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Editor’s note: This piece contains pornographic descriptions and discussion of extreme sexual acts.

A black android phone on a grey bedspread that depicts a naked woman from the shoulders up.

‘Let’s Talk About Porn’ by Charles Deluvio, Unsplash.

Rumour has it that after Bridgette Kerkove retired from porn, she changed her name and found God. It’s not an unpopular retirement plan in the industry.

She’s been at the back of my mind for the past twenty years, dating back to when we both worked in pornography. I was a subeditor for the American adult magazines Club and Club Confidential; Bridgette was riding the crest of the wave that was gonzo. Gonzo porn was similar to gonzo journalism, in that the pornographer inserted themselves into the scene. It was irreverent, veered wildly between humour and disrespectfulness, and did away with artifice, such as sets and plots. With the industry more accessible to anyone with a camera and some hustle, a more extreme element wound up decimating the landscape of popular porn.

Enter Bridgette.

Rumour has it that after Bridgette Kerkove retired from porn, she changed her name and found God.

Patricia Felkel was born to a large Catholic family in California in 1977. As a sixteen-year-old private schoolgirl, she met Skeeter Kerkove: twelve years older, covered in tattoos and rider of a Harley. For Patricia, raised by deeply religious parents, he was basically catnip.

By 1999, Patricia was going by the name Bridgette, presumably as a nod to Brigitte Bardot, whose bouffant blonde hair she now had in common. She was about to become the highest-grossing woman in porn, making on average a film a week that year. Perhaps her most infamous achievement, though, was the zeitgeisty gonzo act of taking a hundred and three chopsticks anally. I remember sitting at my desk and reading about that in Adult Video News, the industry’s trade magazine – and stopping mid-chomp of my focaccia.

Skeeter started off by inserting seventy at once in a condom, then added to them until his wife was at capacity. This was a record-breaking event, as someone in France had previously managed only seventy-four (disclaimer: as is the case with many porn records, Bridgette’s achievement was later revealed, by her, to be greatly exaggerated). Even so, record-breaking feats – such as number of participants, most semen ingested and biggest breast implants – were as Nineties as my choice of lunch.

I was on my own mission of endurance: the pharmaceutical kind. Was this really so different to Bridgette pushing herself to her limits? The most marked difference between us was that she raked in the money and got to walk the red carpet at the Adult Video News Awards in a fabulous dress, while I slumped at my desk, hungover, and looked at the slides.

It was around this time that I sat down in a Soho café with Grace Quek, aka porn star Annabel Chong. The documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999), about how she came to make the porno The World’s Biggest Gangbang (1996), had just been released in selected UK cinemas.

If porn then was like extreme sex Olympics, now it’s like factory farming, churning out unmemorable girls for immediate consumption.

Annabel, a former gender studies student at the University of Southern California, explained that she was exploring the idea of the female as stud, citing the mythology around Roman empress Messalina, who – popular and probably politically malicious rumour had it – enthusiastically bedded half of Rome. But it felt as though she was retrofitting her film with a motivation. In other interviews, she had mused that her 251-man feat was more like team sport, which was part of the fabric of American society. It was about communal bonding, spectacle and statistics, not about sex.

That made more sense. From a young age, Americans are encouraged to pursue athletic achievements, to break records, to win. Why would American porn stars and directors escape that kind of conditioning? And if the gangbang is the sport, then the star at the centre of it – be they a straight woman, a gay man, trans or otherwise – is the athlete.

Speaking to the Turner Entertainment Report, Annabel said of the gangbang, ‘It’s like running a marathon … the pain is part of the high, part of the adrenaline rush.’

Just as Bridgette Kerkove’s chopstick count was exaggerated, so too was Annabel’s cock count. She eventually admitted there had only been seventy men, but she was penetrated 251 times. Similarly, the next movie in the series, starring Jasmin St Claire, was advertised as featuring 300 men, but actually there were only thirty milling around. In her memoir, What the Hell Was I Thinking?!!, she dubbed it ‘among the biggest cons ever pulled off in the porn business’.

On the day of Jasmin’s gangbang, Annabel was invited on set to metaphorically pass on the baton. Journalist Evan Wright, writing for LA Weekly, reported: ‘I experienced a sense of numbness on Jasmin’s set – as I would on many others – that I can only compare to accounts I have read of combat. It was the sense of being in a group of people deliberately and methodically engaged in acts of insanity.’

Director Mike Quasar worked for the production company on Jasmin’s film, as well as on the third in the series, The Houston 620, named after the star, Houston. Predictably, he tells me that the advertised 620 guys were actually 180.

Most people wouldn’t, but also couldn’t, pull off the pretzling and dilating that these women and gay men put their bodies through weekly.

‘It was one of the most absurd things I’ve ever been involved with my entire life,’ he says, down the phone from his home in Woodland Hills. It’s a neighbourhood that borders the porn metropolis of San Fernando Valley. He’s had a long day on set and I can hear the ice cubes rattling in his tequila. ‘It was certainly a moment where I stepped back and went, Okay, I’ve made poor choices.’

Mike regularly calls himself a ‘reluctant pornographer’, but the Canadian has the animated curmudgeonliness of veteran comedian Marc Maron, and once we start talking about the industry, he’s off on a roll. I tell him I look back almost nostalgically at Annabel and Jasmin’s record-breaking era (also the era of the annual KSEXgames, ambitiously intended to be an adult-themed version of the Olympics, at which Mike, as host, would make observations such as: ‘When Gen’s not competing, she enjoys recreational drugs and chinchilla breeding’). Because if porn then was like extreme sex Olympics, now it’s like factory farming, churning out unmemorable girls for immediate consumption.

Mike agrees. ‘You know, porn was actually much more extreme back in the late 1990s, early 2000s,’ he says. These days he’s in the thick of the trend for stepfamily porn, as shown in a recent tweet: ‘I wake up every morning with a hangover. Then I go film a stepmother banging her stepson who’s strangely only eight months younger.’ Despite the taboo of almost-incest, this is ridiculously vanilla content when compared to his work of decades past.

‘Oh god, so much of this I blocked out,’ he says. ‘The thing you have to understand about me is that much of what I film is of no interest to me whatsoever. I shot the world’s biggest gangbang, but I wasn’t like, Oh, this is gonna be so great, there’s gonna be a girl surrounded by six hundred registered sex offenders …’ The ice cubes clink again.

‘Once you get out of missionary position you’ve lost me,’ he insists.

I offer Mike my theory – that porn performers feel the same kind of pride in their abilities that an athlete might. Most people wouldn’t, but also couldn’t, pull off the pretzling and dilating that these women and gay men put their bodies through weekly. And those on the receiving end are surely a thousand times more hardcore than those muscle-bound performers paid to dish it out (men who’ll momentarily pause a scene of double-anal penetration in order to position a cushion under their own knees for comfort).

‘I literally had this conversation two hours ago with Joanna Angel, when we were shooting today,’ Mike says. ‘She was talking about when she goes to work for Kink, and she looks at it like it’s going to the gym: “How much more can I take? Can I do this?” It’s all about what she can tolerate. So it’s not even a sexual thing, it’s literally like an endurance test.’

Some production companies employ pro actresses who perform their roles with relish. Others specialise in videos that seem to be expressly made by men who hate women.

For six years, Mike shot for a site called Throated, which specialised in deep-throating, with plenty of spit and gagging, but is moderate by current, more aggressive standards. ‘But that was an endurance thing too,’ he says. ‘It’s like, okay, how long can I hold this penis in my throat before I have to breathe? How long can I do this before it makes me throw up?’

‘Face fucking’ has since become a leading genre of porn, often making headlines for its use of spitting, choking and slapping. To the novice, these films are identical whomever makes them – they share the same acts, after all. But they’re not. Some production companies employ pro actresses who perform their roles with relish and a fair degree of humour. Others specialise in videos that seem to be expressly made by men who hate women, for men who hate women. Their female talent tends to be homely teenage girls who haven’t done their research and are essentially ambushed on set. Sometimes they’re subjected to racial or religious slurs.

Rough, degrading sex isn’t by default misogynistic, but it’s noteworthy that if you seek out corresponding sexual acts in gay porn, the vibe may be performatively debasing, but it’s never as hateful. Some of these hetero production companies make a mockery of consent. It’s common for BDSM production companies – an exemplary example being Kink, which has its ethical tenets on its site – to interview the submissive performer afterwards, partly to demonstrate that she’s okay, and partly for her to demystify her lifestyle-love of rough sex and bondage for the vanilla viewer. But in the exit interviews from some other production companies, the female performer is alarmingly void of expression. She answers flatly that yes, she is okay. Yes, she enjoyed that. Yes, she’ll say hi to her dad.

Mike’s uncomfortable with the direction in which the genre has gone. ‘To me it doesn’t feel like it’s role playing,’ he says. ‘To me it literally feels like people being taken advantage of. I’m not trying to be a hero, but at the same time there are certain things that I just think are wrong, you know? A lot of that stuff has nothing to do with endurance or a lifestyle, it’s truly just to do with breaking a human being.’

This is an extract from Everything Harder Than Everyone Else by Jenny Valentish (Black Inc.), available now at your local independent bookseller.