When I read Erica Garza’s article on Salon, “Tales of a female sex addict,” I was immensely proud to call myself a colleague of hers (we both write for Luna Luna Magazine). This might be the only piece I’ve ever read from the point of view of somebody who had an unhealthy and addictive relationship with pornography that owns up to the fact that it was not the fault of porn or sex itself, but the constructs around them she had fallen into as a child and then continued to believe in as an adult. Guilt. Shame. Darkness.
“I’d wired the neural networks in my brain so well that it had become impossible for me to feel sexually turned on without feeling horrible about it,” she writes. After watching the Houston 500 (whose star I interviewed in 2010 for WHACK! Magazine), she realized that, “No longer was there enough shame in simply watching porn. I needed darkness. To be disgusted. To be traumatized.”
I found this paragraph— and her conclusion about how she doesn’t blame porn or porn stars for what she went through, but realizes that she had to save herself from her dependence on shame for sexual pleasure—refreshing, responsible, and riveting. But then the comments started, and a lot of them said the same thing. She wrote about them for Luna Luna. The commenters largely agreed that her issues with sex and porn must have come from somewhere: “Probably child sexual abuse at an early age, but she doesn’t remember it…yet.”
Ugh. I know, Internet comment threads are not the place to go for enlightened, reasoned discussions about big issues. Trolls are everywhere. But the thing about the peanut gallery deciding that Erica must have been molested as a child is that normal people say this kind of thing all the time, on and off the internet, about women who admit their sexuality, whether healthy or unhealthy. All the damn time.
I’ve heard it a lot, particularly, because I’ve written extensively about pornography and interviewed dozens of porn stars. And while the topic certainly doesn’t come up every time I talk with or about a female porn performer who enjoys her work, it comes up pretty damn often. Often enough that in numerous interviews I’ve done with porn stars, they have made it a point to note that they were not abused as children. In most porn memoirs, the issue is tackled right away to put people’s suspicions to bed. When I’ve told people in the past that I write about pornography, I’ve had perfect strangers ask me whether it’s true that female porn stars were all molested as kids. I’ve had people ask why on earth attractive, intelligent women would go into the porn industry. The short answer should be, “Because they decided to.” But that’s not a good enough answer, it seems. Women pursuing their own goals when it comes to their bodies and their sexuality just, apparently, doesn’t make sense.
From where I’m standing, the situation seems pretty clear: any woman who enjoys sex, or indeed who admits to an active sex life–whether it’s enjoyable and healthy or not–is suspected to be the victim of abuse. Because something must have gone wrong to make a woman seek sex.
When I was beginning the first draft of my graphic novel, Tracy Queen (seriously you should totally click that link and go to the website and tell all your friends about it, mmkay?), I told a friend of mine who was a huge comic book fan about my idea. Basically, it goes like this: a woman starts doing webcam shows to make money, discovers she loves it, and eventually transitions into making porn on her own, eventually upping the ante to gangbangs (not unlike Houston, actually, now that I think about it), then collecting “samples” from the shoots and turning the genetic material into cyborg-clones. Great idea for a story, right? Hilarious and kind of dark and sci-fi fun and brilliant, right? (Correct answer here, by the way, is, “Yes, Lynsey, you are a literary genius.”)
You know what my friend said to me? He said that my character could not, could not possibly just decide one day to do porn. By way of example, he named Charlize Theron’s character in the movie Monster. “She didn’t start out a serial killer,” he informed me. “She was attacked, violently sodomized and only then killed her attacker in self defense… The character descended into madness as her humanity atrophied but the beginning of this descent was ultimately a decision forced on her with life and death consequences. Getting drunk and deciding to get fucked on camera does not convey the same sense of sympathy.”
This is a guy I’d been friends with for about a decade by then. Who apparently thought that the only reason a woman can have for an active sex life, especially one she’s public about, is violent violation of her body which forces a descent into madness.
I pointed out to him how ridiculous this assumption was and told him that most of the porn stars I know were not molested, and actually did not fuck on camera while drunk. We have not really gotten back to the same level of friendship we had before this conversation. And not because I don’t want to try to explain to him that having sex on camera is simply a decision that some people make. Not because he needs to be told that sex addiction and porn dependence are not always the result of a psychic break, but rather ways that people deal with any number of issues within themselves that may or may not have anything to do with sex–much like alcoholism does not have alcohol as its main root, but rather uses alcohol as a way to deal with whatever is the root of the problem.
The reason I can’t really maintain a solid friendship with this guy anymore is that, when I tried to point out to him how ridiculous it was to compare a sex worker with a serial killer, he didn’t seem to get why I was so annoyed. He basically said he didn’t meant to equate serial killing to doing porn, but that he didn’t see the pivotal moment of the decision as a big enough emotional moment for the character. He seemed to be coming from a place in which anyone, faced with the same information I’d given him, would jump to say the same thing. Women don’t want to do porn or have sex, the assumption went. They have to do it for life and death reasons or because they are broken.
But that’s just not goddamn true. The thing I keep realizing as I get to know more people who work in the sex industry and who have gone through their own personal or public sexual journeys, is that people make their decisions for more reasons that you can possibly imagine. People fill up their voids and feed their compulsions in just as many ways. Sometimes these decisions and compulsions include sex, and sometimes they don’t. There are a whole world of possibilities out there to choose from, and somebody’s sex-addicted behavior or another person’s decision to work in pornography (which–let’s be clear–have very little to in common aside from involving a lot of sex) may or may not have to do with anything that happened to them as children. There might be a higher incidence amongst people with sex addiction or who work in the sex industry to have experienced intense sexual things as children, but for fuck’s sake, there’s no reason to think that just because someone engages in more sex than other people that they must have been molested as a child.
Erica says in Luna Luna that, “I reached for orgasms as my “fix” because 1.) they felt good and 2.) they were free and accessible. Maybe if I hadn’t found porn so early, I would’ve given up on the compulsion. Maybe I would have taken a liking to pot or huffing or pills or snuck into my parents’ liquor cabinet and got hooked there. But masturbation was my thing and it progressed into porn addiction and sex addiction and my relationships suffered, my mental health suffered and my life suffered as these addictions took their toll.” That’s enough, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be?
Should every person have the right to tell their own story and be taken seriously as a human being, with flaws and libido and all? Yes. Do we have the right to diagnose them from where we sit? No. We cannot know. We can guess, but we have no fucking idea. So lay off it with your Freudian scribbles and certainties and listen.
(And furthermore, let me just poke my finger at one more point: so what if someone was abused as a child? Does this sad truth then negate the choices they make about their body as an adult? Should childhood sexual trauma in someone’s background qualify them as a “broken” individual? Of course not. It goes without saying, almost, that many people who were the victims of molestation or abuse in childhood experience huge problems as they get older that can touch every aspect of their lives, and I’m in no way trying to take away any legitimacy from their experiences. But at the same time, if somebody was assaulted as a child, and chooses to then go into sex work later in life, does this mean that the choice to do so was necessarily made from a place of brokenness? I’d venture to say no. People who were abused are people, too, and have just as much of a right to go about their lives as anybody else.)