Like so many women (and minorities, and the LGBT community, and immigrants, and anyone else who has ever felt the sting of discrimination or marginalization), I am still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Millions of eloquent words have already been written in an effort to parse the unthinkable and help us come to terms with the fact that we have gifted the most important job on earth to a man devoid of character and intelligence, whose brand is hate and exclusion, and whose tools of the trade are bullying and bombast and abuse, so I won’t rehash that here, except to reiterate that sexism and misogyny (both latent and overt) were two of the election’s driving factors. Likewise, this is not an ode to Hillary Clinton, either, though anyone acquainted with me knows that I admire her fiercely and mourn that our country will not be able to avail itself of her leadership and compassion when both are so sorely needed. Rather, this debacle (and btw, 2016, you are an absolute bastard) has me thinking once again about what it means to be a woman, and particularly a feminist, in America, and that’s what I’m addressing here.
Reading the Slate article immediately reminded me of a quote from singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash: “When I…moved to Nashville,” she recalled, “the first record exec I met said, ‘Well now, we just have to make this girl fuckable.’” As anyone with a modicum of knowledge about country music is aware, Cash is one of the most gifted artists of her generation, and her talents were immediately evident. However, in this exec’s eyes–and sadly, in the eyes of many men, even today–she was a commodity, and her only true worth was her fuckability. Ergo, if men do not want to go to bed with us, then we women have no value.
To state the obvious, women are not merely collections of body parts designed for pleasure and service. We are human beings, each of us unique and complex…and one aspect of that uniqueness is our sexuality. Working in tandem with the view of women as objects is the stereotype that women who dare to breach traditional gender boundaries are man-haters, and/or physically undesirable. Well, I am a feminist, and I love men. Let me say that again: I love men. I LOVE THEM SO MUCH THAT I WRITE ROMANCE NOVELS. They are LITERALLY the heroes of my work. I just happen to believe that women are entitled to political, social and economic equality. And you know what? That belief doesn’t make me unfuckable. I’m a feminist, and I’m also feminine. The terms aren’t mutually exclusive. I like Italian heels and French lingerie and if you saw me on the street you’d never know that I am a feminist. If you took the time to look closely, you’d see more than body parts; you’d see a woman, multifaceted and flawed. You’d see someone you could learn from, as well as teach. You’d see an ally, not an enemy. You can’t fathom all of the wonderful things you would see. The same is true for EVERY SINGLE WOMAN ON THIS EARTH.
I can’t presume to speak for all feminists–we are as diverse as women are diverse. But I am compelled to state, in light of the devastating blow ALL women took this week (even those self-labeled “adorable deplorable”s oblivious to this gargantuan equal rights setback), that I am proud to be a feminist. I’m never going to stop believing in the value of women and girls. BUT. I also refuse to let anyone take away my sexuality. I refuse to be labeled as a man-hater, or forced to forfeit my desires. The “unfuckable feminist” is a propaganda tool, and an admittedly handy stereotype. It is NOT, however, reality.
NOTE: This post contains explicit language/sexual content. 18+ Only.
Late last year, I read a romance novel featuring a porn star hero. It was steamy, and I enjoyed it, but it was clear that the author either knew nothing about adult entertainment or, if she did, she knew the realities of the industry might prejudice readers against her hero. So, conveniently, even though he was a “star,” the hero had made only a handful of films and had a very small number of sexual partners. He also loathed his job and gave it up immediately after meeting the heroine to pursue “worthwhile” work. The words “porn star,” when applied to men, often conjure images of virility, endowment and sexual prowess, and that was the case in this book—the hero was skilled in bed. However, he was a porn star in name only—the character was completely unrealistic, with no basis in reality, and the story was essentially a fairy tale. When I finished reading it, I wondered: “Wouldn’t there be a lot of messy realities to sort through if/when a porn star fell in love with a civilian (i.e. someone who doesn’t work in the adult industry)? What if he’d been with hundreds or thousands of women, as would be likely for a veteran star? What if he loved some aspects of his job? And what if she had her own baggage? What if she was absolutely repulsed by his career? Is there a way through all of that to a happy ending? How?”
FYI, romance novels about porn stars seem to be in vogue right now. A quick check of Goodreads reveals that nearly a dozen porn star romances were published over the last couple of years, with at least two more due this spring. Only one of these stories features an adult performer heroine (I would guess this is because society is more accepting of men having lots of sex partners than it is of women—porn men can be “alpha males” but porn women are “sluts”—but that’s a subject for another blog post); all of the other books pair a male porn star with a civilian. And in pretty much every story, the hero is cocky, confident, sexy, has a minimum of emotional baggage and is happy to quit porn at the drop of a condom for the love of a good woman, which my gut tells me is superficial and probably flat-out wrong.
A few days after I’d read this novel and mulled over all of the above, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a new character in my head. Yup—a porn star. I could picture him so vividly that I knew trying to sleep would be futile, so I grabbed my laptop and spent the next five hours furiously writing down everything I saw. When the dust settled, and I read through a rough draft of the first two chapters of something, I realized that to tell this story truthfully—to make it as gritty and realistic as the characters needed it to be—I needed to learn more about porn.
Previously, porn was only on my radar in a general sense—I knew crossover pop culture figures like Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson, and I’d flipped past the odd softcore clip on Cinemax or the Playboy Channel when I was a kid, but it had never held any interest for me, and I had never watched a film, or even a scene. I knew that had to change, so I put Google on the case and soon had a handful of clips of top male stars to view. The first surprise was that the men were more attractive than I expected—and not one of them had a Village People/porn ’stache. Okay. Time to hit “Play.” Clip #1: A little intro dialogue set the scene, which took place in a bathroom, and that was the extent of a plot. The male performer, a 40-something veteran, and his much younger co-star rolled through a series of sex acts—various intercourse positions, plus oral—like they were ticking them off a checklist. When she went to give him a blowjob, he grabbed her head and forced her to deep throat him. She immediately came off of him and (off-camera) vomited into the sink; after a brief fade in the footage, she was back to work. Okay. Time to hit “Stop.” Needless to say, I found nothing about this arousing—dude was just too rough. #NotMyJam
The next two videos were, content-wise, almost the same: Each pair of performers rotated through a variety of acts and positions with a minimum of dialogue, touching or affection. I found it all very soulless and mechanical. I wish I could say I was titillated at some point but, quite frankly, I was only bored.
On to clip #4, which starred a performer named Mick Blue. As soon as the scene began, I could tell it would be different, as Mick spent a lot of time up front kissing and caressing his partner. Once they began having sex, he continued to touch her and maintain eye contact throughout. I’m not sure if Mick was attempting to bring romance to the storyline, or just showing care and consideration for the girl with whom he was paired, but his actions were actually romantic—unlike anything I’d seen in the other clips, and more akin to what one would find in a mainstream film. Maybe this was an atypical scene for Mick—I haven’t watched others to know—but his demonstrative actions were a million times sexier than the emotionless gymnastics of the other clips, and he impressed in a way no one else did.
Feeling sufficiently familiar with porn content, my next step was to gain a better understanding of how the industry works, and of the personalities of the performers and their fans. I decided to do this by interacting with the community on Twitter, so I created a secondary Twitter account exclusively for my research and dug in. (I want to emphasize that I’m not embarrassed to interact with adult performers on my primary account—in fact, I have—but I thought I’d be better able to talk with people honestly if I didn’t advertise that I was a romance writer: Romance novelists—like porn stars—are often discounted/disrespected.)
After only a couple days of reading tweets from stars and fans, one thing jumped out at me: Loneliness was rampant—among both performers and their followers. The first person with whom I chatted was a 30ish male fan from the Netherlands, who followed many female stars. He often tweeted comments to them along the lines of “Thank God for porn. I wouldn’t get off without it, since women hate sex.” After reading a string of his tweets on this theme (none of which were acknowledged by the stars or other fans), I felt obliged to respond, telling him that I enjoyed sex and thought most women did, and wished him better luck. He replied with his thanks, saying he felt as though he were “in an ocean with not a drop to drink” and that he’d felt lonely and invisible to women for years. This was a theme I would see repeated constantly.
Since the porn star in my story is male, and I wanted insight into his potential mindset, I spent much of my time reading tweets from the men and their fans. However, I did follow some key women, and had a few takeaways on female performers: 1) They are younger than I realized—many as young as 18 and few over 30. While many male stars are in their 30s or 40s and have been working for a decade or more, the shelf life of female performers is much shorter. 2) The girls/women who were in relationships were almost exclusively with men also in the industry. I’m sure there are some, but I didn’t run across a single woman who was dating a civilian. Many ladies who were unattached tweeted regularly that they were horny, lonely or wished they had a significant other. Their reluctance to date anyone who isn’t tested for STDs every 14 days (as porn performers are), and the fact that many men look down on women who’ve had so many sexual partners, seems to make dating civilians a rarity. 3) Drug use is common and acknowledged (this is true of the men, too—not even counting the ED drugs/injections most men use on-set), especially smoking pot, and there were scores of tweets about using, as well as complaint tweets about shoots being cancelled because various female performers flaked/were no-shows/were high, etc. 4) The wish list phenomenon (in which female performers ask fans to buy them clothing, jewelry, etc.) is distasteful. Not all of the women have wish lists. And some state that in lieu of gifts, fans may donate to a favored charity. Others, though, spend a lot of time angling for gifts. 5) Garish stripper platforms and over-pronounced eyebrows are (mostly) prerequisites for filming. As a woman with a penchant for beautiful Italian heels, I found the shoes baffling. Men must like them? #AlsoNotMyJam
As much as you can get to know anyone from his/her tweets (and some Twitter accounts read like virtual diaries), I found the women in porn to be just like any other cross-section of women. Some were uneducated, depressed, troubled, from abused backgrounds, etc., and seemed fragile and very ill-served by their present careers. Other performers came across as disingenuous, their bios stating how much they loved their work, when what they really appeared to love was that the work is lucrative (top stars can earn low- to mid-six figures annually); these were the performers whose tweets were always in sales mode—“buy my movies/clips, look at my wish list, watch my Cam Show, come see me feature dance.” Such relentless shilling and manipulation is a feminist’s nightmare. However, there are also women in the genre who are strong, business savvy, compassionate and intelligent. One star live-tweeted a Republican debate with such wit and insight that I found myself wishing she were the moderator. And I was particularly impressed with Anikka Albrite, whose tweets about art and animals consistently entertained, and who on multiple occasions reached out with kind words to someone in need. (FYI, Anikka happens to be married to Mick Blue, and I fell a little in love with this couple. They both have a lot of heart and humanity.) I didn’t have any preconceived notions about female performers, and I was not surprised to find strong, smart women in porn—we as a society have a tendency to paint everyone with the same brush, and that is always a mistake.
That’s what I gleaned from the women. But the point of my research was to get insight into male stars, and their fans. So what did I learn? I learned that there is no one stereotypical porn star—that’s for sure. Several younger stars seemed to be in it for the obvious reason: lots of sex. Some of the men clearly loved women, while others were blatant misogynists—one performer even regularly offered “fat-shaming” tweets. Mick Blue? Well, he adores his wife and is awesome, as expected.
In my timeline, one star stood out: a veteran performer who was a man’s man but also thoughtful, sensitive, romantic and sensual, successful in his field but also conflicted, and he wore his heart on his sleeve—or at least on his app. In short, he shared many traits with my character. In his tweets, this man spoke frankly about the clinical nature of his work; about his loneliness and longing for a relationship; and his desire for purpose and meaning in his life. He shared his past struggles with addiction and depression. On multiple occasions, his words were tinged with sadness and near-despair, and I felt compelled to reply. He subsequently ended up following me and we exchanged DMs. Though he never said it outright, I inferred that he’s ready for a different path—one without porn. And though he’s usually dated fellow porn stars, I inferred that he’s open to a new path there, too. It appeared that he had few people in his life who were not either in the adult industry, or fans; at one point, I offered my (more objective?) friendship, as I felt empathetic—I am a Pisces and he is a sign I understand—but as a stranger, my purview was limited. Nonetheless, I ached for his struggles and felt…sad. I still do.
Whenever this star tweeted about his feelings, he was inundated with replies. A handful were always of the “Cheer up. You da man. You’ve got the greatest job on earth” variety, but most were sympathetic men and women commiserating, stating that they, too, were lacking love in their lives. As I mentioned earlier, if there was one theme that dwarfed all others in the Porn Twitterverse, it was the sadness/loneliness in the hearts of so many performers and fans. I found myself wondering why. Were fans drawn to porn in part because they were lonely? Or was their attraction to and reliance upon porn isolating them even more from the “real” world? From meaningful human interaction? And how does porn affect its performers? The inherent intimacy of making love—the eye contact, the emotional and/or physical connection—is largely stripped away in porn. And, repetition can lead to desensitization. Do those things affect stars when they step away from the camera? Is porn a product that is potentially harmful to both its creators and its consumers, making them lonelier than most? Or, are these performers and fans just more vocal and honest about something—loneliness—that is an epidemic across society? As Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The answer is probably a mix of all of the above.
One more note about that male star: He’s my age, and a chunk of his fandom is women in their 30s/40s/50s. These ladies regularly flattered and propositioned him, and their tweets almost always went unacknowledged. However, when women in their early 20s with model-ish profile pics tweeted him, they almost always received a reply, occasionally with an invitation. Why men in their 40s/50s so often want to date women in their 20s—even when the traits they profess to desire are most likely found in women their own age—is another subject, but I raise it here because of the frequent age difference between men and women in porn. When 50ish men are routinely sexing up 19-year-old girls, it can’t help but impact performers and viewers.
After weeks of immersing myself in the XXX world, I went back to work on my manuscript with a new perspective…and a rather heavy heart. My heroine’s heart was heavy, too, sadness permeating her words. One of the first things she told the hero was that she felt she had nothing special she could give to him…there was nothing he hadn’t already experienced a thousand times over. Fortunately, they’ve since begun to realize that there are some things they can give each other that neither has had before. It remains to be seen if and how they’ll get to happily ever after.
It’s funny. At first glance, porn and romance novels make strange bedfellows (pun intended). While explicit sex scenes are welcome and often important, a great love story ultimately succeeds because of the characters’ emotional bond. Porn, on the other hand, is purely physical. Yet there is no denying that the two genres feed some of the same needs and desires. It’s well known that men respond more to visual stimuli, while for women, our brains are our biggest erogenous zones and we are turned on by the written word. Is it fair to say that romance novels (largely written by/for females) are empowering to women, while porn (largely produced by/for males, although that’s changing a tiny bit) gives the control to men? Whatever your opinion, I think we can agree on one thing: Romance reader and/or porn fan—all of us are longing for connection.