What I Learned as a Porn Tagger

A lot of laws, like mandatory condoms, may have unexpected side effects

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I got the job from a friend who couldn’t handle the sight of so many naked women. “I thought,” she said, “that my lady parts were unique and special.” She looked out the window and sighed a little. “They are not.”

The job was to watch porn. The office was a Bay Area dotcom, circa 2008. My assignment was to tag each actor in these videos by attributes (hair color, breast size) and tag each sex act. That way, a subscriber could easily search our database and filter out everything but, say, group sex featuring brunettes.

Then I would identify the actors by name, so that they could be sorted into a searchable database that would show our compliance with what are known as “2257 reporting requirements,” a part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, to ensure that no performers in these clips were under the age of 18.

Sometimes identifying the actors was easy. They would say their names at the beginning of a video (“Hi, I’m Tammy Jenkins, this is Mark Jones, and you’re watching A Simple Tale of Butts VIII!”). Sometimes I would find myself staring into a writhing spaghetti pile of women, all more or less the same hue of tan, the same shade of blondness and the same shape of bosom, and I would try to pretend that I was plucky and I could do this: I was Nancy Drew in The Case of the Indeterminate Orgy. Other times, I was confronted with complete enigmas, like the performer who was nothing but a penis poking out of a pink bunny suit. When that occurred, I would call over my supervisor, a somewhat bitter man who had been doing this so long that he could identify most of the 20 or so men who worked regularly in straight porn by crotch shot alone.

(MORE: Sexodus: Porn Industry Mulls a Future Outside L.A.)

This was bargain-basement porn, sex carried out by people who were doing two shoots a day, four or five days a week, often on what appeared to be the same sofa, which remained a mute witness to their exertions, stabbed with gold high heels, but never punctured. None of the performers were paid much — between $150 and $300 a shoot. I knew this because I had access to their contracts.

My career as a porn tagger didn’t last long. I was slow, because I had secretly begun listening to radio documentaries instead of the porn audio. Also, my supervisor criticized me for cataloging performers as having real boobs when to him they were clearly fake. I was embarrassed: to me they had jiggled plausibly. When the job ended, I was relieved.

I’ve been thinking of that job again amid reports that several porn actors — first two, then three, with rumors of a possible fourth — have tested positive for HIV. The news has heightened an ongoing debate over whether porn actors should be, or even could be, forced to use condoms. A law that would mandate condom use in any pornographic film made in the state of California, AB-640, died last week in the state senate. But L.A. County successfully passed a similar law, Measure B, last November.

Pornography is work that deserves to be safe. Like nursing, boxing and other bodily-fluid-intensive jobs, that safety is going to be complicated. What I do know from my brief time in the industry is that a lot of the laws that get proposed to make porn safer have unexpected side effects — some of which are just as bad as the original problem.

Take condom use. Condoms are already the standard in one fairly substantial sector of the porn industry: gay porn. But the last time a porn actor tested positive for HIV, in 2010, he told the Los Angeles Times he believed he had caught the virus on a gay porn shoot where condoms were used. Porn sex can go on for an hour at a time, and everything is more transmissible, even with protection. In gay porn, condoms are common but testing is rare. By contrast, actors working in straight porn get tested for HIV and other STDs every few weeks, as part of voluntary industry standards. If condom use were mandatory, such standards could fall by the wayside.

Or consider the elaborate databases people like me helped to create in order to protect against underage pornography. The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act reporting requirements seem to have done a good job of keeping people under 18 out of the porn industry, but they have done so by compromising the personal information of every person over the age of 18 who has ever worked in porn, or erotic modeling, no matter how briefly. Even as a contract worker with no background check, I had access to the addresses, Social Security numbers, real names and unflattering ID photos of every porn actor or actress that I identified. I could have used their information to commit credit-card fraud.

It’s always easy — and it plays well on camera — to call for a simple new law. But the creation of low-cost health clinics with staff members who are trained to work with sex performers would probably do much more to protect people’s safety and privacy. That’s harder than just passing legislation, but we’re far more likely to help porn performers if we treat them less as victims in need of protection and more as workers with a stake — and an interest — in their own safety.

Smith was a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT. She is currently at work on a book about insects, humans and the various misunderstandings that arise between them. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

21 comments
shlomoshunn
shlomoshunn

So...." $300 a shoot" is nothing? How many non-porn folks make that for a few hours work?

When men work in and around porn it's deemed degrading to women (no one is concerned that men are treated like "wood"!). When women enter the scene, why, suddenly porn is hip, cool, even liberating ("Debbie felt empowered by the 800-man bukkake session she headlined...").

Feminists hate porn because men like it. Guys can watch model-level Eastern European women doing all sorts of fun sexual things, apparently enjoying themselves. Guys experience something quite different when seeing Dworkin-class wide-load oogly-mooglies on America's streets, wimmin who join feminist groups to be with other circus freaks.

eagle11772
eagle11772

Porn on the internet ? !  LOL  !  No such thing.  It's not allowed.

otherwise
otherwise

Does anyone know how I can find out if a D-list L.A. actress has work for the adult industry in the past ? Is there some database?

#libtardedamerica
#libtardedamerica

how does one get a job as a porn-tagger if we don't have a friend in the business? i want it

Only_surfing
Only_surfing

Regarding the pay quoted, the author references an article from February, 1997.  I do not believe using 16+ year old data is relevant. 

nofail
nofail

A billion files manual metadata tagging summer job ? LOL !!

Use a proxy. IBM should specialize an artificial intelligence for all that online porn. It is important and a startup idea.

I had a dream that one day a machine learning will modelize and FX the "new face" and "want more" epidemy ... or I just subconsiously remember Dr Gaius personal Cylon.


otherminds
otherminds

As best as I can tell, the authors main point here is that, in an attempt to make the industry safer, there could be unintended consequences that make the situation worse. Condom use in straight films "could" make testing standards "fall by the wayside," she claims. Yes, and? Is that really an argument? Condom use 'could' also be coupled with testing to make everyone safer. Or, perhaps, condom use 'could' sink the industry and drive porn underground. Mindless conjecture is exactly that. 

Her second point is that by requiring identifying information from the actors, it also makes them susceptible to identity theft. This is merely a question of weighing values. What is more important, protecting people's social security number, or protecting children from abuse? I do not think the calculus is very difficult here. 

This article was far more interesting when I thought the author was recounting her time in an odd job. I was not expecting an editorial on the moral and practical implications of condom use and porn databases.

cruzkit
cruzkit

I wonder if these people (who do porn) will look back 20 years from now a regret what they did for a living. I mean, 150 to 300 dollars doesn't seem that much... I guess I was expecting them to get paid a lot more than that. 

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

Masturbation is the best way ; unfortunately it makes you go blind .

tkulaga
tkulaga

Who is to say the HIV infection came from the porn shoot? The HIV could have come the day after or the following day thru contact with a friend, lover not connected to the porn industry. Am I right?

#libtardedamerica
#libtardedamerica

@Only_surfing 

but looking up current statistics would have taken an extra 5 minutes and god knows the writers for TIME can't be bothered to spend a couple minutes getting their facts correct

Tonkaman
Tonkaman

@nofail Facial recognition software could greatly enhance the speed and accuracy of identifying the actors as well.

shlomoshunn
shlomoshunn

@otherminds: No guy likes wearing condoms. Certainly men don't like seeing them in porn. That's why French porn is so horrible: most films use condoms. It's like watching someone eat food encased in balloons. 


Condoms are pleasure-killers, putting something between 2 sensitive body parts. I get the disease/pregnancy prevention part. That doesn't mean condoms are "cool."

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

From listening to the few words they speak, and having seen some of them interviewed on shows like Hbo has, I think they are probably quite happy making that sort of money instead of working at McD or other low paying jobs that perhaps are their only alternatives.  They are not brilliant.  Not saying they are all stupid.........  Hopefully they are able to use some of that money and get educations or make sound investments.  But they are not long careers and given the way things are now they will not be anonymous either.

wargabebas
wargabebas

Probably not. More likely than not, they could look back with fond memories of how good they looked back then. In fact some of those actors got noticed and became celebrity stars. But they can't do it for long. 10 years max before their looks began to wane.

Vulpine
Vulpine

@tkulaga Anything's possible, including that. After all, the first case had to come from somewhere OUTSIDE of the industry, right?