Nexus

Lessons From a Brief Stint In Porn

My Job Was Entering Tags and Names Into a Database. It Taught Me a Few Things About Regulating a Strange Business.

Lessons From a Brief Stint In Porn

I got the job from a friend who couldn’t handle the sight of so many naked women. “I thought,” she said, “that my lady parts were unique and special.” She looked out the window and sighed a little. “They are not.”

The job was to watch porn. The office was a Bay Area dot-com, circa 2008. My assignment was to tag each actor in these videos by attributes (hair color, breast size) and tag each sex act. That way, a subscriber could easily search our database and filter out everything but, say, orgies featuring brunettes.

Then I would identify the actors by name, so that they could be sorted into a searchable database that would show our compliance with what are known as “2257 reporting requirements,” a part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, to ensure that no performers in these clips were under the age of 18.

Sometimes identifying the actors was easy: They would say their names at the beginning of a video (“Hi, I’m Tammy Jenkins, this is Mark Jones, and you’re watching A Simple Tale of Butts VIII!”) Sometimes I would find myself staring into a writhing spaghetti pile of women, all more or less the same hue of tan, the same shade of blondness, and the same shape of bosom, and I would try to pretend that I was plucky and I could do this: I was Nancy Drew in The Case of the Indeterminate Orgy.

At times I was confronted with complete enigmas, like the performer who was nothing but a penis poking out of a pink bunny suit. (Plotline: unsuspecting woman raped by own stuffed animals.) When that occurred, I would call over my supervisor, a somewhat bitter man who had been doing this so long that he could identify most of the 20 or so men who worked regularly in straight porn by crotch shot alone.

This was bargain-basement porn, sex carried out by people who were doing two shoots a day, four or five days a week, often on what appeared to be the same sofa, which remained a mute witness to their exertions, stabbed with gold high heels, but never punctured. None of the performers were paid much—between $150 and $300 a shoot. I knew this because I had access to their contracts.

As I stared at the faces of the people in these videos, trying to see if I was looking at Brittany or Jennifer or Steve, I could see from their digitized, sweating faces that porn was hard physical labor, like the work that people did in the factory town where I grew up. These were harsh economic times, and the porn industry was in a tailspin—in part because of piracy, in part because of amateur porn, with its terrible production values but genuine enthusiasm.

My career as a porn tagger didn’t last long. I was slow, because I had secretly begun listening to radio documentaries instead of the porn audio. Also, my supervisor criticized me for cataloging performers as having real boobs when to him they were clearly fake. I was embarrassed: to me they had jiggled plausibly. I began picking up more journalism work. When the job ended, I was relieved.

I’ve been thinking of that job again amid reports that several porn actors—first two, then three, with rumors of a possible fourth—have tested positive for HIV. The news has heightened an ongoing debate over whether porn actors should be, or even could be, forced to use condoms. A law that would mandate condom use in any pornographic film made in the state of California, AB 640, died last week in the State Senate. But L.A. County successfully passed a similar law, Measure B, last November.

Pornography is work that deserves to be safe. Like nursing, boxing, and other bodily-fluid-intensive jobs, that safety is going to be complicated. What I do know from my brief time as the Nancy Drew of dick identification is that a lot of the laws that get proposed to make porn safer have unexpected side effects—some of which are just as bad as the original problem.

Take condom use. Condoms are already the standard in one fairly substantial sector of the industry—gay porn. But the last time a porn actor tested positive for HIV, in 2010, he told the L.A. Times he believed he had caught the virus on a gay porn shoot where condoms were used.

Porn actress Nina Hartley, who worked through the AIDS epidemic, has written that condoms can actually make porn more dangerous for performers, and so has Stoya, another porn actress.

I called up Stoya to ask her to elaborate. Women of our generation were raised on condom talk, but, Stoya said, people who believe that condoms are fail-safe are falling victim to the same fallacy as people who watch porn videos and think, Oh, so that’s what sex is like.

“We’re like stunt men,” Stoya said. Recreational sex involves three to 13 minutes of thrusting. Porn sex requires 45 minutes to an hour of thrusting. Everything is more transmissible, even with a condom, and condoms are more likely to break. So it is possible to contract HIV while on set, even if you’re using condoms. And it’s much more likely to happen in gay porn, where condoms are common but testing is rare. By contrast, actors working in straight porn get tested for HIV as well as a slew of other STDs every few weeks, as part of voluntary industry standards. If condom use were mandatory, such standards could fall by the wayside.

Or consider the elaborate databases people like me helped to create in order to protect against underage pornography. The Adam Walsh Child Protection Act reporting requirements seem to have done a good job of keeping people under 18 out of the porn industry, but they have done so by compromising the personal information of every person over the age of 18 who has ever worked in porn, or erotic modeling, no matter how briefly.

Even as a disaffected contract worker with no background check, I had access to the addresses, Social Security numbers, real names, and unflattering ID photos of every porn actor or actress that I identified. I had this information because the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act demanded that anyone who sold, or resold, pornography, have this information in their records.

As I linked performers to the database, I noticed that a few of them lived not far away from the dot-com office. I could have stopped and knocked on their doors on my way home from work. At the very least, I could have used their information to commit credit card fraud.

Very little, Stoya told me, scares her more about her job than these databases: “People ask me if I’m worried about being recognized on the street and attacked by someone in a dark alley. No, I worry about people who are good with computers.”

The porn industry is as wobbly and shape-shifting as the body parts it’s built on. Its business models, income, and content keep on changing. Pornography is a business, and it should be regulated like any other. But no one has a greater incentive to keep themselves healthy than porn actors, and they should be an integral part of any public health measures enacted in their name.

One of the most helpful resources adult film actors could have would be a medical facility that specialized in working with people in the sex industry. For years, that role was played by the Adult Industry Medical Clinic, which was founded by a former porn actress. The clinic, which also took care of most of the STD testing for porn actors, made a point of educating new arrivals about how to protect themselves and other people on set. Unfortunately, after a hacking incident and other problems, the clinic ultimately closed. Testing is now done by a group of clinics that report to a centralized database, but, says Stoya, nothing has replaced the most valuable service the clinic provided: medical advice from people with firsthand experience in the industry.

It’s always easy—and it plays well on camera—to call for a law requiring condom use. But the creation of low-cost health clinics with staff who are trained to work with sex performers would probably do much more to protect people’s safety and privacy. That’s harder than just passing a law, but we’re far more likely to help porn performers if we treat them less as victims in need of protection and more as workers with a stake—and an interest—in their own safety.



Heather Smith writes about art, science, bugs, and democracy. She is currently at work on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.
Primary Editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
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