What It's Like to Be a Porn Wardrobe Assistant

"Half an hour into the job, I was on my knees, fitting sock garters to the otherwise-naked, ripped, spray-tanned orange Toby."

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"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Liza screamed at the height of orgiastic pleasure. Then, "Cut! Great—let's break for lunch," as she wiped semen off her breasts. Liza was the director and co-star of the bisexual fantasy-comedy porn film we were shooting. I was a first-time wardrobe assistant. I gathered the long-discarded costumes and took them back to the wardrobe department, thinking that when I'd expressed the desire to work in show business, I should have been more specific.

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Lunch was 10 pizzas and assorted salads. I waited for the obvious joke about the delivery guy, but it never came.

I wasn't sure how I'd ended up here. I'd earned a masters degree in medieval history from the University of York in Britain. I'd hoped to stay there, but they had a surfeit of history geeks trying to make it as television writers with a sideline in environmental action. I moved in with friends in LA, thinking I'd hone my skills and work my way up, but three years later, I was still scraping by on temp jobs, none of which lasted more than a few weeks. I tried house cleaning, babysitting, dog-walking, but just found myself deeper in debt, when my friend Lon, who ran a costume shop, said he could use my help for a three-day gig: $75 a day, plus meals. I screamed, "Yes!" before he got to the salient point. Oh. Hardcore porn. But work was work.

The set was in a large nondescript building in the San Fernando Valley. Being an arts-rat who grew up in LA, I'd been on movie sets before. A porn set isn't much different, except all the dicks are out in the open.

A porn set isn't much different from a regular movie set, except all the dicks are out in the open.

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Half an hour into the job, I was on my knees, fitting sock garters to the otherwise-naked, ripped, spray-tanned orange Toby. He was pleasant, but so endowed that I was terrified I was about to lose an eye. I suspected it would be poor form to ask him to hold it to the side.

I was invited to watch the initial action (everything begins to feel like a double-entendre when you're on a porn set), and thought I might learn something: these people were professionals, after all, but I'd never felt less aroused in my life. All I could think about how much I yearned for real love.

I was involved with a guy named Liam. I didn't call him "my boyfriend. " The highest honorific I could summon was "that guy I'm seeing." And even that wasn't true. He was a guy I was sleeping with every Saturday night, and I wasn't sleeping soundly.

I like to think I'd never have dated Liam if I hadn't been so unsure of what I was doing with my life. My writing wasn't going anywhere; I couldn't keep a steady job; I felt like a failure avatar. Liam had a funny way of bringing me down, saying things like "I know that's your favorite dress, but it looks more like a costume," or "It's nice that you volunteer for all those climate action places, but you know it's a lost cause, right?" or "Thanks for cooking dinner, I think it could have used more salt and less turmeric. I'd teach you, but I know how stubborn you can be." My ideal self would have walked away. My then-self stuck around, thinking it was a good challenge.

Or maybe it was just that we had good sex. For a few hours each week, I didn't have to work on fixing my life, or figuring out if I was ever going to fulfill my dreams of writing for a living or having my own home. Liam didn't want to hear me talk, and I chose to ignore what that really meant.

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Everyone on the set wanted to know all about me, the stranger in the vintage Pendleton jacket. Liza, very focused on her first outing as director, was delighted to hear of my attempts at screenwriting and asked me to read the script and make any comments I liked. "We can change dialogue on the fly, you know."

By Day Two, I'd learned to respond to such comments with a poker face. The script ran 30 pages for a 75-minute film. "It's a real story," Liza assured me. "It's fun," I said, and went to dress the star, Cherie, in a cutaway Pegasus costume.

Everyone was very considerate with the clothes. I'd steeled myself for a few unpleasant encounters and snuck in a stash of Wet Wipes. But the clothes came off too quickly for anything untoward to make contact.

One thing with the sex in porn, it's very clear that love isn't on the table. Or even table-adjacent.

We were forming the sort of pretend friendships you make when huddled into forced intimacy. My favorite was Helga, the bounciest German I've ever met, with a mop of Shirley Temple curls. Cherie, Helga, and I exchanged jokes and beauty tips. And then they went to go have sex with strangers. And I wondered why I thought I was any different. One thing with the sex in porn, it's very clear that love isn't on the table. Or even table-adjacent.

That's when I knew I was fooling myself. I wouldn't have said it out loud, but I knew I was trying to believe I was falling in love with Liam just because he was there, because there hadn't been anyone else since I'd left Britain and that was going on four years. I was lonely, I was horny, and I thought maybe that if he desired me that much, it must mean something more.

He tended to do all the talking, but that was fine. Then I looked at that porn script and realized our pre-coital conversations weren't much longer than the dialogue on the—it's true—hot pink page. I wanted someone who would hold my hand on long walks, who wanted to listen to me do more than moan. I'd thought I was at least having fun, but realized it was just unpaid work. And why?

"So, how was the porn set?" Liam asked Saturday night.

"Incredible," I answered. I told him how a few of the tech people and I had a long talk about the onset of the Vietnam War and colonialism, to the sound of "Oh God, oh God!" in the background and a bed thumping against the wall, making the green room's sofa vibrate.

We had a long talk about the onset of the Vietnam War and colonialism, to the sound of "Oh God, oh God!" in the background

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I started to tell him more, but stopped myself. Both because I felt protective of these people I had seen naked, and spent so many hours talking to, and because I could tell he didn't want to hear these sorts of stories. He wanted to know what I had learned.

"I want to break up."

He thought I was joking and asked if I'd fallen in love on the set.

I was tempted to say yes. As it happened, one of the publicists asked if I was seeing anyone.

"No," I said, "it's not that. This isn't going anywhere."

Liam was boggled. "But isn't it fine for right now? Besides, who else is going to put up with you? You're really difficult and miserable. I don't mind. I like you anyway. You don't think you'll do better, do you?"

The pizza delivery guy was definitely looking better at this point.

"I want love."

"Oh."

Like that was a concept more alien than a lady Pegasus having flight-bound sex. He didn't need to tell me he didn't love me, although he did anyway.

"But come on," he persisted. "Until you meet someone else, we may as well keep hanging out, right? I mean, we have great sex, you have to admit that."

But three days of sex all around me had taught me that I didn't want to have sex. I wanted to make love. I was going to wait for a pizza with all the toppings. The delivery guy could just go on home. 

This essay is a part of the Porn Project, our week-long series on women and porn.

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