by Rich Moreland, June 2012
The following excerpt is from my unpublished manuscript on feminism in adult film. Citations have been removed.
Taking control her body and determining how it will be displayed on screen is the premier feminist trait in adult film. Feminist empowerment shows up each time a performer negotiates her pay, calls her own shots for the camera, and exercises choice. For the handful of feminist directors, giving performers input concerning co-stars, yes and no lists, hard and soft limits, and safer sex precautions are upfront and part of the package. This is not to say that male directors ignore these offerings, some are as assiduous in satisfying them as are women cinematographers. Yet, this scenario is not universal in the industry and women who are persuasive of their own needs are not the norm. The patriarchal hand of porn is firmly in place; respect for the female performer and director remains a matter of opinion.
An overarching view comes from feminist writer Wendy McElroy who years ago observed that industry males insist they value the women who are penetrated for the camera’s delight, though it is “a form of acknowledgement,” she asserts, “not a form of respect.” McElroy concludes, “women in porn will probably get respect only after they get power.” The genesis of McElroy’s statement came from a dinner conversation she had with John Stagliano and the late John Leslie at the AVN convention in the early 1990’s. I brought up her comments in an interview with Stagliano during the AVN gala in 2012. He assured me McElroy was referring to remarks Leslie made concerning a particular performer and should not be misread as an indictment of the industry.
“John Leslie was talking ‘off the cuff’ about his interaction with some women and the fact that he was sexually aroused by some women under certain circumstances,” Stagliano said, clearing up any misconceptions about his late friend. “In the case of that dinner, John was talking about some girl with a big ass that he was really interested in.” Stagliano believes McElroy misinterpreted Leslie’s words. They were not intended to objectify the girl and McElroy’s conclusion that Leslie had no interest in the performer’s personality was a misinterpretation of the conversation. Staglino backs off a little, however, to clarify the scene. McElroy believed Leslie did not demonstrate “enough of a feminist outlook,” he explains, and her criticism of Leslie’s words in that instance had some validity. But Stagliano adds that McElroy generalized Leslie’s remarks to account for the portrayal of women in all his films. “John had a huge amount of respect for women,” Stagliano insists, “just look at his movies.”
Among industry people John Stagliano is highly regarded. He is feminist-oriented in his outlook and actions, though he may not understand it that way. Stagliano’s support for women he believes are creative in their work, such as directors Belladonna, Tristan Taormino, and Bobbi Starr, bear witness to his respect for women. Stagliano endeavors to produce a top notch product and people are the vital cogs in his machinery. He understands the importance of creativity and teamwork in an industry that is easy to malign. “I think that human beings sometimes don’t appreciate the people that they work with,” Stagliano says, and he personally wants to find value in people. “I try to see what’s good, what it is they have to offer and treat them with a certain respect as human beings. . . . that’s the way I prefer to do business.” Stagliano knows that his way of interacting with people is not the industry norm. Undeterred, he holds to the belief that “in the long run I prove that it works to do it my way because you build bridges” in an environment that is stoked with “competitive pressure.”
The moguls of porn believe they respect the women they hire and I have no reason to doubt them. But female performers do not universally share that view. There is a disconnect between the traditional industry patriarchy and the women who toil to create the profits. Yet this separation may be more a reflection of society in general and not so much porn in particular.
Nina Hartley has a feminist perspective that is not far from McElroy’s point of view. She believes women are “valued for their ‘hotness’” but this does not necessarily translate into respect. Nina talks of female directors who must cope with male egos in the boardroom, men “who don’t want to deal with women” and who have “issues with women.” Nina indicates that for some men in the business it is challenging to connect emotionally with women, but such a claim can be made about broader society as well.
Veronica Hart supports Nina’s interpretation of respect. With a few exceptions, Hart does not believe that women as a whole are influencing the business of pornography. “I don’t see many women affecting the business that much.” She notes a few, particularly mentioning director Nica Noelle and Club 90’s Candida Royalle. Noelle’s “new spin” on shooting sex more realistically and Royalle’s “couples porn” are notable achievements in Hart’s eye, but their real business success is measured in selling movies, not the artistic accomplishments within them. Hart generalizes porn to other aspects of the corporate world where profit dictates a product’s success. “Business is business,” Hart begins. “It doesn’t respect anyone. The only thing it has respect for is the ability to make money.” True, no argument on that fact. But Hart adds that respect has another connotation that is closely aligned with John Stagliano: it is very personal and built on relationships. Respect depends on “the people you are working with,” she says, suggesting that it is a viable commodity shared among those on both sides of the camera. Hart remembers that as a director, she held her performers in high esteem, though there were a few who challenged her efforts in that regard. “I realized, ‘Thank God they were fucking because they couldn’t do anything else!’” “This is coming from a feminist,” she amusingly adds, “but I realized that people have certain abilities and just because they are in the porn business doesn’t mean they get my respect. You earn respect.” Hart elaborates on her point. Respect comes from a “pattern of being responsible, of standing up for other people, kind of doing and saying the right thing. That’s what gets you respect in life.”
I revisited for a moment McElroy’s assessment and asked Hart for her thoughts. “I think that is more a reflection on society than it is the porn business,” she says.
The adult film industry is not a business that labors daily in Middle America’s towns and villages and people are quick to pass judgment on women who have sex for money. Yet, they don’t always think of males the same way. In the public’s eye, Hart says, it is still “commonplace” to demonize women in porn as “sluts,” though she believes the term “has lost a lot of the stigma” it once had. She contrasts the word derogatory term with opinions voiced about men. “A gentleman who does it [performs in porn] is a stud,” she adds, “a guy is a conqueror.” Hart sees these definitions as a “connotation of who we are” as sex workers, of how performers are evaluated and presently situated in the industry. On the other hand, she repeats the old standby that “it’s great if you can fuck her [a porn girl], but you wouldn’t want your mom or your daughter to be one” still holds true. But she wraps the porn business in broader cloth when she states that, like it or not, the smut industry is a “part of society” and cannot be separated from it.
I’ve heard some porn people, most notably veteran Bill Margold, talk about the adult business in familial terms, the “Family of X” as he calls it. I pressed Hart to expand on the role of women in adult film and how that may relate to the larger aspect of unity.
“We are a vital necessity,” she begins. “The love in the business comes from the people that make friendships in it.” That sticking together is what Margold means, I believe, and what Club 90 illustrates so well. But Hart’s honesty takes a sudden brutal turn. “This is a business. We always say ‘Oh, the porn family.’ Fuck that! It’s not a family, it’s a business and a business loves nobody, respects nobody except a person’s ability to make money. The bottom line is making money,” she repeats. “If you are a moneymaker, then the business loves you. Right?”
Hart concludes with a position unconsidered by antiporn feminists and unrealized by the general pubic, what pornography can professionally do for women. “Pornography is one of the few places where a woman, if she wants to, can excel,” Hart says, adding that adult film women are in the unique position of being “in control of their careers.” “They’ve made their own choices,” she says, and “have a lot more freedom when they work in pornography than in most other jobs.” Referencing her personal work in the industry, Hart singles out her own successes. “I’ve been given an opportunity in porn to be anything I want to be. I can hold a camera, I can write, I can direct, I can edit and all of these things are very difficult. I can make movies because of porn. I can make really good low budget movies, whether exploitative sex movies or horror movies or action movies, it’s all the same animal. I know how to do that because of this business. I’m very thankful for it.”
Feminist scholar Carol Queen offers that today’s porn industry woman little realizes she is a feminist until she learns from “older women” that there are “multiple feminisms,” sex-positive the most formidable example. When porn women narrowly define feminism as sex-negative and anti-porn, its goal of moving women beyond a sexual second-class citizenship is lost. Feminism in adult film is about control and choice, and many well-known performers exercise both. Nina Hartley illuminates the feminist sex-positive philosophy with “my body, my rules” which enables her to “take responsibility” for her own sexual satisfaction. It is, and will always be, her choice as to where to place her body and who her partners will be, on or off film. Many performers, particularly those who have committed to the industry long term, would agree.
In the end, success may come down to money and its reward, power, but those are not its limits. Success is also about that inner courage and determination that builds a respect that all women are capable of achieving. Wendy McElroy is correct in her conclusion that respect comes with power. We know that in the pornography empire, as it does in corporate America, politics, and social influence, money translates into power. For a porn actor, however, power also means doing it her own way. The women of Club 90 and Pink Ladies forged a path for themselves that challenged the accepted way of operating in adult film. Today adult film women who insist on choice and control in the face of a patriarchal industry traditionally built on monetizing male auto-eroticism have achieved a measure of success on both sides of the camera. Feminists in adult film are lending other elements to the money-power continuum with a philosophy that expands what it means to be a woman and express a sexuality that in and of itself commands respect.