It’s been hard because a lot of people are scared to unionize

They think it's going to ruin their career

Hello. A lot of ground to cover in today’s Hell World which is about saying goodbye to a beloved and kindhearted young man, saying fuck you to a terrible and blackhearted young man, and later on talking to organizers of an adult performers guild about the importance of unionizing and not having sex with Donald Trump. (Trigger warning for sexual assault on that part).

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“Growing up as a Tibetan, we always worshipped the earth, the ocean,” Tenzin Samdo told me. “Humans have a voice and we can scream out, animals can’t.” I was interviewing him about his endangered species-themed cocktail list at his bar ArtScience Culture Lab & Café in Cambridge earlier this summer, marveling at his ingenuity. Anyone who’s spent any time in the Boston restaurant world will know about his creativity and innovation behind the bar not to mention his downright decency, not always a given in this or any profession. Boston Magazine recently named him Bartender of the Year in 2018 among many other career accolades. Boston Common magazine featured one of his cocktails on the cover in July.

The dawn of the Trump administration prompted Samdo to start to think about ways, both big and small, to push back as I wrote at the time. Having grown up a Tibetan refugee in northern India, protesting—“screaming on the streets for human rights in Tibet” as he put it—marching on the White House and working for the cause of displaced people were already things he was accustomed to. But the administration’s disregard for the environment especially bothered him. “When they made it ok again to hunt elephants for trophies, it really pissed me off,” he said. “I’m a bartender—making drinks is what I do for a living, why not send a message through it?”

The results of his tinkering were the type of elaborate highly staged concoctions that can be easy to joke about — vapor cocktails and shit like that — but with Samdo you never got the sense it was a gimmick. It was an art form to him, it just so happened to be one that you could pour down your face.

“By consuming the cocktail, you’re destroying the art, but you’re left with the memory,” he’s said. “It’s a reminder that life isn’t permanent, but it can be beautiful.”

In October Tenzin shared a personal message to his Facebook page, the last he’s posted since then. He’d been suffering from serious stomach pain for a long time but he kept putting off getting it looked at.

“I kept pushing back saying I will go tomorrow, and the next day the same thing I said the day before I’ll go tomorrow. Last Tuesday the pain was unbearable, it kept me up all night and I checked myself in ER and they kept me here since to undergo every test they’ve possible to figure out exactly what is going on. I have yet to know the full result but as far as i know now is that they have found a big tumor in my liver. I had biopsy done yesterday which I have to wait a couple of days for the result. With this said, I wanted to ask all of you for prayers and lesson I’ve learned not to wait until the last minute. If your instinct tells you something is wrong please go check up right away. Alcohol is one of the major factor to most of the liver problems but I’ve been sober for a very long time. In my case it is because of the genetic liver conditions. I will be undergoing more treatments and surgeries in coming days. If that creates any inconvenience I am going to apologize now. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by many strong supports. They’ve already been very amazing this week already and I’m very grateful. Thank you.”

Later this month the bar will be hosting a celebration of his life and legacy. He’s still with us but a GoFundMe recently set up to raise money to support his eight year old son seems to suggest things have taken a turn for the worse. Please consider donating what you can.

There are good people in the world and there are bad people in the world and here’s some of the latter. Yesterday two separate marches happened to coincide in Washington D.C., the Indigenous Peoples March and the March for Life, the second of which you have probably heard about through the amazingly stupid subplot of Ben Shapiro pontificating on the ethics of aborting baby Hitler in between reading podcast ads for toothbrushes live on stage.

At one point a gang of MAGA students from various Catholic high schools, likely there on field trips for the patriarchy march, swarmed a group of Native Americans and the results went about like you would expect. Please join me in thinking very normal and not at all violent thoughts about what should happen to these kids in the videos from these tweets below.

I could think of a few more infuriating things if I had to but a group of future Notre Dame fans in MAGA hats chanting build the wall at indigenous people in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial is very high on the list. Some of the students appear to be wearing shirts from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky and I don’t know anything about that school but here’s what they say about their mission on their website:

We foster an environment of educational excellence and equip young men with a set of spiritual and moral values to become strong Christian leaders and models of our Catholic faith. We cultivate self-confidence and integrity to energize students to meet the demands of higher education, personal vocations and the challenges of life. We encourage respect for others and service to the community. Our goal is that our students will be inspired to continuously grow in their Catholic faith, strive for physical and mental well-being, and embrace academic and personal excellence.

Not far from there around the same time on Friday a group of furloughed government employees lined up around the block to be able to eat.

“I was traumatized for five days after watching that video,” Alana Evans told me this week. “I cried for her repeatedly. I’ve never even cried from some of my own scenes.”

The veteran adult actress was recounting a viewing of footage in which her friend and fellow performer Nikki Benz alleges she was sexually assaulted and violated on the set of a 2016 shoot with the popular industry imprint Brazzers.

“She was actually brutalized on the Brazzers set. I use those words with complete faith behind them because I’ve seen the footage. She walked away from that set saying she felt she had been raped. A lot of people didn’t understand how a porn star can make those kinds of claims.”

Evans had been brought in to review the scene with others in the industry in her capacity as a union leader after Benz filed a lawsuit against Brazzers, its owner MindGeek, and the performers in question Tony T. and Ramon Nomar.

Police later declined to press charges.

Jezebel reported on the details of the suit in April:

The suit adds, “[Tony T.] would film with one hand and choke Benz with the other hand. Nomar stomped on Benz’s head. Between Tony T. and Nomar, Benz was hit, slapped choked and thrown on the ground and against the wall.” It further alleges that this made Benz bleed and that “water was poured on the walls and floor to cover up her blood.” It also alleges that “while Benz was gagged with her underwear,” water was “poured down her throat, causing Benz to choke.”

Making matters worse, in an interview after the scene, Benz was asked, as is standard in the industry, whether she was ok and if she would perform such a scene again. She alleges she said no, and was instructed that was not an acceptable answer if she wanted to get paid, so she relented and said yes.

For their part both Tony T., who filed a defamation suit in response, and Nomar have denied any wrongdoing.

Coming away from the viewing, Evans and her fellow members of the the Adult Performers Actors Guild set about compiling a comprehensive consent list for performers to use before each shoot, outlining the things they are willing to do on camera or not, which they named the Benz List. As they explain:

The Benz List was created as a response and reaction to adult performer Nikki Benz and her shoot with Director Tony T. Officers of the union were included in a viewing of the footage put on by Tony T and his lawyer, Karen Tynan. As we watched the brutal acts being committed against Miss Benz, we knew at that moment it was time to address the true issues of consent.  It is the opinion of the viewing officers, that what happened to Miss Benz was completely unacceptable, brutal, and should never happen to a performer again! Performers have different levels of tolerance. What is sexy and erotic to some, may not be to others. It was made clear that acts performed against Miss Benz were not discussed prior to filming, and had there been a consent list involved, this horrible incident could have been avoided.

I spoke with Evans, the president of the union who you may also remember from passing up the opportunity to join Stormy Daniels and the president in a three way, and Kelly Pierce, the secretary and treasurer, also a performer, about their efforts to bring more people into the fold, and why it is important for sex workers in their industry to unionize.

What was the impetus to start the union?

PIERCE: The big thing for me was that in the entertainment industry — basketball, baseball, all these other entertainment types, actors — we make the least money of all. When I started in porn you used to make a lot more money. But scenes have gone from like… My last big payment was $3,000 for a scene, and that was 2012. I haven’t done a scene since. Nowadays they only give you $800 for a hardcore scene. We’re fighting for better pay. We’re a billion dollar industry but the workers don’t see that money. We have to pay for our own testing. A lot of times you pay for your own costumes. It’s a tax right off, but at the same time you’re not really making ends meet. The industry used to have big stars, now you don’t have the Jenna Jamesons or Jesse Janes. I don’t think the industry wants that anymore, they like the fact they can get a girl that will make little money. They like being in control.

Now you can have a clip site and camming so girls can really go independent, so the producers don’t have as much power. That’s a great thing for performers, but at the same time they aren’t speaking up and asking for more money.  We’re trying to unionize to get better pay and benefits. In California the Supreme Court just said we should be recognized as employees like how strippers have been recognized as employees.  Technically they’re supposed to be paying for our testing. Some companies do and some don’t.

How often are you tested and and how expensive is it?

PIERCE: Every fourteen days. It used to be thirty.  It can be expensive, it’s usually around $199.

And you have to present the test before a shoot?

PIERCE: Oh for sure.  A lot of time girls will want you to test the day prior, or two days prior so it’s really up to date. You’re really paying out of pocket three to four times. Which is how they should be testing. We’re trying to make it where they at least test for HIV every time they shoot a scene. Anything can happen within that two week period. A lot of these girls are sex workers too, escorts, and they’re seeing john after john as well as performing on set.

I’m a transsexual so in our industry we test and we mostly use condoms. We rarely do condomless scenes. If we do it’s a special scene and you get paid more. Usually it’s a treat. In the gay industry there’s less adherence to testing…

What we’re shooting for is for everyone to adopt the same testing, adopt the same protocols, and to come together as one industry, and not the straight industry over here, the trans industry over there… We don’t want to point fingers saying you’re dirtier than me. The gay industry sees it as discrimination…For us, we don’t want to kick them out. We just want them to be honest so performers can say I’ll perform with an HIV+ performer because I’m on PrEP. As long as they have a choice.

Did a lot of this have to do with the situation with August Ames’ death?

PIERCE: Yeah it was so so sad. A lot of us on the union board, Ruby, Alana and I, we were all coming to her defense that day. I’m part of the LGBT community and I got a lot of hate and called a traitor. To me you should be able to choose who you sleep with no matter if they’re gay or straight or whatever. I think she deserved consent as much as anybody else. What’s funny to me is a lot of the trans or gay performers that were going after her I bet they wouldn’t sleep with a woman. They were calling it discrimination and all this other stuff. It’s really about safety. In the gay industry they can keep on working. If they’re HIV+ It really doesn’t matter they can keep working for certain studios. If you’re HIV+ in the straight or trans industry your career is over no one will hire you.

When did you start organizing?

EVANS: The mother union – the tier above us, was originally founded in December of 2015. From there they started creating chapters, and now we handle all of the adult performers, web cam models, phone girls and stuff like that. Our group started to form in February of 2016  There’s a process you go through, you have to pull in members and elect officers. I was elected originally to vice president. We were sworn in and federally approved in July of 2016.  The larger group is International Entertainment Adult Union, so they’re basically they’re like infrastructure in the sense that all of our members are members of theirs, but they don’t handle any of the issues other than paperwork, financing, and things like that.

You don’t have to belong to the union right?

EVANS: No. Not to sound cliché or like a movie but in the reality when you think about a group organizing and starting a union from the ground up there are a lot hurdles to get over and battles to fight just to be accepted and be recognized. I’m the kind of leader where I believe you help them first and they will come. We absolutely do not just provide the services that we offer to our members only. The majority of people who are members now is because we’ve helped them in the first place.

What sorts of things do you mean?

EVANS: When I say help I mean anything from talking to a girl, helping her get started with the right footing, to, and this is where it goes really extreme, we’ll have performers come to us both male and female when they’ve been done wrong on a set, physically violated, or their consent has been violated. We come right in with our lawyers and start negotiating on their behalf . When they want us to that is. But some are afraid if they come to us they might get backlash.  We’re private about who our members are. If an employer finds out you’re with the union they might not hire you. Those are the circumstance we’re dealing with right out of the gate.

Is it hard to get people involved?

PIERCE: It’s been hard because a lot of people are scared to unionize. They think it will make the directors mad so they’re scared of being blackballed and think that they’re going to ruin their career. It’s been a long time but people are coming around and talking about getting together. Big time porn stars are starting to join clip sites where they can make their own content. They’re realizing they can be more independent and they don’t need to work every day for so and so company. They realize they can just do this on their own.

Then the #metoo movement happened and now you have girls coming to us saying this is what happened to me on set. It’s not ok.

I feel like a lot of girls, the directors will say I’ll pay you an extra hundred to do this or that. A lot of them are just trying to pay their bills. They live in California! A lot of girls sleep on their agents’ couches. I know one person where they all live in one guy’s apartment, this tiny little two bedroom apartment, and four or five girls will there at once.

Lots of editors in my business are the same way taking advantage of young people.

PIERCE: Yeah, it’s all about fear and they know that. The directors know they can do that really easily with young girls. Young girls are a lot easier to manipulate. And they crave the younger girls. We also want to change the age limit. We feel like girls that are 21 and up would at least be better at making decisions for themselves. A lot of times what will happen is girls will come in and they’ll be promised all this stuff, then they do a few scenes and after six months or so they get no more scenes. They’re like what’s going on? They do all this work and their image is out there for the rest of their life and they go back to a regular life, or try to, and so and so finds their porn and it ruins their lives. I always tell girls, even in the cam industry, you have to realize once your image is out there it’s out there forever. Anyone can put them on Pornhub or some other pirated site. You have to really think if this is what you want to do for the rest of your life. After I tell them that a lot of girls don’t join. They realize it’s a risky business.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if we made it 21 and up then they’re adults and they can decide? When you’re 18 your first time out of your parents’ house, you have a learning curve. I remember being so much different when I was 18 than 21. I was a lot more riskier and crazier.

The stupidest thing I ever did when I was that age was take out like $150,000 in student loans.

PIERCE: Haha exactly.   

What are some of the main issues you’re working to address through the union?

EVANS: It’s not common for a lot of performers to have health insurance. Some already have it, maybe they’re still listed under their parents. Some are married and have it through spouses. But the vast majority are uninsured.  For us because we’re working on a new testing system, we knew we had to get these people insured. To be able to get testing for the cost of your insurance premium. That’s a massive thing we’re tackling right now. We have an insurance advocate who works with the union. Through our advocate we got dozens of performers insured. All of them, if they weren’t insured before, they were shocked at how little they’re paying now, some of them $30 a month for full coverage. The one I’m the most proud of, a personal friend of mine in the industry, had his health insurance plan after being in mainstream for a long time. He’s having really serious issues. It was crippling him financially. I hooked him up with our insurance guy and he called me the next day practically crying because he got his monthly premiums from $330 a month down to $30. So that tuned into four more performers singing up.  Every time that happens, you can hear it in my voice, I’m so excited. Helping them is my paycheck. I don’t get paid for this it’s 100% volunteer.

PIERCE: We’re working on health insurance now. We’ve gotten some performers together with the Affordable Care Act. They’re surprised they can get it.

EVANS: Getting us treated as employees is another issue. We’re being currently misclassified as freelance employees. Last year on May 1 which is actually May Day the day we celebrate labor unions, there was large case handed down through the mainstream industry that outlined certain definitions to make them more clear when it comes to mainstream actors being employees. The rule that came down completely affected the way we work and our business.

What it comes down to for us, if you’re told where to be, what time to be there, how to do your job, and if you’re told what to wear, those are some of the major rules that change from being a freelance contractor to an employee. As a performer you’re absolutely 100% told all those things. How to behave, what to wear. So having those outlined was a huge win for us. Now it’s our job tackling the companies individually that don’t treat us as employees. Wicked already treats all of its people as employees, we’re paid payroll, they feed performers on set with catering. The biggest part is the payroll. I know this is gonna sound crazy, but it’s really nice to have taxes taken out of your paycheck, to have unemployment insurance taken out of your pay check. Not enough of the companies pay into it.  We have ideas how to tackle that, trying to form a uniform payroll company that smaller companies can use. We have a lot of plans, but we’re two years old. It’s tackling issues as we go.

I’m sure you didn’t expect all this information coming out of a porn star’s mouth.

No, no not surprised at all. I know exactly what you mean about the taxes stuff as a freelancer.

EVANS: Right! You have to save money. Imagine telling a porn girl to set money aside. They’re young. I’m not trying to say we’re not intelligent, just for the most part when you’re in the adult industry you’re a young girl or young man and you don’t have that life experience.

Are there common issues on set you want to improve upon?

PIERCE: Being a trans performer and speaking to Alana and Ruby and other female performers, the straight side is very mean to its female performers. It’s very sexist. Did you see the story about Nikki Benz? The directors or whoever feel like they can take advantage of performers just starting out but the fact that it happened to Nikki Benz, who is a big performer? If it can happen to her it can happen to anyone.

From my side of the industry I don’t have any horror stories where directors were mean to me or made me feel uncomfortable. When I say no they say ok. But they also say when I get on set if you’re uncomfortable let me know and we’ll stop the camera any time.  From talking to Alana and Ruby and Amber Lynn, veterans of the industry, they tell me all the stuff that’s gone on. I was like that would never fly in the trans industry. That’s crazy to me. If a girl wants to use a condom the director will just say ok I wont hire her. Basically you have to not use a condom or you wont get work.

Why do you think the trans side takes better care of performers?

PIERCE: I think it’s because trans women in general, we’re kind of… Most of us in the business, not me, do escorting. So they are just businesswoman. They expect things done a certain way if they don’t get it they’re all set. I’ve seen trans girls tear a bed up because they were pissed at the director. I just feel like trans women are more vocal and don’t put up with bullshit.  A lot of times on the straight side women are covered by an agency and if they foul up on a set the agents might call them up and make them cry. I’ve seen girls cut out.

What was your involvement with the Nikki Benz situation?

EVANS: She was actually brutalized on a Brazzers set. I use those words with complete faith behind them because I’ve seen the footage. She walked away from that set saying she felt she had been raped. A lot of people didn’t understand how a porn star can make those kinds of claims. When we watched the footage, the lawyer for the director Tony T. thought it would be a good idea to show the footage to press and members of the community. Some people were there from the Adult Performers Advocacy Committee and the Free Speech Coalition. We were the only ones who walked away from that and did something. I’m a dirty girl. In my history I did all the hard core scenes. I was called a gutter girl. I know what I can take. Nikki is not that kind of performer, she’s a glamour girl. You put her in a scene like that and you’re going to violate her consent the minute it starts. What we do as performers in the industry a lot of the times we will just take it to get through the job. At that point consent lines becomes very blurry.

At the end of the scene you have to fill out paperwork saying everything was ok. There were two of those exit videos. The first was like, are you ok, this and that. Everything was like yeah yeah yeah. She’s not happy though. It’s not the same girl that started the scene in the first video that was super excited and ready to go. They asked would you do this scene again. She said no. It cuts. And then there she is doing her exit interview all over again and now her answers had changed. She still hadn’t been paid.

I was traumatized for five days after watching that video. I cried for her repeatedly. I’ve never even cried from some of my own scenes. We decided, myself, Ruby and Kelly, and it took like six months, to create this list. It took that long because we wanted to have every possible thing that could happen to you on a set on that list. I’ve never had a man put his foot on my head or smash my head on the ground, but that’s what they did to Nikki. We have producers that use the list now, performers, it matches all genders. Kelly is amazing she’s our trans performer so she makes it easy for us. I’m a straight woman so I don’t know much about that side. It’s only recently we’re starting to blend together more. It really helps us have her line up for that side of the industry.

Was there a time for you like that on set where you felt unsafe?

EVANS: I’ll be honest the only time I’ve ever felt taken advantage of in this industry were relationships with agents. I don’t have a problem saying no. When I was younger, I started when I was 21, at that time I would call myself a yes girl. I didn’t want to make trouble on set. I always had a smile. But porn was very different in the late 90s and early 2000s. I started in 98. Ruby, myself and Amber Lynn, we’ve watched the change happen from where it was beautiful and sexy — even if it was really gnarly. Iv’e done DPs, lots of anal, and for the most part, even if it looked really aggressive, I still had the control. If something happened I could speak up.

I encounter directors and photographers now that I worked with back then and even they have changed. A photographer that I knew when I was a kid I thought was the sweetest guy was a complete asshole in his older age. He was demeaning to the girls, rude when taking their pictures... These girls don’t come off a runway. They don’t know how to model. The closest thing to modeling they know is selfies on Instagram. Give them love, honesty, and be nice to them, then you’re going to get that positive attitude.

Is the FOSTA-SESTA law something you’ve been concerned about?

EVANS: We’re on two sides of the fence with that. We completely don’t want our sex worker performers to have to deal with having their livelihoods taken away. At the same time we are a legal union, so I cannot tell performers that escorting is the way to go, because we have to follow the law. So how we feel about that is we absolutely support the legalization of sex work and prostitution because it’s the oldest profession in the business. We advocate for legalizing, but we don’t tell our performers it’s a route of profit for them because it’s still unsafe and illegal. We don’t want girls to find themselves in jail because they’re advertising on Instagram.

When I started you would’ve been humiliated for escorting. Performers wouldn’t work with you if you were escorting because you were in all likelihood playing with risky rules. You would be arrested.  Life has changed, technology has changed, and sex work is far more acceptable than it was at the time. We try to tell girls if you want to do legal sex work go to a brothel. They test better than we do. With brothel workers the sheriff’s department handle the screenings there. I wish we would take on some of those testing rules that they do.

The biggest way it effects us is now now looking to take sex workers’ bank accounts away. Elizabeth Warren was big behind this. They were trying to explain it as taking the traffickers’ accounts away. There are far more women like me making money through sex work than traffickers. If Warren runs for president I wont vote for her simply because she tried to take our bank accounts away. I’m a mom, I’m a taxpayer, I vote. All those things I am before this porn advocate.  My kids need to eat just like hers and if I can’t cash my paycheck we have a problem.

Alana what do you think about what’s going on with your buddy Michael Cohen?

EVANS: Stormy and I were really good friends. I’m the one who got invited to Lake Tahoe who said no to Trump. When the story initially came out about the payoffs, people in the adult industry knew I was there. I had told this story to a reporter friend of mine years ago and she had recorded the conversation. It went public, so I ended up being the first person in January 2016 to come forward and say Stormy was absolutely with Donald Trump because they were calling me together trying to get me to come. Then the next morning Stormy called me and told me what happened the night before. Michael Cohen called me a liar and said that anyone that had anything to do with it was a liar. I was like, excuse me, I was there. So for about five months my whole life was upside down doing news stories every day. 

Did it make you think man you really made the right choice not to go over?

The whole way through, not once, did I regret not going. I gained the respect of millions since I was like eww it’s Donald Trump no way.

Did you actually talk to Trump that night?

Stormy and I had been talking throughout the day. We were all in Tahoe for different reasons. She was blowing up my phone and wouldn’t stop calling. I was stalling. When she called me and he was on the phone he was like come on Alana, come have fun with us! Let’s party. I was like oh my god it’s him, it’s really him. I hung up and turned my phone off and didn’t resurface until the next day.

I don’t know what to say about that.

It was a good time. I was on Megyn Kelly one year ago yesterday. I was on Jimmy Kimmel. It was on Howard Stern. It was a good run.