THE NSFW ISSUE
The week of October 5, 2014
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I came this close to becoming a porn star

By Nico Lang

Sometimes when you’re watching gay porn, you don’t notice the guy with the most massive member or the best O-face. You’re looking at the guy with the dead eyes, whose hollow flatness betrays the illusion of the scene. This is the guy who is stiffly going through the motions. Maybe he’s a first-timer. Maybe he got his start doing solo work and the studio promoted him to his first scene with a partner. And he hates it.

Beneath that simmering disdain is a story, and you always want to know what that guy’s story is. Was porn something he ever saw himself doing? What other options did he have? Why did he need the money? Pornography, like any other profession, is a matter of time, circumstance, and the right social conditions—and in the camming era, it’s easier than ever to break into. As someone who likes and enjoys online porn, you hope these conditions are good, that he’s the kind of guy who likes having sex so much that he decided to do it on camera. Sometimes they are not.

For every Belle Knox, the Duke porn star putting herself through college, there’s the story of an also-ran, the casting couch auditioner who didn’t make it. They might get used to it. They might come back. They might find they like it. They might disappear, but that look does not. After all, it could have been yours. It was almost mine.

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I was 17 and really, really bad at my job. This was the first semester of my freshman year in art school, and I had one of a couple things on my mind at any given time: boys and where to meet them. Growing up in a small town where gay sex consisted of sneaking onto your mother’s computer after her painkillers knocked her out for the evening, college was crawling with guys. They didn’t have to be smart, they didn’t have to be interesting, and they didn’t even have to be particularly nice. They just had to be there. And on this latter criterion, they succeeded admirably.

Most teenage girls get to do the “boys thing” their entire high school experience. They get to hold hands and go to the prom together, be popular and fit in with the right kinds of people. I wanted those things, but the difference was that I was a boy, I listened to the Smiths, lived in a trailer with my overworked mother, and had an unrequited crush on a member of the football team. The closest I ever got to the high school fantasy was when half of my school found out that I sexually obsessed over him. It was a small school; you told one person and word got around. Someone even addressed a note to him on my behalf. That was the closest I ever got to the fantasy.

With my busy schedule of obsessing over unattainable men, I didn’t have a lot of time for my job at the campus library, and I didn’t pay much attention to it.  Instead of working, I listened to Arcade Fire on my iPod or sat in the stacks, reading in between daydreams, or sat on the computer with my coworkers, laughing about Chuck Norris memes.

For every Belle Knox, the Duke porn star putting herself through college, there’s the story of an also-ran, the casting couch auditioner who didn’t make it.

I had no other work experience and only worked 16 hours a week for the library, earning our state’s definition of minimum wage. The maximum number of hours a student worker could log at our college was 23, and the students who worked the stacks and the circulation desk rarely made it there. At the very most, that means you have $240 dollars in your pocket at the end of two weeks, which feels like a lot the first time you see it written on university payroll. You find out quickly that it isn’t.

When you grow up poor and living in a trailer, all you understand is survival—you know the things you don’t have and that you need to get them. I didn’t have anything to wear to class except for old button downs and jeans that I thought would look less cheap if I threw paint all over them. I didn’t always have money for books, but I learned how to shoplift my course reading from a bipolar aunt who specialized in kleptomania and talking her way out of getting arrested. The one thing I didn’t have was food, which my aunt warned could be surprisingly hard to steal. Supermarkets had cameras everywhere.

All of these factors should have made me better at my job, but they didn’t. I was routinely overdrafting my bank account by this point, and I was restless and desperate, looking for any way out of the mess I’d gotten myself into—not unlike, I imagine, a lot of teens who enter the porn industry after high school, unaware of its long-term ramifications, especially in the Internet era.

That’s why when a guy told me I could jerk off on camera for $50, it sounded like the best idea I’d ever heard.

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As a broke college student, it turns out that there are lots of ways to put yourself through school with porn. While I was in grad school, I met a guy who paid for college by working as an “internationally renowned porn star” for Randy Blue for four years, almost as if the military paid for his tuition. Another popped balloons in the suburbs for two guys who would film him for their niche website. Balloon porn is as simple as it sounds; sometimes he would pop them with a pin, other times he stepped on them, but either way, he got $100 out of the deal. You also had the option to step on a cake, but I don’t think cake paid as much.

But I wouldn’t be presented these options until years later. At 17, there are only two types of people: porn people, and everyone else. If you did porn, you were a Jenna Jameson type: modestly rich, slightly famous, and injected with enough silicone to kill a small animal. Everyone else simply did not do porn, and it wasn’t even an option. The porn industry didn’t intersect with real life or the lived experiences of anyone I knew. Learning that someone did porn would be like learning someone was a double agent for the Russian government, a profession that is not only shadowy and secretive but impossible to comprehend. It might as well take place in an alternate universe.

One day, while wandering the stacks and rooting through our library’s collection of L. Ron Hubbard books, I struck up a conversation with one of my coworkers, an amiable nerdy type who looked like he could be convincingly played by Don Knotts in a movie. He was as skinny as he was well-dressed, which made me wonder how he could afford it, based on the little money the library paid its student employees every week. We did work for the same place, right?

When you grow up poor and living in a trailer, all you understand is survival.

But as he told me, matter-of-factly with a coy smile, he had other ways of making a living. He gave me the number of a guy he thought could help me with my problems. They were only cum shot videos, he promised, which meant that I wouldn’t have to touch anyone. The only thing I would have to do is jerk off in front of some guys in their apartment, except that they film it for the entire Internet to watch. I liked masturbation, and I did it constantly. Why not get paid for it?

Of course, there isn’t just one way to masturbate on the Internet. You can be the kind of guy you have to pay $5.95 a minute to hang out with, a seasoned cam star named “Cayden” or “Jax,” someone you get just enough background information on to feel like you know. He’s just a normal guy like you; Marc likes football and sports, except that he’s naked on the Internet for a living. Or in my case, you didn’t have to be a star. You just had to be willing to be filmed for an hour or two, all to be edited down to a 15-minute video that would sit on some married banker’s computer hidden in a file marked “Work Documents” or “Coldplay.”

The sheer insanity of it made it instantly appealing, despite the low price. While $50 isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, it would pay for almost a week’s worth of groceries, and he mentioned that you can sign up for repeat visits, like donating plasma or sperm. Due to a storied family history of the kinds of illness no one wants their kids to have, no one wanted my semen, but these guys wanted to watch me make it. I could even close my eyes if I wanted to and pretend like I was never there.

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I called them later that day and scheduled an appointment for that Friday, just as simply as if I was getting my teeth cleaned. The director didn’t ask for pictures, which I was confused about. Didn’t they care about what I looked like? But they didn’t mention it. They took my name and asked for a number where they could reach me in order to confirm the appointment the morning of my shoot. I told them I would come. I told them I was excited to work with them. I told them I wanted this, too.

There’s nothing inherently immoral about the act of filming yourself naked, whether alone, with a partner, or many partners. At its best, pornography is a glorification of sexuality, the universal desires that make us human. Browsing videos on PornHub as a safe space to navigate your own likes and dislikes can be an incredibly empowering act for the consumer, a means of sexual self-actualization. Porn can make you more yourself, both for the viewer and those doing it. Years later, I would pose naked for a man in his studio every week, and I never felt more vivid than as his creation, half-human and half-something else.

Objectification often gets a bad rap. There can be a power in becoming an object, seeing that image of yourself displayed on an easel. It’s not you, but a reproduction, what someone else sees when they look at you, and on top of being highly erotic, it offers a profound experience of self-knowledge. As humans, we rarely get a chance to leave our bodies and view our lives from above, as if gazed upon by an invisible spectator, and if the image and the thing it signifies align, it feels like God reaching out and pointing at you.

I wondered what happened to the image after you lost ownership of it, when you submitted control to someone else.

But without that shared sense of power over the experience, being a part of the process, it feels less divine and more like a cat being backed into a corner. The fear that began to grip me wasn’t wondering whether my body would measure up or if I would be able to finish with all of these people watching me, although I worried about those things, too. I wondered what happened to the image after you lost ownership of it, when you submitted control to someone else.

In porn, you aren’t just getting dominated by your partner; you’re getting dominated by a group of artists who can represent you however they want. What do they see? Is it really you? Does it matter?

When they called me on Friday to confirm the appointment, I let the call go to voicemail. I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal to them; they must get guys who get nervous and flake out on their shoots all the time. Considering the high demand for jobs that require no skill or previous experience, there would always be other applicants waiting in the wings, as well as a helpful coworker ready to pass them the number of a guy they know.

The likely common fear among cam models is that their photos will be hanging around the Internet forever, ready to resurface the moment they run for Congress. But for me, I didn’t want to be reminded for the rest of my life of the person I was when I was 17, a budding teenage sociopath doing anything it took to get by. If I was going to have to explain to my kids 20 years from now why I took $50 to wank in some guy’s Gold Coast loft, I wanted to make sure that they were reasons I could stand behind. I wanted those images to be mine.

 

Illustration by J. Longo