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from www.oaklandlocal.com – If there’s a stigma around sex workers, it’s that we have placed them in a box of our own moral judgments, without really knowing anything about them.
What to make, then, of Lorelei Lee, who’s fluent in four languages, holds an MFA from NYU, writes poetry and screenplays, and references William Carlos Williams in her blog? Since emerging from the Kink.com dungeons (literally) more than a decade ago, she’s become not only a featured performer and director, but a poster child for the sex-positive aspects of the porn industry: she’s smart, literate, and firmly empowered by her choice to be a professional “pain slut.”
Lee is a natural choice for the documentary Public Sex, Private Lives, an engrossing film—screening at DocFest—which challenges our assumptions about porn and the women who choose it as both lifestyle and profession. Lee is one of three subjects in the film—the others are Princess Donna and Isis Love—who allow the camera to peer into where they are truly most vulnerable: not in their onscreeen nakedness, but in their offscreen lives.
Much of Lee’s storyline focuses on her relationship with another Kink.com employee, a transman named Tomcat, whom she married in 2012. Their love is portrayed as tender, compassionate and caring, yet not without awkward, jealous moments which arise from the nature of their employment.
There are snippets of Lee on-set, in BDSM scenes, which aren’t titillating as much as illuminating, giving context to the heavy social and psychological issues the movie raises. Nothing too graphic is shown in the doc, but it’s clear that a “rough day at the office” takes on an entirely different meaning for Lee and the others.
Lee is already at Muddy Waters, a Mission District café, when I arrive. I recognize her immediately: platinum-blonde hair—piled in a bun—, high cheekbones, and an infectious, slightly-dorky, smile. She’s wearing a tank top and skirt, and wood-soled heels which click-clack loudly on the café floor.
After introducing myself, I quote Anita Loos, author of the 1925 novel “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” describing the character Lorelei Lee as “a girl who always seemed to do everything she wanted to do.” Lee smiles. “I love that. I’ve actually never heard that before.”
She adds, “I try to do everything I want to do. I try not to let my own fear hold me back.”
Lee’s demeanor is perky, ebullient, and cheerful; she smiles—and laughs—a lot. Now 31, she’s been in the porn industry for well over a decade, yet not only is she in great physical shape, but her profession hasn’t left her jaded, bitter, or incoherent.
As Lee says, “people often view working in porn as something women are coerced into. Like that’s the only possible way you would do it… in my experience, both in my own life and talking with the women I work with, we’ve all had other options. It’s not like there aren’t other options – it’s that this is the best option.”
Pornography, she says, can actually be empowering for women. The issue is that “we grow up seeing only a select few images of women’s sexuality. And you need to actually unlearn them in order to find what’s true for yourself.” The notion that porn is just one thing is a false dichotomy. “There are so many different directions you can go. So many ways that porn can be made.”
What follows next is a lightning-round summary of the evolution of feminist sexuality over the last 50 years.
“Second-wave feminists had a lot of that idea, that feminist sex meant one thing,” Lee explains. “Some second-wave feminists thought that sex with men was not feminist, for example. That you could never have dominance and submission, that you could never have toys, [or] vibrators… The third wave concept of feminist pornography is this idea of women just taking control. What that imagery looks like, what kind of sex we want to have on film, deciding what kind of scenes we want to put out there into the world.”
Such imagery, Lee says, can range from “vanilla soft to girl-girl porn, lesbian porn, to fisting fetish, chains, ropes, whips, what have you.”
The idea behind the radical pornography that Lee describes isn’t just to go beyond the limits of mainstream porn, she says, but the limits of “mainstream films, women’s magazines, this idea in our culture that has existed in for 100 years or more, that heterosexual sex is the only sex.”
Lee runs down all the typical clichés: “men want sex and women want relationships, women trade sex for relationships, and men are the aggressors, the only people who possess desire, and that it’s the woman’s job to be the gatekeeper, to say yes or no, but never have a desire of her own. And we see this played out over and over again in romantic comedies… If I’m reacting to anything in my own work, it’s that.”
When Lee first got into the business, she says, “one of the most important lessons I learned is that what’s sexy is not what’s pretty.”
After becoming a porn performer and “watching other women who were just powerful,” her attitude changed. “Seeing them in the middle of a scene, covered in sweat and spit and eyelashes falling off, and their makeup’s smeared, and their hair snarled, I was like, that’s hot.”
In her films, Lee has done interracial and gangbang scenes, as well as girl-girl, and played both domme and sub roles. She can easily appear to be a hetero fantasy, yet she identifies as queer, and is married to a trans man.
Even in today’s quasi-enlightened age, gender roles still matter, she says. “Even those of us who deeply question compulsory assignment of gender roles still get very excited by playing with masculinity and femininity at various ends of the spectrum and everything in-between. Gender is fun. It’s exciting. It’s full of things that feel taboo and things that feel sexy, and we can vary the way that we present ourselves to play with all of that.”
Lee’s lucky to have a supportive working environment which puts play at a premium. Her co-workers at Kink, she says, are “intelligent, exciting, creative people to work with… I’m constantly surrounded by this creative energy.”
She and the other Kink directors—whose job it is not just to shoot sex scenes, but to conceptualize them—consider their work art. “How does any artist stay inspired? You find the thing. It happens in your day-to-day, you see something and you say, I want to create a scene around that. Last month for me, it was… pudding,” she exclaims with a big laugh.
The notion of imagining a sexual fantasy and then being able to make it happen is one of the biggest perks of Lee’s job, “one of the most exciting things about working there,“ she says.
Is there anything Lee doesn’t like about porn? “It is a job. I shouldn’t pretend that it is a hobby or something that I can only do when I’m inspired,” she says.
Lee doesn’t seem to have any issues with who she is and what she does, but she has gotten some pushback from “the mainstream writing world,” from “people who didn’t want to be associated with me.” There’s a certain notoriety that comes with being naked on the Internet which can limit career options, it seems.
Not that Lee–whose blog is called “Guess What? I Deserve This”–is complaining. She recently completed a book of poetry and has had offers to be in independent films. But she’s not actively going out on auditions: between acting and directing, she says, “I have a full plate.”
With “Public Sex, Private Lives,” she says, “Simone [Jude, the director] has told a beautiful story,” adding, “it was meant to be thought-provoking, it was meant to make people question their preconceived ideas about sex, about porn, about who it is that makes porn and especially about women in the porn industry. But I think it’s also a beautiful story about relationships. Each of us—Donna and Isis and I—have one of our primary relationships focused on in the film, and that’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, is just looking at how complicated and ultimately rewarding those loving relationships are.“
The film goes a long way toward humanizing Lee and the other featured subjects. But Lee’s not sure she wants to be humanized.
“From a marketing standpoint, I’m not sure that you necessarily, as a porn viewer, wanna know about my personal relationships,” she laughs.
So what can non-porn stars learn from porn stars? “The most important idea I’d like to pass on would be the idea of trying things and finding your limits,” she says. “Not thinking that your own sexual desires should go into any kind of mold, not thinking that because you don’t want to do something it makes you a prude, or because you do want to do something it makes you a freak.”
So how does she do the things she does? The metaphor that comes to mind for Lee involves Nijinsky, the Russian ballet star. “People always asked him how he did those leaps where he stays up in mid-air. And he said, you just jump up and then you stay there.”
It’s not hard to imagine Lorelei Lee as a prima ballerina of porn, pirouetting, jeteing, and staying “there” for as long as she wants.