e called it Porn Star Airlines,” Nina Hartley laughs. She is referring to Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), which used to operate the last flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. “It left at 11.30 pm and it was full of porn stars. Always.” The sexually free-spirited San Francisco was then, as it turns out, the only city in the United States where porn producers could do everything. “Literally everything,” Hartley stresses.
“By that time,” the legendary porn star adds, “sixty to seventy percent of the porn industry had moved from New York to California, where everything to make movies was readily available.” But it wasn’t just LA that took a big bite out of porn flicks’ budgets. In fact, Ronald Reagan had just declared war on pornography, and the then US president, former governor of the state of California and — according to his biographer — one-time actor still had many friends in Tinseltown. “The LAPD often confiscated equipment from porn sets,” Hartley recalls, “and they would even arrest people working in the industry and charge them with prostitution. So everyone — actors, directors, cameramen, everyone — was on that plane to San Francisco a few times a week, to go and shoot there.”
The now 60-year-old Nina Hartley tells the story at great length while munching two pre-peeled eggs in an awfully busy coffee shop in LA. She does not seem to suffer from any sense of shame, which undoubtedly has everything to do with her 35-year career as a porn star. 35 and counting, to be precise. Hartley is still active.
Nina Hartley is royalty in porn circles. To that extent that Paul Thomas Anderson gave her a part in his 1997 instant classic Boogie Nights, about the early days of the porn industry in LA. She plays the wife of William H. Macy — a particularly nasty woman who is constantly boning other men.
The other movies on Hartley’s resume have equally catchy titles, though they used to be displayed in a separate section of the video store. Anal Annie and the Magic Dildo, for example, or Falcon Breast, Splendor in the Ass and — she played Hillary — Who's Nailin 'Paylin. It’s a small anthology, “because, in 1986 alone, I made seventy movies.” Hartley grasps my arm, firmly: “Actual movies! With a story, and five sex scenes. A few years prior, people were even still shooting on film — 35mm. Back then, it took about ten days to shoot one movie – rehearsals included. Later, when video came around, that became three to five days, and eventually, we were shooting one movie a day. So, inevitably, quality went down. But, for me, the 1980s were the beginning of my career, and I had a great time. I worked with the same small group of people over and over again — there were maybe fifty performers at the time — and it was all just silly fun.”
“Even at the porn industry’s peak, most companies were barely worth five million dollars — the lunch budget of an Avengers movie” (Nina Hartley)
VHS had given the porn industry an enormous boost by the end of the ‘80s. People could now rent a porno and watch it at home, instead of having to go through all that trouble of buying a ticket for a seedy movie theater and risk getting caught or sitting next to a guy masturbating. And with Reagan out of the White House, porn producers were suddenly also saving a lot on airfare. The industry had touched ground in San Fernando Valley — just outside of LA. Why the Valley? “There was a lot of cheap office and studio space,” Hartley remembers. At its peak — around the turn of the century — the LA porn industry might have had an annual turnover of four billion dollars, “most companies were barely worth five million dollars,” according to Hartley. “The lunch budget of an Avengers movie.” There was just a lot of them. “A LOT!”
Today, hardly anything remains of the once-legendary San Pornando Valley or — it’s never been a subtle industry — Silicone Valley. Admittedly, there are still some casting agencies, and people are reportedly still shooting movies in private homes. But the big studios are gone.
29-year old Casey Calvert, who rolled into porn as a fetish model in 2011, witnessed it happen. “A month after I started in porn, I was cast in a big Digital Playground production — at the time, one of the biggest companies in the business. There were two makeup artists on set, a hairdresser, someone taking care of wardrobe (Digital Playground was known for its expensive parodies of Hollywood films like Pirates of the Caribbean), there was even someone cooking for us. In total, some thirty people. Last year, I got asked for a Digital Playground movie by the same director: I had to do my own makeup, bring my own clothes, and at the end of the day, the director sent someone out to get McDonald’s.”
Every so often, porn stars now organize get-togethers to exchange clothes, says Calvert, “because everyone has already worn everything on camera once.”
She cannot remember how much she received for that last film, but she admits that wages have also declined considerably in recent years. A few years ago, a female actor would be paid at least 800 dollars for a lesbian scene, and between 1,500 and 1,800 dollars to get it on with a guy. Today, those salary checks have dropped to 500 dollars and 700 to 1,000 dollars — respectively. (Male actors generally get a few hundred dollars. If they are lucky.)
“The money is not where it is used to be,” Calvert sighs.
A YouTube for porn
But the money is still there because porn has never been as popular as it is today. Pornhub, the largest porn site on earth, has over 92 million visitors a day — ninety-two! And with more than half a billion views, porn star Riley Reid was bigger on Pornhub in 2017 than Miley Cyrus was on YouTube.
The problem is, however, that the videos on those MindGeek sites are pretty much all free to watch and, according to several people I spoke to in the industry, a lot of them have been uploaded illegally. (MindGeek strongly disputes this, saying that, these days, it solely features licensed content, videos from content partners and user-generated videos.)
“But what are you going to do about that?”, asks Don Parret, former editorial director of XBIZ, one of the biggest adult industry trade papers. “When those free tube sites came online around 2007, porn producers paid copyright lawyers 400 dollars an hour to have their content removed. A day later, their videos were back up on another site. And another. And Another. ‘Sorry, nothing to do with that,’ the owners of those sites said. ‘Users did it!’ Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn’t. Fact is: it was a neverending battle for which most small-time porn producers simply didn’t have the money. Many have since given up.”
Or they have sold their operation to — coitus interruptus! — MindGeek. Digital Playground, to name but one big player, was one of them.
You probably do not realize this — officially because you have never watched porn, in truth because you do not read the fine print of the porn sites you visit — but online porn is, for a significant part, owned by one company today: MindGeek. And that company is run by a bunch of computer nerds in an office building in Montréal — people who have never been anywhere near San Fernando Valley, let alone a porn set. (MindGeek nuances it owns just three of ten most visited adult websites, which it says collectively account for about a quarter of all adult website traffic. It also claims that it is, in fact, headquartered in the European tax haven Luxembourg, with ‘additional offices’ in Canada and a number of other countries.)
In his outstanding 2017 podcast series The Butterfly Effect, British journalist Jon Ronson blames one man for most of that: Fabian Thylmann, a German web entrepreneur who lives in Brussels. It was Thylmann who started buying tube sites in 2010 with one simple plan: analyzing user data, increasing traffic, optimizing banners, making more money. Thylmann was not interested in producing or selling porn. If there would have been anything else on the World Wide Web that no other computer programmer dared to touch, Thylmann could have just as easily gotten involved in that. He was interested in creating traffic and understood better than anyone working in porn how to turn that into a profit.
“But the notion that, by doing so, Thylmann created a butterfly effect that led to the disappearance of almost all of the big players in porn is a bit of a leap,” says Mike Stabile, who has been reporting on the adult entertainment industry for the past two decades. “It is not completely untrue, but it is not completely accurate either.” For starters, Thylmann is not the one who invented free tube sites, Stabile points out. Websites like Pornhub, YouPorn, RedTube, and xHamster all saw the light of day around 2007 — three years before the German entrepreneur appeared on the scene with money he had earned from NATS, an apparently ingenious piece of software that accurately maps out which type of online banners drive people to porn sites.
“Porn producers want to blame the downfall of the industry on tube sites and piracy, but there was simply a lot more going on” (Mike Stabile)
“2007 was, however, also the year the first iPhone hit stores,” says Stabile, “and all of a sudden people could watch high-quality videos online whenever and wherever. They could even make their own — with their phone!” Admittedly, before 2007, digital camcorders were already on the market, but they weren’t that common. Moreover, there was no platform to distribute your own sex tapes. There was no ‘YouTube for porn’. “Even Tumblr and Twitter barely existed,” continues Stabile, “two social media channels that porn stars use because Facebook and Instagram do not even allow a female nipple.” (As of December 2018, Tumblr also doesn’t allow adult content anymore, leaving just Twitter as the last major social media network to still feature nudity and porn.)
“Porn producers want to blame the downfall of the industry on those tube sites and piracy,” according to Stabile, “but there was simply a lot more going on. Piracy has always been a problem — even in the VHS era, and later with LimeWire and other torrent sites. And while it’s true those tube sites significantly contributed to that problem, porn producers would have gotten in trouble even without Pornhub or xHamster, which actually featured primarily user uploads. The real revolution in the industry was that, come 2007, everyone was able to make and distribute his own content — content that was much more, well, real than those slick porn films the big studios used to produce. And those studios simply did not respond to that change, or know how to, until it was too late.”
To be fair, at the time, the porn industry had little reason to change. Just like the Hollywood studios — a few of them you actually pass as you drive from LA to San Fernando Valley — porn producers were still selling tons of DVDs. And despite torrent sites or the emerging tube sites, millions of people worldwide were still paying for access to porn sites. The industry was rolling in money, and stars like Jenna Jameson, whose website ClubJenna alone made thirty million dollars a year, got profiled in mainstream newspapers and magazines, they appeared in music videos by Eminem and Madonna, and they lent their voice to popular video games like Grand Theft Auto. In the noughties, porn had become a legitimate business, just like the movie and music business, and legitimate business don’t just disappear, right?
Besides, who else would make all of those porn movies, other than a few hundred porn professionals in the Valley?!
The answer nobody really thought of: a few hundred thousand porn amateurs in the world.
In the past, a shift of both distribution and means of production had already caused a bit of a stir in the porn industry. During the 1980s, the Supreme Court in states like Oregon, Indiana and even California still regularly discussed the definition and legality of pornography, making its distribution so precarious that only a few companies ventured into it. But then the legal battles stopped — almost at the same time video cameras took off and easy-to-copy VHS tapes set the home entertainment market going — and those few companies saw their monopoly shrivel faster than Shawn Islander’s erection at the end of each sex scene in Shaving Ryan’s Privates.
These days, the porn industry in Budapest is as big as what remains of the industry in California
In recent times, however, there is no denying that digital disruption has hit San Fernando Valley especially hard. “Even though, being so close to Hollywood’s infrastructure and expertise, it is still the ideal place to run a somewhat professional movie operation,” according to Don Parret, who also admits that porn production has expanded to states like Florida and Nevada in the past ten years, and that Europe is doing remarkably well too. Apparently, these days, the porn industry in Budapest is as big as what remains of the industry in California.
The disappearance of the big porn studios in San Fernando Valley (and thus also of the big budgets and paychecks) obviously has a lot to do with that shift — as does the rising cost of living in LA. But there are two more reasons why some porn stars have moved to Las Vegas in neighboring Nevada. The first one is probably the most obvious: ‘the business of companionship’ — or how ‘prostitution’ is described rather euphemistically by people in the adult entertainment industry. In Sin City, it’s still a booming business, and if porn movie salaries go down, new sources of income must be found. Although few porn stars actually admit to this particular extra source of income. Prostitution is still very illegal in the US. Even in Las Vegas.
The second reason is also of a legal (or illegal) nature, though probably a lot harder to guess. In 2012, residents of Los Angeles County, which includes both the city of Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley, voted on Measure B — a bill that requires the use of condoms in porn movies. Despite loud protest of almost the entire adult industry, which does not care for rubbers, the measure was surprisingly approved.
Political correctness gone mad, or pure bullying? Almost everyone you talk to within the industry will tell you it’s the latter. “You would think that a liberal city like LA would be open to adult entertainment, right?” It is pretty much the first thing 33-year-old Ela Darling tells me when we meet up in a coffee shop in Highland Park — a rapidly emerging, yet still relatively affordable neighborhood in the northeast of LA. “This is the only place where I can live. As a porn actor, you cannot really submit a recent pay stub to your landlord, and as soon as anyone finds out what you’re doing professionally, you’re out. I’ve had that happen to me in my previous apartment. As soon as word got out I was working in porn, everyone in the neighborhood starting treating me like garbage. Someone even egged my car.”
Mike Stabile does not act surprised when I tell him Ela Darling’s story. “There are people in Los Angeles who view porn as part of the history of the city, part of its DNA. There are even conservatives who want to keep the industry here because it provides jobs and tax dollars. But there are also lots of people, including important players from the movie and music industry, who would rather not be associated with porn — at all. That causes tension. And incomprehension.”
And nonsensical laws such as Measure B. Nonsensical, not so much because there is anything wrong with condoms — quite the contrary — but because the law has since been completely overtaken by reality. By 2012, the major porn studios in San Fernando Valley were already in decline, and more and more actors were starting to produce content for their own websites. Or for video sites like Clips4Sale, where users pay to see specific (fetish) videos. Or for apps like OnlyFans, which allows porn actors to sell monthly subscriptions to exclusive content. And then there was also the explosive growth of cam sites like Chaturbate, which enables anybody to make money from the comfort of his own home by being naked or having sex in front of a camera.
“Measure B’s basic notion was that an employer must protect its employees, but who is employing who when you’re taping yourself having sex with your husband or wife?” (Mike Stabile)
In short: at a time when the porn industry was evolving from big studios to much smaller independent players, Los Angeles County implemented a law tailored to ... big studios. “Measure B’s basic notion was that an employer must protect its employees,” says Stabile, “but who is employing who when you’re taping yourself having sex with your husband or wife?”
“Nowadays, it’s almost a running gag,” laughs Casey Calvert. “If you get into a relationship with a porn star, you quickly become involved in the industry too. Either as a cameraman or as a stunt cock for a POV video.” For clarity: ‘POV’ stands for ‘point of view’. I will let you figure out ‘stunt cock’ for yourself.
“But it’s not just those domestic situations that make Measure B baffling,” stresses Ela Darling. Apart from the fact that porn scenes with condoms are considerably less popular, she says, “working with a condom is just very unpleasant. Because despite what most people seem to think, porn stars do not have sex because they want to fuck each other or because they are attracted to each other. It is a job, and so generally my body does not produce the natural lubrications to, well, aid in things. And when it doesn’t, a condom starts to irritate quickly, which would actually increase — not decrease — the likelihood of me contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Of course, you can use lubricant, but there’s really only so much you can use. So, if your aim is to protect people, Measure B is not the way to go.”
“Do you know when was the last time someone contracted HIV on an American porn set,” Nina Hartley asks us — almost militantly. “2004! And do you know why it’s been such a long time? Because we actually don’t want to get infected and we have set up our own system that works — very well! Everyone is tested at least twice a month, and in case of doubt, we quickly do an extra test. Within 48 hours, the result appears on iknowmystatus.com. And guess what: when nobody in the pool has a disease, you do not get diseases!”
And when an actor does test positive — which last happened in April of 2018 — all production in the US is immediately halted, until everyone with whom that man or woman recently worked has also been tested. Though the important question today is how you can continue to monitor this in an industry that seems to have completely gone under the radar, with the disappearance of the studios and the introduction of ‘that condom law’?
In San Fernando Valley, film permits have dropped by more than ninety percent since 2012, when Measure B was voted into law. However, there are few people who believe that production has likewise decreased by ninety percent. Part of it has undoubtedly moved to Nevada or — somewhat closer — Ventura County. But, in reality, you can still rent an Airbnb in San Fernando Valley, shoot a porn movie on the premises without condoms, and no one would ever know. Or as Don Parret somewhat reluctantly responds to that hypothesis after a five-second silence: “That’s accurate.”
But while that does most likely still happen, Parret admits to “having no knowledge of anyone ever having been prosecuted for not wearing a condom. And I do not see it happening anytime soon. If anything, the condom law made sure no one knows anymore where porn is being shot — contrary to ten years ago, when big studios were even inviting journalists on set.”
The only thing he might still get an invitation to in Los Angeles is the taping of a lesbian scene, “because that does not require the use of a condom.” Fortunately, the most popular category on Pornhub for three years straight now has been … ‘lesbian’. Though it is doubtful lesbian porn will be enough to save San Fernando Valley from its, well, erectile dysfunction.
In the past three decades, you basically had to be in LA if you wanted to be anyone in porn. “But since 2012,” says Ela Darling, “probably about a quarter of the US industry has moved to Vegas. The big porn conventions are already being held there, there’s prostitution, stripping, … All kind of vice. So yeah, we feel welcome there.”
Darling even tells the story of a producer who has moved from LA to New Hampshire. As it turns out, New Hampshire is the only other US state — other than California — where the Supreme Court has ever explicitly stated that pornography is not prostitution, in effect declaring pornography legal. But the fact that an LA porn producer has moved to a state that is best known for Lake Winnipesaukee and the fact that temperatures easily drop to ten degrees in January (which ought to kill even the most professional erection), says a lot more about the decline of San Fernando Valley than it does about the future porn prospect of New Hampshire.
“The porn industry in LA is doomed,” says Casey Calvert. “Or definitely the mainstream porn industry. Luckily, I’ve been in the business long enough to know what I have to do to make ends meet. Like making my own custom videos.”