Intrigued by the story of Belle Knox, the Duke undergraduate whose classmate revealed she was working a side job in pornography, Vox’s Dylan Matthews interviewed a number of porn performers about when they decided to tell their friends and family what they do for a living.
The interviews reveal some fascinating things about the subjects’ expectations of privacy and their experiences with how far material travels on the Internet. “The first thing I say as a director is, ‘I hope you know that everyone you’ve ever met in your entire life is going to see this, especially these days,’” Joanna Angel tells Matthews, a warning it seems surprising anyone still has to offer. Danny Wylde explains: “It didn’t occur to me that my parents might find out about it, because I thought, even if my father or mother happens to be on a porn site, the likelihood they’ll come across this weird, fetish thing is pretty low.”
But the piece only has half the perspectives it might have; Matthews only speaks to the people who made these revelations, rather than to the friends and family who received them. Given the amount of hand-wringing speculation that has been done on behalf of adult performers, it is good to hear them speak for themselves. But we might have learned even more about our perceptions of sex, sex work, privacy and propriety if we heard from performers’ relatives and close friends as well.
One of the reasons coming out is such a powerful thing is that it helps reshape the listener’s perceptions. When someone comes out to you, you learn they are not the person you thought they were before. If someone comes out to you as gay, you learn that they have different sexual attractions from the ones you might have expected. If someone tells you that they are transgender, you may read their body and their gender presentation differently going forward.
But those comings out have been politically powerful because they also change the listener’s perception of what it means to be gay, or what it means to be transgender. Sexual orientation becomes as much about love as it is about sex. Gender identity becomes a matter of the connections between our brains and our bodies, rather than simply our bodies and the clothes we put on them.
So what does the revelation that someone is a sex worker do to our understanding — or at least our preconceptions — of sex as work? If coming out as gay makes it easier for people who were previously uncomfortable with homosexuality to connect sex between people of the same gender with the kind of love they experience themselves, what does coming out as a performer in adult films push us to reckon with about sex and emotion and money? Matthews’ subjects tell him stories about acceptance and rejection, the grandmother who “thinks I’m kind of a rockstar,” the mother who “was bragging to her blueblood, Connecticut country-club friends about it,” and Chanel Preston, who says, “My mom was a little grossed out by it, and my dad was very quiet, as I’m sure he found it to be pretty awkward.”
But that is only part of the story. Madison Young tells Matthews, “My family is rather conservative and live in Southern Ohio, but they have become more open-minded over the past decade. . . . At first it was very foreign to them, but after years of conversations, of taking a deep breath and being patient and creating space for their emotions and defining what our comfort levels were with particular conversations, it’s actually at a great place now.”
Those conversations are what I would really like to hear about — the place where Young’s family started out, and the destination at which they have arrived. How porn performers feel about their work is obviously significant, as is making sure they have safe, fair working conditions. But as people who work in pornography have fewer opportunities to separate their personal and professional identities, and as more of them choose not to try to do so, a significant gauge of the way we think about sex may not be how these actors see their work, but how the rest of us feel about it when the people in adult films cease to be abstractions.