Susannah Breslin takes you deep inside the sad, desperate lives of male porn stars.
Here’s what people don’t understand about porn. It’s not about women. It’s about men. It’s not about vaginas. It’s about penises. It is made by men for men, and no amount of feminist theorizing in hallowed academic halls, on feminist blogs, or anywhere else, will make room in porn for what women think of it. Why? Because porn cares no more for women than dreams care for waking. Though I’ve spent a good portion of my career writing about porn, I was never interested in porn stars. Female porn stars, that is. I was interested in the men. Stripped of their clothes by the medium, stripped of their dignity by the nature of their work, and stripped of their pride by the all-seeing, unblinking eye of the camera that followed their every desperate thrust, Porn Valley’s working stiffs offer a peek behind the curtain of masculinity at manhood laid bare.
In 1997, I visited my first porn set. The name of the movie was “Flashpoint.” It was a big budget feature. Over the years, I’ve written about what I saw there so many times—the seven porn stars having an orgy on a fire truck in the middle of a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles under the scorching midday sun; the woodsman up the fireman’s ladder getting a blow job from the busy, busty blonde whose head bobbed like a chicken’s; that evening’s climactic scene inside an abandoned warehouse where a naked (but for a pair of thigh-high shiny red boots) and bent over Jenna Jameson turned her head above her shoulder and informed her costar, T.T. Boy, arguable best known for having been described in the pages of The New Yorker as “a life-support system for a penis,” to, “Take it easy on me, OK?” as he and his erect phallus bore down upon her while flames shot up all around their X-rated dream sequence. If you thought these men wanted to be studs, you were wrong. If you thought they were in it for the sex, you were soon corrected. If you thought they were in it for the glory, you were to find otherwise. They weren’t in it for any of that. They were in it for love. Only for love would a man dedicate his life to the sausage-making enterprise that is the porn industry.
Early this past June in the San Fernando Valley, a 34-year-old porn star named Steve Driver (real name: Stephen Hill) killed a fellow male porn star (stage name: Tom Dong) and slashed two coworkers with a samurai sword at an adult video production facility. A few days later, surrounded by LAPD SWAT team members and having been tasered, Hill went over the edge of a cliff and fell to his death some fifty feet below. His final act was captured on videotape by a posse of news crews hot on the trail of the Porn Star-Turned-Samurai Slayer. Several recordings of the incident from multiple angles posted on YouTube failed to reveal whether Hill slipped or killed himself. When the news broke, an editor at Salon asked me if I would write a story about it. So I did. I had never met Hill, but I had met men in the porn industry who were a lot like him. I speculated as to his state of mind and why I thought he had gone off the deep end. I tried to be sympathetic. He was a human being, after all. I wrote: “Over the years, I have found that all porn stars have one thing in common: an overwhelming, desperate desire to be loved. Many of the men who work in the porn business are neither fools nor thugs. They love women and crave social acceptance to such a profound degree that they are willing to go to any lengths—even subjugating themselves to the unknowable, undeniable demands of their own penises—to, for one fleeting moment, feel that, in some way, they mattered to someone.” The day the piece appeared online, I received an email from Hill’s uncle. He thanked me for writing the story. He said he appreciated that I had not treated his mentally troubled nephew’s death as if it was a punch line to a joke nobody quite had the heart to tell. The next day, I wrote Hill’s uncle a note in return. I told him that if Hill’s father ever wanted to get in touch with me, he could. Not long after, I received another email, the subject header of which read: “I am Stephen Hill’s father.” “To the world the picture of Stephen is of a killer poised with a sword on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by black-armored swat officers,” his father wrote. “This picture that I can’t get out of my mind, however, is of a little boy running to the door and grabbing me by the knees yelling ‘Daddy’s home.’”
These days, porn is everywhere, but when I write about what it’s really like behind the scenes in the porn business—for the men, for the women, for everyone working in what I came to refer to over the years as “a meat grinder for the human condition”—I get a great many emails. Mostly, they are from people I don’t know. By and large, they are compassionate people. They are kind. They are thoughtful. They read my story, and, they say, it made them sad. They sound a lot like that elderly woman who comes up to Tim O’Brien at the end of “How to Tell a True War Story,” the one with the tears in her eyes who is very sorry about the dead baby buffalo and tells him to write about something other than war, to put it all behind him. Their emails say the same thing: I didn’t know it was like that. I understand what they are saying, but I don’t believe them. You can watch porn or you can not watch porn, you may have ideas about porn or you may have nothing to say about porn whatsoever, you could be a porn addict or you could prefer protesting against porn in the streets, but if you write me an email in which you tell me you are shocked (aghast, in fact) to discover that fucking on camera for a living is a really hard line of business to be in for the men and for the women who work in it, you have got to be kidding me. Otto von Bismarck said, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Of course, the same can be said of porn. This is the problem with talking about porn. How can one possibly know the truth of what porn is and still get off on it? It is impossible.
He’ll do something, you’ll see. That’s what the photographer said about T.T. Boy that night on the set of “Flashpoint,” and she was right. After he had delivered his money shot, and the director had called, “Cut!,” a PA came up to T.T. Boy and handed him a wad of paper towels. Then, with his paper towels in one hand and his penis in the other, T.T. Boy began scanning the room. He was looking for someone. He was looking for something. He found me hunkered down in the corner, watching him. It all happened so long ago that I can’t remember if he smiled or grimaced, but I’m pretty sure I understand what he was trying to say, even if he didn’t say anything. I think he wanted me to see him, the real him, as something more than a prop to a porn star.
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Photos by Susannah Breslin