Sex, Violence and Unions

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

Jetta Rae

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)

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.”

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.

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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