What porn actors don’t talk about

Having sex in front of cameras is tough work. We need to discuss how much actors should be paid for it.

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Working in pornography means talking about – and doing, filming, distributing and marketing – things that frequently go undiscussed in public. Adult performers share sexual tastes and boundaries with each other in extreme detail before performing a scene, sometimes mere moments after initially meeting. And whether we’re at a public appearance or have just disclosed our job to a new acquaintance on a train, strangers often react to our documented physical and sexual openness as though it gives them a rare safe space to confess; to ask their unanswered questions about sex and to air their secrets and shames.

In stark contrast to all this discussion of bodies and sexuality, one thing we rarely talk about openly is pay. Which makes us a lot like many other workers.

This is not to say that we don’t whisper about our rates – about who pays what for which sorts of scenes, what working conditions are like on their sets and what non-monetary compensation we’ve been offered or have deemed acceptable. It’s just that we do this whispering furtively or in private, and sometimes give each other wildly inaccurate figures.

A well-known performer who had her heyday in the late 2000s once told me that her rate for a double penetration scene was $12,000. I’d just started performing and was under exclusive contract with a single studio – a situation much more like being a direct employee than an independent ­contractor – and had no experience with agencies or booking my own freelance gigs to check this figure against.

Her rate seemed plausible, though – ­being penetrated by two male-bodied people at the same time, one in the anus and one in the vagina, certainly seemed to carry a higher risk of mechanical trauma. Double penetration scenes were rare, as were performers willing to be the receptive partner in them, and rarity tends to add value in any market.

So, when I decided that I wanted to perform in a double penetration scene and the owners of the studio I was with asked how much I wanted to be paid for it, I told them I wanted $12,000. We settled in the middle. Years later it turned out that the performer who had set my expectations so exorbitantly high was actually paid 12 – or possibly 14 – hundred dollars for those sorts of scenes.

In this case, the lack of transparency around rates and my belief in an outrageous lie worked in my favour. And, as one of the rare occasions in which a performer got the much better end of a deal, it makes for a cackle-inducing story when I’m with my peers.

Much more frequently the lack of transparency regarding pay leads to newer performers undervaluing themselves and their work. This can make it difficult for an individual performer eventually to raise their rates to the standard range, and also often upsets the whole pay scale. If Susie Starr is just as subjectively attractive and objectively popular as Whitney Luv and does it for $400, Whitney’s standard $800 rate starts to seem less reasonable.

Capitalism, near as I can tell, involves a lot of companies trying to get as much out of a worker as they can for as little pay as possible. In these relationships, the worker should aim for the most pay they can get for the least work. There’s a very important emphasis on “can get”, though, because a luxuriously high rate does absolutely no good if no one is able or willing to pay it.

Including myself, there were ten perfor­mers in the film I funded and directed last year called Graphic Depictions. Only one was booked through an agency and the fee for booking through their agent was an additional $100 after their rate. I did not pay myself for the two scenes I performed in with partners or my ­non-fluid-exchanging masturbation performance in the first scene, because that would have been silly.

We paid $4,500 to performers with penises, which averages out at $750 per male performer per scene; while $4,200 went to performers with vulvas, three of whom identify as female and one who is gender-neutral, which is $1,050 each.

Why do performers get paid this much? There’s a cost of doing business that includes transportation to the set (sometimes from a different city, or even state or country), an insane level of personal grooming, and STI testing fees, which range from $155 to $210.

Having sex in front of cameras is still highly stigmatised work, and negatively ­affects employment options later in life. Even with testing and/or barrier protection, there is still a small, managed risk of blood-borne pathogen transmission and a larger risk of chlamydia and gonorrhoea – which, if acquired, are easy to treat but still mean costly regimens of antibiotics as well as missed bookings.

There is also that risk of mechanical injuries, which, though rare, may require hospitalisation and, again, mean a performer can’t work for some amount of time. Not to mention the repetitive strain injuries that accumulate over the course of a career from having sex for extended periods of time in positions that avoid blocking the light and camera.

In freelance writing – the only other profession I’m familiar with – the physical stakes are much lower but the expected number of rounds of editing and the now assumed work of driving traffic to a piece once published need to be factored in, as does any beneficial prestige of having written for a certain publication.

Every job has its own scale of standard rates and its own complex system of extra bits of cost, risk and value which must be ­navigated. To me, the most glaringly obvious way of arming workers to attain appropriate pay is to drag all of these numbers and factors out into the sunshine and discuss them openly. 

Stoya is an adult performer. She tweets at: @stoya

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable