Can Pornography be Good for You?

(opening statement as part of the discussion ‘Can Pornography be Good for You?’ at Edinburgh Science Festival, April 2016)

on set for Four Chambers by Dwam

My story in porn isn’t maybe what you’d think, but it’s not that uncommon. I didnt sit on a casting couch in LA or answer a vague ad for models from Craigslist. I decided to start performing on webcam and making my own clips at university, as a test to see if it would be interesting or hot and maybe, profitable. It really was, I’d make more in a few hours on cam than I did in an 8 hour shift at my 0 hour contract retail job and I loved it. Like so much of the modern, online adult industry it was completely self directed and determined. You work for yourself, do what you’re comfortable with, work when and where you want. Camming gave me the freedom and the time and the capital to begin learn and to fall in love with film making.

My porn project, Four Chambers began as an experiment, to see if I could put sex on film in a way that was creative and interesting for me, something I didn’t see represented in the majority of readily available porn. We started making our own and putting it out on social media. The response was incredible, I never imagined I could be in the position I’m in now where it’s my full time job.

I think this is maybe where I tell you how “empowered” I am, how I love my job and how I’m sexually liberated. And really I’m happy to say that, for me, that’s often the truth — I mean — I’m my own boss, I have totally flexible working hours, I don’t answer to anyone. I put my own sexuality on film without compromise in a way that I’m truly proud of. I get to fuck my friends and travel and make my living in a creative way that I couldn’t have ever dreamed of. I have a better sex life, I’m a more open and honest person and a better partner because of the communication and honesty that making porn requires from a committed relationship. I have a confidence, ownership and pride in my body and my sexuality that I never did growing up. It’s been the best, most challenging and interesting thing I’ve done with my life.

And now I’m going to say that that doesn’t really matter.

What empowers me might not someone else, we all experience fulfilment and satisfaction in different ways. We aren’t all the same. Which is why it’s futile to always frame conversations about porn and sex work in terms of empowerment, it’s not asked of any other profession. The fact that we don’t ask if a hotel cleaner feels exploited or empowered working 12 hours a day for less than minimum wage shows that it’s the sex part of sex work we have an issue with, when it should be the work.

I can only speak from my experience, it’s predictable that porn has been good for me. I’m white, I’m cis, straight passing, totally middle class woman with a and a supportive family. It’s not often in my life that I’ve had to worry about struggling. I was able to “choose” my sex work for reasons other than money because I had the privilege of an upbringing and a support system that meant if the societal stigma of sex work caught up with me I wouldn’t be destitute.

For me, the most important reason that performing in porn can be good because it can provide options for people who don’t necessarily always have these privileges; single mothers, those from traditionally low earning backgrounds to who didn’t engage with traditional education, people with disabilities, trans people, people of colour, immigrants, these are people who are discriminated against and marginalised by a capitalist, male dominated workplace. Under capitalism success is often measured (for better or worse) in profitability, this is the game we have to play, and in sex work marginalised people often have more opportunities to succeed in system that usually excludes them.

It’s not perfect and it is complicated. Existing as a women or any marginalised person is complicated but I have to support the rights of all people to navigate their own way through that bullshit how ever works best for them; dress modestly/dress provocatively, wear make up/reject make up, to enjoy or ignore porn, to use your body however works best for you.

We had a representative from the church here telling everyone that porn is demeaning to women. I’m not sure when the church became such a bastion of women’s rights and I’m sure they’re just as concerned with other feminist issues like women’s reproductive justice.

A man from the Church who told me I was ruining my life.

I want to say that pornography can be good because in it women are powerful (and when I say women, I really mean anyone outside the male default) Not necessarily in the girl power, feminist sexual expression sense, although, like I said, for some that’s true, but powerful under capitalism in a way that’s truly rare. That might sound galling if you’re used to the idea of old fashioned big business porn company with an guy at the top and that definitely still exists but porn, like other creative industries, is being more decentralised and democratised, now most porn performers are also DIY producers that make and sell their own work, on their own terms. And once workers have hold of the means of production, they have more power. There are already easily more women producing and directing in porn than there are in Hollywood.

Porn and sex work are some of the only professions that directly reward, monetise, and idolise femininity which is why archaic, male dominated establishments have such a vested interest in keeping them down. We’re constantly fed that labour associated primarily with women; emotional labour, caring, motherhood and sex is valueless under capitalism, or maybe, just so precious that exchanging it for money cheapens it. Porn and sex work flips this on it’s head and demands value for women’s work.

Someone might stand here and say that some of the porn we watch is demeaning to women or that it holds a mirror to societies misogyny, and I’d agree with them. But you unfortunately you can’t name any other type of media where that isn’t true. The prevalence of misogyny in some types of porn has been allowed to fester unchecked because unlike mainstream media we let porn sit in the dark, we’ve all used it but dismissed it as worthless, as something to be hidden or ignored. We don’t value our representations of sex enough to treat them with the same critical eye. But in same way it’s completely possible to enjoy the entertainment of exaggerated violence and questionable portrayals of women in The Fast and The Furious, it’s also possible to enjoy the fantasy of some of the acts in porn, it doesn’t automatically make you a bad person. It’s also especially important to note that gay porn exists and with the same tropes of rough sex and power play but just with two men, so who might be being exploited/demeaned there?

And who fostered the ingrained misogyny and entitlement for women that we see spilling into all our media including porn; institutions like the church who’ve taught that women are subservient and sex is shameful, as a mean’s of protecting the heirachy and the status quo; male supremacy. Don’t like the idea of women turning to sex work for survival? Me either. Absolutely not. But we need more options for women and marginalised people, better welfare, wage equality, and essentially an end to poverty itself, not cutting off and shaming the options they do have.

Porn isn’t just one big monolithic thing, it’s varied and diverse and multi-faceted; a medium for ideas, like literature or comedy. (some bad, some good, mostly — subjective) And sometimes those ideas are so valuable and important. Performing and watching porn can be part of a radical form of self determination. As a straight person, you can take for granted seeing representations of your sexuality as the norm. Queer, LGBT people, anyone who has experiences and desires outside of the what’s presented as normal are ignored by public conversations about sex.

Putting your sex on film in your way is a means of making your mark. Determining and doumenting your existence and making your own space and community.

And if don’t like the porn you see? Look harder. There’s so much good going on. What shocks me about our dialogue with porn is that we hold sex up to a such different standard than any other part of human experience. Sex is essentially about an exchange of pleasure. It’s about doing things that make people feel good. What makes one person feel good isn’t always the exactly same as everyone else but that’s it’s essential intent. It might sound corny but honestly, from my experience, getting to watch and film people fucking is a funny, awkward, beautiful and intimate experience. We’re constantly surrounded by images of violence, manipulation, murder but it’s putting sex on film that’s the issue? We might think we’re acting on behalf the best interests of women when we say things like “how could she possibly be enjoying that” what we’re actually giving into is our lack of respect for the agency and variety of women and our ingrained shame and fear of sex.

Like all other creative media, to keep growing and becoming more representative of the whole breath of human sexuality porn needs more perspectives, more diversity, more criticism and celebration. But from a point of respect both for the people who have a natural curiosity to watch it and especially, the people who perform in it. No scaremongering, no telling them they’re all ill, that it’s a “drug”, or that they’re ruining their relationships and betraying their partners. We need better sex education and an open and honest, shame free attitude to sex and sexuality.

I’m standing here today because I can be. I have the privilege of being an out sex worker, I can put my face to that. I can have my name and picture printed in newspapers questioning if I’m actually clever and worthy enough to appear here to talk about my job and my experiences and I know it isn’t going to ruin my life. Other performers and sex workers might not have that luxury.

It’s not doing or watching porn that’s bad for you, it’s the shame and stigma that’s heaped upon it, trickled down from years of fear and suppression of powerful women and their sexuality.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

(Letter in response to press pushback, posted publicly before my appearance)

Scare Quotes.

I’ve been invited to speak at the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, to show some of my films and to present a workshop discussion about my experiences in porn making. SQIFF (cute acronym right?) is described on the site as “not-for-profit and run by our Festival Coordinator with assistance from our committee. We are an organisation by and for queer communities.”

LGBTQ+ voices and perspectives are vastly underrepresented or exploited in the majority of the media we consume, unfortunately we don’t see much outcry about that. Instead it’s small non profit organisations like SQIFF that work to celebrate and raise those voices. That’s really vital.

What we do hear about from every media outlet at the moment about the creeping dangers of pornography; its misogyny, its violence and its capacity to warp the minds of our children. This parallels the language used to demonise video games and horror films in previous decades. Porn is public enemy number one of today.

So it was only mildly surprising that I woke up to some tabloid coverage of my upcoming appearance full of words like “outrage” and “fury” and copious use of “””scare quotes””” and horror stories about children’s porn use.

It’s just so easy to complain about porn. If you love, hate or are indifferent to it, it’s still an instant attention grab. The media have the ultimate incentive to construct this kind of manufactured outrage because it sell papers and bring in clicks.

What they don’t talk about is how our society, encouraged by this kind of media scare mongering ignores, shames and persecutes people’s curiosity about sex. It blocks any honest and open discussion about sexuality, removes the opportunity for young people to properly contextualise and understand the fantasy in the porn they see and learn about everyday sexual good practice from talking to their parents, friends and educators. It’s this shame and stigma (coupled with the double strike of homophobia) that prevents queer sexuality from being understood and better represented. It’s this stigma that dehumanises and persecutes sex workers (of whose population LGBTQ+ people make up a hugely significant part).

Porn and sex aren’t going to just go away. We can try to ignore it, cover it up and stick our heads in the sand and continue to sustain this broken system or we can accept it’s existence as reality (whether we are choosing to watch porn or not) and work to create a more healthy conversation about sex and sexuality. This starts with talking about it. Talking about it from a position of respect and validity, both for those watching but most importantly those performing in it and their labour.

Which is why I’m so grateful to SQIFF and festivals like it for giving me the opportunity to speak about my experience, something that so many people in sex work don’t get. Our voices are too often infantilised or silenced or ignored. And this is only exaggerated when you add factors like LGBTQ+ status, race and class into the mix.

But it’s exactly because I am a person and particularly a women in sex work who is speaking about my experience and displaying my agency that the press has picked up on it. Had I been an academic presenting a research paper on the subject there would be no story. Had I been one of the porn producers and directors who choose to profit from making porn but never to take on the inherent risk and stigma of performing sex on camera themselves, there would be no gossip and smiling press pictures where my selfies in underwear now are. Because I dare and am able to speak up and put my face to my sex work, the validity of my worthiness is brought into question.

Thank you to SQIFF for the opportunity to speak, thank you for the work you do to raise the voices and celebrate the work of people who are too often ignored. I’m excited to come talk and debate about how we can make porn more diverse and interesting and representative and to celebrate queer representation and sexuality.

http://www.sqiff.org/event/sqiff-workshop-porn-filmmaking-with-vex-ashley/

@vextape — I make pornographic films with Four Chambers. Not a model, not a muse. vexashley.com

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