Register Friday | July 20 | 2018
In Too Deep Photograph by Anonymous.

In Too Deep

As the adult industry goes mainstream and women become an increasingly large part of the market, can porn be both hot and ethical?

IT’S GOT TO BE 30 DEGREES CELSIUS. Hot, even by California beach standards. It’s too hot for her to stand in the sun forever and wait for her dumb surfer boyfriend, now half an hour late, to pick her up. So when a van of guys pulls over and one of them asks the young woman in the blue bikini, “Do you need a ride?”, she says, “Sure, I could use a ride,” and hops in.

The back of the van is a mess, with the seats pulled out and towels everywhere, and one of the guys apologizes. There are four of them: Scott, Rick, Jim and John, who says he is “videotaping non-stop, kind of a documentary of my life.” The girl gives them directions to her place, but, just as the street comes into view, the driver misses the turn-off.

“Hey, that’s my house. Can you drop me off or some- thing?” she asks.

“Just relax,” they say. “We want to get to know you a little more. Just hang out with us for half an hour.”

“Half an hour,” she says, giggling nervously. “Okay.”

Then John asks to videotape her boobs. They promise her they’ll take her home after that. “Just the left one,” they say, a joke bargain. She thinks their request is kind of funny—or she’s smiling, anyway—and so, for a split second, she pulls her bikini top aside.

“Can I go home now?” she asks.

They pay no attention.

The next thing she knows, one of guys has pulled his dick out and is tapping it on her knee. “What do you think of that?” someone asks. “You can touch it, it’s okay!” She laughs as she grabs it. The other men take this as their cue and start unzipping their jeans and board shorts. 

“Show us your butt,” they chorus. “Yeah! Show us your butt!”

She bends over and the men yell approvingly. “Nice butt.” “Oh yeah!”

“Doesn’t this beat waiting for your boyfriend?” asks the guy with the camera. Their hands are all over her, caressing her ass, stroking between her legs as she bends over. “Oh yeah,” she says breathily. One guy kisses her; another reaches for her breasts. She’s on her knees as one guy does her doggie-style; another—Jim or Rick or Scott, who cares—grabs her from behind and pulls her on top of him, facing the camera. “Spread your legs, baby,” says Jim or Rick or Scott, coaxing her open with a hand on her thigh. “Show me that pussy.”

A spectator’s body floods with adrenaline when she watches a boxing match. Concern parts a mother’s lips when she is spooning food into her kid’s mouth. A dancer’s legs tense up when he watches a ballet. Many scientists believe this is the work of mirror neurons—they fire when we watch someone else move, eat, be touched, as if it’s us moving, eating, being touched. A little part of the watcher is always the watched. 

A woman watches another woman lie down. Hands travel all over her body. Not the hands of one man, but several pairs of hands, splaying like sea creatures, straying across every inch of her. She kisses one man while the others grope her; she spreads her legs and moans; she surrenders.

A woman watches another woman.

I NEVER WANTED to watch porn. I was afraid I would like it, and I didn’t want to like it. I didn’t want to find out the things it promised to tell me about myself. I also didn’t want my pleasure to come at a cost to anyone else.

Being a female consumer of porn traditionally defies stereotypes and invited judgment. Not only is masturbation sexual, it’s also selfish—two qualities that, for centuries, women weren’t meant to possess. Porn clips are generally made by men, for men, and the porn industry has a reputation for destroying women; Linda Lovelace, the star of the first breakthrough adult movie of the seventies, Deep Throat, said that her husband forced her into pornography at gunpoint. Finally, for a woman whose fantasies are edgy or fraught with power play, there’s always the danger of being misunderstood—that she somehow desires her fantasy to come true, that she is condoning rape or bending over for the patriarchy.

For more than a decade, I ignored that thrumming current that runs just below the surface, a click away. And then, about three years ago, I caved. I couldn’t tell you why—it just happened one day. Immediately, I was onto the hard stuff. Watching vanilla sex seemed banal, like going to a restaurant and ordering a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Instead, I became perversely interested in the breadth of my sexual proclivities. My choices left me with a residue of shame. The videos were never comfortable things to watch. But they worked.

Porn alarms me; it shows me things I don’t want to like, but do. But I’m also comforted by it—by the way it lets me know I’m not alone. Women like the one waiting for her dumb boyfriend are my stand-ins, my willing proxies. While my intellect advises me to look away, they mirror the part of me that can’t; with each gasp and moan, they seem to say, Look, it’s okay. I like this—and, face it, so do you.

But still, I’m never able to abandon myself fully while watching porn because I’m always worried that the female lead isn’t enjoying herself. It’s not exciting to watch a woman pretend to be turned on. All I can think is how I’ve felt when I’ve pretended to enjoy sex: it’s the worst, the absolute worst. I’m always intensely scrutinizing the female lead’s face, trying to figure out if she’s really into it. Her nipples—are they erect? What about her clitoris? Does she seem to be aroused? What was, for other people, a quick, two-minute break in their day became a lengthy, quasi-clinical task for me.

I always watch for the back stories. I examine the sets and actors’ accents for clues about where the film was shot, and then I begin imagining the women’s lives. I picture sad childhoods and runaway adolescences and lecherous uncles and drug use. But—even though I find it hard to imagine how a well-adjusted person would end up putting ping-pong balls up her ass on camera—I don’t trust my own projections. I ask of these women the very same questions I could ask of myself as I sit there watching: Who are you? How did you get to this place? And are you having a good time?

I want to know more about them, these women whose bodies I borrow.

IF YOU COULD PASS THROUGH your computer screen into a porn set, this is what you would see: A room painted pale, high-gloss blue, cheaply furnished and stuffed with hulking black audiovisual equipment, cables snaking underfoot. Cumbersome lights with diffusers. A cooler full of ice and cans of pop. Pizza boxes and Fleet enemas on the kitchen counter. A couch, scratchy and synthetic, with a cigarette burn. A crew of five men—the wild-haired, feral counterparts to the groomed, primped cast—cram themselves into the remaining space. The set is almost comically seedy—a $170-a-week rental from a street magician named Ben, who has a small role in the film and who entertains the cast and crew by bending spoons with his special powers.

I’m on the set of Barely Blue Velvet, a porn spoof of David Lynch’s 1986 film about the underbelly of small-town America. It’s directed by Jason Danilak, an Alberta boy and the head of Real Productions, one of Canada’s largest adult-movie studios. I’ve flown out to Las Vegas at Jason’s invitation: I told him I wanted to write about why women get into pornography, and he kindly granted me access to his six-day shoot.

Sammie Spades is the first actor I meet. She’s small and sturdy, with sharp features, bleach-blonde hair and a delightfully prominent nose, and she’s wearing the blue sateen robe that her character, Dorothy, appears in for much of the film. Sammie wants me to know two things about her: that she can’t find bras in her size (32 DD), and that she was Hillary Clinton’s intern in New York State. “You’ll have to Google it because I’m contractually obligated not to say anything,” she says.

Seth Gamble, who plays opposite her as small-town innocent Geoffrey, was a “get” for the director. He’s some kind of porn superstar, and I can see why: he’s not a bad actor, and his smouldering blue eyes and symmetrical features give him a generic but real attractiveness. He’s twenty-two and obviously bored, verging on sulky.

Eric John is the éminence grise, a former engineer who lives in a penthouse apartment in Los Angeles. Eric, about forty years old, played “Crammer” in an X-rated parody of Seinfeld. He’s serious about his craft. He likes to talk about motivation and subtext. “This line, ‘Spread your legs,’” he might ask, “how should I say it?”

During daylight hours, the cast and crew shoot exteriors and dialogue. When not filming, the stars lounge on the couch, checking Twitter and chatting. The sex talk between them is immediately so frank and filthy that I experience something like culture shock as I sit on the stained carpet, scribbling down their exchanges:

Sammie: “It took Eric, like, ten seconds to pop a second time. I’ve had sex with hundreds of guys and I’ve never seen that.”

Seth: “He’s got a fuckin’ talent. He could do a one-man gang-bang.”

Jason: “He’s a one-man circle jerk!”

The stars, constantly in states of shameless undress, touch themselves talismanically. Seth feels his junk, his chest, his stomach, like he’s crossing himself. Sammie strokes her boobs with open hands like they’re a mink stole. Her breasts don’t seem sexual to me, partly because I imagine that they don’t have a complete set of nerve endings. They’re more like a breast mask—a bra that looks exactly like breasts. Eric taps his penis with one finger the entire time they talk about blocking a sex scene. 

This scene will be the last one filmed that day, and it will be the first time I see people having sex in front of me. I keep smiling at Sammie in a way that’s meant to convey reassurance and my lack of judgment. She smiles back perfunctorily. At midnight, minutes before they start filming, the cast has the most in-depth discussion of taxes I’ve ever heard. They’re all business-savvy, but Sammie, a master’s student in accounting, is a flat-out expert about the relative profitability of streaming and webcams, whether porn stars should incorporate and so on. 

When it’s time to film the scene, the production assistant, Wes—a short, middle-aged Albertan with a shark-tooth pendant around his neck— shoos away everyone but the essential personnel. Eric lies sprawled on the couch, fully dressed, with his cock out, tweaking it. “You can stay there,” he says when I start to move out of his sightline. “How come I can’t do this with Ben here, but it turns me on that she’s watching?” he asks everyone and no one in particular. In any other work environment, this behaviour would be illegal, but Eric honestly believes that he’s flattering me. I crouch down behind the key light.

Eric and Sammie discuss the logistics of the scene—this position, that position. For the money shot, “I was thinking we’d end up in a kind of spoon mish,” he says. Then they shoot some stills, which will be used for publicity. “Spit on it before you put it in,” says Sammie, to which Eric replies, “Come on. How long have I been doing this?”

And they’re off. Eric gets a gob on his fingers, smears his wiener and pokes it into Sammie, who is sitting on a coffee table in her blue sateen robe, her pink G-string pulled to one side. The sex scene is exhausting just to watch. It lasts about twenty-five minutes—twenty-five minutes of straight penetration, although Eric, in one of his oddly endearing bursts of enthusiasm, has decided that he’s going to make the scene “really fucking weird,” and also (after he and Sammie confer) that he’s going to throw some stuff in for foot fetishists.

Because Sammie’s character Dorothy doesn’t like Eric’s Frank, she’s supposed to look bored, which Sammie really does, probably because she really is. Eric, meanwhile, is a frenzied, snuffling pervert with a ridiculous nitrous-oxide mask dangling over one shoulder. He’s taking some real creative risks—at one point, he grabs the belt from her robe and stuffs it in his mouth, then reaches for his mask and takes a big hit. In a helium voice, he squeaks, “Dorothy.” I’m amazed he’s able to stay hard for all of this. He even maintains his erection while ordering the grips to clip his jacket and shirt out of the way. “Frankie sees something he’d like to eat,” he says in a singsong, grabbing Sammie’s hand and licking her armpits.

Eric orders Sammie onto her stomach, and I see her asshole, bold as day, while two cameras and a clumsy grip move around it. My view of her is quickly obscured, and although they soon change position—to “spoon mish,” I guess—I don’t see much of the rest of the scene. I even miss the money shot, which Eric and Sammie have decided to do as a “cream pie.” (I don’t know what that is until someone says that, after Eric ejaculates, he will get up and the cameras will stay on Sammie as she “gives a few pushes.”)

As soon as the scene wraps, the mood lightens. Sammie jumps in the shower, and Eric approaches me to apologize for the weird scene. “I’m normally not like this!” he says. “Normally, for me, it’s all about the woman’s pleasure. Did you see how I moved her into a different position at one point? It was because I was worried her pussy was getting sore from getting it too much from one side!”

“What did you think?” Jason asks me later as he drives me back to my hotel. I say it was an odd sex scene to see as my first. What I mean is that the scene’s original premise is that the female character is letting herself get raped because it’s the only way she can save her son; now, it’s been turned into a porn spoof in which the female lead is still clearly not that into it. I don’t tell this to Jason, though.

DURING ALL THE TIME I spend with Barely Blue Velvet’s director, I’m never quite able to reconcile Jason’s personality with his profession. He is forty-four, studious-looking in wire-framed glasses, slightly doughy, reserved—not a lot of big smiles or eye contact, although he is unfailingly generous and patient. He and his wife, who lives in Alberta, have a nine-year-old son. Whenever his kid has any time off school, Jason likes to bring his family to Vegas. Jason loves the city—he loves the restaurants, the covered street with a ceiling that’s a video projection of a sky but not the actual sky. He has a house here with a cactus out front that he thinks he might be over-watering.

Jason is the mildest hustler I’ve ever met, but he is a hustler. He has countless projects on the go, and, as far as I can tell, he will consider any legal proposal. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t harbour any concerns about his chosen industry. The decision to act in porn is “something I think people need to think about,” he says. “There’s great things about it, but it can have serious consequences.” In LA, he tells me, if you approach a company and say you want to work in adult film, you’ll be shooting the next day. Jason likes to stretch the application process out over a few months, to give people time to back out.

Jason’s sensitivity is reflected on the set of Barely Blue Velvet; the worst you can say about it as a workplace is that it’s hopelessly disorganized. The cast is very professional, even in the awkward terrain of manufactured intimacy. Sammie and Eric don’t seem attracted to each other. “I like when a woman enjoys it,” Eric says. “That’s what gets me off.”

But, as far as Sammie is concerned, this is just a job. “You’re there ’cause you want to be there,” she says. “Most of the time, when I have a bad day at work, it’s ’cause I’m unhappy with the way I performed, or the male talent was having a rough day, so the quality of it wasn’t what it could have been.”

Still, I can’t help but think that Sammie would be better off in another career. Why do I feel this way? No one pickets to save the telemarketers, who are universally despised and underpaid. No one ever agitated to save me from teaching ESL, even though I cried at most of my teacher evaluations. Why am I so worried about porn stars? Why can’t I let it go?

I WAS BROUGHT UP, in part, by a second-wave feminist. As soon as I hit puberty, a copy of Against Our Will appeared on my pillow. Not a Love Story, a National Film Board documentary arguing that porn degrades women, came out around then, too, and was shown at the alternative school I attended. The enduring message was that women in the sex industry were trapped by financial circumstances or their own weak wills. Porn stars enacted fantasies that degraded not only them, but all women. Their poor vaginas were no better than punching bags, dumbly receiving every blow.

This thinking was bolstered by a controversial, persuasive argument put forth by two feminist thinkers in the 1980s. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin wrote that, simply by living in a patriarchal culture, women often had no choice but to enter the sex industry. Nearly all pornography, in their view, was therefore non-consensual, made by men for men. Even that which wasn’t was nonetheless informed by misogyny. (“Lesbian porn is an expression of self-hatred,” Dworkin once declared.) With this brand of feminism, if you found yourself aroused by porn, it didn’t just hurt you—it hurt the women who existed in a living hell because of your greedy appetites. Needless to say, this upset many adult-film actors and sex workers, but, for a time, Dworkin and MacKinnon hijacked the discourse on female sexuality. Their prescriptive thinking, combined with fear-mongering in the media, inspired more restrictive obscenity laws in Canada. It also affected how I was raised.

Once, on a walk in the woods, my stepmother, her sister and I stumbled upon a public shack where hunters sometimes camped out. It was rudimentary: Coleman lanterns, unfinished wood, cans of food—and a copy of Hustler. My aunt began paging through it while I glanced over her shoulder. I saw a woman, in a brightly lit white room, tied to a transparent Plexiglas cross. My aunt tsk’d and turned the pages, her demeanor somewhere between triumph and condemnation: pleased shock. She then began tearing the pages out of the magazine. We stuffed them into a wood-burning stove and set them alight. The model’s sleek legs, her breasts, her wavy dark hair: all of it, up in flames.

WHEN I FIRST SEE Tasha Reign on the set of Barely Blue Velvet, she is getting her makeup done in preparation for a scene. She’s my height, probably 105 pounds. About five of that must be boobs. She’s got long blonde hair and an angular face that she never stops posing. I will come to see that there is not one gesture—not one facial expression or placement of her hands— that is not premeditated, designed for maximum sex-kitten appeal. Her looks invite clichéd comparisons: all-American, a cheerleader, a living Barbie. I start off by asking her how long she’s been doing adult movies.

“A year and four months,” she says.

“Oh, so you’re fresh,” says Chloe, who is doing her makeup. We’re sitting in the kitchen of a house owned by a firefighter whose best friend happens to be in the adult industry. He’s playing host to today’s sex scene. Tasha’s suitcase, bursting with pink garments, a hair straightener and a crystal-encrusted iPhone, lies on the carpeted floor. The counters are buried in an array of beauty products.

“No, not really! Girls come in every week, you know,” Tasha says. “If you don’t look as young as some, you age out.”

“Oh, yeah, and then you get the MILF roles,” says Chloe, dabbing Tasha’s face with a foam wedge.

“There are some really gorgeous MILFs,” says Tasha.

“They’re not even MILFs! They’re, like, twenty-six!” says Chloe.

“Well, either way, you have a shelf life,” Tasha replies. “I mean, that’s true no matter what part of the entertainment industry you’re in.”

Tasha’s been in the entertainment industry since high school, when she was a minor character on the reality show Laguna Beach. She went on to work as a Hooters girl. She’s in her early twenties, and she thinks that “you should be twenty-one in adult,” not eighteen. “A lot of girls dabble in porn, they’re in it for four months and then they’re out,” she says, “but the videos stay around forever.” She has always wanted to be a sex symbol, though, ever since she was in high school. Now, in Barely Blue Velvet, Tasha has snagged the role of Sandy, the sweet girl-next-door character. (Tasha’s alleged resemblance to the unconventionally attractive Laura Dern, of the original Blue Velvet, horrifies her. “You don’t think I look like her, do you?” she asks me, and I honestly answer no. Tasha seems to have had a nose job.)

This year, Tasha says, she has achieved her two most important career goals. One is that she’s in the women’s-studies program at UCLA; the other is that she was made a Penthouse Pet.

“So is that weird,” I ask, “being a porn star in women’s studies?”

“No, they’re cool,” she says. “It’s a really progressive program.”

Tasha is the first porn star I’ve met who says she has “modern feminist ideals.” She cleverly articulates arguments that seem to empower her, and with which I find myself agreeing. When I ask her why people have a problem with porn, she answers me quickly, like she’s bored of saying it. “America’s so uncomfortable with the topic, it makes sense people are opposed to it,” she says. “Some people think sex is for reproduction and for married people that need to make babies. Some people are uncomfortable with sex and their own sexuality. Some people aren’t educated about the industry in general, and the mainstream media doesn’t represent what it’s actually like—what’s actually happening.”

Tasha spends the morning flirting with Seth, although it’s hard to say whether it’s really flirting, or if this is just the way she relates to men. “You’re like my on-set boyfriend!” she tells him. The two of them are represented by the same agency, so they end up on a lot of shoots together. Once, they both went to Japan to film a movie in which, she says with a giggle, she was tortured by machines and “fake crazy snakes.” “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah,’” moans Tasha, sitting in a chaise longue with a giant Spongebob Squarepants pillow. “They kept telling me to act more like I was being raped!” Later, she tells me, “I mean, it’s not like I want to be raped! No one wants that, actually. But it’s, like, a really common fantasy. What’s porn for if not for exploring and experimenting?”

THE ENORMOUS SUCCESS of 50 Shades of Grey led to a lot of half-baked analysis of women’s sexual preferences. In the book—written by a woman named Erika Leonard—the female protagonist enters a relationship with a man who enjoys dominating his lovers. When it was released, in 2011, 50 Shades of Grey thundered to the top of the best-seller lists with a resounding argh. Along with it, bondage and sadomasochism went mainstream.

But a quick flip through any one of Nancy Friday’s famous collections of female fantasies, the first of which was published in 1973, reveals that power play is a long-standing feature of women’s sexual imaginations. The books are full of visions that could out-kink any Penthouse letter: “Off the cuff,” writes “Alexandra,” “I’ll describe some scenarios that used to turn me on.” She goes on to describe fantasies about being a call girl; having sex with a dog; having sex with her brothers; and being the subject of sexual experiments, “such as in the Nazi war camps.” Although not everyone arrives at their predilections via the same route, many psychologists agree that these tastes are a way of processing formative experiences. In Who’s Been Sleeping In Your Head, psychotherapist Brett Kahr mentions a woman who, in mining early sexual abuse for satisfying fantasies, “succeeded brilliantly in turning a childhood trauma into an adult triumph.”

The shame visited on women (and men, too, albeit to a lesser degree) simply for being sexual is considerable. When I began to fantasize about sex sometime in my teens, I eventually realized that the trick was to make my fantasy self an unwilling participant. That way, nothing I did was my fault. They made me do it! It was one thing to think about this, though, and another to find it acted out online by real people with real bodies and real feelings. It was shocking and unsettling. And there was content out there, on sites such as Kink.com, that was more intense, more transgressive, more violent by far. 

The company behind Kink.com prides itself on making ethical, consensual BDSM (bondage/discipline/sado-masochism) videos. The comments left beneath the clips hint at a surprising universe of connoisseurship: “I wished that you had chosen more effective gags than the bit gag and the ball gag. A plug gag or more use of the stuffed-cloth-and-duct-tape gag would have been preferable.” “The squirts in here seemed contrived and I think she was peeing.” “Great diversity in toys. Kudos for Naidyne for taking the cattle-prod.” “I loved the ball crusher.”

Every clip is followed by an exit interview. After a day of being flogged, gagged or nearly drowned, after having their vulvas zapped or testicles crushed, these perky young women and men—who, moments before, were whimpering and crying for mercy—sit in front of the camera and say things like, “This was the best day I’ve ever had on a shoot!”

Well, to each her own. It looks horrible to me, but so does running a marathon. However baffling it may be, the reality is still that the women in Kink.com are giving their enthusiastic consent—it’s ethical, if not to everyone’s liking. What people enjoy in the privacy of their dungeons is their concern. But here’s the thing: none of this was done in privacy. Kidnappings, rape, torture—simulations of all these things are readily available to anyone: Teenagers who may not understand the consensual framework in which these punishments unfold. Sadists with evil hearts.

“I keep saying, you can’t legislate people’s response to what you do,” says 50 Shades author Leonard, and she’s right. UK prime minister David Cameron and, here in Canada, MP Joy Smith would like to see pornography blocked, by default, from all computers. I’m not sure who they are to imply adults shouldn’t be watching consensual sex. Further complications arise when one considers that the definition of “pornography” is so slippery that a Supreme Court justice could only say, “I know it when I see it,” back in 1964. That seems to be the final word so far.

Censorship is not the answer. Rather, we need to address the growing lag between the sex that shows up online and our willingness to talk about it. Mainstream entertainment rooted in violence and humiliation (Fear Factor, Grand Theft Auto, boxing, mixed martial arts) is made widely available on the understanding that we have an open, public dialogue about it. Porn’s ubiquity needs to be matched by our comfort level in discussing it.

In this way, the macabre goings-on at Kink.com are superior to mainstream porn, in that these women are getting off on their subordination. So little mainstream sex online actually addresses women’s desire. Because the vast majority of it is made by men, its point of view is uniquely male—sometimes quite literally, as when the cameraman films himself getting serviced.

Any random handful of porn clips will reveal only the most rudimentary acknowledgment of women’s pleasure. Even Tasha, the women’s-studies major, seems to have lost sight of this. She tells me that, in her personal life, she is “lazy” in bed. “I just want to get my pussy licked,” she says. “But when I do movies, I want to film something that’s going to turn other people on. I just want to film a hot scene of me getting really pounded.”

THE BED in the firefighter’s house has a rumpled sheet thrown atop it, a kind of tablecloth for sex spills. Seven of us are crammed into the room, and, as usual, it’s hot and bright and late, edging on 11 pm, when the stars walk onto the set. Tonight’s the night that Seth and Tasha will get it on. I wonder how they will prepare for the scene. Seth’s been grabbing his junk a lot tonight. He sits on the edge of the bed and Tasha stands in front of him, looking down, smiling. She hikes up her dress, or maybe Seth does, and then I’m staring at Tasha’s unbelievably perfect ass. Even though I know that her perfect ass must be a torment to her—it’s valuable precisely because it’s a fleeting commodity—I am filled with envy. This is a preternatural ass, an ass I didn’t have even at twenty-two. Seth and Tasha lock eyes and he slips his fingers between her legs. In the whole night, this will be the one instance of something resembling intimacy.

The director and actors decide on the order of the positions they’ll shoot. Seth recites it back to make sure he’s got it, sounding like a square-dance caller: blow job, mish, cowgirl, reverse cowgirl, pussy-licking, spoon mish to doggie. Then he’ll come on Tasha’s face.

Tasha crouches down and begins to blow Seth while Wes, with his Albertan-surfer clothes and saurian bare feet, crawls around taking still shots. I find myself surreptitiously looking for crew members’ erections. The thought of being Tasha and having Wes pop a boner over me makes me feel gross, but this is what it means to be a porn star. Seen in one light, it’s a strange kind of generosity. I, the hot, bequeath unto you, the homely, a view of my vulva, that you may imagine touching it. Tasha mounts Seth in reverse cowgirl, facing Wes, who is snapping away with urgency. She lets most of Seth’s penis slide out of her—snap—and then she sits down, engulfing it completely—snap. She has a different face for each of these positions, a surprised pin-up for the first, then a sated, slitty-eyed pout for the second. She does this a few times. It’s like stop-motion animation. But, when the actual filming starts, the sex looks more like CGI. As Sammie tells me, “What looks good doesn’t feel good.” But it’s not just that the sex is staged. There’s an undercurrent of something unpleasant that I can’t quite put my finger on.

The sex is athletic, punctuated with sharp slaps on the ass from Seth. Tasha yells a lot. A lot. “Oh, God, oh shii- hi-hi-hi-hit!” She talks dirty: “Do you like my tight little pussy?” She orders Seth to eat her out, then sits on his face, but, with both of them facing the camera, her clit is difficult to access, and he only gives it a few rudimentary licks. Sometimes they stop filming, and Tasha jumps off the bed, fanning her face with her hands and taking a swig of bottled water. Then they jump back into the action. At one point, she says, “You’re going to make me come, baby,” and she has, or pretends to have, a noisy orgasm while touching herself frantically.

Eventually, Tasha kneels in front of Seth, and he shoots his load all over her face. For some technical reason, she has to stay there longer than seems normal. She stares up at Seth adoringly, his fluids dripping into her mouth and eyes. Tasha, who is something of a germophobe, has either exempted semen from her list of contaminating substances or is silently filled with horror the entire time. The next day, I’ll see her recoil in disgust when her palms accidentally touch the sidewalk.

After the scene—after Seth has used Resolve to remove a few drops of ejaculate from the white carpet and the crew has started packing up—Tasha passes me. “How are you?” I ask.

“Great!” she says. “So, what did you think?”

I don’t know how to answer. I don’t even know what I feel. Everthing about the scene was clinical, off-putting and artificial (even Seth’s erection—he’s popping Viagra). I feel more like I just witnessed a sexual psychodrama than a mutually pleasurable experience. It’s the inverse of Kink. com: not joy behind the evident pain, but pain behind the evident joy.

ALL THE STREETS in Vegas have names like Tropicana, Paradise, Rainbow, Smoke Ranch. We’re shooting at Larry’s Villa, a strip club on Bonanza Road wedged behind a Popeye’s. “Nothing good happens on Bonanza,” says a friend of mine who lives in Vegas. The area seems devoid of life, except for a few men slumped on the sidewalk outside a mission. It’s strangely characterless, everything wide-open and beige, any sense of vice or danger bleached out by the desert sun.

Larry’s Villa is exactly what you’d expect from a strip club, all black and mirrors and red and blue lights. There’s a faint pall of smoke. Today, Sammie-as-Dorothy has to appear here singing “Blue Velvet.” The day passes in darkness. When not shooting, the stars all kick back, talking shop. Serious porn stars all have one thing in common: when they’re not on set, they work all the time, doing webcam shows, making web shorts, Tweeting, Facebooking and touring the country doing “feature dances,” which are basically classed-up strip shows. They’re all aiming for maximum visibility, and maximum profits. “If you’re a porn star and people don’t know about it,” says Eric, “you’re failing as a porn star.”

Sammie, it turns out, has quite a following of foot fetishists. “When I dance,” she says, “guys’ll pay me $20 to give me a foot massage.”

“Really?” I say. “That’s a good deal. You get the money and you get a foot massage!” 

Tasha wrinkles her nose.

“You don’t think so?” I ask her. “No!” Tasha says. “I don’t do anything like that. My thing is, I’ll give a lap dance for $160. I don’t like guys touching me, so if some guy really, really wants to, he can pay $160, and I’ll just sit in his lap for, like, a couple of minutes.”

“But it’s just feet!” I say. “It’s a foot massage!”

“Yeah, but I can just make $160 in, like, five minutes,” she says. Sammie has walked out of earshot by this point, but it’s clear that the two women are from different worlds. I had naively expected there to be some solidarity based on their shared careers. But, in Laguna Beach, the median house-hold income is $90,017, according to a 2007 estimate, while Sammie tells me she grew up poor.

Tasha sidles up to Sammie and compares locks of their bleach-blonde hair. Tasha bristles at accusations of being “high maintenance,” which is just “having standards,” as far as she is concerned. In Sammie’s first scene ever, five men ejaculated on her. “Quite an initiation” is how she describes it. Sammie is clearly one of life’s scrappers. She says, at one point, “When I was seventeen, I used to make out with girls in bars for free shots.” She looks around at us, laughs, and says, “I know. I’m a classy broad.”

I ask Jason, the director, how much money the stars make. “It depends on their rates,” he says. “The girls can make anything from $800 to $2,000 for a scene.” (They’re paid per sex scene.) Unless they’re famous, guys get between $100 and $500. The rest of the work is without remuneration, really. In Canada, rates are even lower: one Québécois porn star tells me a girl-girl scene will pay $400, while boy-girl will pay $700 or $800.

Illegal downloading and the proliferation of free clips and amateur content have undermined porn’s profitability, so there’s very little respite from the hustle. However, in the United States, a country where the unemployment rate has doubled since 2007 and has scarcely recovered from the recession, the adult industry, for all its drawbacks, is a seductive option.

The twenty-five-year-old Sammie tells me she thought about getting into porn, for fun, when she was twenty, but “chickened out.” Ultimately, it was the American economic collapse that forced her hand. She was living in Las Vegas when the law firm where she worked went under. So, at the age of twenty-two, with a mortgage and student debts to pay, she started doing amateur porn, then professional hardcore movies. Like everyone else in Barely Blue Velvet, Sammie has done pretty well for herself in an industry where you have to be a workaholic to get ahead. Still, when she finishes her master’s, she wants to change careers. Porn’s “not generally mentally satisfying,” she says.

EACH OF THE STARS I MEET has a different story of how he or she got into pornography, but these are not the runaway drug addicts I’d envisioned in my most self-hating moments. Eric, the former engineer who has been in the industry since 2004, thinks that being an adult star is “more acceptable than any time before.” He describes the companies in LA as “very mainstream,” and says the stigma has diminished. 

This mainstreaming draws a lot of people into the industry, and the same tools that have led to the widespread availability of pornography—cheap cameras, free distribution—are now also in the hands of people who have a bigger, more ambitious, more thoughtful vision. Viewers, too, now have a hand in shaping content, since they can register their preferences with just a click. 

Many women, under the cloak of cyber-anonymity, are doing just that, creating a target market for a female-friendly product. Erika Lust is probably the world’s most prominent feminist pornographer. Her films are beautifully shot, and feature attractive, healthy-looking, oft-tattooed women and men acting in scenes that verge from vanilla to high-gloss kink. Lust doesn’t disclose her earnings, but her life, she promises me, is comfortable. Without the internet, she points out, she never would have built up the following she has. “It’s all changed,” she says. “A big adult distribution company probably never would have picked up my movies.” Now, after shooting four feature films and three shorts, she is turning down offers from people who want to buy her Barcelona-based company.

Lust avoids hiring the surgically enhanced. She prefers actors to be older than the industry standard. She sits down with applicants and chats with them at length about why they are drawn to porn. Finally, her feminism extends to her story lines, which feature “women knowing what they are looking for and going for their own pleasure and being treated as women of real flesh and blood and real character.”

In 2012, Lust was a guest at Toronto’s Feminist Porn Awards, an annual event that was launched in 2006 and celebrates porn that “depicts genuine female pleasure” and “challenges the stereotypes often found in mainstream porn.” This sounds perfect for a sensitive smut-hound like me. But, when I attended the awards in 2009, the content felt so earnest that, while my intellect stood up and saluted, my libido went off and sulked. I’ve been told the festival’s content has been changing, though, as the idea of female-friendly porn has gotten less niche and more mainstream.

“Women are definitely a huge part of the market,” says a man who goes by JT, one of the founding partners of the site YouPorn. He now runs a company called Really Useful, which owns various sites that offer “high-quality erotica”—porn for women. “We love all forms of feminine beauty,” reads the copy on all the websites. “We strive to use a myriad of different girls to cater for all kinds of tastes.” (That said, the disclaimer really just means there are no fake boobs. The body types are undeniably conventional.)

And then there’s the popularity of bookish-yet-rugged James Deen, the first mainstream male porn star to garner a sizeable female following, which he’s built up over an eight-year career. While he doesn’t identify himself as feminist, he says things like, “Young kids are learning that pussy-eating isn’t part of sex. There should be more pussy-eating in porn!” He’s capable of doing incredibly rough scenes (for Kink.com, among others), but says they hold no interest for him unless the woman is into it. This seems to be more than just a line: in the best scenes, a kind of delight and surprise beams out of the faces of his co-stars. This is a man who has made fast friends with the clitoris.

Still, his ascendance has caused a media freak-out. “For any parent concerned about what their teen does online, the huge popularity of the young man you are about to meet may be deeply disturbing,” an ABC news anchor in a recent clip gravely intones before introducing Deen. By “teens,” ABC clearly means “young women.” I can’t imagine a news story like this about a female porn star.

“James Deen, what would I do without you?” women write in the comment sections below his videos. “James, fuck me, please!” This kind of naked gratitude says a lot about how much women’s sexuality has been underserved. Now, like it or not, we’re finally getting our own.

I STARE PAST MY REFLECTION in the window of the airplane as it leaves Las Vegas. The city’s lights, pulsing, twinkling, diminish as we rise—all the pleasures of the world contained in a matchbook. We push up into the thin air, the curve of the Earth asserting itself below, an endless starry sky above. The long view. 

All those people down there, losing their money on slot machines, drinking to the point of anesthesia, eating their way to cardiac arrest—terrible decisions are made every day in the pursuit of pleasure, whether at a cost to ourselves or to others.

Because they make real the things we don’t want to desire, we treat porn stars with disgust and condescension. We turn away from them because they are the living evidence of appetites we want to kill in ourselves.

There’s nothing below now but dark and desert.

That morning, Sammie agreed to talk to me one-on-one before a dentist’s appointment. She picked me up at my hotel in her pale-blue convertible, nicer than any car a friend of mine has ever owned, and drove us down the hot, windy highway to Big Dog’s Draft House, a standard-issue diner smelling of fries and old beer, battened down against the sun. I’d seen her have an hour’s worth of intercourse that week, lube farts and all, but I stuttered through my questions, delicate to the point of incomprehensibility.

Do you think porn influences people’s sexuality, I asked her.

“A lot of people feel that porn objectifies women,” she said. “I feel like it’s more empowered me. It has really helped to develop skills at reading people and situations and using sexuality to get what I want ... I’m not saying that I fuck people to get what I want but I definitely mind-fuck people.” She pushed her ketchup-stained hamburger bun to one side to focus on the meat.

The thing that made me nervous around Sammie was exactly what should have had the opposite effect: Sammie, I was pretty sure, didn’t really give a shit about me. My opinion of her simply didn’t matter. She was friendly enough, but she knew how to let people into her life only so far. Unlike me, she was very good at boundaries. “I am a very practical person,” she said.

I’m reminded of this as I watch Barely Blue Velvet more than a year later on my home computer. Sammie’s a terrible actor. If line readings could die of dramatic malnourishment, all of hers would. She’s there to do one thing—fuck—and she’s going to make sure it doesn’t cost her anything. The whole production has distilled into something that now strikes me as funny. Eric, as Frank, succeeds in setting the tone for the movie: bizarre and sort of campy, a low-budget John Waters-David Lynch lovechild, but with lots and lots and lots of frantic, sterile sex. Familiar details jump out at me from the set: a poster of the Las Vegas transit system on the wall, the scuffed bottoms of Tasha’s fake Louboutins. As I stare at the screen I realize I’m looking at a reflection of myself. Whatever I watch, I’m always there, reflected back, staring.

I think of Sammie now, sitting across from me, chewing on strips of bacon in Bad Dog’s. “It takes a strong person to be able to say, ‘No, I wouldn’t change for anyone,’” she told me. Especially when that person is yourself.