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Adult star Conner Habib writes on www.afterelton.com – Whenever a porn star – especially a gay porn star – commits suicide, theories show up, and people act very, very certain about them.
Arpad Miklos [pictured], who was as much as a porn “star” as anyone can be in a time when we are hyper-saturated with porn, killed himself on February 3rd, 2013, at the age of 45.
As usual, many people felt sure they knew why he committed suicide, without much evidence. It was drugs, it was studios not treating him well, it was the feeling of dehumanization, it was the vague but all encompassing “porn industry” that did it, it was the feeling of being hollow, it was it was his loss of validation after being a star for so long.
I can’t claim any special knowledge about his death, I didn’t know him very well. We met in passing on a set; he’d just finished a scene, and I was about to start mine. He was huge and handsome; I’m not saying anything new. If you met him, you were impressed by his smile and his body and his presence. Looking at him almost made you feel a sense of unbalance in the world, like his handsomeness and flawless physique were proof of some deep inequality between people. But then you’d forget that feeling and be drawn back into the intense attraction.
He gave me a kiss and his phone number and asked me if I’d like to spend time with him later that night. My scene ran over schedule, and I was exhausted, so I told him I couldn’t meet. We communicated a few more times over the years by text and phone, and that was that. I mention all of this to say: I don’t know his motivations or who he “really” was. We kept passing through each other’s lives without ever truly meeting.
But others who knew him even less than me flooded twitter, wrote articles, posted to facebook about what had happened. The theories appeared as soon as the news did. It was immediate, like flies to a corpse. Theories arrived before grief, before honor and love and the experience of loss. When a gay porn star dies, instead of an outpouring of grief, we usually witness a buzzing.
All of this is to say that not even death can trump many people’s confused and hostile attitudes towards porn and porn performers. That is how deeply injured we are as a society when it comes to sex, sexuality, and love.
It’s natural to turn events like suicide into cultural concerns.
Tragedies are supposed to pose questions to us – the feelings of discomfort that sadness brings can create meaningful action. But these actions are always most effective when we don’t bypass grief and compassion to get to them.
Unfortunately, the people that make up the largest group involved in porn – the viewers and consumers – may not understand what it’s like to be a performer or to work for a studio. The porn industry remains obscured by unexamined attitudes towards sex. So compassion isn’t always available.
There’s a general confusion for outsiders about performer motivations for making porn, how much money they make, what happens during a shoot, what health and safety precautions are in place, how a scene is organized, what it feels like to be a crew member and more.
The result is that a monolithic image of “gay porn star” and the “gay porn industry” is formed. But unlike ideas of other industries – banking or agriculture, say – people’s perceptions are colored by a broader societal confusion: a difficulty in thinking and communicating clearly when it comes to sex and desire.
This confusion is generated by many factors, most importantly by social and cultural institutions that have historically leveraged sex as a way to control people (I address some of those forces here, and will write more about them in the future).
Because these forces create pressure and guilt around sex, when someone like Miklos, who had sex publicly, kills himself, people tend to think he was sad because of his public sex life. They don’t focus on the fact that he was trained as a chemist nor do they ask what his relationships were like or if he was generally happy. Instead, a knee-jerk reaction links his sadness with porn.
People want to know: How was porn involved in this death?
This isn’t a totally unfair question, but when left unrefined, it’s not a good one; it’s misguided at best, damaging at its worst. Aside from not taking all the other factors of Miklos’s death into account, it’s misguided because it’s not nearly a deep enough or complete enough question. It focuses too much on the performer as victim and not enough on sex in society, nor how the porn viewer receives porn and thinks about porn performers, or how sex is legislated, or what our unquestioned assumptions about the “porn industry” are.
The porn performer is, in general, not a victim. This image of the performer as starting porn because of bad circumstance or compulsion is largely a lie (perpetuated, in part, by confused critics of porn). Part of this false image comes from the idea that porn performers just “fall into” porn or that they’re “discovered” by unscrupulous studio moguls with big, villainous mustaches.
But the majority of would-be porn performers now approach studios, not vice versa. They’re seeking porn work for different reasons. Some of those reasons are aligned with the performer’s heart and integrity, others are not, but almost none of the reasons merit the label “victim,” at least not for deciding to be in porn.
The result is thousands of healthy, thoughtful, happy porn performers in gay and straight porn that haven’t killed themselves. And their ways of enacting being a porn performer are very different. There are performers that make one movie to try it out. There are porn stars who make a career out of it like Miklos did, appearing for years in different movies by different studios.
There are performers who shoot scenes with their boyfriends and post them to XTube; there are performers who wish they could make more. There are people who long to be in the porn industry but can’t break into it, or are too afraid to start.
Many (though not all) have other jobs: Along with porn stars who are also escorts and personal trainers, I know gay porn stars who are lawyers, farmers, doctors, meteorologists, and artists. Some don’t have much overhead at all because they live with their parents, who know what they do and are proud of their children.
While there may be some vast archetype that encompasses all porn stars, there’s no such thing as a typical “gay porn star.” We’re all different.
So sadness and mental health problems are not an industry epidemic – that perception is inaccurate, as is the notion that porn stars don’t have any other skills or feel compelled to do porn out of a lack of options. Such statements simply aren’t true.
Of course, some performers do have mental health problems. Some are suicidal, some are drug addicts. The same is true for lawyers, farmers, doctors, etc. who are not porn stars.
If we strip misconceptions away, we still have a question of porn and mental health before us. But it appears in in a refined version, a version that makes sense. We can ask ourselves, what are the specific pressures of being in gay porn? How can we make those pressures less of a burden?
None of the pressures that face porn stars are exclusive to porn – many of them face mainstream actors and athletes, for example. One of the main problems is the constant inflation and collapse of a performer’s ego.
Once, after shooting a scene for a studio I hadn’t worked with before, one of the staff enthusiastically invited me to the “family.” He told me how great I’d done and how excited he was to work with me again. I was in a towel, exhausted, and happy to hear the news. We were interrupted by a phone call. He answered and entered into an urgent sounding discussion with a performer on the other end. The studio just couldn’t hire him, the employee said, for the rate he wanted. Then he relayed to the performer, studio by studio, how much other studios were paying. It was significantly less than I’d been paid for work that day. I felt a little sad for the other performer, but didn’t think much of it. I became friendly with everyone at the studio, and we’d talk outside of work, too.
Months later I was the performer on the receiving end of this conversation. Another staff member of the studio had warned me that I was “fat” and that I was asking for too much money. My appearance hadn’t changed since they’d last hired and praised me. If anything, I was more toned. I explained that I was only requesting the same rate they’d always paid me. He went down the same studio-by-studio list, detailing rates, saying that everyone was paying less now. But the rates he quoted were incorrect. I knew that now, because I’d worked for everyone on his list, appearing in a scene for one of them just a week ago. It was a canned speech, created to dock performers’ pay.
Why was someone who I thought was my friend lying to me? The first answer that comes to mind isn’t quite right : money. Such a simple answer doesn’t explain why we couldn’t have had an honest conversation about money, rather than one coupled with insults and constructed to intimidate me in to accepting less.
Another time, I saw a hopeful newcomer come to the set for some preliminary casting photos. A director photographed him, and gave him many encouraging words when they were done. When the aspiring performer left, the director started complaining about how fat the guy was.
“What a fucking slob,” he said in front of me and the other performers hired for the day. Everyone was quiet.
“Did you tell him he wasn’t ready?” I asked, finally.
“No, he should have known,” he said.
There’s a fear among many performers that what we hear from employers is not reflective of how they actually feel, and this fear is, at least in part, justified by stories like these. I’ve heard these complaints echoed again and again by other performers. On top of this, like many entertainment-related businesses, porn studios are extremely busy but often disorganized. Not hearing back from a studio in a timely manner after initial emails or calls creates a flashing anxiety; is it because they’re ignoring you, because they forgot, or are they simply, reasonably, busy? Until you learn how to navigate it, all this puts you in a weird split state. Are your employers your smiling and nodding friends or are they harboring thoughts about you that they’re not expressing?
Again, this isn’t a complaint confined to the porn industry – it’s a problem with many American business models, where honesty and forthrightness are not properly valued. But in porn, it’s compounded by the fact that these concerns mix into performers’ anxieties about their bodies. Every porn performer I know has at least some fear of how the public will receive our bodies or how “fat” or “skinny” or “small” we look, even though we may not be fat or skinny or small by any means (and if we are, that brings in a separate set of societal issues). This situation isn’t made any better by unscrupulous internet commenters and bloggers, who are happy to leave the cruelest comments they can think of under photos of our naked bodies.