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Women on top: Female execs rise in porn biz

From the owner of the small adult store near you, to video directors, to promoters,  women executives  have quietly become integral to the world of adult entertainment.

Joy King laughs at the stereotype of the porn king as a skeevy guy in gold neck chains, a paunch and the sunglasses Elliott Gould wore in “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“There is still this perception that [the porn industry] is all run by men, and not very nice men,” said King, who is vice president of special projects at major adult film company Wicked Pictures. “It is not widely known how many women executives there are in this industry.”

King, the woman who helped turn Jenna Jameson into a brand, proves her own point. For years she has been a leading figure in the world of “adult,” as it is commonly known, but hardly anyone outside that world has ever heard of her.

People have heard of Christie Hefner, of course, Hugh’s daughter who runs Playboy. But from the owner of the small adult store near you, to video directors, to promoters, to online porn purveyors, women have quietly become integral to the world of adult entertainment in ways that have nothing to do with wearing stripper heels and a big smile.

One of the earliest pioneers of Internet naughtiness was a woman named Danni Ashe who built her own small digital empire in the early ‘90s.

The co-owner of one of the nation’s top producers of X-rated movies, Digital Playground, is a woman who goes by the name Samantha Lewis. A mother, married to a Los Angeles television personality, Lewis used to work in real estate before investing in porn.

Susan Colvin, who trained for a career in public administration, owns one of the “Big Five” sex-toy makers, California Exotic Novelties.

Former performer Candida Royalle started and runs her own production company, Femme, to make X-rated movies for the “couples” market. She also endorses a line of sex toys.

Diane Duke, once an executive with Planned Parenthood, now runs the Free Speech Coalition, the public policy umbrella organization that advocates for the adult industry. Many other women work in upper and middle management. Some have struck out on their own to create Web sites, others have started porn’s version of “indie” movie outfits.

Having such women in charge might help lift the taboo that, as King says, “sort of lays like a mist over the adult industry,” but it is not likely to cool the fervor of anti-porn feminists. And, while female executives and owners say they hope to bring new perspectives to erotica so that performers receive better treatment, the product improves and there is less misogyny, they may be hindered by economics.

Surprisingly, many women who work in the business say they don’t like porn — at least not the porn that takes up most of the shelf space in adult stores or is downloaded from the Internet. They do not object for moral reasons, they just think it’s a crummy product and often far too misogynistic.

Even King, who likes and watches porn even when it’s not part of her job, finds a lot of “adult entertainment” neither very adult nor entertaining, especially the types like the “Girls Gone Wild” genre that, she says, takes advantage of drunken girls. She defends it on free speech grounds but that doesn’t mean she likes it.

Some women are trying to instill change using as leverage the fact that porn is one industry that can’t exist without females (which is why women performers almost always make more money than men and call their male counterparts “furniture”).

Being called ‘traitor’
But good intentions and economic empowerment certainly do not mollify anti-porn feminists. “I think the nicest word they have ever used to describe me is ‘brainwashed,’” said veteran performer and business owner Nina Hartley. “Usually it’s more like ‘traitor.’”

An organization called Stop Porn Culture, a group of academics and activists who believe that “patriarchal, capitalist society” fosters porn, states that regardless of who is in charge, many female performers “are under a variety of constraints such as economic hardship and a perceived lack of options. … We are critical of the industry that exploits these women, not the women themselves.”

King finds this 30-year-old argument unconvincing. “If you look at a single mom trying to put herself through college, and she works at a strip club, is she a victim? She’s found a way to earn more than she could waiting tables, working three jobs. I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

University of California Santa Barbara film studies professor Constance Penley, who studies the adult industry, agreed. Name an industry that’s different, she said. Because porn involves sex it is subject to what Penley calls “exceptionalism.” It is not judged in the bigger cultural context. But it should be. “You have to ask: Does it have more drug abuse or more suicides, more incidents of girls being sexually abused as children, more cosmetic surgery than Hollywood, TV, the recording industry?” she said. The answer, she pointed out, is probably not. So why pick on sex movies?

All business
Still, having more women signing the paychecks does not necessarily mean the industry as a whole is better for female performers. This is because there is no such thing as “the industry,” just as there is no such thing as “the media.” The sex business has become wildly diffuse thanks to digital technology, pirated downloads and the ease of distribution. There are probably more producers of porn who exist outside industry organizations that try to set standards and police the business than inside them.

“We’re competing with the guy with the camcorder who bought it for $993 at Circuit City, who’s got his girlfriend and somebody else and they’re gonna shoot it and have sex and put it on the Internet,” director Kelly Holland told a Women in Film forum last year.

There are literally tens of thousands of “productions” made each year in the U.S. alone, and most of these are not coming from the bigger companies like the ones Holland works for.

This matters because while more executives may be women, Penley said, “it is, first and foremost, a business.” At the moment, business is lousy. Profits have dropped under the onslaught of the same forces hurting newspapers, book publishers and music companies.

“It is worse than the last recession,” King said. “We have rising fuel costs, the price of DVD cases tripled and we cannot pass that on and we have a very competitive industry.” More important, the Internet is stuffed with free, often pirated, porn. Margins are now so bad that some companies have laid off workers or shut their doors.

Costly seduction
That inescapable fact works against changes women have tried to make in the products they produce and sell. For example, several groups of women have tried to create explicit productions, whether for cable TV, online distribution or DVD purchase and rental that appeal specifically to a female sensibility. But aside from Candida Royalle’s Femme series, which gets a big boost by being distributed through mail order giant Adam and Eve, such efforts have been slow to take hold.

They may never take hold. Sensuality, seduction, plot, even good lighting can cost money. “The bulk of pornography is being produced for $17,000,” Holland told the forum. “My budgets are $60,000 for a day-and-a-half shoot. We do two movies in three days and each budget is approximately $60,000. That is astronomically high right now.”

So while more women are calling the shots, they have to respond to a market of primarily male consumers, many of whom find plots simply a waste of time.

Many producers have to crank out sex scenes and most non-star performers have to appear in a lot of them to make any money.

Just because Jenna Jameson got rich doesn’t mean others will. In fact, there will probably never be another Jenna.

“The average lifespan of a porn star now is anywhere from six months to three years, tops,” Sharon Mitchell, who runs the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, said in an interview with legal scholars for a 2006 article in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law. “Then they’ve got no money … they think the money’s not going to end, so they get a boob job and a Ferrari.”

Mitchell, herself a former actress, told the authors said that agents “are now recruiting people from, literally, the middle of the country [who] are 18 years old who haven’t remotely had any type of sex, let alone the type of sex they’re probably going to have tomorrow.” Too often, she said, “agents run them into the ground” signing them to make too many sex scenes, and that can lead to STDs.

Female directors, producers and owners know all this and say they work to fight it, partly by turning away young women they think are ill prepared. A few have suggested that producers should hire women who are at least 21, rather than 18.

“Do I like sleazy guys trying to take advantage of girls?” King said. “No. Nobody does.” But they argue that tarring the entire adult world with the actions of some is like judging the entire television business by a guy eating animal guts on “Fear Factor.”

When women are making the decisions, they say, things are often different. Performers at King’s Wicked Pictures can choose their male partners, demand condoms and command comparatively high salaries.

“We have been criticized by men in the business who say, ‘Oh, you baby the girls, you pamper them too much,” said Shoosh (who uses one name), co-owner of Triangle Films, a small producer of lesbian-themed erotica. “I never set out to baby or pamper. I am just a mothering kind of person.” Others, such as Lewis of Digital Playground, insist they are careful to coach actresses about the potential pitfalls of the industry.

Wicked makes about one movie per week, King said, and she watches every one for content. “If I’m offended by it, I am certainly going to say something and try to have it taken out of the movie.”

Still, as business owner Hartley explained, having a woman run the show is no guarantee of a workers’ paradise or a different kind of product. Women, she said, can be jerks, men can be gems. “It’s not a question of gender. If being a feminist means anything at all it means judging the content of character not the gonads they possess.”