Adventures in the skin trade

Whether you love porn or think it's an abomination, "The Other Hollywood" will shake up everything you think you know about the sex film industry.

By Priya Jain
Published March 12, 2005 8:29PM (EST)

About three-quarters of the way through "The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry," Nina Hartley vents her frustration with the Meese Commission, President Reagan's attempt to stamp out pornography, and its unholy alliance with the radical feminist group Women Against Pornography. "What really irritated me about the Meese Commission and the radical right-wing feminists were the cries of 'Women and Children! Women and Children!'" Hartley says. "As an adult female, I didn't appreciate somebody infantilizing me and portraying me as someone who needs protection from the big, bad phallus -- or my own fantasies."

It's a good point, and one that stands as a sort of mantra for pro-porn feminists everywhere. If I want to have sex on camera, who are you to stop me? My body, my choice, damn it! And as several of the other porn stars throughout this book proudly declare, no one has forced them into it. "In all my years in this business, I have never seen coercion," insists Gloria Leonard, another porn star and the pioneer of 976 phone sex. "Ever, ever, ever. You always had the right to say, 'No, I don't want to do this.'"

And yet, pages after Leonard's quote, and just before Hartley's, Kristin Steen belies them both with the gut-wrenching story of her first porn film, when she was hired to act in what she was told would be a short, clothed scene. The other actor undoes the top buttons of Steen's blouse, and she slaps his hand away as scripted, but instead of stopping there, he forces her clothes off and rapes her while the crew watches in complicity: "He's on me, and he's in me, and he's ... And I'm crying and screaming -- and they're filming this, right?"

How do we reconcile this horrible story with Hartley's and Leonard's experiences? All of these women are apparently telling the truth. So what does it mean that the first two quotes make me want to run to my local video store, rent a bunch of porn and sit at home screaming "Yeah! You go, girl!" at the television, while the last makes me want to start a crusade to eradicate the entire industry?

Such is the conflict that has characterized any discussion of porn for decades, whether in the form of external fights like that between the Meese Commission and the porn film industry, or internal ones of our own consciences. Does pornography empower or degrade women who appear in it? Porn stars like Hartley profess to have made a conscious choice, but are all of them credible?

To these questions, "The Other Hollywood" offers no easy answers, and in fact, it offers no answers at all. But it does provide a couple of worthy lessons. First: Everyone involved has a story, and no one story is entirely reliable. At the very least, no single story can stand for a larger history, and the truth probably lies somewhere within the contradictions. Second: The porn film industry isn't all good or all bad. It's both, and whether you defend it or think it's an abomination, "The Other Hollywood" will test your beliefs and likely nudge you toward ambivalence. If for no other reason than that, everyone who has an opinion about porn, and I think that takes in everyone at least tangentially involved in our current culture wars, ought to read this book.

I confess that I approached the book hoping that it would exonerate the porn industry, proving that feminism really can embrace the naked arts. After reading it, I still believe that porn is not immoral per se, and that it has the right to exist -- but I also have to recognize that the horror stories like Steen's are part of the culture of the industry, not anomalies that we can casually dismiss.

The men involved in porn seem almost compelled to assert that the women are having as much fun as they are. But the book makes it quite clear that many of them aren't. Steen is the only woman to allege that she was raped on a set, but "The Other Hollywood" does not paint the porn industry as a happy, harmless hedonistic culture. There are some men and women in porn who are healthy and fulfilled, but there are also lots of opportunistic, sleazy men and vulnerable, gullible women.

For all we now talk about the mainstreaming of porn, it is still a fringe industry, resilient but never quite free from attack. Despite that still pesky problem of terrorism, Alberto Gonzales' first decision as attorney general this February was to go after a porn film company, and he has declared a commitment to investigating porn addiction. And the Federal Communications Commission's psychotic persecution of nipples and buttocks can't mean anything good for an industry that makes billions showing us a lot more. Whether you believe porn should be eradicated or not, "The Other Hollywood" definitively proves that it can't be, and trying to eradicate it is just as harmful as defending it uncritically.

The book tracks the porn film industry from its beginnings in the now innocent-seeming "nudie-cutie" films of the 1950s to the near present of the late '90s. Along the way, it takes in the seminal films "Deep Throat" and "Behind the Green Door," the involvement of organized crime, the various unsuccessful and semisuccessful attempts by the government to crack down on porn, the cocaine craze that nearly destroyed everyone in the business, AIDS, the advent of video and, briefly, the Internet.

There's no commentary here, no analysis, just thousands of quotes strung together. Legs McNeil, with journalist Jennifer Osborne and crime writer Peter Pavia, have compiled hundreds of original interviews as well as excerpts from newspapers, books, coroner's reports, FBI wiretaps, police reports and a host of other sources. The result is an artfully composed jigsaw puzzle of stories that together create a narrative history of an industry. Nearly everyone involved gets his or her say. Many of the stories are X-rated; others are mundane. The effect is unsettling and strange, overwhelming and breathtaking, and, not least, incredibly entertaining.

McNeil coauthored a similarly constructed book in 1997, "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk" (along with Gillian McCain), and like that one, "The Other Hollywood" will probably be recognized as the definitive work on its subject. (For evidence, see the recent episode of "The O.C." where Marissa lounges on her bed reading "Please Kill Me," a shorthand indication that she's really into her new punk-rock girlfriend.) But "The Other Hollywood" also feels more urgent and necessary than its predecessor, mostly because porn has proved to be a more enduring phenomenon than punk, but also because the narrative here is tighter and more suspenseful.

There are some platitudes about porn stars that turn out to be mostly true. The majority of them got into films not out of some overwhelming desire to have sex on-screen but because they desperately needed money and found they didn't mind the exhibitionism so much. Many of them, especially the women, erroneously believed they could transition into "straight" films, and plenty of Hollywood folks who hung around the porn scene -- whom the porn actors called "porn marks" -- encouraged that belief. (Celeb watchers will be interested in the occasional appearances of Sammy Davis Jr., Warren Beatty and Richard Dreyfuss, among others, here.) And, yes, an awful lot of both male and female stars had family members who hit them or molested them, or, at the very least, left a deep emotional wound. As '70s porn star Serena says in a bit of honesty that is both oddly refreshing and sad, "This all stems back to, 'Daddy didn't give me enough love.' I hope I will always have that need, that drive to create."

But there are others who defy the stereotype, like Kelly Nichols, who had been doing pretty well in Hollywood when she decided she preferred porn. Or Tricia Deveraux, who grew up in a strict Roman Catholic household and left medical school to join the adult-film world. Like several other stars, including Seka and Annie Sprinkle, Deveraux found that she just really liked sex, and the porn community was a safe, supportive environment in which to explore her sexuality. And then there is the infamous Traci Lords, who as a 15-year-old runaway with a fake I.D., may or may not have conspired with the FBI to bring down the porn industry and make her fortune at the same time. Either way, she was certainly cunning; after her underage status was revealed, the only legal Lords film left on the market was one she had made herself, just after her 18th birthday, and on which she received all the profits.

But that's getting ahead of the story. Before there were these women, there were Linda Lovelace, Chuck Traynor and "Deep Throat" in 1972, which laid the groundwork for all of the events that came after. (And which, as luck would have it, has been rereleased in theaters, along with the documentary "Inside Deep Throat.") The basics here are quite well known: Traynor was Lovelace's abusive husband and manager, a "suitcase pimp" in porn parlance. Lovelace herself was and has remained something of a punch line, a clueless young woman whose only claim to fame was a supposedly remarkable blow job technique. Despite, or maybe because of, its campy ridiculousness, the film grossed over a hundred million dollars, became the first porno that was so cool people weren't ashamed to be caught seeing it (Spiro Agnew apparently caught a private screening at the White House), and launched an obscenity trial as well as a nationwide government crackdown on porn. Lovelace later divorced Traynor and denounced the film, saying she was forced to make it, joining Women Against Pornography in the '80s.

What is not so well known is that Traynor and Lovelace's relationship wasn't just abusive, it was brutally so. Traynor beat her black-and-blue off the set, yelled at her constantly and was so jealous that though he insisted she perform well enough to make him money (he took all of her pay), he would rage at the smallest suggestion that she was enjoying herself. Most accounts of Lovelace's accusations -- that Traynor threatened her with a gun, that no one in the industry stood up for her -- have been given short shrift. And here is where the exhaustive chronicling of "The Other Hollywood" becomes not just compelling but important: In the back-and-forth between the couple on the page, and with memories from other actors and crew members thrown in, it becomes clear that Lovelace might have indeed been rather flaky or dumb or, in Traynor's word, a "dingbat," but she was also so battered physically and emotionally that it is little wonder that she felt coerced. And because her co-workers saw her problem as a private matter, they stayed out of it.

McNeil spends a lot of time with Chuck and Linda, and for good reason: This is the relationship on which the porn film industry was built. Another movie might have launched what would quickly become a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, but it couldn't have been just any movie, or with any actors. It was Lovelace's deep-throating, after all, that made the film a spectacle popular enough to drag porn out of its furtive, underground hole, and it was Traynor who introduced Lovelace to porn in the first place. If to understand the industry we have to first acknowledge its beginning, then here we have it in all its shameful, tainted glory. Phone sex pioneer Leonard may never have seen coercion in the industry, but at the very start, it made room for violence, pimping and downright slavery.

Which reminds me of something else Leonard says in the book, this time directly about Lovelace: "It was her own poor, shitty choice of a companion that got her beat up. Nobody in the porn business -- that had anything to do with the film -- laid a hand on her, other than in a loving way." As anyone who has been abused can attest, you never know that you've made a shitty choice until it's done, and you can't undo it without help. Although what Leonard says may be technically true, it is also callous and wrongheaded, and exactly the kind of mentality that allows violence against women to thrive.

One could argue, and rightly, that in 1972 domestic violence wasn't a commonly understood phenomenon. But Leonard's quote comes from one of the book's original interviews, all of which were done in the past seven years, so it goes to show how deeply entrenched that view of Lovelace has remained. Nor does it change the fact that the Lovelace-Traynor relationship set a precedent for disturbingly relaxed attitudes within the industry toward coercion and violence.

But if those defending the practices within porn were often wrong, so were those fighting the industry. The FBI, more interested in getting to the organized-crime ring behind porn distribution, ignored Traynor, vilified the actors and unwittingly caused everyone in porn to hew together much more closely than they might have otherwise. (There is a long, absorbing narrative thread concerning MIPORN, the FBI's most spectacular failure to infiltrate and bust the distribution ring in the '70s, that in itself is worth the price of the book.) Everyone who talks of the media coverage of porn stars does so bitterly; the women who don't feel victimized find themselves portrayed as victims anyway, whether it's on "Phil Donahue" or in the New Yorker. (Several female porn actors rant about time spent telling their stories to reporters, only to find themselves cut out of the article in favor of more troubled, unstable characters.) And Women Against Pornography -- which insisted that pornography was inherently degrading to women -- struck those within the industry, as Hartley said, as infantilizing those they claimed to help. They didn't exactly stand up for women who wanted to be in porn, either. As antiporn activist Catherine MacKinnon put the group's position, "If pornography is part of your sexuality, then you have no right to your sexuality."

Destined to be either villains or victims to anyone outside their industry, what choice did any of the actors have but to trump up the good in their profession while glossing over the bad? Over and over again through the book, the actors who defend their profession acknowledge that their position in the world is so fragile that if they denounced one aspect of the industry the entire house of cards would fall. Veronica Vera, who testified for the Meese Commission in defense of porn, admits, "I didn't want to be seen as representing some of the very misogynistic sleazy stuff. But I felt it was more important to stand up for free speech than to worry about being seen as defending stuff that I find distasteful."

Is it any wonder, then, that porn stars like Leonard have been so quick to insist that the porn industry had no role in Lovelace's predicament? Like Vera, or anyone else confronted with the need to defend her profession, Leonard didn't have the luxury of nuance. In the context of the crusade to end porn and with the knowledge that any admittance of abuse would be used to characterize the entire industry, her comments make sense -- reprehensible, but nonetheless understandable. And as for the fact that Leonard's quote comes from a far more aware time than the '70s, again one suspects that the porn industry hasn't quite lost its fragility.

"The Other Hollywood" covers more than just these events; it goes on to take in the far more positive story of the making of "Behind the Green Door"; John Holmes' fraught career and involvement in the Wonderland shootings in the early '80s; the rise of stars like Ginger Lynn in the age of video; the formation of Club 90, a support group for women in the industry; John Wayne Bobbit's famous castration and subsequent turn in porn; even the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee video, which marked the beginning of the time when the Internet could make anyone an unwitting porn star (a phenomenon worth a book in itself). But it all comes back to the legacy of "Deep Throat" and Lovelace and Traynor's relationship, and the treatment of women in the industry. Had anyone within the industry or without taken a stand against abuse, perhaps we wouldn't have seen an echo of Traynor in Holmes, who literally sold his girlfriend into sexual slavery for drugs in the '80s. Or perhaps we wouldn't have had any of the countless abuses, large and small, that characterized too much of the interaction between men and women in the industry.

But if the porn industry had been shut down, we also wouldn't have had the wonderfully sex-positive stars like Hartley, Seka and Sprinkle, all of whom found a form of expression that provided more than just a job, and a fulfilling life. Sprinkle gets the best story in the book, one that offers as close to a spiritually perfect understanding of the porn industry as there can be. Born Ellen Steinberg, Sprinkle heard her stage name as a "whisper, clear as a bell, in my ear." Years later, her uncle sent her a picture of a tombstone of an Annie M. Sprinkle, who died in 1881 and was, as Sprinkle found out, unmarried. "It's likely that she died a virgin with unexpressed passion and desire," says Sprinkle. "I believe that it was her spirit that whispered her name in my ear and that she now lives vicariously through me."

What becomes obvious throughout the book is that just as some women are degraded by their experience in porn, others are empowered. Some are both. And some, maybe the majority, fall into an ambiguous middle zone, neither elevated nor debased by their experience.

Steen, the young actress who was raped on her first film, eventually got out of porn and was asked to join Women Against Pornography. Although we are now thankfully long past the MacKinnon-Andrea Dworkin phase of feminism -- though not past the ideas they espoused -- it's still worth hearing why Steen declined to join them, because it so perfectly sums up the profound ambivalence this book inspires:

"Until people can have really honest, fulfilling relationships with each other, this is the way it's going to be. Pornography has always been there, and it always will. Until we're so evolved that we don't need to pay for it, or don't miss it, we're going to suffer from not having it.

"I am not against pornography at all. I'm for it. I'm against people being used -- and you can use people on either side of it."

Priya Jain

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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