The woman who conquered porn: How Jacky St. James became the most important name in the business

Four years ago, Jacky St. James had never written or directed an adult film. Now she's the toast of the industry

Published January 5, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

 Jacky St. James  (Eddie Powell)
Jacky St. James (Eddie Powell)

Jacky St. James had good reason to believe she'd never work in porn. For a significant portion of her adult life, St. James worked in the entertainment industry, and for the rest she did what her conservative family hoped she would do: worked a corporate job and tried to be "normal." But St. James found herself drawn in a different direction. She had what she describes as "deviant" sexual fantasies; she didn't, and couldn't, fit into a tiny box of other people's suburban expectations.

So, in 2011, after a friend sent her a clip from a film produced by New Sensations studio, St. James decided to enter the New Sensations Romance Series writing contest. Her screenplay, "Dear Abby," won the contest, as well as an Adult Video News award for best screenplay. But that was just the beginning of her experience as a writer-director in the industry, and the first of many awards. In the nearly five years she's spent working in porn, St. James has been nominated for 22 prizes and won 7.

St. James is also known for being an outspoken feminist, and for creating strong female roles that celebrate women's complexity and independence. In one of her most recent films, "The Submission of Emma Marx," St. James does this in a particularly pronounced way — unlike "50 Shades of Grey," the film's inspiration. While "Emma Marx" contains similar plot points to "50 Shades," it has a whole different message and a cast of characters that stands in sharp contrast to that of its inspiration. This is especially true of the protagonist, Emma, who embarks on a BDSM relationship and ends up finding herself.

St. James is bringing the character back in a sequel, "The Submission of Emma Marx II: Boundaries," which follows Emma as she attempts to navigate the borders of her BDSM lifestyle and her relationship. The film comes out in February -- just in time for the release of the "50 Shades" movie adaptation -- and maintains the director's distinctive feminist message. Salon spoke with St. James about the sequel, about what she's learned directing adult films, and about her next project on "hot-wifing." This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

You were inspired to write "Emma Marx" because you hated "50 Shades of Grey" so much. What did you hate about it?

Honestly, sometimes I can almost forgive writing on certain things if the story is compelling to me. I’m not one of those elitist snobs when I read. But for me, it was more so the fact that the female protagonist was so incredibly weak and pathetic. I couldn’t root for her because I thought she was pathetic. It felt kind of like an homage to those 1800s romance novels, where these women are very weak, and then the woman is attacked by a man and suddenly falls in love with him.

And also [in "50 Shades"], she had no self-esteem, so there would be instances where he would basically be coming onto her, and it was so clearly obvious, and she would be like, “I’m not good enough for him, he doesn’t want me.” And it just drove me crazy because I can’t believe that that many women in society would feel like Anastasia Steele somehow resonated with them as a character. I hated her. I absolutely hated her.

So how is your character different? Aside from strength, what were the characteristics you were looking to portray in response to “50 Shades”?

There’s definitely similarities in the story, in that this man is super successful. But for me, I wanted a woman who was independent already. I thought the more fascinating and compelling storyline was a woman who was grappling with her sexuality. My character, Emma, doesn’t really understand why she’s not “normal,” in that she’s not really into the roses and the flowers and the poems and the --

And the missionary sex…

Exactly. She’s more into something a little bit more deviant, so for her it’s the struggle of, “How do I lead a life and be okay with the fact that that life isn’t ‘normal?’” She has a very conventional family, and so it’s a matter of straddling this line. For me, it was more about her struggle with that versus her struggle with wanting to be loved by someone. Obviously, she wants him to love her, but that’s not her end goal.

You only started working in porn a few years ago, after winning a New Sensations writing contest. How did that happen? What made you decide to enter the contest?

Yeah, it was in 2011. For me, it was never a goal to work in porn. I don’t know how many people go out there and say, “I want to work in porn.” But I was a huge fan of pornography before I worked in it. Then, after I wrote this screenplay and it won the New Sensations contest, and I was able to be on set for the production, I was truly mesmerized by the business -- just how much creative freedom existed in it. There are obviously limitations, but everyone, at least the people at my company, was so smart and creative and talented. And when, in life, especially as a woman, can you go into a job and be a production manager, a director, a writer of a piece within a few months? It’s unheard of. Most women in Hollywood work years trying to climb the ladder to do that -- and I was doing it right out of the gate. So, for me, there was something really appealing about the fact that I can be successful and have a lot of creative control and be a woman.

How do you grapple with the existence of pornography that can be perceived as degrading to women, or that is often criticized for being degrading to women?

I know that when we’re shooting a scene, the woman is fully empowered to make the decision to do that scene. It’s kind of taking away the power of being degraded by saying, “Yeah, I’m game for doing a fantasy where I’m thrown down on the bed and tied up and spanked,” or whatever. If a woman is saying, “I want to do that, that sounds like a blast,” then how is she really being degraded?

Do you ever worry that that message gets missed? Do you worry about the implications of not stating outright that everyone consented? Or do you think it’s something that should be unspoken? Is this something that can be addressed?

Sadly, I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a solution, because everything is always in the eye of the beholder -- so what one person might perceive as degrading and horrible, another person might perceive as, “Wow, this is awesome that this woman is living out this fantasy and is really getting to enjoy it within the safety of a production.” When you have a director and a cameraman and all of these contracts that are being signed, and people are consenting, it’s a lot safer than maybe going out and doing it with a stranger, or somebody who could really harm you. I think that it’s unfortunate that there is content out there that is degrading to women, or can appear to be degrading to women, without that understanding of the fact that a woman has a right to choose what kind of profession she’s in, and she has a right to choose what sex acts she’s involved in. At least on our sets, nobody’s being coerced, everybody is fully consenting. It’s a very gray area, and I understand the question, it’s just hard to say because I think the onus of responsibility lies more with the person watching it than the people producing it. The onus of responsibility of that perception, I guess.

What is something that you have learned working in the porn industry that you feel you could not have learned anywhere else, in any other way, doing any other job?

It’s hard to say. I mean, there are things that I’ve learned with regard to sexuality. What surprised me most about working in adult is how accepted all different body types are. There’s so much lack of judgement happening and there’s so much confidence among the women in the industry. They're stripping down their clothes, they’re walking around naked, not everyone has the most perfect body. There’s people with stretch marks and cellulite and scars, and everyone is beautiful. There’s something so inspiring about that. It’s so different to be working in an industry where everyone is celebrated, in different types of film.

A lot of porn has been criticized for having portrayals of specific types of female bodies and sending a confusing message of what people are supposed to look like. But you were saying that the industry doesn’t view it that way. How do you bridge that gap between the message porn is accused of sending to the public, and the message the industry actually believes in general?

For me, most of what I do is scripted and feature-driven, so it’s always about finding the best person for the job, based on what they can bring to the table from an emotional level -- somebody who can really resonate with a character and somebody who can understand the emotional journey of a character. And a lot of people might laugh and say, “Oh, it’s just porn, hahaha,” but we’re writing things that delve into really deep issues that people have. They aren’t just campy porn lines. These are stories that just happen to have sex.

I think the industry itself is tending to make shifts, in that you’re seeing an influx of women now that are all-natural. For me, it’s really casting who deserves the part, not just somebody because they fit this “stereotypical ideal” of what a man wants to see -- and I don’t even know if that’s the stereotypical ideal of what a man wants to see. I think society has told us, “Oh, men like the blonde hair and the big fake tits” -- do they? Because we’re selling tons of porn with girls known for having “tiny titties.” Clearly, if that’s selling, there’s a broad variety of what people are looking for. I think society wants to tell us what we’re supposed to be seeing, but it’s not necessarily what people want to see.

Do you think these trends are indicative of other social changes, or shifts toward more general acceptance of difference?

I do, and I think it’s also showing a shift of women being more empowered, too. I think women who get enhancements for personal reasons are absolutely fine, but I think when it’s done to be objectified and to be looked at as a sex object, because something’s lacking or because you want to be perceived a certain way, that’s not necessarily positive. But I think the more empowered women you’re seeing, you’re also seeing fewer and fewer plastic models coming out of the woodwork. And it’s in Hollywood as well. It’s moving much more toward that girl-next-door natural look, and women that are more captivating for who they are as people versus who they are as a body.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing “The Submission of Emma Marx II,” and then I’m working on a series about hot-wifing, which is basically husbands that enjoy having their wives have sex with other men. It’s people with very liberated views of sexuality who are very open. It’s not like a cuckold, it’s more like, “I love you so much that I don’t want to limit your sexual experiences.” It’s really fascinating to me. It’s not something that my brain can comprehend in my own personal life, but I think it’s so cool for people who have that ability to do that. There’s really no jealousy, it’s just two people saying, “We love each other, and let’s make the most out of this one life we have.”

By Jenny Kutner

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