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Looking After Adult Talent

Looking After Adult Talent

June 17, 2006
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" when you get into producing content, you basically have to deal with extensions of Cal/OSHA "

Compare a porn star to a professional athlete. Both must possess certain physical attributes and skills. Both are employed in physically demanding jobs that require good conditioning, and at times the “players” are at risk for chronic injuries. Both can be relatively short-lived careers, and both adult performers and athletes are commodities in the entertainment-driven worlds of the adult industry and organized sports, respectively.

Take this comparison quite a bit further and you might ask: How is it that 2005 American League MVP and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez got paid $42,488 every time he went to bat last year, while a female adult performer may get paid only $1,500 to do an anal gangbang during a production shoot?

Keep in mind, the figure given for Rodriguez is based solely on his salary and does not include revenue from endorsement deals, bonuses or other perks guaranteed by his contract, not to mention additional benefits ensured by a collective bargaining agreement that covers all of Major League Baseball.

The similarities and differences between adult entertainers and athletes as performers lead to largely rhetorical arguments. Some would say it takes more skill to hit a .321 batting average than to have sex on camera. But while anyone can play in a pickup game of basketball, not everyone is going to play at the level of Kobe Bryant; likewise, anyone can have sex, but not everyone can do it professionally.

One sure difference is that, unlike professional athletes, most adult performers do not have the advantage of high-powered agents or industry associations looking out for their best interests when they sign a contract.

For the most part, adult performers are left on their own to negotiate fees and manage their own health and business interests. Even if they are aware of needed assistance in those areas, resources available to them often are minimal, at best.

The Performers’ Agency
It may be premature to call Seymore Butts the “Jerry Maguire” of the adult industry. His talent agency, Lighthouse, has only been open since December, representing 12 female performers (including industry veteran Brittany Andrews and former WCW pro female wrestler Tylene Buck) and one male.

Aside from trying his hand at representing talent, Butts cites another motivation for opening the doors at Lighthouse.

“I noticed that girls were walking away from the business empty-handed, and I thought it was a way for me to possibly impact some of the girls,” he says. “Most of the girls don’t have any kind of savings accounts or investment plans or even health insurance or life insurance.”

Butts and his business partner, Steve Rosen, put together an advisory council of tax, investment and insurance professionals with the hopes of helping Lighthouse performers manage their financial and health concerns. Each client receives a package with referrals to members of the advisory council along with offers for reduced rates, as well as discounts for beauty supplies, lingerie shops, salons and spas.

“We hope our young ladies take some advantage of getting together with these people,” Rosen says. “We certainly are trying to get everybody, at least, insured.”

Another perk promised by Butts: his clients will be paid within 24 hours for the work they do.

“So they’re not waiting 10 days or two weeks or calling the production companies. That’s our job,” Butts says. “In other words, we basically front the money to the girls, and we’re collecting it from the production company.”

Benefits and perks are commonplace in the mainstream job market, while offering these types of resources within the adult industry is still a considered a rarity.

But the influence of mainstream is creeping in. Digital Playground owner and President Samantha Lewis worked in commercial real estate for 15 years before starting the adult production company in 1993. For DP, offering benefits to contract talent and full-time employees was part of her business model.

“It’s a really big thing at Digital Playground that I stand behind because I’m married,” Lewis says. “I have family, and it’s important.

“If you believe in your company and you believe in your employees, these perks and taking care of their needs is vitally important,” she adds, “because you want to build a successful company.”

The package at DP includes a medical plan that enables employees to add family members and allows for basic dental and discounts on beauty and spa services.

And while cautious about offering in-depth financial or investment advice, Lewis encourages performers to organize their finances.

After addressing business concerns, she adds, “they just really feel like their future’s been taken care of, and they feel secure. That’s why we keep our employees for as long as we do.”

A factor that distinguishes porn stars and athletes from other entertainers is that their jobs put them at risk of chronic health problems and injuries.

Condom or Not?
For adult performers, the health issue that gets the most notoriety is HIV/STDs and, consequently, “condom-optional” policies.

Michael Stabile, senior media manager at Nakedsword.com, points out that in the gay adult industry, condom use not only has important social implications for the gay community but other repercussions as well.

“In terms of the working conditions,” Stabile says, “when you get into a situation with producing content, you basically have to deal with extensions of Cal/OSHA. We try to discourage our studios from providing unsafe working conditions for their employees.”

Cal/OSHA’s most recent major action against adult production companies came in September 2004 when Evasive Angles and TTB Productions were collectively fined $30,560 for allegedly failing to protect workers from exposure to blood or bodily fluids.

The agency lists a page on its website with regulations pertaining specifically to the adult industry.

“I am certainly not going to encourage further government regulation of the adult industry,” Stabile says.

As such, Nakedsword.com, a top gay video-streaming site, does not offer “bareback” content. Stabile also points out that because condoms are the accepted default standard of protection within the gay adult industry, “there is no [HIV] testing in place.”

In the straight adult industry, documented testing is the preferred method of dealing with the potential for contracting STDs.

Everybody Goes to AIM
The Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM) has become the sole organization relied upon by the majority of the industry for testing, documentation and, in worst-case scenarios, “genealogical” tracking of sex partners in the event of an outbreak.

AIM Executive Director Sharon Mitchell is quick to point out that confronting potential health hazards is the responsibility of the performer.

“AIM is a tool for you to use,” Mitchell says. “We are not your conscience. If you want to have your partner tested every two weeks, then you need to say to the producer, ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t accept a test that is less than two weeks old’ or ‘I will use condoms. I don’t do this.’”

Practical and hard-driven from her experience as a performer and a health care professional, Mitchell would like to see improvements in the future.

“I would like to see STD/HIV testing every two weeks,” she says. “I would like to see as many people as possible utilize condoms and other protection at some point.”

AIM offers additional services to industry professionals that often are overshadowed by its function as clearinghouse for HIV testing. A low-cost, on-site pharmacy is available, and a closed “12-step” meeting is offered for industry workers. Financial and business workshops also are given. Mitchell said the office frequently receives requests for information about health insurance, which can be found on the AIM website. And five or six times a year, AIM offers in-house seminars for new talent and distributes a DVD titled “Porn 101,” with information on industry issues, condom usage, business negotiations and “how to spot a scumbag producer,” Mitchell says.

Since opening the clinic nearly a decade ago, Mitchell has seen a rise in volume from 350 patients a month to an average of 2,000. However, whether she has seen a rise in awareness is debatable.

“This is an industry that is primarily built on very young, bulletproof people who are not terribly interested in a lot other than making money,” she says.

Sadly, when performers fall victim to the “fast lane” lifestyle, results can be tragic. Protecting Adult Welfare, or PAW, was founded by veteran performer Bill Margold as a reaction to the 1994 suicide of adult actress Savannah. His objective at the time was to address the emotional needs of X-rated performers.

“Most people contact me for the sake of having someone to contact,” Margold says. “I provide consolation and counseling — a comfort zone.”

The PAW office, located next door to World Modeling Agency (once the top talent agency in the business), affords Margold the chance to counsel eager newcomers on their way to sign up at the agency.

Over 12 years, Margold estimates he’s received thousands of phone calls from performers in need of emotional support from a peer — someone who understands the problems associated with being an adult entertainer. He says he continues to receive up to 20 calls a week.

Margold outsources any requests for additional services. Lack of funding has affected his ability to provide further resources, like educational seminars.

Most of PAW’s funding comes from donations and funds raised at annual fan events like the FOXE Awards and Bowling for Scholars; both events are produced by Margold.

“I’ve survived,” he explains, “because my overhead is negligible — $6,000 a year pays all the bills. Maybe even less. But you can’t put a price tag on what I do.”

And even though recently estimated figures on adult industry revenue were released claiming the business generates more money than baseball and football combined, the analogy between sports and the adult industry is a lopsided comparison.

Not until the commercialization of organized sports could most athletes negotiate contracts for mega paydays and perks.

Industry Never Changes
Even with billions in revenue, it could take decades for the industry to develop the same infrastructure as professional associations and organizations, which then might lead to eventual standards for compensation and benefits. With so many small independent companies, both online and offline, it could be nearly impossible to mandate any uniform agreements to address labor issues.

And there certainly is no incentive for agencies and production companies to offer more money or resources to performers who marginalize themselves by not taking a proactive stance toward their own health and financial well-being.

“Most girls getting into this business have low self-esteem, are naïve, emotionally and mentally immature and suggestible,” Johnny Cobalt says. Both he and his wife, Celestia Starr, are performers. “What a lot of girls need is someone to help guide them. I’ve tried giving advice to a few, but you might as well be talking to a wall; they just don’t want to listen.”

Like many adult entertainers, Starr and Cobalt are independent contractors working for several production companies, while also producing their own content.

“We are producing and directing our own movies,” Cobalt says. “It’s something I wanted to push towards from day one in this business because that’s where the real money is and because we can’t be talent forever.”


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