A Portrait of the Young Girl: On the 60th Anniversary of Nabokov’s Lolita Part III — An Interview Series




Left: Olympia Press’s two-volume edition of Lolita as part of its nondescript “The Traveller’s Companion Series,” 1955.

 

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

— Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


It is through the Young-Girl that capitalism has managed to extend its hegemony to the totality of social life. She is the most rugged pawn of market domination in a war whose objective remains the total control of daily life and “production” time.

— Tiqqun, Introduction to Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl

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THE EXPLICIT DEPICTION of adolescent sexuality on film was first deemed a cultural obscenity and proscribed as early as 1922, with the advent of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). So-called stag and “blue” loops had existed by the 1890s, nearly contemporaneous with the invention of the Kinetoscope; they surfaced in America in 1893 with Edison’s midriff-bearing Fatima series — an anodyne short of a burlesque performer belly dancing and disrobing. But the images of young girls’ bodies as prurient and seductive objects were codified in the MPPDA’s “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” developed with the Hays Office and approved by the Federal Trade Commission. As part of the larger list of prohibitions, which had a strongly religious tone to please clergy and censorship activists, any images of exposed “children’s sex organs” were to be removed; a more abstract “deliberate seduction of girls” was strongly discouraged.

Sexualized images of teen and young-adult women in the silent era played almost no part in the development of the Hays Office. Regardless, pro-censorship activists and tabloid journalists used the narrative of the corrupted aspiring actress as an excuse to agitate for moral reform. In movie magazine exposés like 1922’s The Sins of Hollywood, casting couch sex stories led to rumors of private stag reels (The Pick Up, 1923, The Casting Couch, 1924) and debauched directors running secret bordellos. A local newspaper wrote at the time, “Citizens of Hollywood, wake up! For the sake of your community, your homes and yourself […] Hollywood is honeycombed with prostitutes.” The murder and sex scandals of Fatty Arbuckle, Charles Chaplin, and William Desmond Taylor all co-starred young girls like Virginia Rappe and Mary Miles Minter in the role of movie industry casualty. According to groups like the protofeminist Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Hollywood, left to its own devices, would ultimately exploit and degrade actresses both onscreen and off. According to such Puritanism, new media technologies should maintain the 19th century tradition of romanticizing the image of the young girl while infantilizing her body.

The exploitation film trend of the 1930s, following the development of sound, was the first such flirtation with depicting young girls in unflattering, and occasionally unclothed, imagery. The darling of the decade, Shirley Temple, may have seemed an innocent exception, but her ringleted hair and precocious dialogue, often delivered to single, elder men, lent films likeFrolics of Youth (1934) and Wee Willie Winkie (1937) a discernible undertone of pedophilia. If anything, Temple’s overwhelming popularity proved synecdochical for all cinematic images of girls, who were portrayed as eroticized, and non-agentive, from adolescence through adulthood. Author Graham Greene, later one of Lolita’s most vocal enthusiasts, notoriously wrote of Temple that, “Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body […] only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.” Other so-called “educational” and nudist films veered into less redeeming territory. The risqué Child Bride (1938) was built around the nude swimming sequence of a 12-year-old actress, while the same year’s Sex Madness (based on a similar 1927 film, Is Your Daughter Safe?) focused on the various venereal diseases exchanged between teenagers, both straight and lesbian, who engaged in premarital intercourse.

Legal distinctions of both age and consent in obscenity did not exist until landmark federal reversals on obscenity such as the Miracle Decision and the Lockhart Commission in the 1950s and ’60s. Despite fears to the contrary, any prevalence of minor exploitation in pornography was statistically miniscule. Even as softcore and European art films increasingly popularized the sexual awakening of the teen girl as a narrative device, the lack of legitimate theatrical distribution and restrictive American mores limited their exhibitions. At the center of this controversy from the mid-’50s to the early ’60s, the American-made Lolita adaptation was considered practically banal with the release of increasingly permissive “young girl” movies like Baby Doll (1956), Candy (1968), and Pretty Baby (1978). Ignoring community standards and censorship guidelines, the burgeoning hardcore market of the mid-’70s occasionally cast girls below the age of 18 for starring roles to little public protest — a trend that goes back to 16-year-old stripper Candy Barr’s role in the hardcore loop Smart Alec (1951). Beginning in the late 1970s and ’80s, however, the rise of the conservative culture wars, pedophilic hysteria, and the technology of privatized home video drastically accelerated calls for the federal criminalization of underage pornography as obscenity. The adult industry, which had by then separated itself completely from its mainstream Hollywood counterpart, bore the obvious brunt of these new investigations into the exploitation of girls below the age of 18.

The criminalization of such images was thought to end the adult industry’s flirtation with the young girl and the general public’s desire to see fantasies of teenage sex played out in its productions. However, trends toward “young girl” porn over the last 25 years have proven quite the contrary. With the explosion of the modern porn marketplace, firstly through VHS and DVD, and then through HTML and YouTube-based streaming video, the demand for “teen,” “barely legal,” and “Lolita” porn has produced a volume of search metrics that consistently outnumber all other subgenres and fetishes. Unlike most of the cinematic depictions of “young girl” sexuality that had preceded them, these “ageist” genres were played by actresses who, well past the age of consent, simulated popular fantasies of the teen through caricatured references to dress, language, and “coming of age” rituals. Viewed through a critical lens, such barely legal videos exhibit a type of artifice and implicit knowingness, which can be appreciated as erotic, comedic, instructional, or “meta”-critical. The actresses “trick” both their co-stars and mostly male audience into suspending disbelief according not only to their bodies but also their often improvised storytelling, imparting upon themselves a discernible sense of narrative authority in a fluid exchange of sexual power. Who exactly is the dominant participant in this sexual role-play? As a reversal of the archetypal Lolita victim, the “young girl” performer succeeds by turning her dubious age back upon the so-called “pedophile” in a form of sexual legerdemain, even as the actress performs what writer Elizabeth Patnoe calls a “misreading […] perpetuated intertextually, extratextually, and intratextually” of Lolita, the calculating vixen.

In this series, the Los Angeles Review of Books assembled a group of female authors, artists, and performers, who, dedicated to examining the faces, bodies, and voices of the young girl, consider the significance of Nabokov’s pubescent protagonist as both a literary conceit and an object of patriarchal fetish. Among the many important themes and motifs they consider include these larger, crucial questions: Who precisely is Lolita and why are we awestruck in her presence? How have our perceptions of her changed since 1955? What does she look like now? Are we all guilty of objectifying the young girl? And why are we afraid to articulate the sex, passion, and emotions of the contemporary nymphet?

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Lorelei Lee is an adult film performer, activist, and creative writing lecturer at NYU and City College of San Francisco. Commencing her decade-plus career as an actress, Spiegler Girl, and director in the porn industry at the age of 19, Lee has become most associated with the fetish and femdom genres. Her writing has been published in Salon, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, and Wired, as well as anthologies Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys (2009) and The Feminist Porn Book (2013). Lee was co-writer of the independent film About Cherry(2012), starring James Franco, which debuted at 2012’s Berlin International Film Festival, and she has appeared in porn and bondage documentaries 9to5 — Days in Porn (2008) and Public Sex, Private Lives (2013).

ERIK MORSE: Do you remember when you first read Lolita? What were your initial impressions, both of Nabokov’s story and the character of Lo?

LORELEI LEE: I read the book in 48 hours, as an art school assignment. My main focus was on Nabokov’s prose. There was a definite dissonance between the beauty of the language and my discomfort with the content. It drew me in and repelled me at the same time.

Did you identify with the young girl?

I remember identifying with the girl, but only mildly. You are really kept out of her mind by the third person narration. You can’t even be certain that she’s being rendered accurately. It’s similar to how young women and girls are often portrayed in media — both objectified and idolized.

Your nom de guerre references the name of Marilyn Monroe’s character in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, an unusual nod to classic Hollywood within the adult industry. The name also evokes the kind of bombshell/pinup image that was part of the ’50s/’60s fantasy of the “young girl.” Why did you choose that as your porn name? Are there any famous young girls (actresses, singers, fictional characters, etc.) whom you most admire or imitate in your films as an invocation of femininity?

I chose the name “Lorelei” as a nod to the Marilyn Monroe movie, which also references the Lorelei of myth — the siren who lures men in and eats them. As a young woman, working with my body, learning the hustle and negotiating mainly with older men who possessed a great deal more socioeconomic power than I did, it felt right to take a name that embodied mythic feminine power. Also, the bombshell/pinup feminine trope Marilyn manifests seemed to me then to have this same element of power. It was the opposite of the “young girl.” Marilyn’s feminine presentation embodied for me what my agent Mark Spiegler used to say to us: “act dumb, be smart.”

In real life, I was actually the young girl. I was young and blonde and blue eyed and broke. In real life, being the young girl means having a false power. Men are always telling you about the power you have, but it sometimes seems to be a power entirely of their making and control. It’s a power based on someone else’s concept of your innocence. The imagined movie screen power of the young girl is in her naiveté. As soon as she acknowledges whatever power she might have, she fails at being the ideal of feminine youth everyone told her she already was. If she goes further and tries to control that power, there is a social subtraction from both her youth and her beauty. This is associated, of course, with the idea of the sexual potency of the virgin. As a young woman in this country (and in many others, as I understand), you are told that you possess this thing of great value — sex — whose value is only maintained by your not using it. You are told that you possess sex and men want it, and that the power you have is in knowing exactly how much you must offer without ever following through on any of it.

Having sex as a young woman, and especially if you enjoy it, induces various social punishments. Becoming a sex worker means taking it even further — means saying I see exactly what kind of power this world is going to give me and I’m taking it. I think women of all ages and professions face this double edge of sexual expectation, and sex workers especially face it as a failure of our femininity. As a woman, and even more so as a sex worker, it takes a fierce resolve and tenacity to say: fucking doesn’t deplete my power. To say that there is no such thing as a “used up” woman. To say: I own my body.

I’ve been doing this job for 15 years and I still play the young girl on many occasions. Now, I switch between playing the sexually mature temptress (evil) and the naive innocent about to be taken (good, until after she’s taken). Playing these roles on film only accentuates how fictional they are. This is part of why I think pornography is a radical response to traditional feminine sexual tropes. Our hyperfantasy only elucidates exactly how false those images are.

Can you tell me about the circumstances under which you joined the adult film industry as a teenager?

When I was 19, I had a boyfriend who had a friend who had a digital camera. In the year 2000, owning a digital camera was pretty much how you got into porn. He was working for a new website, what would later grow into the now-massive adult company Naughty America. I didn’t grow up with computers in my house, and I knew only a few people who actually used the internet at that time, so when my boyfriend told me they were looking for young girls (yes, there’s that key phrase) with no tattoos who would pose naked for money, I thought no one I knew would ever see the photos. It’s a common lie that people in the industry tell themselves — that no one will find out. In the end, everyone finds out. I was working two jobs at the time, waitressing. They paid me $200 — nearly a week’s pay — for a shoot that took about two hours.

What are the advantages of entering the porn industry at such a young age? Are there any disadvantages?

The advantage of starting out that young is that, at that age, you believe so blindly in the eternal possibility of your own future. You see your day-to-day as a series of struggles to get past on your way to where you’re going. Or at least I did. Nothing seemed cumulative. It was impossible for me, at age 19, to know how getting naked for money would affect my future. When I’ve talked about this before, I’ve said that it is like driving a boat into the ocean, steering based only on what you can see in front of you. I suppose this is true for most of the choices you make when you are 19. There are a few things you can do that will change your life — and your place in the world — so profoundly. Probably going to college is one of those things. I suspect joining the military is also one. Sex work is another. And sex work in the age of the internet is perhaps unlike sex work at any other time in history.

The fact is this, I became who I am in this industry. I can’t separate who I was before from who I was after, and I can only speculate as to the advantages and disadvantages of my youth when I entered. This work has affected every aspect of my life, without question. It changes the way that people see you. It changes the way you see people. It changes the way you date, talk to your family, apply for jobs.

If I hadn’t started this work at age 19, maybe I never would have started — I don’t know. At age 19, this work became defining for me. Being a hustler, an outsider, putting on the trappings of “femme fatale,” negotiating my rates and boundaries, and learning how to put on a show — all of this helped me see my own queerness, helped me to understand the meaning of being female — the false dichotomies and expectations I would accept or reject — and changed the way I would later go to school, read a newspaper, write essays, fall in love, choose where to live, and testify at California State Senate hearings this year. Most of what I have done has been informed by my experience as a sex worker, because it is who I have been for my entire adult life. At this point, I have been a whore for nearly as long as I wasn’t one. The thing about sex work that is different from almost anything else you can do is that it stays with you forever. At 19, at 20, at 21, it became clear to me that a person can quit being a waitress and that identity doesn’t stick to you the way being a whore sticks to you. It will always be a thing you have to reveal or be accused of hiding. I have been lucky, and I have done a lot of work to be able to define my relationship to the word “whore.” I’ve been out about being a sex worker for a very long time, and I love the word now. I own it. But even now, in the right person’s mouth, I can hear the vitriol and the injustice in it.

It’s possible that if I’d decided to do this work as an older woman — if I had started now, in my 30s — I may have felt I had more control over how the monumental concept of whore fit into my life (but probably not). It’s possible that taking on a public sexuality in your 30s or 40s might be different because women are expected to give up their sexuality as they age. But it’s just the other side of the feminine social construct, and that construct punishes all women who claim power over the sexual, regardless of age.

The usual narrative surrounding the young porn star is that she was forced or otherwise manipulated into the industry because of naiveté or abuse — in other words, her age precludes her from making an informed decision. Do you feel as though you were treated differently because of your age and young-girl look when you began in the industry?

I don’t think this has anything to do with the industry. I think people see young women as not having agency, and as needing “protection,” regardless of what life choices those women are making. I actually think the adult industry affords some refreshing perspective on this, because there is the chance to work independently, negotiate your own rates and schedule, and to say exactly what you will and won’t do at work. Of course, there are assholes everywhere. There are power differentials and gender dynamics everywhere and that includes the adult industry. I found that I was reliably condescended to and harassed as a waitress, while doing clerical work, and certainly in an academic setting. In none of those settings did I ever experience the level of consent negotiation I experience immediately when I started doing sex work.

I believe that if we all had a higher understanding and expectation of consent, the world would be vastly changed for the better. And nowhere are consent and agency being more actively engaged with than in pornography. I’ve been working in porn for 14 years, I’ve worked all over this continent and in Europe, and never on an adult film set have I been expected to do something without being asked. That sounds simple, but it is actually revolutionary. In many other settings, in private life, people are always trying to figure out how to get people to do what they want them to do. I used to volunteer for San Francisco Sex Information, a sex-ed nonprofit, on their information hotline. Again and again, we’d get the same questions: how do I get my wife/girlfriend/date to give me a blowjob/have sex with me/have an orgasm. And I’d give the same answer again and again: ask her. Also shower, that helps.

Did you find that even within the industry that directors, producers, or other actors look at very young stars with skepticism or jealousy? Or, alternatively, that she is often seen as a target to be taken advantage of or coerced?

In my industry, we aren’t embarrassed to say things out loud, and we’ve learned that the best way to get something is to ask for it. I work for a fetish and BDSM company now, who have a very developed and elaborate consent protocol including multiple steps of written and verbal communication before you even get on set, but I think even on vanilla sets where people aren’t so self-consciously addressing the consent question, you still have a whole lot of pornographers and performers doing this radical thing: asking each other what they want to do. It’s so routine, we do it without thinking — will you do a blowjob scene, do you do anal, will you talk dirty, what do you want to do today, what don’t you want to do; the first time I was on set and someone asked me that question, I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know what I would or wouldn’t do because no one had ever asked me before.

I’m curious about the way adult film stars initially begin to brand themselves, since they often fall into particular genres for how they look or what acts they are willing to do. Since you started filming at 19, were you initially approached with roles as the teenage nymphet or schoolgirl, or was this the image you chose to cultivate? At that age, does one seek out a niche or style or is it given to you by producers/agents?

I’m sure this happens any number of ways for various people. Some of it we don’t have a choice about — we’re categorized by race, ethnicity, breast size, body type — pretty much any physical attribute that you can put a word to, someone is marketing it. You learn quickly what you have that you can sell. You learn it when you talk to bookers or write ads for yourself, when you fill out modeling applications, and when you seek out an agent. We learn to describe our physical attributes the way other people learn to write a resume. And in porn, age only sometimes equals youth. If you’re thin and have small breasts, or if you’re an Asian woman, you might end up playing a teen until you’re 35. If you have large breasts, you might be categorized as a MILF at 22. So much of this is neither chosen nor explicitly given to you, but is the product of cultural, gendered, and racial stereotypes that proliferate in the larger world.

Throughout these questions, I think what I’m attempting to do, in addition to drawing connections between the literary and cultural explorations of childhood sexuality and their particular sublimation in porn, is look at the “young girl” in porn as some sort of test case or microcosm of the overall status and experience of the adult actress in the adult film industry. Many, if not most, porn actresses start off playing some version of the “young girl,” who defines, in a way, the standard of sexuality and beauty in the industry and plays to a large, male audience as the ultimate sexual fantasy of power and pleasure. Do you think the image of the “young girl” continues to dictate the predominant sexual model for all female porn actresses? Is this a paradigm that you think is being subverted by feminist/queer/alternative films and the proliferation of women directors and female-led production companies?

I don’t know, people are always talking about this idea, but I don’t buy it. I realize there’s evidence; for example “teen” is the top search term used by male viewers on the website Pornhub, which tracks various analytics in its users. Industry people talk about “aging out” of the business, and there’s this idea that 18 to 28 are your moneymaking years. This is either changing or it was never a rule the way people claim it to be. I’m 33 and I’m still waiting to age out of the industry. I actually worked a whole lot more in the years after I turned 28 than in the years before. And here’s the thing: just below “teen” in the popular-search-terms list is “MILF.” I know dozens of successful women who are performing in their 30s and 40s, and some in their 50s. I don’t think this is resulting from any kind of feminist act or from the increase in women directors and producers — women are pushing all kinds of changes in the industry, lots of paradigms are being subverted, but this isn’t one of them. It seems to me that, contrary to popular belief, audiences just think older women are hot.

The thing about porn now is that you mostly buy it and consume it alone. You don’t have to tell your friends that you’re attracted to older women, you don’t have to go to the liquor store to buy MILF Magazine, you can find it in your own bedroom — so there might just be incrementally less cultural influence on people’s porn consumption than there is on the way they consume other kinds of media. I’m not saying the cult of youth doesn’t exist, I’m just saying that I believe it’s primarily constructed, nourished, and experienced in pop culture and mainstream media at large. I run two websites, and of course, we track our sales, and I can tell you that writing “MILF” or “mature” in the title of a movie sells just as well as writing in “teen” or “young.”

Is there any current trend in what the young girl’s body should look like in porn? What interests me here is the semiotics of the “young girl” fantasy, both in terms of clothes and physical appearance. At the beginning of your career, were you ever advised to do/change anything about your appearance or body to make your image more appealing to an audience? For example, while most porn stars are encouraged to get breast implants, lip injections, hair extensions, aren’t actresses who do “teenage/barely legal” films encouraged to look more natural? Keep breasts natural, stay hairless and avoid tattoos.

Let me just clear up one thing right now — it’s a total myth that we’re “encouraged” to get implants and injections. Maybe some agent somewhere is suggesting to performers that they should do that, but I think there is way more encouragement against it, regardless of your genre. My agent always told us not to. Also, let’s talk about body hair — bushes are back in a big way. When I go to set these days I can not predict whether a female performer will have no pubic hair, a giant bush, or anything else in between.

The semiotics of the “teen girl,” of course, are the same as they have always been — being thin and having small breasts and hips and minimal tattoos will get you marketed as a teen. But regardless of your age or body type, all of us dress up as a “teen” at some point or another. We laugh at the predictability of the porn trope. Glasses and a pencil skirt make you a “doctor,” “teacher,” or “scientist.” You are a cop if you have the right hat, regardless of what else you wear. And you’re a “teen” or “naughty schoolgirl” if you have knee socks and pleated plaid. There’s the public perception of physical youth, and then there’s the drama of the sexual role-play — and these might overlap, but they don’t always.

I’ve noticed that while porn has expanded tremendously in terms of exploring fetish, ethnicity, physical appearance, age, aesthetics, most “teen” porn still caters exclusively toward a narrow image of the nymphet, particularly in terms of race. Why do you think this genre of porn still fetishizes a very specific image of white beauty?

I have no idea. I mean, I get the historic entrenchment of racist stereotypes, and I get how they are maintained because they benefit a select few. But at the same time, I think it’s disgusting, irrational, and I don’t understand it. I both understand why it exists and I don’t understand at all. Racism in adult film is pervasive, and adult film is just a microcosm of what Roxane Gay calls “the unbearable whiteness of media.” I could attempt to talk specifically about how racist stereotypes have proliferated, and how insidious they are in public conceptions regarding the bodies and sexualities of women and men of color, but others have said all of this better and with a greater depth of knowledge and perspective. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates on the history of racism in this country, read Aya de Leon on black women and sex work, read Roxane Gay on racism and public and intimate conceptions of the body, read Celine Shimizu and Dr. Mireille Miller-Young on race and pornography. 

I want to discuss a bit about roles for the “young girl” in porn. Many of these “barely legal” films have the actress in question playing or simulating a much younger girl — the cheerleader, stepdaughter, co-ed, schoolgirl — at this indeterminate, pubescent age. It’s interesting to me because while this is a totally legal dramatization, there is an element of it that is still very transgressive and, at least, suggesting what is considered an illegal and very verboten act. The fantasy of child sex. Do you see the portrayal of this underage nymphet as problematic or disturbing in the context of promoting the victimization of young women outside the safety of the film set?

I don’t at all. Pornography is fantasy. It’s extreme hyperbolic fantasy. Much of that fantasy is built out of taboo, and the desire associated with many of these fantasies relies on the knowledge that they will not become reality. It’s like rape fantasy. Many, many women find a fantasy of nonconsent hot. But pornography or role-play that explores that kind of fantasy is exclusively sexy because you actually are consenting to everything that happens. We don’t in fact want to be taken by a handsome stranger — we want to be taken by a “stranger” who somehow knows us so intimately that they will only do all of the things we actually want them to do. Or we want to watch a scene in which — even while we’re able to suspend disbelief — we know that the performers or actors are only pretending. If we can’t believe they’re pretending, desire gives way to horror.

For me, the concepts of the “schoolgirl” and “cheerleader” are pretty divorced from their real-world counterparts. It’s the same with “police officer” — when we play with these tropes in porn or in sexual fantasy, what we’re doing is actually pretty complicated. We’re fetishizing the aesthetic and textural elements of those roles — the shoes, the stockings, the feel of a wool skirt (schoolgirl), sweater (cheerleader), or leather boots (police officer). We’re appropriating the societal power differentials associated with these roles. We’re to some degree mocking the entire conception. And, we’re subverting the real, unspoken expectations of acceptable class- and gender-based behavior because we are, from start to finish, making it all up.

One specific example of how this happens: any porn performer who has done X number of scenes, who has publicly flaunted her sexual self, can put on a pair of knee highs and a plaid skirt and all of a sudden she claims the social construct of “virgin” again. And I believe every time we commit that kind of transgression in a porn film, we further demonstrate the utter absurdity, the massive cultural conspiracy that has to take place in order for the concept of “young girl,” with all its associated whiteness and virginity and naiveté and powerless power, to even exist.

So, unlike the pedophile’s Lolita, who is written as an innocent, prepubescent figure caught up and exploited in his fantasy, what is happening in these films involves a much more complicated form of ageist seduction, a knowingness between the players. Often times this comes through a film prologue where the actress is initially auditioned by an interviewer or cameraman about the intimate details of her childhood, virginity, or “school” hobbies. I find this fascinating because the fetish becomes as dependent on storytelling and exposition as the physical attributes of the actress. I’m interested how you see the performance of the “young girl” and the older man, and the traditional power dynamic between them, as being complicated or even reversed through forms of playacting? I often wonder in this scenario what character is in the position of power.

We talk about this kind of role reversal a lot in regards to BDSM role-play. The tenets of ethical BDSM play are that it be “safe, sane, and consensual.” Safety means not doing anything unintentional, or taking unnecessary risks (i.e. knowing the weight-bearing capacity of a tie point before you attach a rope for bondage play). The “sane” piece is usually interpreted as not playing while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I think the most interesting tenet, though, is the commitment to playing consensually. In role-play where one player inhabits a role that is submissive (schoolgirl, ingénue, teenager), they may do things that make them appear to have less power than their scene partner, who may be playing any number of authority figures (teacher, stepmother, police officer). The submissive may get tied up, spanked, ordered around, or whatever other activity the two players have agreed to ahead of time. In private BDSM play, these roles and activities are prenegotiated and can get very specific (i.e. spank my ass but not my thighs, call me “slut” but don’t call me “whore,” spit on my body but not on my face). Because of these negotiations, this emphasis on explicit consent, it’s generally understood that the submissive player actually has ultimate control of the scene. They have the final say over what will and won’t happen, and they can withdraw consent and stop the scene at any time by using a previously agreed-on “safe word.”

On an adult film set, the same kind of negotiation takes place. While I don’t think every director or producer is approaching their scenes thinking explicitly about the complex ethics of consent (although many are), it turns out that the best way to get someone to do something is to ask them, and the person who will best perform the kind of scene you want to produce is the person who wants to do that kind of scene.

I realize I’m repeating myself a bit here, but I find it incomprehensible how many people have never thought about the radical consequences of prioritizing consent.

To finally answer your question: when the performer playing a submissive role is the one who has actually created and enforced the parameters of a scene, it inverts the scene’s meaning. So while you think you’re watching a teacher disciplining a schoolgirl, you’re actually seeing a schoolgirl choose to endure a spanking for her own pleasure, self-fulfillment, entertainment, or for a paycheck. Whatever the motivation, she is creating a performance, and the actual power dynamic is not necessarily the communicated or obvious one.

Let me just go back for a moment to the paycheck as motivation. People are always asking whether porn is exploitative because performers sometimes do things on camera, for money, that they wouldn’t necessarily do for free. But doing things for money that you wouldn’t do for free is, for many people, the definition of having a job. Many — performers and nonperformers alike — actually take pride in professional activities that they wouldn’t do for free. In fact, many people wouldn’t do those things for free precisely because those activities (dare I say: skills) have a premium value attached to them. In many other professions, recognition that your skills are valuable, and that within a capitalist system this value has a monetary translation, is taken for granted.

So if a young woman who doesn’t otherwise feel like a “Lolita” decides to perform in an adult film, decides to play the submissive nymphet, and is paid a wage that she agrees is fair, what makes this exploitation or manipulation any more so than any other labor in a capitalist market? To say that she is exploited, but other workers are not, is to deny that young woman’s agency, to say that she is somehow not able or should not be allowed to make decisions regarding her own body or livelihood. If you believe that in an ethical and just culture all adults have equal agency over their bodies, you have to give that agency to everyone, young women too, even if what they decide to do with their bodies is not the same as what you would do with yours.

The question of whether wages for young women in the adult industry (or in any industry) are fair is a separate one. The question of fair labor practices is one you can discuss once you get to the place of recognizing that sex work is real work.

I will say that from my perspective, I’ve always felt more fairly paid — and have had more opportunity to negotiate my own rates and turn down work when I didn’t believe the wage was fair — while doing sex work than while doing any other kind of work.

Did you ever turn down a “young girl” project because the fetish or acts involved made you uncomfortable? 

Yes, I have. I reserve the right to turn down any role-play that makes me feel uncomfortable, even while I would defend any other adult’s right to perform it. I don’t cast judgment on other people’s desires, but I personally don’t do incest role-plays, and I have an age limit. I’m comfortable role-playing older teenage roles, but not children. I don’t do “adult baby” fetish or the like. We all have different boundaries, and believing that consenting adults should have agency over their own bodies doesn’t mean you have to want to do everything everyone else is doing.

I want to discuss a bit about your own career in bondage and queer/femdom porn. Most viewers would likely consider these kinds of fetish films to be antithetical to the more traditionally heteronormative boy/girl films you see the “young girl” take part in. Can you speak about how the “performance” of gender/femininity is similar or different from what you experienced in the more conventional porn films you did at the beginning of your career? How is the power dynamic of the “young girl” complicated or even reversed through forms of bondage and submission? My interest here is linking how an actress explores and acts her sense of “girlhood” in one genre as opposed to the other. Is it overly simplistic to say that mainstream porn has a more limited sense of performing femininity because it appeals to a predominantly phallocentric dynamic of sexuality? 

I think it’s another myth to say that any porn — mainstream, fetish, or queer — is primarily targeted to a male audience. It’s true that we have evidence that men are the primary consumers of porn. Is this because the form appeals to men more than women? Or is it because men generally have more disposable income and greater social permissions to separate sexual pleasure from emotional attachment? Or is it for some other reason we can’t imagine? Does it mean that porn is actually targeted toward men? How much does audience demand shape content and how much does content shape audience demand? I think this last question is imperative to ask, not just about porn, but about media as a whole.

When it comes to the performance of the feminine, I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you that the male audience has only sometimes been my primary target in these performances, and that’s been mainly while stripping, when I’m targeting a specific, usually male, audience whose own gender performances I’m directly reacting to. On film, at the time of the performance, the audience is only theoretical. As a performer, I sometimes don’t even see the finished film. I may be reacting to the director and to my fellow performers, but there have been many times on set when wild experimentation was encouraged.

On many Los Angeles sets, I’ve been given permission to be completely weird or behave in ways that are traditionally considered masculine. To take control of the scene, to spit and piss on myself and smear my makeup across my own face. To bend my body into shapes and swear and say whatever strange thing my brain comes up with and to make wild animal sounds. To me, this is what’s beautiful about pornography — how the performance of the feminine is frequently, visually, utterly different than what you’ll see anywhere else in media.

This isn’t true on every set, or with every performer, but I know so many female performers — women in their teens and 20s — who would go on set and just own the room. Belladonna, Gia Paloma, Annette Schwartz, Annie Cruz, Darling, Veruca James, Lea Lexis, Maitresse Madeline — the list goes on and on and on. These are women who, when performing, have no self-consciousness, no shame — they sometimes seem to forget the audience entirely, and it’s an absolutely beautiful thing to behold. Often, some of that wildness gets taken out of the edit. It’s much like writing, actually. To a certain extent, you have to forget the audience to create. During the edit, you can think of them again.

I don’t think you can say something definitive about fetish or queer or “feminist” porn (which I put in quotes only because I think many porn films are feminist despite not being marketed as such) that you can’t say about mainstream porn. The separations of these genres are sometimes based on content, sometimes on geography, and sometimes are arbitrary. And there are true artists working in every one of these genres.

¤

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012).


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