Porn performers have more in common with Uber drivers than you’d think

No set hours, no guaranteed income, and with limited ability to negotiate their working conditions or pay.

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Most of my problems with the sex industry, I tell Stoya, aren’t with the sex – they’re with the industry. The American porn actor, writer and model is a thoughtful critic of the commercial imperatives that have shaped modern porn. In a column for the New Statesman in 2015, she advocated for greater pay transparency, noting that performers who could happily discuss their sexual tastes and boundaries found it hard to talk about money: “Which makes us a lot like many other workers.”

I’ve followed Stoya’s writing for years, because underneath the shocking surface details – the eye-watering sexual acts, the buckets of bodily fluids, the insanely frank conversations – she is chronicling an increasingly common type of work in the 21st century. Most porn performers are in the same bind as Uber drivers or Deliveroo bikers: no set hours, no guaranteed income, and with limited ability to negotiate their working conditions or pay.

Stoya – it’s a stage name, a shortened version of her grandmother’s surname – is now 32, and has been working in the sex industry for more than a decade. Her new book of collected essays, Philosophy, Pussycats, & Porn, confronts the time-limited nature of a porn career, and when we speak she is in Belgrade promoting a (non-blue) movie on the festival circuit. The book is not a memoir, she says – although many publishers would have preferred that. When she shares details of her life, she tells me on the phone, “it’s always because there’s some greater point that I hope someone’s going to draw from it… This is a preview of what your life is going to be like in five years.”

To take one example, she once had to call her bank and tell them that their standard security questions were useless: they all relied on information she’d given out in interviews. (You might well have the same problem: would a five-minute scan of the relatives you’re friends with on Facebook reveal your mother’s maiden name?)

As with other modern jobs, there is a lot of work involved in porn that isn’t the work itself. Men stop her in the street to talk about watching her videos; they ask her the questions about sex they feel too vulnerable to share with their own friends or partners. Younger women tell her that she’s their role model; she feels a duty to be the person they admire, rather than admitting she spends some days wanting to “curl up in the bottom of her closet”. “Rude people” ask for photos when she’s in the middle of eating lunch. It’s not enough to perform on camera; Stoya has to be Stoya any time she’s in public. “Real celebrities have buffers between them and the rest of the world, she says. “So it’s safe for the general public to project all their bullshit on to them and they’re not actually hurting a real person.”

She is currently managing her own social media, with all the grief that involves, because she feels she needs to be in those online spaces to hear about potential bookings. “I’m an entrepreneur and a freelancer,” she says. One of the surprises of Philosophy, Pussycats, & Porn is that the bulk of her income comes from sales of her branded Fleshlight, a silicon tube moulded as an exact replica of her genitals.

Then, of course, the work she does make is ripped off and redistributed without credit or payment. These “tube” – aggregation – websites are particularly pernicious, she argues, because the clips they host discard everything that isn’t the sex itself, such as a discussion of consent or boundaries before a sadomasochism scene. They also remove the performer’s names to make it harder for their representatives to find the clips and have them removed. “When they put it on the tube sites it’s ‘teen whore gets fucked’, which is not great language to be introducing a human with,” she says. “That greatly exacerbates the problem.”

Talking to Stoya, I’m struck by how many of her charges against the mainstream porn industry echo the complaints I hear from freelance journalists. (Sometimes the complaints overlap: Stoya says she was paid very little for the pieces she wrote for the hipster bible Vice. “I worry about the messages that I’m sending to young freelance writers, like, just because I let Vice take advantage of me, doesn’t mean you should.”)

There’s also a sense, though, of tempering her criticisms because they will be seized upon by those who are ideologically opposed to porn, full stop – either religious conservatives or what she calls “anti-sex” feminists. Before the interview, her publicist tells me that she won’t talk about sex assault or former partners; it’s a reference to the former partner (and co-star) she accused of rape in 2015. No charges were brought.

Stoya is now trying to find space outside the mainstream porn economy, producing and directing her own work, such as Around the World in 80 Ways. I’m sure there will be people reading this and thinking, “Oh come on, organic, free-range porn? Is there nothing going on in Syria?” But that ignores the fact we live in a society saturated in porn and its peculiar, camera-friendly tropes – sex that always ends with ejaculation; anything between two women just being an hors d’oeuvre to the “proper” sex to come; all that waxing. Again, the problem isn’t so much the sex as what surrounds it, which in this case is silence. Porn sex is to real sex as Mamma Mia! is to the actual experience of running a small hotel in the Mediterranean. But is anyone telling teenagers that?

Stoya talks in the book of her uneasiness at being cast in the role of sex educator, particularly when she’s trying to make a living at the same time. “I’m under the pressure of capitalism: dick sells,” she says when I ask about so-called feminist porn. But the most important thing is that she talks at all. Her smart, honest essays remind us that naked people on the internet are people, too. 

“Philosophy, Pussycats, & Porn” is published by Not a Cult 

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special