Artist Emma Rose Laughlin is a lover of the traditionally feminine craft of embroidery. Ever since she discovered a box of discarded needlework in her grandma’s basement a few years ago, she has taken to stitching vintage doilies and handkerchiefs with painstaking designs—but she isn’t interested in the typical dainty floral or heart patterns. She prefers what you might call a cross-genre motif: the cum shot.
We’re talking meticulously threaded depictions of women porn performers with mouths open wide, tongues arching over their glistening bottom lips, and pearls—actual pearls—of ejaculate dripping down their chins. Sometimes, a raging hard-on enters into the scene, but it’s only ever shown in silhouette. The one constant is the women—either readying their mouths for a dick or wearing a constellation of semen on their faces. There is very rarely any explicit nudity—it’s typically just the white vintage fabric against the few choice lines making up the women’s faces.
Laughlin, a 28-year-old living in Los Angeles, takes stills from pornographic films and spends long days trying to faithfully reproduce them with needle and thread. Each piece is titled after the female performer depicted in the work. She has a number of repeat subjects, including retired industry legends like Sasha Grey and Belladonna, as well as current performers like Lexi Belle and Tori Black.
As you might expect, her pornographic subject matter hasn’t gotten her into the MoMa, but she has landed in smaller, edgier art shows, where her work can sell for anywhere from $500 to $1,500. Like most artists, though, Laughlin has a day job—only she can’t say what it is, for fear that the adult nature of her embroidery will cost her employment.
She is certainly not alone in her irreverent embrace of a craft typically labeled as “women’s work.” There’s an entire cottage industry around ironic feminist needlepoints with sayings like “fight the patriarchy” and “feminist as fuck.” But her focus on porn in general and the money shot in particular is more unusual (although there is a tapestry artist weaving tube site stills, apparently). Laughlin sees her work as engaging with one of the more contentious areas of feminism—as her website puts it, “By juxtaposing sexually charged subject matter with tender and sentimental means of execution, she hopes to create a conversation that can shed light on some unresolved issues in the portrayal of sexually empowered women in today’s society.”
I decided to have that conversation with Laughlin, touching on everything from growing up as a porn-watching young woman to worshipping women performers. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: When did you first start doing your porn embroidery?
LAUGHLIN: Before I started stitching porn stars I was doing erotic paintings. I was always trying to make work that was sex positive. It was a very personal thing to me, because I definitely, like a lot of women, felt kind of ashamed most of my life for having strong sexual tendencies. It’s almost seen as unwomanly, especially during adolescence—you think about masturbation and watching porn, and it felt like something only boys were allowed to do.
Then porn stars started to play a role in it when I learned about people like Sasha Grey. She got into porn because she thought it would be exciting and it was something she was passionate about. I thought, “Good for her in knowing that this is something she loves to do and wants to do it despite the stigma.”
It opened the door for me to learn more about other porn stars that are doing it for those same reasons. They started to become the subject matter of my artwork, because I admire them so much. A lot of my portraits are meant to honor them and what they do. That’s not to say there aren’t dark sides to porn. I know there’s a lot of people in it for the wrong reasons and there are a lot of problems in the industry, but there are some women who enjoy their jobs and also want to fight the stigma that is attached to it. I want to highlight those women.
What’s your personal relationship to porn?
It was always, like, feeling that shame for being a sexual person, especially in my adolescence. I’ve always loved porn, I’ve always been a sexual person. That shame was something I struggled with. I am not a sex worker but I do love watching porn, and I love giving blow jobs [laughs].
I remember the first time I was looking at porn and I saw the woman in it and thought, “She’s so cool, it’s awesome that she’s doing this, but I couldn’t do this.” And then I was like, “Well, maybe I could, but I don’t think I’d be as good at it.” It was this genuine admiration for her, but also this feeling of, “I’m not the only woman who’s down for some kinky stuff. I’m not the only one who thinks that sex is exciting and can be really fun.”
If I hadn’t had a resource like porn, I don’t know if I would have felt ashamed for longer. It was a window into fantasy and into feeling like it’s okay to fantasize.
Do you think your embroidery is your way of coyly revealing yourself as a sexual porn-watching woman?
I think that is a strong part of it. I definitely see my art as an homage to the people I’m stitching, but I don’t want to take ownership of them. There’s a bit of a line there, I’m not trying to take on their story as my own, because I’m not a sex worker. But there have definitely been moments when people react to my work by going, “Oh, she’s a porn star, but how do you know about her?” And I’m like, “Well...I watch porn.” My work is partly a way to get it out of my system and feel like I am doing something sexy. It’s my favorite kind of work to do for that reason.
You title all of the pieces after the performers in them, which seems very intentional.
It’s not just “this is a pretty image of a woman covered in cum.” It’s like, no, no, no, this is Riley Reid and she’s a person and she’s really good at this and I love her. It’s about her, not just the image of herself.
What is the process like of recreating one of these pornographic scenes?
It’s a lot like drawing and painting. You work with a line and you manipulate it and then you get an image. I usually collect vintage handkerchiefs first—I have drawers full—and then I’ll be looking through pornographic images, based on the women I’m hoping to do a piece on. Then I print out the image and I pin it to the fabric and I plot out the top of the eye, the bottom of the eye, the sides of the eye. Then I do that for the mouth, the nostrils. When I rip the paper off, it’s like a little connect-the-dots. The eye alone could take me a good day, probably 12 hours.
Who taught you embroidery?
When I was in my last year of school for my BFA in drawing and painting, I had my thesis where I spent the entire school year on one body of work. I was painting and I was like, “This isn’t working, I suck, my life is a sham.” Whenever I’ve been painting too much, I need to do something else. I’ll grab a coloring book or something like that.
I was living with my grandmother and staying in the basement where she kept a lot of old photos, old clothes, things from her past, and I found a box full of handkerchiefs and tea towels that she had embroidered. I thought that maybe I could do that instead of a coloring book. She gave me a bit of insight on how to thread the needle and do a backstitch. It was definitely my grandma and her house that inspired me to pick it up.
Have you shown your grandmother your pornographic embroidery?
I have not [laughs]. I think it would shake her.
Why does your work focus so much on blow jobs in general and facials in particular?
A lot of times women don’t feel comfortable around blow jobs or money shots or facials, which I get. There’s a lot of people who think that it’s degrading and objectifying. In a lot of my personal experiences with blow jobs, I’ve felt that it’s pretty cool to make a partner orgasm and then bask in it.
People think, “oh, it’s degrading and this poor woman,” but she’s in this role of such power in that moment. You’re looking at her eyes, you’re enamored with her face, and there’s something to me personally that screams “power” instead of just “she’s doing what a tissue could do.”
I want to put this sort of imagery into a context that is more gentle and feminine, which is why I use needle and thread, which is why I use pearls. I want to make it beautiful. To me, personally, I think it is beautiful. I want people to be open to having sex like that and not feel bad about it. I want women to feel more open about being sexual and maybe not feel like it’s a bad thing. It’s a way to take these super graphic sexual moments and make them more gentle and acceptable.
I tried to do this with painting—I would do a painting of a sexual thing and then put them in kitschy floral frames to give them this feminine context. The whole point is to say women can be sexual and still be women—they can still be sisters, they can still be mothers, they can still be feminine.
Do you experience any conflict around the brand of female sexuality or empowerment that is often depicted in mainstream porn?
I don’t because of the scenes that I pick. I choose pictures I know that I can stand behind. There’s definitely a dark side to porn and I’m not trying to say that there isn’t, but I just want to highlight that there are some people in the industry that have really great careers in this field and it’s a testament to women and their sexuality in general, and we should admire them for that.
Obviously, you’re really interested in depicting female sexual empowerment. So why focus on facials—an act that’s typically associated with male pleasure—instead of, say, cunnilingus?
When I first started with this series, I wanted it to be raw and graphic. It’s not a choice to avoid cunnilingus—I have recently thought about doing a series of o-faces of women. I do a lot of pieces that are apart from my serious artwork, my more sellable stuff—I’ve done little lace vaginas, I do a lot of vagina positivity. As much as we think the money shot is all about the guy, a lot of the time the female performer is looking at the camera and she’s engaging with the viewer. It seems like such a submissive role, but to me she’s also in a role of power. Everyone’s eyes are on her.
For me personally, it’s something that a woman can enjoy. It’s not always degrading. It’s trying to find the pleasure in sharing in the pleasure of someone else. I get really frustrated with this notion of women thinking that sex has to be one way, especially as a feminist. It’s not for everybody, and I don’t think it should be, everyone has preferences. But you shouldn’t feel like less of a woman or a feminist for liking something that feels a little degrading in your spare time with the person you’re intimate with.
You touched on this before, but why do you use pearls to represent semen?
It’s like what we were talking about with the hankies, the lace, the act of needlework—it’s another very feminine thing that we associate with jewelry. At the same time, it’s pretty fun to have a “peal necklace” connotation as well. It’s also a very classic feature in needlework, so it’s connected to the craft itself.
Some of your work shows boners, but only in outline. What’s that about?
It’s definitely going back to what I was saying about my portraits honoring the women in the scene. It’s more about them—not to discredit the boners.
Where do you go from here—what’s next after embroidered cum shots?
I’m having a lot of fun exploring what I can do with the medium. I’ve been doing larger portraits where I can do a lot more detail. I have so many more people that I want to embroider, too. It takes me a long time, so I have a bit of a to-do list. I definitely don’t want to stop yet—there’s more to stitch.