July 2007

Joanne McNeil


An Interview with Audacia Ray

"Alt porn" is hot right now. Violet Blue just gave her adult video recommendations to Oprah Winfrey's magazine and chances are your frat-jock neighbor has a Suicide Girls subscription. The silicon-breasted San Fernando Valley gold standard seems stuck in the past -- even if she is "barely legal." But those Suicide Girls aren't quitting their day jobs and most "indie" porn producers are barely breaking even. As Audacia Ray explains in her new book, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Sexploration, alt porn is no "cash cow," but it further individualizes our sexual exploration. With clever chapter titles like "Girls Gone Wired" and "Our Bodies, Our Broadbands," Ray examines how online activity impacts our sexuality. Web cams, Craig's List Casual Encounters, and "teledildonics" offer entirely new ways to get off, but anonymity can never be taken for granted. 

Audacia Ray is the Merlin Mann of the sex bloggers. She's the executive editor of $pread magazine, written for and by sex workers, and contributes to Fleshbot, as well as maintaining her personal website, Waking Vixen. Plus, she just graduated with a MA in American Studies from Columbia University and, earlier this year, released the video “Bi Apple,” which she wrote and directed.

Over Japanese food, before her reading in Boston, I asked her some questions about the book. 

You just got back from Amsterdam. Can you tell me a little about that?

I went for a conference called C’Lick Me. It was supposed to be a non-academic conference [but] it ended up more academic than I hoped it would be. There were a lot of presentations that were like, "I wrote a paper and now I'm going to read it." My presentation was a slideshow that included naked pictures of myself. 

So you have the opposite of that public speaking chestnut. You can imagine everyone's seen you naked.

Right. And they do! The first slide I showed was a picture from my boyfriend who went with me. We wrote the name of the conference -- “C’Lick Me” -- across my knuckles. We were up on the roof deck of the hotel I stayed at. I stripped down, held up my boobs, and he took the picture. That was the first picture in the slideshow. It was like, "Hi, I'm Audacia Ray. These are my boobs. Anyway!"

But to be a little more serious about it, I was very interested in positioning myself in this whole thing. Part of the thing about the work I do that gets mixed reactions from people is that this is a community I am a part of. So I don't have emotional and professional distance from it, which is good and bad. It's very much something I take personally. A lot of the people that presented presented on American porn and alt porn -- and were doing presentations about my friends. 

It seems like the sex bloggers have a really friendly community. Is that the case?

Yeah. Everybody is very supportive. There's plenty of space for all of us. My friend Jamye Waxman, who is also a sex educator... we were sort of moving in the same circles for a couple years, then a year and half or two years ago, we were sort of like, it's stupid that you're here and I'm here and we don't talk. So we started to talk and became friends, and started to have salons for all the sex writers in New York. Some of us have relationships with each other, but not really. It’s kind of stupid to be in competition. 

You were a freshman in the late '90s, just as colleges started hooking up Ethernet connections in dorm rooms. How much do you think this played a part in your transition from typical college student to "sex nerd"?

Initially not at all. I started using e-mail later than many self-identified nerds and Internet people do. I got my first Hotmail account when I was 19. So initially I didn’t really use the Internet that much. I was very much into books and libraries and paper until the end of my college career. It wasn't until I started working at the Museum of Sex that I discovered how much Internet there was. Before then if I used computers it was in the library search sense. The Internet really wasn't a big part of my life until 2000, 2001. 

Is that different from the people your age you interviewed?

It seems so. For the chapter on porn, I interviewed a lot of women about their experiences viewing porn and reading porn, and a lot of them said they discovered it much sooner than I did. But now especially, it's a totally different story. 

Do you find that girls just five or six years younger, who grew up with Myspace, express their sexuality much differently on the Internet?

I think so. Absolutely. The concept of privacy has changed drastically over the past five years, in that the Internet creates a new kind of intimacy that is so, so different than it was five, 10 years ago. Blogging, Twitter: these are constant visible live feeds of your life online. And they're becoming a very normal part of life. It really, really wasn't five years ago. It seems normal to people in their teens and 20s, but older people feel very horrified by how much information these kids put online.

And information can be dug up on them too --

That you have absolutely no control over it. If you Google yourself you can find past jobs and all kinds of stuff. Sometimes it's a good snapshot of you. Sometimes it's really not. It's random stuff from your past.

The book focuses on female sexuality on the Internet. How does it vary from the male experience?

It's hard to speak authoritatively about that, because I didn't write a book on men [laughs] but I think the Internet has allowed women to go in new places. It does that for men too, but to make a sweeping generalization -- men feel more entitled to their sexuality than women, and more entitled to exploring it. The Internet encourages women to talk to each other about sexuality in ways that they might not have done previously. They can talk about things that they might have been shy about talking about out loud. This is something most women aren’t socialized to do, but the Internet creates a new space.

Do you think it gets people into stuff they never otherwise would have considered?

Definitely. Suddenly, when you meet people who are into things that you never thought of before, and they are nice people, that changes everything. That's what it did for me. Meeting people in the sex industry, when I worked at the Museum of Sex, and meeting people on the Internet, I realized, wow, these people aren't horrible monsters. That may sound silly, but when you meet people as people but also attached to their sexual identities, you start to learn what might be okay for you.

Are sex sites needlessly ghettoized?

It's disturbing how much sex culture online is separate from everything else. One of the things I talk about is the linking. It's very difficult to get links from the outside world. And then there is the whole "Not Safe For Work" (NSFW) thing, the disclaimer people use when linking to other websites. Sometimes it involves pictures. I think more than anything, looking at pictures at work, regardless of what they are, shows you're not working. 

And it's very arbitrary. What's "Not Safe For Work"? My blog still gets labeled as "Not Safe For Work" and I really don't show porn or nudity on it that much... well, anymore. So I guess that's the other thing, what's "Not Safe For Work" for me might not be the same for other people.

You got a great quote from ex-Suicide Girl Molly Crabapple: "Degradation means posing for some vile rich dude who's insulting you the whole time. Empowerment means a fat wallet later." Obviously you talked with a lot of empowered women, but did any of your interviewees strike you as degraded? Would any of them describe themselves as such?

Well, in that quote, Molly kind of does describe herself as feeling degraded in some ways. The point of me asking that question about empowerment versus degradation is that I find it much, much more complicated than one or the other. Sometimes when I hear people talk about female empowerment, I almost think oh, god, here we go again. And I feel terrible about it, but that is such a boiled-down essentialist way of looking at it. It's much more complicated than: Yay! Boo!

What advice would you give a woman expressing her sexuality online?

I think the first thing is to think about what she is willing to expose. And to acknowledge you have a certain amount of control online but there are also other people you are interacting with that you can't control. In an ideal world you could keep an anonymous sex blog, however, the rate of discovery for anonymous sex blogs is very high. So you have to think about the repercussions. Would it be worth it if the one person in the world you don’t want to find your sex blog reads it? That's very, very important. The Internet is public. 

One of [these] arguments came two years ago when my parents started reading my blog. When I said that might not be the best idea for any of us, my dad said, "Well this is not your journal. This is public and I am the public." And he's right. 

That's an interesting point about anonymous bloggers getting discovered. Have you talked with people that went through that?

Yeah, and in really heavy ways. I know people who lost jobs, lost relationships from being discovered. And many of them don't think about that beforehand. Part of it, this is something I've fallen into to, there is an unwillingness to acknowledge that as much as we struggle to make female sexuality okay, it is still really not okay with lots of people who will stigmatize you and not let you work with their children. It's really hard to acknowledge that, because on a certain level you think, "But it's just me! I'm a nice person."

And it's funny how arbitrary the stigmas go. In your book you mentioned how the "bloody porn" menses sites are viewed by a lot of people as the grossest.

Right, and that further underscores that what is disgusting is the female body. Which is really disturbing!

Speaking of disgusting female bodies, I'm guessing you read that New York Times article about professional pornographers seeing huge drop-offs in sales. What do you think is driving this?

Well, part of it is the change in technology, but the glut of DVD porn is ridiculous. The Internet is ridiculous too, but the adult industry in the US releases something like 12,000 films a year. There is no reason that there needs to be that many movies released in a year! Some of that is the natural market movement... but the Internet has a lot to do with [the poor sales]. Barriers to production are much lower. Things like producing DVD box cover designs, and physical DVDs, and box covers -- it is very expensive. And mailing that stuff around is expensive. So financially, the Internet is against that.

Do you find that people in the sex industry feel entitled to wealth because of the risk involved?

I think that's part of it. Being in porn is a risky endeavor, and it really doesn't cover your future. People keep asking me if I'm going to make another movie. But I didn't make a whole lot of money off that movie, and I don't get royalties. But with the book I get royalties. 

So I made a best-selling and now award-winning movie; that basically allows me to make more porn. But if my book is best-selling and award-winning, I think that will create more opportunity, and I hate to say this, but respectable opportunity. I am personally struggling with this, because I really want to destigmatize it, but on the other hand, I need to make a living. Porn is really hard, but not all that rewarding.

People outside porn assume you made a ridiculous amount of money, but that is so not true. And they assume that porn performers make a really gross amount of money. They do make a good amount of money per scene, but there's no SAG, there's no union, and you never ever make royalties. What you get for your scene is what you get. In that respect, porn is extremely exploitative. Down to stuff like requiring STD testing every 30 days, but no company will pay for those tests. And they cost $300. That's pretty intense. But there is such a high turnover in the industry and so many people come to it to make quick money that no one is really willing to fight against that. 

What did Joanna Angel get right?

As much as she has the alt porn rebellion thing going on, she is the spitting image of what a porn star needs to be. She is tiny. Most porn stars are really tiny -- like somewhere between 4'11” and 5'2”. She's 4'11”, with big natural boobs. She's very agreeable. She's easy to work with and eager to succeed. And she'll do what it takes to succeed. While there are things about her the mainstream industry does not like, she is also very much a porn star. 

And the way Burning Angel works is fantastic. I mention in the book [that] they hired a web specialist to look at their traffic patterns and he was astonished that most of their web traffic is direct type in, which means people know about Burning Angel before they go looking for it. And all of that is user-generated content, buzz, word-of-mouth... that is the kind of thing other companies getting into Internet stuff are trying to do. That's why you see lots of goofy blogs that aren't quite on point. Really what she has is an army of people willing to promote her -- essentially her Internet friends.

Let's talk about the women seeking "generous" men. One website's disclaimer is, "Money is exchanged for companionship only and modeling services. Anything else that may or may not occur is the matter of personal choice between two consenting adults." How important is this language to sex transactions?

Extremely important. It makes or breaks the legal aspects of it. Escorting or time for companionship is perfectly legal. People often ask how is it possible you see escorts advertise in phone books. It’s because it's time for companionship. Of course, these are women pictured in lingerie. But that's just marketing! It's a very public secret that there is really no such thing as a real escort agency.

One of the more interesting aspects, besides the time for companionship thing, is this whole language that has grown out of that stuff. It’s fascinating. For example, a "cup of coffee" is an orgasm. So some guys will ask, "How many cups of coffee do you provide?" And "French" means blowjob. So another question is, "Do you speak French and do you speak it with or without a translator?" A translator is a condom. But of course the code is not difficult to crack.

What do you think about Zagat-style rating sites like "Don't Date Him Girl" or the johns reviews of sex workers on "Big Doggie"?

I think they're good and bad. The argument is they're for quality control, which I think is useful in the right people’s hands. But... not all people want to be written about on the Internet. Someone reviewing you has all the power. 

And the power to smear.

Yes, Don't Date Him Girl is notorious for that. Yes, you can help other people from getting screwed over, but at the same time, you can really destroy someone's reputation. It's a double-edge sword. 

You wrote about bait-and-switch websites, like ones that seem to be for abortion clinics but are run by Fundies. And message boards too, can be judgment disguised as discussion. Can you give some more examples of deceptive web activity?

Well, a lot of that happens in very subtle ways. It’s about information and the way it is provided. Abortion is a great example, but especially stuff dealing with sexual health. What makes someone an authority on sexual health? Is it having genitals? Of course you’re the authority on your own feelings and suspicions about sexuality, but that doesn’t entitle you to tell other people what things about their body mean. But that happens all the time. It is not always in malicious ways like saying, “You want an abortion, but I think that’s evil.” It’s not hard to see why that’s bad. But in more subtle ways, like, “I have a bump on my vulva. What does that mean?” And other people go, “It’s alright. I had that once. It’s just a pimple,” or, “It’s herpes. You’re doomed!” 

[Message boards and blogs] are based on personal experience. Personal experience is very powerful. At the same time, it's important to seek out real authorities.

What are some other dangers that come with Internet sexual exploration?

A lot of the dangers of the Internet are basically dangers of human interaction. The danger isn't inherent to the Internet, but people using technology for evil.

Are techies kinkier?

I think nerds are kinkier. People who are really keen on seeking out information are much more open-minded. They're more likely to read about something interesting and want to do it. 

How much of a nerd are you? Battlestar fan? Into comics?

It's funny. Violet Blue named me to her list of top ten "geeks" in 2006, but I'm so not a geek. I'm much more of a nerd than a geek. It was a whole list of people that started websites and this and that, but as much as I write about the Internet, I really don't know how that goes. Part of the reason the book is appealing is it's not super-techie language, which is also, probably, a point people can criticize me on. So I'm much more nerdy than geeky. I like comics and stuff like that. I'm a big book nerd. 

I recently finished my master's degree. Most of the last eight to 10 years of my life have been reading what I've been assigned in school. So what I'd do at the end of every semester was buy a shitload of books. Because, yay! I can read what I want! But this year the feeling was magnified. Now I can read what I want forever.

What were the first books you went out and bought? 

I bought Pagan Kennedy's The First Man-Made Man. Wow. That book is awesome. I've also been reading the Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughan -- graphic novels.

What's in the current issue of $pread?

The current issue of $pread is our money issue. We've had a couple themed issues. In the fall we had a relationships issue. The big cover story is about difference and how it affects how much money you make. So we've interviewed some trans folks, people of different size, people of color, people with disabilities: a variety of deviations from the tall, blond, big boobs, skinny sex worker. We also have a really cool article by Jo Weldon, who is a burlesque performer in New York. Her basic point in the article is that when people question sex workers it's always about sex. They ask, “When you were raised were you molested? When did your parents educate you on sex?” People ask you shit like that all the time. But no one ever asks you how were you raised to think about money? How did your parents handle it?

We also have a lot more fun stuff. We did a crossword puzzle for the first time. And we also have our first consumer report... on bikini line stubble erasers.