Penthouse Pet Zahra Stardust: What is ‘fake’ and ‘real’ in the sex industry?

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Zahra Stardust writes on – Porn has hijacked our sexuality, according to anti-porn author Gail Dines. Her sentiment is not unlike that of other ‘raunch culture’ commentators – the sex industry is damaging because it represents ‘fake’ pleasures and ‘fake’ bodies.

Both queer and feminist communities have produced porn/magazines/performances aiming to represent desires, bodies and acts that are ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’, ‘documentary’ and ‘real’. But is this line between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ so clear-cut? Zahra Stardust explores the issues.

As someone who works in the sex industry – in spaces that purport to be ‘real’ as well as spaces that are accused of as being ‘fake’ – it seems like there is no distinct line between the two.

As someone who works with a body that is sometimes perceived as ‘real’ and other times read as ‘fake’ – it seems that the bodies which move across these spaces are equally fluid.

As someone whose pink bits have been airbrushed in magazines, but which have also been on explicit display; who performs both with and without make-up; whose ‘real’ name is my stage name, distinctions between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ don’t always make sense.

I experience pleasure at work in the mainstream sex industry that I certainly perceive as ‘real’. This pleasure comes from physical sensations (lactic acid, endorphins, sweat, carpet burn, whipping hair, a double ended dildo angled against my g spot, real orgasms) but also from the thrill of voyeurism (exhibitionism, cameras, being naked in front of thousands of people).

Pleasure comes from creative aesthetics (coordinating colours, angles, props and shapes) and the kick of doing something that is (to some) taboo. I consider that pleasure a genuine part of my own sexuality. Sure, it’s work – and during shows I am also thinking about choreography, musicality, crowd control, not falling over, pole grip, camera angles, the audience member who is wandering off with my g-string – but work and pleasure are not mutually exclusive.

Yes, it can be mundane, repetitive and sometimes I end up with pole bruises, aching muscles and an intolerance for drunk men, but I use the stage as a platform to explore my own desires, and this assumption that what we do at work and the pleasure we experience from it isn’t ‘real’ must be problematised. My vagina will tell you otherwise.

At the same time, websites that purport to depict ‘real’ or ‘redefined beauty’, often seem to be just as conventionalised as the mainstream genres they criticise. ‘Alternative’ nude modelling site Suicide Girls gives calculated instructions on their website about the kinds of photos, make-up and aesthetic sets they accept: ‘tasteful’, ‘picture perfect’ shoots with ‘a little bit of face powder and mascara and freshly dyed hair’, but specifically not ‘cheap wig[s]’, ‘top hats’, ‘stripper shoes’, ‘food’ or things that look ‘cheesy’, ‘gross’ or ‘creepy’.

Similarly, the ‘girl next door’ look of the Australian all-female explicit adult site Abby Winters represents an alternative to glamour photography, featuring make-up-less, ‘amateur’ adult models – but models are still required to cover up hair re-growth, remove piercings, and not have any scratches, marks or mosquito bites for the shoot in order to appear ‘healthy’.

Other sites I’ve shot for speak about the importance of models representing their ‘own’ sexuality, but then go on to qualify: “We might get you to tone down the eye make up a bit”, “Maybe don’t talk about politics”, “Lesbians don’t really use double-enders do they?” One company asked me repeatedly to stop wearing frills.

In doing so, these sites produce bodies of a particular class, size and appropriate femininity, which are marketed as ‘real’, but which are equally constructed, conventionalised and cultivated. This fear of replicating ‘cheesy’, ‘predictable’ mainstream porn means that depictions of ‘real’ sexuality are often similarly clichéd, albeit with a different set of aesthetics.

In their avoidance of ‘the mainstream’ (whatever that means), ‘alternative’ porn (whether it brands itself queer, feminist or ‘erotica for women’) can sometimes replicate and reinforce what Gayle Rubin calls ‘Good, Normal, Natural, Blessed Sexuality’: the sex is vanilla, and involves only bodies (without objects or toys). Sex occurs in the home, between members of the same generation and only within couples. The scenes are soft, gentle, usually in ‘natural’ light and ‘every-day clothes’ (which in my experience means we are expected to bring Bonds underwear).

To think that this could be any more ‘real’ than mainstream porn seems strange to me, especially when it is produced in an environment that is completely staged: our movements are restricted by camera angles, someone is standing beside us operating the equipment, many of us are professionals pretending to be amateur, and in true ‘documentary’ style, we are expected to cum on cue. These kinds of websites are marketable and loveable because they refuse to define themselves as ‘porn’ – even though, as Annie Sprinkle said in the Herstory of Porn, the difference between erotica and porn “is all in the lighting!”

Zahra300It is an important goal to make sexually explicit material that does not prescribe unrealistic standards, perpetuate hegemonic gender stereotypes or marginalise diverse sexualities. But many of us in the sex industry will tell you that those stereotypes and marginalisation come – not from audiences or clients – but from public reductive readings of our work and stringent legal frameworks.

These frameworks determine which bodies and sexual practices can legally be portrayed and whose voices are heard or silenced. Callous distinctions between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ present un-nuanced and uncritical readings of the sex industry and contribute to regressive laws.

Sure, we may play with, embody and embrace hyper-femininity, but we are no less ‘authentic’, or political, or real, because our lip gloss is hot pink instead of ‘nude’. We don’t need to ‘tone-it-down’ to be any more queer, radical or ‘real’. Our bodies may look ‘unrealistic’ to you, but the labour of preparing for work gives erotic performers a sentient, working knowledge of gender performativity.

Much of the time, our work is far from glamorous. I return from work with smudged mascara, sticky lube, patchy fake tan, knotty hair, smelling like sweat and vaginal fluid – and the customers experience this up close and personal. My vagina certainly isn’t airbrushed when I get it out at buck’s parties, complete with shaving rash, discharge and blonde hair caught in my clit ring.

Merely working in this industry gives us access to hundreds of ‘real’ bodies – all different, all diverse, all unique. We all bring real, orgasmic pleasure, to audiences, clients, and readers (of many genders).

Blaming certain kinds of femininity and reading our bodies as ‘fake’, normative and indulgent is part of a wider culture that does not value – and actively ridicules – femininity. Reading our bodies as ‘fake’ insults femmes. Many of us feel our femme presentation is a way of queering femininity; glitter, six-inch thigh-highs and suspender belts may be far more ‘natural’ for many queer femmes than bare feet and beige make-up.

To call us ‘fake’ valorises masculinity above femininity, privileging ‘masculine’ or androgynous embodiment (an absence of make-up, hair-removal and accessories) as ‘real’ and represents femmes as superficial and trite dupes who cannot be considered serious feminist or queer subjects.

The irony is that you can never win – ‘appropriate femininity’ is unachievable. We are either too much or not enough. Our hyper-femininity is often so far beyond normative feminine ideals that it brings us social censure – our make-up is too thick, our heels are too high, our breasts are too large. As Rosalind Gill writes about women in media, our “bodies are evaluated, scrutinised and dissected” and are “always at risk of “failing.”

Dyke porn in particular uses ‘authenticity’ to market products. Girls site asks in their advertisements, “Sick of gay-for-pay straight girl sex? So are we” and instead offers “Real lesbian porn”. This is an important response to the imitation of homosexual desire by the heterosexual majority for financial reward, and a reaction to discrimination and underrepresentation of lesbian sexuality. Further, it raises important issues about representation, inclusion, accessibility, and which bodies and sexualities are depicted as erotic or desirable.

However, these critiques also assume that for adult performers, there are clear distinctions between what is ‘authentic’ and ‘performative’, or solid lines between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, whereas often the protagonists of girl-girl porn/striptease/sex work – straight and queer –may experience a blending of both.

Australian Porn Star Angela White’s research shows that even where straight-identifying women perform in girl-girl, femme-on-femme pornography aimed at straight male audiences, the process of selling sex can queer their heterosexuality. In her interviews she found that the ‘straight’ women found themselves enjoying lesbian experiences in a way that confused their heterosexual identity, made sexual identity categories redundant and “transform[ed] their own sexual identity”.

There is some amazing queer and feminist porn around that is diverse and celebratory. But I’m not convinced that distinctions between fake and real are all that useful, or necessary. To call somebody fake involves a whole set of assumptions about their body, identity, gender, sexuality and politics, about what is ‘natural’, ‘normal’, which sex acts are ‘real’, what is ‘authentic’ for whom, and how one must look and behave to be ‘feminist’ or ‘queer’.

It puts limits on the kinds of sexual encounters and relationships that are ‘real’, discounting the intimate experiences we have with clients every day. Using the fake/real distinction to denigrate certain sexualities, shame femininity and blame the sex industry for gender oppression is too easy. It perpetuates a language that is whorephobic, femmephobic, and slut shaming, which is being co-opted and reproduced as acceptable in mainstream media, academia and popular culture, but also (dangerously) by feminists, queers, and fellow smut-makers.

As a queer femme sex worker, reading our bodies and sexualities as fake is offensive to me and my community. Is it acceptable to you?

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