Meeting Sasha Grey: A Cultural Anthropological Inquiry

ANONYMOUS
I’m sitting uneasily on Mark Spiegler’s second- floor balcony, which overlooks a parking lot that, at the moment, holds only two of his six cars; one is a black Cadillac Escalade, the other a white custom-build Mercedes CL 500, in which he will later frighten me by roaring through San Fernando Valley’s side streets at what seems like about 70 mph. He says he frequently loans out his other cars – two more Mercedes, a Range Rover, and a Hummer – to his “girls.”
To an outsider, the adult entertainment industry can seem shadowy and mysterious. Although most of the world’s pornography comes from Los Angeles, the industry’s infrastructure – its offices, sets, and warehouses – is tucked away in an almost uniformly bland suburban landscape. Meanwhile, actors, directors, and even make-up artists typically use stage names and pseudonyms, and, whether by habit or design, they often speak elliptically. But despite running one of porn’s leading talent agencies, Spiegler is delightfully easy to get a hold of. “I get about 170 calls each day,” he tells me. “And I try to answer each one.”
Sure enough, eight minutes into our conversation, the phone rings again. It’s a guy who’s coming to L.A. for two days in early January to make a film for a European production company called Private, and he’s interested in hiring some of Spiegler’s actresses.
“Okay,” Mark says, switching on his speakerphone. “Who?”

“Mya Luanna?” “Yes, she’s open.” “She’s available?” “Yeah. But I mean, is it anal? Because I know Private

likes anal and, uh, she don’t do it.” “Okay, no … it doesn’t have to be anal. Um,

actually, there are quite a few girls on your site that do do anal–”

“Oh yeah!”

“It may not matter one way or the other at this point whether they do anal or not, but I like Mya’s looks, so I’ll just make a note that she’s available for [January] 4, 5, and ‘No Anal.’”

“Correct.” “And what’s her rate?” “It’s a thousand. For boy-girl.” “And what about for girl-girl?” “Eight hundred. But for you? … Seven-ninety-

nine!” “[Laughing] I figured at some point in my life being

a friend of [Spiegler’s buddy] Myles would get me really far! The next girl is Flower Tucci; she has a really nice, uh – ”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t have either of those days.”

“She doesn’t? Well, if she’s not available, maybe the next time around. How about Sasha, uh, her name’s … Sasha – ”

“No, no, she has to get booked, like, two to three months ahead.”

“Oh, is she out of town?”

“No, she’s just booked-up all the time. She’s booked now till February.”

“Yeah, she’s really gorgeous; she’s really a beautiful girl.”

“Well she also, she’s real famous, and she does, like, everything. I mean, you could get her at the very end of January, but that’s the earliest.”

***

The “Sasha” being bandied about is Sasha Grey, a 19 year-old porn star who hails from Sacramento. In January, Sasha was crowned “Female Performer of the Year” at the AVN (Adult Video News) Awards, pornography’s equivalent of the Oscars. Before that, she was interviewed on the Tyra Banks Show and profiled on The Insider. Last summer, Penthouse made her “Pet of the Month,” and recently Richard Kern, the acclaimed underground portrait artist, filmed her for VBS.TV, a sleek new website site created by Vice magazine. So far she’s appeared in about 150 adult videos, and Spiegler estimates she’s making somewhere in the vicinity of $200,000 per year.

Spiegler thinks Sasha is destined to become one of the biggest porn stars in the world. So, too, does Pete Warren, an associate editor at AVN. “I think Sasha, if she keeps going the way she’s going, will someday be considered a legend in this business,” he tells me. In November 2006 – only about eight months after her eighteenth birthday – magazine profiled Sasha under this portentous title:

The Teenager and the Porn Star: Will Sasha Grey Become the Adult Film Industry’s next Jenna Jameson?

Ask anyone in the industry why Sasha stands out, and they’ll invariably make two points. First, she’s smart. “She has that brain-factor going for her,” says Pat Myne, a hardcore director. In some measure, this perception may stem from savvy marketing. She is perhaps the world’s first “self-proclaimed ‘existentialist’ porn star,” and although she attended only a single semester of community college, her MySpace page is any pseudo-intellectual’s wet dream; she professes interests in (among many other things) modern and postmodern design, Bauhaus and Brutalist architecture, New Wave Cinema, War and Peace, the Situationists, Carl Jung, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, the Clash, and single malt scotch. Nevertheless, she’s poised, confident and articulate in ways that defy expectations.

Second, Sasha is – in the industry’s parlance – filthy. Much more than most porn actresses of any age, she frequently performs rough scenes of sexual humiliation. A quick search on the Internet produces clips of her licking a toilet, crawling across the floor like a dog, getting fucked while wearing a pig-nose mask, being tied-up in a dungeon, and (in almost every scene) drooling and gagging on giant penises. “It’s really rare to find a young girl … to be into all that stuff,” says Steve Holmes, a 46-year-old Romanian-born porn star who has been in more than a thousand adult films. “Really [into it], you know? She’s not playing, she’s not pretending. That’s unusual.”

***

Lately, arguments about whether or not porn is degrading to women, or harmful to those who watch it, have been surfacing on Harvard’s campus with increasing frequency. Last October, visiting law professor Catharine MacKinnon led a conversation on this topic at the Barker Center, drawing an audience of about a hundred. A longstanding anti-pornography activist, MacKinnon observed that the Abu Ghraib torture photos, which shocked much of the world in 2004, were relatively mild when compared with images that routinely occur in hardcore porn. The following month, Wheelock sociology professor Gail Dines-Levi told a large group at the Lamont Forum Room that porn has invaded our culture in ways that most people fail to recognize, and that it is pernicious at every level: “Every time you jerk off to porn,” she maintained, “you are jerking off to some woman’s misery.”

In response to MacKinnon’s talk, the Crimson smartly observed that we would be foolish not to discuss pornography’s implications; it is, after all, a multi-billion dollar industry. But the paper’s editors denied that all women who go into porn are pitiable victims, and they argued that discussions about pornography ought to avoid MacKinnon’s “language of extremes … this is an issue full of nuances.”1 Later, Crimson columnist Lucy Caldwell made some of these points herself, in response to Dines-Levi’s lecture.

Then in February, pornography came to Harvard more directly, when Adams House hosted the Sex Workers’ Art Show, which featured a mélange of spoken-word, burlesque, and multimedia performances from strippers, prostitutes, burlesque dancers, and porn actress Lorelei Lee. After that, Harvard senior Matthew Di Pasquale announced his plan to launch Diamond magazine, a privately funded venture that promises to feature undergrads in nude photo spreads not unlike those that appear in Playboy.

Pornography is nearly as old as civilization, and it presents us with lots to think about. But as today’s adult entertainment industry grows increasingly mainstream – and this is the undeniable trend, evident at multiple levels – the debate over whether it exploits women is crucial, and this is what’s on my mind when I meet Sasha for the first time, at a Starbuck’s off of Sepulveda Avenue. She’s sitting with her boyfriend, Ian, who says nary a word while she talks frankly about her sexual awakening, and her subsequent career in hard-core porn.

Growing up, she says she always thought of herself as avidly sexual, and she lost her virginity at age 16. She started experimenting with rough sex play with her third boyfriend. “It was just a tit-for-tat, you know, I’d do this, and then you can do it back to me. And I really enjoyed it, we were safe about it, we talked about it, we communicated. And … I wanted to progress in it, and this person didn’t.”

Sasha hastens to point out that she was not sexually molested as a child, and to this day, she’s rankled with the Los Angeles magazine journalist who seemed to doubt her veracity on this point. I’ve no particular reason to disbelieve her, although a considerable body of social scientific research suggests that many (perhaps most) women who work in the sex industry have been abused as children. Furthermore, Sasha’s gamine looks and personality practically telegraph the fact that she had a rough childhood. She comes from an underprivileged community, her parents are divorced, and her father is “supported by the state.” As a teenager, Sasha bounced unhappily between several high schools, and she frequently quarreled with her stepfather.

Sasha began actively studying pornography – the films, and the industry itself – when she was just 17. “I wanted to understand how the scenes played out,” she told another journalist. “Could I pretzel myself into those positions? Could I get fucked like that? Where were my eyes supposed to go when the camera shifted?”

Although she soon learned that the careers of porn actresses are typically measured in months, not years, on April 10, 2006 – only a few weeks after her eighteenth birthday – she sent Spiegler a spottily written email asking for entrée into the world of adult entertainment:

I am interested in the adult film scene for just mainly one reason. On average, most of the xxx I see is boring … There is [sic] only a handful of xxx stars that continue to push the boundaries of what women are supposed to be like, or be like in bed. This entices me to be one of those women, not to mention my lust for sexual creativity; I hunger for all modes of sexual perversity. I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone’s fantasies.

To this, she appended a list of activities she was willing to participate in, which, with their abbreviations spelled out, would read something like this: “solo performances, still photographs, girl-girl, girl-girl-girl, boy-girl, boy-boy-girl, ass-to-mouth, anal, double- penetration, double vaginal, interracial, throat-gagging, swallowing, creampie, bondage and submission, fetish, facials, feature dancing, bachelor parties, and groups of no more than four.”

This so drastically breaches the boundaries of what is considered normal sexual behavior for a 19 year-old woman – or for any woman – that I continue to wonder: where does this come from?

She glances downward at my coffee.

“Why do people like dark coffee without cream? Why do you like sugar in your coffee?”

But these are just people’s unavoidable, everyday tastes, I reply. Whereas at a very early age, you’re doing things that most people never do in their lives.

“But sexuality is also a taste. Everybody likes it with the lights on, or the lights off. Everybody likes something different. I’ve always been a sexual person.”

Okay… But doesn’t she ever worry that by performing her fetishes on camera, she’s degrading herself? Is it possible she’s being victimized in ways she doesn’t fully understand?

She bristles at the notion.

“Maybe I’m letting myself be degraded within the context of the scene, but that’s because I want to… I’m still in control, whether it looks like it or not. It is acting,” she reminds me.

What about the longer-term ramifications of all this? Where does she see herself in five, ten, or twenty years?

She gestures toward Ian. “Luckily I have someone that I am very deeply in love with, who understands what I do, and we have an open communication. … I’m sure if I didn’t have somebody to go home to, I’d probably get a little depressed. [I’d exclaim to myself] ‘I don’t have anybody to cuddle with tonight!’”

And although she says she’s currently very happy with her career, she’s been planning her exit from porn “since day one.”

“I never thought this was going to be my life,” she remarks. The next step may be for her to direct her own pornographic films, but she also plays guitar, and mentions music and mainstream film as future possibilities. For now, she’s squirreling away her money, and she expects that one day she’ll have enough to buy a home in Los Angeles.

I have many more questions, which focus largely on the hazards of pornography, and Sasha answers them gamely, despite being visibly tired. She implies that she rarely hangs out with others in the industry, and she’s not into drugs. She’s well aware of the health risks she’s taking, though she points out that all porn actors are tested monthly for STD’s. She’d like to see the industry make condoms mandatory, although paradoxically, she doesn’t often use them herself.

I find myself shyly fascinated by all this. I wouldn’t describe Sasha as warm, but she’s cooperative and temperate even in response to challenging and deeply personal questions. As the interview winds down, she flashes me a reassuring smile. “It must be very hard – no matter how great a writer you are – to write about pornography,” she says. “There’s so much to explore, especially coming from the outside…”

***

The next morning I show up at an upscale home in Woodland Hills, where Sasha will later be doing a “gonzo” scene for a DVD called No Swallowing Allowed 13, which will be released by Diabolic. Gonzo pornography was pioneered by director John Stagliano in the early 1990s; the term describes films that acknowledge the cameraperson, and that frequently present pure, unadulterated sex, without the stupid plots, bad acting, and tired clichés that have been the mainstays of so many adult films.

While Sasha’s getting her makeup done, I perch myself on a kitchen stool and talk with the home’s owner, named Scooby, who regularly rents his house to porno production companies for about $100 an hour. Though this seems like easy money, it’s not without its hassles. Recently someone badly stained one of his expensive sofa cushions with some kind of oily lubricant, and then flipped it over, hoping no one would notice. Homeowners who let pornography be filmed on their premises often make discreet “arrangements” with their neighbors, and to be legally compliant, they need to get special insurance and apply for expensive permits. (“They’re like the mafia,” he says of the City of Los Angeles. “They see someone making money, so they think they have to make money too.”)

Later, the aforementioned German actor Steve Holmes arrives, all handshakes and smiles. When he spots Sasha in the kitchen, his face brightens even more.

“Sasha! Where are you?” “I’m standing right in front of you.” “I mean, how are you! Ha ha ha! English is not my

first language. Come here, give me a big hug!” Next comes Derek Hay (aka Ben English), a British- born actor with an intelligent flair, who also runs the business’s regnant talent agency, L.A. Direct Models.

Then comes Pat Myne, the film’s friendly and laidback director, who, over the course of the afternoon, will find dozens of different ways of telling Sasha just how unbelievably hot he thinks she is. (For the most part, Sasha ignores him, although occasionally she responds with a smile or a good-natured eye roll.) James Deen arrives next; he’s an affable, good-looking, 21 year-old performer who (so far as I can tell) is having the time of his life in the adult industry.

Last to arrive is Maya Hills, a 20 year-old actress who has careened in and out of the adult industry over the past two years. If Sasha defies the porno stereotype, with her pale complexion, edgy style and intelligent mien, Maya embraces it. Originally from Florida, she’s slender, tanned, bleach-blonde and heavily made-up. She parades around the house in a t-shirt – only a t-shirt – and loudly regales everyone with multiple obnoxious stories.

While several of us are drinking bottles of water, Sasha approaches and asks for one of her own, which she pours into a large measuring cup, and then places in the microwave for about a minute.

“You really like your water that hot?” “This is for my ass,” she says.

***

While Sasha gives herself an enema, I move to the backyard, crack open a beer, and join a conversation with Holmes and Deen. They’re both easygoing and disarmingly frank, and so long as I promise to keep their comments off-the-record, they’re happy to share some tricks of the porno trade with me.

When the opportunity presents itself, I ask for permission to turn on my digital recorder, and steer the conversation in another direction. If they had to guess, what percentage of women who go into porn have been sexually abused as children?

“I have no statistics about that,” says Holmes. “I guess it’s the rare exception. I know only one girl who told me she was abused by her family when she was very young.”

Deen objects to the question. “That’s like, personal business,” he says. “I always relate porn to any other job. If I worked at an office building and sold [let’s say] paper … I wouldn’t be asking people I work with, ‘So, were you sexually molested when you were a kid?’”

What about certain varieties of pornography that are explicitly, brutally degrading to women? Does it make them uncomfortable to see women treated with abusive contempt?

Holmes mentions one director with a horrible reputation: “But he’s a particular person in our business,” he stresses. “In real life, he’s a totally different person, when you see him with his wife and his kids.” He adds that the overwhelming majority of pornographic scenes where women appear to be dominated are purely role-play. In fact, Holmes says he’d just filmed a very rough scene for a San Francisco website called “Sex and Submission”, and on that set everyone operated under strict guidelines. A woman might yell, “No, no, please stop,” to no avail; but she could always terminate any scene by yelling a safety word: “Red.”

Women who work in pornography “make a choice,” Deen insists. “If the girls didn’t want to do this, they’d be doing something else.”

Besides, Holmes claims, if anyone is objectified in pornography, it’s men, who are marginalized in every scene. “We’re just dicks with a heartbeat,” he says with a shrug.

Although Holmes and Deen were among the most likable people I met on my trip to Los Angeles, as they said all this, it struck me that they doth protest too much. Later, I realized that within a few minutes, they’d run through each of the four varieties of denial recognized by psychologists: willful blindness, inattention, passive acknowledgment and reframing.

***

Sasha’s scene takes place on Scooby’s upstairs balcony. She’s wearing fancy black underwear, a tutu, fishnet stockings, and ludicrous high heel platform shoes, and to me, there’s something incongruous about the daylight that pours through the flimsy lime-green curtains behind her. She starts by undulating before the camera, touching herself, breathing heavily, and whispering a few things I can’t quite make out. A few moments later, Holmes and Hay enter the room, completely naked, their large dicks completely erect. They approach her from both sides, and Sasha addresses the camera: “Do you want to watch me suck dick?”

Sasha does exactly this, of course, with considerable ardor. For a while, she divides her attention between both men. “My greedy mouth wants both of your fucking cocks,” she declares, almost petulantly.

A few moments later, she lets both men penetrate her simultaneously, and lots of other things go on, too. All the while, everyone gives everyone lots of encouragement.

“Legs spread, and hold still!” Ben commands her.

“I like the sound of that,” Sasha replies. “Gimme what I want!”

All three seem to be enjoying themselves, but at times, their performances seem so over-the-top as to veer on campy. Sasha is an inveterate dirty-talker, and she has a deep repertoire that could make any sailor blush. And sometimes when she screams orgasmically, she approaches 80 decibels: just below the point where hearing damage can set in. At the scene’s most absurd moment, Holmes tells Hay to “stuff her like a turkey,” which draw a guffaw from Myne. With several stops and starts, the whole thing takes 72 minutes to film

Watching this all unfold at close-range, with my reporter’s notebook folded open, I feel a little bit like an alien dropping in on another planet. Later, when someone asked me if I found the scene erotic, I summoned up a quote from the English caricaturist Max Beerbohn: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

Sasha says she relishes these types of extreme sex scenes; the harder, the better. They’re enjoyable, and they present her with a welcome opportunity to test her limits. Bent through an unforgiving prism, her claims may sound disingenuous. But in the short time I spent with Sasha, I found no traces of sadness or rue in her personality. In fact, after she’d finished her performance, she seemed particularly at ease.

“It was fun, because I haven’t done a DP in a while,” she mused, as we were both getting ready to walk out the door. “For those, you always have to gear yourself up, physically and mentally. … [In these types of scenes] the guys always have to do a lot more work than usual. … For me, it’s also a little bit homosexual, so that’s why I like it.”

You mean when they each had their dicks in your mouth at the same time?

“Yeah,” she laughs. “But that turns me on. It’s comedic, and it turns me on at the same time. It was interesting, because I worked for [Diabolic] about a year ago, and did something similar to this, and it was pretty rough. And now they’ve changed their rules, so you can’t really do too much.”

The “rules” she’s referring to have been self- imposed by Diabloic, in order to protect the company from obscenity charges. Although Diabolic was once known for producing porn than that many people might find disquieting, it has apparently put curbs on the kind of sex-play that could easily be labeled “abusive” – slapping, choking, hair-pulling, and so forth.

“It’s odd for me,” Sasha continues. “What we’re doing is pretty intense; most normal people wouldn’t do that! But for me, it’s like, ‘Huh? I’m getting my ass and my pussy stuffed up, but what? We can’t slap each other?’ It’s just a little perplexing. I kind of find it silly.”

With this, we said goodbye, and I walked toward my rental car. I was puzzled too. As Sasha had earlier suggested, the belief system that guides the thinking of people who work in pornography can be hard for outsiders to fathom. Some of porn’s critics like to argue that women who profess to enjoy their XXX-rated careers are something akin to mentally traumatized dupes; even if they feel genuinely “empowered” by their sexuality, the argument goes, this feeling may arise from low self- esteem, or (worse) a sense that being sexually abused in return for money is an improvement over simply being abused. Elsewhere in academia, it’s fashionable to heed the voices of the voiceless, or to at least take seriously the perspectives of people who operate outside of the dominant culture. And if an intelligent, well-paid and highly regarded porn star like Sasha Grey says that all things considered, she’s grateful for her career, then who’s to say otherwise?

I can see merit in both perspectives. But I hope that Sasha’s happy doing what she’s doing, and I hope that none of this comes back to haunt her.

1 Professor MacKinnon disputes the Crimson’s description of her talk of “extreme,” and she sent me her notes from the event to prove her point. Whether or not their characterization was apt, the Crimson’s editors apparently argued beyond their evidence when they claimed, in the headline’s dek, that “MacKinnon’s views on pornography fail to deliver.” According to her, no one from the Crimson’s editorial board actually attended her talk, so they were in no position to pass that judgment.

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