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Hot and Scared

How one gay porn studio keeps its workers perpetually on the clock

When Cameron Parks was eighteen years old, he dropped out of college, got in his car, and drove to San Diego; it was only a matter of time before he began performing in gay porn. The kind of outrageously beautiful person who could induce hiccups in an unsuspecting stranger, with curly brown hair and doe eyes, his only professional interest dwelt in possibly working with yachts. But when he met the owner of Helix Studios—an established porn outfit specializing in that breed of lithe young man known as the twink—at a party, Parks was asked if he wanted to film for them. He thought to himself: “Well, I’m really broke, and I hate corporate America, so I guess this is the path I’m taking.”

Parks, who asked to be identified by his porn name, got off to an auspicious start in the industry. Helix soon hired him to work full time as a production assistant in addition to his on-screen work, and he joined the staff at their well-equipped, over-four-thousand-square-foot studio in downtown San Diego. In his free time, Parks partied with the other performers in clubs and went to bonfires on the beach. It was all “very California cool,” he said. He also felt that he was participating in an internet-fueled sexual revolution—of which Helix appeared to be at the vanguard. “Helix Studios doesn’t believe in the factory system,” Kevin O’Keeffe wrote in early 2018 in Into, the since-shuttered LGBT magazine owned by Grindr. “From family dinners both formally and informally planned by studio heads, to awards ceremonies attended as a unit, to a general sense of camaraderie between the models, there’s plenty of incentive beyond just money for guys to work with the studio repeatedly.” The studio even made time for wholesome pool parties and ice cream—all amply documented on social media.

The upbeat vibe projected by Helix Studios, however, stands in stark contrast to the economic realities of print and digital media in general—and the porn industry in particular. The last twenty years have shown that when a product is available in vast and diverse quantities for free, it becomes difficult to convince people to pay for it. Tube sites like Pornhub host professional videos, uploaded illegally, on such a massive scale that copyright complaints are quixotic. Effectively policing these videos is untenable. Helix Studios scenes are popular—they regularly rack up a million views before they can be taken down—but unless you’re shelling out for their Premium service, clicks on Pornhub lead strictly to income for Pornhub. Meanwhile, major studios compete with legions of eager amateurs, many of whom maintain their own sizable followings. “In some respects, the porn industry has been replaced by millions of people with ready access to camera tech, posting stuff to the Internet,” Cade Metz in Wired in 2015. Dr. João Florêncio, a senior lecturer in the history of modern and contemporary art and visual culture at the University of Exeter, whose research focuses on sexuality, gay porn, and masculinity, told me that the porn industry strains under the same pressures afflicting other creative fields whose economies have been ravaged by the internet. “Porn isn’t exceptional in that respect, but the ways in which porn operates on the margins may lead the situation to become more severe,” he said.

To set itself apart, Helix Studios decided to bank on quality and loyalty, pursuing connections between the models and their fans that lasted longer than a frenzied jerkoff.

To set itself apart, Helix Studios decided to bank on quality and loyalty, pursuing connections between the models and their fans that lasted longer than a frenzied jerkoff, an approach the studio had already been honing when Parks came aboard in 2017. As part of this strategy, Helix encouraged its models to share non-sexual content on social media as a way to simulate intimacy with their fans and, most important, strengthen brand loyalty. Whereas the gay porn stars in the industry’s “golden age” of the seventies and eighties appeared as “unreachable, heavenly, god-like creatures,” according to Florêncio, “now porn stars are often seen less as otherworldly divas and more like someone whom you can bump into in a bar.” In October 2017, for instance, two porn actors at Helix who were then dating, Joey Mills and Ashton Summers, livestreamed themselves eating dinner at an Orlando restaurant with a group of friends. It’s boring but intimate. The same goes for a series of couch talks by the model Blake Mitchell. One thirteen-minute clip, in which Mitchell introduces his new boyfriend, puts you in the awkward position of a parent meeting the couple for the first time. But that kind of content arouses rabid fandom: “Fans of Helix on social media, primarily Twitter, but also Instagram and other platforms get as invested in the relationships as they do the porn, maybe even moreso,” wrote O’Keeffe. The banality makes it feel like you’re hanging out with the stars; it almost tricks you into believing that you know them.

This sense of surreal pseudo-intimacy extends to Helix’s porn. In Flower, a 2017 short film directed by Matt Lambert, the models are shown having “honest” sex, drinking, joking, and laughing. The atmosphere is low-lit and chill (but nonetheless purged of the clumsiness of real sex). “By having five friends lounge around, suck, fuck, and sing together, [Lambert] is breaking down lines between friends and lovers,” Chris Thomas in a review for Out. (Toward the end of the film and just prior to climaxing, the actors perform a joint lip-synch to a Pansy Division cover of Liz Phair’s “Flower.”)

A second video, Breathe, overlays foreplay with minimal drone music; you can practically feel the sun on your skin. In yet another, a foursome of models frolics at Las Vegas Pride with random revelers before getting down to the sex. “Every era gets the porn it deserves,” Katrina Forrester in The New Yorker, and Helix’s videos are a kind of #vanlife movement for the gay adult industry. They feature gorgeous people leading effortlessly fulfilled lives outside an inhibited mainstream. They seem to say: this could be you—if you were hotter and less scared.

What Happened in Vegas

The owner of Helix Studios, Keith Miller, called a staff meeting in the fall of 2017. He announced that the company was moving to Las Vegas. “Wow! I kinda like California, so I don’t know if I really want to do this for a porn company,” Cameron Parks thought. “But by this point I was so indebted, being nineteen at the time, making something like forty to fifty grand a year—and I did not finish college—so I was like, ‘I’ve gone down this path so far that it would be really hard to restart.’”

Within the year, Helix Studios, with a reduced staff, was filming out of a McMansion in the suburban fringes of Las Vegas, and Parks was living in the back house. (Business operations were based off-site.) The red brick manse, guarded by an iron gate and obscured by palm trees, was a mess, littered with packets of soy sauce, dead birds, and an abandoned massage chair. Parks found himself cleaning up after the previous inhabitants and, once the models arrived, extricating pubic hair that clogged the bathtub drains and disposing of discarded travel-sized grooming products and used anal douches.

Small screens, it turns out, show only a fraction of the world. Rather than relaxed, spontaneous sex, Parks said that the filming schedules at Helix Studios stretched models to their physical and emotional limits. (Helix Studios didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.) A typical filming day, according to Parks, went something like this: the staff, hungover from partying, would wake up around two in the afternoon. They would start shooting the porn at five and finish around midnight or one. But the models, often flown in from the East Coast or the Midwest, usually suffered from jet lag. “They were told they couldn’t eat, because they were performing anal sex,” Parks said. “So they were completely starving by the time they finished. I remember driving people to Taco Bell at 2 a.m. and them scarfing down burritos because they were so hungry.” Parks and another model said that performers were encouraged to take Viagra if they couldn’t maintain erections through hours of filming. “There was this underlying pressure of, ‘I’m starving, I’m tired, and now I’m being judged on how I perform sexually,’” Parks told me, noting that a lot of performers took risks with their health because they needed the money.

The internet routinely breaks down barriers between work and free time, fans and performers, employees and bosses. But boundaries are vital in professional life, especially in a field as fraught with exploitation as the adult film industry, and Helix Studios was no exception. Members of the staff would engage in sexual relationships with former models. That wasn’t an issue on its own, said Parks. “But the problem was that people would stop and start [working] all the time, it wasn’t a full-time commitment, it was a contracting thing. . . . So when someone was on hiatus, [Helix] would fly them out to be with them personally, and not for the screen.” Parks also had relationships and friendships with performers, but he found that these were more closely scrutinized. “That’s what was most frustrating about it, was that you didn’t have specific rules,” he told me. “A lot of the guys were my age . . . so I would hang out with them, go on hikes, whatever. And [my superiors] subsequently told me that I could not post pictures with just me and another model because they didn’t want people thinking I was having some sort of relationship with them.” As Florêncio pointed out, vaguely defined yet punitive social media policies are a common feature of contemporary work life, from porn models to university faculty.

With the presumption of access, the online porn fandom the models are urged to cultivate can take on an intensity that frequently overwhelms them. On Twitter, there are accounts dedicated to specific pairings of Helix models, to reposting scenes from the porn, and to featuring fan art. This summer, a fan account posted a video of a model from the Helix subsidiary 8TeenBoy appearing to have an angry meltdown, without context—as if the model was Britney Spears circa 2007 and the videographer a member of the paparazzi. In general, when things got creepy, the models were responsible for interacting diplomatically with the masses; unlike an exalted popstar with a phalanx of publicists, the models alone bore the brunt of the internet’s unmediated id.

A particular minefield was the Twitter direct message: models weren’t required to respond, but they also couldn’t defend themselves or express displeasure, according to Parks. “The problem was that the fans were perverts,” Parks told me. “Not all of them . . . but a lot of them were just really obscene and would constantly ask you to do obscene things.” One former Helix model who now films porn for other companies posted screenshots of a message thread with a fan, who wrote, “I’m just too depressed now because I see that [the model] Thinks his better than me [sic]” and then fired off an email demanding to be unblocked by the model. Despite the arduous schedules at Helix, scenes wrapped and the lights eventually went dark. The onslaught of notifications and exposure on social media never ended.

Online, Helix Studios owner Keith Miller appears to be perpetually smiling with groups of gorgeous boys. But Parks told me of his frequent, belligerent outbursts, noting that staff meetings often dissolved into bashing a particular model who had attracted Miller’s unwarranted ire: “The talk of that week would be, ‘Fuck that model.’ . . . And it would be some eighteen-year-old kid from Wisconsin.” Parks also recalls that those ostensibly wholesome, chill dinners at the mansion could be a source of dread. “I was so nervous,” he said of one such occasion. “I was almost shaking, because I was so worried: ‘Is he going to promote me, is he going to fire me, what’s going to happen?’ . . . It made me think about just how indoctrinated I was.”

Parks’s job at Helix Studios increasingly came with the expectation that he would invest his own money in bolstering the company’s image. In San Diego, Helix employed a driver to pick up models flying in from all over the country; that job fell to Parks after the company moved to Vegas. And not unlike an Uber driver, he was told the car he owned didn’t have quite the requisite wow factor, so he ended up buying a Mercedes. Parks also took over for the company stylist and said he was formally reprimanded for apparent sartorial blunders, including daring to dress a model in a pink shirt.

Of course, models were not the only ones on the receiving end: in July 2019, Ryan Gordon, a videographer who works in both mainstream and adult media, filed suit against Helix Studios’s parent company 13 Red Media, alleging breach of contract, fraud, misappropriation of trade secrets, defamation, and more, all resulting from a planned collaboration on a new brand called Rugged Male, which would balance out Helix’s focus on the “barely legal niche.” In the filing, Gordon’s lawyers claimed Miller had “shouted and cursed at Mr. Gordon” and demanded that he relocate to Las Vegas. In January 2019, Helix Studios allegedly sent a “very large man” to intimidate Gordon, who declined to comment for this story citing the pending litigation. (In a filing from this August, Chad Anderson, a U.S. Navy veteran who is the in-house counsel for Helix Studios, wrote that Gordon’s lawsuit “is an unsupported, conclusory assertion of entitlement with no basis in law or fact; so vague as to wrinkle the brow of the most learned legal interpreter.”)

Boundaries are vital in professional life, especially in a field as fraught with exploitation as the adult film industry, and Helix Studios was no exception.

But the petty rage of an aging patriarch and the complaints of overextended contract laborers are distinctly off brand for Helix, so when the Into magazine team came knocking at the studio’s suburban chateau, Helix was well-prepared to pantomime the youthful, liberated sexiness they’re selling. “Yeah, I talked very positively” about Helix in the interview, Parks said. At the time, the imperative for him to justify his decisions was exceptionally strong: “I had a lot of coworkers who came onto the team because we all had this idea that we were sexual liberators, that we were a new age. We were all very liberal, and we were like, ‘We’re going to make masturbation and sexual interest safe, peaceful, and healthy.’ And we all wanted to think that, because we didn’t want to accept that we saw the truth. So we continued to push that narrative for Helix, which was exactly what they wanted.”

Equally culpable were the queer media outlets—which have been particularly ravaged by developments in digital journalism—that treat porn stories solely as wellsprings of hot gossip. When the industry blog Str8 Up Gay Porn covered the exodus of models from Helix, the author wrote that he was “hoping for some shade, or at least some tea” from the studio. And when I first started reporting this story, I told my editor at Boner, a gay magazine in Berlin, that the situation at the Helix mansion was worse than I expected. The editor answered that Parks “was probably just a young twink who had no idea how things work” and killed the piece.

Down and Out in Scottsdale, AZ

Early in 2018, as part of an effort to expand its brand, Helix Studios got into the books business and started publishing romance and erotica, genre fiction, and nonfiction under the imprints Cherry, Garnet, and Cardinal. Three titles, by the writer Taylor Saracen, are fictionalized accounts of the teenage years of models who are featured in Helix Studios porn: His Own Way Out, on Blake Mitchell; Twink, on performer and administrator Kyle Ross; and Electric Soul, on Joey Mills. Just days before Electric Soul was published, Mills (who didn’t respond to a request for comment) announced he was leaving Helix Studios; according to Parks, it was due to dissatisfaction with company STD testing practices. More models followed Mills. In the meantime, Parks convinced his bosses to allow him, Mills, and Saracen to continue their book tour, which brought them to the Strand in New York, among other venues, where the models posed for selfies with their fans.

But when Parks returned to Las Vegas, he was summarily fired. Parks said that Miller accused him of conspiring behind his back with Mills to bring down Helix Studios. Parks felt abandoned: almost all of his friends in Las Vegas were connected to the porn company. At that point, he still hadn’t finished college and felt unprepared for a new career. Insulting rumors began to fly on Twitter.

Parks doesn’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with porn. The problem is when a porn studio operates according to the worst mandates of neoliberal business. It’s what Helix Studios pretends to be: a community of lovers, a place where sex has been decoupled from jealousy, where beautiful young men earn a good living off the wholesome enjoyment of millions of fans who admire their personalities as well as their looks. That vision was always naively utopian on its face. As Iago told Roderigo in Othello, “I take this that you call love to be a sect.” For Parks, some aspects of life at Helix Studios certainly approached the cult-like. Instead of a charismatic leader, Helix had the alluring idea that you could build a genuine community around hot people having great sex. And it’s that illusion that they continue to broadcast to their viewers, that “they’re some type of family and they all love each other and look after each other,” Parks said. “Which honestly just kind of makes it even weirder. The truth is that it’s just gay porn.”

There is perhaps some solace in what Into reporter Kevin O’Keeffe called “the factory”: at least it offers a degree of anonymity. In Alan Hollinghurst’s 1988 novel The Swimming-Pool Library, the narrator, cruising in a smut theater, ponders the ephemerality of the performers who flicker across the screen. “Where did they get them from, I wondered, these boys more wonderful than almost everything one came across in real life?” For the models, porn is perhaps most harmful when it doesn’t allow them to disappear.

After leaving Helix Studios, Parks moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. He sold the Mercedes and bought a more modest car. Now he has a day job and an OnlyFans account. “I still think that gay porn should be something that is liberating and healthy,” he told me. But Parks isn’t optimistic that things will change at his erstwhile employer: “I see them on Twitter with [more than], getting new, random boys from bumfuck nowhere in the U.S. and indoctrinating them and repeating the cycle. And I don’t know if that cycle is ever going to end.” He recalled many young gay men who came out of their experience with Helix worse for the wear, those who took drugs to perform better sexually, those who were outed by a stray 1099 form, those with nowhere else to go. Parks found this particularly difficult to process. In high school, he volunteered at a shelter for LGBT youth. “People had been through a lot of hard things,” he said. “I genuinely think that a lot of them post about the Helix family environment because they are in situations where they don’t have families of their own. They see something that slightly resembles it. But everybody is looked at as a dollar sign.”