Queer porn fights against the suppression, ignorance and invisibilization of trans and queer desire under heteropatriarchy
The creation of aesthetic, ethical pornography is necessary, not only because so many people use porn as sex education, but because porn is also a reflection of our culture's sexual politics. Unfortunately, working in the adult industry still carries a heavy stigma and coming out to family and friends can be similar to coming out as LGBTQ. The new book Coming Out Like a Porn Star is a collection of 56 such stories edited by genderqueer porn icon Jiz Lee. These intimate, often funny, deftly expressed accounts are told from a range of generations, genders, and races, and include personal experiences from the late feminist porn pioneer Candida Royalle, legends Nina Hartley and Annie Sprinkle, and sexuality bloggers Conner Habib and Stoya.
“What these stories have in common is their honesty. I saw them each as truths that existed far beyond the narrow moralistic debate of whether or not porn could be feminist or ethical, good or bad. The stories ran the gamut, embodying the very essence of the grey area we all exist within. The details varied differently, but each story revealed what I had long suspected: that although society may think of porn performers as some sort of ‘damaged enemy against the moralistic good,’ it is actually the stigma from having performed that proves to do the greatest harm and is our largest obstacle,” writes Lee.
Lee, a multi-award winning queer performer, co-edited the Porn Studies Journal Special Issue: Porn and Labor and their writing has appeared in Best Sex Writing 2015 and The Feminist Porn Book. They’ve presented at Princeton, appeared on MSNBC, and worked on more than 200 projects over the past ten years. I caught up with Lee after the PorYes Feminist Porn Awards in Berlin.
Mary Katharine: You wrote on gender and porn in The Feminist Porn Book. What does "genderqueer" or “genderfuck” mean for you?
Jiz Lee: My introduction was growing up as a tomboy and then hitting puberty and not really knowing what to do with that and yo-yoing between all these different representations. What do I wear? How do I act? What music do I listen to? I don't know how to exist in this world as a woman — what does that mean?
When I ended up going to college somewhere in that period, I thought I might be a trans man. I had friends who were masculine-centered and they felt really comfortable to me, and some were beginning to transition, so I thought, "Oh, maybe that's me too." I spent a good summer experimenting with that presentation and it felt just as awkward as wearing a dress. It was just dragged in the other direction. Also that summer, because I was looking for things, I found a zine that had the word "gender fuck" in it, and I also found the word "genderqueer" and a lightbulb went off: I don't have to pick something. Even, right now, like tomorrow, I can be something else. Gender is fluid. I can be whatever is comfortable.
In other words, being located outside of neat, binary categories of gender?
Yeah, at the time it was like, you're either one or the other and there was even this idea that trans can be a transition. Now there's a lot more flexibility and people who are trans can also be genderqueer. The possibilities of gender are beautiful and liberating.
It seems that people are more fluid in how they view sexuality today as well. There's that recent UK study which found that more young people are identifying as being outside the realm of the heterosexual/ homosexual orientation binary.
Are you familiar with the Klein Grid?
A variation of the Kinsey Scale?
Yeah, you know how the Kinsey Scale goes along a flat line? Klein produced a grid with seven different spaces of inhabiting bisexuality. It's kind of problematic that it's still binary in terms of sex — male or female — and in that way it's two-dimensional, but, for example, it looks at behavior. There's this idea that you could identify as a straight guy, but "a blow job is a blow job". So someone's behavior might say that he's bisexual, but he identifies as straight. It also looks at fantasies, attraction, and emotional preference. If we stick with the straight guy example: maybe behaviorally a guy is straight, but he has a best friend who he has romantic feelings for, although he would never actually act on them. Then there's lifestyle, so maybe someone identifies as bisexual, but he's still a virgin or has never kissed someone.
So there are seven different variables and within that, an area for notes and comparisons. I think it gives a lot of space for people who think that they may be bisexual, but for them that originally meant that they have to date and have sex and identify as bisexual — do all these things that might not be what they want. I think that's why I like the word "queer" so much. It's that umbrella term that can include all this flexibility.
You also identify as polyamorous and did your first porn scenes with lovers, do open non-monogamy and the porn industry often go hand in hand, or do porn performers have more conservative sexual politics than one might think?
It's interesting, because a lot of people will think, "Oh, well you're having sex with all these people so obviously, you have an open relationship or an open marriage and you're polyamorous," but sometimes it's just work for people.
Performers can have different arrangements within their relationships that they have. If you keep it strictly to work on a porn set that means something different. If you end up going on a date with a co-star maybe jealousy issues will pop up there — on a date and not the porn set — you know? So it really varies. There are monogamous porn performers. I know some people have a hard time wrapping their head around that.
What drew you to queer porn?
I enjoy sharing my sexuality with my community and anyone else who is curious to watch. I'm an advocate for diverse representations of human sexuality, ones that show the complexity and broad range of pleasure and desire. I find that sex on camera heightens my experience and I value having interactions with people who have shared with me that my work has helped them feel better about themselves.
In Coming Out Like A Porn Star, Tina Horn talks about whorephobia in her story. Is the stigma of sex work related to misogyny? That old double standard: promiscuous men are studs; promiscuous women are sluts?
Without a doubt. It's evident whenever someone talks about "rescuing someone," a porn performer is always assumed female and it's always assumed to be coercive, or that even if it's her choice, she might have been molested as a child and that's why she decides that she wants to have sex. For someone to believe that a woman has sexual agency — they just can't wrap their mind around it, there has to be some other reason. But they never think that about men.
Do you come across double standards within the adult industry?
I know that sometimes stigmas can be internalized and then come out in certain ways. There can be a whorephobia experience when we talk about the different kinds of sex work. For example, some work is "better" than others or "less scary" than others and that is problematic. It does us all a disservice to continue to have those kinds of hierarchies.
Has your androgyny shielded you from some forms of sexism?
In the interaction between fans and performers, I notice that my peers who are fem [feminine] get a lot more of a tone of entitlement from the fans, like the idea that they can just comment on their bodies in a way that seems lewd and request certain things, and often with that idea of money exchange comes, "You should do this. You should be this." I don't get that and I think it's because I'm not presenting as fem.
Does porn have other uses?
On the viewer's end, when done in a respectful and consent-driven way, watching porn can be therapeutic. In fact, there are therapists, some in the Bay Area, who work with queer couples and they actually use porn that I helped produce, Crash Pad, to give queer people visions of themselves as sexual beings. For example, if a guy is trans and he hasn't ever seen visions of himself as receiving sexuality or knowing that his body is beautiful, when you show visual examples of this, then there's this explicit thing. You can see it and it's tangible in that way that you can relate to. For queer folks, trans folks, people of size, people with disabilities, people of color, older people, anyone who is not represented in most of commercial or readily available pornography, it can be a life-affirming experience to see oneself reflected on camera. We are all capable and deserving of a happy and healthy sex life.
As a performer, learning and exploring new things has helped me. It's definitely affirmed my own sense of sex and self.
You designated October 23rd "International Fisting Day". What sparked that idea?
The basis came from the distributor companies’ censorship. There were a couple of court cases where vaginal fisting was used as evidence of obscenity, so the companies don't want to risk it, and they just cut it out. I did a performance with Nina Hartley for a benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture, and Courtney Trouble recorded it and was planning to make a video. Courtney captured an orgasm during fisting and there wasn't a way that it could be edited out without cutting out my orgasm. As I said, the distributors shy away from this, and guess what, only for cis lesbian porn, not for gay men. There's a lot of fisting in gay porn. So there's the double standard again. Is it that men don't want to see lesbians fist because they're threatened by the size of what's going inside? There's that question. Because the distribution company wanted to edit it out, we decided to make a day to celebrate, normalize, and educate about fisting. The Internet just kind of ran with it and now it's the fifth year.
Has the UK’s porn ban on fisting, facesitting, and female ejaculation affected your work?
If the video is produced in the UK it will. It hasn't affected my work so much because, fortunately, I’m in the US, but if the UK starts banning other people's websites, then it will mean a loss of clientele.
You can't have vulvar ejaculation, but you can have penile ejaculation. Really? It's ridiculous. I don't want that to set a standard on the way that we use the Internet, because that could be the beginning of a terrifying level of censorship. Myles Jackman, a lawyer from the UK, coined the phrase, "pornography is the canary in the coal mine of free speech." Protecting sex from censorship and those policy actions is a way of protecting everyone's free speech, because once you start to censor sex, you could censor anything.
Porn queers the sacred and the private, by adding a witness: the person behind the camera, the director, or the viewer. Is public sex radical?
Yes, that's the inherent political lens we're giving it. While there is an element of engaging with the public in order for the viewer to see it — you have to purchase it and find it — porn’s not necessarily in a public sphere. But there is a similar amount of visible action to that. It makes me think of the “kiss-ins” that would happen in the 80s, a political action. There were the Lesbian Avengers and ACT UP and they were fighting for LG visibility by having public displays of affection in a large group to show that it exists and to stake a claim in the media. To say, “We're here too, and we can present our own images of ourselves.”
We saw that happening with some of the earlier intentions for lesbians who wanted to make porn by lesbians for lesbians, because they didn't see a lot of their community — or their own ways to have sex, or their own body types — represented in girl-girl porn. They were like, "Well, we're gonna pick up a camera and do it ourselves. Here's what we look like." So I think it's all still an extension of that.
Why is it important to make alternative porn?
The more versions of eroticism and sexual response available to us, the more we can find ourselves in that landscape. A limited view of what or who is considered sexy can make many people think of themselves as “abnormal” and feel shame around that. In truth, human sexuality is incredibly, beautifully diverse. The more ways we have to show this, and own this, the better we can love each other and ourselves.