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Conner Habib writes on www.slate.com – While it remains to be seen how much money moviegoers will spend on the recently released Lovelace, porn stars are definitely still paying the price for Linda Lovelace’s tale of redemption. I know, because I’m one, and Lovelace has complicated my life in obvious and concrete ways.
Let me explain: In addition to being a porn star and a writer, I regularly give talks on sexuality, pornography, and culture. In late 2012, a university near Boston expressed interest in hiring me for a lecture. During negotiations, however, my contact—the director of the campus LGBT organization—suddenly turned from enthusiastic to hesitant.
He’d spoken to a colleague who oversaw health education for the school, and she’d offered the following admonition: “Tell [Conner] to read Linda Lovelace’s book Ordeal … about the sexual enslavement and ‘pimping’ of women in the porn industry. Until that is understood and addressed by this multi-billion dollar industry, it is difficult to give it any voice.”
“We at least want to feel comfortable in that we’re pretty much on the same page,” the director added in an email, “with the people we bring in, in terms of educational safety issues. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”
I assured him that I was well aware of the feminist critiques (and defenses of) porn and that I was happy to engage in discussions with students about them. More to the point, as a working porn actor, I’ve appeared in around 150 adult films, so I knew that I had more knowledge about the porn world than could be guessed at from a book. But none of those qualifications, it seemed, mattered as much as Linda Lovelace’s shadow. My experience, I was being told—indeed, the experience of everyone in porn—was just like hers. The invitation was withdrawn.
Linda Lovelace (née Linda Boreman) is one of the most familiar names from the porn world. Although her career was brief, she starred in the 1972 smash hit Deep Throat, which would bring her enduring fame. Shortly after, she left the industry to become a leading anti-porn activist throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Though she died in 2002, Lovelace’s portrait of an industry rife with abuse and exploitation has lived on in the collective consciousness.
With the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s new biopic, Lovelace, her story is poised again to be taken seriously as representative of what it’s like to work in the porn.
Because of all of my involvement with the porn world—including my own films, my interactions with hundreds of performers, my years of research into sex work and related activism—I have to state, unequivocally: Linda Lovelace should not be considered a “porn star” anymore.
Her narrative is so far removed from what is currently the typical porn star’s experience in this country that using that title to describe her isn’t just meaningless but, worse, contributes to dangerous misunderstandings about porn performers today.
Lovelace is beautifully shot, well-performed, and at times touching, but, as with all versions of the Lovelace story, it ends with a troublesome triumph: Lovelace decrying her porn experience, first on a re-created talk show, then in a closing title just before the credits. Following her relatively brief film career in the 1970s, Lovelace wrote two anti-porn books explaining that she’d been forced into the business. She joined with Women Against Pornography to dissect the abuse they viewed as inherent in the industry, and generally crusaded against the genre.
The first problem with taking this narrative as characteristic is that, unlike Lovelace, most people now aren’t led into porn by manipulative spouses or other terrible circumstances. Although the myth of “falling into porn” persists, it just doesn’t happen for a majority of performers anymore. Quite the contrary: Getting a start in porn these days generally takes sending in applications to studios or at least the willingness to film it yourself and post it to the Internet.
I’ve wanted to be in porn since middle school, when I understood that performers made each other and audiences feel good for money. It seemed like an honest use of time; plus, all the popular kids thought it was cool. When I was old enough to do it, I waited for over a decade, thinking about my reasons for wanting to participate before I actually decided I was ready.
All the women in porn I know have similar stories. More representative than Lovelace are contemporary and prolific performers like Sovereign Syre. “Every step of the way was a conscious transition,” she told me. Her “erotic journey” began when, after leaving grad school to write a novel, she started appearing on an online modeling site and progressed to porn slowly and thoughtfully from there.
The career path for women in porn has changed to allow this sort of careful consideration since Lovelace’s time, but these improvements are in large part due to women like Sovereign Syre, not people who hold anti-porn sentiments. “It’s one of the few jobs where women are empowered to be financially and emotionally independent and that terrifies people,” Syre said.
Seen in this light, porn is far more consciously chosen than many other jobs. Although stable careers in finance, technology, etc. are often encouraged by cultural pressure and expectation, porn—a profession that potentially carries so much social stigma—requires serious decision-making.
Ordeal and Lovelace’s subsequent anti-porn crusade were aimed at uncovering the “truth” behind porn.
The structure of Lovelace (unintentionally, I believe) supports this misguided search for a seedy reality behind the glamour. In the film, the exciting porn experience is shown first (on-set laughter! huge audiences! meetings with celebrities!), and then the film repeats the entire sequence, showing what was really going on (coercion and abuse of Lovelace by her husband, Chuck Traynor, hotel-room rapes, parental rejection). It’s an alluring structure, one also put forth by the documentary The Real Linda Lovelace, released shortly after Lovelace’s death in 2001.
It’s not wrong to see Linda Lovelace as a person who overcame hardship and was a survivor of abuse. There are, to be sure, current porn performers who have suffered abuse as well. Taking those stories to be the “real” picture of the porn world, however, is a broad mischaracterization. The big secret about the porn world isn’t that there’s hidden abuse and coercion everywhere; the big secret is that there is no big secret.
Making porn is fun some days, not fun others. Sometimes you feel you get paid what you’re owed, sometimes you don’t. Some studios are filled with attentive and nice people, some are filled with irresponsible and unresponsive ones. In other words, in many respects, it’s like any other job. In fact, if there is a big difference between porn and other work, it’s that so many people outside the industry have been taught to believe that there must be something sinister happening within it.
Without going into all the reasons why societies demonize, legislate, and control sex, it’s clear that the stigma created by the sex-negative elements of our culture can create real problems for performers. Though we may be aware of what we’re doing when we get into the business, we may not be able to foresee the societally-imposed difficulties that await us once we’re in porn, including future (baseless) job discrimination, misapprehensions in personal relationships, and more.
Of course, these are problems created not by porn itself, but by our society’s cluttered view of sex. It doesn’t help that these misunderstandings are seized on by religious fundamentalists, social conservatives, anti-porn liberals, certain feminists, and others for power. These are the same groups that embraced Lovelace’s anti-porn stance while she was alive and continue to exploit her complicated humanity and specific story of abuse after her death.
But the hundreds of well-adjusted and happy porn stars I’ve interacted with and the tens of thousands of porn stars who live less sensationalized lives than Lovelace are testament to the fact that her story is not ours. Porn is mostly populated by people who aren’t victims, who have made thoughtful choices, and who won’t be climaxing with regret.