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Dining with Pornographers
An excerpt from XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St.Martin's Press, 1997)

April 10, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

My Background on Pornography

Like everyone else, I thought I knew what pornography was. I first glimpsed it as a child, from the magazines my older brother hid in his dresser drawer, under his socks. I was seven or eight and the excitement of doing something forbidden was far more thrilling than any of the images in the magazines.

By the time I was an adult, I had lost that sense of mischief and innocence. It was replaced by genuine sexual stirring, and a painful inner suspicion that something was wrong with my reactions; that something was wrong with me. My childhood -- in a rural and conservative family -- had instilled a vague belief that sex was unsavory. Surely my fascination with it must be unsavory as well.

I embraced feminism as a teenager, but the movement offered no relief from my confusion about sex and pornography. At that time, the feminist movement was developing the cracks that have now broken into an open schism over sex. One faction of the movement was joyfully celebrating the wide range of women's sexuality, from motherhood to lesbianism, from masturbation to oral sex. Another faction was vociferously condemning marriage and the family as oppression, heterosexual sex as rape, and pornography as violence.

Ideologically speaking, the latter faction won out. It won so decisively that, during the '80s, few feminists were willing to stand up and defend the graphic depiction of sex. Next to no women were willing to expose themselves to the backlash of contempt that would surely have followed a confession that they enjoyed it.

For over a decade, I have defended the right of women to consume pornography and to be involved in its production. In 1984, when the Los Angeles City Council debated whether or not to pass an anti-pornography ordinance, I was one of two people -- and the only woman -- who stood up at the first hearing and went on record against the measure. I argued that the right to work in pornography was a direct extension of the principle 'a woman's body, a woman's right.'

My defense was purely ideological. I knew little about the realities of the industry or about the women I was defending.

Over the last decade, the anti-porn voices in feminism have grown louder and more shrill. An assortment of accusations are routinely hurled at the porn industry, including the charges that: women involved in porn are coerced into performing; porn videos are actually documentaries of rape and torture; and, pornography inspires men to rape women.

The business of pornography exists quite apart from my ideological defense of it. It is a fact, not a theory. As I read and reread the onslaught against pornography, I realized I knew next to nothing about the realities of the industry I was defending. It was time to do some field work. It was time to check out whether radical feminism's accusations were accurate. And whether my position was naive.

Specifically, I wanted to know:

1. Were women coerced into performing pornographic acts?

2. How were the women treated otherwise?

3. How did pornography -- as a business -- operate?

4. What did pornography -- as a lifestyle -- look like?

The only way to answer these questions was to ask them of the flesh-and-blood people who produce pornography: the actresses who are said to be coerced; the producers who are pointed to as the beating heart of white male oppression.

The Consumer Electronics Show

The Winter '94 Consumer Electronics Show [CES] was scheduled for early January in Las Vegas. CES is huge. The total number of exhibitors at the show I attended was 1,056, with the exhibits occupying more than one million square feet of space.

I was drawn to CES by the Adult Video Section, where most of the hard core pornographers in America had booths advertising their wares. Soft core producers, such as Playboy, would not be well represented because their more respectable status allowed them to network and advertise elsewhere with ease. Moreover, the soft core and hardcore industries tend to put distance between themselves, much as rich and poor cousins are apt to do.

Pornography was once an important aspect of CES because it pioneered the popularity of videotape. In the early '80's, the few major studio releases available on videotape usually cost about eighty dollars. The more reasonably priced pornography attracted a huge audience of men and couples who had a taste for adult entertainment. Now they could view it within the comfort of their own homes.

Today, major studio releases run about twenty dollars and they become quickly available on videotape, for purchase or rental. Meanwhile, cable channels such as Playboy, Spice, and Adam and Eve offer high quality pornography that people can tape off TV for themselves. In other word, pornography has lost its edge in both the video market place and at CES.

Accordingly, the Adult Video Section of CES was housed in the Sahara Hotel, far from the main convention center.

I had prepared for CES in two ways: emotionally and intellectually. As an intensely private person, I quickly resolved the emotional side. I was going to stay with the intellectual side.

I drew up two lists of questions: one for women, the other for men. The questions for women focused on whether they were coerced into 'performing pornographic acts', and, if not, how were they treated? My questions included: Have you ever heard of women being threatened into performing in pornography?, How much are you paid for a sex act or for a video? and Do you negotiate your own contracts?

The questions for men focused on how pornography functions as a business...with particular emphasis on how it treated women. These questions included: How long does it take you to shoot a video?, and How many women work for you in a technical capacity, e.g. post production?

I wondered how the women would react to my being a feminist. I wondered if the men would be dismissive. I was more than a little nervous about appearing ridiculous.

I began to make 'guerrilla feminist preparations'. I carefully chose a wardrobe of 'feminist drag': Reeboks, blue jeans, and oversized sweaters...and an ultra conservative dress for the AVN Awards ceremony. I decided to wear little make-up, less perfume and no jewelry. When I looked in the mirror, I looked like I was going to give a lecture on sex rather than investigate the real thing.

Dining with Pornographers

My first dinner in Las Vegas was a headlong dive into the hard core industry. My husband and I waited at the reception desk of the Bally Hotel to link up with John Stagliano, who is arguably the most successful XXX pornographer in America. His nickname is 'Buttman' due to the specific XXX niche his videos, such as Face Dance I and II, fill. After a telephone interview, Stagliano had invited my husband and I to dine with him. Another pornographer, John Leslie, would be present as well. I was told that Leslie was of the 'old school'.

I had never met Stagliano, but I made a point of watching several of the videos he'd produced as background research. Since John had a tendency to appear in his own videos, I thought I'd recognize him. I did. My first impression of the porn producer: youngish, amiable, streetwise and a bit on the L.A. trendy side.

John Leslie (Talk Dirty to Me) was waiting for us in a nearby Italian restaurant. Although Leslie is best known as a porn actor, I hadn't seen any of his work. I would have recognized him immediately if I had. The man knew how to make an impression: immaculately attired in black, with pure white hair, a face of stone and ice gray eyes. Leslie looked more like a mafia don than a porn star. He stood in stark and rather bleak contrast to Stagliano's comparatively boyish enthusiasm.

While Stagliano answered the first of my questions -- 'What makes something soft core rather than hard core?' -- Leslie ordered two bottles of wine, one white, one red. As a connoisseur, Leslie sent one bottle back for a replacement; the other he liked well enough to have the waiter soak off the label to take home for future reference.

At first, Stagliano and I chatted about what constituted fetish porn, while my husband and Leslie discussed the growing importance of Canada's Niagara peninsula as a wine producing region. In short, everyone felt each other out. Then, in a neutral manner, I steered the conversation toward the possibility that women were coerced into pornography. I asked whether any of the violence in hard core porn -- like the sex -- was real, rather than simulated.

The response was electric. Both producers vigorously insisted: all of the violence was simulated. In fact, there were strict restrictions on which acts could be simulated. Stagliano explained that the hard core industry was regulated, not by law, but by the threat of law. In 1978, the police had made it clear they would prosecute any hard core sex video that went past certain unofficial, but well-known, limits. These limits included: no more than three fingers in a vagina or anus (no fist fucking); and, no urination or defecation. Although mild images of violence were still tolerated, the slapping of breasts and faces was in a legal grey zone.

Those consumers who wanted hard core pornography with more extreme images of violence could still find it -- but only from expensive imported tapes. Expensive, because their importation was illegal and risky.

As to 'coercion into pornography' -- the claim that women are forced to commit sex acts for the camera -- Stagliano described how his company, Evil Angel, screened the women they hired as actresses. At casting calls, he and his partner, Patrick, asked the women which sex acts turned them on. From their answers, the two men knew the roles in which to cast the women. "Only if a woman enjoys what she's doing", Stagliano assured me, "can she give a convincing performance."

As an example, he recalled a shy woman who had come in on an open casting call earlier that week. Physically, she was what he considered perfect: young, a good hard body, a pretty face. But, after the first few questions, he'd decided not to use her because she didn't seem comfortable enough with sex to project real enjoyment to a camera. Then, Patrick asked her about bondage and she reportedly 'came alive'. The women was hired for a bondage scene.

When I pressed on about the possibility of coercion, Stagliano readily admitted that the industry was huge and some women were almost certainly abused or misused. "This happens in every business", he explained, "from Standard Oil to banking". The most common abuse came from producers who manipulated women into performing sex acts to which they have not agreed in advance. Usually, the manipulation was in the form of peer pressure, eg. in the form of comments like 'no one else objects', or 'you're holding up production for everyone else.'

Stagliano had heard of a producer who refused to pay a woman for past work unless she performed a sex act to which she objected. The woman knew it would be useless to take the dispute before the courts, which did not have a track record of being sympathetic to sex workers. This gave the producer a strong hold over her.

The conversation drifted onto whether or not there was such a thing as a snuff movie. This is a movie in which someone is actually killed in front of the camera during a sex/torture scene. [My question had political significance. In New York, over a decade ago, when a porn movie purported to be a snuff film, feminists had almost rioted outside the theater in which it played. This incident was the beginning of the 'Take Back the Night' movement, under whose banner feminists still march through the streets of major cities to protest pornography.]

Stagliano had no first hand knowledge of snuff movies. But 'a reliable source' had assured him that the movie that had caused such a sensation had been a scam. The producers had wanted to make more money. They thought a simulated killing, advertised as real, would make the ticket price skyrocket. They were right.

Stagliano interrupted Leslie's preoccupation with food to ask if he knew of any snuff films. The answer was 'no', but Leslie conceded the possibility of amateur snuff films. As he put it, "there are a lot of really sick sons-of-bitches out there". But no one 'in the industry' would be stupid enough to put a murder on tape so that it could be used against them in criminal proceedings. In over thirty years in pornography, Leslie claimed to have never seen a snuff film, even though he had seen almost everything else, including what looked like real violence in Japanese videos.

As to the alleged snuff film that caused a furor... Leslie brusquely informed me that, if I took the time to watch the video, I would see how the post-production editor had simply spliced new scenes into an old movie. The older movie was Mexican or South American...he couldn't remember. "It wasn't even good editing", he shrugged.

Next, I opened up the subject of contracts by asking how they were negotiated with actresses. Did the women usually sign whatever was put in front of them? Did they argue over fees or residuals? Did agents get involved?

A friendly dispute broke out at the table. Stagliano claimed he didn't sign contracts before shooting a video because he felt this might hinder the creative process. He didn't use scripts either. Instead, he relied on 'concepts' which evolved during production. This meant his videos assumed a life of their own, in the style of cinema verite. He insisted that a contract which specified acts in advance could interfere with his method of production.

[I discovered later that Stagliano was one of the key producers who spanned pornography's transition from large budget films to the currently booming amateur (or home) porn. During the '70s, porn films like Behind the Green Door and Emmanuelle had substantial budgets, trained actors, high technical values, and complex scripts with intricate plots. Today, the fastest growing sector of porn is home videos. These are videos which are shot by 'regular' people -- husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends -- who, then, sell them to distribution companies. The final tape combines several of these short amateur presentations under one label.]

Stagliano seems to fall between the two extremes of '70s: big budget and home porn. As a producer, he prides himself on technical values, especially on camera angles. And the opening scene of Face Dance I still leaves me open-mouthed. But his videos do not have large budgets, prepared scripts, or the other trappings of the major productions of yesteryear.

As Stagliano explained why he didn't sign contracts in advance, I flashed on the Anti-Pornography ordinances which radical feminists had tried to push through various City Councils a decade before. Under these ordinances, a woman who had performed a pornographic act could later bring a civil suit against the producer for 'coercion into pornography'. Although this would not be a criminal charge, it could result in huge settlements for the woman. I wondered if Stagliano realized that his devil-may-care approach to contracts could place everything he owned in jeopardy.

It became clearer to me that pornography had grown up as an underground industry. It had evolved by working outside the judiciary...outside the context of courts and contracts. The police and the legal system were still seen as hostile forces. And rightfully so. If a contract was violated, it was touch-and-go whether a judge would even hear the case, let alone take it seriously. And women in porn were more likely to be mistreated by the police than protected by them. No wonder legal paperwork was given low priority.

"So far I haven't needed contracts," Stagliano seemed puzzled by my concern.

"What if you end up in court?" I asked, "If you don't have an enforceable contract, what are you going to do?"

"Why would I go after these people, Wendy?" he replied with a disapproving frown. "They don't have anything." He obviously thought I was heartless.

Before I could explain that people might go after him, Leslie interjected, "I always sign contracts and releases in advance, just to get rid of the paperwork." Apparently, he was exhausted by the end of a project and didn't like to spend time at that point on loose ends.

The discussion of contracts quickly devolved into a heated denunciation of what Leslie called the 'studio system'. This is a system by which certain companies place aspiring porn actresses under exclusive contract. Typically, the contract promised the woman $5,000 to $10,000 a month. In exchange, the actress agreed to appear in some defined number of movies each month over a period of time, usually running from six months to a year.

Both Stagliano and Leslie loudly lamented this system, which attracted the best looking and most talented women. Of course, this kept the actresses out of the 'job market' -- that is, out of their videos. To add insult to injury, the offending companies invariably produced 'tame' material -- an artistic choice that elicited scorn from the table.

[By 'tame', they did not necessarily mean soft core. Companies, like Vivid Video, produce hard core movies that are so sensitive to implications of violence against women, they shy away from even the suggestion of dominance, for example. Moreover, Vivid's hard core videos are routinely edited down to soft core versions for sale to adult cable channels.]

To me, the studio system made sense. It provided real benefits to the women who signed on. Not the least of these benefits was a decent, steady income over a predictable period of time. This allowed the women to make plans -- to go back to school, for example.

Later, after I learned that a porn actress on her own earned only $150 to $600 for a day's work, I was even more impressed by the studio system. After all, most of the women who sign those contracts had limited education and limited job opportunities. And the fact that the movies were 'tame' meant the women had a better chance of moving from porn into 'legitimate' film. No wonder the studio system attracted women with talent and beauty.

I refrained from making such comments, however, since my perspective was clearly out of step with the rest of the table.

I did continue to steer the conversation onto the broad subject of women in the industry. Did they like their work? Did they enjoy the sex scenes?

I asked the two producers what percentage of female orgasms in videos did they think were real. Both men immediately volunteered that one hundred percent of women's orgasms in soft core videos were faked. But they disagreed radically about orgasms in hard core porn. Leslie claimed that ninety percent of them were real and that he could always tell. Stagliano estimated that ten to twenty percent of the women's orgasms were real, but added "the important thing is not the orgasm, but whether the woman shows real pleasure". He thought most women got involved in pornography to indulge a strain of exhibitionism within themselves.

I asked if the actors were also into 'exhibitionism'...or did they get something fundamentally different out of performing for the camera? Two comments shot straight back: men get less money for their performances than women do, so money was even less of a motivation; and, male orgasms are always real.

Do you think men and women like different types of pornography? I asked and the table fell silent. My husband came to the rescue by mentioning a magazine article. which claimed that women prefer 'softer' movies, with more plot development, romance and foreplay. Stagliano thought there might be something to this theory. His tentative agreement was overruled by Leslie's insistence that men and women reacted in exactly the same manner. As proof, he elaborated on how orgasms have the same affect on both sexes: an intensity in the eyes, flared nostrils, heavy breathing....

At this point, the pasta had been eaten, the wine had been drained; it was time for dessert. Conversation drifted away from my priorities and onto Leslie's extremely graphic reminiscence of a Scandinavian girlfriend. I remembered the words with which Stagliano had ushered me into the restaurant only an hour before:

"Now you'll get a candid look at the psychology of pornographers."

I also remembered my husband's comment on Howard Stern's book Private Parts, over which I had been laughing the night before. "This is how guys talk about women when they are just hanging out together," he had assured me. As Leslie warmed to his topic, I put my notebook away and began to eavesdrop.

At some point, I must have turned beet red, because Stagliano leaned over and whispered, "don't be embarrassed." Before coming to CES, I had resolved not to be prudish. For one thing, my background was hardly that of a wall flower. For another thing, I knew that sexual morality was largely a matter of geography and of the subculture you happen to be moving in.

Nevertheless...I was embarrassed...but not by the explicit language, or by what anti-porn feminists would call 'reducing women to sexual parts'. I was embarrassed by the loudness with which Leslie described 'a fuck in the alley'. At every table within listening distance -- and that included a fair number -- people were gawking at us. Conversation in our end of the restaurant had ceased, except for the pointed jokes and comments being muttered back and forth, all aimed at our table. Two women made their disapproval clear through glares and scowls directed, oddly enough, at me! I was thankful there were no children within earshot. At Leslie's description of 'jerking off' to a phone call, another few tables fell silent.

As the blood pounded in my cheeks, I did what usually helps bring things into focus...I switched into critical mode and analyzed the situation. I reached my first conclusion about the psychology of pornographers. They do not consider sex to be a private matter. This may seem to be a facile and painfully obvious insight. But -- until then -- I had thought pornography might be a business that shut down at five o'clock, like a post office.

This conclusion was confirmed as the convention progressed. People in the industry kept telling me intimate and unsolicited details about their sex lives. I realized that pornography was as much an attitude or lifestyle as it was a business. The line between private and public was sometimes blurred to the point of being erased.

The attitude toward sex in porn circles was like a brass band, with red tasseled uniforms, blasting its way down Main Street. The attitude was: sex should be flaunted; conventions are to be scorned; shocking people is part of the fun; and, we are the sexual sophisticates, we are the sexual elite.

Yet, mixed up with this in-your-face approach was a strange eagerness to be understood and to be taken seriously by the regular world. Several times in the middle of a conversation, I had the sudden feeling that it was important to the people I was talking to that I accept them, that I like them.

As Leslie talked on and on...I reached a second conclusion. The porn industry reminded me of the gay community, in which I am lucky enough to have a few good friends. Before I'd been adopted as a 'sympathetic' outsider, I had encountered a strange blend of suspicious hostility and total openness...sometimes manifested in the same person within the same ten minute conversation. People in porn reacted to me in a similar manner, and probably for a similar reason. They were used to being rejected, even despised by the people around them. On one level, they hungered for decent treatment and acceptance from the 'legitimate' world; on the other hand, they had acquired the survival skill of automatically treating others with the contempt they fully expected to receive back.

These were the raw theories spinning out in my head at the moment when the only truly offensive comment of the evening occurred. As Leslie finished the account of the Scandinavian encounter, he made a casual remark that went right through me.

"She was gorgeous -- totally fucked up psychologically -- but, oh, what an ass!" he exclaimed. Perhaps I over reacted, perhaps I was more embarrassed than I realized, but it bothered me to hear a woman's angst being dismissed so lightly, while the curve of her ass was being eulogized. I wondered if some of the criticism leveled at pornographers was accurate: perhaps they treated women like commodities...to be valued, but never respected.

After dinner, we retired to a music-blaring smoky bar, which spelled death for conversation. Miraculously there was an empty chair next to Stagliano's business partner, Patrick Collins. In their company Elegant Angel/Evil Angel, Patrick constituted the 'Elegant' half.

Conversation dissolved into screaming sentences at each other. From the snippets I caught, I gathered that Patrick and his wife worked as a team in the industry; she was nicknamed 'Buttwoman'. He had abandoned a upscale career in investment banking in order to pursue 'excellence' in the one area that gave him satisfaction: graphic sex. Collins, with his gentlemanly way of speaking, was an antidote to the harshness of Leslie, but the screaming was rough on my throat and I finally settled back to watch the crowd.

A young blonde woman, with a hard face and an equally hard body, came over and ran her fingers persistently through Stagliano's hair. He had barely acknowledged this, when a brunette in incredibly tight jeans sat down in his lap and began to grind her hips into his groin. From my days of working in television, I'd seen this sort of behavior -- in more subtle form -- displayed by women toward TV producers, whose favors they wished to garner. It surprised me to see it displayed toward a porn producer. Perhaps I had accepted, on some level, that women were seduced and coerced into the industry.

Another theory began to spin out. What if pornography were nothing more than a dark mirror of the movie industry -- a more blatant version of everything that goes on in Hollywood? What if the same basic rules of supply and demand, power and persuasion, mirrors and smoke apply to all producers and actresses, legitimate or not?

Having spun out this speculation, I began to punch holes in it. One immediate difference came to mind: there were no unions in porn...no SAG, no AFTRA, no ACTRA. Without their presence, pornography did not mirror -- even in a dark distortion -- any other aspect of the entertainment industry.

There was no protection from courts, which routinely dismiss suits brought by pornographers against distributors as 'frivolous'. Nor from police, who are far more likely to harass than to protect sex workers. This, too, was a difference of kind, not degree.

There was no genuine respect for hard core pornography, except on the shadow-fringes of society. No mainstream newspapers, magazines or TV news shows would review the movies; no talk shows would invite the women as guests, except as curiosities. The better the women were at their trade -- the expression of sex -- the less likely they were to receive respect.

Too tired to speculate further, I walked away from the bar and the enfolding party scene. ...

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