There’s a line in Irvine Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno that reads, “we need tits and arse because they have got to be available to us; to be pawed, fucked, wanked over. Because we’re men? No. Because we’re consumers”. Elsewhere, Welsh says that “if you really want to see how capitalism operates … porn is the place to study”.
There is more than an echo of Welsh’s words in my interview with internationally famous adult film star and director Stoya. Because when Stoya talks about sex, it’s clear that for her it’s a joyous and celebratory thing. But speaking about her industry and the capitalism that drives it? It’s a far less rosy picture.
In conversation with Stoya – who is whip-smart and engaging – I get to understand at least a little about porn as an industry, and how it has affected Stoya personally, as well as the wider world. Our conversation is so normal – it feels odd to hear her say words like Lesbian Anal Sex Slaves, or to hear her give advice on washing sex toys rather than “just wiping them off on the bedsheets”. When we discuss what she is wearing during our interview, and how Skype allows her to wear whatever the hell she likes (a t-shirt and sweatpants. Calm down), I interject by saying “you could be wearing no pants for all I know…”
I have momentarily forgotten who I am speaking to, and am immediately mortified. It’s probably not the best thing to say to a porn star over webcam.
Stoya, however, is no ordinary porn star – if, indeed, such a thing exists. Certainly she defies the archetype of the blonde-haired pin-up that that we have come to expect. A self-described “pasty young woman” with “wiry limbs”, she is actually about as far from the stereotype of a porn star as it’s possible to be – though of course she is still, by any conventional beauty standards, extremely attractive (Paper magazine described her as “the Kim Kardashian of porn, if Kim Kardashian was an edgy art student”). Profiled everywhere from Paper to Vice, and with bylines in the New York Times, she has recently published a book entitled Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn. She was also a contributor to the inaugural issue of the first peer-reviewed academic journal on pornography.
Talking to Stoya, I am struck by the extent of the responsibility she is made to bear for social issues. Feminism, sexual education – these are weighty responsibilities
I ask Stoya about the extent to which her atypical appearance has allowed her to cross over from the fringe world of porn right into the mainstream. She asks how familiar I am with the concept of respectability politics. I tell her I’m not.
“So I have only a superficial understanding and I would encourage anyone who’s interested to look it up … but basically, respectability politics is pull your pants up, have a decent haircut, gosh that eyeliner’s a bit loud … it includes things like the way you speak … and obviously mannerisms and so on.” I nod. “So me looking much more like one of your daughter’s friends, or someone that you might be in university with, that leaves people more open. They feel some sense of commonality, so they’re more willing to listen, and be open, and take things to heart.”
She is sage: “So absolutely the way I look, the way that I speak … totally contributed to the career road that I’ve had. Probably it’s a very different one than if I’d been tan and maybe blonde.”
Porn has opened doors for Stoya and many other women , then, and not only sexually – though the opportunity for sexual creativity is something for which she is grateful to porn. She describes herself as naturally very interested in sex and sexual activity with a variety of people: “It [porn] has given me opportunities in an environment that’s full of people who are also very interested in sex and have a lot of sex. It’s let me explore things more easily or with more experienced people.” But beyond sex? “Being a porn performer seems to make other people feel more comfortable … people are more open to me about sex and their relationships, because the two occur so frequently, so you hear a lot of things.”
It’s not porn itself that Stoya feels has made things abnormal in her life. “Being notable in my field – and I think a lot of this would be the same regardless of what field it is – that’s definitely made things a bit strange.” She tells me how she has been photographed and video-recorded in public without her knowledge or consent. Bits of conversations with friends have made their way on to the internet, her words taken out of context and set out for the world to see. She has to be mindful of public interest in her personal romantic life.
“Sex just opened a lot of doors and opportunity – but then the rest of my life? It’s made things very odd in certain areas.”
This kind of intrusion into her private life, the dissolution between her public and private worlds – has this led to her to construct a kind of separate persona: Stoya the porn star versus Stoya the person?
The way I look, the way that I speak, totally contributed to the career road that I’ve had. Probably it’s a very different one than if I’d been tan and maybe blonde
The distinction between person and persona is certainly something that Stoya feels porn fans can fail to grasp. She tells me that porn exists in a “twilight zone”. “Where we look at Brad Pitt in a movie and we know that he’s playing a role and he’s not really like that, when we look at an adult performer in a porn movie, a lot of people seem to fail to draw the distinction.”
But while Stoya is obviously not her real name, she doesn’t have a porn persona. “I wouldn’t even know how to start creating one”, she tells me. “I’m here because it turned out that I enjoyed doing it. It’s very personal for me, the idea of constructing kind of a character wasn’t for me.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people know the real Stoya. She gets some people using her legal name in a calculating way: “Like they’re aggressively trying to be like, ‘I know something about you’.” Others think they know her because they have seen so much of her sexually. They don’t: they may know her sexual response but, as she points out, “that’s one small slice of a human being”.
For Stoya, though, the matter is complicated by the fact that she shares so much of what she calls her inner world through her writing. “People who read my work? They do actually know me, so it’s complicated.”
That’s not to say that everyone who watches porn feels they know, or wants to know, the performers. In Jon Ronson’s porn industry podcast, The Butterfly Effect, a former porn addict admits to Ronson that she didn’t think about the lives of the performers. “I didn’t really care about them”, she said. “I just cared about myself … it’s like when you kill a deer. You don’t name it because then you can’t eat it.”
This is a fairly shocking admission. But does it suggest that pornography may be causing a dehumanisation of humans and human sexuality?
Stoya doesn’t see things exactly that way. She admits that porn has a problem with dehumanisation, but she doesn’t see this as uniquely porn’s problem: it’s society’s. “We have”, she says, “because of capitalism, a commodification and dehumanisation of people in the workforce generally”.
Sex just opened a lot of doors and opportunity – but then the rest of my life? It’s made things very odd in certain areas
What, though, of porn’s separation and compartmentalisation of people into easily found, search-engine-optimised categories? What about “No Longer a Teen Slut, Not Yet a MILF”?
This, Stoya believes, began with naturally occurring categories, so that there was a kind of organic categorising of naturally occurring groups in bricks and mortar porn video stores. “And then things shifted to the internet.” There, porn sites like mature sex movies will categorise their videos. This is where a process of categorisation that includes “the reduction of a human into black, white, Asian, MILF, teen…” began.
However, Stoya says that this is “not an isolated porn thing”. She cites the example of internet dating. Online dating has us “basically ordering prospective mates based on height, age … sometimes it’s interest categories, sometimes it’s income level”, which likewise reduces people to categories. So this kind of dehumanisation is “occurring within like an entire half, maybe more, of the globe under capitalism. Seeing people as commodities and other ways in which we sort people based on various superficial markers”.
Seemingly it all comes back to the internet, and to algorithms. “I think the way things are going we’re going to see more sophisticated ways of using [superficial markers] to navigate large amounts of content. A lot of that is going to be done by algorithms without our input, with varying degrees of success.”
Stoya suggests that we might try to combat this by having more abstract, less joyless categories. She cites the aforementioned Lesbian Anal Sex Slaves III. “It’s a really hardcore BDSM anal scene but Aiden [Starr, a performer] is so bubbly and joyous throughout the whole thing, and that’s wonderful to me.” She would like to see categories that allow for the exploration of emotions by categorisations like bubbly or joyous: “It would add an angle to thinking about sex. It would provide a pathway of something the person is interested in, but that takes them through all sorts of things they might not naturally stumble upon.”
Where we look at Brad Pitt in a movie and we know that he’s playing a role and not really like that, when we look at an adult performer, a lot of people seem to fail to draw the distinction
But back to the capitalist impulse that has brought this situation about. This, of course, is the growth of PornHub and other hosting sites that have made pornography widely available and, crucially, free. Nowadays, more and more porn is being made as producers scrabble for a slice of a market that is delivering ever-diminishing returns. More porn means more categories, and more dehumanisation of the kind we’ve been discussing.
The company mainly responsible for making so much porn free, though now called MindGeek, originally bore the name Manwin. Stoya tells me that she was enraged by owner Fabian Thylmann’s claim that he didn’t realise this name would make the women of porn feel uncomfortable. Not that Thylmann is likely to care: while Stoya has, in the past, had to give an upfront deposit of a year’s rent for an apartment because of her job, Thylmann received a $362 million loan to take the Manwin company off the ground. He now owns only four cars, having previously owned 18.
So I ask Stoya about feminism and porn. She herself is a feminist, “grateful for and in alignment with the top-line values in feminism, equal rights for women … grateful for the work of so many feminists who came before me. I do not reject the label of feminist as a person”.
“But”, she says, “my work is not feminist. The porn scenes that I do, there’s nothing particularly political about them. If there’s any subtext or any message, it’s about sex work”.
It is important to Stoya that she is clear on this point. She wants to direct those who are interested in actual feminist porn to the porn being made by people like Erika Lust, Madison Young, and Pink and White Label. She wants to have people more connected with exactly what they’re looking for, rather having people looking for feminist porn in places they won’t find it – such as her work.
But it’s also important, she says, “for there to be space for women who aren’t all about the fact that they are a woman”. She talks about how people make women’s literature so much about the condition of being a woman. “When men write about the condition of being a man, they’re just writing about being human.” Women are not obliged to make feminism the bedrock of their sexual preferences, or their porn, she seems to be saying.
As for the industry itself, the Manwin-now-MindGeek-controlled world of pornography is an unequal place. Female porn stars may earn a better fee on most sets, but Stoya is doubtful whether this bears out over the course of a career. After all, women’s careers are shorter, and they do fewer of the more lucrative sex scenes. She tells me how she would react if there was a man of similar stature being paid more for the same work: she might, if she “really, really” wants to do the project, do it anyway, but she has dug her heels in on occasion and refused the work unless she is compensated equally. This kind of ultimatum, however, apparently “rarely works”.
But again Stoya doesn’t see this problem as unique to the porn industry. “We live under capitalism … like, capitalism really does rule just about everything.” She agrees that porn is pretty much the same as every other industry in a “generally capitalist, generally patriarchal world”.
Though we’ve touched on Stoya’s work as a writer, as well as obviously discussing her career as a pornographer, I want to ask her about another job she’s unexpectedly had to take on: that of sex educator. It’s a role with which she’s not entirely comfortable. She is clear that sex education is just not porn’s responsibility.
“From an objective, functionality viewpoint, use a registered nurse. Yeah, we [porn stars] have a lot of hands-on knowledge and practice, but we don’t tend to have backgrounds in education or public health. So it’s not ideal to leave the work to us.” She is adamant that there are people who are much better equipped than porn performers to take responsibility for sex education.
She does, however, acknowledge the need for a connection between the two. “We need better connections between pornography and sexual education. As in, ‘hey, while you’re looking at porn, here are places that you can go to learn about sex that’s not performative’.” This would be mutually beneficial: “If we lived in a world where we had really solid sex ed programmes and really solid general understanding of pornography as fantasy then we could make beautiful, interesting, experimental porn – not paint-by-numbers, churn-it-out, who-cares pornography.”
My work is not feminist. The porn scenes that I do, there’s nothing particularly political about them. If there’s any subtext, it’s about sex work
But for the moment, this seems a distant pipe dream. Stoya herself has had one more than one sexual partner who has had an issue with using condoms. “They’re like, ‘oh, I don’t want to wear them, I don’t have much penetrative sex because as soon the condom goes on I have problems’. It’s turned out the condom is too small – and these are not hugely endowed people.” She is amazed at this state of affairs. “If you’re only going to do one thing for your sexual health, use a condom – and we’re not even getting people into condoms that work for them! That’s completely insane to me.”
Talking to Stoya, I am struck by the extent of the responsibility she is made to bear for social issues. Feminism, sexual education – these are weighty responsibilities, and ones that we wouldn’t ask women in other industries to address. I can’t help but feel that it’s a lot to put on Stoya’s shoulders.
I ask her whether being made responsible for these things annoys her. She tells me: “It doesn’t piss me off so much as frustrate me.” She explains that she is a pornographer: she alone cannot have all the answers. In her “wildest fantasies”, she would have a team of experts from the likes of the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation, as well as an array of psychologists, to answer the kinds of questions that people are asking her so she could put the “master fucking fact-checked, researched, source-cited guide” to sex-related issues on her adult website, zerospaces.com.
“I always feel like if you’re coming to me instead of going to the expert, there’s a reason, whether it’s shame, stigma, discomfort, just didn’t think of it … or maybe it’s hard to get a hold of the expert for something like … ‘I have these sexual fantasies about dressing up in a raccoon suit’. Like, who do you go to with that?”
So, is it a case of just needing to talk about sex more?
Stoya is cautious: “Sometimes when I hear, ‘how can we be more sex positive in everyday life and conversation?’, it sounds like we’re aiming for everybody being comfortable talking about sex with everyone all the time. But for me, the first thing is to make sure we’re being reasonable here.” She questions whether we can expect people be comfortable with the idea of talking with a stranger about an ingrown ball hair on a bus. “Or being like, ‘hey, is anybody sitting in this extra space at your table? No? Ok cool, so last night someone was going down on me and the strangest thing happened’ … we don’t want that.”
But as regards shaming or discriminating against people based on their sexual history? “We live in the real world: judgment is going to happen. Do what you can with a person who maybe doesn’t understand how they’re being hurtful or harmful. Pulling them aside and having a small conversation … that sometimes helps a person grow and has a real, positive effect in the world.”
I have a final question for Stoya, and I think it’s one she is qualified to answer, even without a team of experts to consult.
Does she have one piece of advice for better sex? “Communicate.” That’s it? “Yeah.”
Porn is not new: even veteran anti-porn campaigner Dr Gail Dines has admitted that “there has always been pornography”. As an industry, it is rampant with problems – but no more, it’s important to add, than any other industry. Where it admittedly differs from other industries is that it has a far wider reach and greater impact on society and culture.
But what we can lose sight of in the great moral panic that often accompanies our conversation around pornography is that human sexuality, of which porn is – like it or not – a part, can be a joyful and fun experience. It is a labour of love, certainly, for Stoya, whose face lights up when she talks about the aspects of her work she enjoys, or the enjoyment of other pornographers like Aiden Starr. After talking to Stoya, I am convinced it’s essential for this joy and enthusiasm to feature in the conversation around pornography today.
So perhaps what we need is a reframing of things not as unreasonably “sex positive”, but rather a recognition of that sex can be positive. As Irvine Welsh put it in Porno: “If every cunt had a ride whin they hud a heidache, thir widnae be as much fuckin trouble in the world.”