This is what adult stars have to say about abuse in their industry
Pornography is an industry which is viewed with contempt and curiosity in equal measure. The modern, tolerant view is that porn is OK. Yet in many households, porn is seen as a vice. But what do women in the industry have to say about their experiences?
The #MeToo campaign has exposed Hollywood’s less glamorous underbelly and shed light on the harassment, abuse and rape of female actors. So in an industry intrinsically related to sex, do women fare better or worse? VT spoke to a number of adult stars to find out.
“My experience has changed dramatically,” explains Silvia Saige, who joined the industry at the age of 30. “I did have some issues earlier on. But in the past year, I have found a female-run agency - by Kendra Lust, who is still active in the industry. She’s still an actress herself.”
“I definitely went through some bad times in the beginning,” Silvia continues, “but I feel that I have found my voice with this agency and having a good support system has drastically changed how I view the industry as a whole.”
“We’re like one big, dysfunctional family”
Silvia gives the impression of someone who is in control and clearly sees herself as a performer rather than someone who just gets paid to have sex on screen. “I’m an actress and I’m going to work and performing a job,” she asserts.
But the enjoyment of sex itself certainly plays a role. “I’m a very sexual person,” Silvia explains and Richelle Ryan, an adult star with 12 years of experience, concurs: “I just wanted to get paid to have sex with hot guys”. With 1.6 million followers on Instagram, Richelle has built up a formidable audience and I can’t help but think that emphasising this point is something of a crowd-pleaser. “That’s the whole reason I got into the business,” she adds.
However, combined with issues relating to blurred lines and consent, the enjoyment of sex itself can cause a problem. “The sex part of the scene was already over,” Silvia explains, recounting a troubling story. “This person, while we were taking ‘sex pictures’ decided to kind of get his rocks off a second time. He even said to me ‘do you care if I come again?’ and at that moment I said ‘no’ but in my head I thought ‘I do f**king care’.”
“Because I was still at work and didn’t want to make the situation uncomfortable, I said ‘yes’. But what I have learned is I’m now having those conversations. I had the conversation with my roommate - and I’m going to bring it up on one of my upcoming shows - of why I was silent in that situation.”
“I don’t mind people’s proclivities for the most part”
In addition to a weekly show with the director of psychology at UCLA, Silvia does upwards of five interviews a week. She’s acutely aware of the issues women in porn face, so it’s interesting to note that her anecdote isn’t from years or even months ago. It was from the day before.
“There was a photographer,” recounts veteran performer Ryan Conner. “He kept pushing himself on me with his wiener and I’m just like ‘dude I’m here to do a scene, OK let’s f*ck, here we are f*cking, ain’t that brilliant, whatever gets your rocks off, now go the f*ck away’.”
Away from the eyes of the others onset, to the photographer, it seemed this was just a bit of naughtiness. However, this was clearly unfair and unprofessional: “Yes, things happen where I wish I had said ‘f*uck no!’ but I’m a really easy-going kind of person. I’m very accepting and I don’t mind people’s proclivities for the most part.”
But there exists a certain clan mentality within porn. “We’re like one big, dysfunctional family,” states Richelle Ryan. “You always have that one crazy uncle in your family? I feel like that’s how porn is.” It’s this level of camaraderie, perhaps, which leads to what I perceive is a certain protectiveness over the reputation of the industry as a whole.
“I know men that have served time. Having said that, I know women who are in jail for abusing their husbands”
Again, Richelle is keen to impress upon me that women entering pornography who are headstrong and determined will generally have a positive experience. The inference, of course, is that there are less assertive women in porn who suffer as a result.
“Whatever vibration you bring to it is what you’re going to get out of it,” explains Ryan Conner. “That’s with everything, not just the sex industry.” With 20 years of experience, Ryan sees herself as a “mamma bear” and doesn’t have an agent.
“I’ve met people who say they have,” she says, on the subject of whether her female peers have suffered abuse. “But that’s a slippery slope. I don’t believe I’ve ever been on a shoot where I was the only person there with somebody. There was always a make-up artist or a cameraman or something going on and I’ve never had an occasion where more than one person collaborated to rape me or victimise me.”
“I know of a lot of women who have cried wolf in life, and a lot of men who have been victimised because of that,” she explains. “I know men that have served time. Having said that, I know women who are in jail for abusing their husbands. It isn’t always just the feminine side that gets hurt.”
“I don’t believe that suddenly, we started being more empowered than we ever were”
Of course, with the rise of campaigns which aim to out men and empower women, there will always be critical voices. It’s interesting, however, that one of these voices is female: “There are far too many women who say ‘that happened to me, that happened to me!’ Well, where’s your proof? You don’t always have to have proof, but why didn’t you say something when it happened rather than five years later?”
Ryan’s mum was raped when she was just 11 years old and this seems to have instilled a strong - and almost defiant - character in Ryan. “Women have always been empowered,” she states, on the subject of the #MeToo campaign. “I don’t believe that suddenly, we started being more empowered than we ever were.”
Having had a 10 year hiatus, Ryan has a unique perspective on this unusual industry. One thing which she’s noticed is the rise in the prevalence of anal scenes and especially those which go back and forth from anal to non-anal, which is so unhygienic it can lead to infertility.
Her overall observation, however, is that porn has become more aggressive. It’s part of the human condition to want to see something new or more extreme. “Bigger, badder, better,” in Ryan’s words. But it’s this need to build upon what’s gone before that has producers taking risks with their performers.
“A big part of what I was afraid of in life, in general, is the religion I grew up with”
Following her return to the industry in 2015, Ryan has taken part in scenes of (fictional) paedophilia and incest - so knows all too well about taking risks. With an adult daughter at the time, this is something she now regrets but she steadfastly asserts that “nobody has to do anything”.
Many people would assume that the majority of harassment or abuse female performers receive comes from men in porn. However, in Silvia’s experience, it comes from the fans themselves. “They’re hiding behind a computer screen and saying all these negative things,” she says. “[Abuse is] not necessarily from within the industry.”
Furthermore, in many cases, the source of emotional damage is even closer to home. All three of the women featured had very religious upbringings - which has caused issues in some cases. “We struggle finding common ground because of her religious beliefs,” states Silvia, on the subject of her mother. “A big part of what I was afraid of in life, in general, is the religion I grew up with.”
In fact, there are a number of people close to Silvia whose religious beliefs clash with her choices. “But that’s the people that I’m trying to reach out to the most. To open everyone’s eyes and have the conversations that we really need to be having.” On the subject of her mother, she adds: “We still have a very loving relationship. It’s just that she would rather have her blinders on.”
“I’ve flicked cigarettes into a man’s mouth. I’ve put my cigarette out on his tongue”
With a Jehovah's Witness upbringing, one might think that Ryan’s decision to go into porn was some form of rebellion. However, as she assures me, providing for her daughter was far higher on her list of priorities. Ryan is now studying for a psychology accreditation to support her intimacy coaching work. Here, she helps people become more comfortable with being naked and touching each other and admits that this is very close to - if not the same as - sex coaching.
Meanwhile, her daughter is considering her own comeback, having worked as an adult performer herself. It was around the time of her daughter’s first foray into porn that Ryan decided she didn’t need to protect her from this anymore - so could safely return to the industry.
In terms of what positive decisions consumers can make, it would seem to come down to supply and demand. In this context, that’s not giving questionable content the oxygen of publicity (or, at least, denying it an extra figure on the view count). However, how to deem whether a scene is questionable is a whole dilemma in itself. An altogether different, but perhaps just as obvious, decision would be to actually pay for it. “We can’t keep making porn forever if we’re not making money off of it,” I’m told.
A key criticism of porn is its subjugation of women. One study even claimed that 40 per cent of porn depicts violence against women. However, Silvia agrees with the notion that it’s not necessarily women who get hurt.
“We’re all just people and we’re all just having sex”
“You’re looking at one side of the industry being male-dominantly aggressive,” she states. “There is another side which is female-dominantly aggressive. There’s dominatrixes who will put men on their hands and knees and have them lick their shoes. I’ve flicked cigarettes into a man’s mouth. I’ve put my cigarette out on his tongue. And I’ve done things in the industry which are very aggressive as a female towards men.”
How similar performers’ choices in real life are to their porn choices is perhaps indicative of their motivations. “In the industry right now we’re dealing with gay side versus straight side,” explains Silvia. “And that really bothers me.” Silvia is a straight woman who is into straight men however, as she agrees, she probably sees her work more as art or performance than other performers: “I’m a crossover performer. I work with gay men. I work with bi men. I work with transsexuals. It’s a little bit frowned upon in the straight community which to me is sad because we’re all just people and we’re all just having sex.”
But this certainly isn’t the only form of discrimination she’s noticed. “It’s a huge double standard and it has been for as long as I’ve been alive,” she states. “The man is a stud if he’s sleeping with a lot of women whereas a woman sleeping with a lot of men is a slut and a disgrace. She’s almost unwanted.”
“I think I have a different outlook than most people in the industry,” she explains, “because I did come from ‘the real world’. I worked in corporate America. I worked in hospitals for eight years. I knew a different style of life and now I can compare it to the style of life I have now and my happiness radar has gone off the chain. I’m such a happier, more well-adjusted person now than I ever have been.”
“A lot of them know it’s a trap, but the money’s right there in their face”
However, there are others who have made it clear that their career in porn was anything but happy. “People in the porn industry are numb to real life and are like zombies walking around,” states former adult star Jessica Jewel. “Everybody is on drugs,” she continues. “I became horribly addicted to heroin and crack. I overdosed at least three times, had tricks pull knives on me, have been beaten half to death…”
From their very first shoot, some performers’ experiences are far from the perennial smiles seen in the videos. “It was a really, really, really rough scene,” states ex performer Belle Knox on the subject of her first video. “I wasn’t prepared for how rough it was.” Having been told “it’s not that bad,” she was then choked and “ass-kicked” for others’ entertainment.
In another instance, previously concrete terms turned to mush when what was supposed to be a twentysomething guy turned out to be a middle-aged man. However, out of a sense of professional obligation, Belle agreed to proceed.
“There’s an influx of girls who want to do porn,” states a male porn star in the Netflix documentary series Hot Girls Wanted. “A lot of them know it’s a trap, but the money’s right there in their face. They take it and just hope for the best.”
“If you come into the industry and you’re a strong woman and you hold your ground, nobody’s going to mess with you”
On the softcore side of things, the late Hugh Hefner’s former “number one” girlfriend claimed she was so emotionally damaged by her experiences that she developed a stutter. “Many people assume Playboy was my blessing,” writes Holly Madison in the New York Times bestseller Down the Rabbit Hole. “But most don’t know it was also my curse.”
She was subjected to surveillance and a curfew but was also taken advantage of when incoherently drunk. Playboy, who recently flip-flopped on the topic of publishing nude photography in their magazine, drew upon the idea of mixing work and pleasure with the Playboy Mansion. In Hugh Hefner’s real-life fantasy, he lived with an array of beautiful women who were both his employees and his girlfriends. In reality however, this led to a lot of people feeling - at best - unloved.
“I didn’t have the push-me-around mentality which I feel like a lot of the younger girls have when they come in,” states Silvia Saige, on the subject of her career. “I’m a very ‘no bullshit’, ‘no sugar coating’ type of person.” In Ryan Conner’s words “you make your own destiny” and Richelle Ryan believes it’s this attitude that will make a career in porn possible: “If you come into the industry and you’re a strong woman and you hold your ground, nobody’s going to mess with you.”
There is clearly a broad spectrum of experiences to be had in the porn industry. As to whether porn is helping to normalise male aggression and female compliance is hard to say but certainly, more attention needs to be paid to performers’ wellbeing.
The less tolerant view on pornography is that it’s a male-dominated world where women are exploited. However, one positive takeaway, at least, is that there is a huge gender pay gap - as female performers get paid far more than men.