Luke Ford spends most of his time around porn stars, but he has a crush on Wendy Shalit, the neocon ingenue author of "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue." Last time we talked, he had passed the afternoon skinny-dipping with X-rated actresses Kendra Jade and Shelle Pearson, but he was still mooning over a recent encounter with the poster girl for virtue and virginity. "Published in Commentary at only 19," he said dreamily. "I was really curious to see what she looked like, so I went to her reading. She's a little cutie, I kind of fancied her. I think we'd make a good couple -- Miss Modesty and Mr. Pornography."
He's not kidding. Ford, one of the most controversial figures in the porn universe, is a man torn between twin obsessions -- hardcore sex and conservative Judaism. He has elevated moral and spiritual schizophrenia to surreal proportions, and the split is most obvious in the two Web sites that he spends his life running. On Lukeford.com, he operates as the Matt Drudge of the triple-X industry, tirelessly reporting scandals, news, gossip, innuendo and minutia, earning $42,000 a year in ad revenue and the loathing of most of porn's major players. In his spare time, though, the sex industry's most notorious muckraker -- and the son, bizarrely, of a Seventh Day Adventist evangelical preacher -- maintains dennisprager.net, a site devoted to conservative writer, Jewish theologian and right-wing radio host Dennis Prager.
"I view porn, adultery, premarital sex, all forms of sexual expression outside of marriage as sinful, meaning against God's will," says Ford, a wry, blandly handsome 33-year-old. "Let me stress that I am single, I have never been married and the Lord has not granted me the gift of chastity. I do not fool myself that what I'm doing is OK by God or my religion. I'm really open that these are the ideals I believe in and in various ways I do not live up to them. C'est la vie. I get therapy once or twice a week for 90 minutes a session." He's a hypocrite and he knows it, revels in it -- in fact, Ford is so blunt about his personal shortcomings he disarms criticism by cheerfully concurring with everything his enemies say about him.
And they say a lot, because as much as the biz hates to admit it, everyone in the adult film world reads him. "You can't find someone in this business who's never heard of Luke Ford," says Atlanta pornographer Mike South, one of the few people in the sex industry to count Ford as a friend. "Luke has done more research into this business than most of the people who lived through it in the '70s and '80s. If there is a Matt Drudge in the porn industry it is Luke Ford, hands down. He's very similar to Matt Drudge -- he came out of nowhere and created a name for himself in a very short time. The difference is that Luke may even be more vicious than Matt Drudge is."
Indeed, Ford's methods are slash and burn, often mean-spirited and journalistically dubious. His Web site is an odd melange of rambling daily reports on the shenanigans of actresses, directors and producers, exposés on industry corruption, torturous self-analysis, satire -- and lots of naked pictures. Also included are capsule biographies of nearly everyone who's ever taken his or her clothes off in front of a camera and Ford's own take on every issue related to the business, from child porn and bestiality to industry racism and mob involvement.
In one of his most notorious assaults on the business, Ford published a list that contains the real names of over 300 porn people, a list that has sabotaged the attempts of some to build a life after porn. Brandy Alexandre, for example, left porn in 1992. A few months ago, she was fired from her job as a senior secretary with Forest Lawn cemeteries after someone who had seen Luke's list outed her to her boss.
Ford's profile in the business really skyrocketed last year, though, when he broke the story about porn star Mark Wallice being HIV-positive. Like Matt Drudge's early stories of Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, at first Ford's reports were taken as evidence that he had become a dangerously irresponsible rumor-monger. At one point, after enduring vociferous criticism from the industry, Ford even apologized to Wallice.
Four months later, Wallice tested positive -- under mounting pressure, a colleague had dragged him to the clinic. To this day, many in the industry claim that Ford got lucky -- that just because the story was true doesn't mean he was right to publish it without hard evidence. "Just because he turned out to be right that time is no reason to applaud him as a great reporter," says Alexandre. Ford himself says he had no way to be absolutely sure about the story when it ran -- "I just had so many sources that told me he was positive that I took a chance and went with it." Either way, Wallice had been regularly working without showing his test, and by reporting the story Ford caused the truth to come out. He may have saved lives.
Last month Ford published his first book, "A History of X," which is, as he readily admits, a mess, a rambling and formless account that attempts to squeeze 100 years of sex on film into 232 pages. Huge dramas are condensed into a few sentences. Relating one of the biggest scandals in porn history, he simply writes: "In 1991, Jim Mitchell, frustrated by his brother's erratic ways, murdered Artie. He then hired a clever lawyer who bamboozled judge and jury into a 'voluntary manslaughter' conviction carrying a maximum punishment of six years in prison. After serving three years, Jim was released in 1997." End of story.
Ford insists that the reason the book is so bad is because his publisher, Prometheus Books, made him chop it from 1,000 pages to its current length (largely for legal reasons). One is tempted to dismiss this as a self-serving rationalization, but South, who saw the original draft, backs up Ford's account. Nevertheless, the book is suffused with Ford's trademark sarcastic contempt, making it frequently amusing. He deadpans, "Meyer was not the type of guy who reduced women to their tits. 'I've had more than my share of ass,' says Meyer." He relishes recounting the shattered dreams of porn actresses, like the story of Marilyn Chambers (whom he calls by her real name, Marilyn Briggs) and her blown shot at a Hollywood career. "She later moved to Los Angeles, where an important producer offered her a deal: He'd provide her with an apartment, car, acting lessons, spending money, roles in major films and career guidance in exchange for Briggs being his mistress. Not wanting to be tied down to an old man with a big paunch, she rejected his offer. On his way out the door, the shocked producer told Briggs that she'd never make it in the biz. He was right. Briggs never succeeded in mainstream entertainment." The book is often a jeremiad against the business disguised as a behind-the-scenes history -- though, to be fair, Ford also debunks certain stories that have bedeviled the business, including the myth of snuff films (he says they don't exist) and Linda Lovelace's insistence that she made "Deep Throat" under threat of violence (no one present on the set corroborates her account).
It's startling, given Ford's blatant hostility toward porn, that anyone in the industry talks to him. The fascinating thing about Ford, though, is that he's so charming that even those who have every reason to despise him are often won over when they're in his presence. Ford has the gift of making you feel like you alone, of all the idiots in the world, really get it, are really on his wavelength. "Last year I was at [the Adult Video News Awards]," says South. "I was talking to a lady in the business. She had never met Luke, and she wanted to know who he was because she was livid about something he put on his site about her. Luke comes up, I introduce them, and she immediately goes into a very obvious attack mode. Within two minutes she's sitting in Luke's lap."
The lady? Alexandre, who still maintains friendly relations with him. "Personally, on a one-to-one level I talk to him every now and again, but on a professional level I hate his guts," she says. "He's one of those angst-ridden guys that draws women in. They want to ease his suffering. He might lay on the charm to get people to open up -- we good-looking people use that all the time. The problem is he turns around and hurts people with it."
"He's essentially an unhappy person based on the work that he does," Alexandre continues. "In one breath he embraces the industry because it supports him, and in the other breath he shuns it. He hates it but he needs it, and whatever the need is based on only he and his psychiatrist know. But he is nice, soft-spoken and friendly." Adds Paul Fishbein, the publisher of the industry trade magazine Adult Video News, "He's a really charming, nice guy when you meet him and talk to him, but he's not trustworthy." At one point, Fishbein considered hiring Ford. Now he's considering suing him. "He'll print anything, anything anyone tells him. He says things like, 'I heard that Metro Home Video threatened to pull all their advertising' -- if we didn't put all their girls on stage [at the Adult Video News Awards] and give their videos better reviews -- 'so Paul Fishbein acquiesced.' I had to threaten him with a libel suit. Luke Ford is interesting, but he screwed me."
Besides being charming, Luke Ford is also smart, though he believes he's not as smart as he used to be. Ford was an economics major at UCLA in 1988 when he grew ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, the amorphous sickness once dubbed yuppie flu. In an e-mail that Ford posted to his site, his sister apologizes to the world for her brother by attributing his odd proclivities to his long illness.
"In the mid-eighties he contracted glandular fever, which wiped out his energy and therefore his activity," she writes. "It is accepted by medical science that glandular fever, caused by the Epstein Barr virus, is often followed by depression. What still remains controversial is the diagnostic entity chronic fatigue syndrome. But whatever the label I saw my brother slide from an energetic and fun loving boy to an invalid ... Luke in some ways is not the boy he used to be. He seems to lack a degree of insight and balance in his life. I suspect he does not feel the tension which exists between being involved in pornography and gossip associated with that industry on the one hand and his religious beliefs on the other. He was brought up in a very balanced, loving and Christian family. His involvement in pornography is heartbreaking to us."
Ford was nearly bedridden for six years -- during which time he discovered Judaism, (eventually converting in 1992, after two years of study with a rabbi). "Since I was sick I've been only going at 7 or 8 percent. I've lived my life in a vice since I was 21," Ford says. "I'm not as mentally sharp as I was before I got sick, I'm not able to be an economist, which is what I wanted to." Thus, at times, he justifies his career choice in purely pragmatic terms. "However distasteful writing on porn is, it really beats dong temp work as an administrative assistant," he says. "Professionally I'm on a good gig. I've found my niche. I have thousands of readers. I'm getting most of my needs met. I'm writing about my life, making decent money. I don't have to work that hard and I have tremendous freedom."
Of course, Ford knows that professional convenience isn't the only thing driving him. "I think part of the reason I do this would be some deep, dark psychological Freudian desire to return to the womb," he says half-facetiously. "There's something tremendously compelling to me about pussy. I'm fascinated by women's sexuality. Porn is a male fantasy of female sexuality, but I'm still spending a lot of my time interacting with fairly attractive women -- albeit IQ-challenged -- so there is a deep, dark psychological attraction there." Not that Ford's that popular with porn starlets -- indeed, he says he's only had sex with two X-rated actresses. Anyway, what Ford really wants is to get married -- like countless men before him, he believes that once he ties the knot, he'll leave his promiscuous ways behind. "I'm tired of the life of tawdry blow jobs from porn stars! I want to settle down. One of these days the Lord will give me the strength to turn my back on such sin." He says this jocularly, self-mockingly, but he seems to mean it.
On one level Ford wants to hang out with porn stars. On another, he wants to bring down the porn industry. "The boy has a messiah complex," says Roger Jacobs, a former porn screenwriter and director who's now left the business to become a freelance journalist. In an interview with Ford published in Panik magazine, Jacobs describes Ford as being on "a suicide mission against the adult entertainment industry ... the most visible sniper in a lone shooting spree against easy targets."
"He's the son of an evangelical minister and he's converted to Orthodox Judaism -- each are the most fundamentalist of religions, and both are very anti-sex," says Mark Kernes, features editor at Adult Video News. "He is fascinated by sex, fascinated by people who are willing to perform sex on camera, and he wants to write about it, but he also hates it. He thinks he is fulfilling the requirements of his religion by attempting to destroy the porn industry."
"I don't regard the industry with respect, I don't regard it as something worthy of nurturing," Ford says. "If my writing helps anti-porn hysteria and activism, fine. It would not bother me if porn were banned. Censorship is one legitimate response to the rise of pornography. I would not shed many tears if the porn industry was carted off to jail tomorrow, and I don't think we'd be a worse society for it."
Ford claims to loathe Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, but he loathes the propaganda of the porn business more -- and he's disgusted that so many people have fallen for it. After all, in recent years pornographers, in concert with transgression-loving academics, have fashioned a New Age version of the sex industry as some kind of orgasmic human potential movement dedicated to freeing the world from the blight of sexual repression. Talking about the self-described "feminist porn" of Candida Royalle and the theories of pro-sex professors like Linda Williams and Laura Kipnis, Ford's usually mellow, self-deprecating tone turns angry.
"I loathe political correctness, I loathe pieties, particularly coming from the porn industry," he growls. "It's a filthy industry. I'm not going to take First Amendment lessons from whores. I'm not going to take sociological lessons and psychological insights about the human condition from pretentious pornographers. This PC academicized femme-porn boosting approach nauseates me. It's a laugh. Women do not buy this stuff. Men buy this stuff, generally single men. The whole purpose of porn is for men to jack off. It does not have entertainment, political or artistic value. It's lowbrow hard-on fuel, period."
Surprisingly, Ford professes respect for feminist porn stars and directors, but he thinks they distort the true face of the business. "Candida Royalle, Annie Sprinkle, Jane Hamilton and Gloria Leonard are all intelligent, thoughtful, kind and considerate. They're among the better persons in the industry. But as pornographers they count for zero. Their product does not sell. They do not add a distinctive wrinkle to porn that opens up a new market. The femme porn market is a myth, a nice-guy front that the industry presents to the public."
Porn's boosters assume that the libido needs to be liberated, and that human nature -- when not perverted by repression -- is inherently good. Ford, on the other hand, is steeped in the Judeo-Christian idea that people are wicked and need to keep their sinful impulses in check. "The study of porn shows that men are just bad news, and that the primary task facing society is what do you do with the men," Ford says. "Whenever men have been able to, they've raped en masse. What you see in mainstream hardcore pornography is simply an acting out of what your father, boyfriend, husband, brother or son thinks about much of the time. The more time I've spent in the porn industry, the more reverence I have for Judaism and for the Judeo-Christian tradition of forcing the male sexual genie into the marital bottle."
To the outside world, Ford is both a porn insider and someone who shares the values of Middle America, and he's routinely trotted out to bash the industry. He acted as a tour guide for a Weekly Standard writer doing a satirical piece about the World Pornography Conference, a congress of pro-porn academics and pornographers held last year in L.A. He's appeared on "The Fox Files," "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Jerry Springer Show," cheerfully adding his voice to the mainstream chorus of salacious fascination and outraged condemnation. "I'm happy to be used by people who want to bash the porn industry. I don't think it's something that I need in any way to protect. By its very nature, almost everyone who dislikes the porn industry can't spend that much time around it. Only a twisted multiple-personality person like myself can do that, so I'm happy to play along."
At the same time, there is probably some validity to Ford's views on the porn industry -- he's so transparent in his self-criticism, so brutally honest about himself, that it gives him a certain credibility. Whatever his agenda is, at least he's up front about it. Even Jacobs agrees with some of Ford's conclusions. "I never met a more collectively dysfunctional lot of people in my life than during my seven years in the business," says Jacobs. "The mainstream entertainment industry is neurotic. People in porn are partially psychotic."
Says Mike South, "I think Luke's been very good for this business. He has thrown open a lot of doors and shined light on questionable people and questionable business practices. Not much of anything in this business escapes Luke. I trust the majority of what he writes." Indeed, says South, the fact that Ford is so critical of the industry sometimes means that those inside it take him more seriously. "It makes him, believe it or not, more credible. There are a lot of people in the business who are far from evil, a lot of good people. But there are evil people in this business, no question. If Luke says everyone in the business is wonderful, he's just another fucking industry apologist. Instead, he calls it like he sees it."
In fact, South thinks that Ford is getting over on all the porn outsiders who take him seriously because his religious views mirror their own. "I wouldn't say it's 100 percent schtick," says South, "but at least 50 percent of it is. What he is trying to do there is to echo the feelings of people reading his site. He's doing what he does best, trying to disarm them and fit in. Don't you think he is smart enough to be playing these people?"
Ford is comforting to outsiders because he's willing to give up the dirt on the porn business while professing to hate himself for being so close to it -- he makes readers feel like he wishes he could live in the dull, mainstream world with the rest of us. But South believes that Ford's self-loathing is just part of his game. "I don't think he hates himself at all," says South. "Quite the contrary. I think sometimes he goes home and thinks about the things that have happened and he laughs at the people in this business, because they're so easily duped."