Sex Work as (Anti)Work: On Heather Berg’s “Porn Work”

June 7, 2021   •   By Scott W. Stern

Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism

Heather Berg

“EVERY PORN SCENE is a record of people at work.” So begins Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism, a new book by the Washington University feminist studies scholar Heather Berg. It’s an arresting statement, at once self-evident yet also likely to confound many readers. How many people who do not make porn have thought much about the labor conditions of those who do?

Apparently, not many scholars. Porn scholarship, Berg writes, focuses overwhelmingly on “issues of representation and consumption,” on porn as a text rather than as a workplace. “Labor scholarship, on the other hand, has strenuously avoided critical engagement with porn and other sex work,” she continues. Thus, Berg has written a book that seeks to unite these two disparate scholarly fields. The result is a breathtaking work of scholarship — the product of 81 interviews Berg conducted with performers, managers, and crew members, the interviewees ranging in age from 21 to 70 — that challenges preconceived notions and tidy assumptions on every page.

Intended less as a traditional ethnography and more as an effort to “bring interviewees’ expertise to bear on porn, sex, and work,” Porn Work builds on deep theoretical engagement and nearly a decade of fieldwork. Porn as work, Berg ultimately argues, exemplifies the deep contradictions of late capitalism but also models a work landscape unlike most others. Contrary to the traditional Marxist understandings of class position, for instance, porn workers often move between various positions within the industry, from performer to director to producer and back again, often doing so rapidly and sometimes simultaneously. Porn workers have also been navigating precarious workplaces for longer than laborers in many other industries and job sectors, and thus they have long grown adept at thwarting management and exercising power in the workplace in ways that are usually ignored by outsiders committed to imagining porn workers as powerless and pitiable.

“Everybody gets used in one way or another,” Dominic Ace, a veteran porn publicist, tells Berg in one interview. “Whether you’re a secretary, a janitor, whatever. The difference here is it’s sex.” Perhaps Berg’s most important intervention is that she takes that last sentence seriously. In many ways, porn work is unexceptional, and that’s because porn work — like all work — is exploitative and often sucks. But the presence of sex “brings both particular vulnerabilities and resources — intensified state violence and stigma on the one hand and the potential for pleasureful refusal on the other.” Taking pleasure seriously makes it impossible to treat porn as just a job. “I get to have and give pleasure every day for my job,” the performer-activist Conner Habib explains to Berg. “Is that not in some ways a great potential to sidestep ‘I get to give and experience misery’?”

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It’s striking that so many people’s perceptions of porn are a decade or two out of date; in fact, as Berg claims, “[t]he porn industry as it has been traditionally understood does not exist.” While many outsiders imagine a conventional media landscape with powerful producers and established studios and a small number of recognizable “stars,” the 2008 financial crisis, combined with the proliferation of piracy and widespread access to cheap production technology, has resulted in a “glutted labor market but one that is also open to a range of workers’ creative interventions.” For many porn workers, the 2010s meant less stability, scarcer profits, a more diffuse performer community, and greater competition for fewer gigs. However, it also meant the advent of direct-to-consumer and “interactive” content — often filmed from home and advertised for free via social media — which has disrupted managers’ power and eased entry into porn for more workers from more diverse backgrounds.

Berg begins by describing the “shop floor” for porn performers who work under a director and a producer. The porn workday starts with workers negotiating the terms of their labor — the details and boundaries of what they will do. (“No interviewees reported being forced to perform scenes they had initially refused,” Berg notes. It’s expensive when performers walk off set, and “with so many willing workers, there is little reason to cajole unwilling ones.”) Next comes STI test authentication, paperwork, hair and makeup, and other body preparations (for instances, douches, enemas, other medicines). Then, generally, waiting. Long days and delays are common on porn sets — a source of anxiety or anger for some performers who just want to go home, but also sometimes an opportunity for community-building and side-hustling.

“It need not reinforce the conservative idea of a neat distinction between porn sex and ‘real’ sex to acknowledge that most sex on set is labor intensive in ways off-set sex generally is not,” Berg writes. Performers need to convincingly manufacture sexual chemistry with a scene partner even if they’re not attracted to them; they need to avoid reaching orgasm or ejaculation too soon; they need to pause often for difficult still shots. And they need to learn how to position their bodies to reduce discomfort, chafing, and repetitive stress injuries. All of this is work, and all of it takes skill.

There is also the invisible labor that happens off-camera and off-set, which often destroys any boundary between work and life. Porn workers (like other gig workers) need to constantly market themselves, which nowadays means cultivating a consistent social media presence — a time-consuming proposition, and, when it involves interactions with fans, one that requires heavy emotional labor. Porn workers often spend hundreds of dollars a month and countless hours maintaining their appearances — labor that falls more heavily on “workers who fall outside the white, cis-feminine norm.” Many now engage in “satellite work,” such as erotic dance, webcamming, and escort work, which can provide vital income but is sometimes seen as lower on the “whorearchy” of sex work. Some porn workers also take on “straight work,” meaning work outside of the sex work sector, though their visibility often renders them vulnerable to harassment or firing from which they enjoy no legal protection.

The varying rates porn workers are paid are highly secretive, but performers are often aware of disparities in compensation. White, cisgender, and thin performers generally have an easier time finding work on high-budget studio productions that pay well; the few performers of color or trans performers who do get cast in such features often encounter lower pay and demeaning fetishization. Some non-Black performers refuse to do “interracial” scenes, or even charger higher rates for them. (Some agents, meanwhile, told Berg that “they disallow ‘interracial’ work in order to maintain what they see is a valuable fan market of racist consumers.”) Women (cis and trans) who perform in penile-vaginal or penile-anal intercourse scenes make an average of $800 to $1,000, while cis men make $300 to $600 for the same scenes (though they make $800 to $1,200 for gay scenes). Blow jobs and solo masturbation pay less. Performers in so-called “feminist” productions (supposedly produced in an equitable manner, though this is much contested) generally make flat fees, usually $200 to $600 per scene. Some lower-end director-producers told Berg they don’t need to pay male performers at all, as amateur men would jump at the chance to have free sex with a “porn star.” Of course, this sort of arrangement undercuts the labor market for those who depend on the industry for their incomes and other means of security. “Sex work tourism can be a kind of scabbing,” Berg concludes.

The sex itself is, predictably, the part of porn work on which most critics and scholars focus their attention. Berg does likewise, though in an innovative way, devoting an entire chapter to parsing porn workers’ feelings about “pleasure [a]s a working condition.” Sometimes porn workers find sex on set to be physically uncomfortable; others find porn sex not too rough but rather too tame, perhaps because directors want to “appeal to an imagined feminist audience.” Some porn workers withhold full effort from a scene or seek to maintain an emotional detachment from the work, but many do not — either because a lackluster performance could affect their ability to get future work or because they find genuine pleasure and authentic fulfilment in the work. Invocations of “pleasure” and “authenticity” can be a means of managerial manipulation, a way for bosses to coerce workers into doing free or informal labor. But the porn workers Berg spoke to demand that their authenticity and pleasure be taken seriously. “In sex work as elsewhere,” Berg explains, pleasure can make “work feel less like work. And authenticity claims can be a means of refusing anti-sex-worker stigma.”

Porn Work thrives on such ambiguities and contradictions. Many of Berg’s interviewees discussed porn as a means of real self-expression even as they critiqued the obsession outsiders have with whether porn is “authentic” or not. One performer pushed back on the notion that porn is “work” because the term connotes suffering, but in the same interview acknowledged that there was plenty of suffering in porn. It’s difficult, Berg admits, to discuss the authentic pleasure some workers find in porn while also recognizing that, for most workers, porn is “a way to make do and get by.” Porn is work, then, but it’s not merely work. Ultimately, Berg concludes, porn workers’ “refusal to resolve this tension is instructive.” Taking pleasure seriously is vital to recognizing the ways that workers struggle, win autonomy, and “take something from porn performance that exceeds what racial capitalism intends.”

As our rapidly warming, pandemic-ravaged society descends ever deeper into precarity and despair, many critics, scholars, activists, and artists are in the midst of a major reevaluation the ethics of work itself, and Porn Work must be understood as part of this broader trend. Berg credits many sex worker theorists for creating new ways of thinking about pleasureful subversions of capitalism; femi babylon, for instance, has urged thinkers to “move beyond ‘sex work is work’” to “‘sex work is (anti)work.’” Outside of this context, journalist Sarah Jaffe has just published a deeply reported manifesto titled Work Won’t Love You Back, while fellow reporter Anne Helen Petersen titled the epilogue her recent book about burnout “Burn It Down.” Historians like Louis Hyman have excavated the origins of the workplace as gig-ified hellscape, and anthropologists like the late David Graeber have decried the resulting rise in “bullshit jobs.” The legal scholar Daniel Markovits has recently argued that even elite white-collar workers are increasingly miserable.

Berg’s argument that porn work is different is persuasive, but such an argument can also be overstated. Work sucks, and workers across sectors and across borders are increasingly recognizing the need for radical change. Solidarity depends on such widespread and mutual recognition. In this context, perhaps Berg’s most significant contribution to the discourse is to highlight the creative ways that porn workers have found to resist work.

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Porn workers engage in struggles for control and respect in myriad ways, which Berg details with laudable attention and care. She writes that she began her research looking for traditional forms of worker organizing, like union drives or lobbying efforts, and, though she found plenty of that, her interviewees ultimately convinced her that these do not represent their strongest means of resistance.

The Screen Actors Guild excluded porn workers in 1974, a policy that has remained unchanged and has been followed by pretty much all of the mainstream labor movement. And though there have been some attempts at traditional union organizing, workers told Berg that the more impactful advocacy efforts were “nontraditional forms of organizing,” such as peer education and building support systems. These have been vital as new porn workers learn to negotiate terms and deal with untrustworthy managers. (“It was not uncommon for non-sex-worker interviewees to suggest that sex workers are not terribly bright,” Berg writes, “only to later describe a situation in which sex workers had outsmarted them.”) Mutual aid networks allow porn workers to assist each other in securing housing and transitioning into straight jobs. Shortly before Porn Work went to press, for instance, organizers founded the BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, which engages in a range of mutual aid work — from skill shares and virtual workshops to transferring money directly to porn workers in need.

Porn workers’ struggles for autonomy and respect take place in other areas, as well. For instance, many resist one-dimensional stereotypes with irreverent social media presences. The “best thing about twitter,” Vex Ashley tweeted in 2018, is that “in 1999 you could keep the dream alive your favourite porn girls were perma-horny, passive, and amenable, but now it’s unavoidable public record that we’re all basically acerbic, snarky communists who do not stand for bullshit.”

The rise of social media, as well as the affordability of audiovisual recording equipment, has also allowed many performers (especially those with large fan followings) to produce their own scenes. This can enable them to circumvent industry racism or niche casting, often employing other workers in the process. Many more use technology like OnlyFans to work on their own, which has rendered the entire industry less dependent on large production companies. This democratized access to the means of production has not, however, created a world with no bosses. Personalized services still frequently require a middleman; some webcam platforms take massive cuts of performers’ profits, and (as in the world of straight work) they rely on “algorithmic management.”

State surveillance can further limit the emancipatory potential of DIY and direct-to-consumer porn. In 2018, Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) legislative package, which was pitched as a way to create legal consequences for websites that facilitate sex trafficking. The law’s sponsors had framed it as protecting sex workers, but sex workers themselves were shut out of the drafting process, their insights and objections ignored. As a result, SESTA/FOSTA have made sex workers less safe, shuttering websites through which they could screen potential clients, forcing many onto the streets, and rendering them more vulnerable to the possible violence of clients, pimps, the police, and — ironically and tragically — traffickers.

In the world of porn, workers’ distance from fans insulated them to some extent from the negative impacts of SESTA/FOSTA, but the laws’ “deliberately broad definition of trafficking” led numerous sites to shut out sex workers, including video conferencing and payment processing technology. “Google Drive erased performers’ video files without warning,” Berg recounts, “in some cases destroying workers’ only scene files.” As with sex work more broadly, this has led many porn workers back to conventional porn managers.

In the months leading up to the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, sex workers began to organize against the legislation, and in the aftermath of its passage many began providing education for workers rendered vulnerable by the laws and media training for workers to try to shift the dominant media narrative. More broadly, porn workers have long had to engage in anti-stigma activism (especially because the major producers that once spearheaded free-speech lawsuits now “have a fraction of the power and wealth they once did”). Many porn workers are forced to fight against discriminatory landlords, stigmatizing or disrespectful medical care, and even exclusion from basic banking privileges.

The porn workers Berg interviewed “overwhelmingly” distrusted the state to remedy these vulnerabilities, in large part because their primary interactions with the state come in the form of surveillance. Porn workers want occupational health protections, but policy-makers tend to focus monomaniacally on two areas where workers largely just want autonomy: HIV prevention protocols and mandatory condom laws. In California, many legislators fought for a ballot initiative that would have allowed private citizens to sue “producers” who violate the law by failing to use condoms during filming; according to porn workers, this would have left many performer-producers vulnerable to harassment and even given stalkers access to their personal information. In the face of such unresponsive regulators, what porn workers want, Berg argues, “is freedom from both state and employer control.”

This desire for freedom can be confused with run-of-the-mill libertarianism (a philosophy commonly attributed to the porn industry), but to Berg’s credit she refuses to flatten the complexity of porn workers’ critique. Their opposition is not so much to state intervention as to invasive or carceral state intervention. It is no contradiction for vulnerable workers to simultaneously reject state surveillance yet also decry state neglect. Once again, porn workers’ critique has relevance far beyond porn, or sex work more broadly. In so many sectors of work, we are well past the point at which the liberal state — or liberalism itself — could save us. Only an insistence on a radical redistribution of wealth, power, and control could allow workers to liberate themselves from bleak and broken work. And only continuous struggle will result in this radical break.

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What might this look like? One possibility can be found in the title Berg chose for her epilogue: “Fuck Jobs.”

While liberals may promote reforms that would classify porn workers as “employees” and thus eligible for certain wage and health protections, Berg argues that this would “represent a backward-looking attempt to bring a few more workers into a broken category (and one that, again, some workers do not want).” Porn work does not track easily on the law’s artificial boundary between private life and public work, and, in any case, “there is no going back — the conditions that created limited security for a privileged subset of mostly white, male workers in the mid-twentieth century are gone.”

Instead of fighting for a less miserable system of work, Berg and many of her interviewees adopt a resolutely anti-work perspective. There is something genuinely disruptive about getting paid to exchange pleasure, Berg writes. “It is an exchange that beckons a postwork utopia in which guaranteed annual incomes replace the compulsion to work and pleasure seeking takes the place of drudgery.”

Berg’s three-page-long epilogue does not comprehensively lay out what precisely this utopia might look like, or how exactly we might get to it, but this was not her project. Rather, canny readers can glean from her work “vital clues about surviving this moment of profound capitalist crisis,” she writes. Excluded from legal protections and the larger labor movement, porn workers have had to be creative, to establish their own education and support systems, to buy their own means of production and employ their friends, to take pleasure seriously. Berg’s interviewees may have found traditional union organizing to be less helpful than other means of mutual aid and resistance, yet readers should not conclude from this that they should disregard unions; indeed, the future of the planet may well depend on passage of legislation like the PRO Act and the revitalization of the labor movement. Nonetheless, labor organizers and political activists should take heed of porn workers’ creativity and success in disrupting the paradigm of work as misery or monotony.

Porn work necessarily “reimagines porn, and work,” Berg concludes. And then, quoting performer-activist Conner Habib: “Okay, fuck jobs.”

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Scott W. Stern is a lawyer and historian, originally from Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women (2018).