Listen, I want to tell you a story, and it’s about porn.
I was dating this guy who was handsome and made me laugh and had dishwater blond hair. He lived in San Francisco and New York. The first time we ever talked was at the gym—he was staring at me (at my calves, he told me later), and I caught him looking. Then he approached me and asked me out on a date. I said no, but then the thing was, I kept thinking about him. His face and his voice. So a few weeks later, I found him and said yes.
Yes what? he said.
Yes, a date, let’s go.
Since I don’t want to keep saying “this guy,” let’s call him Alex. He’s a private person. Not the sort of man who would want his name all over the internet. I hope you like the name I gave you, Alex.
Anyway, we went to this bourgeois tea and food place. There was a statue of Buddha, and the menu was all platitudes. The teas had names like “Goddess of Wisdom.” I just had water. Alex ordered “Ocean of Mercy.” It was supposed to be very peaceful.
In that place of manufactured calmness, on our first date, Alex asked me my favorite question: So what do you do?
Here’s what I want to know.
It’s an open question to everyone, to my ex-boyfriends, neuroscientists, radical feminists, politicians, people on Twitter, my friends, myself.
What is it about porn stars that bothers you so much?
Why do you hate us?
What is it about us that you don’t like?
Well, I said to Alex, I’m a porn star.
It’s the kind of thing that when you say it, you’re worrying you might flinch a little, since you’re expecting the other person to.
At the time, porn was my main job. One to five movies a month. I was still getting used to telling people about it. Making movies was my favorite thing in the world, but it was tiring sometimes. And it followed me around. Every meal was linked to the shape of my body and my livelihood. I had to go to the gym a lot, which I’d never done regularly. But then, because I was going to the gym, because I was making porn, things like this happened—I got to meet guys like Alex.
Oh, he said, and then looked into his Ocean of Mercy.
Why do you hate us? What is it about us you don’t like? I never get the answer, just the symptoms of the answer.
I spoke at a university a little while ago. The town was like a lot of college towns: a middle of nowhere place with good restaurants. The students were thoughtful and nice and engaged in power struggles with each other and the administration. During the question-and-answer afterward, they shared their experiences and curiosities about pornography with me.
When the event was over, a student came up and said, in a hurry:
You know, you talked about all the good stuff about porn, but you never mentioned anything bad. What about all the bad stuff?
Here’s another version of the same thing.
I spoke at a college in Maine about porn and culture. The talk was mostly about the blurry lines between “pornography” and other forms of art. As soon as the Q&A started, a student said: What about sex trafficking?
What about it? I asked.
Well, he said, I know it’s going on.
But that doesn’t have anything to do with my talk. The two things aren’t related.
Women are being enslaved, he said.
Why are you focusing on that after my talk? I asked.
And to the student at the other lecture, I said the same thing.
Out of everything I spoke about, why is that your question? I don’t talk about the bad stuff as much because the rest of the public conversation is so focused on it.
Oh, he said. Maybe in academia, but not in the rest of the world. You just think that because you’re in academia.
I had no idea what he was talking about. You’re the one in academia, I said. I’m talking from my perspective as someone who’s been in the porn industry for six years.
He kept talking.
Just for fun, here are the headlines related to porn in today’s Google News search for the term “porn”:
Former Wheaton College Professor Gets 3.5 Years for Child Porn
Oscar Pistorius Surfed Porn Websites Before Fatally Shooting Model Girlfriend Dead: Report
An Incredible, Disgusting Scroll of Real-Time Porn Searches (NSFW)
East Pennsboro Area Middle School Teacher Charged in Child Porn Probe Is on Unpaid Leave, School Administrator Says
Intruder Caught Watching Porn
The Cardinals Are Very Embarrassed by Carlos Martinez’s Wall of Porn
Businessmen Who Earned £130k Hiring PORN STARS for Sex Parties Faces NINE Months in Jail
A Revenge Porn Bill May Be Coming to New York State
MBE Pianist: I Didn’t Molest Pupils, Just Watched Gay Porn
Charlie Sheen: Don’t Call My Fiancée a Porn Star
There is a bunch more, and they’re all negative (except for one: Go See Some Porn This Week!) or have a negative underpinning when you click through.
All that just today as I write this, and it’s only 2 p.m.
When I started making porn movies, I realized I might meet guys who weren’t into it. But no problem, I said to myself. Porn would be a filter. If a guy couldn’t handle porn, he couldn’t handle me, whether I was in it or not.
After a minute, Alex said something like “That’s nice.” Or maybe he asked me a question. To be honest, I can’t remember. What I do remember is that we were at his place not long after, making out on his bed. He was an amazing kisser, and our bodies fit together perfectly. And that’s how our relationship started.
Maybe it’s the kids?
Do you hate us because you think we’re violating your kids?
Because I hear that a lot. Children have to be protected. It’s a battle cry that has been around for a long time. Protect the children from the homosexuals, the racial minorities, the Muslims, the Communists, the pedophiles, the satanists, the forces of evil.
Who are these kids who stumble upon porn accidentally? It must happen a whole lot to want to protect them. And what, exactly, is the fear? Kids will stumble across sex sooner or later (and I don’t need to tell you that you made those kids with sex). Maybe you feel ill-equipped to talk with your kids about sex. Maybe no one ever talked to you about sex, or you have trouble talking with your partner about it. Maybe the whole talking-about-sex thing in general is problematic. That would explain why you hate porn stars: Our whole lives are a discussion of sex.
But actually, let’s really get to the point here, because I have another question.
You might not like it.
See, because I’m stuck on the whole thing about what you’re imagining:
A young child, a little girl or boy sitting alone in a room illuminated by a computer screen. The child is totally innocent (but knows how to use the internet, of course), and suddenly, without any warning, there’s an image so intense that it penetrates his being and ruins his childhood. It traumatically destroys his innocence and nothing is ever the same. That’s the foundation of why you hate us. So let me ask:
Why are you always fantasizing about children being raped?
In high school, when I was a kid, a friend asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
A porn star, I said.
It was a funny, half-formed kid’s dream, but I meant it.
I’d seen porn, like most of the kids in my school at that point, and this was before the internet. Aside from the fact that the cool kids were talking about it, I wanted to do porn because it seemed like a no-brainer. People gave each other and themselves and the audience pleasure as their job? It was an amazing prospect. I wouldn’t have to be a banker or a stockbroker or whatever. I could be a porn star.
Well, have fun getting AIDS, he said. He meant it, too.
Alex and I got closer. He was even more hilarious than I thought. He’d say erratic things at inopportune moments. Like if we were in an elevator with some people we didn’t know, he’d say something absolutely bizarre. The point is, he’d say loudly in front of the captive strangers, I was totally covered with snakes and my grandmother just watched.
I’d always lose it and laugh, but he was capable of holding a completely straight face.
He was sweet, too. And did I mention he was handsome? Oh, yeah, that’s right, I did. He became even more handsome to me as time went on.
But there was one thing. He wouldn’t ever watch any of my movies. He wouldn’t ever talk to me about them.
Maybe you think this is normal. Maybe you think, “Hey, he doesn’t want to watch his boyfriend have sex with someone else, that’s a totally acceptable trade-off.”
Call me crazy, but I didn’t think never being able to talk about my job with him felt right. I was and still am proud of all the work I did and do. The work to stay in shape, to keep my head out of the clouds, to create scenes for other people to enjoy—the feeling of hours of physical labor, of showing sex to others without shame. With the silence between me and Alex, there was a giant gap in our conversations. More importantly, it felt like he couldn’t actually commit to me if he didn’t embrace the pornographic parts of my life.
Can we just watch one of my scenes together? I asked.
I’m not interested in doing that, he said.
But you said it didn’t bother you, I told him.
It didn’t in the beginning, he said. But now we’re getting closer, and it does. Let’s talk about something else.
So I’d go to work and the next day not talk about it. Sometimes, when he was in New York, I’d fly to see him and get there a couple days early because I had a shoot. I wouldn’t discuss the extra days with him. Somehow, it seemed normal.
At this point, let me just stop and forgive myself a little. Maybe I should’ve put an end to things the very first time he said he didn’t want to watch one of my scenes. But how was I supposed to know the porn would bother him more and more? We fell in love before I knew he cared.
"Food porn" is pictures of food you love eating.
"Wedding porn" is pictures of lavish dresses, table settings, cakes.
"Science porn" is pictures of the natural world or how-things-work charts.
There’s skater porn (videos of skateboarders doing daring tricks on stairways and in parking lots), book porn (images of huge libraries and bookstores), fashion porn (photos of outrageously ornamental outfits). There’s even Christian missionary porn (pics of missionaries helping the poor).
People love using the word “porn” as long as there’s a partner for it. Pair “porn” with something else and it’s usually a good thing. A celebration of style and culture. But that word on its own? Well.
It can’t be factual. The reason you hate us, I mean. It’s fine, not all emotions have to be based on facts. We’re human beings, after all. I just wanted to make sure you knew it couldn’t be factual.
You might think the thing that upsets you about us is that we’re ruining society. And there are studies. You like to start sentences with the phrase, Studies show that…
But listen. The facts? You’re going to have a hard time with them.
Every in-depth study that looks at how porn affects people ends up either supporting porn or rendering it neutral. Now, I know, I know, you’re going to say, “But what about THIS one?” and point to a study I’ve never heard of. It’ll say that porn is somehow rearranging our neural pathways or that such-and-such part of the brain lights up when we watch porn. But those studies are routinely debunked. Did you know that most of those anti-porn neuroscience studies don’t have much evidence to back them up? Or that they have leap-of-faith conclusions? Don’t take my word for it. Just look it up. Not right now? You want to keep reading? Well, all right.
So then you bring up the studies that say porn leads to sexual abuse. There actually aren’t many of those, and the ones that exist have also been debunked. Did you know that sexual violence is more likely to occur in places that have sexually repressed atmospheres—including the banning of pornography? And did you know that there’s no sociological data that clearly links pornography to sexual violence? Don’t take my word for it. Just look it up.
Not right now? Okay, okay.
But sometime, just take an hour—or even a half hour—and investigate that.
You know what? Fuck it. Ten minutes. Just 10 minutes.
At a restaurant in New York, there was a small opening for discussion, and Alex and I talked, just a little, about porn.
It just all seems to contradict, he said.
To him, me being in porn seemed out of place in the rest of my life. I’m a spiritual person and I went to grad school. I taught college English courses and studied science. The porn, for him, didn’t match up with all of that. I started to grow quiet. I didn’t like that I was growing quiet; after all, it was my big chance to talk about my job and my choices. But framed this way, in the form of contradictions, it didn’t seem right. “Contradictions” was a word that meant I’d already lost the battle.
It’s just so dark, he said. How do you know it’s not all just coming from a dark place?
I didn’t want to shut down, so I tried to answer in a sideways manner.
In an interview, religious scholar Huston Smith was talking about his teaching job. The interviewer asked Smith how he knew, when he taught his students about all the different religions, that he wasn’t emphasizing one religion’s virtues just a little more than the others, trying to indoctrinate them.
"Because my heart is pure!" Smith said.
Because my heart is pure, I told Alex. I wish you could just look inside and see that I was doing this because I want to, and that it doesn’t make me love you any less.
But I can’t, he said. I can’t see that.
He reached over and rubbed my shoulder. It must be hard for you to date anyone, he said.
I have rarely felt so alone as I did in that moment, sitting there in New York, with my boyfriend touching my shoulder.
You were molested!
You’re saying that like it’s a revelation.
Porn stars were molested as kids, you say.
I’m not sure why this is important to you, or why it sounds so much like an I-told-you-so when it comes from your mouth.
If someone is molested and the cycle of abuse ends in porn instead of more molestation, what’s the problem? Wouldn’t that be a healthy path instead of a destructive one? Transmutation. Besides that, wouldn’t anyone who was molested have a lot of their psyche relate to being a survivor of sexual abuse? I don’t get what the objection is here, or why it’s important. Unless you’re saying that someone who is molested has an indelible black smirch on their being. A red letter. No getting past it.
You might be saying that, I suppose. After all, there’s something about us that upsets you. Maybe you hate us because we were molested.
But before you ponder that, here’s a little problem: We weren’t molested.
At least not any more than you. Statistically, when it comes to childhood sexual abuse, porn performers aren’t more likely to have been victims of sexual abuse than anyone else.
But don’t take my word for it. Just look it up.
After another talk at another school, another student had something to say. It was important.
Ninety percent of women who are in porn regret their decision to be in it, he told me with absolute certainty.
Well, I said, trying to smile and be nice because, after all, this kid came to my talk. Well, that simply isn’t true. I don’t know how anyone would even be able to determine a statistic like that.
It was something I’d heard before.
When I wrote an article explaining that most people in porn wanted to be in porn—after all, these days you have to apply for the job—many commenters furiously replied, “A man wrote this article! How could he understand what women go through?” I figured I’d get that response. Even though I knew from countless conversations with women in porn that they chose to be in porn and that many of them enjoyed the experience, I knew I’d have to substantiate that. So in the article I included the voice of a friend—a woman in porn—saying just that about her personal experience and the experiences of women she knew. The commenters probably didn’t get that far in the article. Or if they did, that woman’s voice was irrelevant to them.
Maybe the reason you hate us isn’t practical or factual, but “philosophical.”
It’s the concept of porn, you say. What you porn stars and studio people are doing to us and to each other and the cultural psyche, that’s the problem.
Patriarchy, you say first. (Don’t worry, I won’t get into all the facts about porn being the one place where women are paid at a consistently higher rate than men.)
Once, a woman online, a “radical” “feminist,” told me I was a rapist because I subjugated women. But I’m in gay porn, I said. No, no, you’re a rapist, she insisted. I looked at her website, which was dedicated to saying trans* women were not real women and that they’d infiltrated feminism by using deception.
When you hate us that much, you might notice: You hate other people, too.
When you hate us that much, you might notice: Even “rape” becomes a meaningless word.
And what you’re saying is: Women can’t choose to have sex for fun or profit. They can’t choose to use a part of their own being—their bodies—to make money. They can choose to be pilots, politicians, bankers, professors, and more, even if there ends up being pay inequality between genders in those jobs. They can even choose to be chefs, maids, nurses—all jobs that require physical labor. Hell, they might choose to have another job while being a porn star.
But sex work is not a choice, you say. That’s an exceptional case.
All you know for sure is that these women are too dumb to be aware of what they want. And you’re pretty sure that they don’t like sex. Oh, and that when they contradict you, it’s important to not listen.
I asked, “Why do you hate us?” and “What is it about us that you don’t like?” Here are different versions of those questions:
Why do you feel like you can speak for us?
Why do you feel like your voice, your concept is more real than we are?
Are you listening?
Have you noticed that you’re hurting us?
Am I still standing here?
When you try to save me, have you noticed that you have to kill me first?
In the sadder moments of our relationship, Alex would say: I don’t know if I can deal with this.
Okay, I’d say. Just tell me when you need me to stop making porn, and I’ll take a little break and we can discuss from there.
I could never ask you to stop, he said.
But. I’m okay with that. I’m fine. I love you.
And I did.
At his birthday party, there was a moment when he was standing away from me, talking to his friends, and I saw him at a strange angle. The way the sun was hitting his face revealed what he’d look like when he was older. It’s a moment all lovers have, when the face of your beloved is unveiled, just for a second, and they’re not quite as beautiful. I thought, before his face changed back, Even when he looks like that, I will still love him.
I loved him even more than I loved this job that I’d wanted to do since I was a kid. I loved him more than the playfulness of porn, the attention to my body, the recognition and how good it all felt. Maybe it was dumb to love him that much, but love is a higher principle than reason.
I won’t be able to stop right away, I said, but give me a month, and I’ll figure something out.
I hear you, Mister, he said (“Mister” was his nickname for me), but I could never ask.
I’ll ask then. Do you want me to stop?
He couldn’t bring himself to answer.
He didn’t want to get over his feeling and embrace my job, and he couldn’t understand that I cared about him this deeply.
He was paralyzed with his concern. He couldn’t move.
What is it about us that upsets you? Is it that we haven’t put porn behind us? Because if it were all in the past, we could apologize for what was done. Surely we should apologize for living differently. For not being too scared of sex. This is why you ask, anxiously, so often, “So what are you going to do when you’re done with porn?” or “You can’t do this your whole life.” Or maybe you ask those questions because when you see us, you think about getting old, unattractive. We do, too. We’re alike that way. But you’re the one asking, “What will you do when you’re ugly?”
Because you hate us, we’ve absorbed your anger.
So sometimes we hate each other. The people who wear condoms in porn hate the people who don’t use condoms. The kink porn stars, the daring kids on Xtube, the indie porn stars aren’t “real” porn stars. The “normal” porn stars aren’t challenging or queer enough for the “queer” porn stars. The porn stars who don’t escort hate the porn stars who do. Sometimes, if there’s fear of HIV, everyone hates everyone for a second. Eventually that fades away and we get back to it. But during that flurry of fear, wow.
So you see, for many of us, your anger and fear are too much to hold. It’s too much of a burden. To get rid of it, we direct it at each other.
On a train, underground, Alex told me he looked me up online.
The train was full of people, and he and I huddled close, next to each other in two small seats.
It’s too much, he said. When I saw you on my computer screen like that, it wasn’t a good feeling.
This was seven months into our relationship.
Why didn’t you tell me before you looked? I asked him. I could’ve been there with you.
I’m telling you now. It made me feel sick, he said. What does it matter if I looked with you or not?
Because I’ve been asking you to look with me. This whole time, I’ve been begging you to look at my scenes with me, so we could do it together, and you just looked without me?
Well, he said, I didn’t have you there.
I turned to the window. I didn’t want everyone in the train to see my face. The tunnel was completely black, but I could still tell that everything was rushing by.
Maybe I’ve been going about this all wrong. Maybe you just hate men’s sexuality.
"Men’s sexuality" isn’t my term—I think there’s far more commonality than difference between everyone’s sexual drives (even if the content of those sex drives is totally individual). But let’s not get into facts again. I’ll talk on your terms.
Here are your terms: Men are too enthusiastic about sex. They like it more than women do. They don’t know how to control it. They’re like stupid babies about it. And when they get that way, all horny, they turn other people into objects.
Objects. See, it’s hard for me to hear from you that we’re responsible for objectification—that we objectify each other and help our audiences objectify us. It’s hard to hear because aren’t you the same person who won’t listen to us when we tell you we enjoy it?
Aren’t you turning us into objects that support your ideas?
Okay, let’s just skip that part, I already went over it, and I don’t want to tire you out by repeating myself.
How about this: Aren’t we part object? Isn’t there a part of us made out of stuff? What’s so wrong with appreciating that aspect of ourselves? Why is that “dehumanizing”? I’m not sure why you think bodies are such an unimportant part of being alive.
The other thing is, I think you missed a contradiction. You were talking about neuroscience earlier. Studies show that…
If you like neuroscience so much, isn’t that also objectification? In fact, it’s even more objectifying than porn. It tells us that love is chemicals. Emotion is just motion. Matters of the heart are just matter. We’re biological robots. But you’re not complaining about that.
Shouldn’t you be complaining to the neuroscientists and biologists about objectification?
I’m not saying don’t like science. God knows the religious reasons for hating us are also a bundle of contradictions.
I’m just saying be consistent.
Science is the most objectifying force in the world.
I’m going to tell you another story about Alex, and you’re going to think things were really terrible. But they weren’t, that’s the point.
Sure, we had the normal relationship fights and problems that anyone has. But we went on vacations together. We ate at great restaurants, we saw plays and had amazing sex. We both said I love you. At night, we’d fall asleep holding on to each other, and in the morning, as we woke, gradually, we’d rub our feet together at the edge of the bed.
Things were caring and good. Except when it came to porn.
I’m sick, he said.
I wasn’t sure if he meant he was sick, like when he had a sick feeling from looking me up on the internet, or sick sick.
I’m sick sick, he said. My stomach.
It turns out Alex had a stomach bug, a really bad stomach bug that can come from sex.
You got it from making porn, and you gave it to me, he said.
Okay, he didn’t say that, exactly. But what he said was close enough, the implication was clear.
But I feel fine, I said. If I gave it to you, I’d be sick, too, and I’d probably feel sick first.
I couldn’t have gotten this on my own, he said.
Alex and I weren’t exclusive; he was allowed to be with whomever he wanted. I was, too, although I rarely slept with anyone else because my sexual docket was full from porn. But he swore up and down that he’d never had sex with anyone else.
Almost two weeks later, I was sick, too. There was no way I could have gotten Alex sick via porn. If anything, he gave me the stomach bug. But I didn’t feel the need to blame anyone. Getting sick is getting sick. If someone sneezes on me and I catch a cold, it’s not their “fault.”
It was a miserable few days, but I got over it.
You know, it’s possible to have that stomach bug from things other than sex, I said.
But he didn’t believe me.
I was going to make a list.
A list of people who’d been discriminated against in their jobs, communities, schools, and relationships because they’d been in porn.
But after I started, the list kept going and going, name after name. I asked friends in porn, What about you? Things seem fine in your life. Then they’d tell me a story about a job they lost or a family member who stopped speaking to them. They told me about charities that wouldn’t accept their money. One of them told me about a bank that wouldn’t hold her earnings. There were people who had been threatened, had public appearances canceled, had been insulted and shamed.
I started to make a list, but realized “list” would be the wrong word for it. If it were a list, it would have not dozens but tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of names: all the names of people who have been discriminated against because they decided to have sex so that others could watch and enjoy it.
I was going to write a list, but figured out that any list I wrote wouldn’t be a list. Just an introduction.
Alex broke up with me almost a year after we made out on his bed that first time.
We talked for what seemed like hours, crying, holding each other. He said, “I’m sorry, Mister.” He had this look on his face like he was in pain, like he was being pulled down a path he didn’t totally understand.
It felt like it was out of the blue. Maybe I’m naive.
Then again, maybe not.
Because here’s the thing you might not expect.
When we broke up and he gave me all his reasons, he never once mentioned porn.
You’re so loving, he said to me. I don’t have the ability to feel any of that right now, he said. I need to focus on my work and my life, I need to commit to living in New York, I need space to sort my thoughts out. You’re so loving and I can’t meet you, I don’t know how, I can’t give that back right now and I hate it.
I walked out of his apartment and down the steps to the sidewalk, alone.
And it occurred to me on the sidewalk that he didn’t care about the porn at all. He hadn’t even mentioned it. Those feelings were feelings that lost their way, feelings misdirected from some other sadness.
And it occurred to me, also, that I knew this all along.
Listen, if I told you
that we weren’t exploited any more than anyone else in any other job,
that we chose to do the work we do,
that we appreciate each other’s bodies,
that we’re not trying to violate your kids,
that we’re just doing what’s in our hearts,
that desire can be a good thing,
that pleasure is okay,
that we’re also teachers and doctors and lawyers and meteorologists and trainers and DJs and artists and writers and parents,
that we’re people,
would any of that matter?
It’s okay, you don’t have to answer. I know the answer.
After I got over hating Alex—and it took a while—I started to see him as a person again. One of my favorite people, in fact. When we see each other, he still makes me laugh. He’s still handsome. And over the years, it seems like his confusion has lifted.
Sometimes, late at night, I think about calling him and saying,
Listen, let’s make this work. Let’s try again.
Maybe you can look at all that struggle you went through, I want to say.
Maybe you can look at it and see that it wasn’t the porn at all.
Maybe you can see you were just having a hard time being loved.
Conner Habib is a writer, porn actor, and lecturer. His twitter is @ConnerHabib.