Lee Roy (his real porn name, but not his actual birth name), thanks to the brand new studio he’s been showing people around this week, has been held up as part of a porn “exodus” to Las Vegas after LA County passed its infamous condom law last year. Some, like LA Weekly, say this supposed exodus has been wildly overstated. It’s hard to find a consensus on much in the porn industry. Regardless, no one at the AVN Awards (aka “the Oscars of Porn”) and the AEE (Adult Entertainment Expo) really wants to talk about condom laws this week. That could have something to do with the fact that the AIDs Healthcare Foundation, who sponsored and financed the LA bill, maintains that federal law requires the condoms nationwide, and thus the rule should apply to Nevada as much as it does LA, and that this loophole is only temporary, if not illusory. As with many things in porn, it seems there are differing legal interpretations, which will eventually have to be settled in court.
As mainstream as anyone wants to claim porn has become – and it’s hard to argue against certain evidence – it’s still the kind of thing judges and politicians and bureaucrats and people who hold themselves up as “respectable” are embarrassed to talk about. No one wants to talk about it long enough to agree on terms or specifics, so the laws governing porn production are all ambiguous and arcane. Making it is only officially legal in New Hampshire and California, and trying to even understand the rules is a headache. For their part, porn people seem to think that the less politicians are talking about it, the more they can just go on with their jobs in peace. Porn endures. Only the delivery systems change.
Whatever the case, Lee Roy has moved his production to Las Vegas for a host of reasons, not the least of which being that it’s cheaper to shoot here. This is an era of belt tightening for most of the porn industry. Whereas you once had to go to an actual theater and sit in seats with a roomful of people to watch porn, (which seems utterly insane to me as a child of the internet, as barbarous and thankfully obsolete as trepanning or lobotomy), most people now watch porn for free on Tube sites, from the privacy of their laptops or iPads. And as the market for paid porno dries up like the sleeve of a jizz-crusted bathrobe, the obvious solution is to lower overhead. Thus, the AVNs present an interesting situation. How does an industry that’s in an acknowledged decline treat its most self-congratulatory ceremony?
“This is a jacket we used for Ygritte, in Game of Bones,” Lee Roy says, thumbing through racks of outfits (clean) in the prop room of his studio. The warehouse-like building near the Circus-Circus casino houses a classroom set, an office full of cubicles, a room that looks like a hospital, a green screen stage, a stripper stage and pole, and room to shoot virtually anything you want, porn or otherwise. Joining us on the tour today are a professor from UCSB who studies porn – a choppy-haired, professorial-looking woman with glasses and a scarf, her nodding, eager grad student with a nose ring, and Lee Roy’s accommodating wife. Lee Roy is in the middle of explaining how the porn industry is mostly trend-driven, with everyone rushing to capitalize on the latest fad.
“So what are the big trends now?” I ask.
“Uh… piracy? Free porn killing off the porn industry is a really big trend,” he laughs.
Porn consumption is so generation-specific, so micro-generation specific, even, that your memory of it can date you almost as accurately as radiocarbons. My friend Joe, who’s 34, told his girlfriend that his favorite porno growing up was Buttwoman (you can look it up if you want, but there are a million Buttwomans). The girlfriend, who’s in her mid twenties, says she asked her male friends about it and was met with blank stares. Even the idea that someone would have a favorite porno was foreign. There’s a hard cutoff, it seems, around 1983 or 1984, where guys born before still remember the days when porn tapes were shared among friends and porn mags distributed in the woods. Guys born after, coming of age entirely in the age of reliable, private internet connection, can’t even imagine such a thing. For guys born 10 or 15 years before that, there were only theaters. While porn stars have become household names, porn itself seems to be on a larger trend from quasi-mainstream public spectacle, where Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. once did Deepthroat jokes on network TV in the seventies, to increasingly private jack-off material. What was once discussed publicly is now so personal that I’d feel a little weird about even a significant other knowing my porn-watching history.
And changing delivery systems do affect the finished product. When porn was something viewed by a broad audience in public and semi-public places, the trend seemed to be towards girl-next-door types, innocent nymphettes who blossomed when shown the light of freaky deaky sex (“she was always horny, she just needed to feel comfortable enough to be herself! YOU can help her!”). In short, characters and stories with broad appeal. Now that porn watching has become such a private activity, a place to indulge your weirdest fantasies that maybe you didn’t even know you had, we get crush videos and quicksand porn. One of the belles of the ball at this week’s AVNs is Bonnie Rotten, new to the business but already the toast of the town, a performer with spider web tattoos radiating out from the areolae of her implanted breasts, among countless other tattoos. Definitely a little freaky for my tastes, but I admit the scene in Rambone where the Colonel Trautman character gives her vigorous standing anal in a field has a certain appeal. Also, everyone I’ve talked to at the AVNs says she’s an incredibly pleasant person.
In any case, Bonnie Rotten seems to be a reflection of the porn phenomenon “the riches are in the niches,” as director Jacky St. James puts it, during a panel on “The Future of the Feature.” St. James, young, girl-next-door pretty and articulate, with strawberry blonde hair, who also happens to direct porn, is lamenting the fact that the movies she makes that she’s most invested in tend to sell the worst. While the ones she thought were the strangest, most novelty-themed ideas from the outset, tend to sell the best. The entire purpose of this panel, it seems, is as a support group for porn directors who really like making porn features, and trying to figure out how to reconcile that with a changing business, where viewers only watch porn in 10-minute chunks, where story, and all the creativity that went into it, is irrelevant.
“I’m a pornographer, it’s what I do,” one the guys on the panel says, looking wizened and hip, more like a Bad Religion guitarist than the Al Goldstein pinky-ring stereotype.
He’s so earnest and honest and sincere – they all are. Like they really do make porn because they love it. Artists, but mostly unpretentious about it, because it’s an unpretentious art. They’re charming in the way that anyone who seems to really believe in what they do are charming. And then I feel bad because I can’t remember ever having watched a feature porn, except out of curiosity. I watch porn in the same free, 10-minute chunks that are killing these peoples’ business model as everyone else. I wonder how the feature model even still exists. Are feature-length porn releases still supported by a hard core contingent of romantics, like vinyl records? As if to answer my question, a tall woman with a thick drawl and big hair stands up during the question and answer period, saying that she owns an adult bookstore, and that bookstores and adult theaters still thrive in the Bible belt, because a lot of people there still don’t feel comfortable jacking off at home. I try to understand how a person could feel more comfortable masturbating in a shared jack-off space where your shoes probably stick to the floor from other guys’ dried semen than they would in their own house behind a locked door, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. Masturbating, it’s somehow universal yet intensely divisive. Sex. Fickle. Imagine that.