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Stoya on the Importance of Accurately Writing About Sex Work

On-camera sex scenes are often edited and stitched together to create a final product that barely resembles what happened on set. Similarly, accounts of sex work can be altered through writing and editing to give people the wrong idea about the...

All photos by David Kornfield

Views on the differences between sex on camera and recreational sex vary from performer to performer and from situation to situation. The directors of heavily scripted productions tend to appreciate performers who attempt to stay in character during a sex scene, while a project where the main theme is legs, boobs, or butts will require more focus on those physical features than may naturally occur. A gonzo or all-sex scene is, to me, no different than any other situation where I’m having sex in front of other people—aside from sitting through an hour or so of makeup and hair styling first.


The difference between what sex feels like on set versus what a scene looks like after applying camera angles, lighting, editing, and color correction is a whole other story. Sometimes the final product has an entirely different tone than it did during filming. This comes in handy for those rare days where everything from the circuit breakers to the male performer’s physical hydraulics experience technical difficulties. It also comes in handy when someone (OK, by "someone" I mean me) has a giant purple bruise on one thigh. When someone gets hair in their throat or falls off the bed/couch/countertop/floor, editing saves the day and makes us all (well, possibly just me again) look more coordinated than we might actually be. Editing is one of the many things that separate a pornographic video from, say, CCTV surveillance.

It took me years to figure out that written pieces that appear in the press go through similar editing processes. Depending on the outlet, the number of people editing a piece, and the styles of the editor(s), the final published article can end up being anywhere from a slightly more polished version of the original to a piece where the author's intended point and tone become unrecognizable. It seems more like a side effect of the mechanics of publishing than malicious intent on the part of any of the people involved most of the time. I don’t have nearly enough experience with the behind-the-scenes of a news outlet to begin explaining the intricacies of this process.


I do have plenty of experience attempting to navigate interactions with the press as a sex worker, though. Even when the reporter or writer is comfortable with sexuality and professional sexual activity, he or she still comes to the table with a number of preconceived notions. They also view the subject through the lens of their own experiences. This is normal. I do it when I write things, and I do it when I read things.

You’re probably doing it right now, unless you’ve already wandered off to play Candy Crush or walk your dog or whatever the cool kids are doing these days. When I consider accepting a request for an interview, I research the writer’s previous work, personal blog, and Twitter stream to gauge whether their biases are likely to cause them to view me positively or negatively. I can also look at the publication that an article is intended for to evaluate what angle the final story is likely to have. If kind words about Gail Dines or Pat Robertson are found, it’s probably a takedown piece and communication should be politely severed immediately. In my experience though, the differences between the tone of an interview and the tone of a final story are typically more subtle and unintentional.

An editor who corrects spelling or grammatical errors in a story may also change words, which changes meaning. They also sometimes rearrange paragraphs or cut whole sentences. They make these changes to help an article fit better with the publication’s tone or to make a piece more readable or exciting. They mean well and do a number of important and appreciated things, but they aren’t the ones who did the research, spoke with interview subjects directly, or had the firsthand experience. This gap in knowledge, combined with pressure from deadlines and an increasing demand for stories means writers (myself included) may not see their edited piece until they appear online, which can lead to accidental inaccuracies. I’m sure this happens in articles about everything—from plumbers’ unions to lipstick trends—but I’m most sensitive to the misrepresentation of sex workers and nontraditional sexuality.


Interviewing a variety of sex workers is vital to understanding the professional sex industry. People who are current or former sex workers seem to do a much better job of preserving the accuracy and integrity of the information presented. Melissa Gira Grant’s upcoming book Playing the Whore discusses the general public’s perceptions of different types of sex work and how sex work has been judged, applauded, and politicized while examining the volatile relationship between sex work and various factions of feminism. She eloquently argues that reframing sex work as actual work would greatly decreases the dangers and risk of exploitation within the industry. She was able to write about sex work so fluently likely because she has a significant amount of experience as a sex worker herself.

Providing an even more direct-from-a-variety-of-sources view is the Red Umbrella Project. Since 2009, Audacia Ray, a former sex worker, has been helping amplify the voices of sex workers who have described their own experiences at a monthly storytelling event called the Red Umbrella Diaries or participated in RedUP’s memoir workshops. They’ve recently started publishing the results of those workshops in a literary journal called Prose & Lore, and Audacia is now working with a film crew to create a feature-length documentary that tells the stories of seven different sex workers. Again, because of her firsthand knowledge of sex work I believe in Audacia’s ability to accurately depict each dimension of the sex workers’ experiences and the variety of motivations that comes with entering the commercial sex trade.


Precision in reporting and firsthand accounts from sex workers are both necessary to create an authentic picture of sex work and the people who do it. We’re very lucky to have both of these women helping to balance the weight of skewed and sensationalized reporting.


More from Stoya:

Stoya on Ethics, Porn, and Workers' Rights

Stoya on Ovarian Cysts and Dressing for Porn Awards

Stoya on the Great Condom Debate