TheBacklot’s Diverse Voices feature is a venue for thoughtful opinion pieces from guest writers. We welcome your submissions and strive to publish a variety of viewpoints.
Guest columnist Conner Habib is an adult performer, writer and also hosts the popular video advice series, “Ask the Sexpert“. The following essay originally appeared on his blog http://connerhabib.wordpress.com. You can find him on Twitter @ConnerHabib.
Why do porn actors kill themselves? Who is responsible?
Whenever a porn star – especially a gay porn star – commits suicide, theories show up, and people act very, very certain about them. Arpad Miklos, who was as much as a porn “star” as anyone can be in a time when we are hyper-saturated with porn, killed himself on February 3rd, 2013, at the age of 45. As usual, many people felt sure they knew why he committed suicide, without much evidence. It was drugs, it was studios not treating him well, it was the feeling of dehumanization, it was the vague but all encompassing “porn industry” that did it, it was the feeling of being hollow, it was it was his loss of validation after being a star for so long.
I can’t claim any special knowledge about his death, I didn’t know him very well. We met in passing on a set; he’d just finished a scene, and I was about to start mine. He was huge and handsome; I’m not saying anything new. If you met him, you were impressed by his smile and his body and his presence. Looking at him almost made you feel a sense of unbalance in the world, like his handsomeness and flawless physique were proof of some deep inequality between people. But then you’d forget that feeling and be drawn back into the intense attraction.
He gave me a kiss and his phone number and asked me if I’d like to spend time with him later that night. My scene ran over schedule, and I was exhausted, so I told him I couldn’t meet. We communicated a few more times over the years by text and phone, and that was that. I mention all of this to say: I don’t know his motivations or who he “really” was. We kept passing through each other’s lives without ever truly meeting.
But others who knew him even less than me flooded twitter, wrote articles, posted to facebook about what had happened. The theories appeared as soon as the news did. It was immediate, like flies to a corpse. Theories arrived before grief, before honor and love and the experience of loss. When a gay porn star dies, instead of an outpouring of grief, we usually witness a buzzing.
All of this is to say that not even death can trump many people’s confused and hostile attitudes towards porn and porn performers. That is how deeply injured we are as a society when it comes to sex, sexuality, and love.
It’s natural to turn events like suicide into cultural concerns.
Tragedies are supposed to pose questions to us – the feelings of discomfort that sadness brings can create meaningful action. But these actions are always most effective when we don’t bypass grief and compassion to get to them. Unfortunately, the people that make up the largest group involved in porn – the viewers and consumers – may not understand what it’s like to be a performer or to work for a studio. The porn industry remains obscured by unexamined attitudes towards sex. So compassion isn’t always available.
There’s a general confusion for outsiders about performer motivations for making porn, how much money they make, what happens during a shoot, what health and safety precautions are in place, how a scene is organized, what it feels like to be a crew member and more. The result is that a monolithic image of “gay porn star” and the “gay porn industry” is formed. But unlike ideas of other industries – banking or agriculture, say – people’s perceptions are colored by a broader societal confusion: a difficulty in thinking and communicating clearly when it comes to sex and desire.
This confusion is generated by many factors, most importantly by social and cultural institutions that have historically leveraged sex as a way to control people (I address some of those forces here, and will write more about them in the future). Because these forces create pressure and guilt around sex, when someone like Miklos, who had sex publicly, kills himself, people tend to think he was sad because of his public sex life. They don’t focus on the fact that he was trained as a chemist nor do they ask what his relationships were like or if he was generally happy. Instead, a knee-jerk reaction links his sadness with porn.
People want to know: How was porn involved in this death?
This isn’t a totally unfair question, but when left unrefined, it’s not a good one; it’s misguided at best, damaging at its worst. Aside from not taking all the other factors of Miklos’s death into account, it’s misguided because it’s not nearly a deep enough or complete enough question. It focuses too much on the performer as victim and not enough on sex in society, nor how the porn viewer receives porn and thinks about porn performers, or how sex is legislated, or what our unquestioned assumptions about the “porn industry” are.
The porn performer is, in general, not a victim. This image of the performer as starting porn because of bad circumstance or compulsion is largely a lie (perpetuated, in part, by confused critics of porn). Part of this false image comes from the idea that porn performers just “fall into” porn or that they’re “discovered” by unscrupulous studio moguls with big, villainous mustaches. But the majority of would-be porn performers now approach studios, not vice versa. They’re seeking porn work for different reasons. Some of those reasons are aligned with the performer’s heart and integrity, others are not, but almost none of the reasons merit the label “victim,” at least not for deciding to be in porn.
The result is thousands of healthy, thoughtful, happy porn performers in gay and straight porn that haven’t killed themselves. And their ways of enacting being a porn performer are very different. There are performers that make one movie to try it out. There are porn stars who make a career out of it like Miklos did, appearing for years in different movies by different studios. There are performers who shoot scenes with their boyfriends and post them to XTube; there are performers who wish they could make more. There are people who long to be in the porn industry but can’t break into it, or are too afraid to start.
Many (though not all) have other jobs: Along with porn stars who are also escorts and personal trainers, I know gay porn stars who are lawyers, farmers, doctors, meteorologists, and artists. Some don’t have much overhead at all because they live with their parents, who know what they do and are proud of their children.
While there may be some vast archetype that encompasses all porn stars, there’s no such thing as a typical “gay porn star.” We’re all different.
So sadness and mental health problems are not an industry epidemic – that perception is inaccurate, as is the notion that porn stars don’t have any other skills or feel compelled to do porn out of a lack of options. Such statements simply aren’t true.
Of course, some performers do have mental health problems. Some are suicidal, some are drug addicts. The same is true for lawyers, farmers, doctors, etc. who are not porn stars.
If we strip misconceptions away, we still have a question of porn and mental health before us. But it appears in in a refined version, a version that makes sense. We can ask ourselves, what are the specific pressures of being in gay porn? How can we make those pressures less of a burden?
None of the pressures that face porn stars are exclusive to porn – many of them face mainstream actors and athletes, for example. One of the main problems is the constant inflation and collapse of a performer’s ego.
Once, after shooting a scene for a studio I hadn’t worked with before, one of the staff enthusiastically invited me to the “family.” He told me how great I’d done and how excited he was to work with me again. I was in a towel, exhausted, and happy to hear the news. We were interrupted by a phone call. He answered and entered into an urgent sounding discussion with a performer on the other end. The studio just couldn’t hire him, the employee said, for the rate he wanted. Then he relayed to the performer, studio by studio, how much other studios were paying. It was significantly less than I’d been paid for work that day. I felt a little sad for the other performer, but didn’t think much of it. I became friendly with everyone at the studio, and we’d talk outside of work, too.
Months later I was the performer on the receiving end of this conversation. Another staff member of the studio had warned me that I was “fat” and that I was asking for too much money. My appearance hadn’t changed since they’d last hired and praised me. If anything, I was more toned. I explained that I was only requesting the same rate they’d always paid me. He went down the same studio-by-studio list, detailing rates, saying that everyone was paying less now. But the rates he quoted were incorrect. I knew that now, because I’d worked for everyone on his list, appearing in a scene for one of them just a week ago. It was a canned speech, created to dock performers’ pay.
Why was someone who I thought was my friend lying to me? The first answer that comes to mind isn’t quite right : money. Such a simple answer doesn’t explain why we couldn’t have had an honest conversation about money, rather than one coupled with insults and constructed to intimidate me in to accepting less.
Another time, I saw a hopeful newcomer come to the set for some preliminary casting photos. A director photographed him, and gave him many encouraging words when they were done. When the aspiring performer left, the director started complaining about how fat the guy was.
“What a fucking slob,” he said in front of me and the other performers hired for the day. Everyone was quiet.
“Did you tell him he wasn’t ready?” I asked, finally.
“No, he should have known,” he said.
There’s a fear among many performers that what we hear from employers is not reflective of how they actually feel, and this fear is, at least in part, justified by stories like these. I’ve heard these complaints echoed again and again by other performers. On top of this, like many entertainment-related businesses, porn studios are extremely busy but often disorganized. Not hearing back from a studio in a timely manner after initial emails or calls creates a flashing anxiety; is it because they’re ignoring you, because they forgot, or are they simply, reasonably, busy? Until you learn how to navigate it, all this puts you in a weird split state. Are your employers your smiling and nodding friends or are they harboring thoughts about you that they’re not expressing?
Again, this isn’t a complaint confined to the porn industry – it’s a problem with many American business models, where honesty and forthrightness are not properly valued. But in porn, it’s compounded by the fact that these concerns mix into performers’ anxieties about their bodies. Every porn performer I know has at least some fear of how the public will receive our bodies or how “fat” or “skinny” or “small” we look, even though we may not be fat or skinny or small by any means (and if we are, that brings in a separate set of societal issues). This situation isn’t made any better by unscrupulous internet commenters and bloggers, who are happy to leave the cruelest comments they can think of under photos of our naked bodies.
Working in porn has a healthy aspect and a dark shadow.
Porn is healthy for a performer to the extent that it allows him to detach, rather than immerse himself in his body.
Porn offers an amazing opportunity to think about your body. You have to think about how it looks, what food to put into it, what exercises to do to refine it, how to relax it, how to take care of it. You even have to consider that other people may not like your body, no matter what you do. Your dick might be too small (or too big!) for them. They may not like your face or think your abs are undeveloped. In porn, you have the opportunity to hear these complaints and to love yourself anyway. It’s very freeing if you can achieve it. When you can think about your body, you create a loving distance from it, a detachment. It becomes an honor to have a body when you know it’s only an aspect of your being.
One happy and surprising side effect being in porn has had on me is that it’s loosened up my response to societal standards of beauty, allowing me to see who I actually find attractive. Before porn, I found myself having a reflexive response to men with huge pecs and six pack abs. If a huge guy walked into a bar, I (along with a lot of the other patrons) would turn instinctively to look at him. Maybe I’d compare myself or other guys at the bar to him. After being paid to have sex on camera with men like that, the feeling has totally left me. Sometimes I’m still attracted to men who fall into society’s standard of beauty, but it’s not reactive. Being in porn, being detached from my body, has helped me see the real contours of my desire and attraction, rather than conforming to what I’m told to think is attractive.
The same detachment is what allowed me to hear from the studio owner that I was “fat” and not breakdown, or to read mean-spirited comments on blogs, or to resist the command to do steroids from another studio worker. My body is linked to my worth, but it’s mine, after all. I’m a caretaker for my body. The more detachment I get from it, the more clearly I see that. I can feel this way most of the time now, but I still dip into the shadow every once in awhile.
The shadow side is that, as a porn performer, you can begin to completely identify with your body. You can think it’s who you are. You can stumble off to the gym and onto the set and through parties and bars, cutting off your mind from other aspects of experience. When you’re in this immersed state, an internet commenter or mean-spirited blogger or tactless industry employee calling you fat can feel devastating.
This is problematic enough, but it becomes crushing when you start to believe that your body is all you have to offer. While I think most arguments about objectification are shallow, I also notice how porn performers can limit their own freedom and destroy their happiness by equating their bodies with their worth (and their worth with how much people are willing to validate their bodies by paying to film them.) This is where a cliche comes from, the one where the ex-porn actor says desperately, “But porn is all I know!” How to perform on camera is never all anyone knows, but being in porn creates the possibility of that self-delusion.
It’s good to equate some self-worth with the appearance of your body. Too little emotional and thoughtful investment in our bodies can lead to poor health and compulsive daily patterns. Equating too much self worth with our bodies can do the same, but the damage is often to mental health. We become sensitive, obsessive, or prone to taking mood- altering steroids which for some can amplify the problem.
But these are just the pressures porn performers face directly through their involvement in porn.
Since porn is a global phenomenon, watched by millions and millions of people, the largest part of the porn industry is the consumer. Consumers make up a special and powerful part of pornography. Since viewers derive pleasure from porn, they are connected to it, not exempt from shouldering some of the responsibility for the well-being of porn performers.
Despite the global popularity of porn, prejudice against performers has not diminished. Teachers have been fired, simply because they had consensual sex with another person on camera; but no one is prepared to say why being in porn should make someone unfit to teach. Olympic hopefuls with a porn past have been banned from competing under the auspices that they wouldn’t properly represent their country; but isn’t porn part of the country’s culture? Reality TV stars – have been disqualified from their shows for being in porn; but pornography was the original reality TV, a blend of real and unreal, and certainly full of performers that people are willing to pay to watch.
Involvement with porn becomes an automatic, unthinking grounds for discrimination. The same people who fire or “out” porn and former performers must have watched porn. But the porn viewer can conceal his/her enjoyment of pornography. So long as this is true, the many people who have masturbated to pornography – and this includes most men and an increasing number of women – don’t have to feel any connection to the well-being of porn performers, who have provided the viewers with sexual pleasure.
All that is a broad, societal issue. But what about smaller, personal instances of discrimination? Porn viewers make discriminate against porn viewers on a smaller scale, through unthinking slut-shaming. But porn performers aren’t just a spectacle, they are, in one sense, the sexual partners of the people who watch them. Their images and actions tie into the arousal and orgasm of the viewer. Why are we asking, “What is it with gay porn?” but not asking, “What is it with the way society treats people who bring them pleasure?”
These are larger questions that I – and many other sex workers – continue to work through, and that are larger than the scope of this essay. One of the reasons many sex workers are interested in these questions is because they expose something fascinating about Western culture and sex. But another is that we want to be able to stop this unwarranted discrimination, to be able to be ourselves without reproach or dismissal.
So: “Why do porn actors kill themselves?” is not the right question. It’s bound to prejudices, misconceptions, and shame.
A better question: What can we do to make involvement with porn easier, less stressful, and healthier?
Each of us, depending on our relationship to porn, can approach this by asking a series of different questions, and by working towards honest answers.
Performers can ask themselves:
Am I ready to be in porn? Does porn fit into the context of my life and my vision of my future?
Can I endure the misunderstandings of others without lashing out in anger or being weighed down by sadness? Will I be okay when my parents and loved ones find out (and they invariably find out)?
Most importantly, can I maintain the knowledge that I am not only my body, that my body is a part of me, not all of me?
People who work for studios can ask themselves:
Am I ready to put in effort to deal with performers, who may have sensitive feelings about their bodies, in a gentle way that is at the same time honest and open?
Am I being honest and open with the performers I work with and hire?
Am I being transparent (with myself and my performers) about pay and why certain performers are being paid the amounts they are, and why they were hired or rejected in the first place?
Studio employees and owners can also ask performers the questions that performers should be asking themselves:
Are you ready for this?
Can you do this and not put your self-worth into it?
Does this fit into the context of your life? Etc.
Viewers can ask themselves:
How do I feel about porn performers?
Am I grateful for the pleasure that porn gives me, or do I feel shame about it?
If I met a porn actor I liked, how would I react?
Viewers can also talk more openly about watching porn (and sex in general), which will help give voice to just how commonplace a phenomenon pornography is.
Of course, these questions don’t have to be phrased the way that I’ve written them. They don’t have to all be asked at once; any one of them might be difficult to answer honestly. I’m also familiar enough with the many problems we face in pornography – the way it tangles in with some of the best and worst aspects of economics, desire, and shame – to know that questions alone won’t solve all the problems facing us. But asking questions like these can help cultivate more kindness within porn and more acceptance in those outside of it.
When Arpad died, many people rerouted their guilt about porn – stemming from a lack of openness, reflection, and care about sex, pornography, and desire – onto his life. Instead of sympathy, many people projected guilt and shame. It’s up to all of us involved in porn – not just performers, and studio workers, but viewers as well – to be more loving, open, and honest with ourselves and each other. That way guilt, shame, and confusion can be redeemed and transformed, rather than absorbed by the empty space where a beautiful man used to be.
For John Bruno and Arpad Miklos.