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Steve Prue / Courtesy of Stoya

Porn star-turned-director Stoya works to put female desire and sexuality at the center of her work.

It's hard to describe Stoya in a way that does her justice. In many ways, she's like a lot of twentysomething women in Brooklyn who are stressed out about the rent, hate catcallers, and love their cats—but then she's also Stoya, one of today's most widely recognized adult film performers. It's tempting to call her a "feminist porn star," but that, too, feels reductive. Ultimately, Stoya is a thousand different ideas held together in one body. And, with the launch of TRENCHCOATx, the new pay-per-video porn site she started with fellow performer Kayden Kross, she can add film director to that list.

Malina Gulino: Sometimes when articles or features are written about you, at least in my reading, I found that a lot of them use descriptions of you that seem uncharacteristic of what people tend to think about the adult film industry. For instance, one interview says, "The Prettiest Girl in New York is a Porn Star," and another one was "Can a Porn Star Be America's Sweetheart?" How do you feel about being described in that way?

Stoya: I feel like it's symptomatic of this "there can be only one" Highlander kind of thing. I'm going to just pick on Cosmo! Cosmo, [at] the last adult entertainment expo that I attended, which was in January 2014, they sent for the website a reporter to follow me and do a profile. During the time that we spent together, he said, "You know, you don't look like the average porn star." And I was in the Hard Rock, where the convention is held, and it was full of porn stars, and I said, "Dude, look around! Look around you!" The reason that you're saying, "You don't look like the average porn star," is because the image in your head is the one that mass media has created. With press, I'm going to give them shit if it's a straight white male writer. I'm going to go, "Hey, man! Where are your female staff? Is there a specific reason that I'm talking to yet another straight white man?" Because after a while, you start to notice that it's a lot of straight white dudes, and that's only one perspective. And when someone says, "You don't look like the average porn star," I'm going to go on a rant like, "Actually, that's an incorrect idea. You have a chance to break it, and you can choose to take that chance or not."

Speaking of public events, you gave a talk on campus here at Barnard in November.

I did. It was so much fun!

Was it unusual for you to be talking about pornography in an academic setting?

Oh, yeah, I'd never done it before. But everyone was super nice and awesome, and asked good questions. And it seems like everyone was open to coming along with me from point A to point B, but also thinking about what they were hearing critically.

Take Back the Night on campus called it a talk on "sex-positivity, communication, and consent." What does sex-positivity mean to you, if anything?

Sex-positivity is largely a buzzword. It's what you put on a headline, like "Feminism" or like "Porn." And then actually in practice it's, I guess, to me, treating sex like a big part of human experience, generally speaking. Sex-positivity is approaching it like—mm, you can't directly correlate it to food, because there are people who are completely asexual. But for instance, I don't really care about food. Whereas, when it comes to sex, I'm like, "Oh, I want to know everything about sex!" I want to view just about everything about sex, and I'm completely down to have six-hour-long discussions over, I don't know, tying people up. And then have another six-hour-long discussion about being tied up. I think the reason that we have to have a buzzword, thing, hashtag, whatever-you-want-to-call-it like "sex-positivity" is because we've buried sex and actively tried to curtail discussion of sex for so long that this is actually a problem, and we're seeing big symptoms of that problem, and now something needs to be done about it.

One criticism sex-positive feminism tends to get a lot is that it tends to be positive of all kind of sex—sex that may be abusive, or sex that may promote misogynistic or racist or otherwise troubling ideas about people. As someone who's a very prominent part of an industry that portrays sex and sexual acts, how do you feel about that perceived element of sex positivity?

Well, I think the perception of that is incredibly binary to a blinding degree. With that said, one of the things that complicates so many things when we're talking about ethics and ideals and how the world should be is that the people living in the world right now have been deeply affected by the way that the world is. So let's go for, specifically, women who have sexual fantasies of being raped. Why? It's going to be subjective and individual, but possibly because they grew up in an environment where all sex between a man and a woman was seen as somehow inherently rape. Do we punish them and make them feel bad and like there something's wrong with them for a sexual orientation or map of arousal cues that they didn't ask for, they didn't actively choose, but had it installed by the shit, shit structural system? No! That's horrible.

Do you think that in porn and other portrayals of sex and sexual acts that pornographers should cater to or depict fantasies like that?

There's some things that I will absolutely stick with the label "should not." People should not depict children having sex. People should not have sex with children, because they basically can't consent. They might be able to say consenting words, but that's not consent. People should not have sex with someone who is actually drunk to the point where, again, they might be able to say words that are consenting, but they're not actually able to consent. People should not have sex with animals, because again, they can't consent. Other than that, I'm not doing the "should." I, as a producer and director, make what I want to make, and what I think should exist in the world coming from me. Kayden and I, together, make decisions about what we want to show on our website.

Would it be fair to call [TRENCHCOATx] some sort of attempt at an open dialogue of consent between the workers and the distributors and the consumers of porn?

For Kayden and I, the intent is to do things the way that we think they ought to be done, that seems to be a little more ethical and fair than a number of the available options in pornography prior to our launch. But there's been, for quite some time, a number of companies like Pink and White … and Courtney Trouble with TROUBLEfilms. So there have always been, during my time working in adult entertainment, companies and people who are already having a dialogue about how to do things better, and doing things better. Trenchcoat is one of three companies that have launched in the past month that are owned and run by female performers, so it's a big dialogue.

How conscious are you of your female-ness in creating TRENCHCOATx?

I am so conscious of my female-ness every day, because that's just what happens. I'm aware that not every female-bodied person in the world or female-identifying person in the world has a full range of interactions inflicted on them every time they walk out their front door, but, for me, from puberty, going outside has been an adventure in having my female-ness thrust upon me. I'm always aware of that, every day.

In the first episode [of the TRENCHCOATx Graphic Depictions series], you appear as a voyeur to the main scene that's going on. What was the difference in terms of experience between being a voyeur to the scene on camera and being a voyeur to the scene as a director behind the camera?

As a director, for me, watching a scene as it happens that I'm not involved in, there's nothing erotic to it. It's all very focused on this angle and this angle and "Hey, this is happening. Tap the camera guy on the shoulder. Get him to get over there and get that shot." All that kind of thing. And being on camera, the first thing about being on camera is, unless the camera is part of the scene, and unless interacting with the camera is part of the scene, you try your best to forget about the camera.

One thing I just realized is that I asked you questions about your art direction in a porn film, so I was wondering if you approached this as an art project for you.

I approached it like a porno, but I approached it like a porno where it was all my money and a dude in a suit wasn't going to tell me what I could and couldn't do. No decisions were made for the sake of male figures, and stuff like that. But you wouldn't be the first person to suggest that I've maybe sort of accidentally made something kind of like art. Molly Crabapple commented on how, at the end of each scene, either the lights go dark for a minute or the camera zooms in somewhere and when you see the full frame again in a wide, the men are just sort of gone. It's like these beautiful female-bodied creatures have had exactly what they want happen, and they're relaxing afterwards, and they don't have to deal with anything else. So there's one reading for the project as very, very sexually feminist, in a way. I didn't mean to do that. And that, to me, has always been my definition for art: is it a thing that's out there in the world? Like a thing that someone feels the need to make, and they put out in the world, and then, when other people look at it, they see all sorts of things? I think I maybe sort of did that. But also at least two people have said that they jerked off to it, so that means that it is a porno. It's fulfilled the basic criteria for porno, so we're good.

So it's porn and art? 

I guess so. It's really weird, because it's also always been like porn is art. I mean, some people make art and it happens to be pornographic.

Definitely in recent years we've seen an influx of quote-unquote mainstream films that have a strong, if not outright pornographic, then certainly an erotic overtone to them, like Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, Blue is the Warmest Color, and most recently 50 Shades of Grey. Has that influenced you or your field at all in pornography?

I'm sure that's influenced pornography a lot. I have not seen any of these movies, and I'm perfectly okay with that. So while I'm sure the more blatant titillation of mainstream films in recent years has an effect on my career and the places that have been interested in working with me and talking about me and all of that sort of thing, directly, I'm going to say no, not for me personally. Just 'cause, who the fuck has time to watch movies, man.

You have porno to make.

Yeah, I have porno to make, and a site to run, and a dozen different social media accounts to keep up with now—it's more than doubled in the past week. And I would like to have sex sometime, like just for me and the other people involved in it. That's a really important part of my life! You know, snuggling with people and having sex with them in a not as extremely performative sort of way. Although, what was supposed to be a press release for the first scene of Graphic Depictions turned into this little discussion of how I believe sex is inherently observational when it's with one or more partners. So it's not like it's never performative. But I'm not on camera with makeup on.

Stoya porn sex-positivity feminism