Photo courtesy of Stoya
I have this acquaintance in NYC. Her main career is in technology, but she occasionally works as a burlesque performer. Our paths intersect at shows and parties, where she's either in full costume or a version of it that is tamed down enough to wear comfortably on the street. A couple of weeks ago I ran into her for the first time without all the intricate hair and stylized makeup. It took me a full minute to realize that the charming and very pretty girl wearing slacks was the same woman I've had delightful conversations with about the engineering involved in costume construction. Usually when I fail to recognize someone I've met before it's because I was overloaded with new people at the time or because I'm just bad with faces… and names. In her case, I think it's more of a testament to how talented she is at changing her appearance with a combination of costuming and the way she carries herself in a given situation. Basically, the girl's got killer stage presence and when she turns it on and off, it's like flipping a light switch.
There is something interesting about watching the process of physical transformation or seeing the differences between what a person looks like fresh out of the shower and what they look like in costume or uniform. As a culture, we are also fascinated by what entertainers and public personalities do when they aren't at work and how they became who they are. This is why demand for biographies, interviews, and backstage/on-set photographs exists. This is also why there has been what feels like 1 million documentaries and photo series attempting to show the People Behind the Sex Work. There aren't actually 1 million of these projects, but there have been enough that my initial reaction to the news of another one was to roll my eyes. Jonathan Harris's documentary I Love Your Work actually does look interesting, more for the process and presentation than for any deep-digging journalism promising to show a previously unknown side of adult entertainment.
The superficiality in these projects is what rubs me the wrong way. In 2004 it may have been groundbreaking to show porn stars without the platform stilettos, false lashes, and lingerie or fetish gear that they were usually shown in. In the past nine years we've seen these garments come in and out of mainstream fashion and plenty of porn has been shot without them. Also, social media happened. Thanks to Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, and whatever other similar websites that have popped up in the past ten minutes, the fact that porn stars engage in normal activities is pretty well documented. Anyone interested in porn or the people who perform in pornographic videos can see us talking about our hobbies and house pets. They can see conversations in which we flirt with each other or discuss running into each other at the grocery store. As a group, we tend to take pictures of ourselves in various states of undress and with various amounts of makeup on and upload them to Twitter or Instagram on a regular basis. It's easy to look behind the curtain and see the multifaceted reality of both adult entertainment as a whole and most individual performers using any device with internet access. Social media has given the world a window into the real lives of all sorts of people in a way that ten minutes of a documentary or a couple of photographs cannot duplicate.
I think most people understand that people look and behave in slightly different ways when they are at work than they do outside of their place of employment, regardless of what their profession is. Anyone with the ability to think critically can easily see that not all doctors share the same hobbies, fast-food workers have a broad spectrum of long-term goals and occasional lack thereof, and porn stars do occasionally wear clothing even if it's only because being arrested for public indecency would make it difficult to show up on set the next day. As a whole, adult performers can definitely be quirky and are probably more sexually liberated than an average adult, but we aren't so far removed from the rest of humanity that we're some kind of otherworldly creature above concerns like utility bills and laundry. To pretend that we are underestimates the intelligence of people who are interested in the lives of porn stars or what goes on behind the scenes of the adult industry.
When I asked the hundred thousand or so people who follow me on Twitter what they found interesting about following adult performers on social media sites, a few people mentioned the nude or risqué pictures. A few more said that the porn stars they follow are interesting people or say entertaining things and just happen to work in porn, or that they followed for sex tips because they figure people who have sex for a living are likely to know what they're talking about. The overwhelming majority seemed to be responding with some variation of enjoying seeing adult performers as real people, gaining familiarity with our personalities or hearing about the 'normal' things that we do because these things humanize us. Again, anyone who wants to know what porn stars look like off set or the basics of what we do in our spare time can easily find out.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders takes a beautiful portrait, but his portraits of porn stars have already been taken. The territory of what porn stars look like in jeans and T-shirts does not need to be covered again. I wish documentaries that went deeper received more attention. Buck Angel is a fascinating human being, and Dan Hunt's documentary about him is a relevant and unique part of the conversation about sexuality, gender, and XXX work. The people at Kink.com seem very happy about their representation in Christina Voros's and James Franco's documentary Kink, and to my knowledge BDSM pornography had not been explored that way before. Rather than rehash the topic of "Porn stars look like everyone else with no makeup on!" why not put resources into documenting Shine Louise Houston's efforts to make ethical porn and the social and cultural effects of the way that queer and feminist porn visually depict a huge range of bodies and sexualities? Nina Hartley, who is a porn icon, sex educator, and all around badass would be a fantastic person to feature in a film about the mainstream adult industry around. Hell, spend an hour and a half discovering exactly how cute Lexi Belle is. (Spoiler alert: she's really really REALLY cute.)
In case you were wondering why my Twitter followers said they like to follow adult film stars on social media, here is what a few of them had to say:
@stoya It's a strong reminder that they're people, not mere sexual objects.— Jason (@altersparck) May 20, 2013
@stoya For me: learning about who they are as real people, not just as sex objects. The ones I follow are smart, funny, & cool.— Josh Neff (@joshuamneff) May 19, 2013
@stoya the real lives of people who portray a fantasy for a living— Madeleine Wall (@antapodosis) May 19, 2013
@stoya seeing them beyond the videos and getting a view into who they really are. They are more...human if you know what i mean.— A.W. Quinn (@AyeQue) May 19, 2013
@stoya it's about humanizing porn.— Tammer Saleh (@tsaleh) May 19, 2013
This article originally ran on Vice.com.
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