Once You Have Made Pornography

The world will view you as an object — but you cannot be broken.

Pornography will change your life. There is no way to fully convey to you the absoluteness of this. The magnitude with which this is true. This is not the kind of job that recedes softly into the rearview after you quit. This is not the kind of job that you do once and then forget. This job is not forgettable. Once you have done it, anyone who knows you have done it sees a mark on you — believes there is a thing about your personality or life history that is revealed.

After you have made pornography, it will be viewed as a part of you forever, and because it is viewed this way it will be a part of you forever.

If you are very lucky — if the exact intersecting set of circumstances allows you to have a significant amount of control over the sharing of your experience with others — you will still have to decide every time you meet someone whether to tell them. You will have to calculate the likelihood of their finding out anyway, and figure out the number and complexity of lies and omissions that would be necessary to conceal this fact. You will have to estimate the expected intensity and impact of their reaction and the power they are likely to have over you if you do tell them. You will have to do all of this very quickly, for your own protection. You will have to wield this information like a sharp, double-sided blade.

After you have made pornography, it will be viewed as a part of you forever.

Even if you are lucky enough to have some modicum of control over who knows and who doesn’t, you will still probably be outed. You will be outed again and again. Your naked images will be found and sent to your brother by his friends. They will be emailed around by your classmates. A local news station will do an expose on the studio you work for — they will wait outside to film you as you are leaving at the end of the day, and they will show this footage on the evening news.

A documentary film crew or a mainstream art photographer or a writer will unexpectedly be on set one day, and will convince you to sign a release without really explaining what they want from you — you will be young and they will seem friendly and you will not yet have enough experience to be cynical about your public image. You will not even have considered yet that you have a public image. Their film or photo or book in which you appear will go on to win awards, be shown at festivals, hang in a museum.

You are not famous. You are an exhibit. But famous people, people with credentials, will, at length, critique your image, the few sentences of your voice that were recorded and edited by someone else. That someone else will be an authority. A “real” filmmaker. A “real” writer. A “real” artist. They will call the person who used your image for their own narrative fearless. They will make claims of shining a light. They will say they’ve explored a subculture. That they’re lifting the veil. People who have viewed these few seconds of tape or this single still image will say they’ve seen your humanity. Lucky you, you’ve been humanized. Prior to this, your humanity was unviewable.

You are not human, you are an advertisement. You are currency. You are a performer, but the public sees no line between when you are performing and when you are not.

To the mainstream media and to the world, you are an object. They will tell you this, and they will tell you it’s pornography that has turned your body into an object, and all the while they will be the ones calling you porn star and forgetting you have a name. Meanwhile it will be the people you work with, your sex worker friends, who will be asking you about your relationships and your side projects and how is your new apartment and do you want some of these pretzels and what did you think of that Jonathan Lethem book you were reading on set last week.

If you continue to do this job, it will become harder and harder to have a life outside of it. More and more, it will be the people you work with who will understand that your work in pornography doesn’t tell them who you are, and it will be civilians for whom the knowledge that you’ve been naked for money will be a kind of flattening — a thing they cannot see around.

There will be days when the work itself will be hard. There will be days when you will be tired or your muscles will be sore or you just had a fight with your boyfriend and the last thing you want to do is pretend to be sexy. Or your rent will be due and you will need this money in a way that makes everything harder and that will be the day you work with someone who you actually can’t stand to be around and you will turn your face away from them during the scene — you will allow only the necessary parts of your bodies to touch. Or it will be winter and you will be so damn cold the last thing you want to do is take your clothes off. All of these things are likely to happen, maybe all at once.

If you tell your sex worker friends that you’ve had one of these days, they will tell you they’ve been there and that it sucks and they are sorry and do you need a hug or a sweater or a drink. They will tell you that your boyfriend is being a jerk and you deserve better. They will say that it fucking sucks to be poor and hopefully the work will pick up next month. They will make searing jokes about the person you both can’t stand to work with and they will sit next to you wearing sweatpants on the couch in your messy apartment eating microwave dinners and laughing. They will offer you solidarity of every kind.

What they will not do is say, “What else do you expect if this is what you are doing?” They will not ask, “What kind of trauma in your childhood is making you do this to yourself?” They will not say, “What is wrong with you?” They will not intimate that your bad day is evidence of your failing.

Pornography will change your life, and there will be no way to know, when you start, all of the ways that this will happen. Maybe you will start by taking a job that is offered to you by your boyfriend’s friend who has a website and then, once you are already naked on the internet, you will find that you might as well take another job, and then you will start answering ads for more jobs because the work will be much more lucrative but not much more physically difficult than the work you were previously doing. After a while you will realize that for the first time in your life you have money in the bank after your bills are paid. For the first time in your life you can buy groceries on any day of the week, not just on payday. For the first time in your life you can eat in the kind of restaurant where you used to bus tables. After a little while longer, you find you can pay for other things, big things — past debts, car payments, medical bills, tuition, a plane ticket to see your grandmother. In many ways, your life will be easier.

But then you will have to move and in order to get an apartment you will have to find a way to explain to your new landlord what your source of income is. You will want to go back to school — you have the money to do it now — but you will be afraid of being recognized. Afraid of even having to talk to civilians.

A man on the other side of the world will find you on the internet and send you daily messages describing how he is in love with you, but you’ve ruined yourself. Every few weeks, he will tell you to commit suicide. A man will somehow get your home address and send letters to your house. A man will recognize you in the grocery store and follow you home and shout at you in your doorway when you get there. You will be talking to a man at a bar and he will ask what you do and when you tell him he will suddenly start shouting “you’re a whore” loud enough that people turn and stare.

You’ll be in a doctor’s office for something else entirely and later you’ll learn they’ve tested you for HIV without your consent — they will do this even after you tell them you were tested just a week ago. A nurse will be drawing your blood and while the needle is in your arm she’ll tell you that you disgust her. Another doctor will say, as you’re sitting in a cold paper gown waiting for a test to determine whether the abnormal cells on your cervix are cancerous, “I meant to tell you to put your clothes on but I guess you’re used to being naked.” Your long-term girlfriend will say to you, one night after you’ve just had sex, “How much would that have cost me?” She will dump you in a Thai restaurant, and then one night while you are still heartbroken, you will bring a big man home from a bar and he will say, “If you’re a porn star I guess you do everything” before he pins you down painfully in your own bed. You will be outed, in the name of marketing, on CBS This Morning, and your mother will tell you maybe it’s best if you don’t come home for a while.

You can survive all of this if you have sex worker friends. You can thrive in spite of all of this if you have people around to remind you that you are deeply deserving of love and respect and privacy and personal boundaries. That you are not destined for failure or in need of punishment. That you are not disgusting. That you are human and whole. You will learn how important it is for us to take care of each other. To close ranks. To protect each other in whatever ways we can. You will learn this acutely and painfully when some of your friends do not survive.

And that will be the thing that will clarify all of it. Not facing the stigma and violence yourself, but seeing your friends excoriated. Seeing them accused of perversion during custody battles, outed and then fired from their non-adult jobs, seeing their bank accounts and their payment processors and their medical fundraisers shut down without warning. Raging with them against the boyfriends and girlfriends who take their money and tell them that they are unlovable, tell them in the middle of the night that they are garbage. Crying with them after the police tell them their rapes cannot be prosecuted. On the very worst days, grieving their preventable and uninvestigated deaths. It is your grief that will give you clarity.

Because it is too easy to be convinced that your own difficulties are ones that you’ve brought on yourself. All of the media and pop culture and “authoritative” narratives that flatten you will make it too easy for you to believe that when you did sex work you invited this stigma and violence into your life. It will be too easy to accept blame. To believe that you are less than. But when these things happen to your friends — the people with whom you’ve worked naked and eaten birthday cake and stayed up all night and cried and loved and hustled and dreamed and grieved — you will feel a fierce and righteous rage. This is just one of the ways that your sex worker friends will save your life.

And the more that you surround yourself with these people the world says are tragic or unlovable or garbage, the more that you embrace the incredible love you feel for these brilliant, fierce, resilient people, the more the self-blame and internalized stigma will lose its grip. You will discover moments of real strength. You will be at a baby shower for a friend who is retiring after many years in the industry, or in the kitchen of another friend who recently met the love of her life on set. He will be cooking something that is making the room smell amazing, and there will be a plate of strawberries on the table. Someone will be laughing. You’ll have been shooting all day and you’ll be as tired as you can be, your lashes still heavy on your eyelids.

It is your grief that will give you clarity.

Someone will open a bottle of champagne, and this woman you’ve known for so many years will hold tiny clothes up to her swelling belly, and in that moment you will be certain that all of the authoritative narratives of the world cannot break you. You will be certain you can work to protect each other from these myths.

You know then that you will be cautious about who you speak to. When the journalists and the documentary filmmakers try to talk to you, you will ask them first what their angle is. You will screen them the way you once learned to screen clients and industry producers and photographers, and you will warn your friends. And when the journalists and celebrity documentary filmmakers accuse you of hiding, when they accuse you of being evasive, when they say the industry is defensive, when they say that you thrive on secrecy, and claim that they are uncovering some kind of truth, you will know that they are wrong about almost everything except for this: Yes, you are defensive. You are defensive because you know what the stakes are. You are defensive because you are tired of seeing them hurt the people you love. You are defensive because you’ve heard their narratives one thousand times and not once have you heard a mainstream narrative that is worthy of the powerful and complex people you know your coworkers to be. You are defensive because you know now that they are trying to mine you.

You are not famous. You are not humanized. You will not be their material. You are defensive because that is what keeps you alive. You are defensive because the people you love stay alive by defending each other.