Just finished reading my nineteenth book of the year, Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection, and Privacy edited by Jiz Lee. On its face the book consisted of, as the description says, “personal stories of porn performers “coming out” to family, friends, partners, lovers and community.” Beyond the immediate experiences of that were intricate, complex portrayals of identity and self that quickly serve to shatter the stereotype of shallow or uneducated porn performers and sex workers.
In part the book serves as a new call to justice – a rallying cry for an end to the stigma around such sex work. The book itself is performative – as Dr. Mireille Miller-Young notes the history of Stonewall and similar acts as “the mounting awareness and activism of a new generation of queer people who did not wish or were not able to keep their sexual and gender identities and expressions “in the closet.” They bravely defied abuse by eschewing the tactics previous generations of queer people employed to survive harassment.” Careful to explain she’s not drawing an equivalency between sex work and racism, sexism or homophobic oppression, Miller-Young emphasizes that “these oppressive forces overlap and intersect in important ways” and such work has begun “claiming visibility as a tactic for gaining freedom.” The essays therein serve a dual purpose – some make bold, unapologetic, damn strong arguments for the destigmatization of sex work.
Others simply and heartbreakingly examine the penalties society levies for engaging in such work. Cyd Nova laid out one of the clearest and most stark visions – stalking, disownment, firing or objectification and estrangement. Nova condensed the threat of coming out perfectly: “This is the real grip of the painful coming-out narrative. It interrupts the concept that certain types of love are unconditional. In our society, it is considered acceptable for someone’s family to decide to take away their love for their child because of a choice they make.”
Emma Claire provided a related poignant moment in explaining how even less-harsh family narratives served to hurt more than help. ‘I heard, “We will love you no matter what” when I came out as a woman, which kind of sounded like I did something wrong rather than, “I have unconditional love for you and celebrate you.”’
So many other good points were made throughout the book. Tobi Hill-Meyer’s calling out of the ways porn is treated differently, as it’s criticized for rampant sexism while so much more popular media and even “educational” material got a pass. Both Tina Horn and Milcah Halili Orbacedo joining Jiz Lee in highlighting that their activities in porn were products of informed, negotiated consent and control, pleasure and performance combining with the personal agency long mythologized as absent from sex workers. AliceInBondageLand on getting into porn because she couldn’t find any that represented her identity. Zahra Stardust on how sex workers are “not a walking research project to appease the voyeurism and sexual tourism of middle-class careerist professionals who want access to our sexual communities while avoiding stigma and protecting their reputation” – something that struck me I had spent most of the book doing, to my discredit.
The other theme that struck me as both important and lovely were the ways in which contributors wrote about their own identity. Identity’s a funny thing with me as I’ve been through many of them over my thirty plus years, less sexual than existential, and multiple essays spoke to that idea in incredibly eloquent ways. Gala Vanting’s loving exploration of her “multi-whore identity” as central and normal, capped off with “What if I concerned myself more with coming in to me than on how best to come out to you?” Hayley Fingersmith’s incredible description of wearing masks. James Darling’s countless coming-outs amidst a certain amount of holding back. Lorelei Lee on truth and names.
There is no better topic to end on, I think, than the hopes and wishes of authors in Lee’s ‘Coming Out Like a Porn Star.” Amidst their past hurts and elations, alongside how they carry themselves presently, many covered how they’d like dialogue to continue. How they want to see it – or how they are consciously trying to shape it through they way they live. Which goes back to Miller-Young, destigmatization and defying a culture that requires sex workers to adhere to victimhood and shame. Lee’s own point about not subscribing to spectrums of shame, that “it doesn’t help to throw other kinds of porn or sex work under the bus,” stands out. Andre Shakti’s commonsense approach to treating “a supposedly radical issue (queerness, nonmonogamy, atheism, gender nonconformity) with the same nonchalance as you would a less controversial topic (accounting, marriage, cooking, the weather).” Drew DeVeaux on recognizing that porn stars, trans folks and others are not only recipients of care or services but also providers – that they have agency, goddammit. They not only play important, active roles in their own lives but those of many others as well.
(I spent ten minutes on that last sentence – “but those of” threw me off, which is sort of the point. How do I articulate that sex workers or other marginalized people are a massive force in the world at large without using a marginalizing term like “mainstream society?” Or by using “but those of many cisgendered folks as well” suggesting that services towards cisgendered folk are inherently different, in a separate category? I am so new to all this.)
To sum all this up bluntly – Jiz Lee’s “Coming Out Like a Porn Star” allowed me to enter a lot of personally painful areas of those involved with no threat to myself, other than to my preconceived notions. The essays were not just accessible but often brilliantly written and covered depth I hadn’t even conceived of surrounding the issues involved. I recommend it to everyone. Five stars, no bullshit.
I’ll leave off with one of my favorite quotes of the book, from Cinnamon Maxxine: “Fuck that. Fuck them. Do you.”