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Naked ambition

Tracy Quan is the author of the novel "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl."

Just when you thought it was getting easier to be a porn star, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ collection of portraits, “XXX,” reminds us that California’s porn industry is as competitive as it is crowded. Of the 30-odd stars chosen for this collection, a few have become household names. But how many aspiring porn actors are still journeyman performers?

These X-rated celebrities -- all appearing both naked and clothed -- display a courage that some of the accompanying essayists lack. “XXX” resembles a certain kind of cocktail party, with secular moralists like Faye Wattleton and Salman Rushdie perched in one corner of the room, passing judgment on the working porn actors gathered in the center. When Rushdie refers to an absent guest, prostitution, as "[p]ornography’s ugly sister,” just remember that a few sour malcontents can make a party more interesting. Good-natured voyeurs Lou Reed and Richard Johnson hang out in the vestibule, riffing on the way they live today, coexisting with so many virtual and varied exhibitionists. Poetic prose, anguished confession and industry dish round out the chatter.

Francine Du Plessix Gray’s observations about the Marquis de Sade are edifying: Eighteenth century nobles who secretly wrote pornography had something in common with ordinary people -- like Jenna Massoli, aka Jenna Jameson -- who seek worldwide fame through their porn films. Like many of today’s sex workers, these well-born pornographers were struggling financially.

Greenfield-Sanders’ compelling portraits give his subjects the last word, but some of the images -- of fondly recalled stars no longer in their pornographic prime -- are disturbing. Call me old-fashioned, but I wonder if we’re taking the demystification of porn too far. Do erotic civilians need to be reassured that porn stars can fade and lose their distinctive firmness? Or might we all be better off if we can learn to live with the envy that younger porn stars generate?

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Jenna Jameson, Greenfield-Sanders’ cover girl, has described the porn world as “sheltered.” This may sound odd but it comes as no surprise to sex workers. While she’s a down-to-earth spokeswoman for her industry, some of her advice to civilians is high-handed -- like telling women to choose between “The Rules” and her 10 commandments of oral sex. (“Thou Shalt Make Eye Contact.”) A better strategy might be to combine good technique with playing hard to get. But Jameson doesn’t favor the middle path. Her catalog of extreme war stories suggests that she’s daring people to call her “white trash.” Conventional forms of self-improvement will never catch on with some people, a fact that troubles many feminists, and this porn diva wants to remind them of it.

In contrast to Jameson and Greenfield-Sanders, Stefano De Luigi’s “Pornoland” treats the California porn scene not as the center of a universe but as one destination among many. De Luigi visits porn sets in Tokyo, Milan, Budapest, Berlin, Dortmund, Prague and Los Angeles. These aren’t personality-driven portraits, they’re images from the porn-making landscape.

The international nature of the sex industry has become a main focus of sexual prohibitionists. But the porn industry can be xenophobic, too, as we saw this year when a U.S. actor tested positive for HIV. Allegations that he had picked it up while working in Brazil were splashed around the media. Sex trade workers aren’t immune to insidious notions about foreigners contaminating the homeland.

De Luigi’s photography is a graceful response to such phobias. He travels from the Far East to Near West and points us toward a global understanding of porn and the human condition. The desire to make a living, to be an erotic player and leave behind a record of your virility is universal. This isn’t simply the result of American capitalism, European decadence, Asian mores or Third World poverty.

In his essay accompanying the photographs, Martin Amis discusses the industry’s fascination with body fluids, a phenomenon he witnessed during his tour of California. While a squeamish reader might skip these descriptions, what’s remarkable is the infantile quality of some of the acts. What lies beneath the parental urge to shield children from adult material? Most parents don’t want children to find out how infantile adult sexuality can be, and with good reason. When children know too much about the childish obsessions of adults, they truly lose their innocence and adults can lose their authority.

Amis argues that a porn star is a contemporary gladiator, not quite a prostitute. There’s a temptation to snicker at highbrow writers who over-interpret sex work, but the gladiator image echoed in my head for days. His warning, which paraphrases Falstaff -- “banish porno, and you banish all the world” -- hits us where we live, whether we are spectators or performers, civilians or divas. *


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