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Casey Calvert
Casey CalvertPhotography Rue99

What it’s really like working in the porn industry

This new book reveals the fascinating, funny and sometimes brutal stories of performers in the adult entertainment business

Why is it that porn performers are still “coming out” about what they do? Do parking inspectors, tax auditors, or even lawyers have to come out about their jobs? In the USA, for example, porn is protected in the States as free speech: why is it that it is dealt with by some in the same tone as, say, being a drug dealer? Coming out as a porn performer also assumes that there is something that should be hidden in the first place. "It presupposes that there's something wrong, something that should be kept private," says Jiz Lee, genderqueer pornstar and editor of the book Coming Out Like A Porn Star, which is out now. In the book, Lee has collected writing from workers from different corners of the porn industry – from photographers to website managers to directors to, of course, performers. Coming Out Like A Porn Star started as Lee’s own research into how other performers were dealing with the issues they had just begun to face as their work became more mainstream. “It started off as my own process of trying to come out to my parents – it became a strong interest because I wanted to know for myself!”

Asking around, Lee realised this was a topic that many performers had fascinating stories about, from the brutal to funny. Since even choosing not to deal with it was a decision in itself, each of the people they were working with had something to say. Contributions include Jackie Strano’s essay about being a foster mother with a background in porn, Stoya’s anecdote about the surprise phone call that outed her to her porn-namesake grandmother and Christopher Zeischegg’s after-the-fact interviews with his empathetic, if somewhat misconceived, parents. “These are just honest stories, they just kinda just cut through the bullshit…” Lee explains.

One of the first things that becomes obvious in the book is the significance of names. When you want to go about protecting something, you need to rename it, keeping it separate from your everyday life. With this in mind, it’s interesting that several of the contributors have written their pieces anonymously. One of these authors chose this option because her stage name is her real name. Having used her real name throughout her porn career, when she needed to start protecting the non-porn part of her life for safety reasons, she decided to create a new, legal name for herself, in a kind of “reverse-pseudonym” situation. Even within the broadly positive context of this book, porn performers have to be constantly concerned about their safety. Another anonymous contributor is a photographer. “It's fascinating to me that a photographer, who’s not even in front of the camera, would find it hard enough that they wouldn't want to associate their name with it,” Lee says.

Today, of course, the internet has made it easier than ever to define ourselves under different pseudonyms depending on context: “On the internet, we can opt in, because we can have alternate names. We can choose how to navigate, code our interactions differently,” says Lee. It’s no longer a question of whether this is good or bad, it’s just a reflection of the way people socialise, as well as a society that continues to treat images of sex as illicit, creating the need for increased privacy.

Because of the dangers inherent in mainstream society if outed (porn performers could be at risk of losing anything from “straight” jobs to the custody of children), this separation is one that needs to be protected. Cyd Nova’s essay “The Mechanism of Disappearing to Survive” in Coming Out As A Porn Star explains the “porn Wikileaks” where some disgruntled players within the industry decided to release 15,000 porn stars’ legal names, alongside their health information, that had been collected as part of the medical testing that keeps porn performers healthy and safe. As well as injecting a sense of danger into one of the industry’s safety nets, this, of course, has put performers in potentially lifechanging situations, potentially outing them to family members, or other loved ones. This makes the power of outing, and the freedom of taking the active choice for yourself painfully clear.

“Every time I came out as something new and different, I faced people’s shock, judgments, and rejections” – Annie Sprinkle

Nova makes it clear that he is unconcerned about his parents, or for that matter, anyone, finding out about his career as director of gay FTM porn company Bonus Hole Boys, and performer in his own right. Nonetheless, this outing is a violation that removes any agency or choice from the situation. Candida Royalle, who passed away shortly before the book was published, discusses, in “The Call”, how her sister vengefully outed her to her father as a porn performer. This put her in the difficult position of having to explain her choice to her mother, before her sister told her as well. Writing years later, though, she sees the outing a little differently: “Perhaps the greatest gift was that an act meant to punish me in the cruelest way possible turned out to be a blessing in disguise: I no longer had any secrets I had to keep locked away, living in fear of being found.” Casey Calvert’s story ends on a similarly strong pro-honesty message, having attempted to keep her masochistic inclinations from her family, she is now open with them: “It’s nice not to have any secrets,” it concludes.

One of the themes of the book is that of performers explaining the deep sense of kinship they have found in the porn industry, particularly in the LGBTQ community. Of course, loved ones want the best for the person coming out as porn performer, and it’s an area that is commonly misunderstood from outsiders: tabloid assumptions are widespread, and it’s easy for out-of-the-loop parents to feel like their child may be in danger. “With the limited information they have about what you're doing, they might have a lot of fear around it. It's a really common idea, even coming out as trans or queer, that your life is going to be harder for you. It would make sense that your parent would care about wanting you to have the best life,” Lee says.

Instead of focusing on the images that porn is almost overloaded with, the book draws you in through the personal and honest narratives. The one image you’ll find inside is an image that Jesse Jackman uses as part of his story: when the porn actor happens to open his mother’s computer, he finds the browser open on his own, very X-rated blog. Confronting his mother, he finds that this blog had led her to a BDSM film he’d recently performed with his husband, Dirk: “it looked like you were being tortured,” she said. But, looking at the behind-the-scenes image from the same film set, which is published in Coming Out As A Porn Star, everything became clear. The love between them, performing or not, is palpable. Images speak louder than words, of course, but they have to be the right ones.

Of course, the idea that “coming out” is a one-time deal, and once it’s done, you are now set in stone as that new person, is an odd narrative. Again, it’s not as if other professional decisions are cast as a milestone in the narrative of our lives, which is why it’s most usefully compared to coming out as queer or trans. Annie Sprinkle writes about coming out about her many different roles within sex work, as well as in her changing attitudes to sexuality and personal relationships more times than she can count: “Every time I came out as something new and different, I faced people’s shock, judgments, and rejections.”

And yet, for a porn star, the internet ensures that their coming out is both somewhat redundant (once it’s on the internet, anyone with a mobile phone can find it), and also permanent. Conner Habib (who follows through by giving both his legal and stage names, wherever appropriate) explains: “There is no ‘after’ porn. Now what?” Everyone could potentially find out about sex workers’ careers in porn – which means it’s more important than ever to remove society’s stigma around porn so that even if performers can’t erase the label, they can live their lives unscathed.

This book is a thorough discussion of the challenges that face porn stars as they navigate today’s overconnected world. The stories show that being open about getting naked on camera is a complicated, personal issue, and yet question why this should be the case. As the foreword by Dr. Mireille Miller-Young puts it: “They challenge the notion that porn labour is bad and should be hidden, and instead insist on openness, pride, and vocal resistance to the status quo.”

Coming out like a Porn Star is available now from here

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