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Dr. Heather Berg on her research and latest book, “Porn Work”

Updated: Apr 25

Blog Post Written By: Nicholas Journeyman

 

An Assistant Professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Heather Berg is quickly becoming the go-to expert on the intersection of sex work, gender, and labor studies. Her most recent project is Porn Work: Sex, labor, and Late Capitalism, a book which rejects the idea that sex work somehow differs from straight work by exploring porn from a labor perspective. Wanting to learn more about Berg’s research and Porn Work, I was able to interview her for Sex Work CEO.


You can learn more about Dr. Berg by checking out her homepage and following her on Twitter at @DrHeatherBerg.

Nicholas Journeyman: Your research is fascinating. When did you know you wanted to focus on pornography and other forms of sex work?


Dr. Heather Berg: I went to graduate school already passionate about sex worker politics and working people’s movements more broadly. I knew I wanted to do research at the intersection of those things. Then, in 2012, early in my PhD program, porn workers were organizing against Measure B, a proposal that would have mandated condom use on set in spite of the reality that this wasn’t what most workers said they wanted. I was fascinated by the dynamics, where workers felt forced to ally with management to fight bad policy. The labor movement and civilian feminists, meanwhile, were silent. I started to talk to people and then the project took on a life of its own.


Journeyman: As a former academic, it was my experience that researching sex work and pornography in academia can be rather difficult. Did you encounter any such bottlenecks? If so, what were they?


Dr. Berg: I had a lot of support with my project in graduate school. It made a big difference that Mireille Miller-Young and Constance Penley, two of my mentors, had already done so much to make UC Santa Barbara safe for porn studies. I did encounter pushback from funders and, later, potential employers. But in this job market there are no guarantees even if you do play by the rules, so I decided to ignore it! I’ve been really lucky, and I’m glad I didn’t have to compromise the story I wanted to tell.


Journeyman: On this note, as people become more accepting of sex work as work, do you think researching pornography in higher ed will become easier?


Dr. Berg: Academic working conditions are getting worse for everyone, so I don’t think any research will get easier until academics organize on a mass scale. As administrators and donors gain more power and academic freedom erodes, people who do politicized research will be at heightened risk. But I do think that the needle is moving on ideas about sex work more broadly thanks to sex workers’ organizing, and senior porn scholars have done a lot to make it easier to do this work in the academy.


Journeyman: While conducting research for Porn Work, were there any insights or facts you came across that took you by surprise?


Dr. Berg: So many! I was surprised by the vast range of creative strategies workers use to intervene in their conditions, not because I came to the research thinking porn workers wouldn’t be smart or creative, but because I’d been trained through more traditional labor activism to look for unionizing and policy advocacy as the primary modes of struggle. I was also surprised by how mobile class positions are in the industry, with most performers moving in and out of managerial roles over time. This gives workers room to maneuver but also complicates solidarity politics.


Journeyman: In Porn Work you write, “the industry may very well be in crisis, but in the rubble, workers have found countless ways to (sometimes) make that crisis work for them.” While I know that the ‘porn industry’ is an incomplete term, why do you think it might be in a period of rubble?


Dr. Berg: First I’ll just say that I’m using crisis here in the Marxist sense—it’s inevitable under capitalism and not necessarily bad news for workers. Workers’ own interventions often help throw capital into crisis. That said, there are a lot of things that contribute to the current crisis for porn: digitization and performers’ moves to direct to consumer sales have upended what the ‘industry’ looks like. They’ve made it possible for some performers who work without management’s direct control and without giving a producer a cut. But they’ve also empowered new bosses in platforms, and so performers must navigate an ever-changing landscape of platform discrimination, shifting terms of service, and extractive fees.


In both cases workers confront a state that’s hostile to their ability to get paid for sexual labor, but the focus of that regulation has shifted from obscenity to issues like banking access.


Journeyman: OnlyFans and similar platforms had enabled performers to see themselves as entrepreneurs. Paige Jennings (the former Veronica Vain) even describes herself as a “porntrepreneur.” Beyond deploying language similar to what is found in entrepreneurial communities, do you see entrepreneurship as a way for porn to get more mainstream approval?


Dr. Berg: If the language of entrepreneurship does garner more mainstream approval in some sectors, I’m not convinced that this will lead to better policy or reduced stigma more broadly. That’s because anti-sex work ideas are rooted in misogyny, racism, and ableism, not a misunderstanding about sex workers as savvy business people.


Journeyman: In a Red May panel you took part in, you described the porn community as a “community that is against nostalgia.” In addition to many just not wanting a normal job, how else do you think this anti-nostalgia shapes the way performers approach the business side of porn?


Dr. Berg: I think you can also see this broadly in many performers’ rejection of politics that promise to return sexuality and/ or work to an ostensibly purer previous form. More concretely, it’s clear in sex workers’ tendency to be at the forefront of tech innovation. So much of what capitalized platforms have now appropriated was developed first by sex workers.


Journeyman: Much of Porn Work touches upon the threats posed by policy and law makers. Outside of SESTA and FOSTA, are there any proposals making their way through the states or Congress you are particularly worried about?


Dr. Berg: The recent assaults on sex workers’ banking access are a massive problem. One of our biggest battles right now is to make sure sex workers can get paid. Attacks on Section 230 are also very concerning, and I’m keeping an eye on the proposals in various states to further criminalize sex workers who use drugs.


Journeyman: One of the many reasons why I enjoyed Porn Work was that it challenged many of my perspectives of the moral value of labor, the importance of organizing labor and so forth. With that said, for performers and sex workers that do you read your book, what do you hope they take away from it?


Dr. Berg: I don’t think the book offers new information to sex workers—it’s totally informed by their analyses, so I don’t pretend to say things sex workers don’t already know. Mostly I hope sex workers feel seen when they read it, and feel a sense of history and connection with others who’ve struggled against state violence, stigma, and abusive employers. But some people have said that reading other performers’ ideas about organizing, exploitation, and so on helped inspire them to fight harder. That makes me so happy.


Journeyman: On this note, when people outside of the industry finish reading Porn Work, what do you hope they take away from the experience?


Dr. Berg: Civilians (non-sex workers) can learn so much from porn workers. I hope they come away with a sense of solidarity with porn workers and a commitment to listening to sex workers when they ask for allies’ support in policy battles and in mutual aid. In terms of how the book might shift how civilians see their own jobs, the best feedback I’ve heard is that it validated readers’ gut feelings about the violence of all work, and maybe even left them with a sense that we can fight for something better.


Journeyman: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?


Dr. Berg: I’m working on an intellectual history of the sex worker left. So, there are lots of connections to Porn Work, but this new project is focused on sex worker leftists’ ideas about politics. The premise is that the left has a lot to learn from sex worker theorizing on issues ranging from heterosexual life to waged labor and what to do about the state.


Remember, you can learn more about Dr. Berg by checking out her homepage and following her on Twitter at @DrHeatherBerg.

Also, follow Sex Work CEO and myself on Twitter respectively at @SexWorkCEO and @NickJourneyman.




Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.

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