It’s Thursday night in January in Las Vegas, Day 2 of the Adult Video News Awards–Adult Entertainment Expo weekend, and I’m at the door of a private hotel suite in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, waiting for Best New Starlet nominee Carter Cruise to help me get past the burly security detail. Cruise is a 23-year-old newcomer, but she has already been dubbed “the Meryl Streep of porn” for her versatility — she can do extreme scenes as adeptly as softer, romantic ones, and on Saturday she’ll be up for nine awards. Cruise appears in the doorway, a petite dirty blonde wearing a dusty pink ensemble, calling out to me in her throaty voice. The guards defer to her and let me in.
The party is for Girlfriends Films, a studio based in Valencia, California, that makes girl-on-girl content featuring young, fresh-faced performers. Posters for movies like Spring Break Orgy and Lesbian Vampire Academy decorate the space alongside the hotel’s classic rock memorabilia, which includes a framed red sweatshirt with a Drug Enforcement Agency logo on the left breast, purportedly given to Elvis Presley by President Nixon (pictured shaking hands) several years after their meeting at the White House in 1970. There’s a pool table in one room and a stand-alone hot tub in another. The main mingling area has a raised platform with one wooden lane for bowling, and the tables and counters are stacked with endless boxes of pizza. Cruise introduces me to some of her coworkers, three more Girlfriends girls — in adult entertainment, women are either girls or MILFs — eating slices on barstools, and we chat while she hops away to perch on the indoor Jacuzzi for another interview. I make small talk with Cruise’s friend Dakota Skye, a baby-faced blonde. The girls seem exhausted from the Expo.
The crowd is a mix of press, industry, and fans who have paid hundreds of dollars for all-access passes that grant them entrance to studio-sponsored awards season VIP parties like these. Everyone wears laminated festival passes featuring glamour shots of two of this year’s awards show hosts, Alexis Texas and Tommy Pistol (Danielle Stewart is the third), strung on lanyards imprinted with the logos of big studios such as Evil Angel and Jules Jordan. The fans have brought cameras, both casual smartphone and serious video rigs, to capture their interactions with the starlets. James Deen, the popular male porn star, shows up with a camera crew that’s following him around AVN for a documentary. I was worried that I wouldn’t be allowed into the party with a camera, but filming is encouraged, and all around me the girls are posing for fans. I recognize the actress Penny Pax, a cute redhead, as she smiles for a small assembled crowd of photographers. She squeezes her breasts together with a faux-surprised expression that suggests she has just noticed them for the very first time. A pretty girl whose face I don’t know pulls her spangly champagne sequin dress down to the waist and begins playing pool with a couple of men at the pool table. Her toplessness is treated as a nonfactor. She looks comfortable playing pool topless, because it’s her job to make these guys feel like girls do this sort of thing all the time just for fun. Another one of the girls goes topless and joins her for the next game of pool. They play doubles.
Two guys jump up on the tiny bowling alley and call for everyone’s attention. They are Dan O’Connell and “Moose,” and they take turns thanking everyone for helping to make Girlfriends Films successful, a heartfelt speech that wouldn’t be out of place at any office Christmas party. “We also want to take this time to thank everyone here, our fans, our members, our partners, and just, most importantly, the girls,” O’Connell says. A round of applause goes up for the girls. Moose and O’Connell promise that this will be Girlfriends’ biggest year ever. “You know, we really have the best crew of girls recently over the past year or so that we’ve ever had,” O’Connell says. “And our movies are by far the best they’ve ever been, and that thanks goes to the girls. And you know there aren’t too many girls who will bare themselves in front of the camera — it takes a lot of courage — and I have the utmost respect for the girls in the industry.” Everyone cheers and applauds. Dan adds, “We had a fan write me and he said, if I was gonna go cross-country on a wagon train in the 1860s, I’d take a porn girl. Because they’re brave, they’re strong, they’re resourceful, and they’re smart.” This is the first of many incidental references to the Wild West that I hear at AVN.
“So, thank you, girls, up here,” he says, motioning to the girls who have joined them standing on the bowling alley, “and, Moose, you’re a goddamn miracle maker!” Moose gives a shout-out to talent agent Mark Spiegler, who manages Cruise and many of porn’s current top female performers at his agency Spiegler Girls, and cheers of “Spiegler!” go up in the crowd. On the count of three, the topless Hula-Hooping contest begins.
It’s my first time at AVN. I’ve wanted to go forever. My lifelong fascination with the adult film industry sprang from my accidental proximity to it; I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, the cradle of filmic pornography since the early ’70s. I had friends whose neighbors’ houses in Encino were rented out regularly for porn shoots, and I often recognize the exact locations of scenes that take place outdoors. “Hey, that’s the corner of Van Nuys and Ventura!” I’ve exclaimed to a crowd of no one.
It’s also my first time in Las Vegas as an adult. I visited once as a kid with my family to attend a Grateful Dead concert, but I wasn’t allowed on the casino floor. I’m excited, although everyone who hears I am going warns me about something. “On the second day, it starts to turn,” says my father. “Make sure to drink water and go outside sometimes,” says an extremely wise friend. Others are more blunt, offering don’ts: “Don’t lose all your money.” “Don’t spend cash on overpriced junk.” “Don’t die in the desert.”
I made the rookie mistake of booking a room at a theme hotel on the Strip, the Luxor, which I chose because of a lifelong interest in ancient Egyptian history and because it was the shiny, top-of-the-line hotel when I was in Las Vegas 20 years ago. In his 1998 article about the AVN Awards, “Big Red Son,” which originally ran in Premiere and opens his essay collection Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace refers to the then-new Luxor1 as an example of late-’90s cutting-edge Las Vegas postmodernist theme-park-itecture. Las Vegas has changed since Wallace wrote the piece, and so has the adult industry. In the ’90s, porn was in the throes of the gonzo boom, with the erotically sadistic Max Hardcore, an unapologetically pervy old man, as its figurehead. Wallace’s melancholy piece describes an industry headed toward increasingly amoral scenarios to satisfy viewers seeking deeper and darker thrills each time, destined to end (he imagines) in snuff films. But gonzo, it turns out, was just another trend, due to go out of fashion as fast as it rose. Violent teen scenarios of the sort Hardcore trafficked in still exist, but they’re no longer the leading style. I spot Max Hardcore at the Hard Rock2 wandering around in his signature cowboy hat, unapproached. He still has a place here, but like the Luxor, he’s a relic.
Wallace calls it a ziggurat, a step pyramid, but’s it’s a true pyramid. The Luxor eventually did build a step pyramid building as an add-on in 2008.
His badge says “Max Hardcore.”
For both Las Vegas and porn, flux is the resting state. Vegas has a famous habit of blowing up the old casinos because space on the Strip is tight and coveted. Fifties and ’60s hotels like the Sands, the Stardust, and the Aladdin missed their chances to be revived as figures of Rat Pack nostalgia in the Mad Men era. Even Fremont Street — the former downtown area known as “Glitter Gulch,” which contains remnants of old Las Vegas and some of its most beautiful neon signs — has been brought up to date with a space age projection screen overhead that plays ads for street performers like Carl “Safe Sax” Ferris. The Desert Inn, where I stayed in the ’90s on my one previous outing, was imploded in 2001. When Wallace wrote “Big Red Son,” the casinos were in the midst of a family-friendly gold rush. Outlandishly themed hotels like the Luxor were a lure for vacationing families, and Las Vegas surpassed Disney World as the top family destination.3 In 2015, attracting families is no longer top priority. The EDM explosion has made the young people who come to Vegas and blow their money on bottle service the most attractive consumers for casinos, which now house giant super-clubs that offer VIP treatment to anyone willing to spend.
The Luxor once featured a super-expensive, state-of-the-art kids’ virtual-reality ride developed by Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Luxor’s exterior still looks impressive. The giant faux-onyx pyramid inspires real wonder — it’s huge, around the same size as the Red Pyramid in Egypt’s Dahshur necropolis — and the painted Sphinx out front doesn’t look too much worse for wear. The light beam on top of the pyramid that shines directly up into the sky every night has been turned down to half-strength to conserve energy. On some nights, clouds of bats hover in the light, drawn to moths that swarm toward the beam, their own all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet. The inside of the hotel is cavernous; the rooms line the pyramid’s walls. Much of the Egyptian décor — including a Nile River that once snaked through the floor — has been replaced with generic neo-Vegas fare: a gastropub, a Carrot Top show. Other than hieroglyphics and stray statues of Anubis in the lobby, the most ancient Egyptian thing is a semi-permanent installation of Bodies … the Exhibition, the traveling medical horror show that mummifies possibly ill-gotten corpses by laminating them with a process called “plastination” and splaying them open in artistic poses.
The hotel clerk asks if I want to be on a high floor, warning me that the room isn’t close to the elevator, and I tell her that’s not a problem, which is a mistake. The elevators at the Luxor are called “inclinators.” When the hotel opened, the inclinators were touted as revolutionary high-tech elevators that traveled diagonally up the casino’s sides. These days, they are terrifying. The first time I rode in an inclinator, I thought it was malfunctioning because it was so rickety. After a few more trips, I realized that the elevator clanged and shook because it was knocking against the shaft wall; passengers cluster to one side like it’s a carnival Gravitron. When I get to my floor, I realize why the desk clerk mentioned the distance to the elevator: There’s an extremely narrow hallway with a knee-height balcony barrier showcasing a vast view out into the casino’s interior chamber. I feel less like I am in ancient Egypt than in Logan’s Run. I get vertigo whenever I walk the hallway, completely terrified that I am going to fall over the barrier. I keep as close to the wall as possible.4
There have been at least two deaths by jumping at the Luxor, a suicide and a drunken accident. The woman who jumped to her death from the 26th floor balcony in 1996 “landed at the entrance to the buffet area.”
The first AVN Awards took place in 1984, held in Las Vegas at the same time as the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The CES-AVN connection began because the adult industry’s main source of revenue was video tapes, and CES-goers were early adopters of new tech like VCRs. The interaction between the two created the fan-star dynamic that dominates today. “If you had a CES badge we’d give you a free badge to the AVN show,” explains Paul Fishbein, a founder of AVN. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights follows the industry’s early-’80s shift from film to video; on Marc Maron’s podcast, Anderson compared his film’s plot to that of Singin’ in the Rain, which depicts mainstream film’s move from silents to talkies. The video experience changed the way customers consumed porn. Allowing audiences to watch at home rather than brave a theater broadened the market, which prompted Fishbein to found Adult Video News magazine in 1983 as a consumer guide for sex shops stocking tapes.
As Fishbein and I walk through the Hard Rock casino looking for a place to sit down — there are no places in casinos to just sit, by design — a female performer approaches and chastises him for missing a “clown orgy” the night before. “I’ve been to a clown orgy before!” he tells her.
“Each one is unique and special!” she persists.
“I know they are,” he says consolingly.
Fishbein, gray-haired with blue eyes, is affable and warm. He wears a pink gingham shirt with a green Ralph Lauren logo. I like him instantly. Fishbein sold AVN in 2010 and now produces content under a shingle called Plausible Films. AVN, he says, “isn’t quite what it was when CES people were in town.” He lights up talking about some of the first adult classics, which were plot-oriented and couldn’t afford to have endlessly long sex scenes because film stock was so expensive.5 Video made it possible to prolong sex scenes, but the form was still shaped by practical concerns. “If you try to watch 20-minute sex scenes in real time, you’re gonna fast-forward. You can’t do it. In real life you have sex for a long time,” Fishbein says. “Visually, as a stimulant, you need it to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Five minutes is the right length for a sex scene, in my humble opinion.”
Compare that to now, when movies are sometimes five hours of pure sex scenes. Fishbein says the movies are so long now due to a faulty more-bang-for-your-buck logic, but longer isn’t always better.
Fishbein recently spearheaded the making of a documentary called X-Rated: The Greatest Adult Movies of All Time, which premiered last month on Showtime. X-Rated assembles a canon of representative adult films organized by decade, starting with 1971’s Deep Throat. It was a passion project for Fishbein; he has a point to prove about the ability of porn to stand alongside mainstream film. “Some of these movies were unbelievable; they’re so outrageous and they have these strange sensibilities,” he tells me. “But when you watch them in context of when they were made, they’re a perfect reflection of what’s going on in American society in the ’70s and ’80s.” As for today? He’s pessimistic. During final cut, he realized X-Rated has a downer ending. “It sort of feels like it’s a eulogy … Even our host, Chanel Preston, says at the end, ‘Well, we hope that this isn’t the end of the adult industry,’ but who knows what’s going to happen in the future?”
Everything changed when porn went digital. Observers, including Fishbein, place the exact date of the crisis as 2007, two years after YouTube debuted, when tube technology was harnessed to make porn clips easily available for free online. “AVN grew every year from the year I started it until about 2006 or 2007,” Fishbein says. “Right around the same time that free content became prevalent, my video customers started to see huge declines in sales and started cutting their advertising budget.” In Fishbein’s view, free Internet porn had aesthetic as well as financial consequences. Narrative pornography lost ground to the revival of an older form of pornography, called loops — 8 millimeter shorts intended for home use. They “literally walk in, they get naked, and start having sex. And there’s nothing, no romance, no seduction, no foreplay, they just have sex. And you know, that’s what you get on the Internet.”
There are differing schools of thought on the relative value of narrative pornography (which mimics traditional Hollywood narrative film) and pseudo-vérité gonzo pornography (whose extreme close-ups verge on abstraction). Fishbein, like many people I speak with at AVN, ultimately favors narrative for the emotional investment. There’s a hypothesis that viewers will care more about (and therefore be more turned on by) a story with recognizable characters, plots, and archetypes, even if narrative plots ultimately still lead to scenes of two people fucking. Like all film taste, the distinction is wholly subjective and not really binary — most people like both. And there are those who want to legitimize pornography as an art form in the eyes of the public — the holy grail being a great movie that just happens to have some hot hard-core sex scenes in it. Part of Fishbein’s hope with X-Rated is to renew the mainstream audience’s desire for movies worthy of standing alongside classics like Behind the Green Door. I ask him what his best-loved adult movie is and he names Nothing to Hide — an adult film inspired by John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the early ’80s that he included in X-Rated. “It was always a favorite of mine.”
The AVN Awards Show and Adult Expo bounced all over the Strip, like big Las Vegas acts do, before settling at the Hard Rock in 2012. At its height, it was held at high-class casinos like Caesars Palace and the Venetian, before being shuttled off here to Paradise Road. This is AVN’s fourth year here and the first time it has fully taken over the hotel. It actually feels like the perfect place for it, a five-minute ride from the Luxor but worlds away from the chaos of the Strip. Even the surrounding Las Vegas suburbs, full of tract houses, are reminiscent of the Valley. Unlike most casinos, which aim to split their demo between families and clubbers, the Hard Rock blatantly caters toward adults. The rock theme feels out of step with Las Vegas’s current DJ culture, but that adds to its charm; it’s a museum filled with relics of the 20th century. The banners for the AVN Awards hanging all over the premises feature promo shots of Alexis Texas and Tommy Pistol dressed in ’70s garb (by way of American Apparel), along with life-size posters of starlets Mia Malkova, Tori Black, Riley Steele, and Veronica Rodriguez clad in red spandex hot pants, tube socks, and Rollergirl skates. Only the music seems out of place. The Hard Rock’s soundtrack is stocked with classic rock from every decade, but no disco. The Strip’s casinos play pop, a mind-numbing mix of Katy Perry and Maroon 5. The soundtrack at the Adult Expo is entirely different — it’s all rap. The most played artist at expo booths, far and away, is Nicki Minaj.
On Saturday at the Expo, I meet up with Nate Glass, the owner of Takedown Piracy, an antipiracy organization that works with porn studios and performers to try to protect them from popular free tube sites like PornHub.6 Glass and I speak in a room called “The Library,” which has shelves stocked with books but surprisingly few rock-and-roll biographies.
Glass also does antipiracy work for professional wrestling and indie films.
Keeping porn from getting ripped and posted is impossible. After having free pornography clips easily accessible for years, nobody expects that customers will ever buy DVDs in the numbers they once did. The porn industry’s sales figures are disputed; estimates range from a few billion to as high as $14 billion, a widely cited figure from a 1998 Forrester Research report that Forbes easily dismantled. But no one disputes that the percentage of revenues from DVDs has shrunk dramatically, and that piracy on the Internet shot up after the early 2000s. Takedown Piracy, which Glass founded in 2009, focuses on containing the damage.
Glass, who is dressed like an accountant, talks about the 2007 adult film financial crisis in terms of the broader recession. “It was really kind of a perfect storm of events there,” he tells me. “There was always piracy in general. But at least for adult, it went from being something in the back-shadowy corners of the Internet, or something that required a certain level of technical knowledge to acquire … [to] ‘push the little triangle button and the movie plays.’” With the accessibility came the assumption that porn should be accessible — that it wasn’t worth paying for. “People might have a certain guilt about pirating Guardians of the Galaxy or whatever, but porn — ‘ah, that’s porn,’” Glass says. “It’s considered ‘less than.’ And porn doesn’t have the revenue channels that a Guardians of the Galaxy might have. We’re not doing theatrical release. There’s not really merchandise.” Other barriers to marketing and fighting piracy are particular to porn. PayPal won’t do porn transactions, and Apple doesn’t allow any porn apps. Lawmakers are unlikely to support pornographers, and it’s difficult to legislate against piracy because many of the major tube sites are located outside the U.S. The San Fernando Valley is no longer the center of the industry’s business; porn has gone global. The popular tube site PornHub is based out of Montreal. An IT company now called MindGeek, headquartered in Luxembourg, purchased many of the biggest tube sites in 2010, including PornHub, RedTube, and YouPorn.
I ask Glass if he thinks a Netflix model will ever take hold in porn. He is skeptical. “The reason [subscriber] technologies aren’t getting a firm foothold is because they’re still competing with ‘free’ … It’s like if you had a flower shop and the guy next door is just giving away flowers.” I point out that the person who thinks they’re getting something for nothing is deluding themselves, as they leave a trail of clicked links behind and free sites trawl users for personal data. Glass agrees. “If you go to a website and everything’s free and you’re like, ‘Well, what is the product here? How are they making money?’ You’re the product. You’re what they’re selling. So all that information,” he says, “is being sold to advertisers.”
My interest in the AVN Awards is, I tell myself, about the practical aspects of the adult film industry — how it operates in parallel with the mainstream film industry, the banality of all film production. But when I meet Carter, any illusions that I am merely a journalist working in the service of facts and narrative fall away. I am totally starstruck by Carter Cruise. Like a lot of actors, she is tiny in person and extremely charismatic. Cruise is a former Southern sorority girl and psychology major from North Carolina. She blogs at the NSFW CarterCruise.tumblr.com, DJs, and is learning to produce music herself. A self-professed tomboy, her taste in outfits runs toward streetwear, cute but also comfy. She’s comfortable in her own body too. Her appeal as a porn star has been called “girl next door,” her acting style naturalistic. To my mind she’s more like the Jennifer Lawrence of porn than its Meryl Streep — guys love her, but girls love her, too; she seems chill and fun to hang out with. She’s naturally blonde and radiantly tan, as though she’s been surfing all day. Despite embodying the traditional guy’s fantasy of a “hot blonde,” she’s unabashedly female-friendly — her bio on Twitter reads “your girlfriend’s favorite porn star.” She’s funny, smart, has a goofy laugh, and says “like” a lot. It’s impossible not to develop a slight crush on her.
Some of this is just who Cruise is — young, optimistic, confident — and some of it is a reflection of the brand she’s developing for herself. Her first agent told her to appeal to dirty old men, because they still buy DVDs, but Carter went against his advice and instead cultivated a fan base of college kids, both boys and girls. She is well aware that these kids have grown up pirating porn and don’t expect to pay for it, but she hopes they’ll buy other products from her — tickets to come see her perform music or DJ, for example. It’s not unlike a musician who tries to make money not from album sales but from tours, merchandise, and other revenue streams. She recently did a Valley Girlish spoken vocal for her producer friends Styles&Complete’s track “Dunnit.”
Carter, for one, has accepted the rise of the tubes as an inevitability and maybe not a bad thing. “Porn stars are being forced to become more publically [sic] well-rounded,” she writes on her blog. “It’s not as easy to say a girl is a ‘worthless whore’ if she also runs a small business unrelated to porn and writes a column for a well known website, or she designs clothing and advocates for sexual education reform. We are proving that a woman’s sexuality does not define or restrict her, and that it is only a part of what being a woman, and human for that matter, really means.”
Cruise is particularly interested in making extreme hardcore that plays with ideas about female submissiveness, voluntarily embracing being spit on, choked, and slapped. Carter and other performers like her see it as a way of taking control, akin to “power bottoming” in gay sex. In their view, they are participating in a fantasy, and no matter how submissive or out of control the performers seem within the scene, they are always mindful that they’re the ones with the power to call “cut” during filming.
Like many young female porn stars, Cruise is working in a post–Sasha Grey world. Grey changed the trajectory of a typical female performer’s career, which had traditionally begun with softer sex scenes and gradually worked up to increasingly extreme ones. Grey’s stoner Sacramento drawl and Sphinx-like beauty helped propel her to the top of the adult business at a young age, but there was something else that helped: her projection of intelligence, which she tied to the portrayal of female desire. Grey is a Jean-Luc Godard obsessive who nearly gave herself the porn name “Anna Karina,” after the French New Wave muse. Carter calls Sasha a “huge influence” on herself and all the current girls. “I love how she made herself so vulnerable on camera. I love that she was just like, ‘Here’s everything I have, take it,’” Cruise tells me. “I think that’s an amazing thing to do, whether it’s porn or regular film.”
When Grey was performing, she often expressed a hope to change the porn industry and the way female desire was perceived. In the early and mid-2000s, performers like Grey and Belladonna shifted the porn star image away from the baroque, busty tan blonde with implants, like Jenna Jameson, to something more like the girl next door who loves Bauhaus.7 Conventional norms of beauty persist, but archetypes became less rigid and performers more varied in type. Joanna Angel started the alt-porn studio Burning Angel, employing girls with tattoos and piercings, as part of a booming microgenre of punk-themed porn that began taking hold in the late ’90s and exploded during the 2000s. Today’s AVN crowd is about half alt-porn, featuring popular heavily tattooed performers like Bonnie Rotten (her name a punk pun itself), who’s known for the spiderweb ink on her breasts. All of this happened during a time when porn DVD sales fell by as much as 80 percent.
That said, Jameson and Grey have more in common that you might think at first, including intense charisma. Watch Jenna’s early interviews with Howard Stern to get a sense of what a star she was from the very beginning.
The broadening of porn reflects the rising acknowledgement of its female audience. More and more porn is being made to appeal to a range of tastes, especially to women. According to a 2013 Pew report, 25 percent of men and 8 percent of women admit to watching online porn — numbers that may be skewed because viewers might be loath to cop to their real habits in a survey out of shame. Men outnumber women as visitors at AVN, but there are some women and a smattering of married couples. (“They’re like, ‘We’ve been married for 25 years,’ and it’s like, how you keep a marriage alive is really kinky, weird sex. Just for the two of you. Or if you want to add more people, that’s fun too!” a starlet tells me.) Grey, Angel, Belladonna — who defied traditional standards of porn beauty, with her gap-toothed smile and, for some years, a shaved head — and others created the third-wave porn star: intelligent, self-possessed, idealistic about the industry, with a Bettie Page style of addressing the camera that seems to control, rather than be controlled by, it.
I meet up with Cruise again at another party, in a totally different maximalist suite by the pool cabanas. Cruise has changed into a new outfit: black Chuck Taylors, a black leather fitted baseball hat turned backward, and a gray sweatshirt tied around her shoulders, on which is printed the whole “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet in smallish but readable type.8 This party is relaxed, less forced — full of industry people commingling and catching up. Carter introduces me to Maddy O’Reilly, a 24-year-old performer who last year codirected her first feature, Maddy O’Reilly Is Slutwoman. The Hard Rock’s internal radio station is on the stereo, playing Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” which is much too somber. An outdoor hot tub remains turned on and lit but stays eerily unoccupied, although a crowd always surrounds it on the patio. The girls are off-duty now, out of “porn star” character, so no pseudo-spontaneous topless activity occurs. A couple of female performers are lounging on the bed in the upstairs of the loft, deep in intimate conversation. A Vampire Weekend song plays as I leave.
I read it.
By Friday, the casino is mobbed with AVN personnel. I eat lunch at a diner called Mr. Lucky’s, overlooking the Hard Rock floor. Performers walk the halls, snaking around music memorabilia like the outfit Tupac Shakur wore to the Tyson fight where he was shot — an orange silk shirt, jeans, and Hush Puppies9 — and gather in clumps, organized like high school cliques. Near my table, a guy in a white ice-cream-man uniform tux, resembling David Lee Roth in the “California Girls” video, sits alone eating a sandwich. I recognize him as performer Evan Stone. Stone is spotted by Tommy Gunn, who has two girls with him, and they all slide into the booth with Stone. Mark Wood, unusually tall for a male star, walks over to their table to schmooze. Wood and Gunn are in their forties; Stone, who made his first adult film at age 33, is 50. Male performers typically have much longer lifespans in porn than their female counterparts — although they’re not, with significant exceptions, generally stars in the same way.
He was booked to stay at the Luxor that night.
Inside the Expo, Carter is signing autographs at the Girlfriends booth. An MC onstage is introducing the upcoming entertainment, a werewolf-themed male strip revue. Carter beckons me over, so I get to cut the signing line. I’m giddy, falling victim to the Almost Famous trap that Lester Bangs warns young William Miller (a.k.a. Cameron Crowe) will ensnare him when he profiles Stillwater (a.k.a. the Allman Brothers). I made friends with my subject, and now I am drunk on feeling like I belong.
Carter is sitting by Dana DeArmond, another Spiegler Girl, a beautiful hipster who calls herself “The Internet’s Girlfriend.” DeArmond is wearing a blue latex dress with a pepperoni-pizza-slice pattern. A 10-year veteran of the industry, she seems to have taken Carter under her wing. Spiegler Girls are represented heavily in the nominations this year. When I meet Spiegler at the Girlfriends party, he quotes an article that called him “the Ari Emanuel of porn” to me. Unlike Emanuel or his fictional doppelgänger Ari Gold, though, Spiegler does not care for natty suits. At the party he is wearing an oversize novelty T-shirt that reads “NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF STUPID PEOPLE IN LARGE GROUPS.”
Nobody I meet at AVN fits the profile of the sleazy pornographer that David Foster Wallace’s interactions with the willfully creepy Max Hardcore led me to look for. The men don’t seem to get off on the idea of girls being exploited by the industry — quite the opposite. Spiegler, who worked his way up from being a porn PA in the ’80s, won a defamation of character suit in 2009 against Skeeter Kerkove, a director who alleged that Spiegler had taken oral sex as payment for finding girls work.10 Nobody denies that sleazy people exist in the business, and the girls warn each other about whom to work for and whom to avoid. There is a formal Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, the closest thing to a union the performers have ever had; it aims to educate those in the adult performing community about their rights and ethical responsibilities. APAC has a table in front of the press room at AVN, and there are flyers for it scattered through the casino all week. James Deen, porn’s mainstream figurehead, is the chairperson. Carter, though, says she would like to see something even more substantial. “I would be a really big advocate of the industry starting some kind of program that discusses the health risks, the requirements, the social implications,” she says, “and have girls who have been in the industry five, ten years come in and talk to the newbies, so we’re all aware that these things have been covered. You need to get your HPV shot. You need to learn how to take care of your lady parts!” She says MILF performers are great with advice.
Kerkove claimed to have video evidence, which never materialized, and paid Spiegler $85,000 in damages. (Spiegler had originally sued Kerkove for $3 million.)
Those kinds of concerns tend to dominate coverage of the industry, partly due to the persistent taboo against pornography and explicit discussions of sex, and partly because of some sensational cases of porn stars turning against their profession, which critics of porn use as evidence that any girl who would get into porn must be traumatized or mentally unstable in some way. It’s rare to hear this said about the male performers, who people assume have a dream job.
Traci Lords sent waves through the industry in the ’80s when she pretended to be 18 with a fake ID, leaving studios that employed her in legal trouble and reinforcing the reputation of pornographers as lecherous pimps. Studios are, in fact, extremely careful to verify that the girls are at least 18, even if they then use their youthful appearance to market them as “teens.” Jenna Jameson is also persona non grata for an incident onstage at the 2008 AVN Awards, when she said, “I will never spread my legs in this industry again,” alienating the crowd. Jameson made it to a higher platform of fame than any previous porn star, and her 2004 autobiography, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, coauthored with Neil Strauss,11 recounts her triumphs but is also brutally honest about some of the more painful incidents in her life, including rape and abuse. The book was an instant best seller and made Jameson another kind of icon: a survivor. She created the idea of the porn star as a brand that could sell products other than just porn and cultivate a mainstream following.12 Jameson recently returned to performing in 2013, claiming it was a desperate attempt to support her family. Her recent years have been plagued by domestic violence and drug problems. If Jenna is responsible for the mainstream fame possibilities available to modern stars, she also remains a persistent symbol of the “tragic porn star” trope that girls are warned not to become, rooted in the brutal abuse suffered by Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace. Whenever a porn-related story surfaces in the mainstream news cycle, it tends to be a sensational, headline-grabbing, sad one, like the awful saga of MMA fighter War Machine and his performer ex-girlfriend Christy Mack; far fewer stories focus on the entrepreneurship and self-directed ambition of girls like Cruise or the success stories of those like sex-education pioneer Nina Hartley, who work tirelessly within the industry for decades without tragedy befalling them.
Of The Game fame.
Her studio played on her singularity with the name ClubJenna.
There is a booth for Girls Gone Wild at the Expo, but that model of taking advantage of drunk girls is viewed with distaste by the industry proper. If anything, the men I meet at AVN are protective and a little paternalistic about the young female performers. I hear a lot of stories from guys about trying to talk girls out of going into the industry. They’re not trying to be condescending; they want to inform them of the fundamentals: how not to get swindled by creeps, how to manage the money they make, how to talk to their families about their job. The average career lifespan of a female adult performer is two years, which is around the average lifespan of an NFL running back. Nobody gets into either field thinking they’ll be the person with the short, unremarkable career, although most will. It’s a very American narrative: Everyone wants to be exceptional.
Every performer is a “porn star,” but there’s a hierarchy of fame — an A-list and a Z-list. Carter, who made a Jennifer Lawrence–like jump to the A-list in one year, is well aware that her time there will have an expiration date. One thing Carter learned from Grey’s career trajectory — which lasted from 2006 to 2011 — is to leave them wanting more. Cruise’s plan is to do porn for five years, and during that time do everything, then focus on her other pursuits, mainly music. I spoke with her for the first time on the phone a few days before we each headed to Vegas. She was stressed out about her official website. Cruise maintains her Tumblr page, but she is in the process of starting a proper personal domain. She was arguing with the web developer about the layout and color schemes. She warned me that she was tired because she’d been up late on deadline writing a blog post.
Cruise writes about the adult industry in a conversationally eloquent way. She posted a response to a Billboard op-ed written by electronic musician Jahan Yousaf, of the group Krewella, which had been sarcastically titled “Deadmau5 Saved Me From Going Into Porn,” to talk about the stigma of being a woman in the adult industry — and any industry. “Because some women are seen to be succeeding purely because of looks or sexuality, people falsely assume that every beautiful or openly sexual woman must not be capable of doing any type of real work,” Cruise wrote, describing the “mental and physical demands” of what she does. “I do my job because I love it, not because I’m incapable of doing anything else. Just like a dedicated athlete will run until he collapses, or a DJ will play a different city every night with little to no sleep, I do this because I want to and enjoy it. The difference, though, is that in music, women do have the ability to be taken seriously and respected by the mainstream, although it may be more difficult to achieve than for men. As a porn star, it is nearly (if not certainly) impossible to expect any type of respect from the media or Internet.”
Saturday morning, the day of the awards, I hit the Expo one last time. I wander the Fetish Lair on the upstairs level, where vendors sell leather floggers and sex swings. I try on a Velcro collar. A girl is tying another girl to a large X-shaped apparatus, showing off a form of rope bondage. Downstairs, the performer Jack Napier is DJing at his booth. He wears a rhinestone-studded shirt that says “RUN MLK” in the RUN DMC font with an image of Martin Luther King Jr. DJing on turntables. A glittering “818” chain — the area code of the San Fernando Valley — bounces on his chest while he spins LL Cool J’s “Jingling Baby” for the crowd, amping up girls at nearby booths who dance in gear like bikini tops, inflatable butterfly wings, and thongs that say “PORN STAR” on the back.
I notice a couple of adorable girls who look like teenagers hanging out at the front of a booth. One of them is wearing a Jar Jar Binks T-shirt, with a high ponytail and glittery eye makeup; she looks like a gymnast done up for a big meet. Her friend is tall and lithe, wearing a hippie headband. They introduce themselves as Kasey Warner and Naomi Heart. I feel myself going into “cool mom” mode. I compliment Kasey on her Jar Jar shirt, then ask what it’s like to work at the Expo. “For the most part, they’re really respectful. They’re not here to be, like, creepin’ on the girls,” says Warner. “They see us more as, like, beautiful stars and stuff. I mean, there are other guys that are gonna grab your boob or your butt and we just, like, shove them. Yeah, we’re not gonna put up with that, ’cause that’s creepy and gross. I mean, it’s like, if you want to touch our waist, or our shoulder, or our arm while we’re taking a picture or something? But don’t, like, go for the side-boob like an asshole. Go for the upper butt or something. It’s like, we can tell that you’re touching our body. We have nerves all over; like, we can feel what you’re doing. You’re not being stealth.” Naomi Heart laughs.
Warner has been in the industry for about six months, Heart for just a month. They both say that they’re proud to work there. “People are like, ‘You took the easy way out by doing this,’” Warner says. “It’s really hard! It’s exhausting. It’s a lot of work. It’s awesome. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.” I ask whether they think doing porn now will be a problem later if they decide to change careers, or whether Snapchat and sexting have lessened taboos around recorded nudity. Kasey is optimistic. “Unless you’re trying to be a preschool teacher or the president, it shouldn’t matter,” Warner says. “Like, ‘Sorry, you can’t be a lawyer, you’re too good at sucking dick.’” Kasey and Naomi are both on Twitter, but when I ask where fans can find them, they say, “Instagram!” in tandem and burst into giggles. I inquire whether their Instagram accounts are personal or professional, and they respond, “Both!” in tandem again. “A lot of girls do, like, Thong Thursday, Ass Wednesday,” Warner adds. “I’m horrible. I don’t post any pictures of myself because I’m never doing anything good. I’m like, ‘Look at my food!’” I tell her I think food posts are very personal, that fans are still getting to know Kasey Warner by seeing what she ate that day. “Right?” she says. “It’s very intimate.”
I have an appointment with James Deen, so I make my way through the Expo to find him. I walk through the Brazzers University display into the main room, passing by booths for new sex toys such as an exercise ball with a dildo attached to it and a teddy bear with a vibrating muzzle.13
The teddy bear was invented by a husband-and-wife team, I learn when I meet them in the elevator and ask what’s in the boxes they’re holding.
I detour past the busy booth for R18, a year-old site specializing in licensing Japanese porn clips for U.S. consumers, where adult video actress and gravure idol Hitomi Tanaka is posing for pictures with fans. She wears daisy dukes and a hot pink bikini top that is comically too small for the naturally large breasts that have made her a star in films like Extremely Perverted Hell, Temptation of Bursting Tits Young Wife, Sex With the Man With the World’s Biggest Penis, and My Pet Is a Busty Fitness Instructor — Sensitive Discipline Training at the Fitness Club. While taking a break to fix my camera setup near a table of fucking machines, I check out a corner booth for Huccio — virtual reality porn for the Oculus Rift. Virtual reality is a potential next frontier for porn, although it’s in its infancy. In virtual reality, I watch a couple have sex on a couch. The booth worker tells me to look all around, and I see that there are couples having sex on multiple couches in a 360-degree panorama. But this is the limit to our interaction. It reminds me of nothing so much as early adult CD-ROMs.
Finally, I locate James Deen in the heart of the hotel’s Muse Hall. His booth, representing his imprint studio, is mobbed with fans and stocked with merch. Deen gets more mainstream coverage than any other porn star these days.14 He’s selling and signing copies of his series 7 Sins, collected in a boxed set, which falls firmly within the camp of artistic, cinematic porn. (The “Pride” segment features the indelibly creepy image of girls having sex while wearing paper masks of James Deen’s face.) He also has T-shirts, some in his image, others sporting a baby panda, an alter-ego mascot named Destructo. A shelf is stocked with DVDs, and atop the shelf is a row of dildos, also in Deen’s image.
He grew up in Pasadena; one of his parents worked at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Deen signs 7 Sins for a young female fan, Avisa, wearing a floral dress. She looks like a young Tina Fey. I ask her what she likes about James. “I think it’s his innocent appearance. I want to say he’s boyish,” she answers, and a smile creeps over her face. “And it seems like he has this other side to him that’s kind of raunchy and risky and kind of a bad boy, and that’s what girls really like.” This description — innocent with an edge — sounds like what one might say about a beloved female porn star. I ask Avisa what makes James a star. She says, “He’s like a Jenna Jameson — one in a million.”
Deen has become known for his young female fan base, colloquially known as “Deenagers.” While male porn stars have traditionally played second banana to the female anatomy, Deen is a bona fide star in his own right. There have been some celebrated male stars in the past. The documentary Exhausted: John C. Holmes, the Real Story is an erotomanic exploration of its star by director Julia St. Vincent and featuring testimonials from costars like Seka and Jessie St. James rhapsodizing about Holmes’s anatomy and performance abilities. But Deen has had the benefit of the Internet, that raging cesspool of pubescent hormones. And young girls, for whom masturbation is still something of a taboo topic, can indulge in a rich sexual fantasy life online.
Deen is good-looking, but it’s only when I speak to him that I fully get his appeal. He’s smart, funny, and casually seductive. He does the thing that all good actors and charismatic people do: makes you feel as though you’re the only other person in the room. It’s a kind of magic trick, and I am unprepared for how well it works on me. Whatever incisive questions about the adult business I’d been planning to ask Deen float away from me. I ask him about his cats, and he tells me about Roger Squeakworth Esquire and Passion Van Wondercat Samhall the Third.15
Baron von Douchington “for short.”
Deen has an extremely NSFW blog. His Instagram account is equal parts professional and personal. He posts stills from his films and behind-the-scenes workplace shots, but he also asks fans to bring him burritos and posts a lot of pictures of his cats. He’s a heartthrob within the industry as well, having dated several prominent female performers. The peak of his mainstream fame came when Bret Easton Ellis insisted on casting him in The Canyons, which Ellis wrote and Paul Schrader directed. Deen’s role took a backseat to the drama surrounding leading lady Lindsay Lohan. I ask him about working with Schrader. Deen gets a dreamy look in his eyes.
“Awesome. He’s a brilliant man.”
“Did he know you from porno at all?”
“I don’t know, we never talked about it.”
“He just treated you like an actor?”
James Deen smiles. “Yeah.”
My last Expo stop is the booth for PornHub, where girls are Hula-Hooping again for a live-cam show on a PornHub video channel. This is PornHub’s first year at AVN, and its presence is controversial; tube sites are reviled within the industry. I try to talk to the booth’s staff, but they tell me to stop filming — the first time anyone at the Expo has asked me to stop. I say I have some questions about PornHub and AVN, and one of them says she’ll have to ask her manager. She comes back and says she can’t talk to me, but she gives me an email address to try.
When I email PornHub, they initially say that they’d be happy to talk. I send a list of questions: How were they received at AVN? How do they respond to claims within the industry that tube sites condone or encourage piracy? I get a response reading, “Based on your line of questioning, we are going to have to respectfully decline this interview. From your initial email, it was our understanding that your article was going to be about how [sic] PornHub and AVNs, not on the decline of the industry, piracy, etc. Apologies if there was a misunderstanding, but that’s not something we are comfortable addressing at this time.”
I speak with Jacky St. James,16 the auteur of films like Having Sex With the In-laws, My Sister/My Lover, and The Submission of Emma Marx volumes 1 and 2, on the phone. St. James wrote a great op-ed about the depiction of BDSM in Fifty Shades of Grey. St. James’s story is a porn fairy tale: After struggling in L.A., she won a New Sensations porn screenplay contest and ended up marrying Eddie Powell, the director who showed her the ropes. She says her first outing as a director was a misfire, but because porn is not Hollywood, she was able to make a second successful film and then just kept going.
A few days after the Awards.
St. James is part of a wave of women who are becoming significant directors. This isn’t a new phenomenon — performers like Nina Hartley were directing back in the early ’90s — but it’s bigger than ever. St. James is nominated for Best Director – Feature at the AVN Awards for her movie Second Chances, which stars none other than Carter Cruise. She cleaned up at the XBIZ Awards, the so-called Golden Globes of porn to AVN’s Oscars.17 One upside of the porn world’s reputation as less prestigious than mainstream film is that women have more opportunities behind the scenes. Performers often end up working in production, and with the easy operability of digital cameras, more stars than ever are doing their own filming and editing. Belladonna and Angel both became directors while they were still performing; their Internet Adult Film Database18 entries are insanely prodigious.
Industry personnel tell me that the AVNs are more “political” than XBIZ.
The adult counterpart to IMDb.
St. James, in her late thirties, is in her fourth year of directing. “There’s not a glass ceiling like there is in Hollywood for women. If there are limitless possibilities for me, why would I walk away?” she says. “In Hollywood, women are fighting tooth and nail for directing jobs and it’s impossible.” St. James is drawn to porn that involves relationships. “I do feel like the narrative is important,” she says. “Even if they’re watching Naughty America, they’re like, ‘I want to believe that that was his teacher!’ Because it is just like, a dick in a pussy is not that exciting to me, but their relationship and the reason they’re having sex is what’s hot to me. The guys seldom get the attention. I’m a woman. I want to see their faces too.”
She’s not the only one. James Deen’s fans regularly beg for more of James onscreen, particularly his face. A BuzzFeed study conducted with PornHub about porn-viewing habits found that straight women were major consumers of gay male porn. Just a decade ago it was often touted as conventional wisdom that women weren’t able to be aroused just by visuals. But not only are women now also apt to objectify men, they’re objectifying multiple men in the way men have objectified women in porn forever: by watching them kiss. (On her blog, Carter said that she’d “definitely be down” to do an MMF scene in which the guys are both bi.) Gay porn has done forever what straight porn is just starting to do: treat men like visual sex objects. St. James likes to show both performers’ faces equally, instead of cutting off the men’s heads, a common practice in straight porn. St. James is interested in “the relationship, the expression on the guy’s face when he’s getting a blowjob. I do think it’s more of a female thing to focus on the whole story and the whole picture.” I think about how emotion flickers subtly across faces in movies like John Cassavetes’s Faces and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc — my favorite movies.
In St. James’s view, women-centric porn is usually a failure because it’s “this idea of what men think women want from porn.” The stuff that men were directing “was just completely missing the mark. I think women with more sophisticated palates found it completely insulting.” (I find myself insulted a few weeks later when I see Fifty Shades of Grey, a movie about female sexuality marketed to women with a female director and screenwriter that nonetheless keeps Jamie Dornan mostly confined within jeans while his costar, Dakota Johnson, goes buck naked. Porn shows one key thing that mainstream Hollywood lacks: an erection.)
St. James thinks porn is fertile with opportunities to tell new stories. “I think female sexuality in general is diverse and complex,” she says. “There still is a gigantic preconceived notion of what porn is, because the majority of mainstream coverage is still on train wreck stories like Jenna Jameson and her fall from grace — like, ‘Oh, look at the poor, sad porn star.’” She adds, “I think when you look at most mainstream coverage of the industry, it’s always about some girl who contracted herpes or became addicted to drugs. The most popular drug that I see is weed, and that’s really it. There’s no coke heads on my set, there’s no heroin addicts.”19
Spiegler drug tests Spiegler Girls but doesn’t care about pot. Many girls are stoners, but showing up high to set is considered unprofessional.
Two hours before the AVN Awards begin with a red carpet through the casino, Cruise sits in front of a huge picture window overlooking Las Vegas. She dusts on bronzer. The makeup artist she’s hired is late, but she’s used to doing her own makeup on sets. Cruise says she’d barely seen any pornography before getting into the industry, but was drawn to it as performance. “All my life I’ve danced and done theater and I’ve always loved public speaking, being up in front of people. I love to act and be on camera, but OK, how can I make money doing that? Porn is a performance, it’s just a super unconventional way of doing it.”
Her own taste in porn is still developing, but it runs toward the beautiful, cinematic, and rough. She doesn’t want to feel like she’s “just sitting and watching people having sex.” She’s after the cinematic intensity of arousal. “There’s a huge market right now, because a lot of companies are trying to make porn for women,” she says. “And they’re all making this romantic bullshit that’s like, ‘Oh, we can’t have choking or slapping or spitting.’ And, like, just ’cause I’m a girl, I can’t like that kind of porn?” She’s interested in dismantling the false dichotomy between so-called “good” girls and “bad” ones, navigating the complexities of a culture that orders women to be sex objects and then shames them for doing so.
It’s magic hour and the light is perfect. The nude latex dress Carter will wear is laid on the bed. “Everyone keeps saying it looks like a condom,” Cruise told me. She tried it on only once before buying it, in the designer’s bathroom, and hasn’t seen herself in a mirror. But she trusted her imagination. Draped on the bed, it looks like a jellyfish.
There are two girls hanging out in one of the beds. I ask if they’re performers and they laugh and say no, they’re just friends of Carter’s from home here to support her. (They call her by her real name.) One of them is Carter’s former sorority “little sister.” Dana DeArmond is hanging out, too, putting on makeup in the bathroom. The AVN Awards are called the prom of porn, and this pre-show ritual feels like hanging out with girls getting ready to go to a dance. Carter’s friends giggle and eat candy in the bed while she primps.
For Cruise, part of porn’s appeal comes from the way women interact in the industry. “[T]his group of girls is really cool. Everyone’s like, ‘We want to change the industry and how it’s perceived and we want to support women.’” She contrasts it with watching sorority sisters fight each other over dates. “Like, you are going to fuck your sister over to go hang out with a guy who doesn’t give a shit about you?” she remembers. “And he just wants to put his fuckin’ dick in you for like two minutes before he gets whiskey dick? Is that worth it to you so you have some kind of status?”
She adds, “And then I got into porn where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re degrading yourself and you’re degrading women.’ And all these girls were like, ‘I want to empower women and I want to support you, and what are you doing, what’s your thing outside porn? I want to support you.’ And it’s like, I’ve never seen so many women come together like that.”
Casinos give you space madness. I become more familiar with the layout of the Hard Rock casino, but I never fully master it, and it starts to meld with the Luxor’s floor plan in my brain. Between the interview with Carter and the awards, I lose my car in the garage and walk through the whole structure before realizing it’s parked in an identical garage on the casino’s other side. My patience for Vegas’s labyrinths is frayed. I would trade all the dining options for just one window in a casino, a chance to see the beautiful desert sunlight. I keep imagining what the Luxor might be like with a skylight at the top of the pyramid.
Las Vegas is built around servicing immediate urges, but when your immediate urges can be so easily serviced, they weaken. You lose your desire when you can have anything. I think about this later when a male friend mentions that he doesn’t think he’s ever seen the same girl in a porn video twice. It hadn’t occurred to me that other people might not be interested in the personalities of the performers. Much like Las Vegas restaurants, tube sites offer almost too much choice. It’s all so … available.
But AVN revives me. The red carpet is in full swing. A crowd is gathered as performers strut past in their awards show finery. Evan Stone boogies to the appropriately ’70s/’90s sound of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle.” The older male porn stars are hams; they remind me of Borscht Belt comedians. I take my seat in the theater. A drone blimp advertising Fleshlights circles the crowd as the lights go down. A wild cheer goes around when it’s announced that the musical guest is Rae Sremmurd.
“Best New Starlet” comes up early. Carter is announced as winner and I stand up to applaud. She also takes home Best Actress for Second Chances, the Jacky St. James movie. Mick Blue wins Best Male Performer. His wife, Anikka Albrite, wins Best Female Performer, marking the first time a husband-and-wife team have ever won together. Farrah Abraham appears to present an award and gets roundly booed — she is not welcome in the industry after making a cash-in fake sex tape porn with James Deen called Farrah Superstar: Backdoor Teen Mom20 and then telling the press, “Personally, making a sex tape, and that’s all I’ve ever done — that’s not being a porn star. I live a very different life than what adult entertainers live, so I can’t help what the public perceives.”
Superstar is a nod to Kim Kardashian’s Kim Kardashian, Superstar tape.
I go to one last porn party, in the most lavish penthouse yet. There are a couple of stripper poles with (paid) girls dancing, and yet another Jacuzzi. One room is a glass box with a view of the Las Vegas skyline, and I’m told that I just missed the filming of a girl-girl scene on the bed. In the industrious economical way of the adult world, AVN is a bonanza for film shoot opportunities in luxurious settings. I have adjusted to the normalcy of being at AVN so much that I am in the room for a long time before noticing that a girl has been masturbating in the corner the whole time for a crowd of men who are watching her. I’m just happy to see windows.
Carter’s night ended early. She’d had a “mild reaction” to her latex dress (“my nipples were burning”), so she’d gone straight to her room after the awards to shower and change. She made it through a celebratory milkshake and two whiskey sours at the downstairs diner before crashing. The day after AVN, she flew to San Francisco to shoot a scene for the BDSM-themed site Kink.com, where she fell asleep waiting for the lighting setup after being strapped onto a wooden bondage table for the scene.
She’s been reading Hero With a Thousand Faces, the 1949 book of comparative mythology by Joseph Campbell. On the phone, we talk about porn genres and archetypes. According to one industry consultant I speak with, the biggest boom genre last year was quasi-incest-themed porn. I tell Carter I think porn deals with the deep subconscious. She agrees. “We talk about psychological archetypes, but when it comes to sexual archetypes, people get really uncomfortable talking about it,” Cruise says. She doesn’t think porn should function as sex education, because the visual element can be misleading — what looks the best on camera might not feel the best in life. “Nothing I learned about sex came from porn.” Part of the pleasure of sex, after all, comes from figuring out tastes. She thinks the real problem is a lack of communication.
“People automatically think that I’m advocating that everyone just start having orgies and not giving a fuck and just having casual sex all the time, and that’s not what I want.” Her voice becomes impassioned. “I want people to do what they want. Your internal confidence comes from you. And if you’re practicing safe, consensual sex? It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it with 100 people or one person, it has to be safe and consensual.” Porn, all the performers argue to me, is about fantasy, not realism. It’s a safe space for viewers to explore sexual extremes through performers.
Condoms are a case in point. Most of the industry is against laws requiring condoms in porn. “James Deen would be in favor of having a disclaimer before porn without condoms,” Carter tells me. “Because I do get that, like, we set an example for people, but pretty much everyone in porn? We all use condoms in our personal life. We are all pro-condom when you’re sleeping with someone who you don’t know.” Performers are tested biweekly, although there are still occasional HIV scares.
Carter has been thinking more about how she might direct. “I want to go in and let two people fuck the way they want to, and do a wide shot, and then as it’s going along, think about what little pick-up shots you want,” she tells me. “I’ve noticed this with girl directors, actually — they’re very big on picking up the little things, spit dripping from your mouth or whatever. And that’s what takes it from just watching two people have great sex and makes it really amazing.”
An editing error misidentified the logo on the sweatshirt that President Nixon purportedly gave Elvis Presley and now hangs in the Hard Rock casino. The Drug Enforcement Agency sweatshirt hangs in a frame along with a 1970 picture of Presley and the president. However, their meeting predated the creation of the DEA by three years. A Hard Rock Hotel and Casino representative has confirmed that an erroneous description in the display led to the misunderstanding. The piece has been updated to reflect that the shirt bears a DEA logo, and that it was given to Presley after his initial meeting with the president.