How the Reprobate editor found himself hanging out with America’s most notorious adult video director without even trying.
In September 2000, I spent a week in Los Angeles as the guest of David Aaron Clark. I’d got to know David over several years, originally when he was living in New York, writing for Screw magazine during the day, and being part of the New York fetish underground performance scene at night. He was a pioneering blood performer, like Ron Athey – one of his pieces involved having a thousand needles pushed through his flesh and then removed, resulting in a huge and spectacular loss of blood; another saw him spitting his girlfriend’s freshly-delivered piss across a crowd of immediately appalled thrill-seeking dilettantes. He also wrote astonishing erotic novels like The Wet Forever – a work that would be acclaimed as one of the most remarkable pieces of writing in modern literature if it had not been published by erotic publishers Masquerade Books. And he’d played in bands – False Virgins had albums produced by Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo. David was an artist, a polymath and a lovely guy. In 1994, I’d sent photographer and mutual friend Doris Kloster a dozen or so questions to ask him for an interview to appear in Divinity magazine. I got three hours of tape recordings back, but Divinity bit the dust before the interview could appear (you can read extracts from it here).
In 1998, I was writing about the US porn industry for Knave magazine and wanted to talk to the industry’s current enfant terrible, Rob Black. Black was notorious for pushing the envelope with rape scenarios and deliberately challenging imagery, but he was much more interesting than Max Hardcore. Hardcore seemed like a bitter little man who hated women; Black seemed like a genuine provocateur, and films like Abuse of Power and Miscreants seemed as much a deliberate provocation of the anti-porn conservative as they were misogynistic experiences. Both Black and Hardcore would end up in prison for their work during the George W. Bush era, when the US authorities set out to prosecute any pornographer who strayed into areas where they felt they could still get a conviction.
When I called Black’s Extreme Associates to request an interview, I found myself talking to David Aaron Clark. He’d moved to San Francisco shortly after our interview, and started to dabble in arty fetish porn like Asianatrix, and then inevitably continued the journey to LA, where he’d first worked for grubby ex-pat Englishman John T. Bone, before taking a job with Black. We renewed our acquaintance, and I was given an open invitation to stay with him if I ever made it out to LA.
In 2000, I took him up on the offer. By this time, he had left Extreme Associates and was living in somewhat reduced circumstances in a small apartment in the San Fernando Valley, working as a freelance director and sometime writer for smaller porn companies like Heatwave. His movies at this time were remarkable, personal, almost confessional works that would deliberately channel the Dogma 95 films of Lars Von Triers and associates; his film Poison Candy, starring Annabel Chong, is an extraordinarily bleak slice of social realism that deals directly with the artifice of commercial sex and how that clashes with the real world of personal jealousy and the disappointment of fantasy made reality. Not exactly your standard porno film. But at a time when there were something like eleven thousand new porn titles being released each year in the US, these films – small label releases rarely backed with glossy advertising campaigns in Adult Video News – were lost in the crush. And his work was too gritty and difficult, both to categorise and watch, to ever get the attention of the big award ceremonies that helped push both movies and moviemakers. Without the backing of a major producer like Vivid or VCA, his work was not selling huge amounts, and in any case, he was a hired gun, working for a fee. The porn industry might have been awash with money back then, but the footsoldiers like David weren’t seeing much of it.
My eight days in LA was essentially a social whirl of the porn industry, mostly facilitated by David, who introduced me to his friends – the good, the bad and the ugly of the fuckfilm business. I met director Thomas Zupko, who looked like a renegade from ZZ Top and guzzled down a whole six-pack of beer in the half-hour that he was round at David’s flat in the company of performer Brian Surewood, who would later be imprisoned for his part in a car crash that ended in the death of a child. We went to dinner with Eric Brummer, aka Slain Wayne (another New York underground artist who had gone to work for Extreme), and then wandered around Hustler Hollywood looking for copies of our own work. On the way, we bumped into David Szulkin, who wrote the FAB Press book about Last House on the Left and was then working for Larry Flynt – whose offices we visited later in the week. I was taken to veteran director Anthony Spinelli’s warehouse and to old-school distributors VCX, where I was amazed to see 35mm prints of 1970s films like Little Me and Marla Strangelove gathering dust, and where I was forewarned that they wouldn’t talk to me unless I was Jewish (I was looking at buying UK rights to their movies, given that hardcore had just been legalised in Britain). Sure enough, at one point in the conversation, one of the old guys in charge referred to me as “a good Jewish boy”. I didn’t correct him. I went around to Michael Ninn’s house for pizza, visited Jane Hamilton, aka Veronica Hart, at her VCA offices, and went on set with Tony Lovett, aka Antonio Passolini as he shot Cap’n Mongo’s Porno Playhouse. I interviewed Sharon Mitchell and we visited strip clubs with Lou, a New Yorker who shot absolute bottom of the barrel, mail order solo girl videotapes. All in all, it was quite a week.
One of the first people I met was David’s friend Mark. Mark was a wealthy property developer, who may – and my memory is a little vague on this – have been David’s landlord at the time, or at some earlier point. He was also a porn director, working under the name Khan Tusion. I wasn’t familiar with his work, which consisted of two volumes of the Rough Sex series at the time, but David filled in a few details: Mark had loads of money in real estate and he made porn essentially as a hobby, and his films were so extreme that Anabolic – one of the more hardcore labels out there – had cancelled the Rough Sex series after two editions, concerned about the legality of the material. I never saw any of his work – it really didn’t sound like my sort of thing, and regardless of recent legal changes, I certainly wasn’t about to try to import copies back into the UK.
We spent two days and two evenings with Mark, and I have to say that he was one of the most entertaining, charming and generous people that you could hope to meet. We also spent some of that time with his alter-ego, who was one of the grubbiest scumbags that you could be unfortunate enough to encounter. That he could flit from one persona to the other and back again – sometimes within minutes – was fascinating to observe. Mark would take us out to dinner at Musso and Franks, paying for everything and would chat amiably and wittily about British TV and art. He was the most charming and generous host you could hope to meet. Tusion, on the other hand, would stop me as we crossed the road outside Sharon Mitchell’s Adult Industry Medical building and ask “do you know where I could get a really big dog?”. I didn’t think he was looking for a pet. Tusion would try to shock the girl we were with by describing the excesses of his films in detail (“this one scene, we get this girl in a portaloo – you know what a portaloo is, right? – then we kick it over and cover her in shit, then rape the ass off her”), while Mark was polite and considerate to her. I found the contradiction fascinating. But I really liked him. The excesses of the Rough Sex films sounded pretty unsavoury, but I knew that even if it was degrading, it was all consensual degradation. He seemed, admittedly, like the worst advert that a porn industry struggling for social acceptability could have, but at the same time, not everything could be an Andrew Blake film – there was room for rough sex, degrading sex and unsavoury sex. Just as long as everyone involved was on board with that.
In later years, I would read articles about Khan Tusion that would make me pause.
A few years on from my LA trip, and David Aaron Clark had finally moved on to bigger adult films. When I asked him about Mark, he was dismissive, saying that they were no longer close. He seemed reluctant to discuss him. It would be some time before I realised why. David was interviewed about Tusion at some point and said:
“I know Khan. As a matter of fact, know him quite well. We were friendly for a while, because he is charming, intelligent & very nearly witty. And back when he actually was something of a pariah, he thought it might be useful to have me around. However, despite that it might have been in my financial/career interest to keep up relations – and you won’t find one fervent defender of his trip within the industry that doesn’t profit mightily by aligning themselves with him – after observing where it was all headed, I couldn’t rationalize away how he gets his kicks. It ain’t no schtick.”
After the cancellation of the Rough Sex series, Tusion found work elsewhere. His Meat Holes series ran for several volumes, while he made other films with titles like Piss Mops. By any description, these films pushed the limits of what was legal in US porn – rough sex, rape scenarios and watersports were precisely the sort of thing that would see producers like Rob Black, Max Hardcore and others finally convicted of obscenity charges and imprisoned some years later. But their work, excessive as it was, still involved consent and at least a certain level of understanding about how excessive and degrading the films might be. It was still, arguably, staged fiction, even if Hardcore’s work, in particular, seemed driven by resentment towards the women who would never go near him in the real world.
The work of Khan Tusion, by all accounts, went far beyond fiction on several occasions.
Meat Holes, his most successful series, followed the standard gonzo porn format of interviewing the female performer on a couch – a particularly grubby couch by all descriptions – before Tusion and his male stand-ins manhandle her in a series of pretty aggressive and humiliating scenes. He appears on-screen, though his face is kept hidden, and he continues a stream of verbal abuse, ranging from intrusive questions about adolescent sexual experiences to strings of insults while the actresses are violated – that seems the best description – by the male performers. If you think that sex and porn should be degrading and unpleasant, then Khan Tusion is the director for you, I guess. And that’s all fine as long as everyone is on board with it – it would be pretty hypocritical of me to look down on the tastes of submissive women or dominant men. But there are stories of Tusion’s work that suggest – at the very least – a blurring of the lines between fiction and reality.
On the blog http://trvewestcoastfiction.blogspot.com/, porn star Kimberley Kane was interviewed and stated:
“I had a situation where I met Khan Tusion. I was twenty. And he tried to strangle me. This was not even on camera. This was like him strangling me in a bathroom somewhere. And it was terrible. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna be murdered, this sucks. Everyone was right. Porn’s so evil.’ But he’s like the most evil person to ever come into porn. He is like that nightmare that every mother and father who’s child is in porn is like, ‘That’s who they’re working with every day. It’s Khan Tusion.’ So that was terrible. That was degrading, and awful, and scary, and terrible. I didn’t even work with him. I just met him. It was awful. But some people have worked with him and I’m sure they could tell you horrible stories.”
Quoted on the blog https://heyepiphora.com/, porn star Taryn Thomas stated that:
“Meatholes was a bad time in my life. If you liked that I am sorry but don’t ever plan on seeing me mentally abused ever again or for that matter abused in any way like that. I would never do it again. I do not like being MENTALLY ABUSED! No one should ever have to be mentally abused like that. I do porn because I love sex and I love to have fun but Meatholes was not fun. It is just sick and I am sorry to say that is something that I am not proud of. Because I am generally proud of all my work.”
Mental terrorism did seem to be Tusion’s thing, and it takes me back to that odd car journey where he was going out of his way to make my female companion feel uncomfortable. He was, I realised even then, getting off on it – and would have enjoyed it much more if she had not been equally determined not to be offended. As it was, it became a battle of wits that he finally gave up on, at which point he reverted to being our fun new friend Mark. But his performers haven’t always been so lucky. There are scenes of actresses reduced to tears by his abuse. Some might say that they should have known what they were getting into – Tusion himself, in his few interviews addressing the controversy about his work, takes this angle, stating that everything was spelled out in advance. But of course, it’s one thing to be told what to expect and another to actually experience it, not knowing just how far this man might go and realising that there is no one who is going to stop him. Walking out might not seem an option, either through fear that you might not actually escape or simply because, in a business that is awash with performers chasing work, getting the reputation for being ‘difficult’ is not going to help your career. That might have been a mistaken belief – I met enough people in the porn business who were utterly horrified by the work of Tusion and Max Hardcore, rightly believing that they were poster boys for the people who wanted to outlaw the whole industry – but it almost certainly impacted on some performers who simply gritted their teeth and got it over with.
It’s one thing for a porn star to experience a scene that is unpleasant and uncomfortable. You might say that it is almost an occupational hazard – not everyone you work with is going to be attractive or agreeable. But there remain limits that should not be pushed beyond.
On the website newpartisan.com, Regan Starr claimed that Tusion violated the one rule that porn directors never should. Being a porn star – particularly a female porn star – requires a certain trust that boundaries will be respected and that if you say ‘stop’, then it means ‘stop’ – filming over, material not used. For Starr, a rough scene with male performer Mickey G became too much as she explains:
“He tossed me over his shoulder and was using hard fists and slapped me on the ass and grabbed me by the throat and grabbed me by the neck and I was choking and I wanted them to turn off the cameras because I thought that wasn’t really what I wanted to get involved in. I was scared for my life, to be honest with you. And they literally brought so much terror to my forefront, and I was so horrified, and so shocked that their glory was showing on camera that I had no idea that I was going be beaten up. They basically caught that raw emotion and they also caught me sobbing and saying, ‘Can you stop it? Like for real, for real, for real.’
“I saw the one cameraman put down his camera and walk away, like, ‘OK guys, she’s not joking around,’ and then I saw the back one kicking in and shooting as I’m running off the set in tears going, ‘You fucking assholes.’ I felt like I was getting totally violated, how somebody being raped would feel when they’re saying, ‘Stop it,’ and then the guy doesn’t stop and then she feels that she deserved it. I was crying and it’s just… it’s really sad.”
Of course, if we’ve learned anything from the current culture wars, it’s that that accusation alone should not be automatically believed. And with porn, where former performers are often filled with a sense of shame and societal guilt that almost demands that – if they want to be accepted back into ‘decent’ society – they repent for their sinful past by agreeing that they were victims of sexual abuse, there is the additional question mark over any such claims to consider. It’s worth pointing out that the footage of Reagan Starr (from Rough Sex 2, as it happens) is available for viewing, and does indeed end with her calling a halt to proceedings. But here’s the thing – as soon as she calls ‘stop’, the action does stop. The camera follows as she leaves the set and is consoled by Mickey G. Whether that footage is an invasion of privacy – an unacceptable jump from acted fantasy to real life – is open to discussion; Tusion would not be the first filmmaker to keep the cameras running after filming supposedly finished. It’s a technique that documentary producers – including producers of moralising documentaries about porn – use frequently, with much critical praise. Of course, Rough Sex 2 was not a documentary, but Tusion clearly wanted to push his performers to breaking point. There’s arguably a certain honesty in him then showing what happened afterwards (after all, it doesn’t make his shoots look fun and appealing), even if his motivations for doing so are questionable.
Tusion himself addressed the issues in 2000. Interviewed in AVN Magazine, he said:
“Regan Starr categorically misstates what occurred. I think the most important issue is as follows. Under no circumstances in any situation whatsoever at any time will I ask someone to do what they do not want to do or that they find objectionable. In many cases, I do that in the proactive versus the reactive. I ask them are you okay? Are you sure that we can continue on? ‘Let’s take a break for a minute or two. Is everything fine?’ My point is that the girls control the scenes 100%. They have safe words which we employ. And in addition to safe words, I say this each and every time, I say it would be wonderful if you can stay in character so we’ll employ a safe word or technique that the discipline is too harsh by using a safe word. Then we’ll move to another area. However, at any time, this does not preclude you from saying stop, let’s cut the scene; ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ They are encouraged to do so. It’s a rough scene. I don’t deny that. But it’s a legitimate lifestyle of millions and millions of people. There are people in this world that derive enormous gratification from participating in this. And these people exist. Now, these people, and myself are included, are being attacked for what we are. We certainly can’t be attacked for the acts because the acts are consensual and we INSIST that the people doing this are completely comfortable with what they’re doing. So we’re basically being attacked because it looks bad.”
He went on to address accusations from performer Anastasia Blue.
“Anastasia Blue thought that she could do this. I personally meet all the actresses. I spend time with them and once in a while I’m fooled by peoples’ bonafides. Anastasia had decided that this is something that she liked – rough sex, asphyxiation, that kind of thing. We shot her or attempted to. The scene never got to the point where the cameras started rolling. We were taking still photographs. I said, Anastasia, you need to get on your knees and we’re going to take slapping photographs. I’m not sure who the male actor was who was standing over her. I personally spanked her two times. I told her I would. I didn’t do it surprisingly. She broke down and went to pieces. Within an instant I said you don’t have to do this. This is not for you. Don’t even worry about it. She had taken an advance on the scene, and because she was leaving the scene, and was upset about it, she said, ‘I want to write you a check.’ I said, no, that’s not important. Don’t worry about it. It’s not a lot of money. It was $300. At that time, there never was any influence or coercion. There never was, ‘We won’t hit you very hard. We won’t do that.’ The moment it appeared she couldn’t participate, we ended it. That was within about a minute.”
Khan’s defence is that some performers come along thinking that they can handle his extreme style, and then find at some point in proceedings that they can’t. That’s probably true – it’s a fact that even in the most vanilla porn, some people will enter the industry bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited at the prospect of making money for fucking on screen, only to find the reality of long, long sex sessions with complete strangers while a crew look on is less appealing. Again, entire critically acclaimed documentaries have followed would-be porn stars as they find out that the reality is different from the fantasy – indeed, some documentarians clearly take cynical satisfaction in finding the most vulnerable performers and throwing them to the wolves in order to make a point about the evils of porn. It’s not a career for everyone, and Tusion’s work is even more likely to test the limits of performers. If, as he claims, care is taken to ensure that No means No, then we can hardly hold him responsible for performers over-estimating their tolerance.
But at the same time, there is the sense that he relishes this moment of revelation – that breaking his performers down is his primary motivation. “You didn’t expect it to get so serious, did you?”, he would ask his performers. And just how much he cared about how the psychological torture involved in his films would affect the women involved is open to question. These are, after all, women who are already condemned by a chunk of society as both shameless sluts and traitors to their gender, blamed for rape and the corruption of children and the collapse of marriages and sexual dysfunction and everyday sexism. For them to then have further shame and insult piled on them by the very industry that they are working in does not seem very healthy. And let’s not forget that some of those claiming that Tusion had been abusive we’re not former porn stars on a mission of recanting – they were still performing at the time they came forward. That makes their claims harder to dismiss.
It’s true, however, that some women worked for Tusion on more than one occasion, and seem to have come through the experience unscathed.
Porn star Ashley Blue talks about working with Tusion (renamed or mistakenly named as Pro Trusion) in her autobiography Girlvert, which seems to offer an insight into how he works, and gels with the man I remember meeting:
“Pro was an incessant talker. When he spoke, he looked straight into Tyler’s and my eyes for reactions. He wanted us to be scared and shocked. Pro Trusion was desperately excited to put fear into me. It was confusing because he also made us laugh with his clever humor. He was obviously a smart guy. But at the same time, we were very uncomfortable by how vulgar he was. He smoked a putrid-smelling cigar and bared his yellow-brown teeth around its soggy butt as he talked. He used intellectual words. He was testing my comprehension, trying to see how intelligent I was. He even remarked a couple of condescending times that I was “pretty smart for an ass-licking, little anal whore.”
In the story, Tusion asks if he can choke her and then talks her into being pissed on by her boyfriend. It’s not exactly a story where all limits are discussed beforehand, but equally, it’s not a tale of coercion. Tusion pushes her as far as she is willing to go, but he doesn’t push any further. To suggest that rough sex scenes performed voluntarily are the start of a slippery slope, and to remove agency from porn performers by suggesting that they are brow-beaten into performing acts that they feel uncomfortable with also seems unfair. But I do wonder if some people have underestimated just how working with a filmmaker who is determined to break you down will affect them. Some people are, surely, going to end up utterly broken by the experience. Anastasia Blue died, aged 28, in 2008, either from a drug overdose or suicide (as with many women who have left the industry, her post-porn life is shrouded in deliberate mystery). It would be crass and reactionary to say that the industry had any responsibility – but a collision of vulnerable people and filmmakers like Tusion does not seem a healthy one. And when even Max Hardcore thinks someone’s work is too much (interviewed in GQ, Hardcore said “Khan wants the girls to feel like shit. With Khan it’s real. Khan hates women”), it certainly gives you pause for thought.
I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve seen the BDSM scene demonised and condemned, consensual kinky sex and submission portrayed as violent abuse and the consent of those involved dismissed as the false consciousness of the abused partner. It’s a repulsive form of kink-shaming and moral control, and I’ve wondered if some of the attacks on Tusion might work on a similar level – if there is a lack of understanding about how dominance and submission work. On the other hand, I also wonder if all the performers that signed up for his films – even those who were told what lay in store – were on board with all the abuse involved, and where the point between fiction and reality, consent and abuse lies in situations like this. Can anyone really know just how traumatising something can be until they experience it? And who is at fault when the reality of a situation turns out to be less exciting and more terrifying than anticipated? Sex blurs a lot of lines and there are no easy answers here.
I do worry that the whole porn industry is judged by the actions of outliers like Tusion and Max Hardcore, a judgement as unfair as saying that all DJs are paedophile rapists based on the actions of Jimmy Savile and a few others – or that Harvey Weinstein is representative of film producers everywhere. More than that though, I ponder the relationship between the nice guy who bought us dinner and drinks and drove us wherever we wanted to go and made us laugh with witty conversation, and the guy who excitedly strangled women to the point of unconsciousness and berated performers to the point where they felt utterly humiliated – and then used that material in his films in the belief that it would get people off. I don’t have any great answers for this conundrum, beyond the fact that on the one hand, everyone has a dark side, and on the other, monsters can be charming – just look at Ted Bundy. I don’t doubt that Tusion had the agreement of his performers to shoot extremely rough sex, but I think he pushed that agreement to the very limits and perhaps – at least psychologically – beyond. In the end, I don’t think that the porn industry benefitted from his presence, and as entertaining a character he was to hang out with briefly, I’m under no illusions as to the sort of person that he really was.
Postscript: unlike Max Hardcore and Rob Black, Khan Tusion never faced legal action over his work, possibly because he was not the distributor. In fact, under his real name, he executive-produced a couple of respectable action movies with big-name stars in the late 2000s. His last porn film was shot in 2010.