I never met Stephen Hill, but I knew men like him. Following the story of his sordid death as it unfolded earlier this week, one scene kept replaying in my mind.
It's a week after Valentine's Day, 2001, and I'm standing on a soundstage in North Hollywood. From the outside, it's one more stucco building on a suburban street in the San Fernando Valley. Inside, some 90 men have congregated to masturbate on a young woman for the making of an adult movie called "American Bukkake 13."
Sabrina Jade, who has long, reddish brown hair and emerald green, catlike eyes, is seated on a towel in the middle of the floor. A plastic cone has been duct-taped around her neck like a funnel, or an Edwardian collar. Jim Powers, the director, came up with the idea when he saw a dog wearing a similar apparatus around its neck after a visit to the vet.
I am here as a journalist, but what I am most interested in is the men. They are Caucasian, African-American and Asian; upper-middle class, barely scraping by and fresh out of jail; their faces hidden behind bandannas, baseball caps and sunglasses. Tonight, they have come from points across the greater Los Angeles area and stripped down to their underpants. For what they are about to do, they will be paid $35 -- but only if they deliver a money shot.
A tall, skinny man with a biker mustache leans against a wall. He looks as if he may have done time in the state prison system. He's wearing a white baseball hat turned backward, tinted rectangular shades, and a pair of fraying boxers. The acronym "SFV" is tattooed on his body in several places, indicating a possible affiliation with a local skinhead group. In a tattoo that covers most of his upper chest, a man brandishes a gun near a half-naked woman. Above, the blue ink cursive letters read: "Don't let nobody get you down."
If porn is a joke -- and, particularly these days, it most assuredly is -- male porn stars are its punch line. Reams of text have been written about how porn supposedly victimizes the women who work in this branch of the sex trade, but inside the straight porn industry, it's the female performers who have the greater power, higher status and bigger paycheck. (The gay porn industry is a different beast altogether and to compare the two is to compare apples and oranges.) So-called woodsmen are paid significantly less than their female counterparts, for their efforts are treated like props on the movie sets where they perform near Herculean sex acts of which most men can only dream ("Get it up, get it on, get it off" is the woodsman's mantra), and more often than not end up as decapitated, frantically thrusting tubes of meat in this industry's final product. Due to the hardcore nature of the porn business and the toll it takes upon all its workers, the porn industry functions as a meat grinder for the human condition, and men are its offal. They may score bragging rights as professional cocksmen, but the reality is these are the working stiffs of a business that has virtually no interest in the men it employs and all the interest in the world in the women with whom its movies are forever preoccupied.
The eccentric details of Hill's demise have been well-documented by now: Late last Tuesday evening, sometimes-porn star Stephen Clancy Hill, 34, who performed under the stage name Steve Driver, killed Herbert Hin Wong, 30, a fellow sometimes-porn star, who performed under the stage name Tom Dong, with a samurai sword. Two others were injured in the attack. Reportedly, the incident took place after Hill was fired and evicted from where he had been living on a porn movie set at Ultima DVD, an adult film production company in Van Nuys that specializes in fetish movies, including those in which women abuse men.
As it turned out, Hill had a history of violence. In 1998, he was convicted of threatening a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland, where he was an economics student. After missing a test, Hill requested a meeting with the teaching assistant, Alvaro Alvarez-Parrilla. During that meeting, Hill claimed that he was a "mobster," revealed a firearm in a shoulder holster, and informed Alvarez-Parrilla that if he did not give Hill an A on the test, he would dismember the T.A. and make him "disappear."
After the incident at Ultima, Hill fled the scene and didn't resurface again until Saturday morning, when he showed up in West Hills, perched on the edge of a steep cliff overlooking the Valley, threatening to kill himself with the same sword used in the attack. For eight hours, LAPD officers and crisis negotiators attempted to talk Hill down, to no avail. In a video of the incident, and with dusk nearing, Hill appears to have been tasered, and SWAT team members seek to subdue him with an unidentified "less-than-lethal weapon." Hill, in a seated position, slides toward the edge of the drop, and, either intentionally or inadvertently, slips over the edge, falling to his death some 50 feet below.
In all likelihood, Hill had reached the end of his rope. Possibly broke, probably homeless, and burdened by a violent history, he may have perceived himself as having nowhere to go but continuing on his long spiral downward. "He was bent on taking his own life," Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese, who oversaw the operation, told the L.A. Times. Had Hill surrendered or survived, he would have been charged with one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder in connection with last Tuesday's attack.
Like I said, I knew guys like Hill. They were porn's lost boys: men who were deeply insecure about their identities, men who had decided that if they appeared in the adult movies that had captured their imaginations in their younger years, they could live out their X-rated versions of the American dream, men who believed that if they could prove for all the world to see that they were studs, they were men.
In reality, Hill was nothing more than a minor player on the periphery of what remains of what was once the big business of porn. In porn industry parlance, he was a "mope," a low-ranking male performer who is brought in to deliver a money shot in movies where multiple male performers are needed (for example, a gangbang or bukkake-themed video). Mopes are either too unattractive, too out of shape, too sexually inept, or two "weird" to carry a sex scene on their own, like a real woodsman. Hill's brief résumé included roles in "Tea Baggin' Party," a porn spoof of the Tea Party protests, "Palin: Erection 2008," in which he portrayed President Obama, and "Cum Fart Tsunami 2," an anal felching video. On occasion, he had appeared alongside Wong -- the two have been described as the "Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker of porn" -- in videos with titles like "Cuckold Abuse and Femdom Humiliation," wherein mopes serve as punching bags for oversexed, sexually dominant women who abuse, degrade and humiliate men.
Last year, I went to the Valley to find out firsthand how the recession had impacted the adult movie business. The desperation was palpable. Profits were down 30, 40 and 50 percent, and no one had any idea what to do about it. The bigger adult production companies were shooting far less frequently, porn starlets were making half what they had made per scene a few years prior, and the low men on the totem pool, the woodsmen, were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
When I first began writing about the adult movie industry in the late '90s, porn was king. The Internet was funneling adult content into every home in America, and pornographers could hardly keep up with the demand. A decade later, the bottom had dropped out of the smut business. Online content pirating, a smattering of obscenity prosecutions, and the global economic crisis had delivered a one-two-three punch to the porno industry from which it is unlikely to recover. Hill's story is that of one more mentally unstable man knocked even further off-balance by the recession, who, facing unemployment, went on a deadly rampage. Nowadays, it's a porn star-turned-ninja who symbolizes the dashed hopes of Americans on the skids.
On a warm spring day last April, in a sprawling hilltop mansion in Woodland Hills, I watched as a series of young women had sex with a hot pink dildo attached to a metal prong powered by what could only be described as a sex machine. It appeared the woodsman had been eliminated altogether.
"We got rid of the male talent!" crowed Powers, the director of "Fuck Machines 5," when I asked him about this turn of events. Powers listed the pros of his new mechanical woodsman on one hand. "They don't complain as much. They're always hard. You don't have to feed them." The only problem, he said, was, "They've always got bolts coming off." Then he shrugged and went back to work.
In "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," author Susan Faludi notes a male porn star named T.T. Boy is known in the business as "a life-support system for a penis." The observation is as true of many woodsmen and how they perceive themselves as it is a little bit cruel. Surely, Hill had hoped to become something more than a life support system for a penis. In death, he won the public's attention and a Wikipedia page. You could say he finally got the fame and recognition that he had sought in life, in his own strange way.
Over the years, I have found that all porn stars have one thing in common: an overwhelming, desperate desire to be loved. Many of the men who work in the porn business are neither fools nor thugs. They love women and crave social acceptance to such a profound degree that they are willing to go to any lengths -- even subjugating themselves to the unknowable, undeniable demands of their own penises -- to, for one fleeting moment, feel that, in some way, they mattered to someone.
In the end, it seems, it was Hill who mattered to no one.
Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist, photographer and blogger.