Porn Profits: Corporate America's Secret

A spokesman for AOL Time Warner, Mark Harrad, said that Time Warner Cable "has traditionally offered what they called … more soft-core programming." Also, he said, "in a couple of divisions they have increased the programming to the next step up, if you will, which I think some people would understandably call hard-core." The decision to offer the harder material was driven by consumers, Harrad said.

Harrad emphasized that adult programs are available "only to customers who want them and are willing to pay extra for them."

One major hotel chain, Omni, stopped showing adult movies in its owned-and-operated hotels in 1999, citing its commitment to "family values." It encourages its franchisees to do the same. The company estimated it lost $1 million in annual revenue.

The Reality of ‘Pornoland’

At conventions and other public events, the adult industry tends to portray itself as a happy family promoting shame-free sexual enjoyment. But privately, many performers say the reality is very different.

"There's some unwritten law or agenda out here in Pornoland that … if we tell the truth about what's really going on here, the fan will get turned off," said Ona Zee, a former performer who is now an advocate for reform.

While a hit movie can bring in as much as $1 million — adult movies have a very long shelf life, and can keep selling for years after their initial release — most performers see little of the profits. They are seldom paid residuals, and often get only a flat fee. For most new performers, the fees vary from $350 to $1,000 for a conventional sex scene to a few thousand dollars for more extreme sex.

Few of the companies provide health insurance, and most performers find they must work without condoms if they want to keep getting jobs. "The fans don't like to see condoms," said performer Belladonna, reflecting a belief that is widely held in the industry. Like many other performers, Belladonna started in the business when she was 18, the legal minimum.

"The person that packs the porn in a box in the warehouse … is entitled to hepatitis B vaccines … But someone that's having unprotected anal sex, hmm. There is no standard," said Sharon Mitchell, a veteran performer who now heads a clinic for sex workers, the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation.

According to Koop, many producers and distributors argue that performers are independent contractors, not their employees, so they don't have any responsibility for them. But Koop calls that a "copout."

"These youngsters are not unionized, they don't know how to do anything for themselves, and they're really stuck," he said.

Mitchell believes that the producers have an obligation to care for the performers in their films. "This is not a moral issue. It's an issue about disease, about HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, young men and women entering an issue that they often don't know enough about."

Bill Margold, a veteran porn star who now counsels young people entering the business, says 18-year-olds are too young to make the potentially life-altering decision to go into porn.

"I get 18-, 19-year-old girls who just don't understand that once you do this, you are sociologically damned forever," he said.

Koop believes that to prompt reform, Congress should hold hearings on regulating the industry and "subpoena some of the people who run these shows."

If nothing is done, "it'll just get worse," he said, adding, "The appetite for pornography seems to be insatiable."

This story originally aired on January 28, 2003, and was updated for re-broadcast.

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