PORNO DIALECTICS: An Interview with Heather Berg by Jennifer Moorman

The following Q&A was conducted via Zoom.

Jennifer Moorman (JM): Talk to me about porno dialectics, about porn work as struggle. What are some of the key takeaways from your project?

Heather Berg (HB): The book uses the language of struggle rather than resistance because “resistance” really suggests a kind of reactivity on workers’ part. That doesn’t work politically or empirically. The political piece is that I’m convinced by the Autonomist Marxist line that telling stories about capital’s power as if it’s bullet proof only helps the other side. Empirically, that workers make history is so obvious in the porn context, where workers are not simply reacting to new forms of exploitation that their managers think up. Instead, they’re finding workarounds, finding hacks. Managers see that this is happening, and then they mount a counteroffensive. This process totally shapes porn’s history, and its present. I want readers to think about the kind of visual language of struggle and the push-pull of class conflict, and I think that’s something that’s really vibrant in the porn context. 

That matters for countering outsiders’ (or “civilians”’) ideas that porn workers have no power. It also matters for countering managers’ sense that the people that they manage are dumb. There are so many stories in the book, examples of directors and producers and agents talking to me in the most condescending terms about the young women they manage, but then going on to describe all the ways these women outsmart them on the daily. That’s why we need a focus on struggle, both for empirical and political purposes.

JM: Absolutely. And speaking of the visual language of struggle, could you talk a little bit about how porn genre, or subgenre rather, can provide clues to the labor conditions that created it?

HB: Sure. I think my favorite quote that gets right at this is from Nina Hartley: “porn feels different than it looks.” One of the things that I wanted to gently push against is this overwhelming sense in our corner of the field that queer and feminist porn are already this kind of ethical horizon – or not just a horizon, but that their prefigurative politics show us what the rest of porn should look like. That is the thing I’ve gotten the most pushback on from media studies scholars and feminist studies scholars; nobody wants to be told that their “ethical” products aren’t. I do think that the genres labeled “ethical” can leave workers more room to maneuver in terms of representational politics, which absolutely do matter to them as a labor concern and as a political and artistic one. But also – and I think academic readers, and folks in creative industries more broadly, can understand this – this can make the set feel like working at a nonprofit. And then you get all the emotional blackmail and low pay and long hours that academics know very well. 

At the same time, another dialectical tension there is that there is a real desire.

That’s something a lot of academics can identify with if we do this work because we love it. We do it because it matters, politically, but also know that that will always be turned against us. I also want to resist a trend in studies of creative labor, which is to say that workers are falsely conscious in seeking out work that feels creative or fulfilling or politically meaningful. I don’t believe that that’s true. Instead I think that’s a tension we are all constantly butting up against. It’s not resolvable under capitalism, and workers aren’t stupid to try to find pleasure or meaning in the day to day. 

JM: Yes, and that’s what I really appreciated about the porno dialectics framework. This idea of both/and, where you’re holding these irresolvable contradictions – allowing them to exist, and trying to parse them without forcing a resolution. Because I found that to be the case as well, that feminist porn and queer porn do provide certain things for certain people that the mainstream may not (such as more freedom over how to enact a scene, or a final product that may be more in line with one’s personal politics) but that can also lead to the extraction of additional physical and emotional labor, as you nicely lay out in the book, and absolutely lower pay, which is justified by the whole idea of paying everybody an equal rate. That sounds great, but when they have really low budgets, that just means that the rates are all equally low, which can lead to people feeling undervalued, even if they also appreciate the end result more – performers have to make these calculations for themselves.

HB: Absolutely. On paper and in terms of what it looks like to run the set, leading up to a scene, that’s usually true. But so much of the narrative around what counts as a consent practice is rooted in liberal feminist ideas about enthusiastic consent, the idea that the only good reason to have sex is because you authentically desire it. What that leaves out is the reality of sexual labor, and specifically that the amount that you get paid for a scene changes your emotional relationship to it. We also have authentic desires for money – for both the materiality of it and, as you say, the sense of being valued. So in that case, then it is very possible to leave a queer or feminist set feeling that the encounter had been less negotiated and less worthwhile.

There’s this narrative in feminist and queer porn studies that consent practices are better on feminist and queer sets.

JM: Along similar lines, in your chapter on authenticity, you critique the paternalism of producers who pride themselves on refusing to hire performers – usually women in particular – who seem desperate for the money. In my own interviews with filmmakers, I definitely encountered people using this kind of language around a refusal to “exploit” people who seem desperate. On the one hand, you make a powerful larger critique of the popular notion that sex workers shouldn’t just do it “for the money.” The idea that one should do the work for other reasons, like a sense of personal fulfillment, is used to extract additional unpaid labor from people in a wide range of industries, including academia. But I think there is also something ethically tricky there and I think that’s another overlap with academia and specifically with human subjects work. This is the idea that underlies the IRB [Institutional Review Board] – you’re not supposed to provide substantial economic incentives to potential human subjects because you don’t want people to do something that could have profound future impact on their life because they’re desperate in the moment. With porn work being so heavily stigmatized, I think there is a legitimate concern about someone taking a role because they’re broke without necessarily considering how difficult it might be to get “straight” work after that. Again this is due to stigma, not to anything inherently damaging about sex work, but the stigma exists and can be very damaging. 

As you say in Porn Work, porn work is work, but it is also exceptionalized through stigma. Taking a quick shift at McDonald’s when you’re desperate doesn’t have the same potential implications for your life of doing a porn scene, even if the actual labor involved with the latter is far preferable. And I think if directors are going to make that decision for somebody else, that’s obviously paternalistic, but I also think it’s something that’s worth thinking seriously about. For instance, I interviewed a Black woman filmmaker who talks about this ethical quandary of hiring performers who are brought to her by predatory agents. Ultimately she leaves the decision up to the performers so it’s not paternalistic, but she definitely has ethical qualms about hiring young women who are entering the industry just because they’re desperate. She told me about one woman whose agent had booked her for $200 for a scene that would normally pay $800-1000. So when the performer arrived on set, the director made sure she understood that she was only getting $200 – ensuring consent. The director went ahead with it despite her discomfort. It was apparently a great scene and as the director was writing the performer’s check, the performer said, “I know that this was last minute, but I just want to thank you for making this happen, because it’s my son’s birthday and I promised him that I would take him to Disneyland, and now I can.” So the director said to me, “Do you tell her, bitch, do not do that, because number one, you’re devaluing yourself, and number two you’re devaluing everyone else who’s in this business? Or do you let her take her son to Disneyland?” It’s really messy, right? What are the best practices for producers and directors who are trying to be ethical, without making decisions for people who should be trusted to make their own decision?

HB: My sassiest Communist take is to say that if you have concerns about ethics you shouldn’t be a manager. And I say that as I also know, and write in the book, that that hard line becomes untenable when we realize that the only way to navigate this system is to either be a manager or be managed – unless you have something like OnlyFans, which is now being taken away. So I have a lot of empathy for former or current porn workers who are also managers. These are people who are trying to sustain their own livelihoods through retirement and also encountering fundamental questions about what it means to pay people for labor, and to make money off of them under a system in which we work because we must. I don’t have the same thoughts on managers who’ve never done sex work. 

My problem with the way a lot of queer and feminist directors in particular talk about this is that often they pretend to have resolved that conflict by only hiring a certain kind of person.

But these are ethical crises to sit with and not clean up prematurely. And I don’t pretend to be outside of any of that, I don’t think that my own existence under capitalism is pure. So, there are best practices, but I would always want to say that they will never be enough so long as you’re making money (or trying to) from someone else’s work. Pretending that those practices are enough makes the horizon of an actually different way of working that much more distant. 

There’s a real danger, both because of the condescension piece, and the ways that that pushes people who do need work out of some productions. Ironically, the productions with better working conditions are less likely to hire people who are vulnerable, which is not great. And that’s all about management ego, right? It’s not about making sure working people are okay. 

So all that said, in terms of what best practices might look like, I think that paying people as much as you possibly can and ensuring maximal autonomy on set and in partner choice are crucial. And yes, I think that if folks are concerned with substance use, for example, or the various reasons that people might do sex work under what outsiders see as desperation, there are so many mutual aid and harm reduction initiatives they can take part in. That’s a much better use for one’s energy than arbitrating the reasons other people should agree to work.

JM: Definitely. These are lessons that apply far beyond the porn industry. What does Porn Work, and porn work more broadly, have to teach us about late capitalism and the precarity and also the opportunities afforded by the gig economy?

HB: I think porn work really highlights the crisis piece of late capitalist crisis. It’s something that Marxists talk a lot about – the crisis of late capitalism – but I think that’s often framed in nostalgic terms or only in terms of the vulnerabilities this moment presents for working people. But porn workers have figured out a way to find cracks in the crisis and spaces for intervention, and through that have figured out how to sometimes make the crisis work for them. For folks following the news around OnlyFans [that is, the site’s now-retracted decision to ban sexually explicit content], we’ve seen just a tremendous transformation in what porn work looks like over the last decade, more or less, and in the last few years. Former directors are now working for performers as journeyman contractors shooting and editing their work. It’s an amazing transformation. 

I’ll share with readers just one thing to concretize this: when my book came out, a director I’d interviewed years ago called me up and said, “you talked to me just before the fall.” He was now working as a gig worker for performers, pretending to be the most popular starlets on OnlyFans, chatting with their fans online. When we interviewed, he had been pulling six figures producing scenes that he paid people only $800 for, and he maintained the copyright, gave them no royalties. Now all of that has just reversed. That’s just one moment in which this crisis piece comes through.

JM: Following up on that, you write in Porn Work: “In stark contrast to the boom time sensibility of the 1990s, a sense that porn production might irrevocably change at any time seems to grow deeper by the year. Stricter laws might make it impossible or cost prohibitive to shoot or the forward march of piracy might mean that shoots could not be funded at all” (132). Do you feel like that time has already come?

HB: In some ways I think it has, but the direction [that] fundamentalist Christian and feminist antiporn activism has taken even since I wrote that sentence has made me adjust my thinking a little bit. Which is not to say that things are any less dire, but that because free speech has been arbitrated and decided in the courts, porn production is actually a lot less precarious than autonomous distribution at this point. There’s still this sense among folks in what we could call the traditional industry – rooted in LA, Florida, Las Vegas, and producing studio porn – that their livelihoods are under siege. But I think that that the closure of options like OnlyFans for sex workers will be good for traditional producers. As much as [antiporn group] Exodus Cry would like all porn stricken from the Internet, they will not succeed in that, because that has been decided. There are legal protections there that autonomous sex workers don’t have, so I think we’ve moved away from free speech fights and to these other domains of struggle.

JM: Let’s talk a bit more about the OnlyFans situation. We can trace this back to the Nicholas Kristof op ed in the New York Times from last year, which really just parroted the claims from the right-wing, evangelical, antiporn group Exodus Cry that Pornhub is a hotbed of child porn and revenge porn. Soon after, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa suspended payments to Pornhub. Then Mastercard announced new restrictions on processing payments for adult content. As Spencer Bokatt-Lindel notes in a recent op ed for the [New York] Times, “Starting in October, sites will have to verify the age and identity of anyone who is depicted in or uploads adult content, institute a pre-publication content review system, and offer speedy complaint resolutions and appeals. These rule changes appear to have played a key role in OnlyFans’s recent ban” on explicit content. So yeah, what can you tell us about what’s going on with this policy change with OnlyFans? What does this mean for porn workers? [Note: since we conducted this interview, OnlyFans has announced that they are no longer planning to ban explicit content.]

HB: Part of why it’s hard to report back on this is that so much of the policymaking is speculative, trying to dodge the forward march of these lobbyists before they get there. OnlyFans was trying to anticipate the decisions that payment processors and banks will make. It’s really hard to find a factual basis for the policy because so much of it is fear-based, and yet it has all sorts of material effects on sex workers’ lives. For content creators, again I think that it will push a lot of people back to working for producers and directors.

Folks who have the capital and legal infrastructure to fight free speech battles will have more power, and small sex worker self-productions will have less power. 

I don’t want to overstate the crisis because sex workers are so crafty. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. So, Exodus Cry will continue to do their targeting of wherever sex workers go, following them around the Internet as Melissa Gira Grant wrote, and sex workers will continue to find new places to advertise and distribute. But there’s one thing a lot of folks might not understand, that journalists who have written me in the last few days haven’t quite gotten. They’ve asked this question, aren’t there other sites? And there are, but the labor of building a fan base and a subscriber base on each individual site is so intense, it can be a years-long process. 

When sites like OnlyFans kick sex workers off, this empowers sites that are sex work specific to charge more exploitative fees. There’s a much longer history to that: when mainstream platforms, banking apps, etc., kick sex workers off, their only option is to work under sex work specific businesses that overwhelmingly have poor terms and conditions. There are all sorts of ways in which this will empower the kind of exploitative actors organizations like Exodus Cry say they’re fighting against. I don’t believe there’s actually a conspiracy, but in terms of what this actually looks like on paper, porn’s good old boys and Exodus Cry have very similar immediate goals.

JM: Yes, and that is one of the really interesting things you talk about in the book – this division between the management and the workers when it comes to activism, and how the workers, for various reasons, need to rely on The Free Speech Coalition or similar [organizations] to advocate for them, even though these [organizations] don’t necessarily have the workers’ best interests at heart. And you talk about how the people who are the most marginalized are the most affected by these kinds of attacks.

HB: Yes, I want to highlight that there’s this discourse coming from the antiporn lobby that OnlyFans creators are either trafficked persons or white, middle-class housewives messing around at home for fun. In either case there is this deliberate attempt to erase who will be most impacted by these shifts. I think anyone who’s worked a job can understand this and muster a little bit of empathy – the people who most desire an escape from working under direct management are the people who are treated worse when they work under a manager. In porn as elsewhere, that is trans people, that’s performers of color, that’s caretakers, and that’s people with disabilities. Some people will be forced back to working under managers, and some people were never welcome under those systems at all. Some people will have their livelihoods taken away but – and then this is something that I think your work does so beautifully – this will change the nature of sexual representation as well. So with both of those things at the same time, it’s certain communities will be erased.

JM: One of the other things I really appreciated about the book was the way you kept weaving your own experience as an academic subtly throughout as a point of comparison. I completely related to that. I was also interviewing people in the porn industry when I was a grad student and an adjunct. And I often thought to myself, despite this dominant cultural narrative that sex work is exploitative, in fact we are at least as exploited, if in different ways.

Just thinking about the ways in which sex work should not be seen in an exclusionary way, via “erotic exceptionalism,” but in fact as just the most visible example of the exploitation of late capitalism…

HB: Absolutely. Of course so many of us do sex work on the side in order to sustain ourselves in academia. But also, the interviewees who became friends, and folks who I was in community with prior to undertaking this research, who haven’t been in academia, find the things that I put up with untenable. I also have a number of friends who are former sex workers, current academics, and we talk about the things that we put up with before that felt okay because there was cash at the end of the day. But that dealing with, say, power dynamics at a university happy hour feels so much more disgusting because it’s absolutely opaque. You never know whether it will mean anything positive for you or whether you’re just being taken from.

JM: Yeah absolutely. What can we, as students and scholars of media, do to support porn workers? I think I get the sense by the time I finished your book that you’re arguing more for larger socio-economic shifts that would help everybody – things like single payer Medicare for all, so the workers don’t have to have their healthcare tied to their employment, maybe a UBI [Universal Basic Income]. Things like that would actually make people less vulnerable as opposed to just these microcosmic, individual, or industry-specific decisions.

HB: Yeah, I’m a Communist because I don’t believe that we will have workplace justice so long as we exist under this system. I do think that there are all sorts of smaller changes, such as single payer, that could make people a lot safer now. In terms of what allies can do under current conditions: pay people for their work and don’t ask for the additional emotional labor of convincing self-styled “ethical” fans that they’re not working or that they’re working for reasons other than bills to pay. That is such a draining piece of the encounter. Sex workers who do in-person and also online work where your engagements with clients are closer to the surface talk about that all the time: the hardest clients to deal with are those who feel guilty about paying you. 

And so, for next steps: on the one hand, fighting hard for a different kind of system, but then also acknowledging that under this one we are all doing what we can. It’s okay to pay people for their sex work when they’re doing it for whatever reason makes sense for them, and it’s okay to enjoy that thing. We’re not going to get closer to some kind of revolutionary horizon because fans are feeling good about feeling bad.

JM: Definitely, and you also mentioned some of the more long-standing and some of the recently formed groups like the BIPOC-AIC, so workers are organizing themselves and they’re always taking donations for their mutual aid.

HB: Absolutely! Give sex workers money. And those organizations, as well as individual worker activists, are consistently making appeals for support for their own mutual aid and political action campaigns. Supporting that should be obvious, but I do think it’s striking how many fans and allies will channel their assistance in directions that are the opposite of what people say would be helpful. I’m not even talking about antiporn people, you know? 

JM: Is there anything else you want to share about what Porn Work illuminates for workers outside of porn, in other media industries, or to those of us who study media?

HB: There are a couple things. One, in terms of sexual exceptionalism, I think that there’s this really crucial lesson here that the aspects of the work that porn workers described as most draining, as most vulnerable to exploitation, and as most charged terrains of struggle, are not sex. And as the mainstream media industries also are encountering their own confrontations with #MeToo, I think porn reminds us just how much the discourse of #MeToo, and anxieties around sexual harassment in particular, can really operate as a kind of holding container for anxieties about power. There’s a sense that if we just remove a few bad actors who abuse their power in this one particular way, that we will have justice in these workspaces. 

We can see the failures of that way of thinking when workers talk about the aspects of their jobs that are most concerning to them at the level of health. That’s often not STIs; it’s staph infections, it’s pulled muscles, it’s over-long days during which you’re dehydrated because you’re fasting to look great – all of these unseen things that exist in [the] mainstream [workplace] too. In terms of power differentials, it’s dealing with directors whose boundaries are poor because they think you’re friends. They keep you on set longer than necessary in order to chat and there’s no way out. One of my favorite stories from the book is where this woman is talking about not wanting to work for a director again because he kept her [on set] and she just wanted to go hang out with her dog. It wasn’t this horribly sexually exploited kind of situation – he was just kind of a clingy guy, and she wanted to go home.

I want readers outside of porn to think about what that might mean closer to home. 

Also, the ways porn workers approach questions of ownership and profit and hack the systems that would have them only ever give up their image to others are instructive for mainstream media. One counterintuitive benefit of sex work stigma is that workers come to the industry wary of managers, wary of pimps, wary of the idea that anyone would make money off their sexual labor. This is true regardless of how people identify politically. People will say, “I don’t want anyone to take a cut from my work.” And I think workers and scholars of workers in all sorts of industries can learn a lot from that perspective. Just thinking about what Hollywood would look like if there were an OnlyFans… Of course that all breaks down given last weekend’s news, but the immense instability of the boundary between worker and manager, that boundary is so much more porous in porn than it is in any other media industry. That is, I think, a horizon that we should all be driving toward.

Read more about Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism on the University of North Carolina Press website.


<strong>Heather Berg</strong>
Heather Berg

Heather Berg writes about sex, work, and social struggle. Her first book, Porn Work (UNC Press, 2021)explores workers’ strategies for navigating–and subverting–precarity. Her work appears in ‘Signs,’ ‘WSQ,’ ‘Feminist Studies,and ‘Porn Studies,’ among others. Heather is assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. @drheatherberg on Twitter. 

<strong>Jennifer Moorman</strong>
Jennifer Moorman

Jennifer Moorman is Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Her research focuses on gender, sexuality, race, and class in popular media texts and industries. She is currently completing a book manuscript entitled The Softer Side of Hardcore? Women and Nonbinary Filmmakers in Pornographic Production Cultures. Her work appears in Camera Obscura, Signs, Synoptique, and several edited volumes.