Dubbed “the pop star of porn” by Village Voice, Stoya is an award-winning performer in adult films, a director, a podcast host and, among other credits I don’t have space to list, an all-round entrepreneur. She’s both a vocal defender of the porn industry and one of its most nuanced commentators. “When I first considered performing in a hardcore pornographic video, I also thought about what sort of career doors would close once I’d had sex in front of a camera,” she mused recently in the New York Times. “Being a schoolteacher came to mind, but that was fine, since I didn’t want the responsibility of shaping young minds. And yet thanks to this country’s non-functional sex education system and the ubiquitous access to porn by anyone with an internet connection, I have that responsibility anyway.”
So her first collection of essays and articles is Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn, an eclectic mix of biographical vignettes and reflections that covers subjects from religious iconography to technology, but often circles back to sexuality, patriarchy and identity. “When you spend 12 years with your entire job being sexuality,” she tells me, down the phone from New York, “you start to find all sorts of odd little angles that people aren’t really talking about.”
Stoya began writing when she grew tired of what she calls “parachute journalists” – those who report on subjects they know little about – “getting it so incredibly wrong with porn”. Tired of her own words being truncated in interviews, she realised she could simply write the articles herself. And she has a clean, functional prose style, punctuated by understated wit and insightful digressions, the latter a nod to her grandmother’s conversational style (her nom de plume is also a nod to her grandmother’s Serbian surname). She frequently performs an intellectual hopscotch from topic to topic. In one essay, she goes from a burlesque troupe to a Soviet variety of Kinsey report, before arriving at the question: “Do the political systems of a population change the dynamics of group sex?” She casually drops one-liners that could be essays in themselves.
One such line is in the essay Squicks and Squees: “the semantics of sex”. “We don’t have serious adult language for serious adult discussions of sexuality,” she says. This is a problem because, as she puts it, “language informs perception … We have specialised clinical words, like penis, cervix, digital penetration. And we have ‘locker room’ language … but we don’t have words in the middle.”
Even the term “pornography”, as Stoya pointed out in her 2014 contribution to the academic journal Porn Studies, is slippery: it’s applied to a “broad spectrum of aesthetics, sexual acts and target audiences”. Not to mention a variety of media. “For porn to be of any positive use in the world, we need to start defining what exactly it is,” she says. Even the distinction between sex and porn is not as clear as we think, as she writes in Graphic Depictions, Scene 01, “because all partnered sex involves observation of some kind, though not necessarily visual”.
The distinction between reality and realism is recognised in literary or film criticism, but less so with pornography (despite the fascinating attempts of a few notable academics). “We’re able to look at a battle between Marvel superheroes and go: ‘This is a fantasy. This is fiction,’” she says. And what is and isn’t porn is a debate with real consequences. In one essay, she recalls being asked by a photographer for the dividing line between nude modelling and porn. She instead catalogues the day-to-day impact that being classed as a pornographer – rather than a model – will have: being refused a PayPal account; getting a hard time from banks; being unable to get a business loan. “It’s only really porn,” she writes, “when you wake up in the middle of the night worrying about a spelling error on the 2257 age verification documents … when you dread some kind of cop busting in demanding to see that paperwork.”
Half the time, when trying to rent an apartment in New York, Stoya will be turned away once the landlord learns of her line of work. The rest of the time, she’s asked to pay a year’s rent upfront. “Fortunately, I’m able to do that,” she says. Others can’t, which forces them into less than favourable living conditions. “In the US, discrimination laws are tied up with whether the identity [in question] is a choice or not. So sex workers are not protected because we made a choice to go into it,” she says.
Stoya is sometimes referred to as a feminist icon of “alt porn”: a contentious term for material that differs from mainstream tastes. But she doesn’t think her pornographic work is specifically feminist; in fact, she claims it would be “pink, sparkly washing to try to pretend that it is”. Especially when she could list many other women making actively feminist porn. Women such as Erika Lust, Ovidie, Madison Young, or the late Candida Royalle.
“My relationship with feminism is a little fraught because there’s a certain, very loud, segment of feminism that hates heterosexuality, or heterosexual behaviour, hates sex work, hates porn,” she says. She has some sympathy for the second-wave feminists that are often aggressively against her pornographic work. “Those women had to fight so hard that I can understand how they’ve ended up with rigid thinking,” she continues. “But, especially as a young woman, it was a real headfuck. Like: ‘You can be anything you want to be, except fuck you for wanting to be that.’ I thought female sexuality was an OK thing? And maybe something beautiful to embrace? ‘Oh, but only within these very narrow areas where it’s considered OK.’”
Stoya is, in her words, “obsessed” with the French writer and intellectual Georges Bataille. She has engaged with his novella Story of the Eye (a challenging masterpiece of surrealist erotica) in almost every way possible: she’s filmed a partial, pornographic adaptation of it; wrote its first four chapters on a dress, that, over the course of two years, she stained with her bodily fluids and sent to the transgressive writer Supervert (a gesture it’s likely Bataille would have loved); and delivered a two-hour lecture on it as part of her erotic book club.
Story of the Eye is troubling in many ways: the narrator uses “rape” and “fuck” interchangeably, and with the help of his teen lover, drives a 16-year-old girl to suicide and also has sex with enucleated eye of a dead priest. “Bataille is totally problematic,” Stoya says. (She thinks most things produced under patriarchy are – and isn’t sure if our understanding of sexuality can be “completely divorced” from it). “But there are things about the primal level of attraction in sex that he captures so beautifully, and the shared delusion that puppy love or instant attraction can be. The shared delusion that lovers can create in the bedroom when they’re, for instance, engaging with role-play. Discussing these things openly, dealing with it with nuance, detail and specifics – I think that is useful for having healthier sexual relationships and better sex.”
No matter how highly sexualised his writing was, Bataille is still taken seriously by academics. Stoya wants them to examine porn in the same way – the kind that isn’t lacquered with a literary sheen. “We need the academics who spent decades studying patriarchy and its effects to come in and give us some actual critique,” she says. “Sitting on the other side of the fence screaming about how we’re ruining all men is not functional.”
Porn isn’t going anywhere; as Stoya says, paraphrasing an argument from sex educator Annie Sprinkle: “The answer is not to get rid of porn, it’s to make better porn.” And if academics don’t heed her call, Stoya may take matters into her own hands. “Maybe that should be my second book,” she jokes.
Source: The Guardian