It’s a little hard to focus these days. More crazy shit happened last night than we would expect in a week (month?) of, say, 2015. If you’ve got a creative job or hobby, how do you put the world’s happenings out of your mind so you can settle in and create something amazing? Or do you embrace the emotions you’re…
You’ve got problems, I’ve got advice. This advice isn’t sugar-coated—in fact, it’s sugar-free, and may even be a little bitter. Welcome to Tough Love.
My debut novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000, releases on May 23, 2017. The sequel, which covers the years 2004–2016, is scheduled to release in the first half of 2018.
This article first appeared in VICE Canada.
A week ago I had a job interview for a script writing position at Mindgeek. Mindgeek is the parent company for most channels that create and distribute porn on the internet. Chances are if you masturbated this week, Mindgeek was directly involved in some way. I had applied to the script writing job while looking to supplement my freelance work, and hadn't expected to hear back. It was only when I got the phone call requesting an interview that I actually asked myself the question: Did I want to write porn? Like, for real? While I pondered this idea the lady on the other end of the line was polite and formal. Eventually she dropped the numbers for the starting annual salary. It was more than I make now. I figured at the very least a career writing pronography was worth considering.
My interview was with Susan* the head of writing for a major porn company. At the beginning of our conversation Susan let me know that her brand are the number one creators of paid pornography online, and while working at the company was very hard, it was also very rewarding. There was a part of me that wondered if I should try and make some sort of innuendo out of the words hard and rewarding—you know, to show off my clever writing skills—but I thought better of it and kept things professional. For the next fifteen minutes Susan walked me through the day-to-day operations of a script writer. She explained that if I took the position my time would be divided between writing five to seven pages of daily dialogue and researching current events/popular porn niches for future content. We then moved on to talking benefits (they've got dental!) and my employment history. The whole thing felt more or less like every other office interview I've had, aside from the fact that during the interview Susan asked about my favorite adult stars and disclosed the most popular genres people pleasure themselves to.
While the future of my career in scripting porn is still up in the air, the interview did get me thinking about why people enter the industry and what they get from it. I also wondered if there were any larger life lessons to be learned from writing about sex. To answer my questions I decided to reach out to a handful of current/former porn writers to inquire about their work and if it taught them anything valuable about both sex and day to day life. Their answers are below.
Jerry Stahl, novelist, TV writer, journalist
Not sure career is the word I'd use to describe my time in the smut trenches. I was never particularly good at gainful employment and writing dirty stories was something you could do fucked up and naked at three in the morning. Starting out I did take an ertoica writing course that I found in the back of the Village Voice, but it was more of a joke than anything. The teacher was another porn dog, but also a very intellectual guy, who was actually trying to organize a union of porn writers. What I recall most from the class was somebody reading from their work. There was this line: Her breath came in short pants. Anyways, I started working in the industry shortly thereafter.
I was just happy to be able to pay my rent with a typewriter. This was before the internet. Guys had to go out and walk into actual stores to buy nudie mags. For a while I was writing the fake sex letters for Penthouse Forum. You know— my girlfriend's into scrotal scarring, so one day she asked me if she could make a smiley-face with a can opener on my manhood—but porn was never, like, the guiding focus of my life on the planet. I was too busy writing unpublished novels, doing journalism gigs, and putting holes in my arm. It probably sounds insane now, but I just wanted to be a writer, and I really didn't discriminate between cereal boxes and Shakespeare. Though in my head I was Kafka, I basically wrote smut when I needed money.
If there were ranks I'm not sure I made it to far up the bottom rung. I wrote for several publications. Beaver. Club International. Others. I kind of thought that when I got to Hustler, there was going to be orgies and moonshine behind every door, but when I got there, the first thing I noticed in the Columbus office were all these sweet old ladies with beehives sitting in rooms stuffing dildos into boxes for shipping. Aunt Bea with Ben Wa balls. On the other hand, that's probably somebody's idea of hot, so what do I know?
The biggest thing that happened in my smut writing days was co-writing Café Flesh [the 1982 post apocalyptic cult pornographic scene fiction film]. By the time I was teaming up with Stephen Sayadian (AKA Rinse Dream) it was this strange period, captured perfectly in Boogie Nights, when people thought they could do something cool with porn. In fact, we were almost in a kind of porn denial. Though we got our money from Adult distributors—again, we're talking about pre-internet, peepshow days—we thought of ourselves as more in some Liquid Sky/Mad Max post apocalyptic art-genre than, like, X-rated. Even when we had to stick in a half dozen money scenes, we made them kind of repellant, disturbo, so that (not to brag) paying customers fled like rats in a barn fire when the actual porn came on. This was, I should explain, back when people saw porn in theaters. Anyway, Café Flesh failed as a porn film and ended up as a Midnight movie, running in the same places that ran [counter culture black comedy] Pink Flamingoes. So in some weird way porn won. Or not.
I wouldn't say writing porn is the same as getting an MFA from Iowa, but I didn't go to Iowa. So being paid to cook up pervy situations and characters and tell weird, funny stories wasn't the worst thing in the world. Just learning to write fast, work without a net, not take yourself too fucking seriously, be as out there as you want—I don't know whether these are good or bad things to pick up. But they get you off the dime. Writing's writing. Suck is suck in any genre. And vice versa. If that makes any sense. As for writing porn? If you can make a living and still do what you want creatively, however you want to do it, then I'd say as long as it doesn't involve human trafficking, knock yourself out. Why should porn be any less respectable than selling life insurance?
Bree Mills, writer/producer/director for Girlsway
I had been working for Gamma Entertainment for several years in a senior marketing role when our president began to explore the idea of producing our own content. Since I had a keen interest in consumer behavior, branding, and filmmaking, I volunteered to contribute. I threw myself into the porn production world, meeting some extremely talented people along the way, and learned everything I possibly could from the inside out. I was like a sponge … although not the type of sponge you normally hear about on a porn set. One of my earliest projects was to produce lesbian content for a membership site. I discovered a real passion for the genre, particularly working closely with the fans who were very vocal and imaginative. They wanted complex, emotionally-driven stories, not just generic sex. That really fascinated me. I was fortunate enough to partner up creatively with a new director named Stills by Alan and together we formed a tremendous team. Our collaboration was so strong that I pitched the idea of building a whole studio around our work and Girlsway.com—the first true lesbian-only network in adult—was born.
With Girlsway it's more how we approach our productions that set us apart. We know our fans by name. That connection to them is paramount to our success. Both Alan and myself are on our website every day talking to them and working together to crowdsource ideas and get feedback. We study the results of our work extensively. Every scene, every thumbnail, every character we create. We care deeply about every story, whether we've written it ourselves or have adapted it from a fan or a performer idea. We also don't subscribe to the typical porn conventions that decree a scene must be x minutes long or only focus on so much character development. Our fans have nicknamed it the Girlsway universe [or the Marvel Comics of lesbian porn] for a reason … it is about as interconnected and complex as a modern-day soap opera.
I believe that the narrative is extremely important in porn, as it helps to develop the characters, establish their dynamic, and lay the foundation for the encounter in a way that can only be done through nuance and subtlety before the sex itself. For example: I wrote [the award-winning porn] The Turning as an allegory of homophobia, and the social stigma that being gay is an illness. I used the horror genre as a cinematic theme to tell my own absurdist twist on a zombie story about the events leading up to a lesbian apocalypse.
The biggest lesson I've learned from writing porn is that sexuality as subject matter is limitless. You can let your imagination take you into the deepest corners of your psyche and, if you can get comfortable going there, you will learn so much about what make people tick. It's these psychological pockets and triggers that really get people off. So, if you pay close attention to the details, you can create fantasies that really affect people in a way that goes further than just the physical act you're presenting.
Erin Pim, erotica writer, host of The Bed Post Sex Show
I wrote my first piece of erotica about three years ago, as a contribution to a weird comedy zine. It was supposed to be a joke, at first. The story was inspired by a close friend, our complicated love-hate relationship, and my neuroses concerning the cleanliness of my apartment. Not surprisingly the piece was never published anywhere else, but the good thing about erotica is that even poorly written stories can still be masturbated to. I kept writing and gradually things got better. I started figuring out what was working and what wasn't. The main shift I experienced at that time was that I was no longer writing stories specifically catered to my own desires. A personal or autobiographical touch is always welcome in writing but forcing myself to expand my subject matter and make my style more accessible was definitely a step in the right direction professionally. About a year into writing I had developed a decent portfolio and began submitting my work. Getting published felt great. But what felt even better was getting published the second time. It proved it was more than a fluke.
My writing is more conversational than most. My personal preference is towards erotica that isn't too flowery. I usually skim through lengthy lead ups. But, in my opinion, you can never get too specific and detailed once the actual sex begins. My favourite story right now has to be my contribution to The New Urge Reader 2. The story has a simple enough premise, two girlfriends secretly connecting under a restaurant table, but the combination of autobiographical details and genuine writing made the piece really pop. I found it really sexy. Other people did, too.
There's definitely an element of exhibitionism (that I've always enjoyed) in having other people read my erotic stories, because they touch on intimate, sometimes taboo, and usually private subject matter. I had a debate with a fellow writer recently on whether all erotica could be categorized as exhibitionist fetishism, simply because the reader exists. Should the reader be brought into the equation, as they're essentially peeping through the keyhole the entire time? Would these scenes and characters serve a purpose if there was no one to read them? Like, if a forest elf gives a fairy princess an orgasm in the woods but there is no one around to hear it, does she make a sound? If anything, writing erotica has taught me about the countless layers and subtleties that can exist within one's sexuality. Day to day, it reminds me to keep exploring, learning, and having great orgasms.
One of my favourite moments as an erotica writer came when I developed a close relationship with an elderly patron at my day job. She was a retired English teacher who was always invested in the personal lives of the staff. The employees would take turns sitting and talking with her every time she came in. I would usually ask her about the book she was reading, and at one point I offhandedly mentioned that I wrote short stories. Suddenly very interested, she insisted that I bring a story in for her to read. I mentioned that it might not be her cup of tea, hesitantly revealing that I wrote erotic fiction. "I don't see a problem with that," she said, and reminded me that she could "always be revived with smelling salts." From there forward, we exchanged multiple stories that we had authored back and forth, and I have to say, the eroticism in her stories surprised me more than mine seemed shock her.
I think people could always stand to re-examine the way they think about sex. The stigmas they hold, the patterns they fall into, the judgments they have. Keep the conversation about sex and sexuality going, even if it's only in your own head. Put energy into it. Read literature, take classes, listen to podcasts, spectate performances, support your local sex shop, visit sex clubs… the sexual resources, sexual wellness practitioners, and fun, sexy events are countless. Stay open, practice inclusivity, and make self love a part of your daily routine. That's the key to making the most out of your sex.
Sovereign Syre, comedian/host of Observations
The movies that were being produced when I began performing in adult were noted for their "ethical" content, the idea that the characters in the stories were portrayed as three-dimensional, that the stories had an emotional as well as provocative narrative, they were like mainstream movies with hardcore sex scenes. The focus was on the realness of the sex being portrayed along with a compassionate portrayal of the subjects. I like scenes in which there is an emotional weight, erotic thrillers. For instance: Silence of the Lambs is an intensely pornographic film, the violence and peril sublimate, the sexual tension built up between a dangerous man and a curious woman. That idea extended into the films I liked to work on most, but those wouldn't come around too often.
Most productions don't even have a script, you just improvise in the moment. Most scripts are written by people that are kind of over the whole thing, they've been doing this for years and they anticipate that the audience doesn't really care about the lead up to the sex. They're not trying to push any boundaries, they're not even necessarily thinking about trying to turn the audience on, they're just trying to shoot out the scene. I have tropes that I don't care for in particular, but that's just my own peccadillos. I'm not a fan of incest porn, specifically mother/daughter stuff. I love my mom, the idea of her trying to have a sexual relationship with me just really makes me upset. I've been sent scripts with dialogue that would make your skin crawl.
My favorite scenes I performed in were in She's Come Undone and Hollywood Babylon, two movies in which the story of the protagonist was made more emotionally vivid by the sexual scenarios, they walked a line in terms of traditional porn tropes. In She's Come Undone, it was an all-girl movie, and the unspoken rule in lesbian productions is that the characters live in a world where men don't exist. In She's Come Undone, we put in a soft core rape scene with Manuel Ferrara. We chose him for a sort of shorthand. His scenes are rough and intense, and he's immediately recognizable. I was a girl on girl only performer so the audiences who knew us could do the math of how overwhelmed I might be in a very short amount of time. It was a thirty second cutaway, but when people wrote to me about the movie, that was the scene that was filled with the most eroticism for them. In Hollywood Babylon, we have a scene at the beginning that seems like rape, or at best, dubious consent, but the character isn't acknowledging what is happening. For many viewers this same non-consent scenario made them incredibly uncomfortable because it mirrors the real life reaction of many rape victims and the scene wasn't meant to be arousing. I supposed that's my specific obsession. That carried over when I wrote/directed my first film.
A studio called Filly Films had an open call for directors. I submitted my idea about four scenarios involving women and consent that didn't have to do with age, incest, or race. I had the idea to create taboo story lines without broaching the obvious. I wrote Lesbian Surrender in a day. One story is about a girl who finds her girlfriend has been having an affair with a young senator, so the girl goes to the senator's house and confronts the senators hapless wife. She makes her take off her clothes and photographs her for blackmail. They both realize they have horrible partners and end up fucking. The second is a photographer that shoots a French model that can't speak English. She's lonely so she talks the girl into having sex with her for money. The third story is a girl recounting how she was talked into doing porn by another girl while they were shooting a fetish video. The fourth was about a Christian conversion therapist that's trying to help a recent college grad become straight. The girl turns the tables on the therapist. That scenario still turns me on. I'm still proud of that movie. The camera work wasn't the best, and I was dealing with performers that weren't actors/weren't going to memorize the script, but I thought the stories were solid.
I think the takeaway I found from writing Lesbian Surrender is that you can create taboos anywhere, but that for sex to be hot, it needs to be a little bit transgressive. People like to fight when they fuck, whether it's physically, socially, or spiritually. That goes hand in hand with writing about people in a novel or writing a joke, there has to be something at stake and people are always looking for someone to shake them out of their bounds.
* This name has been changed
Lead photo of Sovereign Syre by Richard Avery.
Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.
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