Fantasized on one hand, stigmatized on the other

Film review: After Porn Ends (2012)

After Porn Ends is an important documentary that explores what happens to sex workers once they retire from the “adult entertainment” industry. The film raises points that can be informative to an analysis of the role played by pornography, and sex work in general, in the context of late capitalism.

Originally released in 2012 and currently available on Netflix, the documentary explores interviews conducted with some of the biggest names in the porn business. Featured quite prominently are Nina Hartley, Asia Carrera, Seka, and Randy West. A few of the actors featured reveal that they have no (or very few) regrets, and they acknowledge that the business afforded them the ability to lead a comfortable life, and even retire at a very young age.

It is important to realize that those with a positive reflection of pornography tend to be those who were able to work “on both sides of the camera.” Asia Carrera was not only a popular actor, but learned how to write, direct and produce films and videos, and how to run a very profitable website. Her experience from the business is clearly not the typical experience of most adult entertainers. Randy West noted that most women are “good for about two years – tops.”  He, and many successful men in the business, have been able to survive in the industry much longer. Even he notes that, with the advent of DVDs and internet porn, he signed a business contract that completely took away all control of his own films and videos. He not only lost most of the profit from his movies but lost the ability to control how and when his own movies would be shown and on which websites they would be featured. Even as a successful actor and producer, he was literally alienated from the product of his own labour.

Imagine the countless men and women who find themselves in pornographic sex work in order to make ends meet – and who have no control over the use and prevalence of those very sexually explicit images!

Many women who have worked in the business are demonstrated to have been receptive to evangelical Christianity – which has reached out to former sex workers to help them find “redemption.” Nina Hartley, herself a well-known actor, has gone on to work as a sex educator. She said that many women, in particular, enter the porn industry seeking some form of validation and acceptance; being considered sexy or desirable is seen as a way to receive that. According to Hartley, it is those women in particular that should never have entered the business, and who are currently the most receptive to the evangelical movement.

In this film, stigma is the common denominator to all sex workers, be they successful producers or virtually anonymous sex workers. Many actors speak of trying to become real estate agents or engage in similar “normal” work activity. Even Asia Carrera, who moved to Utah – and cut her hair to avoid being recognized in a state in which porn is illegal – was found out, again and again, as a former porn actor. All actors interviewed indicate that they have suffered as a result of never, ever being able to return to any kind of normalcy after a career in which they have been immortalized on film the internet. One actor spoke of the hypocrisy of a society that fantasizes about sex workers on one hand, then stigmatizes them for that work on another.

One woman talked about the experience of being stalked by a man who somehow construed himself to be in a relationship with her, as he had been a fan of hers. He was consuming her material from home on a regular basis, and somehow felt he had some level of both ownership and intimacy. Pornography, especially internet pornography, is described as not only commodifying the actors’ body parts, but their very sexuality and humanity as well. It seems that the same is true for the consumers. From their home, men, mostly heterosexual, consume porn on a regular basis in anonymity. Their very sexuality has been divorced from real relationships with their fellow humans, while they fantasize about having sexual relationships with women who themselves have been commodified by the porn business.

Unfortunately, the film lacks an exploration of the role that porn has in the queer community. Even same-sex acts taking place in mainstream porn are often with heterosexual women engaged in “lesbian” scenes. Many of these women admit to having no idea what actual lesbian women do when they want to be sexual with one another. It is important to note that no sexual activity between men is ever featured in heterosexual porn. While sex between women is seen as erotic, sex between men is considered dangerous or threatening to heterosexual identity.

There is also no discussion of porn involving transwomen or transmen. Again, some porn featuring the offensive term “shemales” is available to a heterosexual audience. But actual depictions or features of real members of the trans community is absent.

Finally, the issue of race does come up in the film. Asia Carrera, who is from a mixed (Asian and European) background, was described as “opening the door” to women from ethnic minorities.  It should be noted that films depicting women and men of colour are also considered to be “niche” and typically feature predominant and racist stereotypes.

The film is a good attempt to address the issue of porn in our culture. It is mainly focused on a small group of some of the stars. This is not surprising, since those names are the reason many people would be interested in seeing the film, but it doesn’t necessarily bring much understanding of the rest of an industry that involves large numbers of workers or self-employed folks in far less “glamorous” roles. That said, the film does help to humanize sex workers, many of whom are featured in the film as real people with everyday issues – not as the sexualized objects that the porn industry presents.

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