» THE OBJECT OF THE OBJECT: Porn, Dignity & the Masculine Mantle

by Susan Faludi

A few years ago, if you traveled up Van Nuys Boulevard to the 4500 block, you could meditate, like Ebenezer Scrooge, on the hollow murmurings and frenzied forebodings that are the ghosts of American commerce, past and future. This particular business strip belongs to the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, which means it could be anywhere. The east side of the street displays the flattened state of things to come: a block-long mini-mall parking lot lined with consumer franchises—a Blockbuster Music store, a Baskin-Robbins, a Humphrey Yogart outlet, a General Cinema twoplex next to large signs announcing, coming soon, a General Cinema ‘‘Multi Theater Complex’’ offering a unique movie going experience with five more screens, bigger and better. Across the street, on the west side, is the past, and crumpled newspapers and discarded Baskin-Robbins cups skitter up and down its crud-caked sidewalks. At the boarded-up entrances to former hardware stores and shoe-repair shops, where tradesmen’s tools once clattered, clouds of gnats hover, making loitering un- pleasant. The small independent businesses have abandoned the field. On the day I first passed through here, even a thrift store bore a “for lease” sign.

Only one veteran remains open for business, tucked away on a second floor, up a well-worn set of stairs. Behind an unmarked door lies a room the size and shabby complexion of a one-man private detective agency from another era; dust-covered vertical blinds quiver in the stale air circulated by a floor fan. A frayed gray-blue carpet with a permanent crease down the middle is held down by two chipped desks, each with an over-flowing ashtray and a five-line phone, which blinks and rings ceaselessly from nine to six. The company sign with its blue globe logo has presided over the street for most of the firm’s nineteen years, an exemplar of discreet advertisement from a more decorous time: Figure Photography Films. Wanted: Figure models for immediate placement. 986-4316. Suite 203. The ad belongs to the World Modeling Talent Agency, central casting for the nation’s pornographic film, video, and magazine industries.

I began to get a glimmer of the landscape the new young men of modern porn were struggling to traverse: a treacherous terrain that had more to do with work than sex, more to do with gender identity than genital excitement. It was also a terrain more relevant to the larger working male population than most men would care to contemplate.

The agency has survived, despite the old-fashioned propriety of its sign, by accommodating the forces unleashed across Van Nuys Boulevard. In a world where desire is packaged in videocassettes or DVDs and marketed in malls, where self-worth is quantified by exposure, World Modeling has become the last-chance opportunity for a generation desperately seeking “immediate placement.” It is a backstage door to the current American dream and an emergency escape hatch for some who find themselves capsizing in a reconfiguring American economy. Which is why, by the last decade of the century, World Modeling would become a mecca beckoning not just women but men. More men, in fact, than women; more men than this industry of feminine display could even begin to absorb.

Every two or three months, the hopeful troop here for “talent call,” a day when prospective “new talent” can market themselves to porn filmmakers and photographers, and old talent can refresh their connections. Talent call is by invitation only; otherwise, World Modeling would have to rent out the Hollywood Bowl to process the hordes of hopeful performers who phone here daily. On this particular day, fifteen minutes after the agency’s doors opened, the stairs, the hallways, the main room, and an adjacent balcony were already dense with bodies. In this sea of fishnet and spandex and Nautilus-assisted torsos, the hopefuls darted about like nervous but directionless schools of fish seeking sustenance. There was an overpowering smell of tanning oil and cheap cologne, and, above it all, a ceaseless din, the sound of forced laughter, as from strangers trapped at a cocktail party—in this case, without the cocktails.

In the dead center of this restless throng, one job applicant stood motionless, his slacks neatly pressed, his shirtsleeves rolled back to display ever-flexed biceps. He was a thirty-ish young-old man with a tanning-salon bronze, a buzz cut, and a smile gamely plastered on his face. He cracked his knuckles methodically as his searchlight eyes roved the crowd for a welcoming face—he found none—and scanned the framed glossy photos of moneymaking stars on the agency’s walls, none of whom were male.

“This is my first time,” the aspirant, who identified himself as Damon Rose, told me. He had been trying to get the agency’s attention for two years now, he said. He did not, on the face of it, seem the type to be pursuing a career in porn. The son of a conservative San Diego orthopedic surgeon, he possessed, at the age of thirty-one, a sociology degree from the University of California at San Diego, an enrollment certificate from the executive MBA program at Pepperdine University, and a recently expired real estate license to practice in the state of California. “All my education is for naught,” Rose said. It had landed him a job as marketing director for a surfboard retailer, which yielded him an income insufficient to meet his student-loan payments. The selling of his own physique, on the other hand, had proved more remunerative; his résumé included, so far, basic training as a Chippendales dancer, three years in which he ran his own “male-exotic-dance service for women,” and, most recently, a modeling assignment for a phone-sex ad. He posed naked underwater, cradling a telephone receiver.

“I was born to do this,” he said repeatedly, rehearsing his enthusiasm in preparation for the audition he hoped to land in one of the agency’s two tiny back rooms, where production company executives had set up camp for the afternoon. After several failed attempts at “making contacts” in the main room, Damon Rose joined the crowd outside one of the closed doors in the back. But he was passed over again and again as the door flew open, a voice boomed, “New girl, please!” and another spangled woman elbowed by him. A despairing Rose turned to the closest actress, who was shellacked in hair spray and leaning against the wall. “You want to give me some pointers?” he appealed. She looked him over grudgingly, as if she were doing him a favor to lift her eyelids. “Just get it hard,” she said. Then she turned on her heel and vanished.

The other men in the hallway kept their distance. Stag films may once have served as the male-bonding glue of bachelor parties, but today, at least in the occupational end of modern porn, male performers face each other with Darwinian teeth bared, aware of their endangered status. “Actresses have the power,” Alec Metro, one of the men in line, ruefully noted of the X-rated industry. He had sold mattresses previously, he said without irony, and before that worked as a firefighter, an occupation he claimed to have lost to the forces of affirmative action. “No one said it, but it’s known they are looking for more minorities and women,” he said bitterly of the all-white fire department in his hometown, which, he asserted, had rejected his application when he had tried to transfer from the San Jose Fire Department. But if he hoped to escape “reverse discrimination,” he was already divining that porn might not be the ideal career choice. Female performers can often dictate which male actors they will and will not work with. “They refer us,” Metro said. “They make more money than us.” Porn, at least porn produced for a heterosexual audience, is one of the few contemporary occupations where the pay gap operates in women’s favor; the average actress makes 50 to 100 percent more money than her male counterpart. But then, she is the object of desire; he merely her appendage, the object of the object.

By now, the door to the back room had opened and slammed shut in Damon Rose’s face five times. He wouldn’t let it happen again, he vowed. When the next new girl was ushered in, Rose slipped in right behind, riding her sequined coattails. Inside, the porn production scouts sat on a foam-spitting couch and folding chairs. They barely glanced up as Damon Rose made his pitch. Maybe it was his voice, straining to please, that dampened their interest. Or maybe it was his look. Jack Stephen, of Cinderella Productions, muttered to me behind his hand: “We get these beautiful buffed guys, but they can’t do it. They’re just fluff. These new guys come apart like a bad suit.”

Damon Rose was speaking to them earnestly: “I’ve only done one thing through Ron Vogel—for phone sex—but otherwise I’m a virgin. But I’m—” The producer Mitch Spinelli interrupted, “Thank you, Damon,” eyes craning over his shoulder for the next prospect. The porn producer and actor Steve Drake called out, “New girl, please!”

Damon Rose slunk out shamefaced, flung back into the masses in the main room, where I spotted him busy converting hurt to aggression. He had sneaked up behind an actress and grabbed her breasts. She shook him off, then turned to appraise his pectorals. “Your boobs are bigger than mine,” she said. He laughed uncertainly, then wandered off, his face sunk in despair.

In the agency’s main room, barely visible on a low side table tucked behind a stack of porn magazines and a shedding ficus plant, sat a large snifter glass. It contained not brandy but dollar bills. A handmade label taped to it said “For Cal.” It was a collection plate of sorts for one of the generation of actors who “cared too much.” Cal Jammer had succeeded where Damon Rose could only aspire. And two weeks before, he had committed suicide, at the age of thirty-four.

Somewhere between the 12th Annual Adult Video News Awards ceremony, which coincided with the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and an afternoon spent with Bill Margold, self-appointed “daddy” to many porn actors, a month later, I began to get a glimmer of the landscape the new young men of modern porn were struggling to traverse: a treacherous terrain that had more to do with work than sex, more to do with gender identity than genital excitement. It was also a terrain more relevant to the larger working male population than most men would care to contemplate.

The young men’s how-I-got-here stories were of a piece. They had all bailed out of sinking occupational worlds that used to confer upon working men a measure of dignity and a masculine mantle but now offer only uncertainty. Steven St. Croix (who, like every porn actor, adopted a name to go with his new persona) went to vocational school to be a mason, but all the job openings he found involved busing tables or washing dishes. Stripping, then porn acting, gave him a livelihood, and “recognition.” Julian St. Jox was an Army Airborne Ranger, but once he entered civilian life he found that his job as a bartender wouldn’t pay the rent. “Porn pays the bills,” he said. Vince Voyeur, twenty-nine, worked for four years as a forklift mechanic, one of the men who “built things,” he said, before realizing that such men belong to a rapidly receding past.

“Who knows who builds things? Who cares?” Bill Margold said to me as we sat in his cat-hair-strewn apartment a month later. Margold, who was fifty-two, joined the porn industry in 1969, and moved from scriptwriter to performer to unofficial papa of distressed porn stars. He invited despondent actors here to hug one of the scores of teddy bears he had collected for this purpose. As we spoke, a perpetually yowling tomcat called Pogo competed for his owner’s attentions, storming from chair to chair, his switching tail knocking porn glossies and adult magazines to the floor. It used to be, Margold said between fruitless efforts to shush the cat, that you proved your manhood by building things. “That was the artisan mentality. That doesn’t exist anymore. We live in a microwave- oven mentality. Before you even think about it, it’s already there on the table. It’s all too fast now. There’s no time to even watch it be created.” In a microwave-ready culture, building is “not proving anything.” The “new Paul Bunyan,” Margold said, was the man who displayed his big ax. “Better to wield the ax than create from what the ax has cut, because that’s the center of attention.” Young men flocked to porn, he said, to become that new “woodsman,” the industry’s term for a reliable male performer—the lumberjack whose penis was his hatchet.

Of course, the porn industry has its old-fashioned artisans, he assured me. Cal Jammer, in fact, had been one, an electrician, set designer, and general handyman as well as a performer. Margold had met Cal Jammer on the set of Aussie Exchange Girls, and he recalled Cal’s eager, almost desperate need to please. “Basically he was a sheepdog that didn’t know when to stop licking your hand.” Margold jerked his head in the direction of the caterwauling Pogo. “It’s like this cat, essentially, only this cat is not as good-natured.” At that, the cat made a lunge for Margold’s chest, and the exasperated porn daddy hurled Pogo into the kitchen. Returning to his chair, Margold turned pensive and glum. He stared silently into a far corner of the room, where the evening shadows were stealing across a row of teddy bears.

“I lament that I wasn’t there for Cal,” he said finally. The night after Cal’s death, Margold got two calls from anguished performmers, one at two and the other at three in the morning, wanting to know why Cal did it and if they should do it, too. Margold had set up a hot line the year before, after the suicide of the female porn star Savannah. Porn actresses’ committing suicide was a concept the industry veterans understood; they’d seen it before. But for a male actor to despair, to exit the stage so violently—what did it mean? When did they begin to care so much? And why, this winter, did the men of porn care so much about Cal Jammer, a man whom most of them found irritatingly clingy and had known only casually, but whose name now provoked teary diatribes, fists slammed into walls?

A money-shot man wouldn’t be paid much in the nether reaches of porn, where he’d do most of his work, but he could take pride in the fact that it was his masculine prowess on display, pumping away like a well- oiled machine. The money-shot men considered themselves the last work- ingmen of America. They were defending traditional manhood by showing that the one irrefutable proof of genetic maleness was up and running.

Cal Jammer—or Randy Potes, as he was called until he entered the business—was one of five boys of a navy veteran turned physics professor and a mother who worked at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys. When he was still young, his parents divorced and his father retreated from their lives. More recently, the GM plant had closed and his mother had gone back to community college for “retraining.” The brothers all had trouble finding work; the most successful became a school janitor. Cal’s strength and dexterity lent themselves to skilled labor and athletics. He worked on construction crews, installed solar panels, and, when he wasn’t working, surfed and Jet Skied. In the late eighties, he got work building sets for a porn-photo studio, began modeling there, and soon thereafter became obsessed with finding his place before the camera. He could see that what counted was not building the stage but appearing on it.

Cal’s journey from the Santa Clarita Valley, where he grew up, to the San Fernando Valley was a short one, but his other journey—from building sets to posing on them, from being a golden boy on California’s surfing coast to being a man marketing himself as the very image of a California surfer—was epic. The riptide of celebrity culture, whether it surged over pornography or professional sports, aerospace corporations or magazine offices, seemed to be reversing an ancient force field, and the “male gaze” felt its strength ebbing before the rising power of the woman on display. In truth, that gaze had never given men more than a fleeting sense of power, just as being gazed upon still gave women only an illusory power. But these were fine distinctions to men like Cal Jammer. For them, it was plain that the “feminine” ornamental occupations they had disparaged had become employment oases. It was like consigning the Indians to the barren desert, only to discover oil on the reservation.

The advent of cheap video production introduced a wedge that now threatens to break the porn world in two. “There’s going to be two ends of the business,” porn actor turned director Buck Adams said. “It’ll be those who are doing ‘The Project’ and those who are doing the garbage. And there won’t be any middle ground. And that’s when I think this situation might get even more scary.” While the corporate porn makers were raking in breathtaking profits, the low end was morphing into “the flesh eaters,” Adams said. “One half of the industry is eating itself, eating each other’s legs off.” He waved his arms in frantic praying-mantis motions. “More, more sex, sex, sex, sex! And sell it for a dollar ninety-eight and sell ten bazillion copies of it, and make six cents a tape and we are going to make fifty dollars at the end of the month!” What scared him most was the effect on the male talent. “There’s getting to be a real wide gap in the performers. Either you’re bitchin’, got everything, and you are in, or you’re just missing one piece so you’re out.”

The modern male porn actor confronted an impossible career obstacle course. He could try to make it as a money-shot man, a “pop face ’n’ go” guy of hydraulic regularity, known for his heroic capacity to come on a dime. A money-shot man, or “Mr. Wood,” as Buck Adams called him, wouldn’t be paid much in the nether reaches of porn, where he’d do most of his work, but he could take pride in the fact that it was his masculine prowess on display, pumping away like a well-oiled machine. The money-shot men considered themselves the last workingmen of America. They were like “blue-collar people, welders,” another porn actor turned director, Paul Thomas, told me. They were defending traditional manhood by showing that the one irrefutable proof of genetic maleness was up and running. “We’re the last bastion of masculinity,” Bill Margold, a proponent of the in-the-toilet variety of porn, insisted. “The one thing a woman cannot do is ejaculate in the face of her partner. We have that power.”

But if a male performer really wanted to rise, if he wanted to become a “star” in what Buck Adams called “The Project,” instead of one of the welders in “the garbage,” wielding the punisher simply wasn’t enough. Big-budget porn demanded of its male actors not just sexual performance but cosmetic adornment. The men who rose to the top were those men who could compete with the women in their own realm, not ejaculate in their faces.

A porn shoot is an intricately delineated ecology. Directors, while still more or less on top, have increasingly been challenged by the rise of the “contract” and “box-cover girls.” With the advent of video, the box, not its contents, generally sells the product, which means that the box-cover girl can sometimes trump her supposed bosses. The big porn companies court this woman’s favor by offering her a generous contract (by porn standards) in return for “exclusivity.” While the number of highly paid box-cover girls is small, their presence seems vast and domineering to male actors, who speak resentfully of the women’s rising fees and prima-donna airs. The contract girls at Vivid, another industry giant, are perceived as the most indulged; I’d heard them referred to as the “Vivid Queens.” “In the porno chain of command,” actor Jonathan Morgan said to me bitterly one evening over drinks, the contract girl “can choose who she wants to fuck, where she wants to fuck, the script that she wants to fuck in, what day they are going to fuck.”

Unlike the top female performers of the 1970s, such as Georgina Spelvin (The Devil in Miss Jones) and Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door), who actually styled themselves as actresses and sexual adventurers, the contract girls are undressed-for-success career women, making a calculated professional move that will get them into and out of the porn film industry as quickly as possible and inflate their long-term salaries as exotic dancers. “They are purely mercenary,” porn star Nina Hartley, who belonged to the earlier era, said of those she contemptuously called “postfeminist princesses”; she viewed them as hypocrites who got financial independence by playing to retro male fantasies. “They are very traditional. They are not sexual revolutionaries.” With the explosive growth of table- and lap-dancing stripper clubs, large numbers of dancers have realized that they can quadruple their income simply by appearing on a few porn box covers. They then become “feature dancers” who return to the circuit to make as much as $10,000 a week. This kind of windfall is not available to men, with the exception of a few gay porn stars.

By choosing an erection as the proof of male utility, the male performer has hung his usefulness, as Jonathan Morgan observed, on “the one muscle on our body we can’t flex.” The beautiful woman in a porn film applies her glamour from a bottle and she’s ready; the man must wait for an erection to happen, an agony known in the business as “waiting for wood.”

Under the directors and the contract girls is the reliable “male talent,” fewer than thirty regulars whom the industry can count on for on-call erections. Male actors are generally paid by “the scene,” as it is decorously called. No ejaculation, no paycheck—though some of the more sympathetic filmmakers offer a kill fee. The pressure is too much for most male performers. As much as the Bill Margolds might wish to portray porn acting as the last arena of the traditional male work ethic, getting it up isn’t the kind of work in which industry guarantees rewards. Quite the contrary, by choosing an erection as the proof of male utility, the male performer has hung his usefulness, as Jonathan Morgan observed, on “the one muscle on our body we can’t flex.” The beautiful woman in a porn film applies her glamour from a bottle and she’s ready; the man must wait for an erection to happen, an agony known in the business as “waiting for wood.”

Ranked just beneath the upper tier of male “talent” is a seething, ever-changing mass of B-girls or “fill-in girls,” many of whom either stumble onto the set hollow-eyed and strung out or don’t bother to stumble in at all. They are endured as the necessary bane of porn’s existence, and disparaged behind their backs—or eventually fired. Below the B-girls, way below, are the new male wannabes, who, if they don’t perform, are immediately sent packing. Finally, at the very bottom, the lowest of the low, are the “suitcase pimps.” These are the husbands and boyfriends who claim to be “managers” or “marketing directors” for their eminently more marketable mates. Increasingly, they insist not only on a cut of their women’s wages but a spot in the camera lights as well.

Off on a side track is the far less hierarchical and more jaundiced society of the technical crew: camera operators, assistant directors, box-cover photographers, and the various production assistants known as “crew hogs.” Some are young film-school graduates who discover upon graduation that they can go to Warner Bros. and carry coffee or report to 4-Play Video and start as a senior editor. On the set, their moods range from affectlessness to acid sarcasm, both a protective pose and a reasonable response to the fact that watching sex performed for a camera quickly becomes dreary.

The exploitation of the male” in the adult business, Nina Hartley told me, “is very distinct, in that he must cut off his dick from his heart.” This wasn’t as true in the days when the porn world was more of a community that sustained a certain collegiality and longer-term relationships. “Now, it’s much more assembly-line nature.” And those who can’t shut their hearts and minds off, she said, get chewed up in the gears. Cal Jammer “had a heart to break,” and it was still connected to his penis.

Much to his frustration, Cal often found his erections held hostage to his feelings. But he also didn’t want the pile-driver reputation. He wanted to be, or at least thought he wanted to be, more of a box-cover boy. And, to a certain extent, he succeeded; it was rare for a male actor to make it onto the box, and Cal had more box appearances than most. He even headlined in a video take-off of Batman, which was to be his big break. However, the video, wretched even by porn standards, was recalled soon after its release over a copyright-infringement dispute.

Cal compensated for his lack of cocksmanship by marketing himself around the industry as a carefree, windjammin’ California boy. He sank substantial sums into the development of his aura: the most expensive sports gear, Jet Skis, speedboat, sports car, the fanciest fluorescent surfer duds, gym and tanning-salon member-ships. Porn actor Cid Morrison recalled Cal buying two-hundred- dollar sunglasses one day, just “because he thought they gave him ‘a different look.’” The surfer-boy image buoyed his career to some extent, but it did not reflect a more personal quest, one that drove him to buy a condo at the earliest opportunity and furnish it as befitted not a beach-bum bachelor but a fifties nesting couple. He assembled all the trappings of middle-American family life as advertised in family magazines: the camping gear, the barbecue pit, the volleyball net. “He really wanted to be a father, a husband,” said Katina Knapp, was the office manager at the soundstage where Cal was the master builder and served as his maternal confidante for many years. “He never mentioned his father, but he was very into family.”

Soon after he began acting in porn, Cal found a ready-made family and persuaded them, for a time, to move into his domestic bower. He met Cameo, a single mother, on her first porn shoot; the video was Behind You All the Way. Cameo, who had just divorced and moved to Los Angeles from Colorado, needed a home for herself and her five-year-old son. Cal, as she recalled, was eager to play the gentleman and protector, opening doors, taking her arm. When her ex-husband stalled in sending her son to Los Angeles, Cal gallantly flew to Colorado to act as a bodyguard while she retrieved her child.

There were, however, some less appealing aspects to his traditional family-man performance. “He was very strict about the way I kept the house,” Cameo told me. “It had to be absolutely spotless.” He also didn’t want her to return to college. In fact, he didn’t really want her to work at all, but he desperately needed her income to help pay his mortgage and utility bills, so he let that part of the Father Knows Best picture slide for a while.

Cameo’s own vision of family life was more informed by feminism than fifties television. “Everything was always his and I just said, How can I marry someone and have an equal relationship with somebody where everything is his?” While she first found his desire to shield her from porn employment “really sweet,” after a while, she began to suspect it was only a “double standard—and I’m going nowhere. I didn’t move two thousand miles away from home to be a servant.” Eventually, without his knowledge, she signed a contract with Arrow Film and Video, requesting a two-thousand-dollar advance so she could put down a deposit on her own apartment. “I finally just had to go behind his back. [Otherwise,] I would have always constantly been under his thumb and there in that apartment to clean it forever.” When Cal heard about Cameo’s contract with Arrow, he stormed onto her set. He found her in the makeup chair and “threw a big stink.” Then he charged into the parking lot and let the air out of her tires.

In the wake of their breakup, Cal began to have more problems “breaking down on the set”—the male talent’s euphemism for a lost erection. His insecurity was not exactly diminished by the relentless jeering from other male actors, who needled him about momentary softness, tormented him with speculations about his girlfriend’s infidelities, or simply made fun of his latest hairdo. No matter how much the taunting tore at him, Katina Knapp recalled, “he kept it all inside. He always tried to be cheerful.” From time to time, the situation would become too much and Cal would go back to building sets. But set design provided little in the way of money or recognition, and soon he would be badgering directors for another shot, until one day someone would need a stunt dick and there he’d be, ready to get back into the game. This on-again, off-again dance continued for several years, the apprehension that caused him to flee the stage being the same that caused him to return. “Cal’s whole perspective was fear of male performance anxiety,” Cid Morrison said. “That was his life force.”

Now remember what I told you,” Nick East said as he greeted me at the door of his apartment in 1995, a one-room guest cottage in North Hollywood which you entered from an oil-stained back alley cluttered with trash cans. “This apartment is not a reflection of who I am.” He dropped onto a couch and reached for the remote control, desultorily flip- ping channels on a giant TV screen, his only possession of any significance. East once shared an apartment with Cal Jammer, at a point when Cal was between women, but he said he was still too upset about the death to talk about that time, and became angry when I pressed it. What he wanted to talk about was lost manhood. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “The definition of a man is gone.” In Nick East’s history of gender relations, the golden age was the forties and fifties, when, “if a man said something, women took him at his word and acted accordingly.” The man had a job that lasted and a wage that went farther than a weekly run to the A & P. At the center of Nick East’s dream of a Happy Valley past was a father who would take care of them all. “Back when my dad was able to support three children and a wife who didn’t work and buy a house when he was twenty-three . . .” was how a typical Nick East sentence began. What made that possible? I asked. “Because the workforce was not flooded with females,” he said, suddenly angry. “The government tricked our women into working and women became men.”

Nick East’s father was an electrician, a dedicated union man. Nick grew up in the Midwest, the youngest of three children. He tried to follow the work formula of his father’s generation: directly out of high school he joined the navy, then quickly got married and left the navy for family-wage employment. But the jobs he found in civilian life could barely support him, much less his wife. He sold cars, then copiers. “That’s all I did,” he said. “I sold things.” His wife moved back in with her mother in California and found a job at a dental-products firm. Nick went looking for a factory job, figuring, based on his father’s experience, that it would pay better. But the manufacturing world that he ran up against no longer manufactured a middle class. He worked in an aluminum plant that was hiring only nonunion labor; his job was to “ream out” siphon tubes, seven days a week, twelve hours a day. “I make more now,” he noted.

He drove to California to reclaim his wife, but she wasn’t interested in being reclaimed. He moved to Ohio, where his mother and stepfather lived, but couldn’t find steady work. Finally, he held his nose and took a job at Burger King. The night after his first day on the job, he had a nightmare: “They had locked me in a Burger King and made me work there.” The next morning, the image of Burger King incarceration still vivid in his imagination, he found himself immobilized by panic before the franchise doors. “So, I returned my uniform at the drive-through window.” Soon after, he moved to California and auditioned at World Modeling.

“That was 1991—four years!” Nick East said. In today’s market, that rated as a job with longevity. “The business saved my life. It gave me something to go on with.”

As Nick surfed through the channels, he hit the Playboy program; glancing over, I jolted in my seat. “Hey, that’s you!” He shrugged. “What movie is it?” I asked. He didn’t know; he’d made too many to keep track. “I’m always on TV.” His voice held no enthusiasm. “I’m on every day of the week.” He stared blankly at the image of his thrusting hips. “I know I’m nothing. Though most of the world has seen my face, I’m nothing because I didn’t do anything.”

If he was on TV every day of the week and still thought of himself as “nothing,” I asked, then what must Cal Jammer, who was a mere spear carrier by comparison, have thought of himself? But Nick was not interested in exploring the connections between celebrity culture and male despair. As far as he was concerned, there was only one force behind his former roommate’s suicide: his wife. “Cal’s death, it was over a woman,” he said flatly. The relevant facts, as he saw it, were these: Cal’s wife “asks him to get out of the business. He got out. She wanted a divorce. She got into the business…. As someone told me, Cal said, ‘This is for you, babe,’ and shot himself in the head.” At the funeral, Nick said, “I didn’t pay last respects because I would have had to walk by her.” He leaned back on the couch and closed his eyes for a moment. “She tortured him, which is the way that the sexes have changed.”

Nick reached in back of the couch and, much to my surprise, pulled out a Bible. He had been reading it lately, he said, because he was looking for “direction,” thinking about quitting the business, and working on a memoir “about the way home.” He wanted to read me his favorite passages and so turned to John, chapter 14. “‘I will not leave you desolate,’” he read, his face catching the light of his own image still flickering on the Playboy channel. “‘I will come to you.’” He paused, then turned to chapter 10. “This is the most intense part of the Bible. ‘My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no man is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’”

I borrowed his memoir-in-progress to read that night. It turned out to be less an account of a life than a mystical wish fulfillment fantasy, in which a “guardian angel” materializes one day as Nick is driving cross-country and promises to be his divine guide through life. The angel first appears to a grateful Nick East in the clothes and guise of his own father.

Cal could build anything. Cal’s the one who did this whole living room.” Buck Adams turned and swept his hand across a vast empty expanse of white carpet and marble veneer. It was another porn house, down to the white couches, but on a grand scale, on the top of a hill overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Most of the rooms were empty and some of the construction appeared unfinished, as if the contractor had abandoned the project three-quarters of the way through.

Buck Adams took me through the house, showing me Cal’s handiwork. “Cal was a very responsible guy in a lot of ways,” Adams said. “He was very normal. He had this very big view of how things should actually work. You know, you work hard every day and in the end you will be rewarded…. But he was finding that just isn’t true nowadays. It gets you a lousy stinking little paycheck, and that’s that. That’s where it ends.”

Buck Adams had the exaggerated gestures and oversized voice of a country Texan, which he was, though one suspected that his home-on-the-range act had been pumped up considerably since his arrival in Los Angeles. A boxer turned porn actor, he retained the bantam strut of a man forever preparing to enter the ring. His sister, the porn star Amber Lynn, pulled him into the business after neither boxing nor working as a bouncer seemed to be leading him anywhere. “For the first three to four years in the business, I was ‘Mr. Wood,’” Buck Adams said, flexing a biceps. “No talk. Just a cowboy.”

Several years ago, Adams started directing videos, bigger-budget numbers with car and helicopter chases; he invented a new genre, “action porn.” By his own admission, he liked to “blow things up,” on camera anyway, and his signature film formula became the car wreck followed by the wrecking of the sheets. But he was working on a very different kind of film now. It was the story of the porn star Savannah’s suicide; she shot herself soon after an auto accident that scarred her face. “I don’t even show the car wreck, which would’ve been a natural. I mean, I lived to do things like that.” At some point in the last few months, he had lost his appetite for cinematic explosions. He had almost lost his appetite for the business altogether. Cal’s death had left him shaken, sobered. On this morning, he looked pale and drawn, the ride-’em-cowboy persona barely limping along. If he was more haunted than most by Cal’s suicide, he had his reasons. He was the last to speak to Cal, moments before his death.

“The big problem with this business,” Buck Adams said, seated cross-legged on the floor of his living room, adrift in the open sea of shag, “is there’s less and less story.” On the low end of the market, where the “flesh eaters” prowled, all that was left was a random and hastily assembled flow of images. “My God, they can make a video in one day for about four grand. Sometimes they even try to shoot two movies in one day for seven or eight grand. It’s absolutely incredible. People are just rolling through like cattle. Say nine words and fuck the whole piece together. They shoot it on a home-movie camera with two idiotic lights like somebody would work on your car with. And they actually release them, like this ‘movie.’ . . . It’s heresy.” With the story line gone, he said, “looks is all there is to it. It’s making the actors feel isolated to the visual aspect.” Of course, the “story” had always been threadbare, even in porn’s Golden Age. Still, that thin veneer of narrative had provided an emotional fig leaf; without it, the performers felt painfully exposed. “For the actors, it’s really tough. They’ve taken away your one big justification for who and what you are: your work.”


From the extended online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt. Adapted from “Waiting for Wood,” a chapter from Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male (William Morrow & Company, Inc.).

2 thoughts on “» THE OBJECT OF THE OBJECT: Porn, Dignity & the Masculine Mantle

  1. Pingback: » LiP: INFORMED REVOLT – The “Constructively Negative” Sacred Cows Issue | LOUDCANARY

  2. Pingback: » CAPITALISM MIDWIFED FEMINISM? | LOUDCANARY

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