The Hidden Face of the Adult Film Industry

Curator's Note

How many people can you name who work in adult filmmaking?

Maybe you've heard of Jenna Jameson or Ron Jeremy. After watching this video PSA, you know a few more.

Those here that willingly associate their names and faces with adult films are actors and directors. The crew behind the camera, the ones writing (yes, writing does happen), shooting, and editing an adult movie, are all but unknown.

Produced by the Free Speech Coalition, this PSA asserts that the cost of illegal downloads is not only lost revenue to this $10 billion industry, but lost jobs for regular people. It’s a common message promoted zealously by the MPAA and other organizations that put faces on the credits at the end of every movie. These workers are regular people who have jobs, kids, and mortgages like everyone else. 

These regular people are affected by the business practices of mainstream Hollywood studios, which regularly move films out-of-state (or country) to lower production costs. As a result, film workers are left with fewer opportunities to earn money to support themselves and their families.

An estimated 10,000-20,000 people worked on adult films in 1999. Roughly 5,000 of film crew personnel in Los Angeles who usually work on Hollywood studio films have regularly taken jobs on adult films because of the lack of studio jobs. Porn offers consistent work and decent (albeit not great) pay. What’s more, porn movies don’t tend to relocate production. Operating at very low budgets (porn movie costs usually run in the thousands, rather than millions, of dollars), it doesn’t make sense for these productions to relocate out-of-state; they likely wouldn’t qualify for tax incentive benefits, and they probably wouldn’t be very welcome either.

“Respectable” film organizations name their crew in PSAs: in the “Stop Piracy in NYC” campaign, Kay Denmark is a boom mic operator and Kenny Gaskins is a transportation captain. It is striking that the Free Speech Coalition video does not name crew members, instead focusing on well-known actors and directors in the industry (most of whom usually use pseudonyms). Porn film crew members are not featured here, in large part because many don’t want their names or faces associated with an industry that might damage their reputation with mainstream studios. They don’t want to be the face of film labor. They just want to make a living like everybody else.


Thanks Mary for drawing attention to another site of hidden labor in the media industries, and for starting the week off with such a provocative issue on several fronts. The MPAA's strategy of personalizing piracy by naming names and putting faces to creative labor underscores the precarious nature of working in adult entertainment. As you say, taking credit for working on an adult film may sacrifice opportunities elsewhere. But this work is steady and pays at a time when California is losing production to runaway projects. I also wonder, and perhaps you know, how the rise and accessibility of amateur adult video is at play here as well? All three of these issues – piracy, runaway production and amateur vids – are related to the tensions and shifts felt in “mainstream” Hollywood on account of digitalization. But, it would seem, stakeholders in the adult entertainment industry are advocating from a weaker position on these issues? How well does the MPAA, the Guilds, and digital content providers protect and lobby for adult productions? How are the concerns of the Free Speech Coalition aligned with the MPAA, and where do they diverge? I realize your space was limited in the original post, but now I want to know more!

 Thank you, Mary, for starting the week off with such an interesting post.  Your focus on "below the line" labor is something that I think we'll see revisited in the upcoming posts for the week, and your post does a nice job of framing the issue.

As you indicate in your post, one of the difficulties for the below the line labor in the adult film industry is the "embarrassment" of working in the profession.  How can labor organize itself when it doesn't necessarily take pride in, or want to advertise, its work?  The creative industries, in general, have a mystique around them, such that below the line labor can at least find some compensation - in terms of cultural cache - for their long hours and low pay.  The situation is quite different for adult film workers.

My other question follows from Nina's, and it has to do with the digital presence of adult films.  Moreso than Hollywood, the adult film industry uses digital distribution and online presence as a way to more easily reach consumers.  Part of the issues with piracy, I might suggest, has to do with the digital nature of contemporary porn.  Since it's all online anyway, it might make piracy that much easier.  I also wonder if the adult film industry is experiencing the same kinds of digital "growing pains" as the other creative industries.  How has it adjusted its copyright and payment practices to compensate producers of online content?

I realize you may not have answers to all of these questions, but your post really got me thinking about these issues.

Great points about the different impacts, responses and solidarities between Hollywood and the adult film industry. Echoing Nina, I'm wondering whether the lower visibility of production crew members undermines the entire industry. A similar fate once befell a surprisingly similar medium: comic books.

For most of the existence of comics publishing, comics artists, writers, editors and even publishers hid away from their work. In the years around the near death of the industry in 1954, most didn't want their work credited to them. Comics were akin to pornography in the cultural hierarchy of the time. Thus, when comics came under attack, next to nobody joined EC Comics' Bill Gaines in defending the medium against censorship.

Today, the situation is much different, with comics creatives clamoring for greater recognition, and leveraging lower positions into higher ones. Aside from a relative handful of figures, however (stars and producers, mostly, as the clip shows), the "rank and file" of porn hides themselves even more. Porn may now have more cachet than it did in the 50s, but that doesn't necessarily translate into "status" across the board for its producers.

Thank you Mary for your post.  It is interesting to think about how both the identities of workers are played up and rendered invisible here.

It's interesting to think about the effectiveness of campaigns such as this when so many workers are unwilling to identity themselves as part of the industry.  Part of the potential persuasive appeal, if any, of the MPAA's PSAs is that they feature ordinary men and women that could be your neighbor. These ads also connect visibly to labor and union history, asking us to sympathize with the struggles of regular working and middle class Americans and to change our behavior as a public.  But nothing could be more "unsympathetic" or "irregular" than the porn star or the porn director.  Does putting porn stars and directors out on dislay like this elicit the dismissal of these arguments, precisely because of who is voicing them onscreen?    

I'm also wondering about considerations of ethics.  In the work and teaching that I do on the music industry, I've read and discovered that many students (and members of the public at large) "pirate" music because they feel the major labels are uenthical.  They see traditional recording contracts, the payola scandals, and the ways that labels treat creative artists as evidence of the music industry being a dirty business that doesn't deserve their money.  Part of the MPAA's appeal to the public is that directors and laborers are creative artists, and it's hard to argue against the art or craft status of filmmaking and production labor. But most people don't consider porn producers, directors, and performers to be artists; they consider porn to be a dirty business. If people don't feel guilty about accessing illegal music, why would they feel guilty about accessing pirated porn?

Finally, I think the decentralized networks and P2P networks where porn gets accessed illegally dovetail with the transgressive nature of porn consumption and spectatorship. Why put in a traceable credit card number or engage in a transaction that shows up on the credit card statement when P2P networks wrap the user in a false sense of anonymity? In other words, what (if anything) would motivate the porn spectator to become a paying porn consumer?



You’ve all brought up some great questions in relation to my post, and I definitely wanted to start to explore this topic more as I wrote this article. There are a lot of very interesting questions that don’t often get examined in relation to the adult film industry, precisely because of its transgressive nature. But those who are firmly in the adult film industry are supportive of it, and they have infrastructures to support it in the form of a trade association (the Free Speech Coalition), annual trade shows, very dedication to health safety (witness shut-downs of film sets with recent HIV cases), and so on. While the porn industry may be transgressive to mainstream America, it’s not transgressive to itself (or to many other segments of American society).

It’s my impression that the adult entertainment industry has led technological change and innovation in terms of media production and distribution; it embraced home video and the internet much sooner and much more readily than the mainstream film industry. So it was actually a little surprising to me that this PSA came out, because it seems that of all the media industries, this is the one that has somewhat embraced piracy (or ignored it). But this industry, like most media industries, has been experiencing declining revenues, and blaming piracy is a popular and much-used way to partly explain that decline. I'm not sure, however, about the role of amateur adult video and its impact on the formal industry.

On a side note, it occurs to me that this PSA is also clearly speaking to hetero porn watchers – which also indicates who the perceived pirates are. If you think (hetero) porn workers are not very visible, the ones in gay/lesbian porn are not acknowledged in the least. Still *too* transgressive, I guess.


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