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.)
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?
Hahahaha, JUST KIDDING, I BET NONE OF THAT HAPPENED.
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.