May 12, 2014 | Updated May 14, 2014
Betsy Isaacson Freelance journalist
When Belle Knox. a 19-year-old Duke University freshman, was “outed ” as a porn star in February, the conversation spread far beyond Duke’s campus. A flurry of tabloid reporting placed Knox at the center of a media firestorm, where she was the subject of fascination, scorn, public shaming and threats.
Eloquent, educated, entrepreneurial and willing to speak her mind, Knox published public replies to her detractors, but even those replies were met with skepticism and scorn. Apparently, prurient concern for porn stars -- well-meaning as it may seem -- rarely includes listening when an actual sex worker speaks or writes about her experiences.
To move the conversation about women in porn beyond slut-shaming and stereotypes, two porn stars and one former porn star spoke to the Huffington Post about their careers, the porn industry and the public’s misconceptions about what it's like to get paid to have sex.
Editor's Note: Photos below are not appropriate for all readers.
Stage Name: Stoya
Profession(s): Porn star and author
Why she started doing porn: "It sounded like fun." Stoya's first erotic photoshoot was an experiment: Her then-roommate took topless photographs for a living. After that, erotic modeling became a hobby: "I was a personal assistant for a guerrilla marketer in Philadelphia at the time. And in my free time I would go and people would pay me to take pictures of me." A pornographic production company that purchased some of her photos eventually recruited her for a softcore DVD.
What she likes about her job: "I get to show different sorts of sexuality and sexual tastes and acts in what I feel is a pretty freaking ethical and enjoyable way."
Problems she sees in the porn industry: Successful companies can be callous, cutthroat or sketchy, says Stoya. She objects in particular to Manwin (a.k.a. MindGeek). which owns a network of porn distribution sites including XTube, Pornhub and YouPorn. "They bought Digital Playground, and that’s why I don’t work for Digital Playground anymore. I just couldn’t stand them."
How the "real world" treats sex workers: Stoya, who recounts being insulted and publicly called a "whore" at her sister's wedding, speaks sharply about how porn stars are treated in mainstream society. "I think the porn industry, ironically, can be much more respectful and consent-focused than the 'real world' is."
Giving back to the sex worker community: Stoya's on the board of APAC, the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee.
Photograph by Isabel Dresler
Stage Name: Dylan Ryan
Profession(s): Porn star and social worker
Why she started doing porn: Ryan did her first erotic work to help a friend -- and to make a statement. "Before I went into porn, I worked with a person named Shine Louise Houston. We were both retailers, but during our lunch breaks she would talk about wanting to start her own pornography company. And one day she said, 'If I ever get this off the ground and make my first movie, would you want to be in it?'"
Ryan agreed to star in the movie. "I meant it genuinely, but I didn't really think it would come to fruition."
A year later, Houston started her own pornographic production company. focusing on the feminist and the queer. Both Houston and Ryan agreed that mainstream porn focused too little on female and queer sexuality in particular; Dylan starred in Houston's first queer film. "I felt like it was a great experience and very positive, and that's where it started and I kept going from there."
What she likes about her job: "For me, [porn] was a place where I could speak and be in ways that I didn't feel were supported out in the world," says Ryan. "Women don't have many opportunities to express their sexuality and what is positive for them sexually, and it's felt empowering to represent myself and my sexuality and know that other women are going to see that and see me enjoying myself, me being present and in my body, and imagine that there is a space for them to
be sexual without shame."
Problems she sees in the porn industry: Ryan notes that the industry is male-dominated on the production side, and says she wishes there were more women in porn production. "I would love it if there were more women in the creation and distribution because then women could show what sex they think is hot and interesting. Women-made porn also tends to have sets with a greater sensitivity to performers -- their well-being, the safety of the set, how comfortable it is, etc."
How the "real world" treats sex workers: "Often, when sex workers try to access health care, there is a huge amount of stigma that they face. There's the thought that if you're in sex work, you're a victim, whether you feel that's true to you or not. A lot of the work I'm doing now is to ensure that, for sex workers, there's not only access to services but access to services that are open-minded and supportive."
Giving back to the sex worker community: Ryan has a master's degree in social work. She's active in sex work advocacy and spends a significant amount of time counseling other sex workers.
Stage Name: Satine Phoenix
Profession(s): Artist, former porn star
Why she started doing porn: In a twist on the old line about porn being tantamount to abuse, Phoenix says she now believes she began working in porn to recover from abuse: "My dad molested me for ten years, nine years, on and off." Starring in porn films, she says, helped her regain control of her sexuality. "That specific style of sexual empowerment, being able to wield sexuality as power -- I needed to do that in order to be able to turn into the woman I am now."
What she liked about her job: "I really love having sex in front of people." The shoots, she says, were empowering, "I was in control, I was picking this guy and that guy to do."
Problems she sees in the porn industry: "Generally porn is fine," says Phoenix. "The problem I have is when a kid gets a hold of porn, what it teaches them." Kids who use porn as sex ed, says Phoenix, "learn this really cold, sterile way to have sex that’s not intimate. The receiving and the perception of porn as instructional material versus fantasy is the biggest issue in porn right now, but the creators can’t regulate that."
While working in porn, Phoenix was also frustrated with how little control she had over her own image. While Phoenix emphasizes that she was in control during shoots, in the editing room it was different. "No matter how many good intentions I had, the editor always made me look like a mindless slut. I’ve seen some of my own porn, and I was just like, 'I can’t.' What you see of my porn is not me, it’s this other image that’s taken out of me and put into the universe."
How the "real world" treats sex workers: "I’ve seen my girlfriends get out of porn and try to work for places and it’s the saddest, worst nightmare I’ve seen," Phoenix says, recounting stories of friends in pornography who returned to mainstream society only to be fired, refused jobs or sexually harassed (usually without recourse) because of their history as adult entertainers. "If people see a whore, they’ll always see a whore. Like, this is a talented whore, but she’s still a whore. Or this whore’s good at business, but she’s still a whore."
The stigma around adult entertainment has even harmed Phoenix's current career as an illustrator. "I have to really tell people I’m an artist because once I tell them I did porn, even though it was 4-5 years ago, it’s immediately I am a porn star. I am an ex-porn star turned artist. They don’t see me as anything but that."
Giving back to the sex worker community: Phoenix co-developed "I Hit It With My Axe ," a web series and outreach vehicle about porn stars and others who work in stigmatized "adult" professions playing the popular sword and sorcery game Dungeons and Dragons.
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