Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Labor Organizing in the Sex Industry - Hopes and Realities

Lisa has been raising some excellent points here recently concerning the need for formal organization among porn workers and sex workers in general, who she rightly sees as having more in common with one another than they do with anyone else, despite some individual differences.

I commend her for her passion and courage in pursuing this goal and think it has important possibilities that need to be explored and considered by all of us. I also think there are some significant differences between making porn and other kinds of sex work that pose particular challenges to the organizing process. 

There have been several previous attempts to unionize performers and all have failed so far, beginning with the ugly rebuff Nina and others got from SAG when they first tried to join that existing union twenty years ago. 

If that effort had been successful, how different things might have been for all of us. Alas, we'll never know. What we do know is that subsequent attempts at union organizing from within, most recently Mr. Marcus's efforts to assemble a performers' association just a couple of years back, have unraveled in the early phases.

Back in the day, when a handful of producers controlled the small number of active production companies, and thus the employment prospects of every player, it was downright risky to even whisper about the possibility of unionization of the talent pool. Even as cautious an approach as The Pink Lady's Social Club which  Nina, Porsche Lynn, Hyapatia Lee and a few other top names tried to form as a regular discussion group, met with direct threats from major company owners of collective black-balling. This kind of heavy-handed union-busting wouldn't have been tolerated in any other industry, but given porn's just-legalized status at the time, and the particularly shaky ground it occupied in L.A. county prior to the Freeman decision, there wasn't much of anyplace to turn for support from the outside. And that's all the sadder for the fact that the much smaller industry of that time, with far fewer workers concentrated in a much tighter geographical area, would have been far easier to assemble in one hall than the sprawling, disparate community we have now.

In a rabidly competitive atmosphere of hundreds of video companies and thousands of Web sites spread out all over every place and legions of short-time players coming and going in a matter of weeks, months or a couple of years at most, the bad bosses of old have pretty much gone extinct (good riddance IMV) and no producer has the power to prevent other producers from hiring anybody they want. A popular player who is good in front of the camera can always find work, regardless of who does or does not like him or her. 

That's all good as far as I can see. Having been a part of this industry's first, abortive try at creating some kind of collective response to the threat of HIV, I was on the receiving end of some incredibly ugly and vicious tactics at the hands of various underlings whose employers saw what we were doing as a nose under the tent for unionization. I even got a phone call from a "friend" who had been talking to some other "friends" of his who worked for "a certain kind of company" and just wanted to pass along a "friendly" warning that such talk could be bad for my health. I suggested he pass back to his other "friends" an equally "friendly" warning from me that I was pretty good with a .45 and not too shy about using it if some mooks with baseball bats decided to meet me in a studio parking lot after a late-night shoot sometime, as my "friend" implied might happen. When old-timers wax nostalgic about those times, that's what I remember, so good-bye to all that and happily so.

However, now we face a different set of difficulties. The very thing that has reduced the power of major producers has also diffused the potential power of organized labor in porn. A large, transient workforce with no long-term stake in the well-being of a business in which they know they won't be present long presents a daunting organizing challenge. Unlike strippers, who tend to work for long periods at particular clubs, or escorts who may move from agency to agency but remain in the seem locale, porn performers come into this business very young and don't stay here for more than a couple of years in most cases. They don't see themselves as having a common concern with the the welfare of others like themselves, who they tend to view as competitors for the same gigs rather than brothers and sisters in the same situation. 

The root problem is that most performers see themselves as small business operators rather than workers. This isn't just a fiction cooked up by company lawyers to avoid the burdensome regulations that apply to regular employment. Performers really are independent contractors. They may work for more than one company in a single day,  five in a week, twenty in a month, a hundred in a year. If they run into something they don' t like on a particular set, they just walk off the job and tell their agents not to book them for that specific company again. To the extent that people in this age and educational demographic have any politics at all, they tend to be libertarian in the extreme. They just want to be left alone to make their money and have their fun and, when they figure out how, move on to some other line of work before the phone stops ringing. This is hardly comfortable terrain for aspiring labor organizers. The question such organizers face, as they would from any group of workers, is "what can you really do for us that we can't do for ourselves?" In many industries, the answers are fairly obvious, because there are common conditions that those who possess particular skill sets work under in an atmosphere of limited employment opportunities. Solidarity is more easily built where there is a sense of common disadvantages around which to organize.

In porn, every company has different policies. Every shoot has different pluses and minuses. Every day presents a new set of ups and downs. And by the time you've been around long enough to see any connection among these things, you're probably almost done here. 

Moreover, the economics of legal porn are hugely different from those of other forms of sex work. For one thing, as I've discussed earlier, porn performers face no significant threat of prosecution persuant to making their livings. They work, get paid and go home without worrying about the cops. And the money itself is pretty good and pretty steady for as long as it holds out, which in a young sex worker's mind equals prosperity and independence. The notion of sticking around to set down roots, buy houses, raise families and someday retire on a pension is as fanciful to porn performers as it has traditionally been to hard-rock miners, another group that has never been successfully unionized. Unlike shift-working coal miners who inherit a dangerous family trade from which they see no ultimate escape, metals miners, from way back to the gold rush era, have tended to see themselves as prospectors who would one day strike it rich and never swing a pick again. 

Porn players almost all have long-range ambitions outside of what they're doing now. Many aspire to become directors and/or producers themselves, as quite a few have, ranging from John Stagliano to Jenna Jameson. On many key issues, such as regulation of working conditions, performers may well identify with their employers' values as much as with those of other workers. 

Then there's the flake factor. We're dealing with a very youthful workforce that often doesn't show up on sets where they have checks waiting, much less for the tedious, time-consuming tasks inherent in starting any kind of effective labor organization. That requires a long attention-span and a view over the horizon. It's harder and less satisfying, at least in the early phases, than simply partying away the ugly memories of a bad day on the job. After all, tomorrow's job may be a lot more fun, whether or not the performer does anything to make it better or worse individually or collectively.

Okay, so that's the strategic map upon which an unionization battles would be fought. It's not encouraging to contemplate, but neither is it insurmountable. The SEIU faced some very similar problems, greatly aggravated by the fact that much of its potential membership was in this country illegally and didn't speak English. They too were transient, unmoored from specific trades and invisible on the radar of mainstream media and politics, except as punching-bags for demagogues of the sort who bedevil porn workers. And yet the SEIU is now one of the most visible and influential unions in the country. Woe betide the politician or employer of whatever rank who crosses it.

Entertainment industry unions of other sorts have overcome similar hurdles. Writers, actors and directors in film and television are also competitive with one another, work mostly independently, seldom have regular employment from ongoing sources and experience great class disparity in their own ranks. At any given time, for example, the WGA has about 90% of its membership out of work, while the other ten percent is often extremely well compensated and may also have one foot over the fence into management. Yet we just saw the WGA stare down the producers over new media residuals in time for Oscar night.  Directors, actors and crews have managed to unionize successfully, while musicians, for example, have not, mainly I suspect for the same reasons porn performers haven't. They don't understand the long-term need.

Perhaps the model in the film industry, which is more trade guild than classic trade union, would hold some promise in our branch of the ent biz. Frankly, if this were going to be my cause, which it can't be for many reasons at this late date, I'd start with the crews. They are fewer in number, their terms and conditions of employment more homogenous, their stays in the industry much longer and, given how few of them have the technical skills needed to maintain a steady flow of new production, potentially more powerful than performers. They may not see what they do as sex work, which it only tangentially is, but they do see it as labor and the conditions under which it's practiced - long days, unreliable and inconsistent compensation, dangerous and unhealthful working environments, no benefits of any kind, short or long term - only inspire griping at present, but could eventually rile them to the point of making something of it.

Consider this, from a producer's point of view (and yes, I am a producer, which is one reason why the traditional union model excludes any direct assistance from me), crews are far more intimidating than performers. If a performer fails to show or decides to quit, I can just call an agency and have a replacement on the set in an hour. If my camera operator quits, I'm fucked. There are maybe a dozen guys in the whole business who could shoot what I need shot, and ten of them are probably already working for one of my competitors that day. So much for that shoot.

One thing I do not see, sadly, is performers as a group making common cause with other sex workers, whether strippers, escorts, massage parlor workers or street walkers. There is a cultural problem inherent in this climate that makes that an unlikely outcome. As I've explained before, most porn performers don't want to be seen as sex workers but rather as entertainers (while I think a good case can be made that other kinds of sex workers are also entertainers, with smaller audiences to be sure, but nevertheless, and might do better by viewing themselves as such). They fear for their legal status if they cast their lot with those who work even closer to the edge of prohibition, and for those performers who also provide in their off hours, the risks involved are real. 

And even for those who don't, the psychological barriers to accepting that what they do is sex work, whatever its called, are hard to overcome. It's one thing to play a whore on TV, quite another to face one in the mirror each morning. That takes a degree of self-actualizing fortitude that may be very hard to come by in this environment. Identifying with the oppression and the struggle of less privileged sex workers is not a pleasant thing to contemplate for someone who prefers to see him or herself as a "star." 

This is a wedge that APFs effectively drive between us all the time. They love to go on and on about how a lucky few of us get all the rewards while vast numbers of "enslaved, brutalized, prostituted women" suffer all the miseries into which our visible good fortune has seduced them.  

Somehow, we need to take that wedge out of the hands of those who want to see sex work abolished and those who profit by keeping it divided and powerless. Between them, our common enemies make a formidable opposition to be conquered, and before we can take them on, we have to rise above our own misgivings from within. 

This is going to take some doing, but I believe it is doable in some form.


  1. I think a huge problem there is the demonization of sex AS entertainment. No shame in being whore if you don't see anything to be ashamed about, right? And our opponants, on all sides, COUNT on that shame. Now, admittedly, I am a hard ass....if you are fucking for money, you are fucking for money, be it on a legal porn set, or illegally, or in a strip club or bachelor party with a dildo. YES, entertainment is involved, but so is sex, and sex can be very, very entertaining...and frankly, it is a hell of a lot more honest than the half-baked psuedo sexualized BS pumped out on prime time or in Hollywood sexual thrillers.

    But I can see it from the other side too, and not even on the whore front, but on the victim front. I sure as hell don't like being slapped with all the assumptions and stereotypes that are conjured in the minds of people when they hear the term "sex worker", I can see why people want to distance themselves from all that bullshit. To me, the assumption that I'm an unintelligent, drug addicted punching bag party girl with no agency or will is far more insulting than "Whore".

  2. Ernest, this is a *wonderful* post! You shouldl really consider cross-posting it at the Sex in the Public Square forum on sex work, trafficking, and human rights.

  3. Ummm, I have a big fat headache.
    First, good morning Ren. I have been reading your contributions on Sex In the Public Square. Great work. You too, Anthony.

    Ernest, you are too tough a contender for me but I like to fight, even if I know I am going to lose.

    "Moreover, the economics of legal porn are hugely different from those of other forms of sex work. For one thing, as I've discussed earlier, porn performers face no significant threat of prosecution persuant to making their livings. They work, get paid and go home without worrying about the cops."

    Uh, I know you did not mean you all are willing to wait until the cops come knocking on or down your door. I hate to be the one hanging out in the negativity here but I believe you are all in grave danger of "change in management."
    Here is our common organizing ground and I believe we are in agreement that solidarity among all sex industry workers is needed to fight common enemies-acknowledging the difficulties and complexities you have gone in great depth and history to describe. I am recommending that we need allies, workers from other industries, Ernest. Our common issue, is a workers' rights issue. It kills me to suggest this but let us put aside that all workers have the right to organize for better wages and hours and focus only on all workers have the right to organize for better working conditions. In our industry for both on camera and off camera workers, this would include the right of our workers to work for whome they chose and where they chose and without the threat of arrest or harrassment.
    I wish I was a better writer and could simply type every thing in my brain down. I am a much better talker but I am going to continue to hack away here. Maybe I can move on to an example and it will be a better vehicle of communication of why we need to organize as sex industry workers and why it is crucial in our struggle to join organized labor.
    The TVPRA 2007/11 passed the house last November and is awaiting the Senate at this very moment. The TVPRA that conflates all sex work with sex trafficking and we all agree that the past TVPRA legislation has already had a devasting impact on sex workers so far and clearly we can predict our future opression etc. etc. We also know the forces and real intent behind the legislation. Now how to fight back.
    In my opinion if we seperate sex industry workers from other workers in this struggle, we ain't going to win the battle. The forces working against us our too powerful to take them on without solidarity and support from other industry workers and organizers. So here we need to do two things. We need sex industry workers to continue the demand of recognition from other workers that sex indusrty workers are workers and deserve the same rights as other workers do. Second, we need to join the worker struggle, already in progress. That is how we will win.
    Ernest, I hear you, I respect you and I am learning a great deal from you. I am also trying very hard to keep up with you. But I have to say, so far you have not persuaded me to lay down my weapons.

    In Solidarity,

  4. I read over my poor attempt to address Ernest and I just did not hit it.
    My brain is not on this morning and not to suggest that I could take on Ernest on a good day but let me at least take another swing.

    Nothin makes the anti-porn/anti-prostitution fundammentalist fems foam at the mouth faster than the talk of sex worker union organizing. They say that would give us legitimacy.
    No fooling.

  5. To address the issue of "industrial" organizing and the sex industry. The problems and difficulties you went into great depth to describe are no different than other industries where a group of workers with more skill or privledge have been resistant to organize or saw no benift for them to organize with workers who had less.
    We have identified some of our common issues or interests but really we can't possibly know at this point what all of our common issues and interests are because we have not had a real oppurtunity to come together as sex industry workers and identify them.

  6. Alright, your comments are melding with me and I am begining to achieve some comprehension of what exactly you were getting at. You are clearly intellectual, very well educated and you have my respect. Please be patient and help me get to where are.

    I think we have already established that solidarity is important to defeat common enemies and the complexities and history of the relationship between criminalized and legal workers, you have clearly established.

    "They don't see themselves as having a common concern with the the welfare of others like themselves, who they tend to view as competitors for the same gigs rather than brothers and sisters in the same situation."
    With a heavy heart I report that co-operation is losing in the prostitution business as well. I do not believe this is an example of the older I get, the more righteous we were. Clearly, the trend is workers of all industries no longer looking toward eachother but working against one another. I can give you the long list of examples from the time I entered the business until my retirement but I don't think I need to, you and I are on the same page here, that what we are talking about here is not a disease of sex industry workers but a symptom of the system itself.

    I have got to get back to my studies, in the hopes that I am on the right path to the liberation. In the time being, I am going to "act as if" I know what I am doing and maybe or maybe not it might make a difference.

  7. Dear all

    I am very pleased to inform you that Lord Hunt of Kings Heath announced this
    afternoon that the Government had decided to withdraw the three clauses in the
    Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill relating to prostitution. This is a
    significant victory, and gives us all the opportunity to prepare for the
    introduction of a new bill in the next session of Parliament which I hope all
    of us will find more acceptable than the ill-considered proposals in this one.
    Thanks to all of you for your helpful briefing and skilful lobbying. I am
    sending this message to everyone who has taken the trouble to write to me.

    Best regards
    Richard Faulkner.
    Lord Faulkner of Worcester
    House of Lords
    London SW1A 0PW
    Tel: +44 207 219 8503
    Fax:+44 207 219 1460
    Mobile +44 7785 261785

  8. To add my nickel's worth to this debate (and I'm sure that Ernest has heard this before, since we've hashed this out many times over at Nina's forum):

    Lisa, I'm more with Ernest on his points on the difficulties that come with attempts to use a traditional labor-organizing model for bringing together sex performers (porn actresses/actors; strippers; adult models; adult web performers, and the like) and more traditional sex workers (prostitutes, on-call escorts, streetwalkers) in traditional union or guild/craft organizations. There are simply too many diverse factors and conflicts of economics, region, culture, and (to a lesser extent) race to overcome. Plus, the extremely decentralized nature of modern sex work and sex media (since almost anyone with a webcam, access to the Internet, and knowledge of good HTML/PHP code can now call him/herself a "porn starlet" these days) also tends to work against the kind of traditional labor organization. Even when such efforts are successful (as in the unionizaton and ultimate worker takeover of the highly publicized Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco), it is all too easy for such seemingly promising prospects to go sour on the first sign of controversy (such as the LL's recent skirmish between the owners and the workers there over the style and content they would sell to their public).

    Also, because there is such a glut of "talent" (i.e., willing and able women wanting to be in porn and make money in the industry, in direct contradiction to all the fables about "sexual slavery" and "trafficking" passed on by the APRF's), it is much easier for the few agencies remaining to play talent against each other. The marketing niches established by particular labels ("Vivid girls vs. Wicked girls vs. "" et. al.) also tends to work against the type of worker solidarity that is traditionally needed for effective unionization; loyalty to a company's brand name (especially if that company does offer some degree of social benefits to its workers) can do a lot to undermine mass consciousness.

    Personally, what I think would work better in organizing sex workers and sexual entertainers/performers alike is a combination of activism based on fighting for enforcement of laws designed for maximum protection from abuse (whether from client, employer, or the state), combined with a shared attitudinal approach that emphasizes the legitiimacy of sex work and sexuality to its full extent. A huge part of that is the basic philosophy that sex is something positive, that we don't know enough about sexuality yet to start proscribing and regulating consenting adult behavior; and that sexual pleasure freely sought and given mutually with all respect given is the ultimate goal and a positive to be endorsed rather than repressed. Maybe part of the real problem isn't the fact that we don't treat sex work as work, but the fact that we don't treat sex work know, SEX work. With the emphasis on the SEX.

    I mean that as much for those who consume sex as for those who produce it; unless you have a basic philosophy that allows for sex positivity, that is open to the belief that sex is a healthy and wonderful thing when done consensually and when shared mutually, and which acknowledges the right of everyone to seek and pursue and define themselves as sexual beings without ragging on other people's choices which may differ from their own; then chances are not even the most "solidized" (nice word, 'Dog) sex worker organization will simply fall flat at the first sign of criticism from the APRF's about "sexual elitism".

    It's also the main reason why there has to be a progressive/liberal/Left political reflection that accepts the beliefs and practices of "sex-positive feminism" and refuses to cede one inch of ground to the likes of Nikki Craft or Gail Dines or Bob Jensen, who always claim the mantle of Left opposition and paint the sex-positives as "libertarians" who place their "privileges" and personal pleasures above those of the poorer, darker, and less economically abled.

    There's a lot more I could say about this....and as soon as I can gather my thoughts together and scrounge up some old essays from the old Feminist Sex Wars of the 80's and 90's, I will develop this further.

    Perhaps, it's time I finally put that forum idea I once had to good use??


  9. Lisa suggested I post this update on the UK situation here (see also Lord Faulkner's email) since it does have something to do with organising:

    The House of Lords has been debating the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. This is a government Bill that proposed amongst other measures to replace the words 'common prostitute' with 'every person', create a new offence of persistent loitering, and provide for mandatory 'rehabilitation', with a penalty of 72 hours detention.

    When this was sent to committee, a number of private member's amendments were tabled.

    1. To remove all provisions except the 'common prostitute' one.
    2. To insert a new clause exempting two women with or without a maid from the
    definition of Brothel.

    A third amendment then appeared (not surprisingly) which would criminalise the purchase of sex, as in Sweden. This was staunchly opposed.

    In the mean time, in response to pressure from extremists, the Government undertook to pursue yet another review of prostitution. Expert opinion is that
    this is fairly low level. A few ministers went to Sweden and the Netherlands to see for themselves these two contrasting approaches. So far they have only
    commented about the Swedish visit, and those views were met with generally hostile public opinion.

    Symbolically there is little political capital for the Government in all this. If the Lords had succeeded in defeating these relatively small legislative measures,
    the Government realised it had no hope of passing more controversial measures (eg criminalising sale and purchase).

    Public opinion is not supportive of more restrictive legislation and more recently the media are asking more critical questions and casting doubts on the claims on trafficking. A major campaign to raid all indoor premises (usually with all the press in tow) and 'rescue' sex slaves has turned up virtually nothing, and been a human rights disaster. As has been pointed out by several researchers, this obsession with slavery has meant the authorities are ignoring the fact that there are many sex workers, particularly migrants working under very poor conditions, and being exploited because they are vulnerable.

    Suddenly the Government caved in today and withdrew all the measures relating to prostitution in the Bill. I believe they sensed they were going to be defeated
    over this. British sex workers and their allies have been gathering support from around the world, and here in Canada we presented lengthy submissions on the legislation.

    This has been an amazing experience bringing people together from many walks of life. The disabled put on a particularly poignant demonstration for their porn and sex.


  10. Michael:

    That is wonderful news, especially given that Great Britain has a pretty strong antiporn feminist lobby whom I guess was pushing strongly for those restrictions.

    I wonder if we can borrow some of that karma for our battles here in the States??? :-)


  11. I'm on the job again tonight, so just a little something for everyone.

    Ren, right as rain as usual. During the year way back when I volunteered at COYOTE, we were careful to use all different nomenclatures for those we represented without prejudice. Margot's first group had been called WHO - Whores, Housewives and Others."

    The point is that whatever you're called, the intention behind it is more important than the word. If the term "sex worker" becomes contaminated with the notion of someone who suffers a permanent plight, it's no better than older and more routine epithets and not as colorful.

    Which may account for why some women in porn don't mind being called "porn whores," or even use the term themselves, but would take umbrage at the idea of being thought sex workers, as if that means they need to be rescued from the general misery of sex work. It's really a matter of perception and the only perception that counts, ultimately, is that of the person to whom the term is applied.

    And thanks, Amber, for the suggestion. If I can get over there and figure out how to get it in, I will cross-post this topic. It does have broad applicability in terms of sex worker organization. I'm sorry it's kind of a downer to read, which brings me to Lisa, with a somewhat heavy heart.

    Lisa, believe me, I admire and respect what you're doing and only mean to help. I'm not suggesting that the situation is hopeless or that you shouldn't try. I'm just doing my bit by providing you with a quick recon of the labor situation in our part of the terrain. It never hurts to know what hasn't worked when trying to come up with something that will.

    And I do think you've hit on a bigger problem faced by all labor organizations in the current political atmosphere. Nearly thirty years of anti-labor, anti-government rhetoric and rule have convinced far too many young people that Hobbes was right and that the state of nature is the war of all against all. That might be, but we don't have to accept it as a governing philosophy, as so many seem to have.

    There's a very bright, very honorable guy who posts over on our site often who is a perfect example. The son of a tobacco farmer who put himself through college, he's now a successful systems analyst and, god help us, a self-identified Objectivist. He really does believe that there are no victims in life and that it's all about individual responsibility and anyone can do what he did, so why should he have to pay taxes to solve their problems?

    As I've tried to explain to him, there is no such thing as a self-made man and that, while taking nothing away from his own impressive accomplishments,he should share some credit with entitlement programs ranging from childhood vaccination to the community colleges that got him the education he touts as the key to everything, that gave him a shot in the first place. A large middle-class, which is essentially a prosperous working class, is essential to any popular democracy, and that means redistribution of wealth. They've finally accepted this in most of Europe, and for all the sneering about it from know-nothings over hear, that European nanny state approach has made for some remarkably peaceful and prosperous societies.

    I'm never going to get very far with the way this man sees the world, but he's highly rational and can't resist a well-supported argument, so he has come around on some specific issues, which may be the way we have to work against the tide of destructive privatism that has swept through much of the younger generation. If we can get them to see how the issues that directly impact them arise out of a larger context, there may be a hope of getting them to understand that survival is no substitute for living, which is a thing you share with others.

    Which is how we come the rare circumstance that finds Anthony and me in near total agreement. He knows the guy I'm talking about from over at as well and should get a good laugh out of this discussion.

    Anthony, you are so right about why traditional organizing tools may not work in the far-flung actual and virtual realms of commercial sex. It's too difficult and amorphous a group of workers to identify as a class in the traditional sense and to get to identify themselves in that way so as to convince them of a shared class interest.

    Instead, I agree we need to focus on the areas where their issues do overlap and get them to work together in those areas, even if they don't really see the immediate connections to other issues. The one issue that all sex workers face is oppression due to shame about the very thing from which they make their livings. If you think sex is shameful, you're going to think that anyone making a living off it is doubly shameful. That is the common thread of puritanism that runs through anti-sex-work prejudice on the right and on the left.

    No matter how hard the antis try to obscure this truth, the thing they have the worst problem with is that sex work is about sex as well as about work. Their attitudes about sex make it impossible for them to afford those whose work is related to it the dignity they might concede to almost any other form of labor.

    Until we get at that one, the rest is going to prove a steep, uphill battle. It still needs fighting, but it must be fought strategically as well as tactically.

    Personally, I'm concentrating on the strategic practice, as that's what I do best.

  12. Ernest:

    Simply break off an email to Elizabeth Wood at SITPS and she will get you in:

    elizabeth at sexinthepublicsquare dot org can reach this page:

    Sex In The Public Square: Sex Work, Trafficking, and Human Rights: A Forum


  13. Anthony and Ernest, I surrender. Thank you for taking the time. I get that the porn culture is very different than the culture I come from and I also hear the difficulties of porn industry organization, although I do not think that organizing prostitutes is not without it's million problems either. Still, I will continue, if for no other reason then to be part of and possibly have some influence in our industry issues with the fraction of radical labor that is still breathing and to keep batting away at politicizing our labor force.
    I promise you, that I am still down with sexual liberation. Oh, yeah. Being part of the a progressive political organization as well, I will keep wagging my mouth, when ever I get the chance but good news, we have some real support with my Comrades.
    I did not really understand your comments Ren about the use of the label sex work. Of course, I do share the abhorrence to being labeled as "victim." However, call me a "whore" or call me a "commie" and I will always take it as a compliment.
    You all are wonderful. I have nothing but love in my heart.
    P.S. Ernest and Anthony, communicating with that is what is going on at Nina's site. My partner Vic is a member. I try not to mess with his universe but maybe some day he will let me check it out.

  14. Objectivists view Greenspan as traitor to Capitalism...I know this is pro-porn web but this cracks me up and had to share with my two Brothers here, who I believe get the whole entire joke.

  15. Worth mentioning in this discusiion of sex worker organizing is that there is a trend emerging in organized labor to organize workers shut out of traditional labor model organizing. Immigrant workers, student workers and sex workers, even those in the industry considered "independent contractors."

  16. Lisa,

    Funny about Greenspan, but not surprising. The whole idea of the Fed rankles Objectivists because it regulates the money supply, and that is anathema to those who oppose all forms of economic regulation.

    As to your second point, amen. That's what I was saying about the SEIU. It is possible to organize unconventional workforces. To do so simply requires thinking outside the box to come up with the appropriate unconventional means.

    Everyone wants a better life. To succeed, organizers must articulate a believable version of that better life that's credible to the working populations they seek to organize.

    So far, that hasn't happened in the sex industry, but this doesn't mean it couldn't. It just hasn't been done in a way that works yet.

  17. Greenspan was in his youth, part of Ayn Rand's inner circle. I once was in love with an Objectivist, many years ago. Even met Dr. Piekoff. Looking back, I really was in love with his Mom. He was a red diaper baby.
    I am preparing myself mentally for Nightline. Vic and I will watch nightline, get angry and then turn on porn to feel some pleasure (Vic) and/or resistance (me).
    Anthony, I read your post on Sex In the Public Square this evening. If I had you in private we would have a big fat fight. It's all good.

  18. Well, Lisa....prepare to have an even bigger fight with me, because I just set the blowtorch to the gas station over there...or so it seems:

    I've reposted the whole debacle at the SmackChron:

    The SmackDog Chronicles: Why You Should Never Bring A Blowtorch To A Gas Station: S’Dog vs. Kerwynk @ SITPS Sex Work Debate

    Read, react, and fire (at me) at will.


  19. Anthony, too much to take on this morning. I got to finish a banner for International Sex Worker Rights Day, which is tomorrow. Tonights the night, Brother and I will be more than happy to fire at will even though I highly suspect it will only encourage you.

    But really, this is all banter among friends.

    Friday was the fourth anniversary of the U.S. sponsored Haitian coup.
    March 19th marks another anniversary, the war and occupation of Iraq.
    Bad news this morning from Columbia. Very bad news.

    Just looking out the window with you, Anthony.

  20. This is an awesome post.

    "A large, transient workforce with no long-term stake in the well-being of a business in which they know they won't be present long presents a daunting organizing challenge."

    This is true of waitressing, bartending, retail, so many jobs I can think of. The major difference is the "star" psychology you are talking about; no one in retail thinks we are gonna become stars. But interestingly, in the health supplements industry, some people have caught the Kevin Trudeau bug and want to formulate their own supplements (scratch the surface, and we all have ideas about what should go into the "ultimate supplement") and make infomercials and become (you guessed it!) stars of late night cable TV or gurus like Dr Oz and get on Oprah.

    It's a definite "syndrome" that keeps people from facing the truth about modern life, that they will not become stars, since so few people do (and not for long, in any event).

    The whole star thing is toxic, as Neal Cassady once said: the problem is too many people tryin to be famous.

    Again, awesome post, with much to think about.

  21. I think what would be far, far better than a traditional trade/labour union approach for the porn industry would be a mutualist/co-operative approach: producers and performers working together as collectives who split the profit from their work equally. Abolish the employer/employee relationship altogether.

    I think that would also change the nature of most porn into a much more unambiguously non-misogynist and sex-positive form.

    How about a mutualist "union" setting up workshops on film direction and production for porn performers, allowing them to work for themselves rather than for corporations?

  22. Kudos, Daisy, for saying the sooth about a subject most people avoid, which is the constant assault on self-esteem that comes from living in a society in which only rich people and celebs are considered successes worthy of emulation.

    I'm old enough to remember having historical figures held up as examples who might have become well-known in their own time for their accomplishments, but were important enough to rate a place in a textbook because of those accomplishments and not because they were big names back in the day.

    I don't know if that's still the way history is taught in school (knnda doubt it), but it's certainly not the way the lessons are taught in life, or at least the TV version of it.

    The bizarre notion that any kind of celebrity is better than mere happy, productive obscurity is unquestionably part of what drives not only the porn business but, as you suggest, just about every business these days, making for a lot of showboating and jealousy and not much competence or cooperation. Certainly a tough environment for labor organizing, but not impossible. As I said earlier, if service workers can do it, so can sex workers, which is not to understate the problems posed by the differing populations.

    Service workers really do work much harder under much harsher conditions for a lot less than sex workers of roughly equivalent rank, which makes the need for joining a union seem much less pressing than the need for, say, joining a gym. The gym offers much more immediately visible (and, let's face, more immediately remunerative) benefits for the equivalent investment of money and time.

    This leads me back to the gang behind the camera line who have more in common with other trade groups in comparable industries and share similar demographics. They do stick around for years on end. They do know each other and work as teams frequently, whatever personal jealousies and resentments may arise among them. And they know they'll never be rich and famous and, after working so closely with some who are, don't find the idea all that attractive.

    Again, crews go back and forth between porn and mainstream and get to see a lot of those faces in People Magazine looking pretty rough on an early call after a night of hard partying. They don't aspire to owning a new Maserati. A decent grip truck would be just fine.

    There is at least one informal precedent already in place, of which I happen to be aware only by virtue of having been an early member, and that is the loose alliance of pro bondage riggers. There are fewer of them than are needed for all the videos, films and magazines that want quality bondage images these days, a special skill-set is involved, and there is a general understanding among those who ply this trade for a living that a single significant error attributable to a single rigger could sink the whole occupation.

    Because riggers talk among themselves, and often socialize in the same crowd, they've worked out some unofficial rules having to do with strict safety, correct talent relations, reasonable hours and compensation commensurate with experience.

    It's already true that some producers have quit using some of these riggers because they can get clueless droolers to come in an do the gig for free, but those producers, even if they and their talent are lucky enough to avoid catastrophe, will soon discover that working with amateur riggers sucks, makes for long days and bad products and spreads poison about the production companies through the talent agencies to the better players, who just say no to working with clumsy, leering idiots. A few directors and producers have come back to riggers they'd replaced with cheaper labor. This doesn't really rise to the level of an experiment because it involves so few people in such a rarified situation, but it will be interesting to see it played out.

    But when it comes to the experiment Shiva suggests, this we have seen played out with results ranging from spectacular to dismal without changing the industrial culture of porn significantly for most workers.

    Evil Angel, sort of the UA of porn, was founded by two performer-directors who decided they wanted to own some of their own product instead of handing it over to the companies as work for hire, so they shot a bunch of scenes on overtime at existing sets, using their own money, set up their own company and hired their own sales manager. Keeping that model as it expanded, Evil Angel has been a huge success, both commercially and critically, for nearly twenty years. It's roster of directors, starting with co-founder John Stagliano, is beyond impressive, having included John Leslie, Rocco Siffredi, Joey Silvera, Randy West, Greg Dark and others less well known but often very gifted in their own ways, has been stellar. it's list of hits is the envy of all the big, old-fashioned, top-down companies in town.

    But other companies founded by performers-turned-directors-turned-producers haven't faired as well for the most part. A few have survived, but many others have gone broke or collapsed from internal discord, mainly because the organizers of the enterprises weren't office guys and had no patience with the tedious detail work needed to operate a successful creative cooperative. If you don't want to do it yourself, you need to set aside money enough to hire someone competent to do it for you and not steal, which has proved a daunting challenge for many aspirant's to EA's mantle.

    And sadly, EA only accepted its first female director, Belladonna, a couple of years ago. These outfits are pretty much all boys clubs and they make pretty similar products, which are oriented toward a certain segment of the market that's over-served at the expense of others who might improve the climate for a greater variety of creative products.

    The idea of putting creative people together to run their own enterprises is always attractive, but unless they're guided by some broader concerns than those that seem to motivate most such loose affiliations at the moment, their impact on the lives of any industry workers outside of themselves is likely to remain negligible.

  23. Shiva writes:

    "How about a mutualist "union" setting up workshops on film direction and production for porn performers, allowing them to work for themselves rather than for corporations?"

    Well, as somebody who's referred to himself as a "mutualist" in the past, I certainly find the idea appealing. However, considering the overwhelming challenges of operating a business on a co-operative or worker-owned basis and what a small part of part of the economy such businesses constitute, I don't expect the porn industry to really be more progressive than the rest of the world in this regard.

    However, this hardly means that all porn is produced by "corporations". For every Vivid or Larry Flynt Enterprises, there are dozens of small businesses like Little Mutt or Bellezza that are operations of less than a dozen people who hire talent on a shoot-by-shoot basis. If you get down to the level of webcam performers, a lot of them are basically self-employed.

    So when your looking for economic models that empower porn workers, you have to take into account the essentially casual nature of much of this kind of work. And a bottom-line question for any kind of co-operative/collective business is, are you really providing a better-paying alternative than straight-forward capitalist businesses? Especially given the realities of an overall capitalist marketplace. Most co-operative businesses have struggled with that one; in fact, San Francisco's worker-owned peep show, the Lusty Lady, is struggling with that in a big way right now.