A PORNOGRAPHER BARES ALL
SAM BENJAMIN with Winston Len
American Gangbang: A Love Story
(Gallery Books, 2011)
American Gangbang: A Love Story (Gallery Books, 2011) is a wickedly funny book chronicling Sam Benjamin’s journey from Brown University, where he studied postmodern theory and media, into the world of pornography. Benjamin and Winston Len met up over coffee in the West Village recently to discuss his experience.
Winston Len (Rail): In the book, there’s a scene where your then-girlfriend Liz said she thought you were a sweet guy who stumbled into the wrong job, to which you replied, “exactly. That’s what I am.” Now that you’ve some perspective about your experience, do you still think that’s true?
Sam Benjamin: No. I think that, in the book, I was trying to make her look at me, trying to joke with her. I definitely got into porn on purpose. I mean, there was a huge element of luck in it, too, yet it played out like that. It’s always a mix. It’s actually a mix for the performers, too. For the girl to get into porn, she has to be a total mix. She’s gotta be good looking enough to do it, for one thing, so that cuts out a big portion of the population, and she has to be in the geographically correct zone. It’s not like a lot of women are planning to do porn—maybe some are—so she has to meet the right people, and then she has to decide that it fits her. So, I think it’s kind of an interesting occupation because a lot of people kind of stumble into it.
Rail: I found it interesting how you tried to intellectualize your curiosity and involvement in porn initially. You wanted to make an art form of it. Now that you’re out, is your intellectual curiosity back or did it never go away?
Benjamin: I thought there was great potential to make porn films that were way better than what was being produced, and that had narrative. When I was faced with the actual challenge, I came across a lot of problems. One was that I don’t think I had the chops as an artist to create a really good film, whether it had sex in it or not. There are also the needs of the genre. Fifty to 75 percent of the movie is going to be sex, so it’s really hard to pop a narrative in there. There are other problems, like the talent pool; they’re not really actors [laughs]. I definitely wasn’t up to the challenge, and I gave up. Now, I’m interested in porn as a genre, but I’m not waiting for the next great director to make an awesome porn movie that we can all watch for its plot. I don’t think it’ll happen.
Rail: What about the dark side in you? Now that you’re out of the industry, do you feel like you’re clean again?
Benjamin: No, I’m still a degenerate. I think a lot of people are, and are happy to be like that. But I’m more interested in doing that in a private way. At the time, I wanted to be public, you know, put the worst side of me in a public forum for some reason, to kind of figure out a way to define myself. You could say I’m less exhibitionistic—especially about my negative side. I just didn’t have a lot of good role models there, particularly sexual role models. It was just kind of like, “explore your dark side all the time!” I don’t really do that anymore.
Rail: What’s the biggest insight you came away with?
Benjamin: I definitely came out of it feeling like what you do doesn’t necessarily define you. I’m not proud of everything I did, but it gave me the chance to step away and be like, “okay, I’m the dude who steps away from the bullshit parts of me.” The porn industry is useful because it offers you opportunities—it literalizes, in a certain sense, these conflicts of aggression. It’s an avenue through which to explore things like aggression or sexism or capitalism. You’re like this player in a video game or something.
Rail: In the book, Pitts, who ran the business, was laser-focused on website traffic and subscriptions. He seemed willing to do anything to make money. In the financial crisis we saw how the subprime lenders regarded their customers as numbers as well. Do you think that kind of dehumanization is a function of the data-driven world that we live in?
Benjamin: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. You know, Pitts was a pretty ethical guy when it came down to it. I don’t know how I portrayed him in the book, but he wasn’t a bad guy to work for. Honestly, the porn industry can be pretty heartless—just like all other industries. I think what makes it stand out in relief is that you’re dealing with something that probably shouldn’t be humanized. Sex in a capitalistic context looks pretty grotesque, but it’s treated, you know—the business model is like Blockbuster.
Rail: In that context, what do you think is the relative morality of pornography versus other forms of exploitation?
Benjamin: That’s a good question. Personally I don’t find it more amoral than any other. It is voluntary. It’s a little bit shady because a lot of the people who get into that industry come from tough backgrounds—you know, family problems—and then they’re engaging in the type of behavior that—you know, it’s kind of a reiteration of the traumas that they grew up with so it’s pretty dark. However, is it amoral? I don’t think so. I don’t know. My own moral compass is pretty unpredictable. I just think it’s interesting when it sways into those areas. We live in this hypocritical atmosphere when people are willing to lie and cheat and engage in fucked-up behaviors in a private form. Pornography is interesting because it’s all of that in a public way. In that way, it’s always felt like a breath of fresh air to me—this honesty of how dark things can be.
Rail: There are large portions of the book that read like a confession. What has the feedback been from your family and former coworkers since the book was published?
Benjamin: While it’s embarrassing for my family to sit around Thanksgiving and everybody’s like, “hey good job with the book, but we’re not gonna talk about the content of it,” I think my family feels good about me succeeding in the field that I’ve been wanting to, regardless of content. Liz has mixed feelings about it. I divulged a lot and I feel bad, but I tried to write the book without her and the book sucked. Writing about our relationship was super important to me because, honestly, that’s what helped me understand that I was kind of going down the tubes as a person. I sent a copy to Pitts also and he’s been cool about it—really cool about it—and I saw Timberlake, too, all these people I haven’t talked to in like five years.
Rail: I know you’re doing a lot of visual and music performances to help promote your book. Were those ideas that you came up with before you got the book published? Or were they something that you thought of as part of the publicity of the book?
Benjamin: A little bit of both. I’ve always been interested in multimedia. When I was at Brown, I was studying video in a production way and that’s what led me to doing porn, but I was also writing and I have an interest in sound. When I was at Cal Arts, I was trying to explore sound documentary. The thing that I’m most interested in now is my lecture series called A Brief History of Porn where I take non-explicit clips from adult films over the last 50 years and use them to talk about the trajectory of the genre and how they relate to other types of film.
Rail: To quote another line from the book, “the real story is always now.” How has your life changed since the book?
Benjamin: I’m still dedicated to the same kind of ideals that led me to the porn industry, like exploration. I am getting older. I’m 35 now, so some of my behavior is more appropriate for a 21-year-old boy than it is for a 35-year-old man-boy, but I’m still on the same trip. I would love to do more participatory journalism or first-person stuff. I’d like to write another memoir where I put myself in an intense situation, something anthropological, akin to the porn industry but definitely not the porn industry.
WINSTON LEN's last publication in the Brooklyn Rail was October 2011, "Wandering Through Life's Wilderness."