Porn Workers as Labor Force

Today, Sylvester “Stallion’s” net value is about $400 million. But that was not always the case. In 1970, the appropriately named “Stallion” appeared in an American “soft-core pornography romance film” (Wikipedia) called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. Stallone worked two days and was paid $200.

Since the days of Oliver Reed’s “X-rated masterpiece” (BBC) which “is still being censored”, the money for adult workers has improved and working conditions as well. This is the non-sex-side of the pornography industry. Overall, the industry is valued at about $100bn globally.

Despite many moral misgivings, it operates, after all, like a normal business. There is marketing which tells people that films like The Party at Kitty and Stud’s do exists; there is finance who compensates actors, pays bills, collects profits, etc.; there is operations management that gets props, costumes, toys, cameras, etc. onto the set; and there is HRM who manages workers, i.e. adult actors.

Like all other workers, adult workers too, share the common goals that many workers share. These are found in quests for self-determination, autonomy, dignity, respect, reasonable working time, good working conditions and fair compensation. Yet unlike most workers, adult workers face a competing discourse of exploitation versus liberating sex work. Yet ever since Karl Marx, we know that all work in capitalism is exploitative.

Yet on-set, sex for adult workers is rather different. Under the capitalism-pornography link, sexuality becomes pornographic when it is produced for a profit. In short, when there is no camera, you are not an adult performer. Still, the most famous definition of pornography comes from US Supreme Court Judge Potter Stewart who, in 1964 in his Jacobellis v. Ohio judgment, said,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But, I know it when I see it.

Yet, a more appropriate definition of sex work might be: when a person willingly takes part in consensual sex and the individual’s human rights are not violated and, when it is performed in front of a camera, we talk about the pornographic industry. This is also the moment where the United Nations’ Palermo Protocols comes into play. It says that pornography is considered illegal when it shows child pornography, bestiality, incest, and the relatively new category of revenge porn.

Beyond that, adult workers also differ from many other workers in another respect. Most who work in pornography are independent contractors and not employees of a business organization, company and corporation. As a consequence, adult workers are exposed to all the evil trimmings of flexible despotism. Hence, adult workers have been sharing many similarities to today’s gig-workers long before the deceptive term Gig-Economy came into being. Yet, they do not share this with other workers: their work can be viewed on YouPorn and Porn Hub.

Quite similar to all other workers, the work of adult workers starts with recruitment and selection. Like many other industries, the adult industry is a buyer’s market. It is very rare that a production is stopped or even delayed because of a shortage of willing workers – both female and male.

Like many other workers, adult workers work for money. When 176 adult actresses were asked about that, 50% replied that they do it for the money, with a distant second being because of sex. Many of these adult workers can be roughly classed into five categories:

Category I: high status call girls;

Category II: in-house prostitutes;

Category III: streetwalkers;

Category IV: commuter housewives; and

Category V: drugs-for-sex streetwalkers

Common to all five categories of adult workers is the fact that these workers generally experience low prestige. This is mostly because their work is somewhat questionable, if not morally tainted. Worse, adult workers share a low physical status with the likes of pest control workers; a low social status with correctional officers; and a low moral status with used car salespeople and real estate agents.

Adult workers have in common with other workers is that they too, find jobs through word-of-mouth, through agency websites like staffing.com and craigslist.org but also through more specific online sites like www.sexyjobs.com and www.adultstaffing.com.

Just like in the entertainment industry as a whole, online platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, etc. play a significant role in the casting process. Once the recruitment (gets enough applicants) and selection (selecting the right person) process is done, the onboarding process also assures that the necessary paperwork is completed.

This includes the 2257-form officially ensuring that adult workers performing on the set are verified to be above the legal age of eighteen. Like other workers, a heath check is also performed just that in the case of adult workers, what is needed is the latest STI-free blood test.

Sadly and like most other workers, adult workers are also exposed to performance management. Commonly, this serves three functions for business organizations: a) performance management is presented as a necessity for the business; b) it is to increase the output of employees; and c) it remains one of management’s preferred tools to control and oppress workers – not only in the adult industry. Even before performing, many adult workers believe that this industry is an easy way to make some serious money while only needing to work for a short time on a flexible schedule.

Yet there are two diverging perspective on working in the adult industry. One position is stated by feminist studies’ author Mireille Miller-Young (A Taste for Brown Sugar – Black Women in Pornography). She makes two arguments: firstly, she argues that adult workers go into pornography specifically because of the creative aspects; secondly, they do so because they find working in pornography empowering.

Supporting this view, adult performer and sex educator Nina Hartley says, “I am sexual the way that Mozart was musical; life of public sexuality has, from my very first time on stage, been as natural to me as breathing.” While the adult performer and entrepreneur, Alix Lovell notes,

I have always been a free spirit and I believe in sexual empowerment. We all need sex; it’s like food and water. I like sex and now I happen to be getting paid for something I do anyway, but now I do it in a safer way.

The counter argument is that virtually all culture is produced within a capitalist system. This is based on the exploitation of workers. Like everywhere in capitalism, the adult worker (many are females) is exploited and hardly ever becomes rich. It is mostly the male producers of pornography who become rich.

The latter almost never appears in front of the camera. Aligned to this is the argument of the world’s leading anti-pornography campaigner and feminist Gail Dines. Dines reasons that pornography is harsh and degrading. It is a body-punishing spectacle. She says,

The more porn images filter into mainstream culture, the more girls and women are stripped of full human status and reduced to sex objects. This has a terrible effect on girls’ sexual identity because it robs them of their own sexual desire.

Yet, the production of adult themes does not slow down. Instead, the advent of the Internet has actually turbo-charged the global pornography industry. Inside the industry, like most other workers, adult workers’ performance are measured against their knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs).  ]

Unlike most white-collar workers, adult workers hardly ever experience a formal and often rather rigid performance appraisal systems. Unlike other white-collar workers, there is no going to the home office for adult workers. Furthermore, adult workers are typically paid by the hour or on a day rate. Moreover, it is rather common that adult workers are paid based on a flat rate. Often, they are paid per scene or per photo shoot.

Like in other industries, key to employability is punctuality and basic preparation for the job. Both are helpful for long-term success. In other words, turning up for work two or three hours late might not get you fired straight away. But word spreads quickly in the adult industry.

Much more important than this is an adult worker’s online social media fan base – a crucial metric for potential sales and high wages. Top level adult workers command a strong fan base. As a consequence, top actors can demand much higher pay rates.

This enhances the career development of adult workers showing off solid performances, as well as future potentials. Increasingly, these careers are no longer structured pathways invented by HRM. Instead, career development is pushed onto workers themselves. In the gig economy as well as for adult workers, this means they are seen as self-directed mini-managers forced to take responsibility for their own careers. This is no longer what the so-called traditionalists had experienced. As a rough guide, there are five groups:

Traditionalists:  born before 1946

Baby boomers:   born between 1946 and 1964

Generation X: born between 1965 and 1976

Generation Y: born between 1977 and 1997

Generation Z born after 1997

Whatever the group, the so-called damaged goods theory applies to all of them. The damaged goods theory proposes that adult workers show significantly higher rates of childhood sexual abuse, psychological problems and drug use compared to other workers. Yet, in his book HRM in the Pornography Industry, David Kopp argues that many findings do not support the damaged goods theory.

Having said that, adult work remains a much more precarious work to get into than many other forms of work. This is one reason why the overwhelming number of women come in and out of adult work within a few months to a few years. By comparison, for male adult workers, the average career in the adult industry is about five years. One reason for such a short duration – no career! – is the social stigma attached to this work.

A second reason might be the fact that this is really dangerous work. For one, there are sexually transmitted infection (STI). Preventative measures are generally pushed onto adult workers in an industry that is defined by fake and real contract work. These leaves employers with the minor responsibility of having to do only two things: (a) take reasonable care and (b) prevent an unsafe work environment for their employees.

Adult worker Aurora Snow explains,

at adult film sets, employees are required to be nude, i.e. full physical contact among coworkers that, at times, may call for choking, slapping, hitting, maybe hair pulling, and certain bodily acts. It can be messy, demeaning or empowering. Adult work is rather difficult to navigate.

Beyond that, AIDS has not vanished either. To combat STIs and AIDS, the adult industry operates with a standard protocol involving voluntary testing. This is done every fourteen days. Results are entered into the Performer Availability Screening Services or PASS-Certificate. The PASS database is run by the Free Speech Coalition – a trades association that recently featured Senator Amy Klobuchar. In any case, before filming, adult producers, directors and, at times, HR departments check the PASS database.

Once a safe working environment is established, adult workers tend to get paid based on a flat rate per scene or photo shoot. About five years ago, the rates were men-women scene: $900 to $1,000; all-women: $700 to $1,200; male performers: $500 to $1,000; and threesomes and orgies: $200 per adult worker. The average rates for the crew and staff behind the camera range from $500 for a make-up artist to $3,000 for a director.

This, of course can increase wages significantly depending on an actor’s online profile. The Instagram follower base of someone like Sunny Leone can reach up to 50 million; Mia Khalifa can muster 25 million followers; and Alexis Texas 6 million. A high online visibility increases individual income.

Lower down the level, adult workers have been creating their own websites, make movies at home, rent out their homes, etc. for extra income. Collectively, adult workers have also gone to organize themselves in a trade union as the documentary Nude Girls Unite! shows. One of the most advanced places has been California.

Important for adult workers in California for example, is the California Labor Federation, as well as the Adult Performance Artist Guild. The latter has the goal “to earn employee rights, set performer responsibilities, negotiate fair practices and fair wages, fight occupational discrimination and help performers provide themselves with a better future.”

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