by Heather Berg
An assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies, Heather Berg´s incredibly intelligent and well-researched book is about much more than any previous study of pornography. Typically, critical writing on porn tends to focus on the images themselves, often assuming that pornography is inherently exploitative, and lack much research into interviewing the creators of this pictures, films, and representations firsthand. Dr. Berg´s Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism is a refreshing alternative to this body of work, instead choosing to examine porn as a specific field or job, a distinct activity where money is exchanged for identifiable labor. Over the span of a number of years, she has interviewed nearly one hundred performers, managers, and filmmakers within the porn industry, whose collective experience spans decades. The result is an astute and multilayered discussion not only about this particular industry, but also about the gig economy, entrepreneurship, and the nature of work at this moment in American history.
It´s a highly stimulating and accessible read, and the rigorous and extensive content in Porn Work feels like having the pleasure of attending one of Dr. Berg´s seminars at Washington University in St. Louis. She begins her book by examining the "nuts and bolts" of being on a porn set--what is a typical day like (if that can even be quantified)? What kinds of things are provided for on set, and what are performers expected to prepare on their own? How has this changed over time with changes in technology? Already, Dr. Berg is highlighting the limitations of "work", in the traditional sense, when looking at those who work in pornography. Like other work that is not related to sex, labor is consistently pushed onto the shoulders of the worker or independent contractor, while the employer continues to gain the bulk of the benefits. The book goes in-depth to articulate the frustrations and limitations of workers within this field to organize, and the inherent risks of approaching porn as purely a job. Some resolve their legitimate frustrations by a mixture of business-savvy, community-building, and resistance to ill-informed proposals from well-meaning individuals from the outside.
Through the testimonials of her subjects, Dr. Berg fearlessly opens a window onto an industry which is at least as complicated and contradictory as any other in America. There is racism here, which contributes to inequality of paid opportunities within the field. There are examples of porn performers´ becoming nimble at using their scenes to self-promote their own webpages, which in turn can generate more direct financial opportunity through adjacent activities such as dancing, webcamming, products, and more. Some are production companies who selectively use sex positivity rhetoric to justify paying everyone a lower wage, as well as successful stories of performers crafting their own unique business models to achieve what they want. In Porn Work, as in any work, there is no singular profile or perspective. Dr. Berg invites us to join into the conversation, forcing us to listen and then make up our own minds.
But beyond pornography, this book is really about the gig economy, and the profound precarity more and more workers are experiencing within America today. Those who work in porn are not the only ones being affected by it, but their strategies outlined in Porn Work at making sure their bills get paid are, at least in principle, inspiring for their ingenuity. Creators of porn, simply by their example, also demand that all of us reconsider our relationship to work itself: is it pleasurable? Should it be, can it be? What are the trade-offs for working in non-sex jobs, and what is at stake when making the choice to earn money by having sex for a living?
Dr. Berg doesn´t offer any singular, clear-cut answers to these important questions. Instead, Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism is a rewarding conversation about our relationship to work, as well as our relationship to sex, our bodies, and capital. I strongly recommend this book.