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Scenes From My Life in Porn 

Wednesday, Mar 29 2000
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In 1995 I was hired as entertainment editor of Hustler magazine at Larry Flynt Publications. I was 30, divorced and at the end of a screenwriting career that had been flatlining for several years. Not only had I failed as a writer, but I had functioned only marginally in a variety of menial, no-brainer day jobs. On my first day as an assistant location manager in charge of finding an office building for a commercial shoot, I had become lost. As a telemarketer of computer-printer supplies, the first week my employers put me on straight commission I earned $61. I failed at other jobs simply because I didn‘t get out of bed. Prior to working at LFP, I had found a niche at a Beverly Hills law firm, where I temped in the word-processing department correcting typographical and formatting errors in legal documents. It was a dull job, but its focus on minutiae dovetailed nicely with my habit of smoking several bowls throughout the day in the parking garage. Sitting for hours in a white cubicle hunting through densely written 200-page legal contracts for missing periods and double commas was a pleasant way to ride out a solid buzz. I held that job for nearly three months, a record length of time in my employment history.

I lasted at LFP for more than three years. Destiny may have played a part in this. My first pornographic experience was with a copy of Hustler I discovered in a drainage ditch when I was 11. The magazine, still in its flat brown paper bag but soaked through, had appeared like a gift from the gods of puberty. I painstakingly removed the binding staples and dried out the pages in the garage of a neighbor who was away on vacation. After careful and repeated examination of each page in the privacy of my bedroom, I sold them to my friends at school for their lunch money. Telling this X-rated Horatio Alger story in an interview for a copyediting job at LFP helped get me hired. (Though not as a copyeditor. There were too many typos on my resume.) By the time I left, I had achieved rank on the list of the Top 50 most influential people in the adult industry. Granted, I had written that list myself, and it was published in Hustler, but deception and lies are the essence of pornography. It’s no different from any other branch of the entertainment industry. In porn, for example, we had the same thing that they call “magic” in Hollywood -- except we called it “bullshit.” This is the power to create seductive illusions that move and entertain a mass audience, and perhaps give them that ineffable gift, hope.

But porn is a crude business. Even the fantasies it sells have the feel of cheap disillusionment. What seduced me was the reality.

Larry Flynt used to defend Hustler by calling the nude photo layouts “art.” I would come to joke that the porn video is indigenous Southern California folk art. The cheesy aesthetic -- shag-carpet backdrops, tanning-salon chic, bad music, worse hairdos -- and the everyman approach to exhibitionism are honest expressions of life in the land of mini-malls, vanity plates and instant stardom.

In 1996, an unknown named Jasmin St. Claire set out to have sex with 300 men in a XXX video titled The World‘s Biggest Gang-Bang II, thereby breaking an alleged record of 251 men set a year earlier by Annabel Chong. By the mid-’90s, gangbang films had become a hot product in the industry. They not only created overnight stars -- worthy of Howard Stern, Jerry Springer -- but added a new dimension to celebrity worship. Where once an autograph served as a hallowed connection with a famous person, now fans, invited to participate in these spectacles, could actually fuck a star.

Late one Sunday morning on the second floor of a decrepit Hollywood sound stage, Jasmin held a press conference prior to the shoot. Reporters and photographers from such esteemed publications as Club, Screw and, of course, Hustler packed the room. Champagne was served. Jasmin, 23, entered in skintight red latex. She moved imperiously, with her head held high and her surgically augmented D-cups thrust forward. Jasmin‘s ethnic origins were a mystery. Her skin was coppery brown, like a glass of tea in sunlight. She told people her dark complexion came from Sicilian blood, and there were rumors that she was the granddaughter of a New York mobster. She denied those, and claimed to have been raised by an international-financier father, to have been educated in Continental boarding schools and to have an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (Years later, Jasmin’s first manager, Charlie Frey, told me he‘d discovered her doing lap dances in an outer-borough New York strip club. “I don’t know about her dad,” Frey said. “Jasmin‘s mom is a dot-head Indian.”) At the press conference, Jasmin responded in French, German and Spanish to questions from European porn-magazine stringers. As cameras flashed and the room filled with the staccato sound of 20 reporters calling her name, the scene took on the air of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie premiere. I asked Jasmin why she was having sex with 300 men, and she answered, “To achieve my dreams.”

The event began on a set decorated with paper palm trees and tiki lamps. Perhaps 100 men showed. They were authentic amateurs, a cross section of humanity that might have been culled from an unemployment line: old, young, fat, bald, skinny. They wore tennis shoes and work boots, but no pants or underwear, as they were herded into groups of five along lines taped onto the concrete floor. A half-dozen fluffers knelt by the taped lines and prepared the men for their encounter with Jasmin. She lay on a low stage and could barely be glimpsed through the clutches of hairy asses flexing around her. Jasmin’s hands grasped at erections as the men circled her, copulating with her mouth, vagina and ass. The teams of gangbangers were given five or 10 minutes with Jasmin. They wore condoms when they penetrated her. They removed their condoms to ejaculate on her stomach, thighs, breasts, face, or in her thick, wavy brown hair. When the men finished, they sat in bleachers at the edge of the sound stage or milled around and lamely jacked off, trying to nurse fresh hard-ons for another go.

I experienced a sense of numbness on Jasmin‘s set -- as I would on many others -- that I can only compare to accounts I have read of combat. It was the sense of being in a group of people deliberately and methodically engaged in acts of insanity. Unlike in combat, I was not overwhelmed by the horror of it, but by the grand-scale stupidity, which crystallized that day as I stood by the craft-services cart. Boiled hot dogs on cold, white buns were being dispensed. A man next to me politely passed the mustard. The bottle was sticky with K-Y Jelly. I never attempted to eat on a porn shoot again.

It was during Jasmin’s bid for the title of world‘s biggest gangbang queen that she acquired her reputation as a bitch. One of the men I spoke to, 40-ish, with the tan and physique of a lifelong desk worker, summed up his experience as a star-fucker. “Jasmin is cold,” he said, then compared her to Annabel Chong, whom he’d met a year earlier when he‘d participated in her World’s Biggest Gang-Bang. “She‘s not friendly like Annabel was.”

I asked him what constituted “cold” or “friendly” in a five-minute encounter with a woman, shared with a half-dozen other men, all circling to pleasure themselves on tiny pieces of her body. His voice had a childlike plaintiveness when he answered. “Annabel said, ’Hi.‘ She looked at me in the eyes. Jasmin just said, ’Don‘t come in my hair.’ She wasn‘t nice at all.”

Hustler’s Barely Legal was a magazine I associate-edited under the name “Serena Dallwether.” It was subtitled “A Celebration of Sexual Debutantes,” and the premise was that all the girls in the photographs were between the ages of 18 and 20, and that all their stories were true. In reality, the girls were porn models, and I supplied them with names and brief biographies, or “girl copy.” Though Barely Legal was sold almost exclusively in XXX shops and liquor stores, its monthly U.S. circulation pushed 250,000. The English-language edition also sold well internationally. On a trip through Italy, I saw it prominently displayed at a news kiosk near the Vatican beside photos of Pope John Paul II.

A reasonable person might assume that porn magazines serve but one lowly purpose: to provide “readers” with what we called, in the trade, jack-off fodder. But readers of Barely Legal were moved to send in dozens of letters each week. Predictably, many contained simple requests: “Please print photos of young girls having fun at the doctor‘s office, spread out on an examination table.” At least half bore return addresses of corrections facilities. The most surprising were those that contained outpourings of emotion from lonely men seeking to connect with our nudie models. By the time I left LFP, I had collected nearly 2,000 of the most desperate letters from lonely hearts.

Readers sent Christmas cards to the models. Photographs arrived: John, from NYC, sent a glamour shot of himself, replete with halo lighting effects on his poofy ’80s metal-rocker hairdo. Kelly, a scruffy middle-aged man, grinned beside a pumpkin he‘d evidently just carved. A man claiming to be “vraiment a poet from the ’Sixties” sent a letter in French and English, typed and handwritten in beautiful calligraphy, to a model named “Vivienne: Sex Student.” In the bio I‘d written for her, she described herself as a Philosophy of Film major who was turned on by Kierkegaard and anal sex. Her fan included a bio of his own in which he purported to have been published in the Paris Review and to have taught at Stanford. Expressing the most delicate feelings for Vivienne and shamelessly begging her to write to him, the lovelorn poet closed his letter with a stern lecture about Kierkegaard and Heidegger, stating, “I repudiate Heidegger’s fascistic early politics.”

“Problem,” a young man from a suburb of Philadelphia wrote to Girl Talk, the advice column I edited, “I am a 21 year old male who has never had a girlfriend in his life and is quite sadden by this fact. I do have Tourette‘s syndrome, and when you are considered as a ’f**king retard‘ in high school, you don’t get real far.”

That so many readers believed models in a porn magazine offered the prospect of authentic human warmth and understanding was all the more bizarre given the crude, over-the-top nature of the girl copy that accompanied their images. I wrote to alleviate the boredom of producing thousands of words of hack copy every week a and strove to make my bios as disturbing as my editor would allow. Fortunately, LFP provided a safe, nurturing environment for disturbed individuals exorcising their personal demons through pornography writing. So long as I stated that the models were at least 18 (a law stringently followed at LFP) and had consented to engage in the acts described, I was free to develop stories with incestuous overtones and strong hints of violence, stalking, mental illness, self-hatred and death.

A typical bio, one for “Dee: Dementia 19,” began: Dee is “now free of the psychiatrist‘s drugs that once made her a complete zombie with no will of her own, nor any control over what she did with her body.” “Natanya: Nice and Nasty” began: “Natanya’s a nice girl most of the time -- except when she‘s nasty. The nice girl plays with Mr. Pookie, the stuffed animal Daddy sent last Christmas before they fried him on Death Row. The nasty girl fingers herself and dreams of a bad man coming to get her. Nice and nasty. Cops are like that too. First they give you a candy bar, then they take Daddy away.”

Not all of them presented sexuality with unrelenting gloom. The bio for “Heather: Holy Sister of Fellatio” was an attempt at the transcendent. Heather, a girl with a beatific smile, was described as a student at a junior college run by nuns. She concluded her treatise on oral sex: “’The sisters in school tell us that all art is God-inspired. My artistry is a means of bringing man closer to the divine. Picture my face with your dick in it and know how it feels to come in the mouth of God.‘”

The most peculiar aspect of the fan letters was not that the men believed the ludicrous sagas of the models, but that they responded to the graphic imagery by seeking intimacy with them. If pornography indeed objectifies women -- and it’s hard to argue that a magazine with an amateur photo section called Beaver Scouts didn‘t -- many readers sought to flesh out the objectified women in their imaginations. Their sexual fixations blurred into romantic dreams.

The most lyrical note, a mixture of hackneyed erotic cliches and poignant expressions of longing, came from a man whose return address was the cryptic “Lock Bag R.” A prison address, a bizarre P.O. box or a location in his head? He wrote to “Dottie: Dirty, Flirty, Delicious,” a girl in a baby-tee with the word FLIRT written across the front.

“Dear Dottie:

”Here is one for you, can we be writing pals? . . .

“I wonder where you are from, only because you seem like to my words, A Hip Hop Hollywood Hootchie . . . Those clothes you had on were very nice. You could get right into my world at a breeze on your perfume or maybe on the regular scent of your body . . .

”I can picture you and I kissing. I would just melt the minute your arms [begin] to wisp about my shoulders. You know the kind of picture that would send my mind into orbit with you. I would get on one knee and ask you to put your leg around my shoulder and those heels to dig into the side of my rib cage. Dam those white heeled shoes are fine . . . I bet when you walk it is a knock-out.

See also: James Deen: The Porn Star Next Door

“Can you bring yourself to me for just a day[?] We can get a couple of those strawberry crunch ice creams on a stick and look into each other’s eyes. [I] would softly rub one of your thighs as we sit knee to knee . . .

”You could take me places through letters that would be called Dottie‘s adventures. I would love to send you cards. And I would love to get to know you as a person. I’ve been to the Statue of Liberty twice. My first school trip in the second grade . . . was to a place called the Butterfly Farm.“

Brooke Ashley told me 1997 was her ”favorite year in porn.“ She kept mementos of her career, begun when she was ”fresh 18,“ in a closet in her barely furnished Valley apartment -- a stack of flattened video box covers and ”slicks,“ glossy promotional mini posters. Brooke was Asian and Caucasian, and in photographs her face changed from shot to shot. She was always pretty, always cute, usually costumed in diminutive schoolgirl skirts and ankle socks, with her hair in pigtails. Some of her proudest achievements were making the covers of such XXX videos as Gutter Mouths, Assy #5, Young and Anal #5 and Whoriental. One box cover superimposed a dialogue bubble next to Brooke‘s smiling face, so she appeared to be saying, ”I’m such a filthy slut, I‘m such a pig!“

In the spring of 1998, Brooke tested positive for HIV. She believed she had been infected by a male porn star named Marc Wallice during the production earlier that year of a film titled The World’s Biggest Anal Gang-Bang. Brooke starred in it with 50 men.

Like other porn stars I knew, her biography might have been lifted from the more twisted girl copy in Barely Legal. As Brooke told it, she was born on an American air base in Korea, the offspring of a U.S. soldier and a Korean mother. She was raised in Kansas City and molested at the age of 7 by ”the old man down the hall.“ According to Brooke, the old man pretended he was an invalid and needed a walker, but he was actually very strong when he got her alone in his apartment. He had lured her with ice cream. Things went downhill from there. Her mother left. Her father, once an avid porn-video collector, became a born-again Christian. Brooke grew close to an uncle who groomed her for beauty pageants. She often bragged, ”I was a runner-up in the Miss Teen Kansas City Beauty Pageant when I was 16.“ By the time she was 18, her uncle, who had functioned as her unofficial guardian, had been sent to federal prison on money-laundering charges. Brooke was working at Wal-Mart when she ran away to Florida, where she became an exotic dancer, and then to L.A., where she became a porn star.

The night I first visited her apartment, located in a sprawling stucco complex off Ventura Boulevard, Brooke hadn‘t yet seen her gangbang video. I had come over to show her the advance review copy that I’d received at LFP.

Brooke greeted me at the door in jeans and a gray T-shirt. ”Dude, that better not be a Bible,“ she said, laughing and pointing to a brown-leather appointment book I was carrying. ”My dad sent me one when he found out I was sick. I threw it in the closet.“

As she entered the kitchen to get me a drink, her cat, Chronic -- named after her favorite bud -- scampered under her feet and tripped her. Brooke fell to her knees, laughing and cursing, and discovered her pager in a gap beneath the dishwasher. ”I lost that thing a week ago.“ She picked it up and walked into the living room, engrossed as she scrolled through all the calls she‘d missed, forgetting about the drinks and the refrigerator door hanging open behind her.

Brooke’s pratfalls -- knocking over her bong, tripping on a phone cord -- were frequent and usually followed by loud fits of laughter. She had a comedian‘s gift for rueful expressions that mocked her own ditziness, like Lucy after an especially harebrained stunt. Just as quickly, she turned angry.

”Marc’s been calling me at 7 in the morning and leaving harassing messages.“ Brooke jabbed at the buttons on her answering machine. Marc Wallice‘s flat, emotionless voice came from the speaker: ”Pick up the phone, Brooke. You bitch, you whore. Pick up the phone.“

A few days earlier I had met Marc at his mother’s house, where he had been living since blowing his last dollar on a freebasing binge after news broke of his own HIV-positive status. ”I used to be a big, famous star,“ he told me. ”Now, I‘m a nobody.“ Since quitting his job bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s when he was 21, Marc had done little else but appear in porn videos. In the past 19 years, he estimated, he‘d had sex with 2,000 women. ”I’ve never dated,“ he said. ”I‘ve never had to be desirable. How do I just walk up to a girl and say hi?“ Then he had played me phone messages from Brooke: ”You fucker. You a don’t have any friends.“

She had called around 7 in the morning too. Both of them were up at that hour -- Brooke taking her meds, Marc at the end of a bumpy coke ride. In happier times, they had been ”fuck buddies“ off the set and had binged on drugs together. Now, in their respective messages, each sounded scared and desperate, like someone who really needed to talk to an old friend.

”Dude, he is so guilty,“ Brooke said to me, gazing at the picture of herself on the cover of World‘s Biggest Anal Gang-Bang.

She claimed she was unable to operate her VCR, and asked me to do it. It was a matter of pressing the ON button and sliding the tape in. I sat next to her on the couch. ”I can’t watch this without smoking a bowl,“ she said. She loaded her bong, then forgot to light it as the video began.

On the screen, Brooke appeared in a dressing room having her makeup done. She wore a gold silk suit jacket and thong panties.

”Oh, God!“ Brooke shouted. ”Look how wrinkled my suit is!“

On the screen, the makeup girl asked her in a stagy voice, ”Do you think you‘re going to be all right?“

”I’ll be okay,“ Brooke giggled, making a wacky face.

Next to me on the couch, Brooke began to cry. ”Oh, my God! This is so sad.“

The scene shifted to a familiar one, a gangbang, featuring Brooke on a gloomily lit stage surrounded by men, barely visible through the forest of hairy legs.

”Everyone can see what‘s happening to me,“ Brooke said, still weeping. ”I’m so humiliated.“

A moment later, her tone changed from plaintive to angry. ”I see it!“ she said. ”There‘s Marc’s pale, white penis. It‘s shaped like a banana.“

The penis in question penetrated Brooke’s rear, without a condom. Marc‘s head ducked into the frame, confirming her suspicion -- she could have ID’d his member in a police lineup. The camera pulled in for a close-up of the suspect ejaculate sliding down her bare skin.

Behind me, Brooke giggled. I turned. She was speaking into the phone, now sugary and playful. ”Sweetie, will you bring me over some of that French champagne in the bottle with the orange label?“ Whining, ”Please?“

When she hung up, Brooke explained that she had a cab-driver friend who did things for her. In addition to being a porn star, Brooke hustled men. Sometimes she did so professionally, as a call girl. She could do a wicked imitation of a local weatherman talking dirty to her, his distinctive voice breathless and excited. I believed her about the weatherman, because I had once met him on the set of a John Wayne Bobbitt porn shoot. He had told me he was there researching a potential news story, though I‘d never seen his station run news stories reported by weathermen.

While her gangbang video still played on the TV, Brooke ran into her bedroom. She ran out a few minutes later completely naked, holding a gold raw-silk suit on a hanger.

”This is what I wore in the video,“ she said. She wiggled into the skirt and turned in profile, smoothing it with her hands. ”I used to hate my body when I was younger. Producers were always trying to talk me into getting implants.“ She pressed her hands to her breasts. ”See how nice they are? I’m glad I‘m still natural. I like my body now.“

She stood, bare-chested, in front of the TV. ”I don’t believe in God. But I pray. I pray to goodness. I believe in something good. I‘m not going to let this illness stop me. I’m going to dance, I‘m going to have my own Web site. And, dude, you know what?“ She sounded determined, inspired. ”I am going to make porn movies again. Fuck. I’m all about the word fuck.“

She let the skirt fall to the carpet and sat naked on the couch. She picked up her bong. ”Dude, I‘m not saying I’m not scared. I‘ve got HIV. How can I ever be a normal 25-year-old girl again?“

Whenever he was kicking heroin, a friend in the business used to dream of Asians. A typical dream: He is living in an El Monte trailer park and has a twin sister who is Chinese. She is beautiful, and he must fight her to the death in an unusual form of combat involving shish-kebab skewers. Their left wrists are bound together with straps, and they begin stabbing each other.

Most of the relations I had with women prior to becoming a pornographer were along the lines of my co-worker’s dream life. A wife or girlfriend functioned as a narcotic, fixing whatever emotional or spiritual maladies I was suffering from, but we would inevitably end up psychically bound at the wrists and engaged in mortal combat.

The girlfriend I was living with when I was hired at LFP was a professional in a field far from pornography. She had no issues with my new job; her concerns were that I was controlling, emotionally distant and psychologically abusive. My concerns were that she had an explosive temper and had once carved ”Pig Motherfucker“ on my front door with a knife. In our sessions with a couples therapist in Century City, we quietly discussed the need to listen to each other and develop mutual respect.

Following these morning sessions, I would drive to the Flynt building in Beverly Hills to review XXX videos. In the Erotic Entertainment section of Hustler, which I wrote for and edited, I probably never used the word ”woman.“ Women dominated every description and image that ran in my section of the magazine, but I referred to them using a pornographic lexicon handed down through time and enshrined in the copyediting department. They were sluts, bitches, pixies, nymphs, cunts, twists, slatterns, tramps, ginches, chicks, gashes, honeys, babes, squacks, pies, hootchies, snatches, trollops, tarts, dolls, quims, skanks, trims, split-tails and holes. For legal reasons, the terms ”whore“ and ”prostitute“ could not be used as nouns in reviews, but whore was acceptable as an adjective -- as in describing a performer as, for example, a ”whore-face blonde.“

I wrote reviews under the pseudonym ”Mack Assarian.“ This helped reinforce the notion I maintained to my girlfriend, my therapist or anyone who asked that my life was separate from my job. The words I wrote in Flynt publications in no way reflected my own thoughts or feelings. Mack Assarian had the voice of an unrepentant misogynist, wise to the games played by manipulative bitches. But he was not me.

The day after my girlfriend dumped me, I reviewed a video titled Piece of Ass. As it played on the TV in my office -- with the sound down and in fast-forward, a standard review mode -- I wrote: ”Anyone who has had his life repeatedly wrecked by living, breathing cunts finds increasing solace in snatches that are safely contained in videocassette boxes . . . If fuck bitches in real life were half as nasty as the cushiony degenerates in Piece of Ass, the defenseless male dupe would jump at the chance to have one wreck his life even quicker than the last cunt did.“

In this review, Mack Assarian had expressed my own anger and self-pity. He had said what I had never been able to say in a $175-per-hour therapy session. The persona had merged with the person, and I had found truth in my own mean-spirited Hustler copy. This was not necessarily the sort of breakthrough that my therapist would have approved of, but I felt more at peace with the world than I ever had before. Murderers probably feel better, too, after committing a crime.

The first time I saw Jasmin St. Claire at an industry function, it was on a yacht anchored near the Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey. Lights were strung in the rigging and twinkled on the water. Jasmin, whose dream of becoming an internationally recognized porn star was realized with the release of The World‘s Biggest Gang-Bang II, stood outside on the upper deck. She wore open-toe sandals with straps that twined up her calves, and a vaguely Grecian gown that made her resemble the type of alluring alien woman bedded by Captain Kirk on Star Trek. I noticed her, turned, and a moment later felt cold hands around my neck. She had thrown down her drink, walked swiftly across the deck and was choking me.

”Asshole!“ she said.

I pried her hands off my neck and twisted around to face her. ”I should have thrown my drink at you,“ she said.

Weeks earlier, in an interview with Hustler, Jasmin had bragged of her business acumen. She had told me she was investing her porn proceeds in giant-gumball machines located on boardwalks in beach cities up and down the West Coast. She was furious not because I’d mocked her investment strategy in the published interview, but because I‘d exposed her secret for getting rich.

”Everyone in the whole fucking world knows about my plans,“ she said.

Our small violent struggle broke the ice, and Jasmin and I became friends. She began dropping by the office to chat about her appearances on Howard Stern and new acquisitions to her Barbie-doll collection, and to spread vicious rumors. She was upset when Kendra Jade, a rival porn star, grabbed international headlines for taping herself having sex with Jerry Springer. For several weeks, Jasmin tried to persuade me to write an expose about Kendra having the clap (an allegation she never substantiated). But Jasmin easily switched gears from nasty gossipmongering to heartfelt revelations about her private life. She was seeing a man who had a drug problem. Several days a week, she took him to recovery meetings. Her eyes grew misty as she described holding hands with recovering drug addicts as they joined to say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of a meeting.

Attractive, confident, sure of her career, possessed of an entertaining if sometimes cruel wit but revealing hints of an underlying compassionate nature, Jasmin sometimes struck me as the ideal girlfriend.

In the pages of Hustler, director Gregory Dark was often heralded as a genius, perhaps the only one in a field of triple-X hacks. This critical acclaim might have stemmed from the gratitude the magazine‘s staff felt toward him, since over the years he had employed several Hustler editors to write his screenplays. In 1998, Psycho Sexuals, which I’d written under the pseudonym ”Louis Umbro,“ had been voted Best Video of the Year by the X-Rated Critics Organization (which I belonged to). Greg took a self-effacing view of his job as a XXX-director and my role as his writer, telling me, ”Making porn videos isn‘t for entertainment. They’re for whacking your wick. As long as we have the sex scenes, you can write a story about dogs barking in English rhyme.“

If Satan had come to Earth in the guise of an amiable person, he would probably have looked like Greg Dark. In his late 40s, he stood over 6 feet tall. He favored black jeans and white T-shirts, and clipped his wallet to his belt loop with a long silver chain with links in the shape of miniature human skulls. His thickly muscled arms -- he wrestled and boxed five days a week at a gym in the Valley -- were tattooed with a snake and a devil‘s head. His piercing blue-green eyes brought to mind an evil hypnotist in a cheesy horror film. A cigarette usually dangled from his lips, and his skin was the same color as the smoke curling from his mouth.

Greg was never happier than on the set of a porn shoot, and he was excited to get going on Psycho Sexuals II because he would be trying a second-hand Fisher-Price video camera he’d obtained after a six-month search in the classified ads. The camera was sold as a children‘s toy in the early ’80s and recorded black-and-white images on looped cassettes. ”It creates these really weird pixilations,“ Greg said. His emphasis on really weird effects in adult films had begun early in his career, with his New Wave Hookers series, when he‘d shot underage Traci Lords in a film about women being enslaved by the voodoo powers of punk and rap music. His vision of weirdness had carried him to the top of the adult industry, and within two years of shooting Psycho Sexuals II it would take him to the top of the music-video industry, where he would apply his talents to directing a hit video for Britney Spears, the pop-music wunderkind equivalent of Traci Lords.

Psycho Sexuals II, which I’d also written, was filmed in a stucco Spanish knock-off in Las Virgenes canyon. The house was a 1970s masterpiece, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a poured-concrete spiral staircase twisting above a shag-carpeted conversation pit. A white-enamel fireplace dominated one side of the room, its blackened interior yawning open like an empty mouth. Greg‘s video monitor would be set up here. The refrigerator in the kitchen was decorated with drawings and God’s eyes -- Popsicle sticks formed into crosses and wrapped with multicolored yarn -- and a note, in blocky, childish handwriting, that said, ”Bring bathing suit, towel, happy faces and Betty Boop pillow to Grandma‘s.“ The house had been rented from a family who had vacated it for the day.

Out on the veranda, Shayla LaVeaux, the 27-year-old star of Psycho Sexuals II, lounged on a pool chair, smoking cigarettes and baking her skin. Like many dancers and porn stars, Shayla had the classic looks and proportions of a model, but she was short, perhaps only 5’2”. She had doll-blue eyes and thick ringlets of natural blond hair piled up and pinned atop her head. Her shapely legs, shaved pubic mound and pointed, implanted breasts were completely visible through her sheer nightie top, which afforded little more cover than a prayer.

Shayla‘s voice was gravelly and sweet, as if her vocal cords had been marinated in whiskey sours since puberty. Her laughter, for which she was well-known in the industry, was a cackle that would be deafening in a crowded sports bar. Her body rippled from her stomach to her back and shoulders with well-developed muscles.

I asked her if she worked out.

“Are you kidding me?” She cackled and snorted, blowing plumes of smoke from her nostrils. “I got my body from dancing on the road for seven years. I do my workouts on the pole every night, honey.”

Though Shayla was getting top billing and her image on the video-box cover, the scene being filmed this day would feature a relative newcomer, Shelbee Myne, doing anal with her husband, Pat.

Shelbee, in her early 20s, was a dirty-blond and pretty, but with an overly tanned face that made her mouth look hard. In a tube top and shorts, she looked like a girl at the beach. She stood on the veranda, dabbing suntan lotion on her husband’s nose.

“You‘ve got to be careful about getting a burn,” Shelbee said.

Pat drooped his head like an obedient mutt. His hair was close-cropped and bleached white-blond. He wore shorts and boots like the guys on the film crew. Though he was just two years older than his wife, his nose already had gin blossoms, accentuated by a sunburn.

Shelbee and Pat had met when she worked at a paging company and he worked as a shipping clerk in a warehouse. She entered porn first. Her husband followed when he discovered that he had a talent for maintaining an erection. Of the couple, Shelbee was the star. Women were more in demand than men. Her pay for her anal scene in Psycho Sexuals II would be $1,500. His pay would be $100.

When the filming began, Greg sat with his back to the set and watched the action unfold on the video monitor. Shelbee and Shayla entered the conversation pit. They played roommates stalked by a peeping Tom, played by Pat, who was supposed to be outside in the bushes making obscene phone calls from a cell phone. According to my script, the girls were turned on by the stalker and decided to give him a show rather than call the police, as women probably would in real life.

Since Shayla was the older and more experienced porn star, she assumed the role of alpha female, gently dominating Shelbee while Greg issued commands. He obsessively controlled every move. For scenes that would take 15 minutes in the final product, he made the performers work for five to eight hours.

“Shayla,” Greg called. “Rotate counterclockwise. Make your legs symmetrical, cross your ankles. Shelbee, look up at Shayla. Move your thumb down.”

After an hour of Greg’s exhaustive directions -- he claimed to block sex scenes based on his experience as a wrestler -- the two performers‘ bodies were satiny with perspiration. Shayla’s back muscles rippled and veins bulged on her neck as she held one convoluted pose, while Greg circled and peered through their limbs, looking for sweet spots to capture with his Fisher-Price camera.

When shooting paused, the performers giggled and chitchatted. “You‘re doing great, honey,” Shayla repeated to Shelbee several times, giving the novice porn star encouragement like a big sister.

During a break, when Shelbee knelt on all fours, Shayla played with her by tapping out rhythms on her butt, saying boop, boop, boop with each beat. Shelbee laughed. Shayla traced her finger from Shelbee’s neck to the small of her back. “You‘ve got killer lines,” she said. “Did you do gymnastics in high school?”

“No. Swim team.”

Shelbee’s husband was brought into the scene after two hours. His entry had to be re-shot several times, since he had trouble following Greg‘s directions. “Come in to the left of the table and enter the pit on the right,” Greg said.

Pat kept screwing it up until Greg said, “Come in by the window and go past the TV set.” Pat did it perfectly.

“Is my face okay?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” Greg answered. Pat was only in the frame from his chin to his penis.

“Pat,” Greg called, “jack off and . . .” He thought, then added, “Drool on yourself.”

On a break, Pat sat staring out the window. His hard-on remained upright. Shayla sauntered past, looked down at his talent and said, “That‘s great, Pat.”

He nodded and gazed at his hard-on as if it were an animal standing on its hind legs and staring back at him.

It is often said that the difference between a violent Hollywood movie and a hardcore sex film is that no one shoots real bullets or actually dies in the making of a Hollywood movie, but performers in a sex film really a do fuck. Indeed, one of the most overpowering sensations on a XXX set, especially after the performers have labored for hours under the hot lights, is the smell. But if sex is an intimate act, bordering on sacred, what I saw on porn shoots seemed no more real than eating a wax apple.

Porn stars’ careers last about as long as votive candles. As the novelty of Jasmin St. Claire‘s gangbang faded, she came up with another publicity stunt. She was going to star in a movie called Blow It Out Your Ass. For several weeks she had been working with a “master magician” named Randall Richman, developing an act in which she would shoot 4-foot flames from her anus.

The shock value of this stunt ensured that the Valley studio where it was being filmed was jammed with paparazzi from the adult press, as well as local radio personality Larry Wachs from KLSX’S Regular Guys show. After two hours in makeup, Jasmin walked onto the stage and shed her robe. The photographers and writers sat amid the video and electrical cables on the concrete floor, crouching beneath the lights and a low-slung boom. A few in the press tried to engage Jasmin in banter, but she was focused, tuning everyone out as she entered her pre-performance zone.

She knelt on the carpeted stage. Her surgically scarred, conical breasts jutted forward as she leaned down and raised her posterior. Richman, the magician, a boyish 28-year-old, tinkered with his apparatus. He had handcrafted an anal plug with a brass nozzle and a small, clear plastic hose attached to a can of butane. The idea was that he would hide behind a wall and pipe the butane into the plug as the director filmed.

Both Richman and Jasmin were nervous. They had never performed the stunt before. Richman explained to me that the danger was that the plastic plug could superheat, melt down and possibly explode -- though he assured me he had performed several practice runs in the garage of his apartment building without incident.

The room hushed as Richman delicately inserted the device and tested the control valve on his butane can. The sound of hissing gas filled the room.

I sat near the stage, closest to Jasmin. Kneeling on all fours, she turned to me. She was crying. “I‘m scared,” she said. “Will somebody hold my hand?” She slid her hand across the stage and waved her fingers.

This was our most intimate moment. Jasmin’s vulnerability and fear had shown through her mask of supreme confidence.

I averted my eyes and fumbled with my notes. I had developed such an overwhelming crush on Jasmin St. Claire that I could not face her. I feared if our eyes met in this charged moment, my feelings would be evident to everyone in the room. Finally, a tech girl walked up and took Jasmin‘s hand.

Shirking the opportunity to offer emotional reassurance proved to be our last magical moment together. Jasmin ceased her morning phone calls and her lunch-time visits to the office. Things were never the same.

Her stunt came off successfully, beyond expectation. She achieved 6-foot flames. Photos appeared in adult magazines around the world of Jasmin shooting fire from her ass as men held skewers and roasted marshmallows. Two weeks later, however, a mysterious blaze destroyed Randall “Master Magician” Richman’s apartment complex.

Each week, dozens of adult videos arrived at my office on the third floor of the Flynt building. Occasionally, other products arrived -- dildos, butt plugs, artificial vaginas, bondage hardware -- which their manufacturers hoped Hustler would review and promote. One day, a representative from a company arrived to deliver in person what she claimed was a revolutionary product: a rubberized female torso with a removable vaginal insert made of a patented substance that she guaranteed “feels like the real thing.” The torso came with its own carrying case, lubricants and a cleaning brush for the vaginal cavity.

The rubber coating of the torso approximated the color of skin about as well as a Band-Aid. The vaginal insert did feel remarkably like human flesh, but touching it brought to mind feeling up a cadaver.

I never reviewed it. I gave it some thought, because someone had obviously gone to a lot of expense to develop and manufacture the product. I tried to see in it what they must have seen. But I couldn‘t get around the fact that to use the product as it was intended would entail copulating with something that resembled an armless, legless, headless body. It was a nightmarish prospect. Thankfully, my editor never asked me to write a review.

I placed the torso on top of my bookshelf, where it remained for about a year. During that time, my thoughts began to turn. What if this torso were the last woman on Earth? What if I were trapped on a desert island with it? Would I fill it with memories of women I’ve longed for and loved? Would I eventually develop a sexual relationship with it? Would I pour out my heart to her and feel that she understood me?

As I read more of the letters to Barely Legal models from men who led desert-island existences of their own, I concluded that under the right circumstances I could probably love the torso. Perhaps she could even become a better alternative to the real thing. Just as methadone mimics heroin without any of its intoxicating side effects, a pornographic substitute might simulate intimacy without any of its dangerous consequences, emotional pain, fear of loss.

Greg Dark‘s persona was based on several essential myths. His father had been an anthropologist who disappeared in Haiti. Or he was a criminal who disappeared in the state prison system, depending on which story Greg was telling. His mother had been a “party girl,” a Las Vegas entertainer who had raised Greg with a series of common-law stepfathers. When he was a teenager, he and his mother moved to L.A., where he went to Fairfax High and developed a fascination for Charles Manson, whom he claims to have met once at a party on Sunset. Greg said he studied art at Stanford, moved to New York, became a conceptual artist, then wound up as a documentary filmmaker. In 1983 he co-directed and produced Fallen Angels, an anti-porn documentary that would nevertheless inspire him to enter the adult business.

But of all his myriad past experiences and encounters, Greg credited one man with teaching him the most important lesson of his life. He met his teacher in the early ’70s on the tennis courts at Stanford. During certain hours of the week, the courts were open to the public. According to Greg, a man showed up one morning driving a garishly painted Cadillac. He wore a peacock-feather hat and an ankle-length fur coat, which he slipped off to reveal standard tennis whites. The man was a street pimp from Oakland. Greg and the pimp became friends on and off the court. In Greg‘s personal lore, the pimp taught him the essentials of the “whore con”:

A) Men are powerless before the lure of female sexuality.

B) The whore lures men by promising unlimited sexual fulfillment.

C) As soon as she has lured a man and has begun to extract payment, the whore withholds as much sex as she can get away with.

D) The whore understands that the more she withholds, the greater her value.

E) All women are whores.

After dropping out of therapy, I increasingly turned to Greg for personal guidance. According to him, the object of being a man was to outsmart the whore con. Outwardly, he seemed to be a master of the game. There were weeks when he bragged of bedding a new beautiful woman every night -- dancers, porn girls, and young, college-educated women working entry-level Hollywood jobs.

But the more time I spent with Greg, the more he seemed to be a woefully inept player. Inevitably, he a developed infatuations with women who moved into his apartment and began treating him with the cold, disinterested contempt they thought he deserved.

For several months it was Treatie, a peepshow dancer more than 20 years Greg’s junior. Greg would pick me up in his red Corvette, we would have dinner at the Daily Grill or Louise‘s Trattoria, then he would drive up and down Sunset and Hollywood discussing his problems with her, occasionally pulling over to chat with a streetwalker.

“Treatie and I have nothing in common,” Greg lamented. “She doesn’t even want to fuck anymore. You give the girl a joint and a goth comic book, and that‘s all she needs to be happy. She doesn’t care about anything else, except my car. She hates my car. She says it‘s ’cheesy.‘ I tell her, ’Treatie, my choice of vehicle is severely limited. I‘m a pornographer. I’m supposed to drive a cheesy car.‘”

Then there was the heroin-addict prostitute he met on Hollywood Boulevard. Greg portrayed his first encounter with her as a conquest in which he had beaten the whore con. “She was on the street in a baby-doll T-shirt and velvet hip-huggers. I pulled over, and she gets in the car. She asks, ’Do you want to date me?‘ I say, ’Yeah, show me your pussy.‘ She says, ’That‘ll cost you $60.’ I say, ‘I ain’t paying for it, sweetheart. Get out of the car.‘” He laughed. “She pulled down her pants and showed me anyway. We went to a motel, and she fucked me for free.”

The most appealing aspect of this relationship to Greg was that the girl was a hooker. “As long as she stays a prostitute,” he reasoned, “there’s not a big danger of getting committed.” But one night, when we were supposed to be planning a five-day video shoot, Greg was unable to work. His mind was on his hooker girlfriend. “There are things about her I don‘t understand,” he said. “She does these feminine tricks, like she cried when I left her the other night.”

I suggested the possibility that her crying had not been a “trick” but an expression of authentic sadness.

“Maybe it’s not a trick, but it looks like one,” Greg answered. Then he added, worriedly, “The problem is, I have a feeling that if I angered her, I would never see her again. She told me she once packed up and left a guy while he was out playing with his dog.”

Not long after his affair with the hooker ended, Greg fell in love with a giant blond bondage performer. The master of the whore con capitulated and married his new love. The extent of his violation of his former principles was made clear to me when he confessed that he actually intended to be monogamous.

Six months after the honeymoon, Greg called to report that marriage was as bad as everyone he knew had told him it was: “I‘m depressed all the time, unless I’m working. I throw myself into my work, which is trivial and stupid.”

He had concluded that there was no happiness to be found anywhere.

“Girls bring happiness for a while. People think happiness is like a Band-Aid that fixes everything. A Band-Aid just goes over a wound -- it doesn‘t fix anything. You always have desire for other women, but you keep chasing them, and end up like Orobouros, the snake eating its own tail.”

The Burakumin are Japan’s untouchable class. Racially and religiously identical to the Japanese, they are separated from broader society because of their labor. Burakumin are meat and leather handlers, and when Japan converted to Buddhism, with its vegetarian code, in the eighth century, these workers became outcasts. Their profession was considered to be dirty, and they were deemed “polluted people.” Despite the fact that Japan shed its vegetarian strictures hundreds of years ago, their ostracism has been enforced to this day. Pornographers, creating a product that is widely consumed by society, face a similarly paradoxical ostracism.

On a personal level, when I dated women outside the industry, I had to overcome the perception that I was probably a creepy pervert because I worked at Hustler. Even if this could be overcome, women from the straight world labored under the misconception that I was surrounded in my job by beautiful, alluring babes offering free and easy sexual gratification. Those who believed this were buying into the illusion offered by porn, and it was not always easy to convince them that the hookers and porn stars I met in the course of my job were just as complicated and demanding as anyone else.

I attempted to get through all of this on a blind date with a 26-year-old I‘d been set up with by a mutual acquaintance. Her eyes were young and gray like a baby wolf’s and scrutinized me closely as she asked the standard questions: Have you ever dated a porn star? Does your job affect how you view women? Are you personally into porn? I answered no to all of the questions, lying to varying degrees each time.

She suggested a second date at a small Italian restaurant near an S&M-and-magick shop in Silver Lake. This time she did most of the talking, discussing her ex-boyfriend who was trying to be a rock star, her aspirations to quit her temp job and become a painter, or a photographer or a designer -- any creative field that would offer a measure of fame. She sounded like all the porn girls I knew who credited Madonna as the single biggest influence in their lives.

After dinner, my date invited me to her apartment. Her roommate sat in the kitchen painting her nails in preparation for a redeye flight she was taking to New York later that night. She had dressed for the flight in 4-inch heels and a tight skirt and baby-tee. She wore her hair in long, white-blond braids, and with her thick white goth makeup resembled a depraved Pippi Longstockings. I‘d been told she, too, aspired to be a rock star.

She stood when we entered, and pushed her breasts forward. “Is my bra lumpy?” she asked my date. Then she turned to me and asked, “How do I look?”

Based on my experience studying thousands of slides and photosets of nude women her age in order to determine their suitability for use in Hustler and Barely Legal, I did a rapid thumbnail assessment. I pictured her with her clothes off. Her large breasts, combined with her slenderness, indicated that she’d probably had augmentation. She would not be suitable for a “natural” magazine such as Barely Legal if scars or saline-sack deformations were visible. Her face was pretty, but her eyes were too close together, and her butt was flat. She might have made the end of the first half of the book, where the so-so photosets ran.

“Isn‘t my roommate beautiful?” my date asked as she led me to her bedroom.

When she shut the door, she informed me that she had a deep interest in kinky, perverted sex. “I think it’s hot that you work at Hustler,” she said, dropping onto her wrought-iron bed.

“I want to suck your cock,” she said, making a slurping sound that caused her face to grimace. It was the sort of expression made by porn performers when simulating a “hot, nasty” sex scene.

I sat next to her. “Talk dirty to me,” she whispered.

I was speechless.

She offered specific directions. “I like stories about my daddy being bad.”

She reached into her skirt and began to masturbate. I gathered that my role was to stimulate the exercise by providing a pornographic narrative. I had spent the day writing girl copy about perverted stepfathers and nymphomaniac women driven to compulsively give oral sex. My mind reeled with all of the filthy words I had strung together that day for female body parts and sexual acts. But I couldn‘t speak them. I had writer’s block.

Writhing on the bed next to me, she picked up the slack. She launched into a scenario about a birthday party in which she and her friends relentlessly teased her father until he could stand it no more and began molesting them. “Stick your cock in me, Daddy,” she taunted him -- or me.

The eroticism of the moment seemed no more authentic than the lifelike torso beckoning in my office.

When my date stopped twisting on the bed, I went to the door.

She leveled her young, gray eyes at me. “I can tell you have issues with women,” she said.

A few months before I left LFP, a thief broke into my car and stole a half-dozen XXX videos. They had been shipped to the office in a box with my name on it. The police caught the hapless criminal walking down the street with the box, and I was called to testify about the crime in a Beverly Hills courtroom. I waited in the hall with the cop who was handling the case. He was a detective a few months shy of retirement who, with his New York accent, knowing blue eyes and rumpled brown suit, seemed more like a sympathetic TV character actor than a real cop. He talked about his 30-year marriage, his daughters, his involvement in a well-known case a decade earlier when he‘d killed a murder suspect during a foot chase and shootout. The detective brought up porn videos and confessed that he liked them. His tastes, he said, were specific. He liked the directors who focused on the women’s faces. “It‘s all bullshit,” he said. “But sometimes you’re looking at the girl in the video and she reveals herself. Maybe it‘s just a moment in her eyes, but it’s human, it‘s genuine.”

To me, what was real and unreal had ceased to be clear.

What was unreal was my final visit to a porn shoot. This was held at a luxury suite in a Las Vegas hotel filled with guests specially invited to watch a porn star named Montana Gunn have sex with a few fans. The party was to inaugurate her “Fuck the World” tour, a yearlong event for which she planned to repeat this evening’s performance with 2,000 fans in hotel rooms and on stages across North and South America and Europe.

What was real was Montana entering late, intoxicated and burnt to a crisp from a marathon session in a hotel tanning booth. What was unreal was Montana fleeing the expectant crowd in tears, because, she later said, she realized nobody in the whole room cared about her as a person. That was probably real. What was unreal was Montana emerging from the bathroom after her crying jag and going on with her job, fucking strangers on the hotel suite‘s coffee table while partygoers cheered and the cameras rolled. What was also unreal was standing in the bathroom with Montana later that night while she splashed in the bathtub, giggling, pointing to the freckles on her chest, saying, “My mother always called these kisses from the sun.”

I finally left the porn business not because I had any sort of moral awakening, but because I found a better job. Today, whenever I see a new issue of Hustler or Barely Legal at the liquor store, I always flip it open, and forget everything I know. The illusions are real.

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