Staring across the San Fernando Valley from atop Sepulveda Pass, one is confronted with an endless expanse of shopping malls, parking lots and freeways – the staples of suburban American life. This is the valley. It’s the place that gave us Disney, valley girls and Lucille Ball. Nestled within this seemingly innocuous part of the suburban landscape is the ground zero of the porn universe.
Like Disney and the stereotypical valley girl, pornography has, in the last few decades, crept its way into mainstream America. Last year, the porn business is estimated to have generated between $10 and $12 billion in revenue. No matter what people might say, America loves porn. As one industry analyst told me, “It’s not just one pervert renting 756 million tapes.”
During the three weeks I spent tooling around Porn Valley, I spoke with everyone. I met executives at the largest film studios, performers on the set and even spoke with boom mic operators in an attempt to see what makes the industry tick.
While sales figures might indicate that America is embracing porn with open arms, try telling your dry cleaner how much you enjoyed the latest installment of Filthy First Timers in lieu of discussing the new Schwarzenegger flick.
“We live in a society that jacks off to us with their left hand and pushes us away with their right,” says a longtime industry veteran. Americans are clearly consuming more pornography than ever; yet, it remains a significant taboo – and lies far from the social mainstream.
One percent of the industry tests positive for AIDS every month. Girls who enter the business often have little to no idea of the consequences, and have few tools to exit the industry successfully. Almost across the board, performers find it nearly impossible to engage in normal relationships.
My experiences with the denizens of Porn Valley defied many of the stereotypes heaped on the industry. I met Ph.D.s and high school dropouts. Bleeding heart liberals and conservative Reaganites. The people I met were, by and large, pleasant, open and likeable. The majority of the people I encountered were far smarter than porn people are stereotypically regarded (although a few fit the mold perfectly), and I saw absolutely no drugs, overt misogyny or coercion whatsoever.
What I found was often funny, sometimes unnerving, but almost never what you’d expect.
My voyage into the world of porn started where most girls’ do – in the office of talent agent Jim South. Across from a strip mall and just down the street from a tattoo parlor in a seedy but not dangerous area, South’s one-room office (actually two rooms – one office and one audition room) is tight, cramped and always bustling with activity.
South is regarded by many as the most powerful man in porn. The native-born Texan’s World Modeling Agency represents roughly 70 percent of the industry’s talent and finds work for actors at nearly all of the adult film companies and magazines. He is one of only two licensed talent agents in the business. Traci Lords, the infamous underage porn star, got her start in South’s office.
Today in the office is an 18-year old from Kentucky who just arrived in Los Angeles earlier this week. I try to ask her a few questions, but she has to run out to do a shoot for Hustler – it’s her third assignment since arriving. “A girl can usually be working in a few days,” South explains to me. She hasn’t been in L.A. a week and she’s already made $1,500.
A girl stands to make between $600 and $900 for a single video shoot, depending on what she’s willing to do. Lesbian (girl/girl in porn lingo) scenes – which are considered to be the most tame – pay the least, while anal sex scenes pay the most. Threeways (guy/girl/girl or guy/guy/girl) and other odd groupings also tend to pay toward the high end of the scale.
Male performers are usually paid significantly less than their female counterparts. Unless they are one of the 10 or 15 performers in constant demand, standard pay for a guy is $200 to $300 per scene.
The easiest way for a guy to break into porn is by finding a new girl to work with.
“Most guys break into the business by bringing in a hot chick,” says Lee Stone, an in-demand actor. The plan is for the girl to work with the guy exclusively, ensuring both of them long and prosperous careers. What happens more often than not, however, is that the girl is given jobs and the guy is not.
“It’s the nature of the business,” Stone says.
The average career length for an actress is about nine months.
“It’s an extremely transient business,” says Sharon Mitchell, a former actress and founder of an industry health care clinic. “Sometimes you see them once and they’re out, sometimes they stick around a little longer.” Mitchell herself worked as a performer for 20 years.
Down the hall from South’s World Modeling is the office of Bill Margold and the organization he runs, Protecting Adult Welfare. His office, a marked contrast to South’s, is painted in pastel colors and littered with teddy bears and inspirational posters (“Have you been hugged today?”).
Margold, a former actor with over 500 scenes to his credit, works as an advocate for the industry. He manages Protecting Adult Welfare, an organization that offers counseling and advice to performers. Margold himself loves the porn industry. “I’d give my life for it because it has given me my life,” he says. He may love it, but he is also well aware of the consequences of entering the industry.
“My office is located such that I can talk a girl out of ever going into this business before she even reaches South’s office,” Margold says. “People who come into this business are not prepared, at 18, to do something that will essentially damn them sociologically for the rest of their life. People come into this business for three reasons, and two of them are wrong – sex and money. There’s only one reason to be in this business, and that’s immortality.”
As Margold continues extolling the dangers of entering porn unprepared, Tabitha Bleu, an 18-year-old actress recently arrived from South Carolina, walks in with her boyfriend. She has just received a work assignment from South. Bleu has been working in porn for two months and has already been in 20 or so films – she can’t remember exactly how many. I ask her how she sees her future after porn.
“I’d like to be a child welfare person,” she says.
“That won’t work, they’ll never take you,” booms Margold.
Bleu, somewhat dejected, replies, “Shh! You’re ruining my happy thoughts.”
“Trust me, you will not work with children once you’ve done this. When someone looks at your past and sees you’ve done this, it will fuck the rest of your life,” Margold lectures.
I ask Bleu what she thinks of doing now. She looks up at the ceiling, rolls her eyes and answers, “Well, since he just crushed my plan, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a nurse.”
Jane Hamilton, who directs videos for VCA, the nation’s second largest video company believes, some young girls have the maturity to work in porn. “If a 19-year-old girl comes in and wants a job, I sit her down and ask her why, at her age, she wants to be in the business. And there are some girls at that age I think are fine and are making a very good decision for themselves.”
Leaving porn is difficult because one must quite literally make the transition from fantasy to reality.
“This is an overage version of juvenile hall – recess is 24 hours and the bell of responsibility never rings,” says Margold.
“You never realistically think it’s going to end,” says Mitchell, who runs Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), a health clinic and counseling center specifically for industry talent.
“It’s really hard to go from making a thousand dollars lying on your back, fucking one of your friends, to walking around trying to find a job,” says Mitchell. “You can’t go right back to minimum wage. You’ve got no educational skills to go to any kind of job setting.”
Mitchell’s organization runs a program that prepares performers to leave the adult industry through emotional and professional training.
“I tell people (leaving the industry) to raise their boundaries,” she says.
“Going from full hardcore, then just doing girls, then doing domination, then just doing still work or single girl work. It may take you a year to do all that.”
“Girls in my program have found work mostly in behavioral science and the healing arts,” says Mitchell. “Think about it – you can use a lot of the skills you’ve learned as a porn actress or a whore in the healing arts. You’ve got great one-on-one skills and you’re very in touch with your body.”
However, AIM’s program has only 18 graduates, and Mitchell acknowledges that her program is extremely limited in scope.
“I’m sure the path for (performers not in the program) is a lot bumpier,” she says.
Jasmine Klein, an actress who’s been in the business for a little over a year, says she plans on staying in porn in another capacity after she stops performing, probably on the production end. However, she believes it’s quite possible to move out of porn.
“I’ve seen plenty (of performers) who have gone on, got married, had families and do the home life. If you don’t make yourself so widely known, it’s much easier to slip into some other role later in life.”
Mitchell’s advice to those pondering a career in the industry?
“Get in, get out, make your money and move on. Use it like it uses you.”