Yesterday I spoke to my mother on the phone. I mentioned that I was thinking of tailoring my freelance copyediting services specifically to my friends and colleagues in the adult entertainment industry. I told her that I’m tired of books and articles on these topics getting treated like sideshow attractions instead of serious work, and that I wanted to offer my services to help.
To me, this seemed like a good way to open the conversation up. To remind her that, hey, I write and think and talk and make stuff that relates to sex, sex work, and porn in particular. That there are cool people–myself included–who do this. That I’m well-enough-ish respected in this field. That, by the way, if you want to ask questions or discuss the field, or what I do in it, at all, ever, I’m ok with that.
She nervously chattered about how I’m always working and it would be nice to hear about me having some time off, and changed the subject. This morning she sent me an e-mail offering to send me some money for an air conditioner. I think this is because I was saying I need freelance work because I don’t make enough to be comfortable in New York. I think she hoped that if she sent me some money, I could not do something having to do with pornography. I think she wants to believe that I do this because I’m desperate for money, because she has no idea what it is that I actually do, because she is too scared of it to find out.
I’m writing this to vent my feelings and take part in a conversation about “coming out” to family about one’s place in the sex industry, which has been started by Jiz Lee and will be carried on by others in an upcoming project/book. I’m barely even in said sex industry; I exist on the fringes as a critic and thinker and proponent of sex work as a positive in our culture–I’m kind of a parasite. But I have my story, too, and I think it might feel good to get it out.
A few years ago, I told my mother on the phone that I was going to the Feminist Porn Awards in Toronto. She said, “Wait, wait… Feminist? What is that? I mean, how could feminism ever go together with that?” She didn’t even say “porn.” I was so excited that she had asked a question, instead of changing the subject immediately, that I stumbled over my own tongue trying to tell her everything I knew in one breath before she could stop me. I babbled about how nothing about pornography imperatively has to involve the degradation or coercion of the performers, and that feminist porn aims to empower performers and show authenticity, and on and on I went. I think confused her. I don’t remember how she ended that conversation, but it didn’t last more than two minutes. She probably changed the subject.
A year or so before that, I told her that I wished she would ask me about what I do, instead of imagining the very worst. I told her that what I did was probably not nearly as bad as what she thought I did. She told me that she’d read a few of my columns on McSweeney‘s, and that she hadn’t been able to sleep for days afterward. She did not explain why. I felt too bad to say anything. That column was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and I’m hugely proud of it. And it traumatized my mother. Somehow.
When I told my parents, initially, that I was writing DVD reviews and set copy for adult magazines, and that they were going to find out sooner or later because I was also writing a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency about how weird that was, my father asked if McSweeney’s was also an adult publication. I said no, it’s a respected literary website, and he said, “Good. I’m glad you’re making the best of this. I have to go take a shower.” That’s the last time he’s ever said a word to me about it. My mother got upset and said she would try to understand, and asked a few logistical questions about what exactly I did. My role has changed quite a lot since then, but she’s never asked me again.
The above conversations between my mother and I are the only times it’s been brought up, aside from the numerous other attempts I’ve made to throw my career into a conversation, which have been roundly ignored. Or the times I’ve been explicitly informed that I am not allowed to discuss what I do at any family gathering. So I don’t. I keep quiet. Most of my family thinks I work in mainstream publishing and that’s it. Most of them think I must have a life of leisure in New York City, having fun and with much free time on my hands. My mother perpetuates the illusion, knowing full well that I work a full-time job in publishing and then go home to work, almost every night, for several more hours on other projects, almost always for free. My parents don’t know that I won a Feminist Porn Award. Neither of them came to see my art show last spring in TriBeCa.
I love my parents. And I know they love me. They are remarkable people: kind, generous, supportive, funny. They volunteer, and donate to charities, and have a garden, and go kayaking in their spare time. They are wholesome and wonderful human beings. But they’d rather not think about my life and what it means. I believe they see my involvement in the porn industry as a statement about their parenting. I suppose on some levels it is–if I hadn’t been raised with such a deep sense of guilt and shame about something that is a fundamental part of who I am (by which I mean sex), maybe I wouldn’t have decided to start writing about my time as a DVD reviewer and launch into all this other stuff. Maybe I’d have just done a few reviews and then moved on without much thought. I dunno. But the bigger reality of it is that I’m writing about something I see deeply ingrained in our culture that needs fixing. I write because I care. Because this is important to me, and to lots of other people. I think I’m going a good thing. And I want to feel good about that. But it ain’t always easy. Especially not when it comes to family.