Documentation of me working on set: https://vimeo.com/533300879

Sex Laborer, 2010-present

Since 1999, I have been using my jobs as research to inform my art practice. Having completed bodies of work regarding my professional careers as a cabinet maker, fine-dining busboy, locksmith, and yoga instructor, I most recently –from 2010-2018– worked behind the scenes helping to produce adult bondage and fetish movies as a full-time hourly employee. As a worker in this industry, my job title is often referred to as an “engineer” or a “rigger.” This entailed constructing or assembling the bondage in which models would be restrained during the filming of the movies. This role encompassed many different tasks; however, my most important responsibility was to create and fabricate safety for everyone on set, with the primary emphasis being placed on the safety of the model who would be in bondage. I came to the practice and politics of Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism (BDSM) not as a practitioner or  enthusiast; in fact prior to working in adult films, I had never participated in any BDSM activities. Instead my involvement in the world of fetish films arose as a natural derivative of my art research and art practice. 

When I began to moblize my employment in pornography as part of an art making process, I first had to determine if and how I might be able to ethically make art inspired by this research –as I have done in my other employment experiences– in ways that didn’t objectify anyone. At the outset, I spent a lot of time reflecting, researching, and defining how to situate my role as a worker in this very complicated context. To do this, I created the term “sex laborer.” By authoring this term, I was able to make a distinction between my job responsibilities and that of “sex workers.” Sex work is an identity and a form of employment for which I have tremendous respect, and I make this important distinction between my labor and that of sex workers because although some people in the world view my role in the production of fetish movies as sex work, others in the sex-industry disagree with that notion as I kept my clothes on and rarely appeared on camera. However, there have been other times in my life that my work in pornography has been treated with judgment by people outside of the industry in similar ways to the judgment that is sometimes placed upon sex workers. This left me in a complicated situation that I needed to come to terms with and to find a safe place from which to situate and contextualize my experiences. Complicating this matter further, I –unlike almost all of my co-workers– never assumed a stage-name or “porn-name” in an attempt to shelter my identity. I did this because it felt disingenuous to participate and examine adult films as “research” and then try to hide the fact that I was doing it. Although I stand by the ethics of this decision, this transparency places me in a precarious social position that required me to define an identity as a worker that seemed honest, while also firmly situating myself in solidarity with sex workers all over the world.

After situating myself as a sex laborer –and after some earlier unrefined projects– I was able to make decisions about how I wanted to compose the art examinations that were informed by my work and research as a laborer in pornography.  On a basic level, I decided to point the camera only at myself as opposed to pointing it outward and filming other people’s bodies and representations. There is a long history of artists who have pointed the camera only at themselves and my work builds on this tradition in a process that I refer to as self-objectification. This was crucial distinction for me to make because my role as a sex laborer in pornography required me to objectify other people as a routine part of the job requirements and expectations. This could be as simple as being required to point a camera at a model and record their likeness, or it could manifest in more complicated ways, such as using a model’s body in conjunction with custom-made bondage gear. In light of this, I eventually realized that whatever art that I made about my experiences in adult films needed to contain my own body and likeness. In a conceptual sense, I needed to objectify myself.

I brought this process of self-objectification into practice by crafting three video examinations. In the first, I deconstructed the uniform that I would often wear on set while producing these movies, consisting of a black zip-up jumpsuit, black orthopedic shoes, and black nitrile gloves. In the second video series, I examined and re-contextualized the power tools that I used in the production of these movies–or in previous jobs–and documented the corresponding effect that those tools had on my body. In the final video series, I re-edited and re-contextualized video footage derived from pornography that contained my image and representation as either a model, a character actor, or as a laborer performing my job responsibilities. All three of these examinations allowed me to gain some control over my physical representation in  both literal and metaphorical ways. In a literal sense, I was able to change how my representation is consumed by a viewer through the process of re-editing the footage. In a metaphorical sense, I was able to challenge some of the embedded cultural perceptions that are fostered in the United States regarding people who are involved in process of making pornography by re-contextualizing the movies. Through these projects, I was able to explore the three main conceptual arcs of my thesis: the fetishization of safety, using tools outside of their intended purpose, and the intimacy of self (as opposed to the creation of intimacy for others as I previously did as a worker who helped to produce adult movies.)

On set, spotting a model in bondage for safety between scenes, 2014

Before I continue it should be noted that I have made a conscious decision to exclude  the names of the companies, websites, and people –stage names, pronouns, or otherwise– for whom I have worked. Anonymity is the cornerstone of sex work and although much of what I discuss in this thesis is publicly available, I feel that it is paramount to focus on my own representation and experiences. By focusing on myself, I seek to minimize the exposure of other people out of respect for their privacy, while honoring the opportunity that I was gifted when I was allowed to work in the adult film industry.

By 2009, I was well aware of the power dynamics I was experiencing as a locksmith and yoga teacher and I was intentionally constructing art experiences that specifically addressed these nuanced power exchanges. Around this time a good friend of mine saw one of my art exhibitions and offered to put me in contact with their boss, who was a director at an adult BDSM film company. This company made a lot of different types of movies, but the ones my friend helped make were based on the idea of a machine-powered shaft with a dildo on the end of it–usually referred to in the industry as a “fucking machine”–that would sexually penetrate a female (or occasionally male) model. What the company needed were new fucking-machines. Although I had never practiced any BDSM activities in my personal life and didn’t have any professional experience as a machinist or electrical engineer, I had enough knowledge of fabrication to give it a go, and over the course of a year, I made two fucking machines as an independent contractor.

The process of making these machines poses several unique engineering challenges that I learned the hard way as I began the design process. The first is that the machines cannot be very loud. The person viewing the movies wants to be able to hear the model, not the loud gyrations of a powerfully oscillating machine. The second problem is that the machine cannot be very large. If the machine is too large, the videographer will not be able to get their camera into positions to show the dynamic shots of the models’ experience. Again, the representation of the model is paramount. Third, the machines need to be relatively strong. If the machines are underpowered, a human orifice can easily clench hard enough to seize the motor. The final–and perhaps the most crucial–is that machines need to be easily adjustable on four axis-planes: Up/Down, Left/Right, Forward/Back, and Tilt-Up/Tilt-Down. The fucking machines are not “intelligent” and are only capable of thrusting forward and backward. They do not know to wiggle a little to the left or right if their “partner’s” pelvis tilts slightly to the side in the heat of the moment. If a machine cannot be quickly adjusted to adapt to the subtle movements of a human’s body, then it will not be able to consistently penetrate the model. Successful movies are dependent upon safe, pleasurable, and consistent penetration. Ironically, this aspect of the design process was reinforced by my father who was a very skilled electrical engineer. When I asked him about some technical problems I was having at the beginning of my design process, his email response began with, “Due to the medical application of your engineering problem, I suggest you try…” To my father,who was eminently pragmatic, it was an opportunity to make money and just another engineering riddle to solve. However, he was quick to notice that a human body was working in relation to the machine, so extra care needed to be taken during the design process. When all those engineering requirements are taken into account, a designer winds up making the same machine over and over again. I quickly realized that there was little room for technical innovation.

Adjusting chain suspension bondage between scenes, 2015

This narrow window for innovation, coupled with my limited machining and electrical skills, posed a tricky set of circumstances for me to begin with. But drawing on my experiences as an artist, I decided to work with what I knew and kept things simple. There are very few products in the open market that feature a motor that creates a linear thrust. Most tools readily available for purchase create a circular motion. Of the products that do create a linear thrust, most are small and underpowered. However, there is one exception: “Sawzalls.” These large handheld tools are designed to cut through almost anything with a long serrated blade that thrusts back and forth. They are powerful and fast. So I went to a pawn shop and bought a couple of used, but high-quality Sawzalls that I could repurpose to make into a fucking machine.

Since there was little room for engineering innovation, I decided to foster conceptual innovation and designed a machine that had more “organic” qualities. To do this, I gave it animal-like characteristics, hoping to create a more empathetic experience for the viewer. My first machine vaguely resembled the size and shape of a large dog or an ambiguous insect from science fiction. I stripped the Sawzall down to its bare components and fashioned a simple three-part container that resembled the aspects of an insect’s body to house the motor. The legs were long and spindly, assembled from a type of camera mounting system called a “magic arm” which allows a rigger to quickly contort one-foot arm segments into any basic geometry. I rerouted the trigger control of the Sawzall to be operated by an external sliding power switch that fed into the machine via shielded wires. Protruding from the “head” of this creature was the shaft to which the dildo would be mounted. When new machines were debuted, the fans of the website would always get to suggest and then vote on its name. They quickly christened my new machine with the name “Dr. Thumper.”

Image of “Dr. Thumper,” the first machine that I made as a contractor, 2010

Several weeks after I delivered Dr. Thumper, one of the other directors at the company saw the machine and was impressed. We got to talking at a party one night and I told them about my various skill sets. I know a lot about fabrication, having worked in cabinet factories for many years. I am pretty good at quickly manufacturing things out of wood and metal. My experience as a yoga teacher also became relevant. The type of yoga that I practiced and taught was not necessarily geared toward people who were naturally flexible. My practice was helpful for people who were older, injured, limited, or not naturally mobile. We used props and apparatuses to guide people’s bodies into geometries that they wouldn’t be able to attain without assistance or support, which–as it turns out– is not all that different from bondage. Additionally, from my years working as a locksmith, I am well versed in  locks, keys, binding, and the psychology of people in regards to their notions of security. I know a tremendous amount about how a person can either panic or be at peace when their body is allowed or denied access to mobility. After telling the director about these skill sets, they immediately saw an opportunity for me to fill a role on their set as a full-time employee.

This director produced content for a website that focused on a cis female submissive being dominated by a cis male. The female model would be restrained in bondage fabricated out of rigid materials, such as metal pipes, leather, or chains (as opposed to flexible materials such as rope). In order to do this sort of work, a person needs to have a thorough background in metal and wood fabrication. One also needs to know a lot about body mechanics and how to create support, while completely immobilizing a body without hurting or damaging a model’s joints, circulation, or nerves. One also needs to understand how to put a person into a stressful situation to make them feel helpless, and then be able to get them out of that situation and make them feel safe again. All of this means having to work very quickly. Strangely enough, all of the disparate skill sets that I had been developing over the first 35 years of my life converged structurally within this one unique job.

Working on set, 2011

As a worker in this context, I had three primary job responsibilities, but my main role is often referred to as an “engineer” or a “rigger.” This role required me to make the bondage in which the models would be restrained. I would fabricate the bondage, put the model into it, and then when filming was over, take the model out and provide aftercare which consists of making sure that the model hasn’t lost feeling anywhere in their body, ensuring that they feel safe and supported, and confirming they have enough energy and desire to continue with the next scenes.

To facilitate this process, I almost always worked for a director who was my manager and the decision-maker within the context of my employment as an hourly worker. My job was to facilitate the director’s vision, but my most important job responsibility as an “engineer” was the safety and well-being of everyone on the film set, most importantly that of the model. As part of this safety process, I would also do most of the cleaning and sanitizing after shoots were done.

The second role that was part of my job was to serve as a photographer, videographer, or director while the movies were being filmed. I took thousands of photographs, shot hundreds of hours of video, directed 12 movies, and assistant directed a full-length feature. Finally, my third job requirement was to edit the movies and photographs and to compose the written descriptions of the movies in preparation for them to be sold via monthly subscriptions on the internet.

When I was hired as a full-time employee in the fall of 2011, the next seven years of my life followed a very consistent routine that entailed: 1. filming porn, 2. cleaning up after porn, 3. editing porn, and 4. publishing porn to the web. A typical day would go something like this: arrive on set around 10 AM and prepare basic things such as getting water bottles and snacks. The model shows up around 11:30 AM dressed in wardrobe and make-up. Meet the model and take measurements of their body, see how they are able to bend and move, determine what is stiff and what is flexible for them. Subsequently, the director decides what positions they want the model in and then I begin making the bondage. I would have done some rough prep work the day before, comprising our best guess as to what the model can do and what will make them look their best. Hopefully, those rough drafts can be utilized and further developed specifically for the model when they are on set. If not, I need to start from scratch. Either way, we need to start shooting no later than 1 PM. Before beginning the first scene, we first film an entrance interview with the model. These were shot as candid conversations between the model and director to establish boundaries, safe words, and consent. After filming the entrance interview, the director and I put the model into the bondage and then shoot the first scene.

While the scene is being filmed, I would usually shoot photographs or sometimes video. Ideally, the model is in bondage for no more than 20 minutes. Afterward, we carefully take the model out of bondage, make sure they are ok, and give them a break. Break down the first scene. Prep the next scene. Put the model into bondage. Shoot the scene. Rinse and repeat for 3 total scenes. Film an exit interview and get the model to the shower room. Everyone leaves, and then I am left alone to clean and sanitize the set. Repeat the process two or three times a week for seven years. My job was to help make the same movie over and over and over and over again. The model changed. The bondage changed. But everything else was always the same. We produced a very specific product for customers that were looking for a very specific experience.

Shooting video during a live show, 2015

In light of this fast-paced schedule, the number of pornos that I helped produce skyrocketed quickly. For example, I helped make on average 2.5 pornos a week for about seven years, which yields a conservative net result of about 910 pornos. But honestly, I have absolutely no idea how many movies I have helped to produce and I remember almost none of them. Using the same mathematical model means that I have also worked with thousands of models. Thousands of people, personalities, identities, issues, flaws, beauties, smiles, excrement, sweat, make-up, tears, and laughter. I remember the people that I worked with far more than actually producing the movies. My experience being on-set to create bondage and fetish movies is difficult to describe  to people. The first thing to understand is that the movies were never about my sexuality, my sexual needs, or my desires. This boundary was crucial to maintain because the power dynamics needed to produce this demanding content had to be kept clear. I needed to be present but invisible, attentive but absent, vigilantly active but appear passive. It was not unlike my experience of being a busboy in fine-dining restaurants: I needed to be neither “here nor there.” And to fulfill these roles as a sex laborer required me to expend a lot of unseen emotional labor.

Heather Berg’s ground breaking book entitled Porn Work (2021) studies the intersection of sex workers, pornography, and labor studies. In it, Berg makes the very accurate observation that the labor porn performers exert is used to “manufacture a feeling.” (pg 45) This manufacturing process often requires the porn performer to utilize a tremendous amount of unseen emotional energy to manifest a “feeling” as a tangible commodity. In a related sense, my job as sex laborer was to fabricate a context in which porn performers could manufacture a temporary, on-camera relationship. They needed to feel “safe” in order for this to happen, and consequently, I needed to use a lot of my own unseen emotional energy to manufacture this safe context. If I was performing my job at a high level, all of this effort and emotional labor went unspoken and unseen.

On the first page of Porn Work (2021), Berg asserts, “Every porn scene is a record of people at work.” (pg 1) She positions the sex work that goes into producing porn to be no different than the physical labor that, for example, a carpenter exerts to build a house. However, the representation of a porn performer’s body as mediated by the camera marks a clear and important differentiation between work of the carpenter and porn performer. Rarely would the image of the carpenter be embedded into the house that they have been paid to build. However, an objectified representation of the porn performer is always permanently entwined within every adult film that gets produced as a commodity. Later in the book, Berg builds on her initial quote and states, “Every porn scene is a record of people at work, and yet the work of porn is invisible.” (pg 29) What Berg is asserting is that the “real” work of pornography is unseen emotional labor that goes into preparing and executing a shoot. What I found unique about my role as a sex laborer was that it placed my work somewhere between that of a sex worker and that of the carpenter. Rarely would anyone see my presence as a sex laborer represented in the final product of the pornographic movie that I helped produce; however, my emotional labor was deeply entrenched and unseen within the commodity that we produced.

On set, between scenes, 2012

In light of this invisible labor required to produce adult films, it cannot be overstated how complicated bondage porn sets are to work on. It took me a while to learn my place on set and I definitely made a lot of mistakes in the process. At first, I found it complicated to be present as a laborer in a highly sexualized work environment, while also maintaining the professional distance required to do my job and maintain safety. I had never had an employment experience that could prepare me for this aspect of the job, and it took me some time to learn how to do this correctly. As I said, my job was to use my physical and emotional labor to facilitate and fabricate intimate experiences for other people. I became very good at my job when I learned to see the models that I was working with as another raw material. Oftentimes, working on the porn sets felt more like an engineering problem than filming a movie. Although this perspective may seem cold and objectifying to women, it allowed me to see my employment as a sex laborer in a non-sexual way. Berg points out that professional distance is difficult to maintain when intimacy is used as a means of production. (pg 44) However, if a production worker is not careful they can easily become too disassociated from the sexuality of the experience and view the models that they are working as “meat” (pg 44) to be consumed or objectified for the day. This must be avoided at all costs because the models are putting themselves on the line and the physical acts that they must perform to complete their job requirements affect them emotionally. (pg 51) But creating a healthy detachment from the experience is really necessary if one wants to have a long term career in pornography. And finding the balance in the “dialectics of detachment and investment, trouble any neat boundaries among strategies for managing emotional labor.” (pg 81) It was challenging to engage just enough while filming to be present and attentive, but at the same time dispassionate enough to create safe spaces for the performers to work and  to protect my emotional well being.

This may seem like a thing that any worker must wrestle with; however, it was amplified within the context of work as a sex laborer since the type of porn that we were creating was based on intense dominant/submissive power exchanges. It was very important for me to help maintain the authority of the director who was not only the boss of the production crew, but was also the boss of the submissive model during the role play that would take place on camera. It is easy to take for granted how delicate the power balance is on a bondage porn set if you have never experienced it. My job was to help maintain a clear power dynamic so we could efficiently and safely get through our workday.

With all that said –in the simplest sense– I was a laborer who always needed to remember my place not just within the power dynamics of the film set, but also within the complicated politics of a relatively large company that tried to run itself like a Dot-Com. Despite the risque product that we produced, the company tried to create a work environment that was similar to the tech companies that surrounded us –such as Twitter, Salesforce, and Facebook– and sought to “normalize” their employees’ work experience. This was achieved by generously providing resources/amenities/perks such as health benefits, 401K plans, team-building days, maternity/paternity leave, and–among other things–company picnics. When historians look back on this time, they will see one of the first companies to ever provide sex workers with the same basic benefits that are routinely afforded to many other employees in the United States.

Within the distribution of power and authority of the company, I was at the second-tier from the bottom. After several initial years of constant managerial shifts, I was eventually placed on a stable team led by a wonderful director, who treated me with a lot of respect and did what they could to protect my interests within the complicated corporate power structure of the company. Berg is one of the few academics who studies pornography and acknowledges the role of the production workers within the process. She recognizes that it takes its toll not just on performers but on crew members as well. (pg 33) Berg points out that performers and crew members alike are usually paid a flat day rate and are expected to work however long it takes to get the job done. Although my situation was different because I was a paid hourly employee, the long hours made it very challenging to make plans or to maintain a second night job since I was never sure what time the shoot would be over. At the company that I worked for, the crew members like myself were paid well, but not nearly enough to survive in an expensive city. Subsequently, for most of the time that I worked in porn, I also worked two or three nights a week as a bartender to make ends meet.

The most challenging part of my job as a sex laborer was the repetitive nature of our filming process and emotional labor required to facilitate it. This quote from Porn Work really resonated with me:

“Crew members, too, talk about monotony as one of porn’s greatest strains. One production assistant described his job as mostly handling paperwork, setting up and taking down lights, and ‘a lot of rubbing baby oil on a girl’s ass. It sounds fun the first couple of times, but it gets really annoying, and you’re not paid much,’ he added. On-set hours are longest for crew members, who arrive first and leave last. They describe exhaustion and fatigue as significant concerns. As in other jobs, boredom is often the most painful aspect of the porn workday.” (pg 40)

I have found this assertion to be quite accurate. In the seven years that worked in pornography –with few expections– I made the least amount of money compared to everyone else on set and I would almost always be first to arrive and the last to leave. If issues regarding pay ever came up–which I would rarely discuss–the standard response was something to the effect: “If you want to make more money, take off your clothes and get in front of the camera.” This point was well taken; the models are the most at risk–physically and socially–and absolutely deserve the largest compensation for the risks that they assume. However, the emotional labor required to maintain the rigors of a shooting schedule go almost completely unseen and–in my opinion–under compensated.

Prepping bondage, talking to director, 2016

In general, it was a tremendous honor for me to be allowed the privilege of working in this adult film industry. The job was often fun and exciting but it could also be humbling and placed my body in precarious positions that exposed me to many bodily fluids. If there was ejaculate, lube, squirt, excrement, or urine on the floor, I was responsible for cleaning it up. With that said, it should be noted that safety precautions, personal protective gear, and a wide variety of medical grade sanitizers were always available and the production workers routinely went through different safety trainings. Although all models went through rigorous STI testing protocols –which kept the models and production workers safe– it was still a unique position to find myself in as a worker whose job it was to push the physical –and meta-physical– “mop” to clean up the mess left behind by other people’s “fun-time.” Although I rarely appeared on camera during the filming of these movies, sometimes during live shows I would have to be part of the recorded action in order to get the model into and out of bondage. My interaction with body fluids was sometimes caught on film or part of the scene (see the video below.) Despite the challenging and humbling aspects of the job, no one forced me to be there. I could have quit at any time. I stuck around hoping to move up in the company, make some decent money, have some control over the content that we were producing, and do research for my art practice. It  didn’t work out as planned. Due to worldwide changes in the porn industry and the rise of pirated porn sharing websites, the company I worked for made less and less profit, eventually stopped making original content, and like dozens of other porn companies, fired all of the sex workers, production workers, and support staff. I was one of the very few fortunate workers who were able to transition to an office position for several months before I resigned of my own accord in March 2018 in order to work as an invited artist in residence for the Grand Central Art Center at California State University, Fullerton. Overall, working in adult films was hard work and I was honored to be part of it. Please see detailed documentation of all the projects in this series on my website.

Sex Laborer, 2010-present | 2019 | Sex Laborer