She had dildos on a shelf, a tray of paraphernalia tucked under her couch including lighters for her endless round of cigarettes. She had whips and gas masks dangling from a hook in the living room, chains, and what looked like a leash. She veered from timid and reserved to very “out there” in the telling of her life story, her expressive body almost preaching at times.
She was mesmerizing, but I found myself preoccupied by my car. Was I caught in a red zone? Would I be stuck here? Turns out, my car was fine, but I wasn’t sure that I was. “Good girl” researcher meets up with “bad girl” porn star—two sides of feminism, two sides of femininity. It was 2005, but in many ways, it was still 1975—we may have come a long way (baby), but we are still panicked by sex that is not embedded in relationships, especially when it is so obviously embedded in the market economy.
At the end of each of the interviews, I would typically ask if the interviewees had any questions for me. June took this opportunity to ask me what I fantasize about when I masturbate and what fetishes I have, what my addictions are—turning the interview into something that felt like a desperate molestation. Was that the way I made her feel, despite my careful protocol of questions, many aimed at nothing more lurid than mother-daughter relationships? She pressed me, now squarely in her “out there” persona, to go to her sex show the following night, where she would be performing female ejaculation on stage—opining that it would be good for me and my husband. I politely declined (while internally I was roiling and frozen). She walked me to my car and I sensed that she wanted to get in and drive away with me. The trauma of her stories and history, while told with very little affect, were now lodged in me- an instance of projective identification I can understand in retrospect.
Women’s bodies have always been a site of desire, and pleasure, and of course objectification (e.g., Bordo, 1997; Davis & Vernon, 2002; de Beauvoir, 1952; Gilligan, Brown, & Rogers, 1990; Lorde, 1997; Moradi, Dirks, & Matteson, 2005; Mulvey, 1988; Person, 1999). Moreover, female sexual subjectivity, in all its aspects, is typically construed as dangerous (e.g., Fine, 1992; Vance, 1984). Nineteen-seventies and 80s feminist thought grappled with the ways in which our culture viewed female sexual desire and longing as something to be sequestered and tamed inside the domestic and relational sphere, or perhaps worse, something that would be owned and operated by men. Debates between feminist sex radicals like Ellen Willis, claiming women’s right to sexual sovereignty in all manner, clashed with the cultural feminists like Robin Morgan, in the campaigns against prostitution during the 1970s and 1980s—the “Take Back the Night” marches in New York, for instance.
But another perspective on female sexuality was also developing during this period, one which moved the debate out of a binary stalemate into the complications and paradoxes that continue to define issues of female sexuality and embodiment to this day.
In an early experiment in collective writing about bodies and health, which became the classic Our Bodies, Ourselves published in 1973, female sexual subjectivity was suddenly rendered from the inside out. Women spoke and shared and published their thoughts and experiences collectively and safely—there was no subject/object power relation in the investigations, no researcher/research subject, no doctor/patient, no sexual educator/compliant student opening up women’s erotic lives—just women, working their way through to the second wave feminist principle “the personal is political”.
Many books built on this foundation, including Barbara Ehrenreichs’ Re-making Love which in 1986 examined the sexual revolution from the perspective of women, while Muriel Dimen’s Surviving Sexual Contradictions (published in 1986) broke out of the form by using her own erotic and psychological life to study, theorize and politicize female sexuality, including our active role in sexual objectification, what she called the position of the subject-as-object.
Locating myself in this still developing feminist conversation, I felt inspired to get an up close and personal understanding of how women think about their sexuality and their meaning-making processes with regard to it, by engaging with one group of women who inhabit a highly charged social location—pornographic actors. These women embody the subject-as-object paradox. Their sexuality is displayed and captured on film, but what is the relationship between those sexual performances and the interior experience of these actors who make it seem so real—well not so real, but who make us know they are performing a fantasy made for us, the viewer?
My aim was to engage the enormous complexities of these women’s self-states, by asking them to reflect on how they made meaning of their lives vis-à-vis the choice to make sex an aspect of work through pornography. In that spirit, I did not set out to find the singular, “causal” factor that led these women to become pornographic actors. Rather I wanted to wade through their personal histories with them, in an effort to gain a deeper understanding about how they reflected upon their sexual choices, the pleasures and pains of sex work, the early sexual messages they absorbed in their families, especially from their mothers, and how they made meaning out of their ways of living out Dimen’s position of the subject-as-object. The goal was not merely to know “them”, but connect their storylines to our own.
Sigel (2005) wrote “sexuality constitutes a large part of modern people’s sense of self. Identities, dreams, and fears can be grounded in sexuality, and pornography allows for the examination of these issues. It exposes the culture to itself. Pornography is the royal road to the cultural psyche”(p. 3). Williams (2004) added, “As a cultural form that is as diverse as America, pornography deserves both a serious and extended analysis that reaches beyond polemics and sensationalism” (p. 6).
To achieve the extended analysis of which Williams speaks, I wanted to look beyond the sexual performances, beyond the cultural and economic organization of the pornography industry, and into the personal histories of the pornographic actors, especially into the texture of their relationships, what we might now call “attachment history.” White (2005) wrote “within contemporary relational theories, sexuality has come to be seen as the central arena in which the dramas of attachment are played out—in which emotional connection and intimacy is sought, established, lost and regained” (p. 5).
Sexual knowledge and body understanding are cultivated contextually. Karin Flaake (1993) points out that mothers and daughters seldom discuss the full range of the daughters’ sexual development, rendering it a silent and procedural crisis. Flaake stated that “mothers and daughters do not speak about emotions, or the sensations accompanying the daughter’s development; about desires or fantasies, about shame or pride concerning the body” (p. 9).
Not surprisingly, this characterization fits the narratives of the women in my study, even though Flaake was not selecting out sex workers as being unique in this way. Many of the women in my study did, in fact, turn to their mothers with the hope of gleaning insight and clarity about bodily maturation, reproductive lessons, and sexual sagacity. Their mothers responded in many ways—silence, confusing messages, anger, personal sharing—they ran the gamut, as all mothers do. But, in whichever way, compromised communication from mother to daughter around such issues as sexual confusion, pleasure, shame, choice, and safety get imprinted on a developing body/mind.
The following qualitative findings constitute a snapshot of 20 pornographic actors who reflected on aspects of their embodiment and sexual development, beginning with the onset of menarche, followed by an illustration of how experientially powerful interactions led to the incorporation of early sexual maternal messages, and concluding with examples of current sexual practices and beliefs.
I initially intended to use a clinical/research setting for each interview. However, hours before my first interview, I found myself in an emblematic quandary as 21-year-old Orlanda explained that her ulcer was creating physical pain and asked if I could travel to her home in the San Fernando Valley.
My resistance and anxiety built as I drove to her house, and considered all the methodological, personal, and theoretical dilemmas this change of venue would present to my “neat” and “tidy” academic dissertation. However, it quickly became clear that whatever my discomfort, this arrangement provided my interviewees far greater psychological ease—and comfort—and was much more consistent with a feminist methodology. Robert Stoller’s landmark book Porn: Myths for the 20th Century (1991), which described his own ethnographic explorations in the porn industry, exalted the intersubjective messiness that resulted from conducting his interviews with sex workers outside of a standard research setting. My work builds on that tradition, while also bringing a feminist standpoint to the project. Ethnographic in form, all 20 interviews took place in the field.
Madison, age 54, illustrates with dramatic force the emotional silence around bodies and embodiment that Karin Flaake (1993) has described. She recalled an influential moment of sexual quandary as she began to wonder about feminine flowering on her way toward puberty. Curious and on an inquisitive path of information gathering, Madison queried her mother about menstruation:
And I remember I said, ‘Mom, what does menstruation mean?’ and she about had a flippin’ car accident. She ran off the road, slammed the brakes, and looked at me and said, ‘Why are you asking me this?’ I couldn’t believe it. ‘Why are you asking?’ and I said, ‘Because we had a mmm…’. Well, you know, she was so flustered she just could not answer my questions. The thought of talking about sex…
Gilligan, Brown, and Rogers (1990) have explored the ways that a mother’s own unresolved conflicts around sexuality can result in complex double messages to daughters, who cope with these contradictions in various ways. Elle, for example, age 49, craved validation from her mother as she embarked on her first sexual experiences. She received incongruous messages about how to traverse her nascent sexual feelings. Elle’s mother authenticated her daughter’s burgeoning sexual curiosity, and at the same time induced a sense of humiliation about Elle’s sexual exploration as a blossoming adolescent. Elle reported:
I took everything my parents said literally. My mother told me that no matter what you do, don’t let a man touch you down there. I don’t know it was around puberty or something. So I would go with guys and they could fuck me but they couldn’t touch me. Do you know what I mean? There was always like a shame about that part of my body.
By vacating parts of herself so as to privilege maternal messages over her own exploration or pleasure, we can speculate that Elle might be attempting to keep her mother with her—or at least not to lose her—as she engages her own sexuality. Orbach (2004) has written on this problematic struggle, and is not optimistic, writing that femininity, in the context of the mother-daughter relationship, is constructed with “emotional deprivation and a consequent feeling of unentitlement, a psychic receptivity to second-class citizenship” (p. 23).
Though some women received contradictory sexual modeling, others learned absolutely nothing, trying to make their way in a communicative wasteland. Jade, age 21, recalled a deafening silence looming in her home around sexual discovery and embodiment. “She [mother] really never talked about it [sexuality] to be honest. It was never — I never got the sit down birds and bees talk or anything like that.”
The mothers’ lack of sexual pride, pleasure or communication of the “normalcy” of sexual life must have had their impact on these daughters subsequent sexual decisions, exploration, and relational intimacy—although the routes to sexuality and its discontents are far too complex to show themselves in any obvious way.
A number of my interviewees did make some explicit connections, however. Jade is one of many. She is one of many whose early maternal experiences around issues related to sex and the female body partly informed her decision to pursue pornography. “I know it might sound weird but I feel safe here (in the industry) because people just talk about everything—sex, body, whatever. This is really where I’ve come to learn about my sexuality. My mother’s fears of her own body made me ashamed of mine, but now I feel a part of something important. Proud.”
Relational complexities get illuminated further as we look at the exhibitionistic, attention-seeking, and people-pleasing draw to pornographic acting. Orbach (2004) asserts that “repeated experiences of recognition are the ways the baby comes to have a sense of self as generative and vibrant. The relational interchange is the emotional food which the baby internalizes in the development of the self.” (p. 26) Perhaps metaphoric starvation is alive in some of these attachment relationships, leaving the daughter hungry for adoration. Mackenzie, age 22, basks in the attention that accompanies working in porn and explained that she prefers performance over intimacy:
I guess I’m an exhibitionist. Like I would totally go and have sex in front of a thousand people. I’ve done a sex scene where I’ve been in a club and I’ve done like a scene with the whole club watching, which was really cool. I don’t know. It’s just exciting.
Schwartz (2005) found that “anxious/insecure attachments where conflicted longings for closeness exist often lead to needs for bodily affect regulation. In all attachment difficulties there can be profound insecurity about inhabiting one’s body” and negotiating intimate connections (p.52). Furthermore, Yellin (2005) noted a profound, common byproduct of an attachment breakdown, resulting in dissociation. “Dissociation is often precisely an experience of being disembodied, out of body, of physical non-existence”. (p. 22) Mackenzie’s example of valuing exhibitionism over intimacy speaks to the slippery sexual slope that may have resulted from the anxious, insecure attachments described in many of these interviews.
We know the need for connection can be sexualized, and sometimes we can intuit that a sexual scene is a site for enactments and reenactments. Diamond and Marrone (2003) found that “in extreme forms of atypical sexual behavior involving sexualized ways of representing through re-enactments of childhood attachment traumas, the individual relives the traumatic situation but, this time around, as transformed into something sexually pleasurable” (p. 194).
Several women did emphasize their desire for aggressive sexual practices, for example, such as the desire to be “rough,” preferring “hard” sex, and shared fantasies of being “raped.” Mackenzie revealed:
I don’t know (Laughter). It just feels better. It’s more exciting. I think — I don’t know. The rough stuff’s exciting. The other stuff is kind of boring. I also watch a lot of porn. I’d rather see more excitement (Laughter), you know, like even in my personal life I– like when I have sex, I like it rough. I like my hair pulled, I like being choked and whatever. I don’t know if that has anything to do with my childhood or what, but that’s what I like.
It was hard for me to discern whether Mackenzie’s reference to her childhood was a moment where she chose to mock the interview(er) or if she was truly trying to make connections between her present sexual life and her history, which was rife with maternal insecurity and unpredictability. Later, Mackenzie shared that she has a “fuzzy” memory of being molested but wondered if it was actually a “dream and not reality.” Afraid to upset her mother, she has never disclosed that she believes her step-brother took advantage of her sexually as a child.
Audrey, age 36, however, talked definitively about her extensive sexual abuse history, which began with being coerced as a child to take nude photographs with other children. The photos began with sexual petting and later went on to being drugged and gang raped at 17. After sharing the horrendous details of going in and out of consciousness during the traumatizing gang rape across settings and with different men, she talked about how much she enjoys doing gang rape scenes in front of the camera today. We can surmise that the repetition of these sexual scenes, in a form of play, are helping her master the early trauma—in bed and on screen, even if not in the consulting room, in words.
Tori, age 36, spoke of a father who physically abused her and a mother who ignored these traumatic daily assaults. She now describes how she electively seeks being “roughed up” on and off camera.
All those dicks I sucked, oh my God. But I’ve gotten gonorrhea, you know. And then I was into S&M, and I liked to get the face slapped. Oh my god, I got Fibromyalgia. I’m thinking, part of Fibromyalgia is if you have a head injury, maybe that was what I got it from.
Many years of “self-destructive” and “suicidal” gestures accompanied her to the porn industry, a place that now feels like “home,” a place where she “belongs”. Tori unequivocally stated, “Oh, I love this [referring to her work in pornography], I’m never leaving the porn world. Never.”
Like Tori, many of the women I spoke with expressed an allegiance to the porn community, as a form of empowerment that awards the acting out of sexuality and of body exhibitionism in a structured—and remunerated—form. And yet, as we have seen, in many of the narratives, the choice to perform sexuality within the porn “family” yields mixed results—ranging from dissociative sexual encounters to the inability to navigate emotional intimacy, and in some cases, like Tori’s, physical harm.
Through these discussions, my own feminist perspective on pornography was productively complicated. The title of an early feminist classic on female sexuality, Pleasure and Danger (1984) distills that paradox.
Though I employed feminist methodological and grounded theory perspectives, I too may have unconsciously yearned for a definitive turning point in these women’s lives to elucidate the reason for their engagement in sex work, but the “truth” insisted on messier interpretations, and a plethora of conflicting conclusions about mother-daughter relations and their consequences in adult life.
And yet, haven’t we all struggled to understand our co-constructed bodies, our sexualities, how we inhabit our skin? Haven’t many of us as women asked our mothers about our bodies and sexualities, only to be met with awkward ambivalence, stilted confusion, or thunderous silence?
The developing sexual storylines of these 20 women are not so different from our own. Ultimately, their decision to make sex their livelihood places them on the fringe of our culture. However, their development with regard to embodiment can be seen on a continuum, in which we all can place ourselves. Porn stars or stars in our own personal dramas, all our sexual lives embody, repeat, repair, and transcend our histories of pain and pleasure.
This is Chapter 17 from “Knowing, Not-Knowing, and Sort-of-Knowing: Psychoanalysis and the Experience of Uncertainty” edited by Dr. Jean Petrucelli. Published by Karnac Books.
Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. is a Los Angeles based psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. She is the creator of the viral #IHadAMiscarriage hashtag campaign that she kicked off with her first New York Times piece in 2014 and launched a line of pregnancy loss cards in October 2015 in honor of Pregnancy/Baby Loss Awareness Month: shop.drjessicazucker.com. Find her online: www.drjessicazucker.com and follow her on Twitter: @DrZucker.