The awful news of the apparent suicide of porn performer Wilfried Knight makes it seem as if there is an epidemic of premature and tragic death among porn stars. I was acquainted with all of the names that have been in the news recently and worked with several of them and -- to a man -- they were lovely people and it saddens me to learn how unhappy they must have been.
Unfortunately, this cluster of deaths has prompted another round of disapprobation directed at the culture of the gay porn industry itself. I have no insight into these individual cases, and my thoughts here are entirely subjective; I make no claim that my experience in porn mirrors that of every other performer. But in 2004/5 I worked in the business (as Gus Mattox) for several different companies and I feel I can speak with some authority.
The basic rap on porn is that it's a shadowy world that exploits the insecurities of vulnerable young men who, after they've been wrung dry of their essence and virility, are callously tossed into the dustbin from whence they emerge to a life of drugs and prostitution and an untimely, yet inevitable, demise. The idea is that it's the nature of the business itself that leads these men to dissipation and despair.
By one account, the 19 professions with the highest suicide rates include dentists, scientists and precision woodworkers. Gay porn star did not make the list. But most of us don't know heat treating equipment operators (#15) by name, so those suicides pass unremarked. And in point of fact, there have been several other deaths related to the porn industry during this same recent time period, but they were not well-known names and faces and, so, went unreported.
I have made porn movies. I have also appeared on Broadway, performed in two National Tours of Broadway shows, and composed music for feature films and television. All of the porn companies I worked for were run professionally, conscientiously and with a concern and respect for the performers in their employ equal to and in some cases exceeding -- by a wide margin -- the mainstream businesses.
Recreational drugs on a porn set are not tolerated. There is too much at stake in terms of both time and money to deal with a performer who is not at his best. Is there drug use among porn performers? Yes. As there is among airline pilots and book editors and Indian chiefs. I would argue that a porn performer who slips into a life of heavy drug use would have done so whatever his line of work.
Likewise for prostitution. The local bar rag in New York City has page after page of escort ads. Most are not porn stars. For many it's simply a temporary solution to see that the bills get paid. (Here, the author raises his hand.)
I do agree with the finger-pointers in one respect: Since becoming familiar with the porn industry I have argued -- from first-hand observation -- that porn is simply another branch of show business. No more, no less. And yes, show business is tough on people. E! True Hollywood Story wouldn't exist otherwise. So while I concur with the naysayers, I also feel it supports my contention that the gay porn business can't be held responsible for an individual's personal fate any more than, say, Diff'rent Strokes.
It grieves me terribly that these beautiful men are gone. But it does a disservice to the industry as well as to the victims themselves to lay the blame at the feet of gay porn, a field which provided me with great opportunities and experience and, yes, friendships. Particularly when one considers that the scorn heaped on the business is exceeded only by the enjoyment of its wares.