I spent half a decade writing about porn from inside the adult entertainment industry, and I believe that porn can change people. It regularly gets blamed for twisting our ideas about sex, but pornography can also change us for the better. I know it can. It happened to me.
When I took a job as a freelance DVD reviewer for a dirty magazine in 2007, I had no idea that my involvement with the adult industry would last five years. I thought it would be a way to make some cash in between jobs; I didn't expect it to fascinate me from the get-go, while also frightening, disgusting, and tantalizing me.
I did it for the money, but that wasn’t the whole draw. I thought reviewing porn as a young, educated, fairly vanilla woman would be exciting. Not glamorous, exactly, but certainly more Bohemian than waiting tables.
When I realized, after watching a few DVDs with a mixture of disgust, shame and arousal, that porn was often the opposite of exciting, I didn’t give up. I see things through, I told myself. Just because the porn I was reviewing wasn’t as artistic as I’d hoped, or even a bare notch above the smut I’d felt awful for jerking off to on the internet, didn’t mean there wasn’t something interesting here. I could learn a lot about humanity through this distorted mirror, I resolved.
I was raised to be terrified of sex, sickened by my body’s potential for it, and suspicious of my desires, which were quite pronounced from a very young age. I was informed that neither men nor women should openly pursue sex, and that women should be chaste until marriage. I never quite believed this, but I did respond to it; it’s difficult not to internalize these things.
So, years later, when I waded into the porn industry, I wasn’t being subversive so much as contrary. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t afraid of the Big Bad Wolf of my own shame, but I was really living in its shadow. I treated porn not as something to embrace or enjoy, but to study. I thought of it the same way that Marlow related to the Congo: inherently alien and malevolent, yet darkly fascinating. It was all very academic.
I felt like an investigative journalist under deep cover. It was thrilling, but very professional, of course. Not personal at all.
And yet, despite my alleged professional remove from what I was studying, it’s telling that I kept at it much longer than strictly necessary. I landed a full-time job and no longer needed the porn money, but I continued doing freelance work for Juggs and Tight magazines.
As the years piled up, there was always a reason to keep slogging deeper into porn. At first it was the money, but when the magazines started folding, I wrote a column about pornography for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. The column got optioned for a TV deal and a book, neither of which came through, but the sense of “making it” was intoxicating. I started my own online magazine called WHACK! and interviewed hundreds of porn stars for feature articles and videos, under the pretext that I just wanted an excuse to travel to Las Vegas and Miami for porn conventions and after-hours parties with porn stars.
And when the egos, the drugs and the photographers ceased to be as interesting, I landed an exhibit called "Consent" at an apexart in TriBeCa, where I interviewed porn insiders and consumers alike about the effects of porn on their lives. (The show is moving to Vegas in January and several other cities after that, by the by.) I couldn’t stop now! There was always an excuse to linger.
It's only in the past year, as I've ended two long-term relationships and my stint as editor-in-chief at WHACK!, that I've been looking back at my years in the porn industry and realizing that the reason I stayed to make a career out of pornography wasn't professional. It was very, very personal.
If people asked, I told them I didn’t use porn to masturbate anymore. I had a boyfriend and a girlfriend -- I was oversexed, if anything. (Note that I forgot to credit the openness of the porn industry for inspiring me to try polyamory and explore my queerness.)
I was not lonely, and definitely not repressed: I’d thrown that monkey off my back years ago! Just look at the hundreds of pages I’d written about sex! Sure, it was rare that I was fully satisfied, but I just had trouble reaching orgasm. I still enjoyed sex when I got it, which, considering my career and my multiple relationships, was astonishingly infrequent.
And damningly, through all of this, I cheated. I told myself that my long-term partners didn’t need to know about my dalliances, even though I could have told them, and should have. I imagined it was being constantly exposed to sex, even though it often bored me, that sometimes got me going when neither of them were around. I needed an outlet. It wasn’t a sign of dissatisfaction or repression. It was a career hazard.
This spring, I was a mess. I’d been working on video art installations for almost a year. Everything had gone wrong days before the show opened -- the files were corrupted. There were glitches. I was sleep-deprived, drained, and anxious, and had been too busy for visits with my boyfriend or my girlfriend. I was trying to hold it together at my day job. I had no energy to devote to maintaining my professional detachment.
And so, when my boyfriend and I had a fight on the night of the opening, I felt the porn writer-who-has-it-all-under-control costume start to unravel. I broke up with him. A few months later, I broke up with my girlfriend. I ended my affairs. All of these relationships worked best under the fiction I’d constructed to justify my continued work in the porn industry, and I was tired of the excuses. I had to face the fact that something in me needed to be let out.
I met someone, this man who popped into my life, without warning, at precisely the right moment. We started sleeping together at a time when I had so little emotional energy I couldn’t have put up a front if I’d tried. Instead, when we had sex, I let myself connect because I didn’t have the wherewithal not to. And the openness dazzled me. Because I had nothing to lose with this new partner, I discovered a part of myself that had been in hiding. I just let go.
And almost effortlessly, the miracles began to roll in: I was still orgasmic! I could have not just one, but a whole bunch of them in a row! I discovered that talking about my climaxes made them more likely to recur, and that the discussion was easy for me because I had been writing about them in the abstract for five years already. Just not my own.
I had spent so much time expecting my partners to know what I wanted without asking for it. I had not communicated. I had faked it, just like I’d criticized porn performers for doing. I’d been haughty about their makeup and perfect composure, but I’d never wanted to let loose enough to sweat and scream, myself. And now, here was this guy who saw me raw and open and sweating and writhing and red-faced, and who still liked me. This, to me, was world-shattering.
And what has made the past few months a revelation to me, really, isn’t only the sex. It’s the epiphany that I stayed in porn all this time because I was looking for something: a safe place to approve of myself and my own sexuality.
After years of examining pornography, learning the syntax of filmed sex, exploring the taboo, and telling myself I was doing it "for work," I've realized that I have finally gotten to a place where I can shrug off the shame I was raised with about my own body and desires. I have found people who throw shame back at those who shame them, who use their bodies for fame and fortune, who exalt in their sexuality. I have learned a lexicon to describe my desires, to catalog my orgasms, to enjoy my pleasure without apologizing.
It's only because I put myself in the midst of the most sexualized industry in the world that I was able to find my footing as a sexual being, and to be proud of it. Sex is OK. It’s not always perfect, and it can be used in the wrong ways, but it can also be beautiful, and satisfying, and dirty, and hot, and all the things you want.
And I'd never have gotten here without soaking myself in porn.