Porn’s First Union President: Performers Should Be 21+ Only

The International Entertainment Adult Union is porn’s first union, and its newly-elected president wishes to make some dramatic changes to the industry.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Porn is officially unionized. The filings are in, the ink is dry, and they have been approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. No previous adult union or coalition has managed to make themselves legally official, so the International Entertainment Adult Union is about to change all of that, right?

The IEAU recently elected board members for its adult performer chapter. Much to my surprise, I was elected to this board—despite the fact that I’m not an active performer or a member of this union, and never pursued any position within it. According to ex-performer Phyllisha Anne, the woman spearheading the newly minted union, my peers had nominated me by secret ballot and voted by mail. I was simultaneously flattered and confused by the process. How could I help this fledgling union without first opting in? (According to Anne I was the first board member to decline.)

Up until now, a coalition of performers known as APAC was the closest the adult industry had come to unionizing. A grassroots effort and former safe haven for performers, many were inspired by the community spirit of APAC meetings and felt it was the beginning of something great. However, when former chairman James Deen was accused—but not criminally charged—of rape by numerous female performers, his girlfriend Chanel Preston took over, and some performers began to question APAC’s integrity. The scandal left a void to be filled. Performers want a say in their industry and to be heard by lawmakers, to be part of the discussion not just the topic.

No one seems to have an issue with a performers’ union but many are concerned with its organizational aspects. One way to interest performers is to gain their respect. Offer transparency. Be honest, even when you make a mistake. Some insiders are concerned about retired performers heading the union and afraid that for them it’s more about making money than creating a better, safer business.

“Getting people onboard with the best of hearts and the best of intentions is the most important,” says union organizer Phyllisha Anne. “As we nominated people, we’d try to reach out to you… If you weren’t contacted we put your name on the ballot anyway to get voted on because eventually we’ll get a hold of you.” According to Anne, a small fraction of the industry—she estimates around 60 people—voted the nominees into office, all votes were submitted via mailed ballots, and then the ballots were openly tallied by a group she assembled.

Creating a union recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor was just the first step. Getting people involved is a necessary second.

Adult entertainers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about 401(k) plans, social security, or life after porn—not until they actually leave the business. This long-term financial thinking and planning is where a credible union could make a huge difference, and it could also be why the union is currently made up of either retired performers or longtime industry professionals. These are the workers thinking about survival outside of an industry dominated by young, virile bodies. Unfortunately, getting the next generation of porn stars to care about unionizing is challenging.

Adult film director TarantinoXXX says he’d like to be supportive of the Adult Entertainment Union but worries about the divide between current and former performers—particularly after attending one of the first union meetings. “I went to the meeting and it was put together by people I’d either never heard of or haven’t seen in adult in a long time,” says TarantinoXXX. “No offense to the people running this union, but most of them have been out of the industry for so long. We’ve had such an influx of new performers in the last five years that they aren’t going to know who these people are.”

There are also concerns that former performers may not be as up-to-date with day-to-day industry operations.

Perhaps the newly-elected union President Sean Michaels can bridge that generational gap. He’s a well-known performer and director, still active in the industry after nearly three decades. In addition to making performer education a top priority, Michaels says, “People should be 21 [when entering porn], not 18. That’s a mandate I’ll be pushing … it’s 21 years old to drink so you should have to be 21 to do porn.” Michaels believes it’s a good time to unionize, saying we shouldn’t “leave it like it is and let it be run by agencies pimping out these girls left and right in their own way. It can be better.”

However, some of his first duties as president may be more along the lines of ensuring the places of union officials and securing union funding.

Joining the IEAU ­is free for now. “There will eventually be union dues but we don’t want to collect money from our members until we have something to offer,” says Phyllisha Anne. “Right now we’re applying for grants and there’s a huge OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] grant we’re aiming for. It doesn’t matter if you’re a restaurant or a business, you have to work with OSHA and the adult industry has ignored OSHA.”

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One of the big changes Anne wants the union to push for concerns how performers get paid, which will also impact the owners of adult companies. Anne says by “changing our employment status we can get federal and state taxes taken out, so we can get unemployment and social security.” As it is currently stands, most performers work in a freelance capacity—filling out 1099 forms and collecting checks with zero money deducted. By altering the employment status, performers would share some of their tax burden with adult companies.

“We want to help performers pay their taxes, pay into social security, and pay into retirement plans so there is a future for them,” reiterates newly-elected Vice President Alana Evans. “A lot of performers don’t realize they are going to make this a career… and aren’t prepared for the financial responsibility that comes along with it.”

Healthcare is another issue the union organizers believe can be solved. Wouldn’t it be great if a performer’s health insurance covered the $300 they spend on testing every month? Inspired by a union leader conference she attended, Phyllisha Anne seems to believe she has the contacts to make it happen. “When you are sitting at the table with the same people who run healthcare it’s amazing what you can accomplish, right there,” says Anne. “Especially when you have their personal phone numbers, direct lines to the people who run healthcare.”

The IEAU sounds almost too good to be true with its promises of affordable healthcare, help with taxes, retirement plans, unemployment benefits, and legal recourse for workplace problems. There are supporters and skeptics, but the latter seem to be louder on social media.

To the naysayers, union vice president and active performer Alana Evans says: “We’re in the infant stages; we just elected the board. We’re still getting the union up and running. Calling it a scam is a joke… this is about making the business better. Protections and rights in the workplace, that’s what we want to offer.”