In the end, many of them cried.
I’ve attended the Adult Entertainment Expo and its climactic AVN Awards a dozen times, and I have stopped feeling remotely glib about people crying when they get awards for Most Outrageous Sex Scene, Anal Scene of the Year, or Best New Starlet, as the frank and raucous Abella Danger did this year. These awards mean something.
Whether the performer is virginal and inexperienced when she first dips her (let’s say) toe into the adult industry (and there isn’t a performer I’ve talked with who hasn’t tried at least one position/opening/grouping for the first time in her life while being filmed) or she is expert at most of those things (but never all of them), by the time she has been in porn for a few months, she knows how hard it is to get noticed and to stand out. So to be recognized among hundreds of her peers in tens of thousands of scenes on Porn’s biggest stage—in recent years that of The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel And Casino—is a big, gaping achievement.
“Of course I cried,” says Joanna Angel, this year’s AVN Awards co-host with Anikka Albrite. “When I won Most Outrageous Sex Scene (for her naked, bloody, hilarious role alongside Tommy Pistol in 2005’s ‘Re-Penetrator’), I couldn’t believe anyone knew who I was.”
For the first time in a long time I did not go to Vegas for Porn Camp this year, and I missed it, a little. I talk with AVN’s Sherri Shaulis about the process of watching (and rewarding) dirty movies for a living, and by the end of our conversation you, too, will understand why people cry at adult awards shows.
Shaulis, who (like veteran AVN employee Mark Kernes) was once a court reporter, joined the magazine in 2007 and is now its editor of Pleasure Products (the industry-accepted name for marital aids, dildos, and blow-up dolls). Co-founded in 1983 by Paul Fishbein as a video store circular (Fishbein, who cashed out of AVN in 2012, received a Visionary Award at this year’s event), Adult Video News would soon employ as many as 100 writers, editors, web techs, warehouse guys, and administrative staff before the porn industry itself contracted. Now the magazine pays fewer than ten full-time staff, in addition to an awards-season workforce that does nothing but watch, argue about, and vote on porn movies.
“We watched about 900 boy-girl scenes this year,” says Shaulis. “And that’s just one category out of more than 200.”
Both companies and individuals begin sending in their nominated products (including DVD- and web-based scenes, full movies, marketing campaigns, suggestions for individual performances and bodies of work) on September 1 in a month-long orgy that used to be a lot more fun. When I was at AVN and other publications in the early 2000s, I received vaguely-useful For Your Consideration swag like branded thermoses, alcohol, and visits from the stars. Have you heard the joke about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood and fucked the writer? I’ll say only that I was single at the time, it never affected my voting, and they were Czech.
“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Shaulis says, perhaps ruefully.
In late November, AVN’s editorial staff of five (Shaulis, senior editor/legal affairs reporter Mark Kernes, editor in-chief Sharan Street, managing editor Dan Miller, and senior editor Peter Warren) releases its nominees for January’s awards. For the past couple of years the company has thrown a classy nominations event in Hollywood that functions as a pre-Christmas party and a warm-up for the porno family reunion that is the Adult Entertainment Expo.
“Then we batten down the hatches,” Shaulis says. “If I watched my share of porn before, I watch a ton of it after the nominations.” Shaulis, the rest of the editorial staff, and a Warren-wrangled team of about two dozen part-time reviewers from around the country—among them “Girlvert” author and former performer Ashley Blue (“I was up to my neck in trannies,” she told me)—watch all the nominated films and submit their weighted reviews to a secure database by December 31.
“Once my votes are submitted, they’re locked,” Shaulis says. “I don’t know until the winner is announced on stage who won.” Shaulis says that “the database guy” compiles the votes and then delivers them to Warren, “and they are the only two people who know.”
Prior to a falling out between former friends Paul Fishbein and early AVN editor Gene Ross (Ross created what I call The Gene Pool of adult industry bloggers, which grew to include Luke Ford, Tod Hunter`. an often disaffected and dirt-dishing group that nevertheless provided a pre-Web 2.0/social media dose of the type of backstage truth that an industry trade magazine was reluctant to publish), the AVN Awards trophies were manufactured by Ross’s brother. Today they are engraved after the awards, with winners collecting them later.
I ask Shaulis about her own porn preferences, and if she keeps porn at home.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “I have a frathouse-level porn stash. Every year there’s porn I keep, like Lee Roy Myers’ ‘The Godfather XXX’ porn parody or Axel Braun’s ‘Star Wars’ parody, but I also like when a classic movie gets reissued, like ‘Behind the Green Door.’ It’s a legitimate dilemma for me on a rainy day when I’ll have to choose between ‘Arsenic And Old Lace’ and ‘The Devil in Miss Jones.'”
Do old porn movies hold up?
“Not necessarily,” she says. “But I love watching them for the background. You see things in the background of an old porn movie that gives you a real picture of the time it was created. Accidental things like products or cars.”
AVN’s offices are in a building across the street from the Chatsworth Courthouse, where citizens of northwest Los Angeles can hear a trial in one of a dozen courtrooms, pay traffic fines, or dine in its cafeteria. Meanwhile, AVN-nominated films are judged in a “curtained-off room,” Shaulis says, “because Pete Warren’s office is floor-to-ceiling DVDs.”
It should be noted that AVN’s editorial staff consists entirely of people over 40, 80 percent of whom are Caucasian (Miller is Asian). The extended part-time review staff is more diverse, but Shaulis says that “no one thinks the same way.”
She hates toe-sucking in movies, for example. I declined to ask if this were also true in person. But a big fight the staff has lately, she says, concerns what is true BDSM.
“I’m appreciative that ’50 Shades of Grey’ opened up discussion about BDSM,” she says, “but people will say ‘Oooh! She’s getting spanked! Oooh! She’s getting tied up!’ and I’ll say ‘That doesn’t make it true BDSM.’ BDSM isn’t just a costume you throw on. It’s not vanilla stuff. It’s hardcore, lifestyle stuff like what Julie Simone does, in my opinion. Not everyone shares that opinion. So those are the some of the kinds of fights we have. And I like that we fight.”
In an industry that is very small, where ancient companies like Hustler and Vivid stay afloat by virtue of their back catalog and casinos and sex-tape tie-ins, where a good deal of the business is shamefacedly both supported and cannibalized by a tubesite company called Mindfreak, to which “everyday people” upload pirated videos to free sites supported by adult dating and boner pill ads, in which performers no longer fool themselves that they’re going to make a great living, well, the simple act of successfully navigating such a saturated environment to get an award makes people cry.
Even though AVN and its main competitor, XBIZ (many of the adult industry’s writers have at one time worked for both companies, including myself), do their best to creatively recognize as many entities as possible in categories that regularly stretch from 15 to 20 entries, Shaulis still still says that people leave unhappy, and let her know about it.
“I regularly want to punch people in the throat who are bitching about this or that,” she says. “This isn’t kindergarten.”
But wait—in kindergarten, doesn’t everyone get an award?
Joanna Angel says that, after working so hard on her own company, Burning Angel, every year since its 2003 founding, there were years that she left Vegas without anything.
“It’s awful to feel like you aren’t being recognized,” she says. “And yeah, sometimes I feel like the wrong person or company gets the award. But when you consider how much porn is being made, I give AVN a lot of credit. They’ve always been nice to me.”
I confirm with Shaulis some basic facts about something that threatened to overshadow AVN Awards week.
The performer Stoya, who on November 29 tweeted that former boyfriend and fellow performer James Deen had raped her, did not attend the Expo or the awards ceremony, though she had previously consented to moderate a panel on consent. Deen did attend the Expo, often followed by a camera crew, but otherwise “laid low.”
According to Stoya’s business partner, Kayden Kross, the former had in December divested herself of her share in the pair’s TrenchcoatX site. Ten other women had come forward to accuse Deen of misconduct on the set and off. No charges were filed. Both Deen and Stoya attended January’s XBiz Awards, which Stoya was contractually obligated to host. While several companies publicly broke ties with Deen, he has continued to work in the adult industry since the accusations (accusations he denies).
After the awards show, Shaulis and her boyfriend had vanilla maple ice cream at a restaurant in the Hard Rock called Culinary Dropout, then she went to bed and took a 10 a.m. flight back to Los Angeles the next morning. She says that non-porn friends envy her, but they’ve got it all wrong.
“I go to the sex show and don’t have sex,” she says.
Angel, who was nervous about hosting and who flawlessly performed a rap called “I Like Dicks” at the show, needed to have sex.
“Yeah, I had sex the afternoon of the show to relieve some tension,” she says. “Otherwise I would have thrown up.”
[I attended the nomination party but not this year’s AVN Awards or Adult Entertainment Expo. I’ve included pictures I took at the party and at previous Expos to show the comforting sameness, year to year, that the Expos represent, and also because I’m lazy and doubted people would notice.]
Previously on Porn Valley Observed: Same As the Old Boss—Paul Fishbein on the Excellent “X-Rated”; AVN 2010—The Only Numbers You Can Trust
See Also: AVN’s 2016 Winners