick and Carrie Borzillo, Sinner Takes All (New York: Gotham Books, 2010), 37.

[18] Ibid., 60.

[19] Eric Danville, The Complete Linda Lovelace (New York: Power Process Publishing, 2013), 201.

[20] Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Plume, 1989), 278-285.

[21] Gail Dines, Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 169-190.

[22] Alison Assiter, Pornography, Feminism, and the Individual (Concord, MA: Pluto Press, 1989), 148-161.

[23] Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 207-224.

[24] Shira Tarrant, The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 179-188.

[25] Nicole Bitette, “Porn Star August Ames Revealed Depression Struggles Before Death,” New York Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/porn-star-august-ames-revealed-depression-struggles-death-article-1.3683371 [accessed April 8, 2018].

[26] August Ames, Twitter Post, December 3, 2017, https://twitter.com/AugustAmesxxx/status/937422512077471744

[accessed April 8, 2018].

[27] Trenton Ducati, Twitter Post, December 5, 2017, https://twitter.com/TrentonDucati/status/938244977750024192 [accessed April 8, 2018].

[28] Sinn Sage, Twitter Post, December 4, 2017, https://twitter.com/sinnsage/status/937765896701071360 [accessed April 8, 2018].

[29] Alana Evans, Twitter Post, December 6, 2017 https://twitter.com/alanaevansxxx/status/938532949212897280 [accessed April 8, 2018].

[30] Ibid.

[31] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Occupational HIV Transmission Among Male Adult Film Performers – Multiple States”, 2014, February 12, 2016.

[32] Shira Tarrant, The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 129.

[33] After Porn Ends, directed by Bryce Wagoner (Netflix, 2012), Web.

[34] Simone Wilson, “Sasha Grey Reads to Compton Kids; Failing School District Embarrasses Itself Again,” LA Weekly, http://www.laweekly.com/news/sasha-grey-reads-to-compton-kids-failing-school-district-embarrasses-itself-again-2387021 [accessed April 8, 2018].

[35] After Porn Ends, directed by Bryce Wagoner (Netflix, 2012), Web.

[36] After Porn Ends 2, directed by Bryce Wagoner, (Netflix, 2017), Web.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Eitan Gavish, “Bikini-clad teacher Tiffany Shepherd, aka Leah Lust, turns to porn after being fired from school,” NY Daily News,  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/bikini-clad-teacher-tiffany-shepherd-aka-leah-lust-turns-porn-fired-school-article-1.397253 [accessed April 8, 2018].

[39] Ibid.

[40] CBS News, “Staci Halas, fired California teacher with porn past, loses appeal,” CBS News, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/stacie-halas-fired-calif-teacher-with-porn-past-loses-appeal/ [accessed April 8, 2018].