Home Politics Seems Legit: Authenticity, Performativity, and Sex

Seems Legit: Authenticity, Performativity, and Sex

Kitty Stryker with Andre Shakti. (Screencap from Ban This Sick Filth, courtesy of Kitty Stryker)
Kitty Stryker with Andre Shakti. (Screencap from Ban This Sick Filth, courtesy of Kitty Stryker)

I’m in the middle of being flogged by Courtney Trouble for Banned in the UK (NSFW), an anti-censorship porn critiquing obscenity laws. It’s getting a little hot and heavy and my ass is getting red when the tails whip around and smack the cameraperson, my lover, in the face. We all dissolve into giggles.

And they say there’s no authenticity in porn.

I have a boner to pick with Rashida Jones (Parks and Recreation), an actress and one of the producers of an “intimate and ultimately harrowing” documentary about porn performers (because even when a documentary is expressing disgust and pity for sex workers, it’s still sexualized). Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus are very concerned about the impact of porn on culture; it was the subject of their first documentary, Sexy Baby. During an interview at the Sundance Film Festival about the film (which was bought by Netflix), Ms. Jones said, “Women should feel pleasure and have sex and feel good about it—and there’s a lot of shame involved with porn,” adding that “[i]t’s performative, women aren’t feeling joy from it.”

I’m an amateur-ish porn performer and one of the directors of a little company called TROUBLEfilms. As a queer owned, queer focused operation, fulfilling cis male fantasies is not really high up on our list of priorities, but I guess since everyone knows that “only men are visual” all porn is basically the same, right? And of course as the casting director of this company, I am blasé about performer safety and health—it’s not like we have a multi-page document of model rights and our ethical standards.

If only porn was as progressive as Hollywood—oh, wait, except there’s more representation in the porn industry for female directors and producers than in the mainstream film industry.

But I’m going to put aside my sarcasm for a minute, because this is a serious issue with serious consequences. There’s been a lot of discussion about “authenticity” in porn and how amazing and valuable and feminist a quality it is, but I call bullshit on that discourse. Indie porn performer Arabelle Raphael made a great point last year by stating that porn is still labor, and as such, it is by its very nature performative. All labor requires some sort of performance, from smiling at customers you dislike to being polite when you hate your boss. Labor in the entertainment field, whether that be acting on stage, screen, or in adult movies, is even more explicitly staged. Activist sex worker Siouxsie Q wrote about how when she was working with a feminist pornographer, the actual, negotiated sex she wanted to have with a real life play partner was considered “too much” to be “authentic” as defined by that director. So who decides, then, what is authentic and what is performative? Are these actually opposite ends of a spectrum?

(Editor’s note: Content warning—NSFW images after the jump.)

Kitty Stryker getting her licks from Courtney Trouble. (Screencap from Ban This Sick Filth, courtesy of Kitty Stryker)
Kitty Stryker getting her licks from Courtney Trouble. (Screencap from Ban This Sick Filth, courtesy of Kitty Stryker)

For example, as someone who works in queer porn, where performers often bring their own fantasies to the table, I get to decide with my scene partner what we want to do and how. Yet when I did a fisting scene (NSFW) with my lover, we were incredibly gentle with each other because we didn’t want to add to the impression that fisting is inherently violent… even though when we have sex offscreen, there’s a lot of face slapping, spitting, and hair pulling. I made a conscious choice not to be “authentic”, as my authentic desires are ones that would be deemed performative (and therefore not enjoyable) by women like Ms. Jones. So I faked it—and that choice made the scene more accessible.

But it’s not like the question of performative sex is limited to sex on camera. Honestly, most of my sex is performative, because I’m a theater kid who likes role play and wear silly costumes! What is authentic to me is pretending to be sex robots…or, if we want to get really weird, straight people. That’s what I do when I’m not getting paid, because it makes my clit hard and my cunt wet. Would Ms. Jones accept that, or would she see it as “fulfilling a male fantasy”? And honestly, what’s wrong with it if I want to moan a little louder because it gets my partner off? Is having sex that is more choreographed than the sort you’d have “naturally” inherently bad?

I am so fucking confused about what kind of sex other feminists think I should have in order to be liberated. Want my authentic opinion? I care a hell of a lot more about labor practices and ethics on porn sets than I do about if I have to fake an orgasm on camera or not.

It fascinates me that our stories as sex workers can make other people money for titillating audiences with our “stories of hope and heartbreak,” but god forbid I make myself money by fulfilling someone else’s fantasy fucking on film. Judging from the information provided on the site for Hot Girls Wanted, no one connected to it is an adult performer and no porn performers were hired to advise the makers of the documentary. I’m sure that the performers who were in the documentary weren’t led in any way to support the theme of the film, and that OF COURSE no editing was employed to portray the performers as lost girls. In fact, I bet Ms. Jones gave the performers a chance to approve the clips used and the edits made to ensure that their voices were recorded correctly, because authenticity is important in media, right?


Kitty Stryker with Ned. (Screencap from Ban This Sick Filth, courtesy of Kitty  Stryker)
Kitty Stryker with Ned. (Screencap from Ban This Sick Filth, courtesy of Kitty Stryker)

It also seems pertinent to mention that we are culturally more likely to embrace women who say their experience of porn was tragic than women who say that it was a neutral or even good experience. When I was looking for work outside of the adult industry and finding that my work in porn was closing many doors, I was encouraged by organizations like Solace SF to wipe my entire history as Kitty Stryker from the internet, and to leave sex work behind completely, never mentioning it again. My decision to keep my sex work history and name, because it isn’t something I’m ashamed of, meant that finding a job outside of the industry has proven impossible. Are we then surprised that we hear so much of the sin and redemption narrative in relation to the porn industry? Our authentic experiences are adapted to fit this theme in order to make ourselves more palatable.

Anyway, I’m glad you’re concerned about porn’s cost to my soul, Rashida Jones, but I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in souls. Also, I’m a realist who thinks you should be more concerned about capitalism’s cost to my soul than any spiritual damage I incur moaning on cue, but never mind. Call me when you make a steamy documentary about the impact of imperialist capitalist patriarchy on women’s labor.


  1. My comment doesn’t have much to do with this enjoyable piece. It just brought to mind Lisa Ann’s recent horrible tirade — kind of like opposing forces.

    Perhaps this is a place where porn actors and other sex workers — like escorts — can agree: we are performing but it doesn’t inherently diminish us. Plenty of sex workers feel they’re Oscar-worthy performers, even though no one is recording their performance (except perhaps in a written review). We’re not doing the same exact thing, but it is a common ground where maybe porn actors like Lisa Ann could calm down and non-porn sex workers can identify with Kitty Stryker’s perspective of having commercialized sex.

  2. I agree with how hard it is to find work after a job in the sex industry. When I worked in a strip club (almost 20 years ago – good lord), I quit and tried to get a “regular” job. Even going so far as to say I wasn’t a dancer but a waitress, and the waitresses DID NOT dance, they wore uniforms and everything. I almost got a job at a vitamin shop. The guy wanted to hire me, and even told me as far as he was concerned, I had the job, he just had to run it past my wife. Guess what happened? She refused to allow me to be hired, because I had worked in a topless club, period. I was unable to get a job until we moved out of state 8 months later.
    People like to preach at sex workers to get out of the industry and get a “respectable” job, but how can we when they won’t let us?

  3. I’m probably cutting Rashida too much slack by interpreting it this way, but maybe she’s advocating for as much emphasis to be placed on the actress’s orgasm in mainstream porn as there is on the actor’s?

    • I’m not being fair myself, as I haven’t scrutinized what she’s said, but I do think that’s cutting her a lot of slack. Jones seems to be heavily invested in creating some sort of model for WOMEN as much as for men, under the cloak of feminism. A few years ago she had a deal where she was tweeting with a hashtag like #stopactinglikewhores to complain about the way women dress/behave. I think she views the entire porn industry as bad, not bad merely because of the way in which it presents itself.

  4. The demand for “authenticity” is ridiculous. No one demands this from any other service industry (that I can think of). When I see that, all I see is a critique of the sex worker’s performance, that they’re not doing a “good enough” job at acting. It’s really mean-spirited, actually. Like, do you have any idea how hard it is to pretend you’re in enraptured pleasure while still keeping your angles in mind/how you look to a client? (Or depending on the job, making sure you don’t look too enraptured for pooh-brain clients– this line is difficult to toe.)

    “I care a hell of a lot more about labor practices and ethics on porn sets than I do about if I have to fake an orgasm on camera or not.” YES! <3

  5. As I have aged I have learned…. While we are all the same we are all just a little bit different…. Those differences are vital to our survival as a species. When you look at science / life in it’s most basic form – the ameba (an organism that does not have a gender) they replicate by what we perceive, under a microscope, as aggression of one to others passivity… And that is all sex is about…. our society is about… aggression of one to anothers passivity in order to replicate our species… round and round we go…. All the conversations / words in the world are just tools / ways for our conscious mind to recognize this… aggression and passivity have a place in our world for whatever reason and until the basic DNA of life is changed it will continue to be as it is and as it has been since any recorded history…. Hope you have fun with it …. I do!

  6. Why would anyone tie their real name to porn work? That’s half the reason people have separate names for adult industry jobs. How else would an ployer know. Chances are if you are in porn your not one of the top major performers that everyone knows so unless you tell someone I don’t see how Antone would find out. Just my 2 cents.

  7. Yup. Performative as hell. Doesn’t make it bad or wrong. When I worked as an RN, you bet that was performative. When I worked as a waitress, same deal.

  8. “I am so fucking confused about what kind of sex other feminists think I should have in order to be liberated.” – That really resonated with me.

    With respect to “Hot Girls Wanted”: I’ve worked in the sex industry for the past eight years, as an escort though, rather than a porn-performer, but my impression was these people need better management! The guy who recruited them looks like a total idiot who lacks any understanding of how a successful performer (or any other service provider) needs to carve out a niche for themselves. I hated that. I just kept thinking – I could come up with so many better ways for you to sell your services in a way that you actually liked.

    That brings me to authenticity (which I think in this context means getting off). Personally, I mix it in a little (but not too much). Similarly to the author, sometimes my own sexual preferences are a little too much for my clients. I’m doing a job and so my focus is on doing it well. I think clients enjoy when I enjoy myself, but unlike in the real work, when I’m done, I’m very quickly brought back to reality. I work in the service industry and my emphasis is on service.

    Great piece. Horrible documentary.



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