The Victims of Pornography
This excerpt is taken from Chris Hedges’ newest book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”
The Pink Cross booth has a table of anti-porn tracts and is set up in the far corner of the Sands Expo convention centre in Las Vegas. It is an unlikely participant at the annual Adult Video News (AVN) expo. Pink Cross is a Christian outreach program for women in the porn industry, run by ex-porn star Shelley Lubben.
In a convention exalting the pornography industry, Lubben’s table is not overrun with visitors, most of whom are male and middle-aged with cameras around their necks. The few men who make it to the far corner of the convention centre look curiously at its pink banner and walk past. The expo is filled with more alluring fare. There are numerous booths for porn producers and distributors, many with women in tiny skirts and bras who, often clinging to stripper poles, gyrate and bend over and spread their legs for groups of men. They simulate masturbation and flash their breasts for crowds of onlookers. Huge banners hang from the ceiling promoting new releases such as Slutty and Sluttier 6.
A local escort service, VegasGirls, has a booth about 100 feet from Pink Cross. There is a homemade wooden wheel with a flipper that looks like a middle-school shop project on its table. Those who spin the wheel can get various discounts or even a free visit by a “stripper” to their hotel room. Small, glossy cards are fanned out on the table, showing women in evocative poses and not much clothing, all with a first name, the agency’s phone number and the phrase “actual photo” emblazoned on the side of the card.
“You want to take a picture of my boobs, then you have to take my card,” a woman in front of the booth tells a camera-wielding, middle-aged man.
“If I call this number, is it you who will come?” he asks.
“Here, baby,” she says, giving him the card. “I will come.”
Many of the booths at the Sands Expo feature well-known porn stars. There are long lines of men waiting for a signed photo and the chance to have a picture with stars from the Wicked Pictures studio, including Kaylani Lei, Kirsten Price and Jessica Drake. The men usually wrap their arms around the women for the photo, always taken by a friend or someone in line. As they hug the women’s waists, the women sometimes playfully grab the man’s crotch or lick their lips. Huge plasma screens placed in the booths run nonstop porn, often featuring the stars having anal sex with multiple partners or giving blow jobs. The sheer volume of porn blasted throughout the convention floor by the sea of giant screens becomes, very quickly, numbing.
The porn films are not about sex. Sex is airbrushed and digitally washed out of the films. There is no acting because none of the women are permitted to have what amounts to a personality.
The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the women’s physical and emotional degradation. The lighting in the films is harsh and clinical. Pubic hair is shaved off to give the women the look of young girls or rubber dolls. Porn, which advertises itself as sex, is a bizarre, bleached pantomime of sex. The acts onscreen are beyond human endurance. The scenarios are absurd. The manicured and groomed bodies, the huge artificial breasts, the pouting, oversized lips, the erections that never go down, and the sculpted bodies are unreal. Makeup and production mask blemishes. There are no beads of sweat, no wrinkle lines, no human imperfections. Sex is reduced to a narrow spectrum of sterilized dimensions. It does not include the dank smell of human bodies, the thump of a pulse, taste, breath — or tenderness. Those in the films are puppets, packaged female commodities. They have no honest emotions, are devoid of authentic human beauty and resemble plastic. Pornography does not promote sex, if one defines sex as a shared act between two partners. It promotes masturbation. It promotes the solitary auto-arousal that precludes intimacy and love. Pornography is about getting yourself off at someone else’s expense.
“I was addicted to porn for two years,” says Scott Smith, 29, from Cleveland, Tenn., who is at the Pink Cross booth. He first watched Internet porn as a college student.
“I started out once a day, usually at night, when my roommate wasn’t there,” Smith says. “You try and hide it. Then I started watching it several times a day. I would only watch it long enough to masturbate. I never got why they make these long features since I would always turn it off when I was done.”
Smith says the images crippled his ability to be intimate. He could not distinguish between the fantasy of porn and the reality of relationships. “Porn messes with the way you think of women,” he says. “You want the women you are with to be like the women in porn. I was scared to get involved in a relationship. I did not know how extensive the damage was. I did not want to hurt anyone. I kept away from women.”Patrice Roldan, 26, with black hair and a loose-fitting purple and black potato sack dress, is standing next to the Pink Cross table. Roldan, whose screen name was Nadia Styles, made her last porn film in November 2008. She starred in nearly 200 films. She is 5-foot-5, 110 pounds and wears a black scarf around her neck, black knitted stockings with knee-high black socks, and flat, black shoes. Her outfit seems calculated to be exactly what a porn star should never wear in public. She looks like a schoolteacher.
Roldan, like many of the women who drift into the porn and prostitution industry, had a difficult and troubled childhood, including a physically abusive mother. Her mother threw her out of her home when she was 17, and she spent time in homeless shelters. She answered an ad in LA Weekly that offered women $1,000 as models. This is a common doorway into the porn industry. She started appearing in Internet porn. She had a boyfriend when she began filming and tells me she “felt guilty” about hiding her porn sessions from him, but the money was good. Her boyfriend eventually found out, and their relationship descended into one increasingly characterized by verbal and physical abuse. She drifted from the Internet into films. She was 19 when she made her first film.
“Doing a movie shoot was a different experience,” she says as we sit in two folding chairs across from the Pink Cross booth. “I made my first film with New Sensations [adult video studio]. I got makeup. There was a set and cameramen all around. I thought it was glamorous to have my makeup done, to have pictures taken of me. That was a regular boy-girl shoot. At that point, I was just trying to survive.”
She had been promised $1,000 for her first film. She was handed $600 when the scene was done. She also contracted gonorrhea. Porn stars are tested for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases once a month, but “people do so many scenes between tests that a month is a long time.” She began, once she had treated her gonorrhea, to do films three or four times a month. She would have several more bouts with gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases during her career. She got pregnant and had an abortion. The demands on her began to escalate. She was filmed with multiple partners. Her scenes became “extremely rough. They would pull my hair, slap me around like a rag doll.
“The next day my whole body would ache,” she recalls. “It happened a lot, the aching. It used to be that only a few stars, people like Linda Lovelace, would once do things like anal. Now it is expected.”
She became a staple in “gonzo” porn films. Gonzo movies are usually filmed in a house or hotel room. They are porn verite. The performers often acknowledge the camera and speak to it. Gonzo films push the boundaries of porn and often include a lot of violence, physical abuse and a huge number of partners in succession. According to the magazine Adult Video News, “Gonzo, non-feature fare is the overwhelmingly dominant porn genre since it’s less expensive to produce than plot-oriented features, but just as importantly, is the fare of choice for the solo stroking consumer who merely wants to cut to the chase, get off on the good stuff, then, if they really wanna catch some acting, plot and dialog, pop in the latest Netflix disc.”
Roldan would endure numerous penetrations by various men in a shoot, most of them “super-rough.” As she talks of her career in porn, her eyes take on a dead, faraway look. Her breathing becomes more rapid. She slips into a flat, numbing monotone. The symptoms are ones I know well from interviewing victims of atrocities in war who battle posttraumatic stress disorder.
“What you are describing is trauma,” I say.
“Yes,” she answers quietly.
Shelley Lubben, who also worked as a porn actress, agrees.
“You have to do what they want on the sets,” she says. “There’s too much competition. They can always find other girls. Girls bring in their friends and get kickbacks. They feel like stars. They get attention. It’s all about the spotlight. It’s all about me. They have notoriety. They don’t realize the degradation. Besides, this is a whole generation raised on porn. They’re jaded and don’t even ask if it is wrong. They fall into it. They get into drugs to numb themselves. They get their asses ripped. Their uterus hemorrhages. They get HPV and herpes, and they turn themselves off emotionally and die. They check out mentally. They get PTSD like Vietnam vets. They don’t know who they are. They live a life of shopping and drugs. They don’t buy real estate. They party, and in the end they have nothing to show for it except, like me, genital herpes and fake boobs.””Porn is like any other addiction,” Lubben says. “First, you are curious. Then you need harder and harder drugs to get off. You need gang bangs and bestiality and child porn. Porn gets grosser and grosser. We never did ass-to-mouth when I was in the industry. Now you get an award for it. And meanwhile the addicts make their wives feel like they can’t live up to the illusion of the porn star. The addict asks, ‘Why can’t she give blow jobs like a porn star?’ He wants what isn’t real. Porn destroys intimacy. I can always tell if a man is a porn addict. They’re shut down. They can’t look me in the eyes. They can’t be intimate.”
“When legal and social mores first changed and porn went mainstream in the 1970s, there was a standard sexual script, which included oral and vaginal sex, with anal sex relatively rare, ending with the ‘money’ or ‘come’ shot, where the man ejaculated onto the body of the woman,” Robert Jensen, the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, tells me over breakfast one Saturday morning at my home in Princeton. “But once there were thousands of porn films on the market, the porn industry had to expand that script to expand profits. It had to find new emotional thrills. It could have explored intimacy, love, the connection between two people, but this was not what appealed to the largely male audience. Instead, the industry focused on greater male control and cruelty. This started in the 1980s, with anal sex as a way for men to dominate women. It has descended to multiple penetrations, double anals, gagging and other forms of physical and psychological degradation.
“What does it say about our culture that cruelty is so easy to market?” Jensen asks. “What is the difference between glorifying violence in war and glorifying the violence of sexual domination? I think that the reason porn is so difficult for so many people to discuss is not that it is about sex — our culture is saturated in sex. The reason it is difficult is that porn exposes something very uncomfortable about us. We accept a culture flooded with images of women who are sexual commodities. Increasingly, women in pornography are not people having sex but bodies upon which sexual activities of increasing cruelty are played out. And many men — maybe a majority of men–like it.”
The cruelty takes a toll on the bodies, as well as the emotions, of porn actresses. Many suffer severe repeated vaginal and anal tears that require surgery.
The male stars are encouraged to be rough and hostile. Some, she says, “hated women. They would spit in my face. I was devastated the first time that happened, but I thought it was good they were rough because of my abusive relationships. I thought roughness in porn was OK. I would say, ‘Treat me like a little slut,’ or ‘I’m your bitch,’ or ‘Fuck me like a whore.’ I would say the most degrading things I could say about myself because I thought this was what it meant to be sexy and what people wanted to hear, or at least the people who buy the films. You are just a slut to those who watch. You are nothing. They want to see that we know that.”
She would shoot scenes with men who disgusted her, whose sweat and smell “made me cringe.” And when the lights went off and the cameras stopped, she would stumble off the set in pain, her face often covered with semen. “Sometimes they would hand you a paper towel to wipe your face off,” she says, “and sometimes they would say, ‘Don’t touch us. You’re gross.’ I remember the first time I had come all over my face. I was so pissed off, but I took it. I pretended to like everything they did. I took pride in being a good gonzo girl. My fame came from this.”
By the second year of shooting, with an income of $100,000, she had turned to drugs, including painkillers and muscle relaxants.
“The lifestyle of a porn star is to spend your money as soon as you make it on weed, alcohol, coke, ecstasy and Vicodin,” Roldan says. “I wanted to be the good gonzo girl they wanted me to be. I took this so I would not feel anything. By the next year, instead of only Vicodin I began to drink vodka, a whole bottle. Every girl I knew used alcohol. We were drinking so we did not feel the pain.”
In addition to being the author of “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” from which this excerpt is taken, Chris Hedges has written eight other books. His weekly Truthdig column is published every Monday.