This is the text version of the book I reviewed in episode 010 of the podcast, Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection and Privacy edited by Jiz Lee.
This was how this book review was going to go… see, I’m working on a review of two books by Dr Gloria Brame—her classic Different Loving and the recent follow up, Different Loving Too. Different Loving is full of information and I’m loving it, but it’s going to take some time to do the review properly.
So I thought, ‘I’ll just read this, comparably smaller collection of essays by sex workers: Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection and Privacy, which is edited by Jiz Lee.’
Physically it’s not a large book—300 pages but it’s kinda squat, if that makes sense. I figured I could read it in three days, knock out the podcast in another two and have one more week than normal to work on the Brame episode.
Right. OR I could wind up taking 8,550 words of notes—don’t worry I’m not going to read all of them to you—and it could redefine the way I think of the entire concept of ‘coming out’. That could happen, too.
Apropos of nothing, after the book arrived I showed it to my vanilla friend Bean and she immediately said, ‘That looks like Jiz Lee on the cover.’
The cover has an illustration by Jamie Baiser, so it’s not a photo or even photorealistic. I mean, it’s not cubism, but … I was impressed. Then Bean looked at the list of contributors and recognized more names than I did. A lot more. She was excited to get to read it after I was done.
Bean’s vanilla, but she’s like the really good kind of vanilla—like the kind you spend extra on. Like handmade French vanilla.
Anyway, the book is published by Three L Media, which launched last year—their website was hacked recently and they are in the process of rebuilding it, which is why there’s nothing currently on the site. I saw it before they got hacked and it was a very nice site. They focus on books about kink and genderqueer issues and sex work. The book I’m reviewing today is excellent. I recommend getting it to support them since someone was being an asshat and making their lives a misery.
I will include a link to their site in the show notes, but if you go there and it’s still a placeholder, they’re working on it. I’ll also include links to some of their books on Amazon, if you’d like to show your support that way. It’s really a cruddy thing to happen to a new, indy publisher that is trying to give voice to the voiceless and marginalized. That’s my rant. Now for my review.
Coming Out Like a Porn Star is a collection of 57 essays by people who work in the porn industry—in front of or behind the camera. Some contributors have been doing whatever their thing is for decades, some are no longer in the business, one person was trying to break into the business when she wrote her essay. Some quote-unquote ‘just’ do porn, you know, BDSM porn, but just porn, while others have been strippers and done private sex work, and cam work and been in porn.
Many contributors had overlapping circles of marginalization—for lack of a better phrase—they were trans or gay or genderqueer or a person of color or from a depressed socioeconomic background or several of these at once. Hearing from such a diverse range of voices was interesting and powerful but in some ways, people say the same things no matter who they are.
This book is like having the ability to read people’s minds and realizing that everyone is the same. Because ‘looking’ at the contributors in this book from the outside you’d think they’d have nothing in common with one another most of the time and certainly nothing in common with you, general person, but once you see inside their minds you see everyone responds to the same situations the same way.
The typical belief is that porn is something people get into as a last resort, but quite a few contributors actively sought out the industry. Several people wrote about knowing they wanted to be porn stars from a young age.
In ‘I Always Wanted to Be a Porn Star’ Denali Winter couldn’t wait to get started—but she had to escape her small Alaskan town. She wrote this about their first trip to San Francisco.
By the time I came back from my nine-day, parent-free vacation, I had gotten my first tattoo, had group sex, been to my first goth club, and had a Dom/sub couple waiting for me to move down and live with them as their partner.
This person needs to be leading the San Francisco tourism bureau. OR they just need to be a travel agent, because clearly they know how to pack some activities into a holiday. I spent a week in New Orleans last year and all I managed was a corset and visiting the saddest fetish shop you’ve ever seen.
There were many moments that were hilarious—people who have to put up with a lot of b.s. tend to develop of sense of humor, I find.
This is from Lily Cade’s essay ‘This is Who I Am’ she’s talking about how she wants to come out as gay to her mother.
As high school wore on, I started to become frustrated that it had never come up, and I began to push her as hard and I could without directly admitting my lesbianism. I would stare pointedly at waitresses’ asses. I would bring up gay rights issues in the news. I would talk about how much I liked the liturgical dancers at our church because you could see through their dresses.
Look, mom, when your daughter is talking about the see-through dresses of the girls in CHURCH, she’s trying to tell you something. You’re being willfully ignorant here. I laughed out loud at midnight when I read that bit.
She didn’t really accept that I was gay until I got married. She used to introduce Sten—then my girlfriend, later my wife—and me as ‘her’, which would prompt us to make out so she’d have to admit it…
I’ve seen Lily Cade’s work and was a fan, but this makes me love her more. There’s a link to an article she did with Cracked about what it’s really like doing lesbian porn in the show notes.
Another person who made me laugh out loud then got philosophical on me was Loree Erickson in her essay ‘Why I Love Hickies and Queer Crip Porn’
I’ve never been good at being in the closet—any closet. When I first went to college in Richmond, Virginia, I immediately started volunteering with the Queer Student Alliance. I was tasked with calling people to remind them of the upcoming meeting. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the list that I realized I maybe shouldn’t be leaving messages. Then there was the time I left a message on my friend’s parents’ answering machine telling her, ‘The Lesbian Avenger meeting starts at seven–(awkward pause)–so you probably wanna come over afterwards since you are not coming to that meeting because you are definitely not a lesbian.’
Kids, people used to have these things where entire houses shared the same answering machine, but now messages go right to your phone. Ah, thank Tesla for progress.
Erickson is doing a PhD, which she describes thusly:
I make porn and then write critical cultural analysis of the ways porn made by and for queer disabled people transforms and interrupts systems of oppression.
After making porn she shows it to students and receives … interesting reactions. Including that what she’s shown them isn’t porn.
The two main reasons students give me for why the videos I make are ‘not porn’ are (1) they’re ‘not offensive,’ and (2) there is no ‘explicit fucking’. I find both of these responses incredibly significant and telling. I firmly believe that the ways (primarily mainstream) porn has become culturally linked with oppression and dehumanization in the popular imagination serve to undermine the historically rooted potential for porn as a vessel for transformation and resistance. Also, for most people, porn is seen as being fairly self-evident, the old ‘I know it when I see it’ approach. This approach, which is also how many people understand disability, serves to render both as fact, not as cultural constructs. This thinking serves to undermine the fluidity and complexity of both porn and disability. Furthermore, when students only understand sex and penis-in-vagina intercourse, they are not only missing out on some really fun and sexy activities, they are reinforcing larger structures of cissexism, heteropatriarchy, and disableism. At times, I strategically use disableism and the ways that my work is not considered porn to mitigate whorephobia. Whereas sex work and porn are criminalized, pathologized, pitied, and seen as illegitimate, my porn video has been purchased by many university libraries, taught in several courses, and screens in numerous spaces that typically avoid association with porn.
There’s a lot in that quote to address—but people absolutely do think they can tell if you’re disabled by how you look and I’ve seen segments on TV that I’d qualify as BDSM porn. There was an opening of an episode of Wentworth in the third season where I was… ‘Why is there BDSM porn on my screen? I’m not complaining! They can show this on Australian TV?’ There was no sex, it was all leather gloves and mindfuckery, but people who knew… they’d know. And the entire, ‘Well, I wasn’t offended so it’s not porn,’ argument. Wow. That makes me sad. And I love that she uses people’s biases against them to get her work into spaces it wouldn’t usually be shown. Haha. You go, lady.
Continuing on with the heavy philosophy…There were two pieces that covered similar territory as one another but in slightly different ways and I wanted to compare them directly. One was called ‘Coming Out Again (and Again)’ by Drew DeVeaux and the other was ‘On Coming In’ by Gala Vanting.
Drew is a queer-identified trans woman who works as a part-time porn star/nurse/epidemiologist/educator and activist in Toronto. Drew coined the terms cisnormativity and the cotton ceiling, which is the systemic exclusion of trans folks from everyone’s spheres of desire or the people we find attractive.
Gala Vanting is an Australian erotic film producer and performer, professional BDSM practitioner, educator, pleasure activist, relational anarchist and erotic imaginist.
So when I talk about ‘coming out,’ it’s not a simple story of recounting a time when I told just one thing to someone. Coming out is an ongoing process. I come out about different things, at different times, to different people, and for different reasons. In writing these words I am, in essence, coming out to you, the reader, in a way that doesn’t really happen in my everyday life.
This is a concept that is repeated by many contributors. But what both Drew and Gala Vanting (whose name I love) both discuss is more the entire concept of coming out itself.
Drew finds it odd and bothersome that coming out stories focus on the person hearing the coming out story—the family member or friend or whomever who now has to deal with this burden. She says:
I think it’s more interesting to hear the stories of the comer (that’s what she calls the person coming out), of what makes them come out, to whom, and when, of what makes them unique, and how they feel about that which makes them different but which also makes them special. I want to hear the stories of how they came to accept themselves—how they made a decision to accept that they may be into other women, or other men, or getting tied up by their genderqueer escort lover, or when they decided that, yes, shooting porn is something they really want to do, it’s actually something they have to do, and why the hell did they wait so long to do this.
Almost in agreement with this, in Gala Vanting’s piece she says:
So who owns these coming-out stories? And who do I stand to hurt in the process of telling them? They’re written by us both, in the moment…
Like Drew was saying, this makes the story about the other person—the person hearing the story—the person who (ostensibly) is in some place of privilege—and protecting their sensitivities rather than wondering if the person who is regularly being broken down (you) is going to be let down once again.
Then Gala…Miss Vanting? Talks about a friend of hers, Sam, and their way looking at coming out
We the Others, are quite occupied with the process of projecting ourselves out into the world, with the ways in which our various identities are either read or invisible to the outside. We’re concerned about the ways in which representations of our communities are interpreted, and sometimes we even try to exercise some control over this. We’re anxious about how those individuals we interact with will receive the news that we are what we are. We end up devoting a lot of time and energy to what’s happening outside, perhaps to the detriment of what’s happening inside; inside our lives, our relationships, our communities, our fucking, and our politics.
So Sam decided to talk instead about ‘coming in’–coming into their own delicious confluence of identities, spending more energy exploring and loving it, filling it up, poking at its peripheries and looking for the give. Accepting it as the already-perfect starting point it’ll always be. Spending less time iterating it to others or caring much about their response. Coming into a glorious shared space with others who share those intersections, and those who don’t care what kind of thing you are as long as you’re good people. Coming into an era of just being themselves.
This concept blew my freakin’ mind, man. I sat there, just staring at the words on the page. We’re taught by the outside world and by one another that we must gain approval from Out There. You have to come out. If you’re not lucky enough to be born as whatever is currently deemed socially acceptable, you’re going to have to sit the important people down and tell them what’s wrong with you and hope they’re going to be, at the very least, tolerant. (I mean, who doesn’t want to be ‘tolerated’, right?) If you’re super lucky, you meet an accepting person. But we pat those people on the back for, you know, not being dicks. That’s kind of a weird thing to be proud of, right? I mean, just, for accepting other people. But here we are. The baseline for decency is not being an asshole when someone isn’t like you. Not, ‘I celebrate your difference because that’s what makes the world interesting!’ Wow.
Anyway, Annie Sprinkle’s essay—if you don’t know who Annie Sprinkle is I’m not sure what to say, you’re probably too young to be listening to the show. If you don’t know, though, Google her—she’s been doing sex professionally for forty-two years. Her essay was called ‘The Luxury of Coming Out’ and it was a list of seven things that came to mind when Jiz Lee asked her to write about coming out.
It’s what we think of ourselves that matters most. When we tell people what we do, it’s not what we do, it’s how we say what we do that will radiate out and reflect back to us in the response we get.
This is a concept that was repeated in different ways by other people and something I’ve long believed in. People will, often, treat you the way you behave.
She also said:
What other people think of us is really none of our business.
And that is the truth. Other people’s judgments of you is far more to do with them than it is to do with you. I love it. ‘I’m sorry, but what does your opinion of me have to do with the truth of who I am?’
At the end of her piece she issued a beautiful call for community.
Remember, too, if we expect others to love and accept us for who we are and what we do, we have to extend the same love and acceptance to others. Next time someone comes out to you as something that you don’t approve of, be gentle, be kind, and try to not judge but to understand.
Many, many people wrote about names—why they chose porn names and so forth. One essay, ‘What’s in a Name’ by a producer called Edward Lapple mentions a study done in 2014 by statistician Jon Millward. He ran 10,000 porn stars names (as in pseudonyms) and other biometrics and types of scenes through various mathy-things and came up with some very interesting findings. I’ll put a link to the page in the show notes. You know any scientific paper with the phrase, ‘Fisting, I’m looking at you,’ is worth the read.
There are two essays by Jesse Jackman—he’s the only contributor with two entries. Both are very good—one is about how his employer took it (marvelously everyone should get that reaction) and the other is how his mother took it—also, not terrible. This quote comes from the second essay (‘Mom, I’m a Porn Star’) and happens after Jackman stops by his mother’s house unannounced. He goes to use her computer and discovers his, as he describes it ‘VERY X-rated’ blog open on the monitor.
My blog talks extensively about how porn has changed my life for the better. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I’m excited, empowered, and confident.
A pretty good number of contributors talk about what a positive influence porn and sex work in general has had on their lives and how their loved ones have seen that change for the better. Everything all the time isn’t sunshine and roses, but no job is like that.
Reading about highly vulnerable moments in a person’s life can make you feel as though you know them, when you really don’t, but there were certain people I wanted to get to know better. Many of the people I’ve quoted here and others I didn’t have the space for. Tina Horn was one. I just loved the way she used language.
In ‘Exhibitionists and Exposure’ she describes being a dominatrix as:
…the best paid improv gig in town.
which I really like. I’d be interested in hearing from others in that profession to see if they concur with that assessment.
Later, she describes herself as a ‘sexual extrovert’, as in:
They knew I was supporting myself being a sexual extrovert,
referring to her parents knowing she had something to do with sex work in one form or another. I really like the way she writes. Her first book is called Love Not Given Lightly—it’s also published by Three L Media—and her essay makes me want to read it very much. Her twitter is @tinahornsass. She also has a podcast called Why Are People Into That?! The title alone makes me want to listen to it. Tina—if you’re listening to this—contact me!
Several people talked about the sheer crazy-making whack-a-doody runaround involved in trying to get paid if you’re involved in any kind of sex work. That could be it’s own show. Legal sex work like porn and erotica and cam work—PayPal and Chase and just all the people won’t process payment for you. Because. Don’t get me started. Link to more info in the show notes. They shut down people’s private personal banking accounts. Because they can. I’ll leave it there.
Because I can’t quote everything at you I’d like I’ll just say Madison Young’s essay about raising a child and being as age-appropriately out as possible was eye-opening and … I’m going to go with eye-opening. That child is going to meet some very repressed peers out in the world in comparison.
Jack HammerXL’s story is particularly affecting—he lost a lot due to what I’m going to call a colossal dickpencil, but he’s making the best of it.
Joanna Angel’s essay (‘Porn Made Me Like My Parents’) is about the very beginning of her site Burning Angel and its convergence with punk. She certainly had an unusual childhood.
Stoya has a piece, as does Nina Hartley because of course she does—does that woman sleep? She has more energy than I do.
Usually in collections—whether it’s short stories or essays—some pieces are stronger than others, but in this one I think every piece earned its place. Some will resonate more than others with each reader, but they’re all well-written and they all come from the heart. Some are funny—or have funny moments, at least—and some are infuriating. Others prove how surprising family can be.
I would recommend this to everyone. If you enjoy porn then definitely—get to know the people who make it, they’re actually pretty awesome humans. But even if you’re not interested and you think it’s wrong, wrong, wrong, give this a read. Try to understand why the people who make porn do the jobs they do, you’ll be surprised. This is definitely a 5 of 5.
At the start of each piece was a brief bio on the writer that included their social media handle or website, which you can see here.