Stoya on Ethics, Porn, and Workers' Rights

By Stoya


A porn set. Image via Wikimedia Commons

I was talking to this reporter recently about pubic hair. My favorite interviews are the ones that feel like a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop or a friend at a quiet neighborhood bar. Tangents get explored and they frequently veer off into territory that has nothing to do with the article being written. Sometimes those digressions circle back into a great quote about the initial topic that probably wouldn’t have been said if the format was Q&A. One of the tangents I went on during this interview involved exploitation in the porn industry. 

My first contract with an adult production studio was skewed heavily in the company’s favor. You could say I got “screwed” on it. I’ve heard plenty of unverified mythology about musical artists and television actors who had terrible initial contracts. I’ve also heard a few stories directly from talent in the mainstream end of the entertainment industry. You might know some of these anecdotes: Prince’s name change to avoid a trademark ownership issue, the reasons behind Johnny Depp’s rumored antics on the 21 Jump Street set, Billy Joel and his 15-year Family Productions contract. 

From what I gather, the ways that I was screwed on that first contract are very similar to the ways that a lot of young artists get screwed on their first deal with a large company. I see no reason to go into details. I do feel a need to reiterate that this sort of skewed contract happens in other sectors of the entertainment industry. I also feel a need to point out that contracted performers in the adult industry are not the norm and that most contracts with adult production studios are more balanced than mine was. 

A big chunk of the responsibility for the whole thing lies with me for being naive enough to sign their stock agreement without having a lawyer look at it. You don’t show up to a gunfight with a dull fork, and I shouldn’t have dealt with capitalism in that capacity without professional advice and some knowledge of standard industry practices. Once I realized how one-sided our relationship was I talked to lawyers and eventually sorted it out. Sure, the experience meant I couldn’t work in my chosen profession or remotely similar ones for over a year without potentially putting myself in default of the contract. Yes, it was messy, stressful, and expensive but I learned a lot and the legal bills weren’t any worse than a year at college would have been. 

The main lesson that I took away from my early dealings with the founders and former owners of that company is that a fair deal means making sure that the exploitation is mutual and balanced. Thanks to my stubborn streak and a contract extension that someone luckily forgot to send, I’ve been on a much more equal footing for the past three years. My career is doing fine. The new owners have no right to stop me from doing live performances or photo shoots. I can now write under whatever name I please, including the pseudonym I’ve been building since before I’d ever considered working in hardcore porn. Any exploitation I personally experienced during the first few years of my career in adult films is a heightened version of some kid taking the first, extremely low offer for a salaried position straight out of school. A company that tries to get as much work from a person as they can while paying them as little as possible just looks like capitalism at work. It isn’t exactly ethical but it isn’t any more exploitative than the majority of jobs.

Some people argue that pornography is, by definition, exploitative. Anti-porn activists sometimes paint this picture of a porn starlet with huge bedroom eyes, brand new DD breasts, a nubile 19-year old body, and a complete lack of both independent thought and personal agency. While this girl certainly does make an effective poster child for the argument that all sex work is toxic and bad, she is a straw man. She is a heavily distorted caricature of a very few people who are no more representative of female porn performers than any one person is representative of a group. This straw porn starlet is also a bit of a red herring when it comes to ethics and exploitation in pornography.

And then there’s “Big Porn.” Forbes debunked the idea of pornography as a $14-billion-dollar-a-year industry back in 2001, but reporters were still asking about it when I started talking to members of the press in 2008. Until a few years ago this pornographic version of Exxon or Walmart did not exist. Production companies were, for the most part, mom-and-pop style places operating with little bureaucracy and usually with a certain amount of concern for the welfare of the people they employed. Many of those companies still exist, but now Big Porn does too. 


Drawing by Stoya

Big Porn, funded by free online tube sites, has acquired such a large portion of the pornographic industry that it has begun to effectively corner the market. The more time I spend observing this one company, the more it seems to exist as a glaring example of capitalism gone awry. Aside from all of the involvement with piracy and the arrest of the apparent owner on allegations of tax evasion, they’ve begun taking on unpaid interns to replace the steady stream of workers who have been driven away by poor treatment. Their corporate structure is opaque. Executive level employees issue instructions and then reprimand lower level workers for following them. The lack of respect with which they treat their crew and staff has begun to show in the lowered product quality, and Big Porn fails to see that the common denominator is, well, them.

If you’re thinking about or discussing ethics in porn please remember that the adult industry isn’t just the girls you see on box covers and the front pages of websites. It also includes the directors, a large amount of people who work as crew on set, and a slew of office workers who handle the post production and sale of product. I know a middle-aged dude who is built like a tank from moving lights and cameras all day might not pull on your heartstrings the way that a pretty young woman does, but he’s the one who struggles to make rent and car payments when month after month of shoots are cancelled last minute. He’s the one being replaced by people who have been conned into working for lower rates or for free because he finally had the audacity to take other work. The people you don’t see in the videos are the ones bearing the initial brunt of this new power imbalance. 

In contrast to Hollywood, neither the crew nor performers are protected by a union. Unlike the performers, the crew and office staff are not protected by agents or the kind of market value that allows people like me to refuse to work until safe working conditions are provided. When Big Porn is done squeezing everything they can out of those workers behind the scenes there is no reason to believe they won’t start squeezing the performers harder too.

While people attack the entire porn industry for giving employment to the women who want to work in it, there are a number of unseen workers being treated in ways that look pretty unethical to me. It is just as inaccurate to hold up a few high profile female performers as evidence that the whole industry is ethical and provides fair treatment across the board as it is to paint all of porn as an exploitative pox on modern society. The reality is many different people being treated in a variety of ways that fall somewhere in between the two ends of the spectrum. In order to fix a lot of the problems in various parts of the adult entertainment industry, they need to be addressed as what they are: workers’ rights issues.

I took a big risk a few years ago and successfully corrected the imbalance in my contractual obligations. At 23, I railed against what I perceived as The Man like I thought I was punk as fuck. Again, a lot of that success was because I got lucky. It cost me a lot of money and an unquantifiable amount of career momentum and all I managed to do was make my personal situation reasonably fair. If I hadn’t saved every possible dollar those first couple of years and already established myself as profitable I wouldn’t even have been able to do that much. I might have ended up like those musicians who aren’t Billy Joel or Prince who are still waiting out the second decade of their bad deal. The people whose names we don’t know because they didn’t have the leverage to successfully fight the system or the visibility to make the unfairness of their experiences known. In the interim, my raised middle finger has been replaced with phrases like, “I strongly disagree with your business practices and they may have a negative effect on the continuation of our professional relationship.” The thing that needs to be stood against now is the MAN, and those business forces don't listen to polite phrases or rude gestures. But pointing out that ethical issues do exist, and they're more complicated than you might originally suspect, is a start.


@Stoya

Previously - In Praise of the Posterior, AKA the Butt

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