Let me be clear about something: I never set out to become a porn writer. I set out to be a writer. Ever since I was seven, I’ve wanted to write novels and children’s books and illustrate my own work. But, as it turns out, writing fiction isn’t such an easy thing to make a living at, and along the way I stumbled off the path and wound up here, amidst the plastic-wrapped, two-for-one skin magazines. I still work on my own creative endeavors, and I’ve even had a few stories published here and there, but the only lucrative gigs I’ve ever had as a writer have been for bottom-shelf wank rags.
How did this happen? Well, I followed a pretty typical trajectory after college, casting about in a general fugue of post-B.A.-in-English angst for a few years, and then settled in New York, where writers have been losing their souls for centuries. When a friend mentioned that she knew the editor-in-chief of a sleazy porno magazine who was looking for a DVD reviewer, I figured I’d give it a try. I’d spent some time working as, among other things, a go-go dancer, a nude art model, and an amateur Sex and the City expert, and hell, I’d seen my fair share of internet porn. It was something I had never felt particularly proud of watching, but I saw nothing wrong with pornography; I’d read it was as old as the cave paintings. Part of the human condition. As a practical, if not exactly radical, feminist, I did have a moment’s hesitation about becoming part of an industry notorious for its exploitation of women. But then again, as a feminist, I should be willing to support the right of women to do whatever they wanted with their lives, minds, and bodies, right? If they decided to have sex on camera, I would support their decisions, and make a buck out of reviewing their work. And, hell, I was broke. So why not?
Shortly thereafter, I found myself in a maze of dimly lit hallways called an office in flip-flops and shorts (“Doesn’t matter how you’re dressed,” he’d said on the phone, “this is a porn office. Just stop by.”). Within a half hour, having met a few of the tattooed and jaded individuals running the operation, I was handed a box packed with some of the filthiest magazines I had ever seen and a double-disc set of a XXX film called Something-or-Other “_ASS_ault.” Within a week I’d written my first porn review, had it approved for publication, and was hired as a freelance reviewer. I was officially “in” the skin biz.
I picked a pen name and started reviewing anywhere from three to eight pornos a month. Some were funny, or at least tried to be, and some were hot, but many were just gross. And they were all really long; I learned to watch the first few minutes of each sex scene, taking notes on “plot” or “witty” banter, then fast forward through the remainder at 10x speed, slowing down to note the frequency of position changes, athleticism of maneuvers, and standout dirty talk. The trick was to watch the 2- to 6-hour-long DVDs as fast as possible and then spend under an hour writing dirty, overly alliterative jokes about what I’d seen. Easy, if a bit monotonous.
For easy reference, I made up lists of alternative names for breasts, penises and vaginas, and supplementary lists later on for buttholes, as that trend gained popularity. I developed rating criteria for length, girth, cup size, amount of cellulite, and gag reflex (or the lack thereof). Things got ugly, fast.
My roommates, who thought my freelancing gig sounded “so cool,” encouraged me to watch the films in the living room so they could contribute ideas for my reviews. I informed them, as politely as possible, that I wasn’t reviewing cute, funny pornos like Good Will Humping or Who’s Nailin’ Palin. I was sitting through Big Wet Tits #15 and Teens Like It Big #4. There were no plots or music, just generalized themes (anal, oral, multiple men, multiple women, facials, and so on) and hard, hard, hardcore action. This wasn’t group-viewing material.
After a few months of reviewing, the constant humping was wearing on my retinas and getting tedious. My personal sex drive, initially amped up by the bouncing boobs and facials, was declining in the face of overexposure. I was getting paranoid that I’d never be adequate in bed, or that I’d start thinking really kinky things were normal and scare off my boyfriend. I was finding it easier to come up with derogatory slurs about the performers’ bodies and actions. And, I realized, I was coming to understand the bitterness that edged the voices of my editors and co-writers, the disgust with humanity that drove their daily routines. I told myself I wouldn’t let it happen to me; I’d keep my life and my work separate.
My employers, no doubt interpreting my naiveté as enthusiasm, recommended me to the editor at another, much more prominent skin rag as a set copy writer. This work was easier, paid almost as well, and involved no porn watching; in fact, I never even saw the girls I was writing about. I’d just make up a 500 word story about Karly from Kansas who wanted to be a state trooper but whose jugs threw off her shooting aim, or Eufgenia from the Ukraine whose boobs had grown to an astonishing Double G cup after the Chernobyl disaster, and the editor would match some stock photos to my copy. Not exactly respectful of the girls who had posed nude, but it was the easiest thing I’d ever done for money.
And then, one day, as I was writing up my To-Do list (“write set copy; get groceries; deposit check; watch Jailbait 5; do yoga”) I realized I had become an actual writer. A porn writer. I was a specialist, and my specialty was coming up with funny terms for boobies. Oh. My. God.
Panic ensued. I’d never be a legitimate author now! How would I convince a publisher that I could write a Young Adult novel without detailed descriptions of the main character’s budding bosoms? And, as I watched the sped-up screwing in Jailbait 5 that afternoon, it struck me that as a responsible feminist, I didn’t know if I could continue watching women debase themselves on film. Sure, I respected a woman’s right to do what she wanted with her body, but now I was watching a woman with giant implants being reamed in the pile-driver position while licking a guy’s toe on film. She might be enjoying it, but it was hard to tell since she was upside down and turning bright red. What would Gloria Steinem say?
The problem was, I couldn’t afford to stop writing for porn. It paid a good portion of my rent every month, and in New York, that’s a lot to give up. As any young writer would, I needed the cash. So, rather than quitting, I tried to appease the specter of Gloria’s disapproving face by changing my tactics. Instead of dirty jokes about vacuum-powered pussy, I would mention how the women in the films were world-class athletes, or give them credit for natural-looking breasts. Instead of ridiculous stories about nuclear fallout, I wrote involved stories about the set copy girls’ triumphs over difficult circumstances to become the paragons of girl power that graced our pages. I tried to turn the readers’ attention to the positive aspects of femininity in the films and stories, to be as proactively feminist as I could while contributing to the magazine’s sales.
After all, I told myself, I’m a writer who has to make a buck somehow. Every successful author had to start somewhere less exalted than the next Great American Novel, right? Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Playboy in its heyday, why couldn’t I work toward the same goal, so long as I did it with my conscience in tow?
And furthermore, I would tell myself during Breast Meat, these women aren’t being exploited any more than they’re exploiting the public’s desire for them. Nobody’d be filming them boinking if nobody was going to watch it. Women in porn were making a shrewd decision about their options in life—which were limited for many of them—and often they were getting rich and famous. What kind of judgmental princess was I to think they weren’t feminists in their own right? Being a female porn writer, I told myself, was a post-modern feminist statement, not just an easy buck.
In many ways I believe that stance to be a fair one, and I stand by my decision to support women’s choices. But the longer I keep my tenuous toehold in the jizz rag biz, the more the realities of the porn industry stare me in the face, and it’s not just the faces covered in jizz that bother me. There are a lot of really upsetting things going on both inside and outside the studio, both on the industry and consumer sides, which are disturbing and decidedly unfriendly to women. The language used to describe them in industry terminology and in social contexts, the attitudes about their worth as human beings, the aesthetics with which they are presented to the world, and the acts they perform raise a lot of questions. I mean, what’s with the fake boobs and nails and eyelashes and tans and hair? Why the no-body-hair rule? And who came up with the idea that ejaculate is the new trend in facial moisturizers? On that note, where is the line between pleasure and degradation drawn, and by whom? Why have the past few years seen such an abrupt switch from full-length feature films to half-hour-long frenzies of manic semen spewing? Is anybody overseeing this whole operation, and if so, can we arrange to have a private sit-down chat?
There are a lot of issues brought up by my participation in this industry that I have to deal with personally, face professionally, and let my conscience weigh. I’m hoping to keep my tone respectful and my attitude positive, but it can be tough to smile at a gangbang when your brain is begging for an explanation. Maybe by asking some of these questions out loud and at least searching for an answer, I can raise the flag on a few issues. Or maybe I can at least keep my sanity, and a bit of my feminist idealism, by giving Sally from St. Louis a bit of dignity to match her DD’s.