Haters of anti-porn activist Shelley Lubben milked the symbolism for all it was worth.
Earlier this month, she appeared at an L.A. Animal Rescue event in Hollywood, Porn Stars for Puppies. Pooches were being put up for adoption for $250 apiece. A small group of demonstrators showed up with T-shirts that read “Shelley Lubben Treats Porn Stars Like Animals.”
Lubben, a onetime porn star in Los Angeles turned fundamentalist Christian who is now married and raising two girls in exurban Bakersfield, has become the U.S. adult-video industry's highest-profile critic. She says she “rescues” girls who have been used and abandoned by the business.
Some of those women say it's Lubben who used them — for publicity and fundraising.
The chief porn critic has taken her cause to Dr. Drew and Howard Stern and appeared in a new documentary, After Porn Ends. At a time when the adult-entertainment business is battling efforts to force performers to use condoms, she represents bad press all the way. Even the gay-run AIDS Healthcare Foundation has enlisted the Bible-quoting mother's help in its campaign to force prophylactics on porn sets in L.A.
If you count her own experience as a porn star, she's a credible critic and a real thorn in the side of a multibillion-dollar business at a time when it's battling threats to its bottom line due to file-sharing, on top of a dire economy.
Some, however, question the veracity of nearly every claim Lubben has made about triple-X entertainment, including her recollections of her own time on the set and her contentions that young women in the industry are often troubled people who are coerced into extreme, hard-core activities and drug use they didn't sign up for.
“Pornographers are recruiters, and that's sex trafficking,” Lubben said of her no-compromise philosophy, in one interview with L.A. Weekly. “The premise of this industry is all illegal.”
The industry's supporters have targeted her, ambushing her at events like the puppy rescue and posting a series of videos in attempts to denounce and discredit the 44-year-old, who founded the anti-porn Pink Cross Foundation in 2008.
“The porn industry is going to aim their guns at anyone that goes against them,” says Tiffany Leeper, president of Girls Against Porn and a supporter of Lubben's. “I get death threats. Shelley gets death threats.”
At L.A. Animal Rescue on Fairfax Avenue, longtime Lubben critic and onetime soft-porn producer Michael Whiteacre, a supporter of the industry lobbying group known as the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), was with a gaggle of adult performers and a cameraman. Whiteacre's thin bio on IMDb shows his only two recent directing gigs were public service announcements for FSC in 2010.
After Lubben's husband, Garrett Lubben, confronted him, Whiteacre nearly spit out his rage:
“You're a piece of sh—!” Whiteacre told Lubben, adding that he thinks wife Shelley is “a diseased animal.”
Yeah, it was ugly.
To his credit, Lubben's husband, an ex–military man from Bakersfield, used restraint. The Lubbens say this is what you get when you attack a multibillion-dollar industry: a backlash featuring YouTube videos, street confrontations and a stream of ex–porn stars insisting that Lubben is a fraud.
But Lubben believes no young woman should endure what she says she did in the 1990s — contracting herpes and HPV on-set that led to serious medical complications, including miscarriage. Porn-related STDs, she says, “led to me having cervical cancer and having my cervix removed. I lost several babies.”
Her goal is to rescue girls from the industry, and she claims that since 2007 she has helped more than 100 women recover after they left porn. “I've probably let 25 or more porn stars into my home. I cooked for them. I loved them.”
But some of the women who have dealt with Pink Cross describe it as a means for Lubben to take in donations and get famous. Some have questioned how she spends the relatively modest money — $142,000 in revenue in 2010 — that Pink Cross raises.
Former performer April Garris is one. Garris says, dismissively, that after she was contacted by Lubben to join Pink Cross, and quit a job to go to work for Lubben's group, “One of the first things she showed me how to do was her laundry.”
Lubben acknowledges that dealing with former adult performers can sometimes be messy, but, she asks, “Where do you go to school to learn to take on a multibillion-dollar industry?”
The question is whether she's a true Christian prophet for reform, as she has called herself, or a middle-aged postporn diva with a bad memory and a self-serving mission to grab the spotlight and some spare change.
“Porn destroyed my life,” Lubben, who now has the buoyant, bottle-blond hair of a politician, once wrote. Perhaps. But it also has resurrected her.
Her story starts with a San Gabriel Valley childhood (Temple City and, later, Glendora) that Lubben describes in her self-published autobiography, The Truth Behind the Fantasy of Porn. She says her upbringing lacked much-needed parental attention, particularly from her father, a mechanic who worked long hours.
At the age of 9, Lubben claims, she was molested by neighborhood teens — a brother-and-sister duo — in their backyard pool. Her story reflects the experience of other former porn stars, such as Jenna Jameson, who say they drifted into the industry after being raped or otherwise sexually abused as children.
That never-forgotten swimming pool attack, Lubben says, led her to spiral toward sexual dysfunction, acting out and substance abuse. Yet as she remembers herself, she enjoyed profound talent and intelligence as a child.
Her brother Chris Moore, who doesn't speak to his sister these days, says the pool incident, like some of her other childhood recollections, is unlikely — Lubben was not allowed to play with neighbor kids at the time, he says, and she had a distorted sense of herself. He says she believes that her first-grade teacher “saw greatness” in her.
When Lubben met the Weekly over wine one day at an Italian joint near Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, she said her life's ambition was really “to be a journalist. I'm a really good writer.” In The Truth Behind the Fantasy of Porn, Lubben says: “I wrote my first book at 9 years old and even designed the book cover. It was the only book written by a child accepted into the school library.”
Yet she began stripping at a local club at the illegal age of 17, was kicked out of her home by her dad at 18 and soon was swept off a curb on Sherman Way in the San Fernando Valley, literally, by a man who put her to work as a prostitute, servicing his neighbor for $35.
Lubben blames her mother for being religiously overbearing and similarly notes that her husband, a onetime drug dealer, was the product of two pastors. But for her, Jesus is all good — her ultimate savior.
Her brother has a markedly different view of their family life, and suspects his sister is bipolar. (In her book, Lubben describes herself as “a cesspool of mental disorders.”)
Moore says the family was solid and Lubben was the only one of three siblings to follow such a troubled path through life. He says his mother wasn't overly religious, and finds it ironic that Lubben blames her mother's religion for some of her problems, yet now is not just overtly Christian but a “prophet,” in her own words.
“Shelley has distorted a lot of truths, made up lies and done what she can to drag our family through the mud,” Moore says. “I'm trying to pull them out of the mud. My parents are kind of like the Cleavers — cool, relaxed, balanced, good people.”
His childhood memory is that their father spent plenty of time with the kids, and for seven to eight years was working from home. “But Shelley has always been someone who has always needed an incredible amount of attention,” Moore says. “I think she scapegoats my parents for the choices she made.”
When she grew into a teen, Lubben had Hollywood dreams and began waiting at casting calls with hundreds of others. She made it onto an episode of Ricki Lake around 1990, a couple years after high school, her brother recalls. On the show, she claimed to have a free-thinking, “open relationship” with her boyfriend — a put-on to get on the air, Moore says. In her book, Lubben also cites her extra work in the 1994 Johnny Depp film Don Juan DeMarco.
Things didn't quite work out in Hollywood, though. By the time Lubben hit the porn scene in 1993, she was 25 yet had already worked the streets and strip clubs for nearly eight years.
But it's the 17 or so adult videos she appeared in — over the course of less than a year during 1993 and 1994 — that she says are at the heart of her adult-film issues.
Perhaps her most harrowing condemnation of the industry is her claim that herpes and HPV contracted on the set led to cancer, surgery and multiple miscarriages. Her critics say there's no way to verify these most personal parts of her life story.
In her book, Lubben admits that shortly before she began appearing in films, she became pregnant by a john — and that another paying customer, a meth user, refused to wear a condom. In a Weekly interview she further explained, “I never had unprotected sex in prostitution unless a condom broke, which happened [when I conceived] my daughter.”
A 2006 segment of The 700 Club With Pat Robertson claims that “God miraculously cured her sexually transmitted disease” after Lubben came to Jesus. In her 279-page autobiography The Truth, published in 2010, Lubben writes that Jesus came to her in a restroom — at her second porn shoot, just before a lesbian scene in a now-forgotten film: “ 'Shelley, please don't do this. I have something better for you,' a Voice whispered.
“ 'God, please leave me alone. I have to do this.' I turned my head in shame and the pain began to surface. I pulled up my nylons, ignored my pain and walked out of the room.
“With a little help from vodka … I entered into one of the most traumatizing moments of my career. The last thing I remember is gritting my teeth while Nikki Sinn used and abused me with a spiked dildo.”
In the interview for The 700 Club in 2006, Lubben says the Devil also came to her early on, on set, saying, “I'll make you famous.”
Dramatic and disturbing contradictions are an ongoing theme with Lubben. She says women are universally victimized by porn filmmakers, but she writes in the book, “I loved it. I hated it. I loved the attention. I loved the camera.”
As to the men she had sex with on camera, during prostitution gigs and in strip clubs, she calls them “nothing but poles I used to pay my bills.”
One of the defining moments in her short career in adult videos came when she was coerced into a gang bang in which the men essentially ravished her, she says. Later Lubben would call it rape, or something akin to it.
But after a car accident in which her Mazda Miata spun out, God appeared again, and she promised from that day forward to straighten out her life. Then, she says, she met her future husband, Garrett.
Lubben admits that she initially bonded with Garrett over meth, when on their first date, “He walked right up to the pool table and lined it with speed.”
Garrett Lubben doesn't deny he was once a drug dealer. Now he's a medical-device salesman and the family's breadwinner.
While Lubben blames her mother's overzealous Bible-thumping for some of her own dysfunction, it was Garrett's upbringing as the child of two pastors that eventually brought the couple to Jesus, and to happiness. She describes her husband as a divine savior whose own religious background provided the glue for their marriage.
“God healed me through Garrett's tender touches,” she writes. She says she lost weight, studied law for five years and became an ordained minister via Irvine's Order of Saint Martin, a mail-in school with no campus. She also cites a bachelor's degree in theology from Vision International University, a diploma mill whose units aren't transferable to accredited schools.
Lubben's rustic, Spanish-style McMansion in Bakersfield has thick walls, Pottery Barn decor and his-and-hers matching SUVs in the garage. The Lubbens live in a nicer part of the big, dusty town, down the road from signs advertising “yard art” and the Brazilian Wax Boutique.
Garrett, who has two daughters with Shelley (she also has an adult daughter from an encounter with a “john,” she writes), comes off as nothing but a nice guy.
In her book, Lubben describes how she cheated on him early in their relationship, taking money for sex. He forgave her.
During an interview with the Weekly at their Bakersfield home, Garrett was psyched about a European family vacation he'd earned for being a top salesman.
In 2008, after she settled down in Bakersfield, Lubben established the Pink Cross Foundation to offer porn stars a chance to leave the business and maybe do something productive — like work with her nonprofit group. The organization produces low-end videos on the ills of adult-movie work, and Lubben and her recruits sometimes visit porn fan conventions and attempt to rescue performers — with little success.
She says the couple has spent $100,000 of their own money “helping women out.” Lubben sees ex-performers who have joined Pink Cross as “girls I have rescued.”
Her anti-porn message has taken Lubben to Sacramento to speak to legislators and to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. After the annual AVN Awards, the Oscars of porn, moved to a smaller hotel in Las Vegas this year, Lubben beamed. “We're making a difference,” she says.
In 2009, she found a strange bedfellow at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), which gave her a podium and a microphone despite the fact that she once said in a videotaped speech, “Jesus saves … homosexuals.”
“We didn't have much in common,” Lubben tells the Weekly, “but we did have in common that we wanted to enforce health and safety laws.”
AHF, founded in 1987 to protect gay men from and find treatments for HIV, has been pushing for prophylactic use on porn sets in California for several years. And it has seen some success, with the Los Angeles City Council enacting a law requiring condom use at all location shoots inside the city limits.
Lubben takes credit as the first activist in L.A. to demand reforms that promote condom use on sets.
“I began to stand up and say, 'You're breaking the law,' ” she says. “Shelley Lubben was doing this before anyone.”
AHF chief Michael Weinstein admits he hasn't asked Lubben to join an AHF event since early 2011 because, he says, the beef between her and Whiteacre, who has taken to publicly taunting her, “is not something we're interested in being a part of.” But, Weinstein says, “I'm not disavowing her involvement. … I think her voice, in terms of her personal situation, having contracted STDs, and her concerns for performers, is 100 percent valid.”
Through her foundation, funded with donations, Lubben says she wants the industry shut down, at least until it complies with state and federal health rules banning the exchange of bodily fluids at a workplace. She wants to see mandatory condoms, yes. And a 21-and-older limit for performers.
The industry coerces young women to have types of sex they never intended, and does it on a widespread basis, she says. It particularly takes advantage of women who don't have the education to grasp the fine print in their contracts. When they show up on set, she says, they realize they signed up for hard-core sex, when they had been led to believe they were in for something much more missionary.
Lubben argues that hard-core porn is tantamount to sex trafficking. And she says the industry is rife with physical violence that would be considered criminal activity in any other California workplace.
A video she uploaded to YouTube, titled “Shocking Footage of Women Abused on the Porn Set,” depicts dazed and confused young women surrounded by aggressive, nude men on porn sets. One outtake shows a woman saying, “Stop!” She cries and says, “I'm just not used to people being mean to me.” Another woman asks for things to wrap up, saying, “Please, you're really hurting me.”
Lubben says, “I've had girls come to me who were anally raped” on the set. She also claims that 36 porn stars have died from HIV, suicide or homicide, from 2007 to 2010, and that more than 100 performers are known to have died from AIDS overall. Her data are impossible to verify. (Of 10 HIV cases in the porn industry that both the AHF and FSC agree have been found since 2005, porn-business supporters say nearly all of those were contracted off the set.)
Critics dispute Lubben's claims and some say she has woven a series of contradictions and lies. “Her stories don't add up,” Whiteacre says. He's been researching and dogging Lubben since 2010. “Shelley Lubben,” he contends, “is a con artist.”
Respected industry veteran and observer Bill Margold, who appeared with Lubben in the documentary After Porn Ends, calls her “delusional.”
“She is not to be taken seriously,” he says. “She is a little bit histrionic.”
And in fact, several of Lubben's claims today contradict her previous statements, such as her version of what really happened while filming a scene with well-known actor Guy DiSilva in the 1990s. Lubben, in a speech at the UCLA School of Law in 2010, said that during filming, “I was brutally raped on the set, when I contracted herpes in a six-man gang bang.”
The Weekly recently caught up with DiSilva, one of the performers in that scene. DiSilva is a porn star with a reputation for being relatively mellow in an industry filled with muscle boys and dirt bags. When asked if Lubben was brutally raped, he replied, “Definitely not.
“She was very aggressive in that scene,” DiSilva says. “She led the scene, basically.”
At the Porn Stars for Puppies event in Hollywood, DiSilva confronted Lubben about her accusation. “I would never say that,” Lubben told him. She explained that she meant she “felt raped throughout the entire scene.”
A number of other well-known industry insiders contacted by the Weekly objected to Lubben's depictions of what unfolds on closed sets, but some agreed that young women get tricked by contractual fine print and are convinced to do things in front of the camera by pushy filmmakers.
Lubben claims, for example, “There are girls who come to a set for a 'boy-girl' and they're told, 'We have five guys, we're going to do a gang bang. … These are 18-, 19-, 20-year-old girls who show up at a mostly male set and say, 'I don't do that.' 'You do now.' ”
If true, her allegations would mean young women are coming under intense pressure and perhaps coercion in the workplace.
She tears into famed porn actor Ron Jeremy, whom she calls a friend: “I have a video of Ron doing a rape scene with a woman. He honestly doesn't remember. I go, 'Ron, you did that.' He's done so much, he's desensitized.”
Jeremy, who also calls Lubben a friend, says that's a lie. He tells the Weekly: “She brings up facts that are not true. Shelley is not a bad girl. She's religiously motivated.”
Lubben critic Nina Hartley, who is still active and has been performing since the mid-1980s, agrees that there are shady producers who push young women to go beyond what they were told would happen to them.
“There are people who are not ethical and who take advantage, absolutely,” during L.A. porn shoots, she admits. But she feels “coercion,” used by Lubben, is too strong a word. Hartley says she has “never been abused on a set.”
Ex–porn star Sierra Sinn, who says her story in the porn business was used by Pink Cross Foundation to turn her into a poster girl for the nonprofit, says Lubben is right about the pressure — but only to a degree.
Sinn says she “got caught and set up with some awful, horrible scenes” in front of the camera. “I felt a little bit abused by my agent for putting me in that situation. But when I said stop, they stopped. It's not as bad as Shelley makes it out to be. She exaggerates a lot.”
The Pink Cross YouTube video “Shocking Footage of Women Abused on the Porn Set” depicts crying and abused porn stars. But Whiteacre, Lubben's biggest detractor — who has made PSAs for the industry lobbying group FSC — claims the footage, while pushing boundaries, is set up and that the women are acting.
“Those are all performances,” he insists. “It's completely 'storied.' It's billed as secret, behind-the-scenes footage the industry does not want you to see. But they're scenes the industry released and wants you to buy.”
One of Lubben's arguments to the Weekly, on behalf of women performers victimized by porn, is, “I haven't met one woman yet who tells me she enjoys porn.”
Yet Hartley says that in her numerous lesbian scenes, “I've gotten so many women off on camera. To say no woman has ever had pleasure on the set is an out-and-out lie.”
Hartley argues, “No one has been forced into this business.”
Performer Mary Carey, known for running for California governor during the Gray Davis recall in 2003 and for appearing on Celebrity Rehab, said during a Q&A on the Paramount Studios lot, following a screening of documentary After Porn Ends, that “nothing bad ever happened to me on set. I always loved it. … I enjoyed it.”
Sometimes, Lubben seems to paint herself into a corner with personal claims that can place her other accusations and anecdotes in a less-than-believable light.
She says she is a recovering drug user and recovering alcoholic, for example, and on her website (shelleylubben.com) explains that she underwent an “eight-year recovery at the Champions Centre in Tacoma, Wash.”
In her book, Lubben also says she “vowed to do whatever it took to stay away from alcohol” after an official threatened to take her baby away from her for drinking while breastfeeding. “On April 9, 2000,” she writes, “I officially quit drinking and cigarettes at the same time.”
But Lubben had more than one glass of wine during her first interview with the Weekly. That's no sin, but as Dr. Drew Pinsky (of TV's Dr. Drew and Celebrity Rehab) has said repeatedly, recovery is an all-or-nothing proposition, particularly for drugs and alcohol, which, he says, affect the same addiction pathways.
One ex-performer, who worked under the name Michelle Avanti more than five years ago, says that after meeting Lubben in 2008, “We would drink together” and share prescription pills.
Avanti is highly critical of Lubben now, saying, “She will use you, abuse you and spit you out. Like a frigging piece of gum.”
But Lubben says she and her husband took care of Avanti financially for two years. In a lengthy email to the Weekly, Lubben did not deny using pills with Avanti but sought to discredit Avanti by saying she has a serious alcohol problem — which Avanti admits to.
Which of Lubben's anecdotes are true, and which are perhaps more reasonably seen as part of the Shelley Lubben–Pink Cross Foundation narrative, designed to appeal to a culture that thrives on dramatization?
Lubben claims links to the FBI, telling the Weekly that she has “worked undercover with the FBI for years” and is currently doing so. She says she contributed information to the George W. Bush–era FBI obscenity taskforce, which apparently was a regulatory enterprise mostly involved in double-checking the industry's adherence to paperwork.
It's impossible to verify her claims because, as FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller explains: “The FBI cannot provide confirmation on statements by those who claim to be FBI sources. While the FBI doesn't investigate lawful business activity, we encourage anyone who suspects criminal activity to report the allegations to law enforcement for investigation.” Eimiller described porn, in general, as a lawful business activity.
One of Lubben's most powerful tools is her use of taped testimonials from former porn stars who say they suffered. The stories told by Pink Cross' rescued porn stars are on the website. But Avanti alleges that Lubben rewrote Avanti's bio to make it sound sadder and more poignant. “Shelley made my testimony up,” she alleges.
Ex–porn star Sierra Sinn says Lubben “coached me about what to say” after Lubben contacted her through MySpace in 2009 and told her that she could be part of an MTV reality show about Lubben's performer-rescuing exploits. Sinn, now in her 20s, is living back home in Pennsylvania, pondering a return to the business.
Former porn star April Garris was years out of the business, when, she says, Lubben convinced her to quit her job and move to Bakersfield to work for Pink Cross. That's when she was asked to handle the laundry, among other things. Two months later, she says, Lubben cut her pay.
“It was like I moved up there for nothing,” Garris says. “I was on the verge of getting kicked out of my apartment and losing my car.” She got her old service-technician job back last summer.
“We didn't rescue one girl out of porn,” Garris says. “It was all about helping Shelley on her speaking engagements and trying to get money out of people. It was all about promoting her.”
Lubben says she is convinced her critics are led by Whiteacre, who she and her husband say is “obsessed” with her.
April Garris thinks Lubben is driven by a need for attention more than anything. When porn star and onetime Charlie Sheen hook-up Kacey Jordan ended up in a hospital in 2011 after tweeting that she had downed a combination of Jack Daniels and pills, Pink Cross sent flowers, says Garris, who worked for Pink Cross at the time.
“It was all so contrived,” she says. “Kacey Jordan had taken a picture of the flowers, and Shelley put it online, saying, 'Send us money.' It wasn't about helping someone quietly. Every time we helped someone, it was about money.”
After Lubben recently appeared on Dr. Drew, she told the Weekly she asked Pinsky to tap her for his next Celebrity Rehab — unlikely since it doesn't focus on people who have already quit drugs and alcohol.
One critic even parsed Pink Cross' tax returns and posted the results on YouTube. The allegations were fairly mild, less-than-gotcha findings.
Pink Cross isn't the only porn-star rescue group in the world. But for now, it's the most famous.
Noted ex–porn star Crissy Moran is with another group, Treasures, which reaches out to porn performers and strippers. She won't bad-mouth Lubben as some former stars do, instead saying, “We're not anti-porn. We are pro-women. We might do outreach kind of in the same way, but we're a lot different.”
Hath Hell no fury like a multibillion-dollar industry scorned?
Diane Duke, executive director of the industry's lobbying group, the FSC, says it has not backed or organized any of Lubben's critics.
Whiteacre says he's spent about $1,500 of his own money to produce the videos about Lubben, without any support from the FSC.
“My understanding is that she blames all of her life's ills on the adult-entertainment industry,” Duke says. “I wish her well. But at some point she will have to take responsibility for her life choices — one of which is making a living demonizing the adult-entertainment industry.”
Whiteacre charges that Lubben is just a manipulator who “found a new way to hustle.”
For all her faults, however, Lubben is genuinely likable. She never backed down during Whiteacre's ambush video debates, like the one that unfolded at the puppy-rescue event, or a videotaped confrontation with Whiteacre last year outside the Sunset Strip's Rainbow Bar & Grill.
She freely admits her faults and mistakes in her book. She greets her harshest foes with a smile and a hug delivered by her solid, almost mansize frame.
At Porn Stars for Puppies she even poses, smiling, and lets herself be photographed with a girl wearing a “Shelley Lubben Treats Porn Stars Like Animals” T-shirt. Like many a former porn star, Lubben is always made up, always in heels and often gracious. She's endearing despite a messy past and a contentious present.
Girls Against Porn's Tiffany Leeper, one of Lubben's real admirers, says she's a godsend.
“These women she helps rescue, they're saved now,” Leeper says. “They're out of the industry, they're having success, they're happy.”
Danielle Williams, a 23-year-old ex-performer, recalls how she went to Lubben for spiritual guidance. “I think it's positive, the things she's doing for broken people,” Williams says.
Lubben, of course, couldn't agree more:
“We put our hands on them and pray for them,” she says. “We love these girls.”