Ex Porn Stars Are the 99 Percent

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The documentary After Porn Ends is more about work than sex.

after porn ends amber lynn 615.jpgAmber Lynn in After Porn Ends. (Gravitas Ventures)

The most heartbreaking scene in the documentary After Porn Ends, about the post-porn lives of 12 adult stars, may be when Asia Carrera talks about her membership in the high-IQ society Mensa. She explains that Mensa links to all its members' websites, but that they wouldn't link to hers because... well, because it was a porn site. Eventually, though, the society did feature her in an issue of its magazine devoted to Mensa celebrities—a big moment for her, she says.

Which, to me, just seems incredibly sad. This after all, is Asia Carrera, a woman who ran away from home at 17 and pulled herself together to become a successful businesswoman and a world-famous name and face. Yet, despite all of that, what she wants is validation from some random group of self-declared smart people. For someone like her to need the approval of someone like them is an apocalyptic admission of neediness that's depressing to think about.

The natural conclusion to leap to, of course, is that the neediness and the porn career are inextricably intertwined: that Carrera entered porn because she needed to be loved, and/or is so unsure of herself because she's ashamed of her porn career.

The antipathy and contempt porn workers face is more intense, but the stories here could confront any non-former-porn-star in the swelling ranks of the lower middle-class.

There's certainly a fair bit of evidence in After Porn Ends, available on iTunes now and on DVD later this month, to support such suspicions. A number of the former performers link their entry into the industry to child sexual abuse and/or to drug addiction. And nearly all of them talk about the bitter stigma of being in the adult industry. Houston lost her job selling real estate when a client recognized her. Randy West—who otherwise seems fairly happy with his career—talks bitterly about the fact that most charities won't allow adult stars to donate to them. Even more poignantly, he suggests that his career in the adult industry made it hard for him to form normal relationships, and thus may be responsible for the fact that he never married and has no children.

One expert talking head argues overdramatically that being an adult star cuts you off from all personal ties. Given the way many of the ex-stars talk about their families and spouses and kids, he's obviously making a gross generalization. But at the same time, it's clear that if you're a former adult performer a lot of people are going to judge you—and you can see how, living with that, having Mensa declare you worthy might pack a certain punch.

So it is possible to watch After Porn Ends and come away with the impression that being in porn is a traumatic psychic and social wound that will never heal. But I don't think that that's exactly a fair conclusion. Carrera herself says she has no regrets about doing porn, and talks emotionally about the outpouring of donations and support she received from fans after her husband was killed in a car accident just before the birth of their second child. Porn in this case didn't isolate her; quite the contrary. And even the Mensa thing—yes it strikes me as pitiful, but is it really any more ridiculous than me looking at my blog's statcounter? Everybody needs reassurance, not just porn stars.

Which is not to deny the particular awfulness or difficulties of porn. Asia Carrera talks about enjoying the chance to have sex with some good-looking guy and get paid for it, but Shelley Luben (now an anti-porn crusader) clearly experienced many of her scenes as rapes. Even Tiffany Millions, who is not especially negative about her time in the industry, describes the work in unintentionally disturbing terms. She says that during sex she would often feel like she was outside of herself looking down: a textbook description of dissociation from trauma.

Millions originally got into the porn industry because of her daughter; as a single mom, she had a choice between spending all her time working a minimum-wage gig—or being a porn star for a few hours a week, making more money, and spending most of her days with her kid. She chose the obvious option, treated it like a day job—no parties, no drugs, no alcohol—and quit when she inherited some money and didn't have to do it anymore. These days she has a great relationship with her husband and daughter (whose almost tearful "you're my hero mom" would make a stone verklempt) and works, quite happily, as a bounty hunter.

I say she works "quite happily," and she does in fact seem to like her job. But there are some downsides. The one anecdote she relates is about repossessing some old lady's car because her son was a deadbeat. She's philosophical about it, but obviously found it quite unpleasant, and who wouldn't?

Most jobs have some unpleasantness of course—and blue collar jobs have more unpleasantness than most. Millions's experience does make you wonder whether porn is truly, exceptionally horrible, or whether it's just a particularly visible examplar. Minimum-wage service jobs, or factory work, or police work, or military service—those things don't involve having sex onscreen, obviously, but they're all arguably degrading, depressing, and potentially dangerous or traumatizing. For that matter, I have friends who are teachers in the public school system, and they are often treated terribly by administrators, parents, kids—everybody basically. Many of them have issues with depression and something that sounds a lot like post-traumatic stress.

Several of the commentators note that most people don't get into porn unless things in their lives have already gone awry. Not all, but most of the porn workers (and especially the women) interviewed here were sexually abused, or had run out of money, or were addicts, or had no support network—they were people who had been pushed into a corner. The film might have done better in illuminating this corner if it had had the elementary courage to interview black or Latino performers, and to think about race as well as class. Even as it is, though, the film makes it clear that porn for many performers was a way out of a dilemma—or, for some, a way to compound it.

Either way, it wasn't porn that created the marginalization or the desperation. And I wonder if the focus on porn as porn distracts from the real issues at stake for many of the folks who make it their livelihood. Porn is sensational, more or less by definition, but it doesn't necessarily follow that it's distinctive or central. Really, based on this documentary, the problem porn workers encounter seem like problems lots of workers encounter: abusive working conditions, inadequate (or more often non-existent) pensions, and lack of options. The stories here—the financial disaster Houston faces when she is first fired and then diagnosed with cancer, for example—are ones that could confront any non-former-porn-star in the swelling ranks of the lower middle-class. The antipathy and contempt porn workers face is perhaps more intense. But it's not necessarily different in kind from the antipathy and contempt that workers in general face. If anything, it's remarkable how many of those interviewed look back on their time in porn with satisfaction, and seem to have liked their jobs. Would that more of us could say the same.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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