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The Rialto Report: What is it like for women in porn?

The Rialto Report: What is it like for women in porn?

The Rialto Report is a recurring column where we explore the nuances of the adult film industry and the community involved.

How does the adult industry discriminate against women?

During the golden age of adult films, women were definitely treated differently from men, but not in all the typical ways.

Unlike their male counterparts, the women in the industry almost always earned more as it was the female talent that drew in viewers while men served a more functional role. Looks mattered, but more often than not there was a niche to create or fill. Androgynous like Sharon Mitchell? No problem. Older like Jennifer Welles? Happy to have you. Disabled like Long Jean Silver? You’re hired.

And there was no need to sleep with the producer or director to get the part. Actresses like Andrea True spoke about being propositioned at mainstream industry auditions regularly whereas adult industry filmmakers often treated her and fellow actresses with respect. And many women choose whom they would – and would not – work with.

That said, it was often men who were making the real money in the business. Producers and distributors were mostly male, controlling revenue as well as narrative. It wasn’t until women like Candida Royale moved from in front to behind the camera in the early 1980s that dynamics began to shift, albeit slowly.

 

Have the experiences of women in the adult industry been more negative or positive?

Some women describe their time in the industry enthusiastically, focusing on positives such as financial independence, a caring work community and feelings of sexual liberation. Other women have shared tales of family rejection, social ostracization and personal shame.

But for the majority of women we’ve spoken with, the good outweighed the bad during their time in the business. It has been their time since leaving the industry that can often be more complicated. Even for women whose time in the industry basically amounted to a summer job 40 years ago, repercussions can persist today. Decisions they make now can be in part driven by whether they are public about their past or not. Some women have only recently embraced their adult history, finding community on social networks like Facebook. Others describe trying to lead quiet lives and at times receiving threats of being “outed” at work or in their communities.

As for nowadays, adult actress Lorelei Lee recently wrote about the benefits and drawbacks of working in adult films in a piece called ‘Once You Have Made Pornography’. She discusses how the allure of the industry – focused for many on financial stability – will quickly slide into the consequences of participation. You will be judged and reduced. You will be outed and used.

Lorelei writes “If you continue to do this job, it will become harder and harder to have a life outside of it. More and more, it will be the people you work with who will understand that your work in pornography doesn’t tell them who you are, and it will be civilians for whom the knowledge that you’ve been naked for money will be a kind of flattening — a thing they cannot see around.”

Lorelei’s post is not necessarily an admonition – it is instead a reminder that the benefits the industry brings are often accompanied by disadvantages. The same holds true for the women of early adult film. And the balance of pros and cons largely came down to the individual.

 

It’s been said that contrary to traditional Hollywood, women in adult films are treated as the ‘star’ as the plots are often revolved around them and their pleasure. We wondered what your thoughts were on that?

A sizable number of women in the early industry were aspiring actresses. They entered the business as a way to either support their “straight” efforts – which often did not pay well – or because they felt that the lines between mainstream and adult film would blur.

These women with experience in both industries could compare and contrast. The vast majority described better treatment in the world of adult film. The pay was good and yes, they might have a starring role in pornography whereas in the mainstream they were lucky to get a bit part.

But few actresses raved about the quality of adult scripts or the deep thespian experience of their porn colleagues. And many described grueling days, often running to 18 hours or more driven by the cost of production versus a film’s budget.

A red-carpet premiere or review in the New York Times next to a mainstream feature could make up for a lot. But when all was said and done, there was scant belief that a starring role in an adult film was in any way equivalent to one in the mainstream.

 

How have the perceptions and treatment of women changed over time in the industry?

It all comes down to whose perception or treatment by whom. Has the mainstream become more accepting of women from the adult industry? You can cite examples like Sasha Grey in ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ but they tend to be few and far-between, and not so dissimilar from when actresses like Linda Lovelace would appear on mainstream talk shows.

What about the media – any change there? News article with titles like ‘This porn star can do anything you want her to’ and ‘Former Porn Star Finds Jesus, Abandons Adult Filmmaking’ suggest not. The media has always loved attention-grabbing headlines and continues to exploit women in pornography to write them.

And what about the industry itself – has it changed its treatment of the women who fuel it? Here we probably see the greatest change thanks to technology. Whereas men were typically the gatekeepers of pornography in the golden age, nowadays any young woman with a camera can directly reach a willing audience.

Women have always been at the heart of the adult industry – the central point made by Susan Faludi in her landmark 1995 article ‘The Money Shot’. But even with the mainstreaming of pornography and its widespread reach online, the saying ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’ holds true. Within the industry, acceptance abounds. Outside the industry, the biggest consumers of pornography can often be the first to judge the women that make it.

The Rialto Report is an Adult film podcast series on the adult film industry in New York and beyond.

A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HERS issue, summer 2017 edition. 

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