Better Living Through Porno
... or What I Learned as an Adult Industry Worker
By Kelly Petrash
AUGUST 14, 2000: The six months of unemployment had taken its toll. I had become a talk-show addict, a permanent fixture on our living room couch, leaving the house only to trade my food stamps to friends for Slurpee and beer money. This was Austin, when the job market was as tight as the real estate market is today. Unaware of the finer points concerning job supply and demand in Austin's then-erratic economy, I could produce neither job supply nor demand for my services, whatever those were. All I knew is that I was beyond broke.
I had reached the point where I was sifting through and pricing my personal belongings. Preparing to sell off bits of my life, I received a phone call about a job application I had filed. Within a five-minute whirlwind conversation, I was hired. Not just anywhere. You see, I was the first girl on my block to land one of the most coveted, high-paying positions that a local business had to offer.
The fact that it was an adult video and books retailer seemed like a minor detail at the time.
So began the story of my time as a worker in the adult industry. Working up to 80 hours a week for those following two years has lent me some perspective on subjects that many have strong feelings about and will not discuss. You know what I call these people? Customers. I have learned some amazing things about people by inadvertently observing sex-shop customers.
The adult film industry may very well be a cracked reflection or piece of the mirror that reflects a much larger picture -- who we are and how that is shaped by what surrounds us. Like any other form of entertainment, porn is a product that must be packaged, promoted, and sold. What sets it apart from other product is the subject itself and how it is presented.
Yes, the subject is sex. People having sex on film. People having sex on video. People having sex all kinds of ways with all kinds of people.
The Salad Days: an EducationGiven my previous period of unemployment, the heavy demand on my time was no big deal. Everyone I worked with seemed to give themselves over completely to the demands this 24/7 retail work week required. We were never closed. The stores were never empty. I quickly picked up on the fact that this sort of dedication was required to stay employed at this particular business. The money was the hook, the overtime hours unlimited. Besides, hadn't I had enough time off doing nothing better than wearing a groove in our living room sofa?
This was a new experience in an environment I knew very little about. There was a lot to learn over the next few months, and to my surprise, I learned more quickly than expected. I soon found myself able to rattle off the top of my head multiple titles in any given genre of adult film. Some of the genres were completely unknown to me, much to the amusement of some co-workers. I still had a lot to learn.
Here's a short vocabulary list (by genre, with some definitions and film title samples) to help any newcomers:
Penetration in the CenterfoldMy everyday life focus shifted dramatically over time. Amusing work-related anecdotes told to friends began to lose their novelty as my limited free time took its social toll. Friends and boyfriends began to drift away as I spent more time bonding over drinks with co-workers.
No longer wet behind the ears, I was fully immersed in this work and the industry. I looked forward each month to a new issue of AVN (Adult Video News), the industry trade publication. I would pore over information on new releases, bitchy gossip, and adult toys with enthusiasm and discuss it with customers. I no longer wondered about what my other friends were doing without me in their lives.
If money was the hook that snagged me, then it was my own personal curiosity that reeled me in for the catch. The change over time from the perpetually startled, stammering novice to an informed, title-spouting sex savant had been noticed by others. A rapid series of promotions propelled me to general manager of all stores. I reported directly to the owner and was responsible for all operations and personnel. This gave me all the validation I needed to completely step into the role I was given.
It was official -- I was an important person with great responsibility. I became a porn princess. I completely replaced an active participation in life with a job and the lives of the people I observed on a daily basis. I learned a few things along the way.
Men & WomenOnly now in retrospect can I appreciate the straightforward concept of an adult retail business. You deal in only one kind of movie and customers come in for only one kind of movie. Pure and simple. Supply and demand.
Customers are 99.9% men, hands down. Occasional groups of women come in and huddle around potential bachelorette party favors, whispering and giggling. The rare solo female will make a beeline straight for me to help her. She wants a movie "not like a cheesy adult movie" that she can watch with her husband or boyfriend. I know what she means when she says that: one that actually has a narrative structure, plot-style substance -- then you throw in your hard-core sex. The plot is ridiculous, of course, but at least there is the porno equivalent of visual foreplay compared to the usual assault of jumpy edits of people going at it.
Whereas a man can get something out of a title such as 555 Cumshots, which features, well, 555 cumshots, women usually want a little more out of their sex videos: They want the sex to be sexy. What they'd like to find is something that captures their imagination. What inspires each woman's fantasy can vary greatly. What won't do it (usually) is depersonalized images of various body parts grinding away. I think the idea is summed up nicely by adult film star and Hustler columnist Jeanna Fine. "My clit is right between my eyes." Ms. Fine knows where it's at, yo. Women's minds must first be stimulated before the rest can follow.
Porno Ironies1. Popular female stars are routinely paid thousands of dollars more per feature compared to their male counterparts. A top female starlet also has the opportunity to cash in by going on strip-club tours, doing autograph signings/photo shoots at adult bookstores, and personally endorsing adult products. Centerfold work in the large number of adult publications is yet another source of income available mostly to women in the heterosexual market. Men can up their financial worth in the market by choosing to do gay male porn, but there tends to be little crossover between performers in the genres. That women routinely stand to profit more than men is unusual in any industry, but it's doubly ironic that it happens in an industry that many feel degrades them.
2. Depending on what you want to believe, women either act or participate in porno, but the men must actually perform. Supply of erections and cumshots on demand is crucial. Still, the men make less money.
3. Men rent and watch porno to enhance the absence of someone in their lives (or at least the room they occupy). Women rent and watch porno to enhance the company of someone in their lives (room theory still applies).
There is a voice inside all of us that directs us through our lives. We have the free will to listen or ignore these inner dialogues. It is a gut feeling -- one's instinct. I chose to ignore mine for most of this period, but still was nagged by an uneasy feeling that continued to grow. I also couldn't shake a subtle yet persistent feeling of sadness for some regular customers of ours. By this point, I knew most of them by name.
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