Awards ceremonies are big. People love cheering the walk to the podium, love it even more when they’re the ones on the carpet. But to pick up an Adult Movies (AVN) award for Best All-Girl Couples Sex Scene or for Best Oral Sex? Or to be crowned as ‘Hottie of the Year’? How many people want this for themselves, or their daughters?
The stars of the film Aroused are women with long lists of AVN awards laid out in their Wikipedia pages. Aroused is a documentary about America’s highest paid female porn stars and we see them in hair-rollers, pre-make up. That said, it’s a film with a Roedean-educated female director and scriptwriter, the photographer Deborah Anderson, an array of porn stars with soft voices, well-turned sentences, and claims to love their work, screenings at regular cinemas, and coverage in Spectator Life. All that surely adds up to a first.
But does it mean that porn has come out of the shadows? Or is it evidence of a parental nightmare, a super-sexualised world where a porn star’s Wikipedia page becomes the right sort of fame to chase? Neither really. Aroused is new in some ways — but what it really showcases is the continuation of the old.
Sex has always offered women a career. The fact that ‘nice girls didn’t’ was central to the old marriage bargain; and at the top end, beautiful girls could sometimes land themselves a serious ‘catch’, a word that says it all. But sex was also what you sold, as a girl, in societies which barred women from most of the labour market.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, prostitution consistently paid better than any other jobs open to ordinary women. And in the early 1900s, the wealthiest self-made women in America were madams. Sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh established the Everleigh Club, a brothel of unprecedented luxury — gold piano, Japanese Throne Room — that was frequented by men from the top of Chicago society. Running a brothel was one of the very few ways in which women could make serious money.
Old-style madams were generally ex-prostitutes themselves, the few fit survivors of a tough trade. We remember Sarah Bernhardt as a consummate, world-famous actress, but she was also, like most early actresses, a child of the demi-monde, the daughter and niece of courtesans. Her two younger sisters became courtesans in their turn; but Régine died at 19, and Jeanne succumbed to drug addiction. Only Sarah thrived.
Brothels are now, mostly, illegal. ‘Adult’ films instead pay you to have sex in front of a camera, which the punters then pay a little to watch. It sounds healthier and safer than a prostitute’s life, although the stars of Aroused had still had plenty of sexually transmitted diseases along the way. They also routinely make 200, 300, even 400 films by the time they are 25. Whether or not it’s degrading, it sounds utterly exhausting.
And their motives are clear and utterly traditional. They want attention. They want fans and fame, albeit short-lived. (‘If you ask where the girls of 2005 are, no one knows them now,’ as one pointed out.) But also, crucially, they want money. Offered more than they got for stripping, more than they got for modelling, they said yes.
I’d assumed that adult porn brought big bucks, something the film implied as its stars gathered by limo. But when I dug a little deeper, that wasn’t so clear.
Porn stars have a published ‘rich list’ all their own, and it is unique in being overwhelmingly female. But these stars (limos or not) aren’t actually that rich. You can get into the top 20 with a net worth of a couple of -million — a lot more than most people, certainly, let alone most twenty-somethings. But given current house prices, the USA alone numbers 3 million people with over $1 million in ‘investable assets’, while the UK has close to another 500,000. And the stars who top the list are, without exception, the ones with a business head: they’ve moved into either making films themselves, or running a successful agency. So far, so traditional — there have always been plenty of beautiful bodies around.
Which brings me to what is new. First, ‘adult film’ is pretty marginal to women’s economic chances; and that’s because the financial importance of sex has changed too, compared to the days when marriage determined women’s fates, and nice girls didn’t. Modern women have far more opportunities, and far more well-paid ones too. (Plus nice girls do.)
Second, the people who make money from commercial sex have changed. Once, this was a world where the men might be ‘respectable’ but the women certainly weren’t. That barrier is down.
Fran Amidor, also in the film, is a well-paid ‘adult talent’ agent: a professional woman who certainly didn’t come up through the ranks. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire was run by his privately educated daughter, a pillar of the Chicago business elite; Anna Arrowsmith was a successful adult film director and then a Lib Dem candidate at the last election; and while she didn’t win, she did increase the party’s share of the vote.
And then there’s my own entrepreneurial profession. Academics have by now turned their deathly prose style on pretty much everything, and porn is no exception. The new journal Porn Studies, edited by two senior female academics, is dedicated to ‘the serious and transdisciplinary analysis of porn’. It won’t make the bestseller lists, but it marks an era when nothing is safe from educated women intent on making a career. Not even adult films.
Aroused, executive produced by Trina Venit, produced by Mike Moz and produced/directed by Deborah Anderson, is out now.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 June 2013