IT WAS A WEIRD TIME. I was going through a divorce; my band had broken up; I had no gainful employ to speak of, and I was just so unbelievably poor, it felt like I was on some kind of bizarre first-world survival game show. I’d started Philebrity in the previous year, but it was by no means bringing in any kind of revenue that a person could live on.
I needed a job. A straight job, that could provide me with any kind of stability. Badly. So when I saw a Craigslist posting for a Web Editor position — something with which I’d had some experience — at National A-1 Advertising (an almost comically innocuous moniker), I sent off my stuff and hoped for the best. Not long after, I got a call to come in for an interview. I was ecstatic — I’d been living on mac and cheese for so long, I would have jumped at any job, pretty much. I put on a shirt and tie and got ready to go back on the grid.
Upon entry, it was clear that National A-1 Advertising was the kind of office environment I’d been trying to avoid my whole adult life: Cramped gray cubicles as far as the eye could see, with a supervisor at the front of it all in an office near the door that had a glass picture window that made me think of him as a pit boss. The guy in the office, it turned out, was the guy who’d be interviewing me. This was Mike.
Mike’s office had the kind of unadorned mess to it that immediately suggested two things to me: One, somebody who was so busy — and you often see this in dudes who are also making lots of money, and fast — that they couldn’t be bothered to decorate. There was a picture of his family on his desk, as I recall, and a plaque on the wall, some kind of award, which I’m now thinking was something from AVN, or Adult Video News, the porn industry’s major trade publication. The other thing it reminded me of was the “Long Con” scenes in The Grifters, like it was some kind of shop that could be gone in less than a day if it needed to.
After some standard interview fare — queries on previous gigs, ambitions and so on — Mike broached the subject of the exact nature of the editorial work I’d be charged with. National A-1 was a large-ish company, Mike informed me, with lots of endeavors under its umbrella. The floor I was on was home to a site called HotMovies.com, which I later learned was one of the first and largest video-on-demand websites in the entire porn industry. HotMovies had literally thousands of porn DVD titles sitting on its servers (also at least partially housed on the same floor at that time), and it was growing that massive library every day.
That was where I came in. In many of those gray, soul-wearying cubicles sat “editors” whose job it was to catalog the new DVDs being uploaded onto the HotMovies platform daily, scene by scene. It would be my job, basically, to watch porn DVDs all day long, in my cubicle, surrounded by other people doing the exact same thing, and describe in a few sentences what was happening in each chapter on each DVD. I’d enter my descriptions into a content management system, and basically, that was the job.
Mike asked me if this was the kind of work that would make me squeamish. I didn’t have to lie: It wouldn’t. I’d never had the kinds of moral objections to pornography that, say, my Catholic upbringing would suggest. And in fact, I thought it would be interesting to work, at least for a little while, in the industry that’s been built up around it. As someone whose job it’s been writing about popular culture for years (and at that point, in addition to writing Philebrity, I was still holding down a TV column in City Paper), porn held a fascination for me as an elephant in the room of our culture. Statistics show that a wild number of us have a relationship of some kind with porn, and say what you will about exploitation, it’s pretty easy to stay out of the porn business if you have a mind to do so. Also, if there’s a person out there who doesn’t like tits and/or dicks, well, I don’t want to meet them.
I started the next day. Another HotMovies editor introduced me around the office, going around to all the cubicles and explaining what everyone did. I was immediately struck — and you hear this all the time about people who work in places like Bernie Madoff’s office or Abu-Ghraib — how nice and normal everyone was. Sure, there were some fellow rock ‘n’ rollers in the mix, freaks holding down straight jobs, but the majority of the people at HotMovies were as reg as regs come: Married, a kid or two, working through grad school, and so on. You could not imagine a less sexualized office atmosphere. It also struck me that HotMovies was the kind of place where you could move up in the ranks quickly if you showed initiative, and that management prized this far more than how much schooling you’d had or where you worked before. I remember liking this part about HotMovies — the acknowledgement that they were working in an industry that was still fairly wide open, with lots and lots of money to be made. But no one was going to make it resting on their laurels.
After that, I was shown the ropes. Here is how my job worked: Each morning, I’d arrive at my desk, and on the “in” section of my desk organizer, there’d be a stack of DVDs with a manilla folder that had info about the titles. I’d open up the HotMovies content management system, enter the titles and chapters, pop in the DVDs and get to work. Chapter one: Hot MFM sex, oral both ways, lingerie content. And so on. All day. For the whole day, save for a lunch break.
At first, and as you might imagine, this was a jarring experience. Watching porn on your own time, and at your own pace, is one thing. When you’re finished, well, you’re finished. There’s no plot there to keep you in front of the screen to see how things turn out, and you’re under no aesthetic or moral obligation to its creators to do so. Watching porn — and porn titles not of your own choosing — for a minimum of eight hours a day is something else entirely. It’s not sexy. It rattles your brain a little bit. After the first day, I walked out onto the street thinking, “Well, that happened,” only to get on the subway and have a funny thought: None of these people know that I’ve been getting paid to watch pornography all day. Oh, the things I’ve seen.
The next day, a routine began to settle in: I’d get to work, drink my coffee and start watching porn. I’d do a few descriptions, then sneak over to the Philebrity WordPress and crank out a few posts. Repeat. It didn’t take long, though, for me to acknowledge a strange feeling that began to course through me. It wasn’t arousal. It was a form of cracked-out electricity running through me, like I’d been undergoing shock therapy in the most ghetto form imaginable. Visually consuming all of that sex was melting my brain. You know how some people completely freak out if you chew a piece of aluminum foil? This was like my brain, and maybe even my soul by extension, was chewing a piece of aluminum foil. My nervous system was responding like a grossed-out teenage girl.
The selections I was in charge of weren’t helping matters: One six-hour compilation of Brazilian tranny porn after another. At first, I thought this might have been a form of HotMovies new-guy hazing. Then I looked up on the database how many Brazilian tranny titles were out there. This wasn’t a form of hazing, it was an entire country’s fucking GDP. And today, I was just a cog in the wheel. And it was my job to watch the wheels, or dicks, go around.
Intellectually, I could reach that peace. But even over a few days, I couldn’t quite make it all jibe, vibe-wise. I’d told my folks and my girlfriend about the job, and nobody was exactly stoked. That, I could live with, but I had another concern: Is this the ramp-up to being a serial killer? Is this how it happens? You sit in a cubicle, watching porn in a super-clinical environment, any kind of porn at all, and wait for your brain to go completely haywire? Then you go out and rape a dog, and slowly but surely work your way up to a house in North Philadelphia where you chain up half-alive mentally handicapped women in your basement?
I never found out for sure. After a few more days of this, a few more days of six-hour compilations of Brazilian tranny porn, I went in one morning and started to work. About 45 minutes in, what I can only characterize as a survival instinct took over: I simply stood up, put on my jacket, said nothing to anyone, walked out the door, and left. I walked to the Burger King at 8th and Market and spent my last few dollars on a chicken sandwich, called my folks and told them I wasn’t going back. I’m better than this, I told them. They agreed.
I never applied for another job again.
– Joey Sweeney
Previously: Why Was HotMovies Raided?