I told my Dad I wanted to interview him about sex work and immediately understood why Jiz Lee titled this anthology “Coming Out Like A Porn Star.” It felt like I was going to sit him down and tell him something scandalous about my sex life – and it wouldn’t be the first time. The funny thing about coming out is that it relies on the belief that the information you keeping about yourself is shameful. If you were raised to be somewhat shameless, it’s less of a one-time shock and more like a lifelong rumble. I feel like I have come out to my dad either 100 times or never at all. I didn’t have much of a choice. In the interview, we talk about how I was outed – my mother told him on Christmas that his daughter was a real whore – and how he and I grew from that moment.
This is an excerpt of the interview originally printed in Coming Out Like A Porn Star.
M: I always get a little twinge when you say you’re a porn star because I don’t personally think of what you do as porn the way most people think of it. It seems to me that “porn” is like the word “queer,” that you are trying to change the perception of it a little. But I still have a little twinge, I guess. There’s some kind of gravity to that word.
C: There’s a world of stigma around the word “porn,” for sure. But there’s no way to deny that I’m doing porn, even if it does have artistic merit. Honestly, it makes things more complicated for a conversation about sex work and shame because when I talk about it to you, I can say, I’m making queer porn, I’m making ethical porn. I can show you articles in academic journals and Bitch magazine; I can show you the “ethical legitimacy” of my work, and that kinda gets me off the hook.
M: Off the hook?
C: I can say I’m a porn star, or a sex worker, and people can then say, “Oh, but you’re this kind of—” as long as I say I’m an ethical, feminist, sex-positive female porn director with an education and social capital. A lot of the people I hire as performers do not have an attached “legitimacy” to their work. There’s an imbalance of privilege there to say what I do is “good sex work” and what someone else might do is “bad sex work.”
M: When I was single and living in Tacoma, I liked porn, and I didn’t know any better. I enjoyed it and I never felt that it was wrong for me. Some sites I went to, I wouldn’t go back to again because they seemed to be awful and degrading to women. So if you didn’t include all those extra details… like if you said, “Dad, I’m a porn star and I’m making porn for Reality Kings,” I’d be like, whoa, really? That’s not uplifting of women, or even men. I would really have some concerns. I really think the context is important. I don’t think of it as you making it easier for me of lightening up or sugarcoating it, I just think it’s all in the details.
C: You’re right, some of them do feel really degrading to women and men, also just because it’s dumb, generic, and impersonal. I think that the real problem with that kind of porn is that it’s created for the lowest common denominator, right? That’s the reality of my privilege as a sex worker that I’m speaking to. I have made enough opportunities for myself now to manage my own sex work in the form of porn performance so that I don’t often have to work for other people to make ends meet. Like, when I “came out” to you about working at the Lusty Lady, you were like “Oh god, you’re a stripper,” and I was like, “But wait, it’s a co-op!” I said, “Dad, I’m the madam, there’s a union!” And you were like, “As long as you’re the boss.”
M: You were able to minimize your student loans and survive going to school doing sex work, and I just have always admired how self-sufficient you are and how businesslike you are about things.
C: If I were more of a survival sex worker, like I somehow hadn’t been successful in starting my own productions and relied on taking random adult-industry jobs to make ends meet, I don’t know if you would know about that.
M: All I’ve ever wanted for you is to be happy and do what you wanna do, and I guess make money or be successful. You dive deeply into those things that you’re interested in, and found a way to make a living and make your life about it. From a parenting standpoint, that’s a huge victory for me!
C: I learned it from you, honestly. When we were growing up in Tacoma, you went to school to try to make money to raise me. You raised me alone. You did all of these things to make money but at some point, you felt bored or desperate enough to quit your safe job, start your own business, and try to support your family and yourself on something you’re more connected to creatively and spiritually. I was fifteen when you started your landscaping business, and that taught me more than anything I learned in high school. The corporate world wasn’t going to do anything for me after watching you succeed in starting your own small business. I just kind of knew my life would be one big hustle. No bosses.
M: You know, when I did that, and I came home and told you I left, you looked at me like, oh my god how are we gonna eat, how are we gonna live? You were kind of mortified for a day or two and then, you know, it was kind of a process to find what I was gonna do next.
C: Sounds kind of like a coming out story.
M: I think it was really nice for me to all of a sudden to have all this time to hang out and pay attention to you because it was kind of a crucial age for you and you were getting harassed at high school, so it was kind of nice to just do projects and hang around you.
C: Were you worried about me being queer in high school?
M: I was worried about you being bullied. I was worried that teachers would misunderstand you. There was also another thing going on with you too, you had a resistance to authority, and in this case, I don’t think you liked male authority. Not mine and definitely not male teachers.
C: No offense, but men just kind of always seem to pose a threat to my happiness and queerness, and my general feelings of freedom and safety. I have a pretty low tolerance for jerks. As a teen I worked in fast food, coffee shops, video rentals. In all of those situations my bosses treated me like total crap. Expendable, disposable trash. I was always at school, always working, always doing something—so the thought of doing any kind of sex work seemed really appealing because I’d be able to make it to all of my classes and work on my own schedule, and finally get away from these pigheaded managers I suffered. Honestly, doing phone sex seemed hilarious because I was totally talking to just about the same guys, paying me in cash and intimacy. I was totally gay, I just thought it would be funny and interesting and nobody would harass me. It was an incredibly viable option as a young person to make a living and be in school and make art. And it wasn’t degrading, it was fun.
M: I guess I’ve always trusted that you would look out for yourself. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what you were doing was fine. I’ve never called a sex line, but being a man and imaging that transaction kind of seemed to be, in terms of a power dynamic, fairly equal, and I just don’t judge stuff like that. There’s a lot of lonely people out there. It seems like a good service.
C: When you’re talking about coming out, a lot of the pain around being “out” comes from parental disapproval. I honestly don’t hold a lot of pain around being a sex worker. I’ve never been hurt at my job, I’ve never been taken advantage of. The pain I do have though, honestly, is the constant hum of my mother’s disapproval. That’s affected me for life, far more than any bad boss ever has. Not having support when you reveal something secret or personal, like sex work or gender or sexual orientation, can be far more damaging than anything else that’s gonna happen to you. Thank you for not making me fight for your approval. A lot of people I
know have these life-long struggles with their parents.
M: I wouldn’t want to lose you. We’ve been so close, you know. I felt like it was just you and me as a family, and I didn’t even consider that that would be some kind of deal breaker or something that I would shun you for. It just kind of made me love you more.
C: Aw! Have you sought out any education about sex work or whatever in the past ten years? I remember the first time I saw you again after telling you I was working for the Lusty Lady, and you name-dropped Annie Sprinkle and Carol Queen.
M: I did. I mean, I’m very much kind of a research person and you had mentioned names and books in this growing field of feminist porn or queer porn. I already knew Annie Sprinkle from . . .
C: Your own research?
M: From our church!
C: She’s a good gateway for all of us porn stars coming out to our parents!
M: Yeah. And I think I saw an early, late ’90s viral video of one of her performance art stuff.
C: The only way an adult performer can actually BE a sex educator is through porn or art performance. We can’t actually go into a classroom and teach kids.
C: Oh, don’t say no like, no, of course not. Of course we should! I can’t think of anyone more qualified to tell teenagers in high school about gay sex than myself. I can’t! They would never let me do it because of my stigma as a sex worker.
M: Ok, I was imagining you going into a public school classroom and teaching kids about gay sex.
C: It would be brilliant!
M: Yeah. I think that there has to be an opt-in process from the parents.
C: Well, like with any sex education. But what would this opt-in be like? “Hey, do you want your child around this porn person?” Is that what you’re saying?
M: I don’t think that’s the way you would approach it. When I did “Our Whole Lives” in the Unitarian Church, we sat down with the parents before we met with the teens, went through all the materials. When you do it that way, you get more participatory attitudes from the parents. But I think there’s some work that could be done. You have to educate the parents first, then it will be easier for the children. I agree with you that sexuality should be open, and I think that children are curious about it and then forced by society to stifle it. Many people rediscover sexuality as a teen, and it can be traumatic. If it’s more of a continual flow throughout childhood,
then I think it can be a lot less traumatic or explosive. When you get back to the important drama around coming out, wondering, “Will I still be loved if I reveal my true self to my parents and my friends,” that’s an incredible question to ask, and my hope is that most parents would give their kids enough space to never have to ask that question, to add to that trauma and explosiveness.
C: Is there training for the parents about things that they might have to hear, like things that kids come out about?
M: Our Whole Lives is a five-part series that spans kindergarten to young adult, exploring sexuality and society and spirituality and growth. It’s facilitated by open-minded parents who have gone through training. I was a trainer for all of the age groups.
C: What inspired you to get into OWL?
M: Someone in the church approached me, I think because they liked the way I raised you. OWL instructors have to be able to speak of sexuality without shame or judgment, and be able to create a safe space for teens, especially to express themselves and be curious.
C: There are few things more beloved in the UU church than the parent of a gay child.
M: So there have been some times in your life when you’ve had to tell me things, and I’m just curious about your personal process. Did you have to muster courage? Did you feel a lot of fear? Did you mistrust what my reaction would ever be?
C: When I think about revealing things to you, I realize I was never afraid of telling you who I was. We’ve come to a point in our relationship as child and parent where nothing I say is going to shock you. Unless I told you I was pregnant.
M: The six months between when you came home from Michigan after being raped and when you decided to come out about that to me were such a struggle. I just didn’t know what was going on. I know it took a lot for you to tell me about that, and I’m glad you finally did because I just didn’t understand why you were being so angry and sad.
C: Revealing to you that I’m a rape survivor is absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.
M: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to— I still tear up just thinking about it, that you had to go through that without proper support. I just always wondered why you couldn’t tell me sooner.
C: I couldn’t tell anybody sooner. That’s part of being a rape survivor is that you don’t want to tell people because the consequences can be incredibly mentally destructive. For example, I can tell you a little bit of the fallout. After my stepbrother molested me, I was in ninth grade at high school—I had a boyfriend, and I broke up with him because I couldn’t imagine being anywhere near a guy anymore. Robby was very popular in our little ’90s alt-rock corner of the high school, and all my friends were like, why did you break up with him? My solid group of friends that I had for years no longer trusted me because I couldn’t tell them I was molested, and I couldn’t come up with a good lie. They caught me lying, and they all turned their back on me. It was violent. I got death threats. I got outcast from my friends. They never came back to me; they never apologized; I never got a chance to tell them what really happened. It literally destroyed my life. I couldn’t trust anybody.
M: Yeah, and it made your subsequent time at that high school really impossible.
C: I talked about being a survivor at my keynote for the Feminist Porn Conference. How there’s such a stigma around porn stars and their upbringings. Sex workers are always trying to prove to the world that they’re not “damaged goods.”
M: I don’t think that you being a survivor turned you toward sex work. I always thought that it was some of the work that you did at Evergreen that got you curious about sex work. What you’re doing now just kind of seems like a natural progression of everything you’ve been curious about since about the age of sixteen or seventeen. There has been trauma in your life and you’ve handled it well, and I don’t think that the damage that you’ve experienced in your youth geared you toward sex work at all. It seems very natural to me.
C: A lot of things have changed for me since your twin daughters were born in 2011. I skipped the Feminist Porn Awards that year and spent that night with you, Heather, and the twins, and I read the Twitter feed for the awards show. I got to experience winning two film-making awards with my dad and my little sisters with me, and that is one of the times in our relationship as father and son that I have felt most loved by you. The pride of having a father that I could share that moment with, in the quiet peaceful darkness of this brand new gigantic family that we have. That was one of the most amazing nights of my life.
M: I’m so proud of the recognition that you’re getting. It’s good work that you do; it’s adding love to the universe.
C: When I was eighteen, I did not have any queer porn resources out there. Now there’s these eighteen-year-olds out there finding my work, images of queer sexuality that I didn’t have when I was growing up. It’s having quite an intense impact on queer youth.
M: Yes, I know!
C: I know, your lesbian friends love me. And some day, my sisters are gonna be grown ups, they’re gonna be women. If I can somehow make my art effective in making queer sexuality more acceptable, and making femaleness more acceptable, if I can somehow change people’s perception about all the things that we have to come out about in the first place, maybe my little sisters can grow up and be queer or straight or kinky or poly or boys or girls or whatever the fuck they want, and maybe I can help make that a reality for them, that acceptance, through the work I do now. I see part of my responsibility as an artist is to leave a legacy that will make it easier for folks like me to become happy and healthy adults—especially those who aren’t as lucky to have had a queer-friendly family like mine.
M: You will, and Heather and I will be right there with you as well. We are going to try to avoid that shame curtain that adults seem to put on their kids. Children at age three have no shame. They’re very much in love with their bodies and play imaginary games where they are boys or are girls. They play act the gender roles of men and women already. They play act like they might have a penis, and they aren’t getting told not to do that. I think, in my mind, ideally, they would go to seventh- and eighth-grade OWL, and they would come home and over dinner we would be talking about it and I would say, “Well, you know, by the way, Courtney’s a sex worker. They make queer porn, and they’re one of the tops in their genre. They make art and do important things that teach people and also make them happy.” I think that would just be a pleasant, non oppressive conversation. And hopefully, they would say, “Oh wow, that’s cool,” and maybe want to talk to you about it.
C: I imagine I should be there for that.
M: Oh, you could be there! You can’t always plan it like that. The questions always come up when you are least expecting them
C: I’ll remember to be present around seventh or eighth grade!
M: Or they’ll say, “Daddy says our sister’s famous. Let’s Google her!”
C: I clearly don’t agree that any of my family members should see any of my work that I’m performing in, but I’m proud of my art and I guess it’s comforting that I can share those feelings with my family. Thank you so much for being open, and being a good dad, and really taking all of this very seriously. I think our story is an inspiration to parents because so much of the shame around sex comes from our parents, and the more that we can share with the grown-ups how to talk to the kids and how to educate the kids and remove that prejudice, not allow that prejudice to take form in children, it’s so important.
M: Yeah. It is important.
C: One last question. Do you remember how I came out to you as gay?
M: I don’t think you needed to come out. I kind of just noticed that you were starting to like girls, and I was like, oh, I know this!
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