How the Porn Industry Wants You To See It

What Women Really Think
Sept. 20 2012 3:06 PM

How the Porn Industry Wants You To See It

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Porn-to-mainstream success story Sasha Grey accepts the award for Best Oral Sex Scene at the 2010 Adult Video News Awards Show.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Last week’s CatalystCon, a new conference on human sexuality, assembled a variety of perspectives around sex and porn, from sex educator Charlie Glickman’s take on modern masculinity to “professional naked woman” Jolene Parton’s views on fat women in porn. But I have to be honest: I was most interested in a panel dedicated to the porn industry’s perspective on people like me.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

The session was called “Media Risks: Who Wins?” Its premise: “We have found that the media will try to sensationalize anything sex-related to boost their ratings. What is their purpose? Have the media finally seen the light, or is it just an attempt to increase ratings, and revenue?” The discussion promised tips on “how best to minimize those risks involved with dealing with the mainstream media” and how to “use the mainstream media to your advantage.”

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My ears are burning! As a journalist who writes about sex and porn for the “mainstream media”—publications targeted at audiences outside the industry, like this one—I was interested to learn how I could be used to the industry’s advantage. Weighing in on the subject were porn industry publicists Adella Curry and Brian Gross (I’ve worked with both), and two media pros who write largely for an industry audience: Sherri Shaulis, the senior editor of pleasure products for trade publication AVN, and Gram Ponante, a writer for Hustler and Fleshbot who is both a creator and chronicler of porn. Last year, Ponante directed a pornographic parody of the TV show The Facts of Life, then released an Amazon Kindle single titled A Porn Valley Odyssey: Making the Facts of Life XXX, the story of how “America’s beloved porn journalist succumbs to the siren call of the lucrative world of porn directing."

The all-insider panel allowed for some playful razzing of typical journalistic takes on porn. In a mainstream newsroom, Shaulis told the crowd, reporters are “sitting around like a bunch of preschoolers, like, ‘Tee hee! We’re writing about sex!’” She suggested that porn publicists craft press releases to “spoon-feed” angles to journalists. Referencing 50 Shades of Grey was highly recommended, no matter how tenuous a product's connection to E.L. James’ BDSM romance. (A quick search of my inbox found a dozen press releases from unrelated sex industry sources—porn conventions, vibrator purveyors, and porn sites—name-checking the work.) But the panelists also aired some more serious grievances with the conventions of my industry. They faulted some outlets for pursuing porn stories solely to “take an easy shot at an adult performer, who is an 18, 19, 20-year-old person." And they rightly groaned at the typical line of questioning as to whether a performer had been sexually abused. (“Would they be asking the same question if they were in insurance?”)

Then, they offered clues to how to spin reporters to prevent stories from going negative. Publicists should know their audience: "Diane Sawyer isn't going to be running a story on how porn can improve your sex life." Gross suggested that publicists eliminate the word “porn” from publicity materials entirely (he favors “adult”). Ponante said that young performers served up for media consumption will be “rightfully taken to task for poor production value or poor acting” in their films, so he suggested that publicists focus on “marketing the personality of that person first,” and their work second. Sasha Grey, who always appeared self-possessed, provided a case study for mastering the media game. 

Of course, the “mainstream” perspective on porn and sexuality is as nuanced as opinions inside the industry itself. I asked the panelists how they helped the (often very young) performers weigh their own interests against those of the porn machine—surely, they cannot possibly always be aligned. Is there any leeway for these performers to criticize some aspects of their profession, or is it always necessary to present a unified front? Gross returned to Sasha Grey. “She always stayed positive," he said. Even when she made the leap to mainstream, "She never said, 'fuck the industry.' She thanked the industry." Ponante went further, arguing that many porn pros still fear "a time when their sets were busted by the police, when porn was still illegal." An "extreme protectiveness" over every aspect of the industry lingers, he said. Performers "are counseled not to criticize."

That last part, I'd like to hear more about. Perhaps next time, they'll include a performer's take on the porn PR machine, too.


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