Study: Porn stars aren't "damaged"

A report finds adult actresses are happier than the rest of us -- and that being naked might lead to self-esteem

Published November 28, 2012 12:00AM (EST)


A common stereotype of a female porn star is an insecure, sexually abused, mentally ill and/or drug-addled woman. It's one supported by anecdotes (most memorably by Linda Lovelace's harrowing autobiography) and rhetoric (the feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon went so far as to claim that all porn actresses were sexually abused as children). But as for actual research? Eh, not so much.

Now, a new study claims to have debunked this truism, which is known as the "damaged goods hypothesis."

Some performers were amused by the news. "As a happy, healthy female porn performer, my reaction is: thanks, science, thanks so much for proving I am real," says writer and porn performer Lorelei Lee in an email.

On a similar note, porn actress Dylan Ryan tells me, "It's about time that research catches up to the realities for a great many women who perform in porn," she says in an email. "It's important to me as a performer that the conversation evolve and develop to make space for the (as in any community and population) diversity of experiences, personalities and lifestyles of porn performers."

Adult actress and director Kimberly Kane took a different tack. "I've found that everyone is damaged no matter what line of work they're in," she says.

Researchers compared self-reports from a group of nearly 200 porn actresses to those of women outside the industry who were similar in age, ethnicity and marital status. Not only did the report show no higher incidence of child sexual abuse or psychological problems among female performers, but it actually found that pornsters had higher levels of self-esteem and sexual satisfaction.

It's true, however, that porn actresses are more likely to have ever tried a range of drugs, including ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, according to the study. But as for recent drug use, performers were more frequent users only when it came to that devastating drug known as ... marijuana.

Also of note in the study's findings: Female performers were more likely to identify as bisexual, had sex at earlier ages, had more sexual partners and were more likely to be worried about STDs (although, due to mandated industry testing, they are perhaps more likely to know their status than the general populace).

The study, authored in part by Sharon Mitchell, a former porn performer and founder of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, engages in plenty of speculation about what might account for these various differences -- for example, in explaining the higher incidence of bisexuality, researchers suggest that "the adult entertainment industry acts as a facilitator of sexual fluidity by providing a supportive culture of same-gender sexual interactions and offers financial rewards for engaging in those behaviors."

But the most fascinating hypothesis -- and let's remember, it's just that -- is that "being able to be completely naked in front of others" may be associated with higher self-esteem. (The paper cites another study finding that topless women at a beach reported higher self-esteem than those covered up.)

"I think that the misconception of porn performers as 'damaged goods' stems from a misconception that only women who have little respect for their body would take place in sexual acts in front of the camera," says Madison Young, a porn actress, artist and self-described "sexual revolutionary." "However, women who love their bodies, who are confident in themselves, many who have degrees and other careers, choose to be a part of the authentic documentation of pleasure." They aren't the only ones who choose to participate, of course, but that range does exists. "Pornography and the exploration of sexuality on film is a large and diverse realm and those that perform and work in the world of pornography are diverse as well," she says.

And understanding that diversity means continuing to study it.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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