When people talk about porn and objectification, it’s often to argue that the industry reduces women to their bodies. Stoya, a porn performer and writer, could certainly tell you stories about strangers at public appearances who, as she writes, “refer to my orifices as ‘that’ instead of ‘your’”—stories that fit the typical objectification narrative. But Stoya is concerned with a different kind of objectification.

“People frequently see me as a two-dimensional representation, and twist my timeline to suit the narrative they have in their heads,” she writes in the opening essay of her new book, Philosophy, Pussycats, and Porn. “They project their shame or their need for inspiration onto me.” These people look at her with “a disconcerting amount” of hatred or worship—and, in both cases, they see her in ways that she doesn’t recognize. “It’s dehumanizing,” she writes.

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When she was 19, Stoya shot some nude photos for her roommate. In 2007, at 21, she signed a coveted contract with Digital Playground—much to her own surprise, it seems. “I wasn’t a voluptuous sex symbol or exotic glamazon,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed a few years back. “How big could the market be for pasty young women with wacky sartorial tastes and wiry limbs?” But Stoya’s star quickly rose, thanks in part to her unbridled, giddy enthusiasm on-camera. As Amanda Hess wrote in a 2013 Village Voice profile, “She giggles so exuberantly throughout her sex scenes that an early partner, Mick Blue, initially thought she was mocking him.”

Alongside porn, Stoya developed a reputation as a sexual intellectual. She penned a column for Vice on things like “the pitfalls of heteronormativity and monogamy” and “the metaphysics of cocksucking.” She also co-founded the porn site TRENCHCOATx—which comes with the tagline “curated smut,” and which she has since left—and the podcast Aural Spaces, which tackled everything from relationships to politics. This year, she stars in Ederlezi Rising, a Serbian sci-fi feature film in which she plays an android. But for the past few years, she has been conspicuously absent from porn, causing some fans to wonder whether she has retired.

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The theme of how people see her, or fail to see her, in what she calls her “micro-celebrity,” is one that takes different shapes throughout her new book. There’s the frightening guy at a coffee shop who will not leave her alone—and then the cop called to address the situation, who promptly asks her out. There’s Measure B, a law mandating the usage of condoms in porn—against the protestations of people like her who actually perform in porn. And there are the journalists who seem intent on digging up disturbing anecdotes from her life “in a way that feels uncomfortably close to that voiceless-porn-star trope that just refuses to die,” she writes.

Speaking of journalists, Stoya makes clear that she has felt dehumanized by the insistence of reporters—feminist ones in particular—on asking her about sexual assault and #MeToo (she requested that I avoid these topics in our interview). In 2015, she tweeted an accusation that made international headlines and sparked an enduring conversation around sexual assault within the porn industry, but she wants to move on. “I have been turned—numerous times— into a story,” she writes. “Sometimes I participate. Sometimes it happens without my input or permission.”

This book—a collection of previously published blog posts, essays, and op-eds—is Stoya telling her own story. It’s one dotted by casual discussions of philosophers and intellectuals, from Nietzsche to Georges Bataille, and asides on Yugoslavian political history. There are musings on gangbangs (she wonders why “we call them gangbangs instead of fuck puddles or cock buffets”) and poetic comparisons of ejaculate to her favorite scotch (“the peaty one I describe as tasting like good testicles in the summer”). She details romps—69-ing in a car in a deserted field, a blow job on a windowsill at Soho House—with the same enthusiasm she portrays onscreen. She gets dark, writing about how her “emotional meltdowns tend to be spectacularly melty” and the solace she takes after a breakup in being bruised through consensual power exchange (“these particular marks, they’re a reminder that wounds and scrapes do heal”).

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I finished the book feeling that I knew her, while remembering that I very much did not. We spoke by phone about capitalism, sex worker rights, and—much to her exasperation—feminist porn. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: You write that people “twist my timeline to suit the narrative they have in their heads.” What narrative do you find that people have in their heads about you?

STOYA: Oh god, that’s the thing, there is no one narrative. The young woman who needs some beacon of capitalist hope in the world has mashed together my story, plus a misunderstanding of Jenna Jameson’s financial situation, and a quote of what double penetration costs in the fantasy land that is Entourage, the TV show. But let’s not get confused, because the woman who plays the porn star in that show actually was a porn star in real life, prior to the mainstream acting career. So people will come out of nowhere and be like, “Yeah, you make that money! You’re such an inspiration!” I’m like, “I turn down good gigs all the time, because I can’t work under those conditions, or don’t like the message. Like, you’ve got the wrong—oh, you just need someone to project this onto? Okay, cool. As you were.”

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[This goes] all the way through to like, the guy who can only sexualize women within the context of the Madonna-whore dichotomy, and so has to figure out some guess as to what went wrong in my childhood to damage me. Just, like, all sorts of bizarre things. They’re very individual, and they’re very specific. What I’ve done with my career is try to make clear the complex, nuanced reality of the situation. There’s a whole bunch of different people in pornography, a lot of women who are there for all sorts of different reasons. The thing that’s most common is trying to carve out some existence under capitalism. Even in my own career, sometimes its like, “Yeah, I really need to get the rent paid” and other times it’s, “This is real sexual expression and not much else.” So, the motivation even for a single person can vary day to day. It’s mostly just fascinating being in a job where you deal with a lot of people. I feel like bartenders and waitresses would say the same thing.

Is it mostly that you’re dealing with other people online, on Twitter, or at conventions?

All of the above, plus sometimes while I’m trying to eat dinner. Occasionally while I’m rushing to get cat food, because I thought they had one more morning left and they didn’t [laughs]. The whole gambit. And now with the science-fiction film Ederlezi Rising on the festival circuit, I’m meeting people in the context of being an actress as well, which adds a whole new layer of having to disillusion a lot of young women who think its easy to have the kind of career I’ve had. And it’s not to dissuade anyone, it’s just that it’s a big leap and it’s a hard thing to take back, once you’ve done it. In fact, it’s impossible to take it back. So I prefer that people go and do it with their eyes open, and not think that they’re gonna make a couple porn movies and then have an acting career—it’s not that easy.

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You write about the difficulty of being employable post-porn. Is that something that you worry about or that you’ve come up against? 

Well, let’s see what else I do outside of porn. I did a science-fiction film in southern Europe, where I had my clothes off about half the time. I’m very proud of the movie. I had a great time. I actually don’t think any of the nudity or sex was gratuitous. But still. And I’ve written copiously about pornography and sexuality, and my credibility there comes from having done the work and, to some extent, from continuing to do it. I haven’t really done much that isn’t adjacent to and leveraging my main career.

One of the reasons that I talk so much about the slim and unstable future employment options is because, you know, not every porn performer gets to transition into adjacent careers. Not every performer thinks to work on skills that are plausible future careers, like one really good option is, while you’re in the industry, pay attention to things like marketing, or train as a makeup artist, learn how to edit. These skills allow you to kind of take more control of your own destiny—of course, at the end of the day you’re still answering to the US government, the IRS, VISA. But you have more freedom, the more you take on.

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So what is your current relationship to porn? Are you performing?

At the end of March, I was out in LA and did a scene with another performer, who’s also a Fleshlight girl, named Joanna Angel. And I just launched zerospaces.com, which includes hardcore pornography—as it is in, like, a traditional consumerist expectations kind of way—through to things that I think are defensible as works of art about the human condition. It also includes other media that isn’t video, like short erotic fiction, and profiles of sex worker activists who are really doing important stuff.

It sounds like porn is not occupying the majority of your time anymore.

No, and it never really has. I was a contract girl back when that was a thing. The big surprise about the job was the amount of time spent talking to the media [laughs]. At that point it was too late. I had a PR-driven career, and that’s what I’ve always had. That’s the only way I know how to have a career.

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You write that “men bring me their bad behaviors or their burning desire to be good, and ask me to bless their actions like some kind of whore-priest.” Can you tell me a bit more about that?

So, my absolute favorite was this guy comes up to me at a convention, and it’s really slow ‘cause it wasn’t promoted very well. I’ve already seen him three times that weekend. He was like, “Could I ask you if something’s creepy?” And I’m like, “Oh boy.” He tells me that he finds out performers’ legal names and he then researches what high school they went to, finds their yearbook on eBay, and brings it to them to sign. So I responded, if you did that to me, I would be very upset. I cannot speak for any of the other women here, but my gut says that’s not gonna be a very popular move.

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I’ve also—I told you I wasn’t going to talk about #MeToo, but apparently that rule only applies if someone else is the one bringing it up. In the wake of #MeToo, I’ve had men that I think of as very upstanding citizens, and very aware of their privilege, reach out and they’re like, “What do I do here? Here’s a somewhat complicated situation, what do I do?” Or, “This happened, and I did this, that, and the other. Am I okay?” And that also kind of drives me up a wall.

You don’t need to run to the nearest woman and ask for validation. In a way, that puts more work on us, and also the time and energy to explain needs to go to someone who actually does need it. Like, accept the fact that you’re a grown human who is going to navigate situations where you might make a mistake, or have to trust your own instincts, and that’s okay, and we do it all the time. But also, for the love of God, stop digging up performers’ real names, and bringing their yearbooks for them to sign, that is so invasive.

It’s hard to understand that man’s motivations, did he really think he was going to get “absolution” from you? 

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He really seemed surprised when I told him that I would not be okay with that. So I think he genuinely thought he was checking out something that was going to get a total pass. We also forget when we’re talking about these kinds of things, how many genuinely low social-skilled people there are in the world. There are people where you do have to step-by-step walk them through, “This is what a physical boundary is. This person who got hugged has a different, closer relationship than you do. You need to put your hand out for a handshake.” And that’s not maliciously driven, that’s not, you know, evil or bad. It just requires some extra care. And that’s what drives me up the wall about men that I know know what they’re doing, asking for that kind of reassurance.

In my experience, we do see a higher than average percentage of socially awkward people, definitely, including men, in the sex industry.

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And why is that?

Well, pornography is a safe place to explore things that you may not be able to find a willing partner for. I am aware that some people think of porn as a last ditch or something they’re reduced to, but if you look a little further than the first page of Google, you can find so much stuff that tries to visually capture the range of sensations that can be explored during sex, that digs in to some of the psychological games that people enjoy playing together, that shows a wider range of how sex can go down than the paint-by-numbers “kissing, clothes come off, blow job, penetrative sex, pop shot.”

It absolutely can be used to explore sexuality before you’re ready to have a partner—and, in fact, exploring your sexuality can make you a better partner right off the bat. It can be used to get a window into things that you might not want to participate in yourself, like, for instance, with the more intense BDSM stuff it can be a really good idea to experience some pornography about it first, and imagine yourself in those shoes, before you do something that risks being too intense. It can be a way of feeling out desires instead of just diving straight in. So, I think if you have awkwardness relating to people—which, also, so do I—pornography can be a good way to be like, “What is this sex thing about?”

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I also feel like this has to be mentioned every time we talk about porn, but when we do talk about the way that porn operates it’s as a “flawed but best thing we’ve got” education program. It’s a really terrible situation, I acknowledge that there are problems happening in the world that stem from pornography being the only way to understand what sex is. And I maintain that it’s really unfair to expect an entertainment medium to pick up the public health system’s slack or the education system’s slack.

At one point in the book, you write, “To parts of the world, I and all sex workers will always be reduced to inhuman vectors of disease and societal ill.” At times it feels like that’s changing, but then you have a moment like Rudy Giuliani suggesting that Stormy Daniels isn’t credible because she works in porn. Then again, you have Meghan McCain in reaction on The View underscoring that sex work is work. What’s your read on this current political and cultural moment when it comes to porn, sex, and sex work?

What I said will probably always be accurate—some parts of the world will always have this idea. What’s interesting to me is seeing over the past two years Trump’s really galvanizing effect on the West, and the way that we’ve all started working across traditional boundaries or barriers. I remember seeing an article written by this woman who had an academic background in history or politics and in it she’s like, “What Trump is currently doing with all these executive orders is reminiscent of a shock tactic that was employed by this regime, that regime. The best way to fight that is to follow the example of Abraham Lincoln, and unite across these really myriad infighting fissures that we have.”And we’re seeing that. We saw the Woman’s March go from kind of implying that sex workers weren’t welcome, to tweeting in support of the anti-FOSTA organization that sex workers threw together in response to the last-minute rush-through bill that is FOSTA. That’s really hopeful.

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Right now, since that segment of the population is the one whose candidate is in power, at least for me and women like me, we have to remember that just because the left is becoming more accepting, does not mean that we are not literally under attack by the right. Like, the left opening their arms to us, making room at the table, doesn’t make our lives any safer.

Are you tired of being asked about feminism in porn? That is my meta way of asking you about feminism in porn, I guess.

I am so tired of being asked about feminism in porn! I can’t believe that I am taking the giant career risk of saying to Tracy Clark-Flory, no less, at Jezebel, that I am tired of this. But it’s the truth! And I am a risk-taker.

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Oh, yes, surely that’s a huge career risk [laughing].

No, it really is. So there’s two things. One, I increasingly believe there can be no real feminism under capitalism. Like, we can do all the information-sharing and protecting each other and covering each other’s backs and solidarity over women’s issues—like the issues that women regularly encounter, things like that. But as long as capitalism exists in the form that it currently does, these structural problems that cause women trouble are not going to go away.

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I would point you to the Serbian rapper, Mimi Mercedez, she’s my favorite authority on that subject—coming from a society that didn’t have capitalism the way that we do in America, I think gives her a very interesting perspective. But it’s basically, like, women get paid less than men, generally speaking on average, and when you dig behind that, it boils down to, well, we’ve got this system that treats people as dollar-generating machines instead of humans. And then, okay, we’ve got some weird patriarchal ideas about men being more productive or something—but, like, is it really a win for women, if we prove that we can be just as productive to the detriment of health and our social bonds as a man can? That just all totally strikes me as the wrong direction.

Feminism has always been “we need feminism to correct for patriarchy,” and increasingly I feel like, actually, we just need to treat each other as individual humans. Feminism can sometimes be excluding to trans people, to male allies, to sex workers, to women of color. Having looked into all that history and being aware of it, and being also aware of the times that I’ve been thinking too much about women and neglected to think about another group, it doesn’t really work so hot for me anymore.

I’ve always tried to be very clear about my work not being feminist. The only thing that can be remotely considered feminist is, like, a woman going to work, being paid a decent wage, and having a life under capitalism. But anything other than that is a bit of a stretch, and also a disservice to the actual feminist pornographers. There is definitely a lot of focus in my work on the state of sex work, and the history of it, and there’s aiming towards human connection and an accurate portrayal of human sexuality, but its not feminist.

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So for multiple reasons, the feminism-in-porn thing, I’m over it. I’m over it, and I would like to point you to a list of women who are not over it at all, and are actively thinking about it and are doing actively feminist things. I’d add Ovidie, Candida Royalle, if you wanna go back in time a little bit—and Madison Young is another one. Erika Lust’s company is a great hub to find feminist stuff, or stuff that fits with feminist values.

So you’re over it, but you value what those people are doing or have done.

I am so fucking grateful that all the second wave feminists fought those battles, so I could be like, “Yeah I could try to be a doctor or lawyer, but I’m gonna do this thing that’s interesting to me.” Because of the work of women like Ovidie, I’m able to just make a porno that’s about being porno, or about sex work. And that wouldn’t be possible without the work of so many feminists. Not to mention Emma Goldman is just a general badass.

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It does seem to me that you subscribe to a kind of personal sexual philosophy that, while it’s not explicitly feminist, does seem political in that its often counter to mainstream notions of sex and sexiness and pleasure. I’m thinking of your emphasis in the book that a hard dick isn’t required for good sex, or, you know, your writing about your enjoyment of, as you put it, “inhaling a partner’s balls.” How would you characterize that personal sexual philosophy?

As long as everybody’s really consenting, and really consenting is defined as not coerced in any way, aware of what they’re agreeing to—like, there’s some complexity to that. As long as everyone’s consenting, sex is this wide-open buffet of options. I like to enjoy basically whatever the world presents to me with much gusto. Unless I’m jetlagged, in which case I might fall asleep in someone’s vagina [laughs]. That actually happened once. The woman in question was very understanding. I was mortified.

I think a lot of the hangups that we have about sex come from shame, or come from self-judgment or some attempt to pretend that we aren’t also animals with very strange reactions to things sometimes. And I think we’d be happier if we allowed ourselves to be more relaxed with each other and laugh at things when they’re funny and that kind of thing. Like, sex is sort of ridiculous. Sometimes you go to a place that’s absurd. And it’s okay to laugh and have fun—that’s actually beautiful.

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