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Obviously pornography has been a profound and important part of my life, as a viewer, a performer, and an activist for sex workers’ rights, particularly the rights and quality of life of porn performers.
Seeing it from that many angles, and considering each carefully, I derived so much value from pornography - but I notice, of course, that many (most?) people can't access that value. One of the main obfuscating forces is that porn always turns into an “issue” to take sides on, and generally what side is taken depends exclusively on how someone is thinking about the content of what’s on the screen and their feelings about it.
Rarely is porn viewed as commonwealth of value and interest in its own right. This especially affects the lives of performers who are considered a special class of workers not subject to the rights that others have who are stigmatized in culture and relationships, whose perspectives as laborers are devalued, whose voices are silenced, and whose autonomy and sovereignty are met with state violence, state regulation, and ideological oppression.
When I was scheduled to meet this episode’s guest, Dr. Heather Berg, for the first time, way back in 2014, I was cynical, I suppose. (But maybe cynical is too harsh a word - maybe justifiably skeptical is better.) She’d set up an interview with me for her academic research. At the time, I’d been poked and prodded by academics, journalists, and others many times in invasive ways. It’s something that happens to all sex workers who have any sort of visible and public voice - the academics come to study you. And often it’s with a substantial amount of arrogance, they forget that sex workers’ lives validate the existence of academic research, not that academic research validates sex workers lives.
But Heather was different - it’s not just that she wasn’t annoying, it's that she was interesting, provocative in the best sense of the word, she was warm, and she also listened. My friends in porn and I talked to each other about her - “hey, she’s kind of getting it right, she’s listening to us.” It was a completely different feeling.
That interview eventually became part of her new book, Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism - which is the best book on porn ever written by someone who isn’t a porn performer. And I'm not just stating that because I'm quoted in it! Heather took us at our word and used it to map out what we can learn about fighting capitalism, abolishing work, and ending the brutal wage labor relationship from porn performers and how they navigate all of that.
This episode was special for me it felt like a homecoming, finding each other after 2014; Heather and I following up on the interview. That said, as a result of that interview we became close friends after, and collaborators: We co-authored the article "The Problem With Sex Work Is Work" and you may remember Heather from her appearance (with performer Sovereign Syre) on AEWCH 69.
We continue to collaborate: Heather and I are doing an event with Kathi Weeks, among others, as part of Red May, a celebration of radical art and thought. I'll post the actual details when they're available, but keep an eye out for it!
But also reading her book was a reminder of the work I lived in then, the performers, the work, the comrades I’d made, as well as what was at stake and remains at stake for sex workers, and for all of us when sex workers are subjected to state violence and drowned out by ideologues
ON THIS EPISODE
- Why is porn work so often left out of sex work politics and activism?
- The tangle of libertarianism, anarchism, and socialism in sex worker politics
- The Marxist problem with pleasure
- You don't have to be miserable to be an activist
- Managers can shutup, thx
- Why disassociation is a skill, and even one that supports Marxism
- Is porn racist?
- Can Marxism give us the answers to cultural questions about sex?
- How I shot a scene by talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- That part where I make Heather cry
- The value of the Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis in looking at labor
- Is there such a thing as a "privileged" sex worker?
- Why decriminalization of sex work is not enough
- Why we need to let go of the "last resort thesis" of sex work
• For my other episodes on porn, here's AEWCH 124 with performer Ty Mitchell, AEWCH 88 with performer (and my one-time scene partner) Johnny Hazzard, the aforementioned AEWCH 69 with Heather and Sovereign Syre, and AEWCH 38 with performer Missy Martinez.
• Heather mentions the work of Mireille Miller-Young and Ariane Cruz as feminists doing good work on representation in porn that elides the fantasy of the white viewer. (I've linked to their books in the booklist!)
• Herschel Savage is a classic straight porn performer, and he's also kind of a great guy and features heavily in Heather's book.
• I wrote about Chris Hedges and all the phony anti-sex worker leftists and feminists in my essay, "If You're Against Sex Work, You're A Bigot"
• Here's that time I was on Chapo Trap House talking about sex work.
• I talked about some of the challenges facing porn earlier in the year on Doug Rushkoff's podcast, Team Human.
• Hacking/Hustling does great stuff and holds great events for all issues surrounding but also new visions of sex workers' lives and struggles.
Until next time, friends, here's me as a huge stereotype.