[World, November 18, 1995]
As Morality in Media launched their eighth annual "White Ribbon Against Pornography" campaign, the New Yorker magazine helpfully provided a 22-page look inside the world of porn film production. Author Susan Faludi gave readers a sympathetic glimpse at the tough lot of a male porn star. No, really. In this business, the woman is the object of desire and the male is furniture, and pay follows accordingly. What’s more, male actors regularly find themselves the unwilling cause of production delays, and reap as a result the irritation and scorn of their peers. Habitual apprehension creates more problems, and this career-destroying pressure eventually destroys every career. Has-beens shuffle into backstage work, or, if they’re lucky, marry a female star who can support them.
Yes, they do marry. The strangest aspect of Faludi’s portraits is the impulse toward normalcy. Jeff Stryker, who fought to win custody of his son, says "It’s my primary everything, protecting this child;" even cable TV is forbidden. Nick East says he’s been thinking about quitting the business, and reading the Bible for direction. He tells Faludi, "This is the most intense part," before turning to the Gospel of John. Even in the lonely apartment of T. T. Boy the table is always set for a family of four, though no one is ever coming to dinner: "I just thought it looked homey."
Faludi finds Austin and his wife Dallas McCloud at home in a two-story suburban, with toys scattered on the floor and the children watching "The Lion King." For a successful couple like the McClouds, porn is strictly business. Professional conventions are observed: on the set, an actor deferentially compliments Austin, saying how much he enjoyed a sex scene with Dallas.
How does a married couple endure this? "We wanted to say that we would just work with each other," Austin says, but that would have cost three-quarters of their jobs. So they made some rules. Austin selects all of Dallas’ costars. And she won’t kiss anyone but her husband.
The quaintness of this points to a deeper truth: it’s what happens in the heart, not the bed, that matters most. Another porn-star marriage tragically illustrates this. Jill was upset when she learned Cal was cheating on her—a distinction that would be comical if we don’t stop to ask why the distinction mattered to her. When Cal grew erratic and angry, Jill packed to leave. He was brokenhearted.
"He wanted to have a normal job," Jill says. "And he wanted me to stay at home and have kids and go to church on Sundays." But Cal finally realized that wasn’t going to happen. One night he stood in the street outside her house with a gun to his head. "This is for you, babe," he said, and pulled the trigger.
Cal’s despair was not over his inability to hoard Jill’s body; the sharing of that body, under the lights and on the screen, was his primary source of income. Instead, it was her heart he wanted, and couldn’t get.
One lesson we can learn from the porn stars is that sex and eros are not the same thing. Eros, also known as Cupid, was the Greek god whose arrows pierced the heart with longing. In comparison, sex is superficial and transitory. Eros hooks the soul, powerful, painful, and imperious. Ignore it at your peril.
But ignoring it is what too much contemporary pontificating about sex does. This leads school professionals to think sex education is accomplished with a course in genital mechanics. It leads our pro-choice friends to think that abortion could be made "rare" with an airdrop of condoms. And it leads Hollywood to turn out films of grinding stupidity that substitute hydraulics for intrigue.
As a college film student I watched a grainy copy of "Deep Throat" one night, until it got too boring. As one of my friends said, "I guess it’s not a spectator sport." Soon after I saw Rudolph Valentino’s 1926 silent, "Son of the Sheik." In this camel drama the protagonists are mostly draped, sometimes burdened with drapery, yet the film has an erotic charge that arcs through the years. Women were hooked.
"Son of the Sheik" was Valentino’s last film before his premature death, which set off paroxysms of mourning. Over a hundred thousand women lined the streets for his funeral cortege and some, it is said, died of grief.
Cal’s funeral was smaller. Fellow-actors worked the crowd, talking up their recent films. "A year from now people will bring up his stage name," said a producer, "and it will be, ‘Cal who?’"
Cal who achieved the highest goals the sexual revolution can offer: boy-toy stardom, fame and fantasy, sexual surfeit. Cal who pulled the trigger on his carefully-tended body, destroying in a second the product of years’ attentive care. Cal who knew all about sex, but was overthrown by eros.