The venus symbol made out of impractical bras.
Feminism, like everything in the world except for maybe the fact that water is good for people to drink, is a complex and nuanced thing. I love many parts of feminism and am grateful for many people who are or were feminists. I have the right to vote because of feminism. I feel entitled to walk home alone at night without being molested (whether I actually get to walk home without being catcalled or grabbed or not) because of feminism. My ability to choose to work in the on-camera side of the sex industry instead of other possible careers is mostly because of feminism, too. I should also point out that I am Caucasian, was raised middle class, and check a lot of the “conventionally attractive” boxes. All of these things confer unmerited privilege upon me in most parts of the United States, and the closer to the top of the privilege heap a person is the more options they usually have open to them.
Having a job that involves talking to the press means inevitably everything from my politics to my chewing-gum habits are up for debate and discussion. I've been told that I must be a feminist, that my job is feminist, that I absolutely cannot be a feminist, and, one time, that my vagina should be revoked for crimes against women.
To me, the word feminist is heavy with sometimes-opposing connotations. When feminists fight for the rights of all people to be paid fairly by specifically campaigning to correct male/female pay inequalities or defend the rights of people with fertile uteruses to have accessible birth control, I think it is a wonderful thing. When feminists persecute anyone who isn’t biologically female or infantalize other women who make choices they disagree with, I find it offensive. When feminists debate whether the act of applying lipstick is empowering or not, I find it trivial. My disagreement with some of the extremes of feminism isn’t the reason I’m frequently uncomfortable calling myself a feminist though. I’m conflicted about applying the label to myself because I rarely do things specifically for the purpose of furthering women’s rights. Avoiding giving a straight answer about whether I’m feminist or not is kind of a cop-out though. Shirking the word feels like turning my back on the women who fought to give me many of the advantages I have. So here goes: Hi, I’m Stoya. My politics and I are feminist... But my job is not.
My because-I-wanted-to motivations for working in pornography are not necessarily the motivations of all sex workers. Not all women are the same, not all feminists are the same, not all sex workers are the same, not all sex work is the same, and not all people are the same. This bears constant repeating because I see people (including myself) fall into the generalization trap pretty often. I’ve probably already generalized at least once in this column. But let’s get back to the relationship between feminism and my choice to work in the sex industry.
The concept of choice can be tricky. There’s a difference between choosing to hand your wallet over to someone who has a loaded gun pointed at your head and choosing to give money to someone because of altruism or wanting to present them with a gift. There’s an analogous difference between entering sex work because of financial pressures and lack of other options (whether that lack is perceived or factual) and becoming a sex worker because of exhibitionism, desire for the experience, or because you really really really wanted to have sex with James Deen or Rocco Siffredi or whoever.
That second scenario where someone chooses to enter sex work for sex work’s sake is possible because of all the doors that were opened by feminists over the past 150 years. But my choice to work in pornography doesn’t make me a feminist any more than my choice to take an Aleve when I have a headache makes me a pharmacist.
I use my body to make gender-binary-heterosexual-oriented pornography for a production company that aims to have as much mass appeal as possible. I don’t agree with everything about the way mainstream pornography or the specific company I work for operates but I do pick my battles. I ingest a lot of calories because protruding hip bones are more concerning than arousing to most people. I also regularly put an insane amount of goo on my skin. When I get to set, I sit my body down in a chair and let the makeup and hair stylists do their job of making me look as conventionally sexy as they can. This process frequently involves false eyelashes and curling irons. When they’re done with me I usually put on high heels, some fantastically impractical underwear, and sometimes other clothing for the sake of looking accurate for whatever character I’m playing in the setup before the sex.
Once the dialogue has been shot I have sex with one or more people while the crew captures it on video. My sexual partners on camera are people who I want to be having sex with and hopefully people who also want to be having sex with me. At least one of these people almost always has a penis and the scenes follow a certain arc. They start with kissing which leads into removal of clothing. Once the genitals in question are visible oral sex is performed. Penetrative sex (specifically penis in vagina) comes next, in various positions. Sometimes more oral sex happens in between these positions and occasionally anal sex as well. Eventually the male performer ejaculates and the scene ends shortly afterwards because the male climax is, well, a natural climax and sex scenes don’t usually call for falling action or denouement.
Nothing about the pornographic material I perform in does anything to intentionally further feminism. It is bluntly superficial entertainment that caters to one of the most basic human desires. Pornography exists and is not going to go away anytime in the near future. I see it as neither inherently empowering nor disempowering. Showing up on set and doing my job is not an act of feminism.
As entertainment, mainstream pornography is no more responsible for educating viewers about sexual health and etiquette than Lions Gate is responsible for reminding kids that it’s actually not OK to kill each other despite what they may have seen in The Hunger Games. It isn’t Michael Bay or Megan Fox’s job to mention in every interview that giant robots from outer space are fictional, nor is it the job of every pornographic performer to discuss the testing protocols we use or how consent is given before shooting. I do feel the need to discuss these sorts of things, and there are other performers like Jiz Lee, Danny Wylde, and Jessica Drake who seem to feel a similar need to highlight the context already available for adult films and provide further context.
But what about the wider reaching cultural effects of pornography? I can’t entirely discount the accusation that seeing a video in which I go from giving a blowjob directly to being pounded in the ass has inspired the occasional man to rudely shove his penis into his partner’s rectum without discussion or care. Whoever those guys are, they could probably use a refresher in the difference between TV and real life. In contrast to these butt-burgling-boogey-jerks are the messages I get every week saying that seeing my body or vagina portrayed as some kind of sex symbol made someone feel more comfortable about their own body. Also, the people who’ve said they didn’t realize that things like syphilis can still be transmitted even with a properly used condom and now see the benefit of regular testing and asking to see the tests of their partners in addition to barrier use.
As long as I continue to enjoy performing in pornography and the positive social effects seem to outweigh the negative ones I’m going to keep doing it, but let’s not pretend that performing in mainstream porn is any sort of liberating act for all womankind.
Previously - Stoya on Ethics, Porn, and Workers' Rights