It’s blowjob never blow job. ATM is not where you take money out of a machine. Bigger women are BBW or large and lovely, never fat. CBT is not cognitive behavioral therapy. The spelling of Vince Vouyer’s name was unassailable. Voyeur voyeur voyeur voyeur.
Most movie reviews we ran were only a few sentences long, but some reviewers would submit essays. For about a year, from nine to five, I cut them down, varying and inventing euphemisms so the prose would flow. Women were sluts, but never bitches, and breasts were titties, boobs, fun bags, and tatas.
The world of adult video news was straightforward. The boundaries and motivations were clear, and every story had a happy ending. I desperately wanted one, too.
The happy ending was supposed to be the job offer. After a long spell of underemployment — modeling for artists, nannying for a family in Bel Air, writing and editing for free and sometimes for pay — I had found a proper job in my field as the managing editor of a magazine. I’d get on-the-job training and a good salary. The skills would be transferable. Who could have asked for anything more?
I think they hired me because, during the interview, I told them that nothing offended me. Not anal fisting, cuckolding, or the glimmer of time between being Barely Legal and a MILF, not choking, slapping, spitting, or men’s tongues being used as ashtrays. I wouldn’t mind watching a woman on her knees inside a circle of masturbating men, her mouth open like baby bird’s, ready to catch the worm.
My first day on the job, my boss walked me through the gig. The magazine printed news about stars, studios, technology, the law, and reported on industry trends. They reviewed about 300 movies a month. New talent was featured in a section called Fresh off the Bus. I imagined small-town, corn-fed prom queens alighting at the Santa Monica pier. Turn left for Hollywood. Turn right for porn. It was my job to ensure all the text came in on time and was fit to print.
My boss, heavily pregnant with waist-length hair, led me through the maze of cubicles to a warehouse as her tiny dog trotted after her. We walked through racks and racks of DVDs, pulling them off the shelves. Soon I was holding a stack that nearly reached my chin.
Awards season was coming. We all had plenty of watching to do.
“Do you watch porn?”
“Only what I find on the Internet. Some guys on a boat?”
She immediately knew what I was talking about, and I could tell she wasn’t a fan. I think she pitied me.
“You’ll figure out what you like,” she said.
Like? It had never occurred to me to develop preferences in porn. I’d sit down at my computer feeling horny, and at the first clear shot of penetration, I’d be done. I usually spent longer closing the pop-up ads than I did watching. I kept returning to the same site because I could access the one scene that worked for me quickly.
As I settled in to work, I kept glancing at the tower of DVDs on my desk. The titles, the production companies, the stars — they meant nothing to me yet. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was frightened of discovering that I hated porn, of not fitting in, of having to bluff my way through in more ways than one. When I walked into a bookshop, at least I had a sense of the experiences and emotions that were on offer when I scanned the shelves. These boxes could have contained anything.
At the time I was staying at my friend Rita’s house in Chatsworth, the porn capital of the world. She had launched a sister publication of the magazine I was now working for and had put me forward for the job. While she toured the country with her new magazine, she invited me to house-sit while I settled in to office life. My aversion to braving gridlock proved to be a boon.
When I unlocked her front door for the first time, Bear, a deaf Australian shepherd, greeted me with a friendly growl, knocking her head against my knees. It shocked me to be touched, but I let Bear lick my face and nuzzle into me. From my bag, I took out a box of Epsom Salt I had bought on the way over.
I ran myself a bath and inspected myself in the mirror. Black and blue continents spread across my body. I wished the salt would suck the bruises from my skin so I could begin again.
A year and a half earlier, I had found my way to an artists’ speakeasy. It was housed in a large warehouse filled with big art and classic cars. There was a DJ and a bar, a stage and a sea of easels and drawing boards. The models were decked out in Lucha Libre masks, metallic briefs and body suits. They stormed the stage, began to brawl and paused mid-blow. Still, electric. The artists sprung into action. Deep concentration. The sound of graphite on paper. I had never seen anything like it. I opened my sketchbook and started to draw.
During the first break, when the models wandered around with a large vase that was being filled with cash, an illustrator I knew introduced me to an artist who might be looking for a model. The artist led me to a secluded corner “where we could talk.” He was attentive, making constant eye-contact. Something about the night and the intensity of his interest made me feel special, open. When he asked me to pose for him the next week, it didn’t feel like I was going to be his model, but his muse. It turned me on. It. The idea. Not him. It was one of the places my mind wandered to when I was on the model stand.
But when I arrived his apartment, he didn’t want me for drawing. Sure, he had pushed his sofa aside and laid out his drawing materials, but soon after he began to draw, he begged to kiss my stomach. The desire he expressed was urgent and pained in a way that I’d never known desire to be. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted to leave, but he stood in my way. Because I felt cornered, I let him. When I finally promised that we’d see each other again, he let me go. For weeks, I ignored his texts, but they kept coming, and when I finally responded and told him that I didn’t like the way he’d treated me, he asked me what I would have done if I had met The One?
I was lonely at the time. Anxious. Depressed. But lonely, especially. It was hard to sink my teeth into life when nothing seemed to be going right. Always coming close to getting the job, but never landing it. Dating men who were doting and talked about our future together from the first date, but who would suddenly disappear without a trace. No phone call. No explanation. “They went to Lake Farago,” Rita used to say. The same imaginary lake where the men went who had stopped calling her, too. It was a favored vacation destination for most of the men who wined and dined our friends. “Dangerous place. No one ever comes back,” she said, and I’d be comforted for a while.
But soon the disappointments were too many, and I decided there was no point in yearning for a bond that was made of more than saliva and skin. That fleeting connection had always been my favorite, anyhow. I gave myself to the dark language of bodies. It was a raw and vulnerable tongue. Free and safe because it was never meant to last. It spoke in dreams and confessions; a language without lies. The artist was nothing if but persistent, and I chalked up his declarations of love and passion to “artistic temperament.” I grew curious. I wanted a taste. In the back of my mind something else fluttered. Hope.
At first, I didn’t think I needed to take him seriously. We took long walks through the city, made appearances at art parties, and showed each other our secret spots, places neither of us had ever seen. Spending time with him was like entering a walled garden. Impossibly lush. A green relief. I liked that we didn’t have much in common but art and the things you’d expect to have in common if you grew up in Los Angeles, too. It was a nice break from my anxiety.
When I was on my own, I began to see every plaza and street corner, freeway exit, deli and dance club through his eyes. At first this shift in perspective had felt like the bloom of love. I thought of the city as his and forgot the ways in which it was mine.
I liked his golden hands and shimmering skin. Wrapping his long hair around my wrists. Listening to the people talking at the bus stop on the street below as we lay in bed. I liked that he’d push open his large window and wave at me as I walked towards his building, as if he’d always been there, waiting. I started to wonder if he was right when he said I was The One. After months of him asking for me to be his, I told him “I’m yours.”
Soon thereafter, I watched him blaze with fury. He started not showing up for our dates or being hours late. There was always an excuse, and it was never commonplace. Once he had seen someone get hit by a car. Once he had passed out in an underground parking structure. Once he urgently needed to take a chair belonging to his mother to get reupholstered. He was always sorry. Down on his knees sorry, pleading for my forgiveness. It was always overblown. Not a month later, he punched a hole through his bathroom door and broke the rear view mirror in my car. Not a month later, I was desperately trying to remember the last time I had felt happy. (London. It was London. Perhaps I should move back to London?) Not a month later, it felt like all the doors around me were locked and the walls were impossibly high. Everything was fetid, green. Each time we met, he asked me to marry him. Staring into my eyes and holding me tight until I said yes, dreaming of escape.
“This is your home as much as it is mine,” he said when he offered to host my birthday party at his apartment — an act of conciliation for another one of our misspent nights. During the party, he pulled me aside to remind me of all the reasons the women I knew were sluts and my male friends only were here because they wanted to fuck me, and how lucky I was to have him, who could see the good in me and love me in spite of my slutty past. Looking between his face and theirs, I no longer knew who to trust. Though I was angry, I felt torn. When the party was over, I got ready for bed, and he told me I had to leave. He wouldn’t tell me why. (I never found out, but I assume it had to do with his other Ones. But those simultaneous women are a different story altogether.) A fight, as always, flared quickly and nothing about the way we fought was sane. This time, I’d had enough of the conversation going nowhere. I wanted resolution. We ended up in my car. On my way to my apartment, instead of exiting the freeway, I drove north. I drove so far, he stopped yelling. I pulled off somewhere hilly where not many people seemed to live. I parked on the shoulder. I knew that everything I was doing was crazy.
I didn’t say anything to the cop when he shined his flashlight through the car window. We had been arguing for hours. From valleys of silence, he’d climb to peaks of rage and slam me against the hard surfaces of my car. My Volvo, I kept thinking, one of the safest cars in the world. When the cop asked me if I was okay, I wanted to tell him everything, but I knew how much my boyfriend feared and resented the police. He grew up with a dad on the run. This was the first time he used his hands to hurt me. Maybe it would never happen again. I said I was fine: We had just pulled over to look at the stars. Soon after the cop left, I drove him home in silence. That was Saturday.
We spoke on the phone the next day before I left for Rita’s house. After he berated me for almost getting him arrested, our conversation came to a familiar end. We’re forever, right babuschka? You’re my queen. We’re going to get married, right? Tell me: I’m yours. And like every other time he asked, I said, Yes, we’re going to get married. I’m yours forever.
His words redefined me: I was a slut, and he was the best man I’d ever have. I believed all of our problems were my fault. If I could just be better, alter how I spoke to him, get rid of every male in my life who wasn’t my father, any friend who was too wild, immoral, opinionated, not good enough for me, which was everyone I knew, everything would be fine. It would be like it was when we went dancing — hot, smooth and perfectly in sync. In those moments, I felt bold and graceful, like the woman I had always wanted to become.
I drove to Chatsworth on Sunday night, and started work on Monday.
At first, I spent my days in the office, and my weeknights alone in Rita’s garden peeling oranges that I picked from her tree, staring at the stars with Bear. Sometimes on the weekends, I’d pick up new clothes from my apartment, and see him. On one of the rare days that Rita was not traveling, she said I could stay at her house as long as I liked, and that he was under no circumstance welcome there. But by then I had given him her address and we had been playing house in her suburban dream home. When I was on my own, I hated myself for deceiving my friend and for not being able to cut him from my life. But how could I? I only seemed to be able to feel happiness when he bore witness to it, otherwise the feeling would simply fall flat. With him, I felt despair. Without him, I believed I would never feel joy again. I felt ashamed about everything but work. And only at work did I feel like myself sometime — happiness that glimmered like the idea of London. Maybe everything was going to be okay.
I was proud of what I did for a living. I thought of myself as an interloper who might one day help unlock the debates about whether or not porn is linked to rape and other violences against women and if it has indeed hijacked our sexuality. Like many of my colleagues, I too wanted to help create a world where the difference between reality and fantasy is clear.
My parents were happy I had a steady job in my field, but this milestone in my life was something my dad skirted when our Midwestern relatives asked how I was doing. And he worried. “Just don’t do porn,” he said more than once. He seemed to think I’d be recruited by a producer visiting the office, a triple-x version of the Hollywood tale of young hopefuls being plucked from obscurity. But I wasn’t under the impression that producers needed to be predatory. Plenty of fresh talent seemed to be offering itself up.
In many ways, the world of adult entertainment was less hostile than the world peppered with Nice Guys, men who don’t understand the meaning of “no,” men who’ll rub up against you on the subway, men who say you should smile more. Tell a man in a bar you work with porn and his eyes change. His narrative of who you are and what you’re willing to do arrives fully formed. At least porn didn’t put on airs.
I didn’t know what else to say to put my father at ease, so I rolled my eyes as if I were thirteen again. And anyway Dad, I’m not the right type, I said. My face doesn’t make sense in porn. Or in Los Angeles, come to think of it.
In the months that the media company was managing the judging process for the awards they would be giving out for achievements in the adult film industry, female performers breezed in, fresh from hair and nail appointments, candy-colored, in a range of shapes and sizes. How they dazzled. I watched the men gaze, listened to the pitch of the laughter they shared. And yes, of course there were girls with dark, angular faces like mine, but they all had a certain something — the confidence that can come from making a living with your body. The power of being able to send people into oblivion just by being there. In them, I saw everything that I was not. For all that their bodies had to bear, they seemed taken care of.
The female performers reminded me of what my sister had put her body through in ballet school. Pulling her hair back tight in the quest for the perfect bun. Stuffing cotton on her shoes and training her foot so she could dance en-pointe. Learning to dance through blood and blisters. Performing her limits, a breathtaking display.
These performers stretched discrete body parts and knew how to do this safely, they exposed their soft tissue. They didn’t eat a few hours before a shoot, knowing their bodies would be pressed on, leaned on, bent, and rattled. They administered enemas before anal scenes. Fellow starlets knew whom their colleague was talking about when she mentioned a certain male performer who takes Viagra and how red his face gets when he comes. They were tested for STDs at least once a month. They took time off because of hemorrhoids, because of bruising and tears. I believed their bodily integrity would never knowingly be violated. I hated that I couldn’t say the same for myself.
My pregnant boss and I talked about her partner and their polyamory. She explained her extended nuclear family. She wondered how these relationships would change when the baby arrived. She was sure that they could evolve together.
I nodded along as if we were on the same page, as if I too had the pleasure of being in a relationship where I could change and grow and that could hold my desires, but I was envious.
Maybe this is why I devoured Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Maybe I picked it up because it was there in Rita’s bookshelf and it was one of those many books I had been meaning to read. Guiltily, I read this story of a woman who said yes to exploring her desires, who dared question the sanctity of a traditional marriage. Who I was sure would figure out how to make love and sex work on her terms. Jong’s was a voice I knew he wouldn’t want me to hear. A voice that reminded me of who I used to be before him. I didn’t necessarily want a polyamorous relationship or to indulge in zipless fucks, but I still wanted to have the option to consider these things. I wanted the freedom to learn the shape of my desire, whether or not I was in a monogamous relationship. With him, desire had been reduced to a cog in an abusive machine, a method of control, a performance. As he led me to orgasm, he’d whisper: This is how a man who respects you makes love to you; anyone who has done it any differently never respected you in the first place. I came to believe him. I came to forget how other men had made love to me. I came and forgot what it was I wanted from sex. With him, my orgasms were wishes that I hoped would hold the beast at bay.
Reading Erica Jong, wrapped around a body pillow while Bear snoozed on the floor, was the first time in a long time my own thoughts broke through the yattering inner monologue of his everyday insults: This is the best you’ll ever have. No one else will have you. You should be so lucky that I can see past the slut you are and love you anyway. Without him I would be alone. A door opened. A glimpse beyond the wall.
A month into the job, my boss asked me if I had found any movies that did it for me. My pleasure so far had been academic, I lied, offering assessments of genres and directors and stars. But she gave me that pitying look again. Have you watched Belladonna? Katsuni? They’re hardcore, but you can see they really enjoy it, she said. I felt like I should want to see other women with agency fucking. But I wasn’t a woman with agency.
In those early days I was ashamed to tell her what I liked. My favorite performer was eighteen when she shot her first scene. She wanted a shortcut to the euphoria of sex that leaves you breathless, so she asked her male partner to punch her in the stomach. In that moment, she became a star. When asked why she chose to do porn, she said she loved watching it so much she had to be in it. Because it provided her with a blueprint for a life that was better than anything available to her back home. She was known as much for her foul mouth and penchant for sexual degradation as for her love of the French New Wave. I didn’t care. I just liked watching her get stuffed. Her eyes were empty and I chose not to believe her when she said she liked it. Take it. Take it. Take it.
As the weeks passed, I continued to be tickled by the normalcy of watching hardcore pornography at my desk. For the first time in my life looking, really looking, at other women’s vaginas, forming opinions on their folds of flesh and intimate grooming habits, and other topics that came up with my co-workers while we waited for sugary snacks to drop from the vending machine in the break room. Everything was SFW.
Once I was watching a video featuring a man who had just checked in at reception, and the editor happened to bring him by my desk to say hello. When I stood up to shake his hand over the wall of my cubicle, I was a girl with a secret. I was sure he could tell. Skin-to-skin, the look in his eyes, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. But I kept my mouth shut. I was remembering my native tongue.
I broke up with the artist. In the months since our fight in the car, I had been steeling myself for this break-up. London was too distant a dream, something to remind me that there was something else out there, so I had been focusing on Las Vegas, imagining this weekend in Vegas would be a celebration of my freedom, a place where I’d reclaim myself. I’d talk to whoever I wanted to talk to, I’d do as I pleased. But what would that be?
I hitched a ride to the awards show in Las Vegas with a colleague who played me his hip hop tracks and dreamed of making it in Hollywood. I welcomed every distraction. We took a break at a rest stop that boasted the world’s tallest thermometer. As I left the restroom, I swear I saw a ghost in the car parked next to ours. A strange man sitting alone in a car, gazing straight ahead. He could have been anyone. A young or middle-aged man in a white shirt. Dark hair. Generic looks. I tried to stare him down, but he was looking right through me.
When I arrived with my colleague, I wandered around the Adult Entertainment Expo before the awards. Adult production companies of all kinds were exhibiting their wares at stands bright with video screens, logos and lights in vast conference halls. Young bodies on pedestals moved like cats, smiling at their fans. Eyeliner, eyelashes, skin.
Around the convention center and the hotel, I spoke to work friends, to people I had only met over email, to a stranger at the bar, and even when we were getting along just fine, laughing and chatting, a hand on my arm, I felt a kind of terror. The artist had sworn he loved me above all else and yet his hands had turned to fists. If that could happen with him, it could happen with anyone.
I needed some air. I excused myself and found the nearest exit.
In an outdoor stairwell, a performer known for her ass was smoking a joint, and we talked about Mexico: I always drink the water, she said. It helps keep me thin. I went back to my hotel room and got ready for a night of parties in hotel rooms with breathtaking views. I couldn’t hold it together. There were too many people, too many unknowns. I was in bed before midnight.
The next day, I was in one of the company hotel rooms doing my hair before the awards when he sent me a text announcing his arrival. I wasn’t surprised. I was relieved. In spite of myself. I could feel myself hoping that losing me briefly had made him permanently kind. I told him where he could find me and a couple hours later we piled into a taxi with a married couple — a director and a performer, an artist and his muse — who were madly, happily in love and had been for almost a decade. He talked about us as if we were the same.
On the red carpet, the women were smokey-eyed birds of paradise. I felt locked out. Jenna Jameson, then the world’s most famous porn star, took the stage during the ceremony and retired with the words “I will never, ever, ever spread my legs again in this industry. Ever!” I heard someone in the crowd say, “You can try to quit porn, but it’ll just pull you back in.” Her words clung to me. Filled with apprehension, I wanted to tell her it would be okay, even if I let myself have this one last whirl.
The artist and I had a honeymoon, of sorts, on that reeling neon island — lovers in formal-wear claiming this eden as ours. We played our roles well, and through our shared fantasy, we invoked the specter of love. We got our own hotel room, we ate dessert before dinner. We let ourselves believe that we were in Caesar’s palace and on the Venice canals. But every time I looked away from my lover’s eyes, the man in the car appeared, daring me to break the spell. So I kept my eyes fixed on his, and promised myself that this is where it ends.