Ryback vanquishes Kalisto (in the mask) in Paris on March 22. Ten days later he took a stand on wrestlers' rights. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

Sex, Violence and Unions

Workers in porn and wrestling face similar obstacles to effective labor organizing—and may need to work together.

BY Jetta Rae

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Wrestlers are inexperienced at labor advocacy but have mainstream legitimacy. Porn actors lack mainstream legitimacy but have a head start on organizing. Together, they’d make a formidable tag team.

On May 3, the wrestler Ryback, a generic strongman notable for his penchant for quoting The Secret, revealed on Tumblr that he had asked to be removed from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) television over ethical concerns about the disparity in wrestlers’ pay. “It blows my mind,” he wrote, “how in a sport which is pre-determined from a company standpoint, winners are paid so much more than the losers.”

Ryback’s speaking out has once again encouraged hope of labor action within the sport. As wrestling journalist Abbey Arthur noted in an op-ed in Top Rope Press, “It’s long past time these men and women realize that no promoter can punish them or hold them back or hold them down if they present a united front.”

In the 1980s, Jesse “ The Body” Ventura tried to unionize WWF wrestlers over issues regarding the abuse of contractor status. (In 2002, after a legal battle with the World Wildlife Fund, the company changed its name to WWE.) Wrestlers were barred from working for other companies even though they were not employees and most received no healthcare or other benefits. The WWE has a near monopoly on pro wrestling and sets the industry standards.

Ventura’s organizing effort was quashed by Vince McMahon, then-owner of the WWF, when Hulk Hogan revealed Ventura’s plans to company management. Four decades later, conditions remain the same and a culture of silence has descended over the industry—a silence broken when Ryback stepped up to say the emperor had no clothes.

Before Ryback’s post, I was not his biggest “mark” (fan, in wrestling parlance). I found his character unimaginative and his tagline, “feed me more,” vaguely Randian. But as a wrestling journalist and occasional performer myself, I’m increasingly concerned about sustainability and worker safety. Ryback’s post struck a chord and reminded me of another performer who recently broke the silence in another industry in which I work: pornography.

In November 2015, porn performer Stoya tweeted that fellow megastar and ex-boyfriend James Deen had raped her: “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safe word. I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore,” she wrote. Nine other women in the industry came forward with similar stories about Deen, and more were inspired to speak about male sexual violence in the broader industry. Deen was never charged, but the sudden surge of performers sharing their stories led to the creation of the International Entertainment Adult Union, the first porn industry union. It was granted National Labor Relations Board recognition in May.

Rape in porn and pay disparities in wrestling may seem far a field, but the two industries have much in common. As wrestlers gear up for organizing, I suggest they’d do well to “tag in” the porn industry for solidarity and insight.

Both industries use freelance status to put performers through grueling schedules and scenes while evading responsibility for their safety and health- care. Porn producers and wrestling promoters profit from performers’ ability to care for and condition their bodies—their most precious asset—but fail to provide the resources or protections to preserve those bodies.

Most wrestlers, even those who work for the WWE, don’t receive healthcare. Abscond with the steel chairs and the top rope and you’re still left with people at peak human condition pretend-hitting each other hard enough to suspend disbelief, even if only for the duration of a belly-to-back suplex. Addiction to painkillers and steroids (both used in the healing of work-related injuries) is widespread.

Each of these habits can be fatal: opioids most commonly through over-dose and steroids through heart disease. Male wrestlers ages 45 to 54 have a mortality rate 2.9 times that of men in the wider U.S. population. In 2011, The Wrestling Observer published a report comparing the lifespans of wrestlers to those of other athletes. Fourteen of the 51 performers from WrestleMania VII (1991) had died—nine from drug overdose or heart attacks—whereas the starting lineup of that year’s Super Bowl were all alive, and only two of the 44 boxers to hold a major world championship in 1991 (WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO) were dead.

Similarly, porn producers and companies use freelancer status to overlook on-set abuse, underpay talent and coerce performers to take drugs (such as injectables to help maintain erections) to ensure completion of a scene. Porn performers do not receive healthcare from studios and are often responsible for paying for their requisite STI tests.

And thanks to the blurring between reality and script, management in both of these industries also have outsize control of their performers’ next-most- valuable asset: their public personas.

In pro wrestling, with outcomes scripted and predetermined, a wrestler’s skill and value are largely dependent on how a “match” is staged. Despite this, the “winners” are paid more. Should a wrestler leave or be let go from the WWE, their ability to draw work on the independent circuit relies on those fabricated win-loss ratios. Lose enough and you are pigeonholed as a loser, or “jobber,” for the rest of your career. If promoters want to undermine a wrestler’s career, they can saddle the wrestler with embarrassing gimmicks, book the wrestler to repeatedly lose in prominent matches and, in the WWE’s case, confine the wrestler to non-televised matches.

Imagine, if you will, that Sean Bean (Ned Stark in Game of Thrones) is auditioning for a movie role, and the producer tells him, “Sean, thanks for showing up. Unfortunately, since you were killed on Game of Thrones, I don’t think our viewers will find you believable.” This is an occupational consideration in wrestling, where the need to protect their perceived skill leads many wrestlers, most notably union-busting Hulk Hogan, to avoid (at all cost) scenarios where they “lose clean” (lose a match without outside interference or cheating).

This control not only gives management the upper hand, but encourages infighting among workers Wrestlers can sabotage each other via “no-selling” (acting unfazed by an opponent’s move and making them appear weak), refusing to lose a match when told to, or “stretching” (purposely trying to hurt or even injure an opponent, often at the behest of a displeased promoter or as a hazing technique).

Porn, too, has baked-in hierarchies that put newer—or more marginalized—performers at the mercy of stars. To rise in the industry, you’re as good as who you’ve worked with. That lets alleged abusers such as James Deen set an unwritten industry standard that acquiescence is the cost of admission to porn’s higher echelons.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power. Engaging with societal attitudes and prejudices toward certain types of bodies is inescapable as sex workers under capitalism. As a trans woman who has worked in both wrestling and porn, I can attest to knowing otherwise “progressive” porn performers who won’t work with trans women for fear of disgusting friends and family or for fear of turning off loyal fans or producers who would offer them future work. These discriminatory dynamics not only validate societal prejudices, but pose tangible barriers to effective unionizing: How can you be expected to stand together when you can’t be seen together?

As Jesse Ventura learned back in the 1980s, an industry that runs on independent contractors makes a potential competitor of any peer an organizer might confide in. You could, as porn stars like Randy Spears have, turn to anti-porn groups like Fight the New Drug to tell your story, but this comes at the price of participating in the stigmatization of your own livelihood.

Both the porn and wrestling industries lean on society’s preconceptions of their business—degrading and gross or meat-headed and dangerous—to ensure little public concern about the rights and fates of the performers.

Still, despite facing greater stigma, sex workers have made more advances in labor advocacy than muscled men who hit each other for a living. This is why it’s important to connect Ryback’s Tumblr post to Stoya’s tweets about James Deen: When you work in an industry that has denied you recourse for exploitation, you have to make a scene to get shit done. Stoya’s callout of James Deen not only emboldened her peers but also prompted Kink.com, a San Francisco-based BDSM porn studio, to overhaul its consent policy.

The International Entertainment Adult Union (IEAU) is still getting off the ground and has yet to establish locals. But one of its first acts was to write internal disciplinary procedures to prevent performer-on-performer abuse and sex with people under 18. The union is also pushing for unemployment insurance, which would safeguard performers from being coerced by financial necessity to work for producers who won’t abide by safety measures. Basic Labor 101 stuff.

The IEAU is run largely by retired performers, however, which raises concerns around how well it can represent the active workforce. Its president, Sean Michael, announced in late May that he will be pushing for a minimum age of 21 for performers. This excludes workers between 18 and 20 who make up a large portion of the industry—teen/barely legal being a consistently popular subgenre—and who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Many wrestlers likewise remain silent about the exploitative nature of their business. It’s likely that they not only fear having their livelihoods threatened, but also fear being seen as a victim. Wrestlers are supposed to be strong, almost superhuman, and male wrestlers are supposed to be hypermasculine. We’re more comfortable seeing a man kicked in the head until unconscious than hearing him admit he has been taken advantage of, harmed or victimized by his corporate employer.

Yet as the sex industry has shown us, strength comes in identifying what threatens you, encouraging others to do the same and standing together to push back against it. And my fellow workers and I are doing this without any of the legitimacy afforded wrestling. A wrestler, after all, became the governor of Minnesota; no porn star ever has.

The WWE’s stock has fluctuated wildly of late, but in 2014, it was estimated to be worth $1.25 billion. In the United States, porn is a $10 billion to $12 billion industry. These are industries that reap a lot of capital from the sweat—and other bodily fluids—of independent contractors. With aggressive (and open-minded) outreach from the labor movement, these workers could unite, push back against exploitation and, frankly, be a huge boost for the visibility of unions in the United States.

But for this movement to grow, workers must speak up against injustice with confidence in their own solidarity and knowing that they will be taken seriously by the media and the labor movement. To that end, wrestlers and porn performers would do well to turn to each other as kindred workers—and perhaps even start a new “extreme entertainers” union. There is strength in numbers, both in dispelling stigma and in lobbying against abuse of contractor status and the withholding of healthcare benefits.

Wrestlers are inexperienced at labor advocacy but have mainstream legitimacy. Porn actors lack mainstream legitimacy but have a head start on organizing. Together, they’d make a formidable tag team. 

Jetta Rae is a writer and editor based in Oakland. She delights in bringing intersectional politics into pro wrestling, pinball, kaiju films and other seemingly frivolous pursuits.

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