"How to Come Out Like a Porn Star": A sex-industry veteran shares advice on the risks and rewards

A new collection of essays edited by a genderqueer porn star explores coming out, in public and private

Published February 16, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

Jiz Lee
Jiz Lee

When most of us think of coming out, we think sexual orientation. But for 34-year-old genderqueer porn star Jiz Lee, who’s been starring mainly in queer, independent porn for a decade, it’s about more than that. Hence they (Lee’s preferred pronoun) are editing “How to Come Out Like a Porn Star,” an anthology of essays exploring exactly that, to be released in November by ThreeL Media. The book is not a how-to manual, but in more than 50 essays, readers will find various approaches to coming out that, while specific to porn, will likely be appreciated by those struggling to reveal other kinds of sex-related secrets to loved ones. It is also, in its way, a manifesto, a reclamation by Lee of the role of porn as a positive artistic form. “It is actually the stigma from having performed that proves to do the greatest damage, and is our largest obstacle,” Lee writes, a stigma this book clearly seeks to minimize.

Lee was inspired to create the book by their own coming out to family members in 2010. As porn star Stoya puts it in the book, “Murphy’s Law of Inappropriate Behavior states that if you make a habit of taking your clothes off in public, eventually everyone in your family (including members so distant they share less DNA with you than a chimpanzee does with a cuttlefish) will somehow stumble upon documentation of what you’re up to.” For Stoya, that meant telling her grandmother, “I’m using part of your name as my stage name.” For Lee, it meant giving their born-again Christian mother and grandmother time to digest the news before stumbling across it. Lee considers the process ongoing, calling even the use of their image at Salon “a calculated risk.”

The book’s writings range from happy endings to more complex ones, but all make it clear that porn stars grapple with more than your average privacy concerns. Dylan Ryan details the shock of having her real name and identifying information leaked. Parents share concerns about how their children—and the powers that be who control their access to them—will react. Ignacio Rivera writes of their porn debut as Papí Coxxx, “Private sex work was easy to tell my daughter but the public was not.”

Via email, Lee outlined their future coming out plans, the connection between coming out about porn and sexuality, and offered advice to those ready to bare all to their families.

What have you learned about yourself and other performers' lives as you've worked on the book?

I’ve learned that I harbor internalized sexual shame, which I’m working consciously to undo. I’ve also learned to be gentler with myself in the process, and that it’s OK to not come out. I think it's OK to withhold information. Writing for this book was a vulnerable process for a lot of the contributors, myself included.

You write that your coming out process is "far from complete." Do you eventually plan to come out to everyone in your family?

I'd like to one day soon come out to my little brother and sister, and eventually some of the younger members of my family. Eventually it would be nice to be out to my extended family, mostly so that I don't have to feel like I have to avoid the topic at family reunions. However, I'm focusing on healthy conversations with my close family first and foremost.

Did you ever refuse any job offers, or not pursue porn opportunities, because you were concerned about your family?

I've never turned down porn work out of concern for my family finding it. In a sense, speaking at universities or attending high-profile events where there is large press coverage can be more risky than performing in the work itself.

How is the concept of coming out as a porn star similar to and different from coming out as queer or LGBT or transgender or genderqueer?

Most people generally don't have to “come out” as being heterosexual, or come out as not being transgender. For those of us whose lives exist outside of what society considers “normal,” the issue of disclosing information about ourselves can happen daily, and being “outsiders” is a vulnerable and often dangerous position. People are afraid of what they don't know, and most know very little when it comes to sex and gender.

Within the book are stories from queer and trans/genderqueer performers such as James Darling, Cyd St. Vincent, Emma Claire, Chelsea Poe, Tobi Hill-Meyer, Drew DeVeaux, Denali Winter, Papí Coxxx, Courtney Trouble, Lyric Seal and myself. All of them mention links between coming out in terms of their sexuality and gender.

What are the biggest misconceptions about porn stars?

That we are uneducated and incapable of intellectual pursuits. There are assumptions that we don't have boundaries, that we will do anything sexual for money, and that we will not enjoy it. That performers are victims; that we are sex trafficked and forced into pornography. There's also the misconception that we don't have families, partners or children, and that if we have parents, they must be disgusted by us. I hope some of the stories in this book can change these misconceptions

What has surprised you the most about the responses you've gotten from porn stars for the book?

The most unexpected response was from a contributor (who shall remain anonymous) who got a "reverse" pseudonym. She had gotten into porn using the name given to her at birth—no stage name. But as her life on the Internet grew, so did harassment. She was targeted for being a woman, a trans woman and a porn performer. Her harassers sought to attack her with any information they could find, including contacting her employers and endangering her life. So, to protect her identity, she legally changed her name. It's the first time I'd heard anyone do that.

As the Internet has become more prevalent in the past decade, my generation of performers may be the last whose parents are not regularly or recreationally online. It was interesting to read Joanna Angel’s shock at finding her image on a punk music forum mere hours after launching her website, and not understanding how they were able to get a copy of the image.

Working in porn today means negotiating how one interacts through social media, where having a profile for one's stage name is practically a requirement to generate a fan base and network. Some are only online under their performer names, because balancing between two online identities increases the chances of an accidental outing. Facebook's facial recognition tags can out a performer's stage name to family, or legal name to fans.

What is the most important thing a performer can do when coming out about their experience in porn?

Assure family members that you are aware of the associated risks involved in sex work, and that you take precautions to ensure your physical and mental health. There are a lot of negative stereotypes and misconceptions about the industry. Public discourse about porn addiction or porn encouraging sexual violence is moral, not factual. There's also the fallacy that performers (and women at-large) are not capable of having sexual agency over their own bodies, and therefore must have been coerced into any decision that involves expressing sexuality. This logic extends to assumptions that, as victims, performers must have experienced an early childhood trauma that led to their decision to do porn.

It can help to create a support base with other performers and friends, should you need someone to vent to, or need a place to stay the night. If you can afford a therapist—and importantly, can find one who is not biased against sex work—it can be helpful for family to discuss their concerns with a third party. Kink-aware professional networks can be a resource.

The stories in the book are anecdotal; it's not meant to be a literal guide, but a collection of personal accounts that other performers, family members, and anyone outside the industry can potentially relate to, and find a shared connection.

Are there situations where you wouldn't advise someone to come out as a porn star?

I would always advise people to come out only if they want to, and if they are able and ready—not only about porn, but coming out about anything else. There are potential risks to one's safety, as well as legal and financial concerns. As Annie Sprinkle highlights in her essay, coming out is a luxury.

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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Books Coming Out Jiz Lee Love And Sex Porn Pornography Sex Work