OK, let’s not be shy. I feel like after three of these columns, you and I know each other pretty well. You know about my less than exalted employment as a smut writer, and I know that you find it interesting enough to keep coming back to read more about it. So I feel safe saying some pretty self-congratulatory things in front of you—as a prelude to making an interesting and insightful point, of course. Here goes: I am a twenty-something, educated, intelligent young woman with a nice smile, by most accounts a pretty face, and a great ass. I have excellent manners and an extensive vocabulary. I got good grades in school and graduated from a reputable, venerable, old Catholic institution cum laude, and I’ve had a number of interesting worldly experience since then. I’m a hard worker, a good conversationalist, and a generally presentable person. I’m the kind of girl you could bring home to Mom and Dad.
So I guess it comes as a surprise when I tell people who don’t know me—and many who do—that I write for porn magazines. I suppose I just don’t seem the type. But, then, what is the type? What do people expect a person who’s involved in the porn industry, but not as a performer, to look like? Should I make myself greasy? Add a sheen of sleaze to my skin? Adopt a slouchy or a hip-waggly walk?
I ask these questions because I’ve become accustomed a certain unpleasant reaction when I reveal that I review hardcore porn for cash. I call it the look, and it is a very particular and almost universal expression of confounded moral judgment. It starts with wide-eyed surprise (“This girl is a pornographer?”), followed by narrowed, eyebrow-knotted confusion (“That can’t be right.”), succeeded by a head-back, nose-up, eyebrows-raised nod (“Oh, I see, she must be some kind of pervert.”). It happens almost every time I tell someone about my job for the first time, regardless of whether I know the person or not. It gets old. And I wonder: if I were to look the part of a porn writer better, would people respond differently?
I mean, it’s OK, I guess. After all, I’m not ashamed of my writing. If people want to assume something about me based on my demeanor, then change that assumption when they learn about my career, let them. Yeah, so I think sex is fascinating. Who doesn’t? Joan Ellison Rodgers wrote that “Sex is, on the whole, the organizing theme, the ulterior motive of our inner and outer lives. […] No other human process is likely to teach us more about the links between what we are and what we do.” And I think that’s true. I believe that our sexual practices, fantasies, and attitudes can teach us more about ourselves than anything else, if we’re just willing to give them some air. I call myself a student of what sex has to teach us, and maybe that’s just an excuse for steeping my life in what some would call filth, but I’m sticking to my guns. I know well enough that the people giving me the look, confused by my appearance vs. my penmanship and thinking I’m some kind of freak, are just as interested in sex as I am. Maybe they don’t have a personal philosophy built up around it, but they’re damn well curious, even fascinated. Despite the upturned noses I see so often, I know that it’s not me, nor those giving me the look, who are the real freaks—those are the very few people out there who really aren’t interested at all.
With all my knowledge about the essential horniness of human nature, the look often surprises me—I guess because I forget about the essential hypocrisy also inherent in our species. I’m so used to writing about the mechanics of the deep throat blowjob, watching and evaluating the performance of double penetration scenes, and discussing new trends in female ejaculation videos that I forget other people aren’t. Although pornography and sex seem to be gaining (painfully slow) ground in social acceptability, most of us still don’t talk openly about it, or expect me to be someone who does. They don’t see it coming (pun not intended … well … ok, maybe it was).
For instance, when I took a writing workshop recently, hoping it would light a fire under my ass and my book project, I told my classmates I was researching swinging in New York City. The response I got from them was conservative enough to tell me that my porn writing persona could be left at home. They were mildly shocked, it seemed, but also interested. I told them that I’d responded to an online ad for a ghost writer without knowing what the subject matter was, and had said yes to the offer before really understanding that said subject matter was swinging. This was all true, but I left the porn writing out of the equation based on their chuckles and nods. The notion of my initial innocence seemed to lull my peers into believing I was naïve but amusing, and therefore inoffensive.
That is, until the day when we were to bring our first chapters to read aloud. I hoped we wouldn’t get to my page ten confession that, at the time I undertook the book on swinging, I’d already had significant experience in writing for pornographic publications. I was wrong. The teacher asked me to start on page six. I heard a few giggles as I read past my revelation, but nobody seemed too taken aback. When I was finished, the first question asked was: since I’d said I was a porn writer, would I be fictionalizing my entire book to match? The class laughed.
I cleared my throat: “No, that’s true, actually. I write part-time for adult magazines.” It was week four of our eight-week class; I knew these people pretty well. So it came as something of a surprise when my words evoked, for the first time, the look from most of my classmates. One of them actually gasped. The conversation stopped completely for a few moments, then lurched headlong down a new path: If I worked for porn magazines, they asked me, how could I not have recognized the coded swinging language in the ad I’d responded to? Shouldn’t I have been steeped in every kind of perversion already? Maybe I should be careful with the “innocent” language so I wouldn’t deceive the reader. And so on.
The other writers seemed genuinely confused, but more hurt and misled, as if I’d been trying to hoodwink them into thinking I was something besides the seasoned degenerate I had revealed myself to be. As if I should be wearing a big scarlet “P” embroidered on my blouse for “pornographer” so as not to deceive any more unsuspecting victims. Frankly, I felt just as hurt that my marginal position in the world of pornography could be such a hurdle for my readers—much less my classmates—to clear. I’d been honest with them about everything else about myself, and I didn’t think my part time job was important to the professional and friendly relationships we had all developed. Nobody stopped talking to me or anything, but I noticed a distinct shift in the way my classmates asked their questions and made their suggestions on my work. They seemed to expect lewder details of the sex parties I was writing about, more jaded terminology when I recounted my interviews. I have only heard from one of them since the workshop ended, and she was asking me for advice on which sex party she and her boyfriend should try.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I let myself fall once again into the same old trap: the one where people’s wide open smiles snap shut around my leg the moment I bring up my work in the sex industry. The one that reinforces the idea that it’s ok to wonder about, but that acting on one’s curiosity—real, willing, perhaps profitable participation in the sex industry—will end in a foot coming clean off. The foot of respectability I’d been standing on. And in its place? The look.
It’s not all bad. Most the time, with strangers, I get kind of a thrill out of shocking the naïve. But sometimes, it makes me feel like that embroidered “P” might save some time, confusion, and a little bit of pain.