Jiz Lee and their upcoming project to detail similar experiences from other sex workers. A version of this may end up being a part of that project.
I was twenty-years-old the first time I approached my family regarding my work. At the time, it was as much a career as any superfluous labor one attends to in college. It was hardly what I'd call an identity. But I kept it secret for a time. Because I was nervous.
My mother was (and is) a fundamentalist Christian, and my father dabbled in various new-age philosophy/spirituality. I was influenced by both and knew that neither world view thought highly of pornography, if it was considered much at all.
But there I was, fresh out of the house, and making my first real income by having sex in front of a camera. It was an interesting bit of self-exploration and a quick way to make some cash. Still, I had no long term plans and zero thoughts of explaining it to my family.
Only when I'd started dating another porn performer and planned to run away to Los Angeles did I find an explanation necessary. That, and my part-time job had become a bit more – explicitly – available on the world wide web.
I knew my family would eventually find out. I had to decide whether they'd hear it first from me.
“I remember that you called me and you said that you wanted to talk to me about something important,” said my mother. “And you asked me to sit down. [laughs] I thought, 'Wow. This is going to be something important.' Because you've never asked me to sit down.”
Both my parents have agreed to an interview regarding my coming out process and how they currently feel about my participation in sex work. Given that I've just passed my seven-year-anniversary in porn and I now consider it a career, it seems necessary to examine the ways my work has effected my family with my family. Because I can offer only one perspective, and my journey with sex work in regards to my family has as much to do with them as it does with me.
For the sake of brevity, I've narrowed down the relationships to those with my mother and father. Though this discussion could certainly extend to my siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and even cousins.
I sat down with my mother first. The interview took place the day after Thanksgiving, 2012.
“You said that you wanted to make sure that I knew this was not a personal affront against me in any way,” she told me, recalling a phone conversation seven years prior. “Because you knew that it was not something within my value system... It was about your personal exploration of your own life. You wanted to make sure that if I had any questions or if there were any concerns, that you and I would discuss them personally. So that I wouldn't be surprised by it through external circumstances... Which you said would probably happen at some point.”
I asked my mother to recall the coming out conversation so that we could begin on the same page. My memory is as faulty as any and I wanted to at least know that my mother and I remembered the same events. For the most part, we did.
I was nervous about telling my mother that I was involved in pornography because I knew her point of view. She'd raised me with the idea that sexuality was something sacred to be shared between a man and a woman, and that the most fulfilling way to do so was within the boundaries of marriage.
We'd had debates in the past that proved our difference of opinion. By early high school, I'd come to believe that homosexuality was inherent to the natural variations in human sexuality. I also viewed marriage as a highly ineffective institution, based primarily on my parents' divorce and the single mothers and fathers who raised many of my close friends.
As far as sex was concerned, I wanted it just about as soon as I understood what it was. And I dreamed of it with as many partners as possible. Like many young boys, I was also scared shitless when it came down to the act. A few opportunities did arise in my youth, and I experienced my early joys and follies. But I didn't foresee myself with only one partner, I didn't much want to get married, and the only time I valued sexual monogamy was when I was hopelessly crushed out on a fellow schoolmate.
My mother at least knew my general point of view. She wouldn't have been shocked to hear that I had a girlfriend or boyfriend who I was having sex with. However, porn not only conflicted with her sexual values, it flaunted its opposition in a public space. Anyone with a computer could find out that I had become – quite literally – a whore. Even outside of Christian circles, I was aware this was not often looked upon with admiration.
I didn't want my mother, who raised me to the best of her abilities, to believe I had chosen pornography as a means to punish her. Or that it was a sign of her failure.
In terms of my own reservations, I had been told (I'm not sure by who in particular) that sex workers were often drawn to the profession because of a lack of education and a consequent lack of diverse financial opportunity. I did not want to be viewed as uneducated or unable. The fact that my mother had been so supportive in my pursuit of higher education made it all the more necessary to explain that porn was not something I was doing instead of school or in place of a long-term, real job.
My mother responded to this preface with appreciation. Though as expected, she did not look upon my involvement in porn as a positive step in my life. When I asked my mother what her reaction was when I first told her, her eyes welled up with tears and she responded, “Sad.”
Here, I must share a bit of my mother's opinion of me to show that her reaction did not necessarily come from the position of judgment or shaming.
“You're one of the most precious human beings. Not just because you've come out of my belly... Everybody, when they talk about you, they will say, 'Chris is very intelligent, talented, and gifted.' Beyond that, most super intelligent, super talented, super gifted people are not as tender-hearted, kind, sensitive, feeling, sweet... And that's who you are. You have always been that since you've been a little kid. There's a purity in that, a sweetness in that.”
Again, this is not shared with the purpose to gloat. I would certainly not say all of these things about myself. My point is that my mother loves me. I know that she loves me. And I know that she thinks very highly of me.
However, my mother also believes I was emotionally damaged (or that my purity/sweetness was “violated by certain individuals”) as a child and that I make many of my decisions – in part – based on this damage. According to her, pornography is one such decision.
She continued, “Somebody who is a very pure, very beautiful human being who is nurtured into their full potential makes very good choices. Because they have that foundation of love, confidence, and security to explore who they are at a younger age within safe parameters that are not as dangerous. That are not as risky. They have a safety net of embracing arms, and hearts, and attitudes.
I felt that when you told me [that you did porn], that my sweet, very sensitive, very beautiful, and very pure person didn't have that opportunity.”
Without going into detail, my mother talked of “risks” and “dangers” inherent to the pornographic profession. I assumed from past conversations that she meant sexually transmitted diseases and performer exploitation (i.e. being coaxed to do things one's not comfortable with). She also reiterated that porn was against her values, with the addendum, “But I think you already know that.”
I'm sure many parents show concern when their child picks up any interest that beckons physical harm. But my brother played club soccer all through school and broke his leg right around the time he would have earned a university scholarship. My mother supported him through years of intense training when she knew full-well the risks. In fact, during that time, a relative of ours sustained paralysis from a college sports injury. He died a year or two later.
For such reasons, I never fully bought the major concerns for physical safety when people talked about porn. Not even when they came from my mother. I'd never witnessed someone discouraged from sports based on the risks and dangers involved. And I couldn't imagine that construction workers or UPS delivery men received lectures from parents on the dangers of their careers, despite the statistically high number of injuries.
Sex workers can, and do, contract sexually transmitted infections. But for those of us in mainstream porn, we're also regularly tested (which I've explained to my mother). Consequently, infectious outbreaks of the potentially fatal kind are rare and well-contained. Performer exploitation is a bit more complicated of an issue, but I've argued (and continue to do so) that it's increasingly rare. In any case, it's something I'm unlikely to encounter at this point in my career.
On the subject of going against my mother's values, all I can say is that such transgressions extend into other facets of my life. My mother and I continue to have lively discussions over the differences in our ideological beliefs. Spirituality, including my lack thereof, seems to be a more interesting topic to the both us than arguing the reasons behind our sexual proclivities. My mother even said, “There are other things that if you were involved in, I would look at you and maybe disrespect you. I don't disrespect you within [porn].”
My exposure to physical injury had never brought my mother to tears. Neither had engaging in sexual behavior that conflicted with her belief system. It's possible the combination of both impacted her emotional response, but I suspected something else. I think the following is an affirmation of that something.
“It perpetuates that thing that you would always fight,” my mother told me. “Of not being totally accepted. It encourages some sort of rejection just by being in that profession. You are always going to be rejected by a certain segment of society... Tons of people use pornography. But the vast majority who use it are ashamed of it. It always has this stigma around it... To actually make that your profession has a certain stigma, a negativity, a shame to it. That's what you've dealt with through a lot of your life. To me, it perpetuates it. That's sad to me. You deserve not to be rejected.”
This was the hardest for me to hear because it rang the most true. Even within my circle of closest childhood friends, it's taken the better part of a decade for my career to be viewed with some legitimacy. At least without being assigned the notion that it must be an intermediary step on the way to something better.
Not to put all blame elsewhere. I've recycled the same thoughts about porn.
“It was okay for a time, because I'll get out of school and work my way into mainstream film (behind the camera).” If I didn't have that goal, then what was I doing? Certainly wasting my time.
Porn was not a career goal of mine. It attained full-time status by the simple fact that by the time I graduated college, I had put in enough time to be known as a decent performer. It offered steady income. I could continue to pay my bills with porn or I could take a gamble and start at the bottom of another profession with nothing but a liberal arts degree. For about two years, I tried both. Then I had an epiphany.
I realized that what I wanted to do with my life was not implicitly tied to making money. Like many starving artists, I wanted to create work regardless of its commercial appeal or success. The only thing is that I didn't want to starve.
Everyone I knew (with similar arty interests) spent time on their personal projects and then went off to their jobs and earned money. Sometimes their art and financial income intersected. But even for those who made it in their aspired industry, most days were just like going to work.
Sticking with something I was good at no longer felt like failure. It just seemed like a decent way to make a living. Even better because it allowed me enough time to pursue other interests. And because working in porn was basically still working in film, I often found opportunity to work on interesting projects AND get paid. Once I stopped worrying out about the legitimacy of porn, it became a lot more fun.
My personal acceptance was a process that spanned several years. So it was not something I could expect of someone who's only reference to pornography was that dirty thing to be enjoyed in private.
It may only be shameful because of cultural subjectivity (i.e. everyone thinks it's shameful). But that doesn't detract from my mother's concern.
Porn, as a career, is rarely taken seriously. It's often viewed as shameful. This is simply a truth. No matter what I accomplish along the way, if I tell people I'm a porn star, I'm likely to take on a degree of stigmatization. I mean, a talk show host recently told my girlfriend (also a performer) and I – on national television – that he looked at us “differently” as soon as he heard that we did porn. It wasn't viewed as a controversial thing to say. My girlfriend and I were the controversy.
With this understanding, I take on some of my own sadness when I listen to my mother speak of hers. Yes, she fears for my safety and all of this. But what I really hear from my mother is that she wants the best for me. She knows I've chosen a profession that almost guarantees I'll be looked down upon and sees it as her son facing a lifetime of rejection. From my mother's perspective, it's the knowledge that her son will be continually hurt.
By the power of empathy, I understand this perfectly. No more would I want to witness my mother face such rejection. However, I can honestly say that her fears have not been fully actualized. In part, this has to do with the role of community. I socialize with many of the people I work with. And if I extend that group to others, it's mostly to those who hold a fairly liberal stance when it comes to porn and sexuality.
Of course, I'm reminded of anti-porn sentiments every now and again. But it's not a part of my daily experience. Most of the time, I talk openly of my career. When I'm at work, I feel as if I'm held in high esteem by my peers. In actuality, it's around family that I'm most hesitant to talk about pornography. The most fierce criticisms I've received were from my uncle and grandfather.
Reactions like those from my extended family probably speak more to my mother's experience. Because my participation in porn does not only effect me. It extends to those around me. If there is a stigmatization of the pornographer, there is also a stigmatization of the parent who raised such a deviant. While I may be relatively safe in my social environment, my mother socializes with other mothers, other professionals, and other people with perhaps no ties to the adult film industry. It is this potential hurt that I am more saddened by. Because my choice perhaps limits my mother's ability to partake in conversations with other parents about their children, lest she be put on the immediate defensive of having to explain her child's career. There is a social stigma in simply discussing my existence in more than superficial terms.
To be fair, my mother is one of the only family members who has regularly allowed me to speak openly about my professional experiences. Consequently, I believe she's been allowed to see some positive effects of my involvement in porn.
“You used to be extremely shy,” she told me. “I feel like you can pretty watch walk into any situation and say, 'Hello,' and be who you are. If you've been in front of a camera for a long time without your clothes on, it gives you something on that level.”
She continued, “And you do promote positivity within it. You bring out the best of whatever you're involved in. You bring out the most positive aspects of pornography.”
To me, such examples are proof of my mother's love. Given her ideological stance, I can never expect complete approval for my career path thus far. It is only these hidden gems of congratulation. In some ways it's extraordinary that a person who professes to hate (or at least strongly dislike) porn can tell me that it's changed me in positive ways, or that I'm doing some good within it.
It is also important to note that my mother never asked me to stop. Despite her claims to my “naivety” in the beginning (which I totally agree with), there was no point at which she said, “I know better and this is bad for you.” I believe that a parent who respects their adult child will undoubtedly share their own opinion, but will also allow that child a choice – without persuasive terms.
My mother never gave me an ultimatum. This conveys a level of trust. In terms of the relationship I want with my mother as I continue into adulthood, this is one of the only things I can ask for.
Love, respect, and trust: all of these are inherent to our familial bond. It is why I could approach my mother with the news that I was a burgeoning porn star. It also why I felt the need to. Because the feelings are mutual. I love, respect, and trust my mother. When a piece of my life becomes big enough to take on some importance to me, I want her to know about it. Even if she disagrees with the entire premise.
Going forward, I can only hope that my mother will understand that I am capable of flourishing as a human being within my current environment. Pornography may not be all of my life, but it makes up an important part of it. Because it is my job, I take it very seriously. I try to do the best that I can and promote the work that I feel is the most interesting. I can only imagine I'd do the same with anything else.
When it comes to my father and I, our history is a bit more complicated. I don't know if this made the coming out process harder or not.
We were on decent terms around the time I told him I was doing porn. But a few years prior, things were different. I hadn't lived with my father since I was eleven. Around the age of thirteen, I refused to speak to him for an entire year.
I'm sure my story is similar to that of many who've been raised by an alcoholic. However, the tumultuous father/son relationship of my youth is not the topic at hand. The only relevance is that by the time I was twenty-years-old and an active sex worker, I was a bit ambivalent about whether I should tell my father, and equally ambivalent about whether or not he would care. In fact, it was during my interview with him that I first truly learned of his opinion.
I should note that I have a very good relationship with my father at present time. At least the best that I can remember. He's been sober for a while now, we talk about every-other-week (sometimes more frequently), and although I don't visit him often due to distance, I enjoy the time I get to spend with him.
But back to the coming out conversation. To be honest, my memory is a bit of a blur. I more-or-less knew what I was getting into when it came to my mother. Prepping for the conversation was a pretty big deal. So it remains an important event in my personal history. When it came to my father, I had no idea what he thought about porn or sex. And because he didn't have the ability to really do anything to me if he disapproved, there wasn't much riding on his response. To put it simply, I had no qualms about telling him to “fuck off” (albeit in a more passive-aggressive manner) if he got upset.
“I have a vague memory of a conversation with you where I expressed that I don't understand why you do it,” said my father. “Because it's so foreign to me. It's not part of my life experience to even consider this. I couldn't relate to it.”
That sort-of matches my memory of his initial response. Meaning, there wasn't much of one. I have this image in my head of my father nodding and perhaps looking confused, or unsure of what to say. Then a memory of something that caught me off guard.
“I remember one of the first things you said was... You asked me how I keep an erection for so long,” I told him during our interview.
“Yeah, that certainly was a big question,” he responded, laughing. “You know, how do you do that? Certainly, when you get older this becomes a big deal to get one at all or to maintain it for any length of time... I was just curious from a physiological point of view.”
The physiological effects remain one of my father's primary concerns. “When I found out that you were using erectile enhancing drugs,” he continued, “I was worried about what that might do to your physical apparatus. You know me. I'm always keenly aware that you pay a price for whatever you do.”
For anyone familiar with the male performer side of the adult industry, it's no secret that a lot of guys use Viagra, Cialis, and many other erectile dysfunction drugs in order to maintain erections under pressure, and for long periods of time. The pills aren't fail-safes, but they're better than nothing.
My father is a Chiropractic Neurologist. Much of his work deals with how one's environment effects brain function. “One of the simplest ways to assess brain function is through muscle tone testing,” he told me. “Muscle tone is not strength. It's the resistance to the stretch of muscle fibers. If you hold your arm up and I push down on your wrist... I stretch the fibers of your deltoid muscle.”
He went on, comparing the muscle fibers to an instrument. “You have the strings that have a certain tension so you have a certain tone – a note. The same thing holds true that all muscle fibers have a certain base tension. They have to have one to function properly... When you bring me medication that you use, if it decreases your muscle tone, that's not a good thing. It means it has a negative effect on your brain function.”
This is one of the objective side-effects of porn that I have no real argument against. I am a health nut in many aspects of my life, but I also consume a large number of pharmaceutical ED drugs. It can't be that good for me, but I mostly shrug it off. I figure I'm no worse off than many Americans. Luckily, my father is not only there to remind me of the consequences of such behavior. He's taught me ways to counter the negative effects.
However, physiological function was not the focus of our interview. “My main concern was AIDS,” he told me. “There's an inherent danger in what you do that you have no control over. Ultimately, you can be preventative. But you can't say, 'I'm safe.' You can't.”
I acknowledged his fear, but reiterated (as I have with my mother) that it is statistically unlikely for men working in heterosexual porn to contract HIV. Still, I'm aware there is always a chance.
It was interesting, however, that half-way through the interview, my father showed no signs of being upset or even morally opposed to my participation in porn. He hadn't shared much about his stance in the past. But I was curious. Did my father really have no emotional or ideological response to my career in sex work? I had to ask.
“To have a partner and not share that partner, that's a sacred thing for me,” he responded. “In terms of my basic stance, I'm totally monogamous. I was that way with your mother. It never occurred to me to cheat on her. That doesn't even enter. I can't imagine it any other way...
“It's also true that I've watched porn – especially when I didn't have a partner – to get some satisfaction,” he said. “Ultimately, I felt my own response was actually worse afterward. I masturbate and I actually feel worse. Because there was nothing fulfilling... I wish you saw that my way. That was my debate...
“But then the real debate was, 'What do I do?'” he continued. “Looking at how I treated my mother? I mean, I disappointed her with everything I did because she had very strong wishes for me. I did everything the opposite. Not intentionally. But I had my own way... Who am I to judge what is appropriate? Especially given all the havoc I've wreaked in my own life. I knew that then. I'm even more keenly aware of that today. To run around, sit on a high horse, and dictate what the world should look like has never worked very well for me. It actually made things worse... From my limited capacity at that point, I wanted to at least let you know that I heard you, and that I appreciated that you were actually telling me.”
I was a bit taken aback. When I first told my father that I was doing porn, I had no concept of his internal process. He listened, said some things about erections, and that was that. When I came to him with the request for an interview, I was mostly curious. But as a grown man, and also a son, I suppose I was looking for something more. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. Approval, maybe.
There was something in me that wanted to know that my father not only respected me, but looked at me as an adult, and acknowledged that I'd done a good job. I guess when I listened to his response, I tried to decipher it in such a context.
He said that he appreciated that I was telling him. It was an obvious step forward in our relationship to share such things with honesty. Something on par with respect. But it wasn't exactly what I was looking for. Maybe because our relationship had more of a conflicted past. Or perhaps it was inherent to the father/son dynamic. Because I couldn't say I needed the same thing from my mother.
It's funny, but his approval (or my interpretation of it) came in the form of a question.
“Let me ask you something,” said my father. “How do you feel if I tell friends about what you do? Is that okay? Or is that not okay?”
I wasn't sure why my father would want to tell someone. But I thought about it as if I were a doctor or lawyer, or some other universally accepted professional. In conversation, I might be brought up as a bragging right. As in, “Look, my son has had success.”
“It's interesting to me that you would even ask that,” I told my father. “No one else [in my family] has even thought about asking that. Because I don't feel like anyone is usually willing to tell other people what I do for a living. I feel like it's always masked.”
My father told me that he often goes on walks with his friend. They've established a routine where one person talks for five minutes and the other listens. There are no interruptions and no response.
“I actually told him that,” said my father. “I said, you know, 'My son works in the porn industry.' He was going to react, and I said, 'Uh uh. It's not your turn.' That was pretty cool because I didn't have to defend or anything. I said to him afterward, 'This is something I wanted you to hear. But I don't want your comment.' I don't.”
It may have not been a boastful act, but it made me happy to hear that my father wanted to share such a thing about me. It meant that he was at least not ashamed. In fact, I could interpret it to be quite the opposite.
I told my father that I didn't mind, that it was “totally fine.”
“Good,” he responded. “Thank you. That clarifies that. I didn't think that would be an issue. But that's probably weird that nobody wants to say or speak what you do, right? I can't imagine. [laughs] What a bummer. Walk around on tip-toes and come up with some bullshit story.”
The following was my response. It may reiterate some of the things I've written in this piece. But it is meant as a most sincere explanation to my parents, and any of my family, as to why I've chosen porn:
“I feel like I live in a bubble. I surround myself with people who essentially agree with my politics, which involve fairly radical sexual politics. Or I surround myself with people who are in the sex industry. We have a little community. Within that community, I think I am well respected. Especially within the past two years, a lot of the work I've done is very important to me. Prior to that, it was a very interesting journey within my own self that involved figuring out how I felt about this career.
“Starting out, I didn't intend for it to be a career. I intended for it to be some sort of sexual exploration. A way to make a little extra money while I was in school. In my head, it was like, 'Well, I'm going to get out of school and go off and do something else.' The more I was exposed to the mainstream film industry – which is what I thought I wanted to be involved in – it became really upsetting to me. I don't really want to have a lot to do with that... except on the fringes. To work within things that I think have some artistic integrity.
“So I think that porn allows me to make... not an incredible amount of money. But I live a middle-class lifestyle like I always have growing up. I'm able to do a lot of things that I'm very proud of. It also allows me the time to create art in other contexts. That's incredibly important to me.
“I think most people who go to school with the intentions of being an artist have to make a decision at some point to either make money or fulfill their artistic pursuits. A lot of times one of those has to kind of drop off. Unless you're incredibly lucky and make some big hit, or something. But for most of us, that's never going to happen.
“A lot of the things I'm interested in live on the fringes of, uh... people's interests in general. Especially when it comes to things that are monetarily successful. Like the music and film I want to create. I know it doesn't make a tremendous amount of money.
“Porn is both a way to fund those things and keep creating those things because I don't have to work twelve hours a day every single day.
“I have also become a part of a community of people who I really respect, and I think respect me as well. And we're able to do some really interesting things. I have people who write me on a regular basis now, thanking me for my work. I don't know that in any other profession that if you received the same response, you could say that you're doing something wrong or go, 'I don't want to be here.'”