For about 1½ years I worked at a porn company. It’s not what you think. We did not make porn. We just processed it. I was only involved as an editor, not on-screen talent.
Mostly, the company bought non-exclusive redistribution rights from video wholesalers (this could be the most boring sentence I’ve ever written about the most boring aspect of any job I’ve ever had). Then we ripped the DVDs, split up their scenes, and converted them into downloadable or streaming formats. The idea was to repackage the scenes based on metadata; it was not even intended for end user consumption, although we did sell memberships to the site.
It’s now all been eclipsed by ad-based streaming sites. At the time, the basic concept was that webmasters would join our affiliate program, build and promote their owns sites using content we provided for a backend cut. Or something. I’m not sure the model ever worked all that well.
A lot can and is being said about porn and I’m not going to comment on most of that. Apart from this: it’s complicated and people without the maturity to understand what it is should limit their exposure to it. But it also tells us a lot about ourselves and our social structures.
My first attempt at a long form book was a collection of autobiographical essays tracking my coming-of-age along with the parallel of porn media as I experienced it. There was a chapter on magazines, and one about phone sex, and you get the idea.
In the first chapter, I recreated a scene from a memory set when I was in first or second grade. I encountered some older boys on the playground who were lying face down in the sandbox, humping tiny craters they’d dug out beneath their crotches. One of them looked up at me and said, “We’re popping boners.” Then he closed his eyes and went back to thrusting.
The whole episode was very confusing to me at the time, as it kind of continues to be for me now. I’d experienced erections and I knew the word boner, but I probably did not make much of a connection between the two very much. Of my erections, my mom told me that my dad said it was just a result of blood filling up that part of my body. She did not say why this happens, but she did say it was normal. I was not having sexual thoughts just yet, so this explanation seemed good enough for me.
But in my estimation, a boner was not something you popped by finding a weird place to put it. It was something that happened that you tried to do something about. Dry humping the sandbox seems hardly the thing.
In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Howard Stern said that when he was about thirteen years old, his mother sat him down, gave him a copy of Playboy magazine, and told him these women were not real, just fantasy. According to Stern, his mother said he could and should enjoy the fantasy, but recognize it for what it is. And that he should understand that real women are like his mother, his sister, and his aunts. Stern, of course, made a career of interviewing various performers, sex workers, and celebrities on his top-rated radio show.
The porn company I worked for was in a state of constant shrinkage. We were contained in a huge bunker designed for a staff of maybe 200 and we were down to the last ten. Everyone else had been downsized and outsourced. I did not witness the reduction, which was even stranger. It was like moving to a boom town after everyone has already realized there’s no more gold and packed up and left.
But we still had an on-site cook. And those bizarre corporate motivational posters of wrestling kittens framed in the corridors between vacant cubicle bullpens.
This was during a dismal downtime in tech, after the dotcom bust and before the iPhone, in the early days of George W Bush’s second term. I’ve heard them called The Aughties, The Zeros, The 2000s. Whatever, it was 2005. The office was in Van Nuys, California.
I used to go for walks during my lunch break. One day, a guy pulled up to me in an SUV and asked me for directions. He said he was looking for Woodman Avenue. I told him where it was. He acted confused, so I explained more clearly. “It’s parallel to this street, about a mile away, so take the next left.”
Then he asked me for a cigarette. I said I don’t smoke. Then he said, “Are you gay or what?”
That’s when I realized he thought I was a hustler. I should have known because he’d asked me how to get to Woodman Avenue; I’d always heard the sex workers were on Sepulveda Boulevard. This part of The Valley was sort of the old loser-town. The legitimate money was down in Studio City and Sherman Oaks, on the shady side of the Hollywood Hills. Around North Hollywood and further west, you’d get the desperate and clueless, and with them the usual grifters and pimps.
And then, for whatever reason (probably cheap rents), all the way up in the Northwest corner, Chatsworth had become the new capital of fuck production. At least that’s what everyone said. But I saw videos that had been shot along the back fence of my high school in Woodland Hills. I saw performers eating lunch in Northridge all the time.
I have an eye for faces and a brain for names, and there’s something about seeing someone screwing on screen that makes them extra memorable. A friend of a friend of mine actually dated a performer. He lived on the West Side and I met them in a cafe in Venice. I remembered her stage name and three of the scenes I’d seen her in, but I did not bring it up because I have manners.
I say all this to say it’s a new era. The pinup paintings and playmates Howard Stern spoke of in the 1960s were fantasies. There was a clear distinction between art and life. But new technology has changed all that. Even the performers I encountered 15 years ago were playing a different game.
Somewhere in the early aughts, my friend told me about a video he found, supposedly randomly, that featured a girl we had gone to school with. My friend claimed he discovered this video while browsing around in a porn shop, but to me there’s just no way. Among the thousands of tiny images forming an endless collage of smut, he somehow made out her face?
I believe he received this video from an inside source and swore himself to secrecy about it. But anyway, he then passed the video around to his group of friends. What you see, aside from the dirty details, is a timepiece. This was a semi-professional production, shot in a cheap hotel with a decent camera package and lighting arrangements. Sure, these kinds of consumer electronics had been around, but even if a hobbyist made the investment to procure them, it was still a challenge to duplicate and distribute the material.
By comparison, my friend Maple very recently told me a story about a guy she met who told her he put a sex video online of himself and his girlfriend. I’m not sure why he posted the video – it may have been “revenge porn,” which is immoral and frequently illegal. But the woman, his ex-girlfriend, apparently liked the response, or exhibitionism or whatever and has made more videos available to the public. That’s to say she began making videos with other people with the purpose of sharing them with strangers.
I’m not saying this is common. But I do think it’s novel that we now live in a time when [some] sexual relationships generate a digital byproduct that’s considerably more graphic than the romantic correspondence of the past. And, far from surprising, it’s come to be expected that this material exists.
What’s truly disturbing is that some individuals believe the demise of a relationship somehow warrants the release of private, intimate moments, captured casually maybe, but nonetheless personal, and dare I say… sacred?
Or maybe that’s the point. Personally, I do not understand the impulse to humiliate a person you were once enamored with. Love does not vanish due to circumstance, and even if there was no love, there’s always common decency.
Maybe in an era of information saturation, of social media feeds so filled with the banal goings on of our friends and former lovers, we need not speak to make an acquaintance. Maybe that’s when unauthorized material becomes the measure of intimacy, the social – and potentially economic and ruinous – currency of our times.
Post Script: In the 90s we used to rent porn movies on VHS cassettes from Tower Records, which was a mainstream music store with alternative leanings. There was no shame or seediness in it. Most of the videos we got were Hollywood send ups like A Clockwork Orgy and Foreskin Gump. It was an time for Porn Stars that were not seen outside of porn. Amateur was not really a genre then and the idea that you’d see someone you knew in one of these videos was unimaginable. You were much more likely to see a friend’s tits in person if she flashed you than you were to see a picture of them. A picture meant taking film in for photo processing, having a print made, and then keeping it somewhere safe.