A long-running non-profit advocates for adult film stars’ wellbeing through thoughtful industry reforms and resource sharing.
Illustration by Brian Hurst
Back in 1998, David Foster Wallace (working under a pseudonym) dissected the late-20th century world of pornography for Premiere magazine in an article entitled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment.” Later published in 2005’s Consider the Lobster essay anthology as “Big Red Son,” the cheeky bit of anthropology is at turns funny, disturbing, and downright sad. In one of the story’s darker areas, Wallace recounts a string of recent suicides and breakdowns amongst pornographic actors and actresses, who have cracked under what the author sees as an increasingly predatory and extreme industry. In this context, he name-drops a little-known social service, the Protecting Adult Welfare (PAW) hotline, one of the few resources adult performers have to voice their concerns, learn about their legal protections, and seek support and guidance.
Wallace might have thought he was witnessing the apogee of porn’s dark potential. But despite a growing conversation around ethical and feminist porn in recent years, narrowing profits, niche tastes, and post-porn hiring discrimination still force many into ever more competitive, uncomfortable, and vulnerable situations. Pornography is a difficult, complex entity, and it will take years for debates on regulation and cultural expectations to play out, but these conversations will do little in the meantime for those at risk. And as conversations about the industry become more and more mainstream, the hotline Wallace points to seems like an increasingly necessary service—so why have we not heard more from them?
By the look of its very 1998 website and low public profile, you might guess that PAW died soon after Wallace’s article. But the Sherman Oaks, California-based foundation is still alive and well, working to better the lives of those involved in pornography by promoting public understanding of the field and providing basic services like counseling, financial planning, and health and human services. Just last year they partnered with the bizarre Maxim-esque satire magazine Girls and Corpses—the perfect rag for anyone with an X-rated, necrophilic sense of humor—to put on a Bare Bowling Fundraiser, a lucrative annual event featuring guest appearances by adult entertainment stars who meet up with diehard, supportive fans to…well, bowl and raise some money for the foundation’s ongoing and expanding mission.
You’d think semi-nude fundraisers would score PAW some serious attention, but perhaps these displays are just too brash to crack the mass media. Or perhaps it’s just that the founders and representatives of the foundation are a little more passionate than savvy in their crusade for a safer, and arguably sexier, porn industry. In a 2007 interview, former porn actor and director turned PAW founder and trustee Bill Margold let loose a volley of obscene images, illustrating his fears about the industry’s direction and a desire to see films where people simply have sex that isn’t derogatory, dehumanizing, or dirty. At one point in the interview, Margold drops this telling, though off-putting, gem:
“What are [extreme porn producers] going to do when someone rips apart? When so many dicks are shoved into one hole?…Eventually they’re going to deal in physical pain, and I will not tolerate that…I’m mad about that. It’s upsetting to me that people will come to see me and cry and I don’t know how to strike back.”
It’s an impassioned speech, full of humanity, and it ends with some interesting and practical ideas: creating a pornography tax and monitoring system to keep small-time predators out of the system, raising the age limit for performers to 21, bringing in more stringent drug tests. But it’s not exactly the kind of presentation that wins mass media airtime or public support.
Even if PAW doesn’t have a lot of popular visibility, the presence of mainstream porn stars and sponsorship of major studios like Wicked Pictures at their fundraising events suggests they’re at least fairly well known in the industry. And they have plans to expand their services, hoping to create a physical safe space for performers to crash and recover if they’re ever in real dire physical or mental straits—the kind of resource that might grab public attention, and within the industry, would certainly spread like wildfire.
Given the niche, edgy industry it serves, PAW is likely to remain small. But the services they provide, like a definitive shorthand guide on how to avoid regret and abuse in the porn industry (the Ten Commandments of XXX), are solid. It’s heartening to know that such a service has survived for over a decade to serve those lost amid a larger public debate. Still it would be nice if they could develop their media prowess to attract more popular attention so that all those getting involved in even the furthest and least secure fringes of the porn industry could know that such resources do exist, if ever they should need them.