Sex & Relationships

Why I Had to Stop Making Hardcore Porn

As a director of heterosexual porn, I came to learn that while my overt task was to make sure the girls got naked, my true responsibility was to make sure the girls got punished.

When I was in my early 20s, I made my living as a pornographer. For more than five years, my working life revolved around framing acts of public copulation. I’ve pushed cameras and microphones into dwellings no machines should ever go. I’ve been granted a front-row seat to scenes of startling intimacy. I’ve helped pick up thousands of used baby-wipes. Somewhere along the line, I gained a financial stability that, in light of the rather limited artistic scope of the movies I helped produce, I probably didn’t deserve.

But after half a decade of the sex grind, I decided to call it quits. For despite having entered the smut leagues with the very best of intentions, the vast majority of the porn I ended up shooting was not “sex-positive” in character. Instead, the sex I found myself videotaping was of the Gonzo variety: the kind of scenes that are harshly lit, reek of a basement in the San Fernando Valley, and inevitably wind up devoured and forgotten in 15 minutes. If my “career” as a director is notable in any way, it’s that I’ve played for both sides—which is to say, while I’ve shot hundreds of hetero scenes, I’ve shot almost as many in gay porn.

We Have to Give Them What They Want

Though gay and straight porn may appear distinct from one another mostly due to the various orifices which receive the majority of the camera’s gaze, for me, the most important difference was that they felt governed by subtly different moral tenets.

Let’s begin with straight porn; for that’s where I began. I got into porn as a horny 23-year-old Jewish kid, hoping to stare at and hopefully score with curvy women who didn’t see a roll in the hay as too absurd a way to make their rent. Perhaps I was blessed with an excessively literal mind, but I quite simply imagined that the best way for me to live out my sexual fantasies was to, well, join the sex industry itself. It was not to be so simple, I soon discovered: many a man had shared my same dream. A good job was hard to come by, but after months of crushing disappointments, I finally landed a mildly lucrative gig shooting camera for a website. Understandably, I was psyched.

But in due time, I came to learn that within the context of the heterosexual L.A. industry, while my overt task at hand was to make sure that the girls got naked, my true responsibility as director was to make sure the girls got punished. Scenes that stuck out, and hence made more money, were those in which the female “targets” were verbally degraded and sometimes physically humiliated.

None of it was written in my contract, of course; it was more of a contextual thing. Like: Everyone’s doing it . . . thus, so shall we. My various superiors across the years saw the issue from a businessman’s perspective, reminding me quite openly of the need to keep up with our competition. Anabolic’s getting nasty?Then we need to be nastier.Another one of their gambits was “We owe it our viewers.” We have to give them what they want! (And what do “they” want? Scenes of degradation, of course. Gloryholes and gang-bangs. The facial cumshot became de riguer sometime in the 1980s, but by the 2000s, you literally had to do it in every scene or risk not collecting your paycheck.)

What surprised me most though, was the fact that I found within myself a happy willingness to be violent, a willingness to degrade. Though my bosses may have ordered me to organize and record the scenes of degradation, I followed their orders, and not without pleasure. Something cowardly within me, an internal space, suffused with a weak kind of anger, felt satisfied when I saw a woman “take her punishment.” I clung to the sense of temporary empowerment I found through the bullying. Lust-colored aggression and the satisfaction of making “good money” guided me through scene after scene.

Of course, all participants in porno are complicit, both the bottoms and tops. Both genders willingly participate in heterosexual porn, and to some extent, both are marginalized: I was literally ordered not to film men above the waist if I could help it. And while men do make up the majority of porn’s audience, women watch heterosexual porn, too—quite a few likely doing so with major outrage or dissatisfaction. Still, though, straight porn unarguably continues to be the untrammeled domain of male fantasy.

But none of this is too enlightening. After all, we’ve all seen “bad” porn, hateful porn, and I think most have a basic sense of where it comes from. Men get bummed when they can’t get sex. They feel ashamed when they turn to porn for release. Hate and disappointment is released along with their libidos. Disappointment and disrespect washes over the sex workers. It infects the camera crew.

The point at which this treatise becomes useful, however, is when we take a closer look at gay porn—which is precisely what I had to do, midway through my journey through porn.

The Zen of Gay Porn

After three years of shooting, I’d disowned the Gonzo world. I had just seen too much. It had taken a toll on me, in the form of broken relationships, guilt, and regrettable behavior. I concluded that my life would be a hell of a lot sunnier if I could stop collecting money for videotaping women getting crushed before my eyes, and I simply removed myself from the arena. I applied to graduate school and eventually got in. I studied, talked a lot in class, and loved it. But I was poor. I was really, really poor.

So I called my last boss up, rather shamefacedly, and asked him for my job back. “I don’t have it anymore,” he said, “but we’re starting a new site. Would you be okay with shooting gay?”

For a moment I considered. I had never seen two guys go at it before, and at first the idea didn’t appeal to me. Though I thought of myself as very open-minded, for some reason the idea of filming male sex ad infinitum, from a first-row seat, depressed me. Perhaps I still envisioned my foray into porn as a type of sexual wish-fulfillment: with nothing to gain in terms of conquest, these scenes may have lost a bit of their luster. Or maybe it’s more honest to say that I was simply scared.

In the end, it didn’t matter: my desire for the easy paycheck won out, and I took the job. And rather quickly, I came to feel happy that I had—morally, it was another world entirely. The scenarios were still contrived, I admit, and the orgasms were half-hearted, if they came at all. I employed plenty of guys who were there for the money, make no mistake about it; and without exception, the production values stayed amateur. But the shame, rage, and sexual violence that I had come to associate with porn was almost completely absent. That meant something.

Gay porn, in fact, was so goddamn simple that it approached a type of Zen beauty. I mean, this was guys taking on guys, in every shape and form imaginable, for the most part in good humor and absent-minded lust. They may have stuck to roles of “tops” and “bottoms,” but in the dressing room, we all seemed equals, on the same team. Everyone laughed at me for being a straight guy shooting gay porn. Some tried to entice me to jump in front of the camera for kicks. But we all laughed about it. We all seemed like friends. The sadness and the degradation I had come to associate with my job, with videotaped sex for money, was suddenly absent.

But I’m saddened to think that the only path to the absence of hostility and anger in porn is to remove women from the equation. It doesn’t bode well, especially for a world in which men and women must continue to co-exist. In the first half of my porn-life, I lived inside of a world where it almost seemed like an entire gender was being denigrated, like that was the whole point—where very young women were choked and slapped and written-on with lipstick, simply for the crime, it seemed, of being a woman. You should have slept with me, seemed to be the unspoken message. Now see what I have to do to you.

Choosing the Photograph

The semiotician Susan Sontag writes that, “Photography is essentially an act of non-intervention.” She references the famous photograph of a Vietnamese child, running down a road, her back burned from napalm: “Part of the horror of such journalistic coups of contemporary photojournalism . . . comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and life, to choose the photograph.” Every day, I saw people in pain. And yet, I always chose the photograph.

Even so, I don’t regret my decision to work in porn. I regret how I acted within it, and wish that I had been driven more frequently by compassion than instinctive cruelty. But on its most basic level, pornography is neither evil nor noble. It is a sexual means to a solitary end, and for most, porn simply represents a harmless way to spend a half-hour: a bit of lust-inspired drivel that, done right, can serve a very practical purpose.

Moreover, within the world of heterosexual pornography, it’s clear that not every scene is degrading. Some are directed by women, others by alt-porn types who fancy a pink mohawk and maybe a bit of plot more so than your average everyday, run-of-the-mill gangbang; many films, happily, are simply produced by people who don’t seem propelled by anger. Some are just plain damn sexy.

At its worst, though, porn can represent with shocking clarity the inability of a modern society to empathize. We are living in an increasingly individualistic, over-privatized, fragmented society, and it's not going to get any better any time soon. Perhaps the character of our generation will be judged in how we react to the images that run before us on our screens: do we wish for the objects of our desire to be punished, humiliated? Or treated with respect? The answer is in our collective consciousness. It is up to us.