Poles 'n holes: Working in the porn biz

Pornography worker Chaz Bufe on work, sexuality and censorship in America. We do not agree with all of it (for the reasons outlined by Commie Princess in the comments below) but reproduce it for reference.

I was broke. Dead busted. I needed a job—fast. And the first that came along was at the Back Door Theater, "Parking and Entrance in the Rear—for Your Privacy." My friend Russell was working there, and he got me a job after one of his fellow employees passed out on the pool table at the bar next to the theater during a shift. Calling the Back Door (BD) a "theater" was something of a misnomer. It consisted of a restroom, lobby, projection platform/cashier booth, and a seating area which the staff referred to as "the pit." It was all crammed into a 16 foot by 60 foot store-front.

My turf was the projection/cashier booth. It contained a couple of broken-down chairs, a cash register, two dilapidated 16mm projectors, "Little Roscoe" (a .38 caliber revolver so dirty it would probably have blown up had it been fired), and a TV set which was used heavily, as the entire staff— all three of us—found watching it less boring than watching the BD's films. The films were pretty crude. My first glimpse of them came the day I was hired. I stepped up to the projection platform, peered through the viewing port between projectors, and saw a "cum shot"—a man coming all over a woman's face. I was dumfounded. I couldn't believe that anyone would actually pay to see such things. But pay they did-five bucks a pop. The Back Door's patrons came in all shapes and sizes: young men, old men, chicano men, white men, black men, and above all, greasy white-shoed businessmen. Well over 90% of the Back Door's customers were male, and, of those, at least half were into the $13-haircut level of awareness.

The female customers were of two types. One consisted of denim-clad, leather-booted dykes and their ultra-femme girl friends; the other, more common, type consisted of bored housewives with hubbies in tow—people apparently willing to try anything to spice up humdrum sex lives. My friend Ralph the butcher (he was an actual butcher—he hadn't "served" in Vietnam) would drop by the theater from time to time, and when such couples walked in, he made it a point to sit behind them and listen to their conversations. Ralph reported that the most typical comment was: "He can last for ten minutes. How come you can't even last two?"

I couldn't see how the customers managed to last two minutes in the theater. It was a pit. The restroom was, arguably, the most disgusting portion of the premises. It was covered with gross, sexist graffiti such as; "Please don't jack off in this toilet, it's already had three abortions," and "The difference between toilets and women is that toilets don't follow you around after you've used them." On a couple of occasions some (literal) jerk jacked off against the wall, drew an arrow toward the gooey mess, and added the half-witticism, "Eat me." And on one occasion, my friend Joe Blues walked into the lobby and observed a crewcut, 300-pound redneck flogging his dolphin in the john blissfully unaware that the restroom door was wide open.

The lobby was another gem. Its floor was covered with cheap red shag carpet, its walls with red fake-velvet wallpaper, and its ceiling with black glitter paint. Its contents consisted of a coke machine, a cigarette machine, and a sand-filled toilet subtly labeled "asstray."

But the heart of the Back Door was the pit, the seating area. It was a 16 by 45 foot room with a screen made of two pieces of painted sheet rock at one end with seats extending from the other to about eight feet from the screen. The seats were described as "reclining airplane seats" in the theater's advertising. Sounds really comfy, doesn't it? Well, the seats probably were comfortable when they were new. By the time I started working at the Back Door they could well have been the breeding ground of black plague. They obviously hadn't been cleaned since the Back Door opened, and at least two-thirds of them had gaping holes in their upholstery. The ashtrays in their armrests were continually overflowing as we employees felt it beneath ourselves to clean them out. And the BD's customers found the cracks between the cushions and the holes in the upholstery convenient receptacles for their soggy kleenex and handkerchiefs. The floor of the pit made one's shoes go "shmuck, shluck, shlurp"; it was coated with a mixture composed of spilled coke, cigarette butts, the remnants of used kleenex, and god knows what else.

Shortly after I started working at the theater, I walked into the pit in the middle of a film. While there, I was surprised to hear a long hissssss...After closing up that night, I went back into the seating area and found the source. The owner of the Back Door had installed timing devices coupled to aerosol cans; the cans sprayed a combination deodorant/disinfectant over the seats for a few seconds every hour. It was a token gesture. True disinfection would have required use of a flamethrower.

I had another surprise the first lime I walked into the pit during the noon rush and observed the midday crowd. There they sat, white shoes gleaming in the darkness, eyes riveted to the screen, hands riveted to their pants. I was expecting that. What I wasn't expecting was that they would all be sitting neatly, row upon row, an empty seat on either side of every one of them—viewer, empty seat, viewer, empty seat, etc.—totally absorbed in the spectacle on the screen. It was one of the loneliest, most pathetic scenes I've ever witnessed.

Another feature of customer behavior which initially surprised me was the frequent visit to the restroom before leaving the theater. After I figured that one out—it took me about two hours—I began to dread my nightly janitorial duties. (Judging from customer behavior at the Back Door, the slogan "Porn is the theory, rape is the practice" is dead wrong. A more realistic slogan would be "Porn is the theory, pocket pool is the practice.")

The films which provoked such behavior were sick jokes. They were low-budget, Los Angeles- based productions of the "pole'n'hole" variety with an occasional bit of lesbian action thrown in for diversity. The plots (when they existed at all), acting, direction, lighting, photography, sound, and editing were of a quality which made the average episode of The Dukes of Hazard look like Citizen Kane in comparison. As for violence, there was very little in the films shown by the Back Door; my guess is that no more than about one in twenty showed any explicit violence.(1)

An example of the Back Door's offerings was a film titled Aberrations (2) which contained a scene depicting a gorilla fucking a woman in a vacant lot. In the middle of the scene, someone's pet German Shepherd wandered into the field of view, approached the guy in the gorilla suit, sniffed him for several seconds, and exited as casually as he had entered the scene. While atypical, this film certainly seemed to degrade women. It's true, as critics of pornography delight in pointing out, that male dominance is a common feature in pornography. Where these critics err, however, is in ascribing male dominance to pornography. This is a clear reversal of cause and effect. Pornography is a fairly recent phenomenon, having become widely available only during the last quarter century, while male dominance has its roots in antiquity, as virtually any ancient history text will show. St. Paul displayed a typical attitude when he commanded, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands, as unto the Lord."

Violence against women is nothing new either. In fact it was at its worst during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. During those periods hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of women were brutally tortured and murdered under the biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." As for the contention that pornography somehow causes violence against women, all the evidence points against it. After Denmark eliminated all restrictions on pornography 20 years ago, the number of reported sex crimes there dropped. The 1970 Presidential Commission on Pornography concluded that there was no link between pornography and sexual violence. And Henry Hudson, chairman of Reagan's stacked anti-pornography commission, has even admitted, "If we relied exclusively on scientific data for every one of our findings, I'm afraid all our work would be inconclusive.

Given the total lack of evidence linking pornography and violence against women, and the long history of misogynistic teaching and coercion and violence against women—most visible at present in the efforts of various religions to use the government to deprive women of their rights to birth control and abortion—one can only ask why "feminist" censorship advocates are focusing their attacks on pornography and not on misogynistic religious authoritarians.
A plausible answer to that question is that they quite understandably feel frustrated by sexism and violence against women—and they're seeking easy answers and easy targets upon which to vent their frustration. Freedom of speech, civil libertarians, and smut merchants provide much easier targets than religious figures. And those figures are only too eager to help "feminist" censors attack their scapegoat—pornography.

One also wonders why anti-porn feminists, in addition to ignoring or, at times, lending credibility to reactionary religionists, ignore depictions of violence against women in the mass media far more horrible than those occasionally encountered in pornography. For example, "splatter" flicks such as Friday the 13th and Halloween consist largely of horrifying, extremely brutal scenes of the killing of young women, and are routinely viewed by millions of young people. Yet anti-porn crusaders ignore these disgusting films and concentrate their fire on the run-of-the-mill poles'n'holes flicks shown to small audiences in porn theaters. (3)

"OBJECTIFICATION"

An interesting charge of the anti-pornography movement is that pornography "objectifies" women, that is, that it presents them as things to be "consumed" rather than as people. Neglecting the rather metaphysical, and thus vague, nature of this charge, one can only ask why "objectification" in sexually explicit materials is more objectionable than that, for example, in advertising. We live in a society where "objectification" is pervasive, where people are commonly referred to and thought of as "personnel," "human resources," and, even more grotesquely, "liveware." While the "bottom line" remains the fundamental value in society and people are considered first and foremost as productive and consumptive units, "objectification" will inevitably continue. (4)

It could easily be argued that women "objectify" men every bit as much, if not more, than men "objectify" women. If men look for appearance in women, women look for money in men. Another way of saying this is that if men regard women as "sex objects," women regard men as "money objects." Check it out. Look through the "personals" sections of tabloids such as The Village Voice or The Bay Guardian. What do women running ads want? More than anything else, money. (Their code words are "solvent," "secure, "successful," and "professional.")

The "objectification" of men by women brings up an interesting consideration: the class background of porn customers. If the customers of the Back Door were typical, as I believe they were, it's safe to say that men who consume pornography are predominantly working class men—blue collar workers, salesmen, and low-paid white collar workers. It's not difficult to figure out why. A man's ability to get laid in the present society is highly dependent upon his income. Middle and upper class men can afford to "entertain a woman in style" (vacations, weekends at country inns, etc.) or shell out $100 for a hooker if they get the urge. Working class men, on the other hand, can only afford to spend a few bucks occasionally for admission to a porn palace or for a copy of Hustler.

Even in "normal" romantic liaisons, things are bad. Most women seem drawn to money and power like buzzards are drawn to carrion. A great number—including many who bridle at the way men "objectify" women—won't even look at low-paid men because of class prejudice, because low-paid men are not desirable "money objects." Thus we have the grotesque spectacle of women complaining about a "man shortage" while they're surrounded by working class men they don't even see.

Working around such prejudiced women can be maddening for men in service industries or retail. You become a non-person. You simply don't exist. It makes you feel about as respected as a slave in the antebellum South. Such prejudice can be largely explained by the economic discrimination women face. But the prejudice persists even when its underlying cause vanishes. As an example, you'll seldom find female executives flirting with male secretaries, nor female physicians with male nurses or orderlies. Even though this class prejudice can be explained, that doesn't make it any easier to bear.

SEX FOR ITS OWN SAKE

Behind much criticism of pornography lurks the traditional judeochristian idea that there is something inherently wrong with sex, that it's somehow dirty and evil. That it's necessary "to excuse it" through marriage, or, more commonly nowadays, through "love." But I don't buy that. I don't believe that sex needs to be justified; I believe that sex is its own justification. Why? Because it feels good. Because it produces pleasure and human happiness. For me that's enough—I believe that sex is inherently a good thing simply because it leads to human pleasure and harms no one. I'd agree that sex is generally better when there is an emotional attachment between partners; but I've also had many very enjoyable sexual experiences with partners with whom I've had little or no emotional attachment. I prefer sex with love—but I'll take sex without love over no sex at all any day.

Attitudes similar to mine seem to be much more common in men than in women, which helps to explain why the vast majority of pornography consumers are male. In American society men are conditioned to believe that attempting to satisfy their sexual needs is perfectly acceptable—even in so alienated a manner as paying to sit in a room with a bunch of strangers watching images of other strangers engaging in sex acts—while women are conditioned not even to express sexual needs. A second explanatory factor is that the male dominance and occasional violence in pornography are quite probably turnoffs for most women.

A third is that it's easier in some ways for women to satisfy their sexual needs under present circumstances than it is for most men. Virtually any "decent-looking" woman, if she wants to, can go out and get laid within a few hours, any time, anywhere. The fact that relatively few women take advantage of that opportunity because of their repressive conditioning, the risks of pregnancy and VD, and the chauvinist attitudes and obnoxious behavior of many men, does not alter the fact that they do have the opportunity. The retail porn industry, as I experienced it, is a sleazy and grotesque (5), but highly profitable, business. (6) But that's all it is—a money-making monument to sexual repression. Only by the wildest stretch of the imagination could one imagine roomfuls of pathetic geeks pounding their puds while watching fuck flicks as a threat to women. It's equally farfetched to consider that a form of sexual liberation. (I find it difficult to imagine anyone with a satisfactory sex life plunking down five bucks for the privilege of jacking off in a disease pit like the Back Door.)

A further consideration, however, is the quality of that opportunity. Several women who read an earlier draft of this piece told me that most men are inconsiderate and, at best, mediocre lovers; and a woman's chances of getting off well, or really enjoying herself, in a sexual encounter, especially a one-night stand, are fairly low. If that's the case, the sexual prospects of most women are as bleak as they are for most men. It's a paradoxical situation in which both parties come out losers: women can, but generally don't want to, while men generally want to, but can't. So, you end up with millions of frustrated women sitting at home, and millions of frustrated men sitting in porn theaters.

On the other hand, lonely guys, such as I encountered at the Back Door, are not the only adults who use pornography. I recently worked at a large record store with a video counter, and at least half of the customers renting X-rated films were either women or couples, persons obviously not using pornography as a substitute for sex, but as an addition to it. That being the case, one is inescapably led to the conclusion that, at least in some instances, pornography is a good thing because it harms no one and increases human pleasure. At worst, pornography functions as a harmless, and perhaps necessary, escape valve for the sexually frustrated. At best, it serves as a means for many people to increase the pleasures of their sex lives.

Censorship of pornography would only increase the power and serve the ends of the misogynistic puritans who hate all forms of sexual expression. It must be opposed. And sex must be proposed. A hard-driving pro-sex position is an absolute necessity. It's our best and most persuasive means of protecting the freedoms we now have and of erecting others.

—by Chaz Bufe

(1) Even the militant pro-censorship group Women Against Pornography estimates that only 10-15% of pornography contains violence.

(2) Titles didn't matter much at the BD. Quite often we'd cut the titles from a film, invent a new name for it, and then advertise and rerun it under the new name a couple of weeks later.

(3) I am NOT suggesting that "splatter" films be censored. I consider the dangers of censorship far greater than any—thus far undemonstrated-dangers these films might pose.

(4) A bizarre illustration of this recently occurred at my last place of work. Two of the barracudas— female managerial variety—were inspecting a cute baby in a stroller. One turned to the other and cooed: "Oh look! A future customer!!"

(5) At times, the sleazyness or the porn bit borders on the surreal. I vividly recall a visit I made one evening around Thanksgiving to my pal Russell. who was then working at Zorba's Adult Bookstore. When I walked through the door I was floored. The dildos, autosucks, and fist fucking magazines were still in their racks and the inflatable "love" dolls were still hanging from the ceiling—but there was a difference: the entire place was covered with christmas decorations. The crowning touch was a red ornament dangling from the tip of 'The Destroyer," a two-foot-long, two-inch-thick dildo.

(6) The blimped-out, cigar-sucking, white-shoed grossero who owned the Back Door was netting at least $1000 a week from it.