Text and pictures by Paulie and Pauline.
Porn stars don’t have sex like the rest of us. Do they? After all, they do it wearing high heels and false eyelashes. They utter phrases like, “fuck that dirty hole!” while balanced on a barstool or suspended from a veritable trusswork of penises. They lick and suck and seldom kiss. At least that’s how we see them. And, given the nature of their work, many of us assume that all porn stars must be jaded, emotionally detached individuals who live in a hedonistic blur, void of any real intimate relationships.
When we began photographing couples in the porn industry five years ago, we found that to a large extent the opposite was true. Far from being incapable of intimacy, the people we met thrived on the strength of their personal relationships. In spite of what the mainstream media chides as the “degrading” sex in which they engage for a living, we were not confronted with empty, passionless individuals. To be sure, the American sex industry is a large and hazardous machine that has snagged its gears on many who were too young, too naive, or too desperate. But we discovered that the industry is also populated by many deeply committed couples who could easily be described as ordinary people with extraordinary jobs.
The idea for this project originated during a photo shoot in New York City with porn legend Adam Glasser (a.k.a. Seymore Butts, the “Tushy Man”) and his co-star Mari Possa, whose budding off-screen relationship had been chronicled in the Showtime television series “Family Business”.
Adam and Mari asked to take a break a couple of hours into the shoot. Jet-lagged and exhausted from their busy promotional tour, they spooned together on the bed in their hotel suite. Instead of dozing off as we expected, they talked softly and caressed each other like two new lovers who were enjoying a moment alone during a rare break in their busy lives. With their nod of approval, we continued shooting.
There was nothing staged or performative about the way Adam and Mari reached for each other. No production assistants or makeup artists darted about. We did our best to remain invisible while attempting to capture their intimacy. The chemistry and ease between them was apparent. They smiled. They laughed. They were surprisingly quiet. And they kissed. Just like the rest of us.
After we saw the photos we made of Seymore and Mari, it occurred to us how much like us they seemed to be. And it occurred to us that we’d never seen anything about porn stars’ real lives. Other photographers’ projects seemed unwilling to look behind the gloss and performances, focusing instead on the banality of porn sets or the novelty of seeing porn stars in their street clothes. We wanted to get to know porn stars and their lives completely removed from their work. And we especially wanted to know about porn stars who were in committed relationships because, frankly, they seemed so ordinary. In contrast with most of the media’s exploration into their lives, which mostly focuses on the perception that porn is dehumanizing, we wanted to see their humanity. We found time and time again not only that porn stars were “normal people,” but that many of them maintained solid romantic relationships just like ours.
Many porn performers explained to us that their performances were an extension of their own kinky sexuality. These are people who, as individuals and as a couple, made a choice to work in porn and to balance the needs of their profession with those of their private relationships. We felt like they were very much like us, and that their relationships were beautiful, supportive, and nurturing. And so, we decided to meet as many couples in porn as we could and try to document something real and genuine about their relationships that could resonate with anyone – everyone. In contrast to their aggressively sexual performances, we asked them to let us just spend time with them as a couple – no direction, no script. And as they went about their daily lives they slowly revealed themselves to be funny and sweet, playful and silly, insecure and supportive – beautifully ordinary thinking, feeling, loving individuals and couples.
The book that we recently published about this project (“Off the Set: Porn Stars and Their Partners” Aural Pink Press1) certainly doesn’t try to make a statement about the porn industry as a whole. Like most of the other industries in what we think of as the “human circus” – whether it’s popular music, professional sports, or reality television – the porn industry is a vast and varied place that does not operate without a certain human cost. We only mean to turn attention to one discreet part of the porn industry where we discovered a sense of community. These ten couples are a microcosm within that rough beast slouching toward Canoga Park But we believe that their stories can contribute something meaningful to the very incomplete current discussion about porn.
We hope that our photos, and certainly the essays in the book written by our subjects, give a voice to porn stars that hasn’t really had a forum before. There are definitely more people now who are producing scenes and videos that reflect individuals, rather than bodies. The sex may still be explicit, but there is an increasing focus on real chemistry between partners and real pleasure, especially women’s pleasure. The porn industry is becoming more diverse with its performers, and with its performances, and it’s reaching a much broader audience. We think that it’s time to generate real, meaningful discussion about the role of sex workers, and we think they should have their own voice.
As a book of documentary photography, “Off the Set” is the first book that attempts to truly humanize this particular group of individuals who remain pushed to the margins. As individuals and as couples, the people we photographed for this book have fought to express themselves on their own terms. We didn’t approach them as though they were exotic animals, carnival acts, or victims. We asked them if we could just be with them for a while when they were just being themselves because that’s what we found truly interesting about them. They invited us into their homes, made us tea, opened a bottle of wine, let us play with their dogs, and talked to us about their families while we waited for opportunities to preserve a moment when they were just purely, beautifully human.