Stella Maxwell
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Porn Panic!

Porn Panic!

It’s a rainy Monday and I am crouched in the corner of Jet Set Men’s modest one-room studio in North Hollywood, Calif. I’m careful not to make a sound because Kyle, one of the two models in this scene, has been trying, and failing, to climax for 20 minutes. Kyle stares at a portable DVD player -- concealed offstage -- for inspiration.

The camera is on standby. Kyle’s costar, Tyler Saint, gently caresses Kyle’s forehead and whispers inaudible words of encouragement -- in stark contrast to the last 45 minutes, during which Tyler’s demeanor was more maniacally commanding.

“How about a different lube?” suggests director John Tegan. Kyle politely refuses. Tegan leans over to me and whispers, “Once I had a guy take four hours.” I sink back into the couch, thinking that if we’re going to be here for another three hours, I may need a sandwich.

Kyle motions that he is nearly ready to resume filming, reassuming his previous position on a stack of tires. Tyler seamlessly slips back into character as the angry rapist, and Tegan calls out “action.” Moments later the scene has wrapped. I’m more relieved than Kyle.

I compliment Ross Cannon, the cameraman, on expertly maneuvering the high-definition camera in one hand while operating a plastic dome light in the other. He smiles proudly. “Oh, that’s the C light. Without it, you miss all the good stuff. It’s normally much bigger and heavier, but you need to hire another guy to work it. I found this one at a church bazaar -- works great.”

Chris Steele, head of production for Jet Set Men, explains, “We’ve had to adapt in order to continue shooting high production value on a budget that can still turn a profit. Everybody on the crew has learned to adjust. If we don’t, we’re sure to go broke.”

Steele and his Jet Set Men aren’t alone. There are very few businesses in the world that aren’t performing somersaults in an effort to survive today’s economic tumult. But Jet Set and others in the adult industry are facing a double whammy: the worst recession in decades coupled with nothing less than a tectonic shift in the way people are consuming their products. Much as Napster did to the record industry 10 years ago, websites like XTube are shaking traditional porn businesses to their core. And now an industry that is perhaps best known for going for broke could go, well, broke.

In January, Larry Flynt asked Congress for a $5 billion bailout to help “rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America.” But it’s unrealistic to expect that the government will rush to save porn companies in the same way it’s done for the auto and financial industries -- after all, pornography is something that is seldom spoken of in polite society, something that’s hidden in a closet or under the bed. But it’s equally unrealistic to expect that the failure of the gay porn industry -- a business model that has employed so many, entertained so many more, and donated millions of dollars to gay rights and HIV organizations -- won’t change life as we know it.

Recession-Proof?If there’s one thing that’s always comforted people in the porn biz, it’s that, good times or bad, sin sells. Americans, they say, have traditionally been more willing to cut back their spending on just about anything -- other than cigarettes, alcohol, and pornography. Phil Harvey, the 71-year-old cofounder of Adam & Eve, one the largest erotica retail companies in the world, dusted off this conventional wisdom recently in an address to the annual XBiz State of the Industry Conference in Woodland Hills, Calif. “As far as I can tell,” he said, “over a period of some 35 years, we’re recession-proof…. Our sales, while not booming, don’t appear to have been impacted by the downturn in the economy at all.”

But Harvey’s words did little to calm the nerves of some of the giants in the gay porn industry. “The recession is very noticeable and is cutting into sales,” says Chi Chi LaRue, drag queen, porn director, and owner of Channel 1 Releasing. “Anybody who says it’s not is either not telling the truth or is not smart enough to see it.” Adds Michael Lucas, director, performer, and CEO of Lucas Entertainment: “I don’t know what Mr. Harvey is smoking. People in the adult world often like to flex their muscles and speak with wishful thinking, even when it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Depending on whom you talk to, DVD sales are down by between 25% and 45%. Model fees have been cut by about 20%. Several webmasters report that February was the worst month for new memberships -- ever. And the credit crunch has made it more difficult than ever to retain those Web-based customers. “Declined credit cards on recurring billings have increased from one or two per week to seven to 10 per day,” says Alex Sulaco, owner of ManifestMen.com. Ten declined cards a day at a $30 membership level comes out to nearly $10,000 a month in losses.

Midsize studio PZP Productions announced in February that it was suspending production for the rest of the year. “The recession is strangling us,” explains owner Peter Z. Pan. “A lot of little companies are going out of business. I’m just barely hanging on. If I don’t produce any new content [now], and if the economy begins to turn around in a few months, I think I can survive. And that’s because I have very little overhead. Other small companies will just disappear.”

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