Fired for doing porn: The new employment discrimination

Adult performers who get work elsewhere can be fired if their past comes out -- and there's no legal recourse

Topics: porn, Pornography, porn stars, life after porn, Editor's Picks, adult film industry, employment discrimination, ,

Fired for doing porn: The new employment discriminationAdult film stars pose for photos at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo (Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong)

When Gauge retired from the adult industry in 2005, she had big plans for her post-porn career. A 4-foot-11 Arkansas native best known her signature move — receiving anal sex while doing a handstand — Gauge abruptly left the industry after shooting more than 140 films, due to a contract dispute with her management company. Although she enjoyed her four-year stint in front of the camera, she wanted to take time off to prove to herself that she could succeed in other avenues. “Some girls enter the business without a long-term plan, or maybe they think they can’t do anything else,” she says. “I was never like that. I always thought I could do anything.”

After a few years of saving money through feature dancing, Gauge went to school to get her certification as a surgical tech, reaching the top of her class and logging double her required hours in the process. Then an anesthesia tech recognized her, and word spread through the hospital staff that a porn star was among their ranks. “Everybody wanted me in their room, but they started treating me like shit,” Gauge says. “They made me feel like I was contaminating everything.” By the time she was set to graduate, no one at the hospital would sign off on her required hours.

Although the hospital eventually issued Gauge an apology, she felt both wounded and perplexed by the experience. “I’m thinking, why isn’t anybody asking [the anesthesia tech] how he recognized me?” she says. “OK, so what – I’m the provider, you’re the freaking consumer. Why is what I did so much more wrong than what you did?” Hurt but still undeterred, Gauge went to criminal justice school, then to makeup artist school. When she applied for jobs, she’d be passed over in favor of someone with less experience and training; when she went to church services with her husband and teenage stepchildren, she lived in constant fear of being recognized. After eight years of this treatment, at the age of 33 she decided to return to the porn industry, announcing her comeback film with Brazzers in an interview with porn blogger and director Billy Watson.

“I ended up just getting so fed up with the way I was being treated,” she told me the week after she announced her comeback. “I have a family now, and if I’ve exhausted all my avenues and the only thing left is the adult industry, then I’m just like, well, look, I’ve tried this and I’ve tried that, year after year after year. It’s 2013. I’ve been going to school since 2007 … what else am I supposed to do?”

Gauge is quick to note that porn is “not a Plan B” for her — for the most part, she enjoyed her time in the industry, and respected the people she worked with. Yet her frustration over having been denied a life outside of porn is palpable. “I left because I wanted to prove to myself that I could succeed in other avenues,” she says, a not-so-subtle hint of irony in her husky Southern twang. “And I did. But I guess I succeeded a little better in porn.”

Gauge’s post-porn trajectory is far from unusual. The adult industry has, for lack of a better term, a particularly high recidivism rate, especially for performers who have achieved a certain level of name recognition. Whether they, like Gauge, continue to perform on the feature-dancing circuit, or are as financially shrewd as Jenna Jameson, who used her performance earnings to start her own multimillion-dollar production company, performers can stay in the industry for years, regardless of whether they’re still in front of the camera.

For actors still at peak performing age, as Gauge was when she retired, there are many reasons why one would be attracted to the industry: money, notoriety, moderately flexible working hours. Yet those who are looking to transition into a 9-to-5 desk job will most likely find themselves blocked at every turn. “At every job you apply for you will either have to disclose your background, and chance not even getting a shot at an interview, or hide your past and prove yourself, hoping when the truth comes out you will be kept on,” says Cindi Loftus, the editor of porn website Luke Is Back and a 20-year industry vet.

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Given how much attention the media has devoted to the “mainstreaming” of porn, it’s tempting to hope that more progressive employers would be willing to turn a blind eye to a smutty title or two on someone’s résumé. But even in a world where hardcore performers like Sasha Grey and James Deen can be cast in major indie films, where, within certain circles, hirsute Golden Age stars like Ron Jeremy are as beloved as Mickey Mouse, there’s still a great deal of stigma attached to the industry. Loftus says that while “there is more acceptance of those coming from the adult world” in mainstream entertainment fields, “generally speaking, if you go into porn, you will need to make a living in some part of that field for the rest of your life, or open your own business, because the average Joe is not going to hire you.”

Thanks to the widespread availability of porn clips on streaming websites like PornTube and Tube8, it’s become increasingly difficult for former adult stars to conceal their past from their employers. Stacie Halas, an Oxnard, Calif., middle school teacher who went by the professional name of Tiffany Six, is the most recent example of this phenomenon. A science teacher at Haydock Intermediate School, Halas was fired after students found one of her videos on the Internet. When she fought her termination in court, her appeal was denied by a three-judge panel, one of whom wrote in a 46-page statement that “the ongoing availability of her pornographic materials on the Internet will continue to impede [Halas] from being an effective teacher and respected colleague.”

Employment prospects for former adult performers are not much better outside the school system: The adult film star Houston, nee Kimberly Halsey, was let go from her real estate job of five years under similar circumstances, after a co-worker recognized her. “I was a new homes salesperson, and they had me in two communities, and I was working my ass off,” says Houston, who recently wrote a memoir, “Pretty Enough: The Story of a Gang-Bang Queen.” “I had dyed my hair dark, I had gained weight, and I didn’t really look like Houston anymore … I was always incognito and always trying to hide, like I still do today.”

After she lost her job in 2008, Houston considered pursuing legal action against her employer; ultimately, she decided against it, out of fear of being blacklisted by the real estate community (Gauge, too, says she contacted adult entertainment nonprofit the Free Speech Coalition, which referred her to the ACLU, after she was let go from her volunteer job). Unfortunately, employee discrimination cases involving sex workers are usually “very, very difficult to win,” says adult entertainment lawyer Michael Fattorosi. Under current discrimination laws, there are no protections for former sex workers, and firing someone for their porn past is “not like saying we’re letting you go because you’re black or Jewish or you wear a turban. Those things are not a result of a life choice you make, and being a sex worker is.” An employee who, like Halas, failed to disclose a porn past on his or her résumé would be compromised even further; the employer could argue that the employee had been hired under false pretenses, leading the court to side in their favor.

Fattorosi says that while porn is gaining more mainstream acceptance, that doesn’t mean that people who worked in the industry are going to be treated any better by future non-porn employers and co-workers. “I have a comment I like to make to people: Porn is like prison,” he says. “Everybody likes [the idea of] prisons, but no one wants to live, or work, next door to one.”

A week after Houston was fired, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, an experience she recounted in documentarian Bryce Wagoner’s 2012 “After Porn Ends.” Although the film ends with her going to nursing school and graduating with a license in phlebotomy, over the past few years she has floated in and out of the porn industry, working as a cam girl and as an escort in Las Vegas (escorting while remaining in quasi-retirement has become something of a trend in the adult world, in large part due to the Internet driving performers’ rates down).

While Houston, like many other adult performers struggling to cross over, has stumbled while trying to keep her feet in both worlds, she says she has learned how to use her porn background to her advantage. In her current position at a Las Vegas company, she uses her connections to the industry by setting up clients with porn companies looking to rent houses for shoots. “They love that I’m their link to the porn world,” she says. She doesn’t regret her porn past. What she does regret, however, are the changes that the industry has seen since she shot her first role almost 20 years ago.

“It’s embarrassing to be a porn star now,” she says. “There’s no movies being made anymore, it’s all scenes. There’s no dialogue, there’s no craft service, nothing.” The advent of camming, or performing live sex shows on webcam for fans, has driven performers’ prices down, irrevocably altering the economic model of the industry: where a performer could previously make hundreds of dollars for an anal scene, “now there are girls in [cam] rooms doing anal for, like, $50,” Houston complains. “It’s crazy, but it’s the only way to make money now.”

Now that it has become less feasible to make a living as an adult performer, some believe the onus is on agents, managers and production companies (most of which do not even offer their performers health insurance) to help ease their performers’ transition back into the mainstream by teaching them valuable work skills, or showing them how to manage their finances so they can accrue a substantial nest egg before retirement. “It seems to me the closest bonds these girls have are with these agents/managers,” “After Porn Ends” director Wagoner says. “I’d think if the agents/managers wanted to protect their investment, they would do something like that.”

After eight years of being tossed around by the mainstream working world, however, Gauge doesn’t think the industry can do much to improve employers’ views of those in her field. It’s the culture that loves Ron Jeremy and shames the women paid to have sex with him on-screen, that penalizes the girl on-screen and not the anesthesia tech who jerks off to her, that ultimately needs to change the most.

“As a whole our society is desensitized to sex,” she says. “You can watch the MTV awards with Miley Cyrus and any Katy Perry video with that pillow between her legs and humping it [...] I don’t know why it’s such a big deal when you tell people you did porn. It’s really confusing to me.”

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