With almost no barrier to entry beyond industry-standard STI screenings and paperwork proving one’s age and identity, the porn industry is truly a meritocracy. With the technology to film, produce and distribute video more accessible than ever, it’s become seemingly effortless to get involved in making porn. “Basically, wherever you are with a camera and an internet connection, you can enter the industry,” as performer Mickey Mod put it.
This reality has ushered in a flood of new faces eager to become porn’s next big name, but the ease of access goes both ways. Free, pirated porn’s availability online has drained the industry’s revenue, reducing the number of reputable production studios. It can now take less than three months for a new performer to have shot with every company interested in hiring them, according to a panelists at the Xbiz convention in January. After those three months are up, performers must decide whether to try to make a career out of porn. But where do they turn to for advice? There are no textbooks on deep-throating, no classes on workplace hygiene, no certification program for gangbang proficiency.
Given the already public nature of pornography, it’s only natural that there have been a few attempts at structured porn-career training in the form of reality television. The Sex Factor (link NSFW), a 10-episode reality series produced and distributed by XHamster, pitted eight male and eight female contestants, who were advertised as having never been on camera before, against each other in explicit challenges judged by a panel of porn veterans earlier this year. And Rocco Siffredi, a venerated Italian performer, filmed a two-week course he called “Universita del Porno” to educate 21 porn hopefuls. (Though the footage was to be aired on Italian television as a reality show, MEL could find no confirmation of its actually airing.)
But most porn-industry mentorship happens on a more localized and personal level, in the form of mentorship between experienced performers and newbies. Nina Hartley, a performer with 32 years of experience on camera, tells MEL: “Only in the past few years… has the performing population reached a critical mass of non-transient performers. For two decades I was the only ‘lifer.’ Now there are many.” With porn more ubiquitous than it’s been since the 1970s — and the industry itself more transparent by way of social media — the performers it attracts are more likely to have made a serious decision to pursue porn as a career, says Hartley. “More women come to porn with real-world experience [or] college degrees, so the level of professionalism has risen.”
But rising professionalism demands professional mentors, a challenge that Hartley — with a self-proclaimed “mother-hen-slash-Yenta complex” — has gladly taken on with both male and female mentees. “I’m notorious for offering advice, even when it’s not been solicited,” she says. “I try to help [new performers] understand how best to make the business work for their goals [and] needs, and not to be destroyed by it.”
Under the guidance of someone who’s seen the industry through many tumultuous years, newcomers can navigate the changing the landscape of the porn industry with less uncertainty. Mentors like Hartley provide feedback on industry-specific quandaries, like whether to do anal on camera, which performers are good scene partners, and what companies treat their talent with respect. “I want young men and women to succeed in a scary and hostile environment (e.g., being overtly sexual in a Puritanical world),” Hartley said over email. “I tell them, ‘You’ll make your own mistakes; you shouldn’t have to make mine.’”
One of Hartley protégées is Danica Dane, whom she met through a mutual acquaintance early in Dane’s career. Dane calls Hartley “a little porn Yoda that is just full of wisdom,” adding that she “has gone above and beyond in helping me go from a jealous, confused 19-year-old to a confident, mentally mature, sexually educated 22-year-old…Nina has opened my eyes to the world of understanding and practicing sexual boundaries, communication, and overall safety.”
Like Hartley, Julia Ann, a 25-year veteran performer, offers advice and counseling to industry newcomers. “If I see somebody behaving in a certain manner or doing something that I think I can offer some words of wisdom about, or if someone’s in pain, do I want to try to give them a better view on it, or help them? Yeah, of course,” Ann says. “And by that, I don’t just mean in work. I mean in life.”
Entering the porn industry, especially as a female performer, can be overwhelming. With the eyes of the public suddenly upon you — and upon your most private parts — it can be difficult to determine what path to take. Performer and President of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC) Ela Darling told MEL that her own mentor, now-retired adult director Jincey Lumpkin, “helped guide me through this new world of media spotlights and red carpets. She helped transform me from a brand-new porn performer with little guidance and understanding of this huge new world into someone with confidence and poise.” Darling now extends that same compassionate guidance to many others through APAC, passing the torch of mentorship along.
APAC currently offers educational resources for new performers on its website, but now the group is working on a more formal support network, according to Mickey Mod, the group’s vice president: “The mentoring program-to-be is going to pair new performers with veteran performers to give guidance, address certain needs, and point them towards resources. It will be more personal and more connected than performers going to a website.”
Mod says it’s common for performers to enter the industry with an idea of what they want their path to look like, but “that course gets derailed based on what an agent might think your path should be.” To help empower performers to make decisions that align with their goals, he says, “We want to foster a culture of performers reaching out to other performers that are more helpful and engaged about their experience, rather than reaching out to somebody who may have a financial interest in their performance or their career path.”
But mentorship in porn isn’t limited to performers. With high-grade filming technology more accessible than ever before, budding filmmakers are approaching porn in droves, and they’re finding support and education in abundance — particularly those making porn outside the scope of the mainstream.
Erika Lust, an acclaimed feminist filmmaker in Barcelona, recently announced that she is offering €250,000 to distribute among 10 female filmmakers who want to make short erotic films. “I decided to… invest and discover new female talent, to create a space for this talent to take the spotlight in the next wave of adult cinema,” she says. “They will have creative control, and my team and I will be their support in terms of legal aspects, documentation, information about working in adult cinema, finding appropriate performers and financing.”
Lust says she decided to help new filmmakers find their voices in erotic film because “I want more women in leading roles as directors, producers, and scriptwriters; we need to make explicit films that are sex-positive, so young people and the coming generations can see sex in a light that is realistic and pleasurable. Where equality and consent are put into every part of a film’s production.”
In the U.S., Madison Young, a 14-year porn veteran and artist, has applied her knowledge of both porn-making and DIY art to educating aspiring pornographers of all genders. She facilitates the Erotic Film School, a three-day intensive workshop at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, every year.
“There isn’t anything else out there like it,” she says.“It’s about how to create new, innovative erotic film, create social change, make an impact in the world with your work.” For those who can’t take her course, she offers a distilled version in The DIY Porn Handbook she authored. “It is the book I wish I had when I started out as an erotic filmmaker.”
Arguably, however, the most difficult part of becoming a pornographer isn’t getting in front of or behind the camera — it’s turning that output into a sustainable business model. Together with queer porn filmmaker Shine Louise Houston, genderqueer adult performer, writer, and advocate Jiz Lee helped launch PinkLabel.tv, an arm of queer porn production company Pink and White Productions. PinkLabel.tv provides payment processing and technical support for emerging adult filmmakers. But their mission has expanded to include a wide umbrella of support services, according to Lee, because “many queer and indie films have difficulty finding online hosting due to censorship of sex acts, inappropriate language or categorization/tagging of performers… or experimental content that doesn’t quite fit the typical porn consumer model.”
It seems that much of the leadership available to the next generation of pornographers is queer- and feminist-driven. Aside from Rocco Siffredi’s “Porn University,” there seem to be few if any male-led versions of the Erotic Film School, or any well-known “Papa Hens,” as Nina Hartley might put it, in the straight or queer porn industries. (This article does not focus on the gay male porn industry, but there are certainly mentorship avenues for aspiring gay stars and filmmakers, as well. APAC welcomes performers from gay, straight and queer industries to its meetings, for instance. And for those at home, a good starting point might be this YouTube video from Colby Keller and Dale Cooper.)
The general lack of male-driven mentorship may be due in part to the fact that the straight male porn performer pool is very small and extremely competitive, while the vast majority of existing porn filmmakers and business owners are already male. The majority of male filmmakers in the straight industry start out on sets in assistant capacities — as camera operators, lighting techs, or sound techs — from which they can watch and learn. When they begin making their own films, they’ve already got on-set experience to help them along.
With more women stepping in as mentors and educators guiding the next generation of pornographers; with experienced men already working in every level of the adult entertainment industry; and with queer and feminist folk on the upswing and ready to help porn initiates find their paths, the adult entertainment industry’s future appears to be in more diverse hands. As Nina Hartley put it, “I seek to relieve suffering in my part of the world…I want to, as Suzuki Roshi said, ‘Shine one corner of the world.’”