I recently interviewed Sasha Grey for the cover of Nero Homme magazine–dream interview, yay! We chatted about porn, childhood, writing, provocation… and being bad Catholic girls ;)
Everyone knows Sasha Grey: she’s the pornstar who changed the game. A quick-witted, sexual provocateur, Grey entered the business in 2007 at age 18, and quickly spearheaded a shift in the mainstream’s view of the porno starlet from hapless victim to sexual heroine. Her first ever scene was a twelve-person orgy, during which she famously asked Rocco Siffredi–the notoriously rough “Italian Stallion”–to punch her in the stomach. Her porn career would go on to be defined by the extreme nature of her performances as well as her outspoken, intellectual approach to her job–the latter of which resulted in her often being called “the intellectual porn star.”
After leaving the business at 21, Grey went on to transcend the standard limitations of pornography when she was courted by Hollywood, playing the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, as well as a semi-fictionalized version of herself HBO’s Entourage, among others roles. In 2011, she released a book of photography, titled “Neü Sex,” that consisted mainly of racy self-portraits. Now 25, Grey recently added ‘author’ to her list of achievements, with the release of The Juliette Society, a satirical, erotic novel that follows Catherine, a film student who enters a secret, elite sex society.
You are obviously a very creative person–you perform, you act, you write, you make music, you take photographs. Back when you were still doing porn, did you see it as a creative outlet?
Grey: Oh, absolutely. Porn was my art. I poured my heart and soul into it, and that’s a very controversial thing, because a lot of people just want porn to be porn. But that was something I was always very outspoken about. And ya know what… I’ve been traveling all over the world this part year and a half, and meeting fans, and it’s been great to find that the things that I was outspoken about and stood up for back when I was doing porn still resonate with people. And as I continue to grow and do other things with my life, I can only hope that my new projects have the same power, and resonate with the people in the way my porn performances did.
You’re someone who instigated a change in the mainstream’s perception of women in the porn industry, and pioneered a new wave of intelligent, sex-positive, feminist porn stars. Now that you’ve been away from porn for a while, do you look back and feel happy with the progression the business has made?
Well, I definitely see a difference. You know, even when I was in the business, other women like Bobbi Starr and Kimberly Kane were being outspoken and sex-positive, and very girl-power in general. And I think the internet has had a lot to do with the change in perception as well. In the past, pre-internet, porn stars were marketed, packaged and sold through major companies–they were just a face, a toy. But now, the internet has given girls in porn a tool–girls aren’t limited to signing a contract with a major company in the industry, so now you have independent women who form their own businesses online, and they can do whatever they want, and be as outspoken as they want.
Totally. Girls are cutting out the middle man, and taking control of their own image. The bummer is, though, that there still aren’t many career options for girls after they leave the business. Your post-porn career has been anomaly. Do you think it’s just a matter of time before that changes, or is this just the way it is?
Well, I hope it changes, but America is largely a conservative place when it comes to sex. It’s not like this everywhere in the world. This stigma of being an ex-pornstar is stronger in America than in Europe, for example. The agent I used to work with in Florence represented a lot of European women who went on to become doctors, others to have very successful real estate careers, etcetera. They were just doing porn to pay for college, and it didn’t affect their ability to get a job afterward. Also, something I was interested in doing when I was still performing was forming a union for pornstars, which would at least provide career help for performers while they were still in the business. California has a union for strippers, but not porn stars… why is that? Sure, the porn industry is very safe and hygienic, but there’s not a union to make sure the performers have health insurance. Just because a performer has the highest standard of STD testing doesn’t mean he or she is immune to the common cold or the flu. And hey, porn stars need to see the optometrist too.
Part of what makes you so compelling–both in your performances and otherwise–is your confidence. Were you a confident kid?
Growing up, we’re constantly confronted with stories–in the media and in our personal lives–about women not feeling confident in their skin or in bed, and wanting to have sex with the lights out, etcetera. We’re so inundated with the image modern beauty and modern sexuality, and at a point I just said, “Fuck that… I want to be myself. I don’t want to have to live up to anybody else’s expectations.” So I sort of gained a sexual confidence before porn, but I still never felt like this buxom sex symbol–like, I’m a fucking toothpick! And when I started doing porn and I had success, I never felt like I physically or visually embodied the things that I understand I represented.
When I first started performing, I looked around and saw all these women with plastic surgery. And honestly, even though plastic surgery isn’t for me, I really don’t have anything against it. But when it’s one out of insecurity, or when it’s just bad plastic surgery, it makes you think, ‘Wow, it’s sad she felt she had to get that terrible boob job.’ It made me feel really lucky to be secure and happy with what I have. Because nobody is flawless, but being secure with yourself is such an important thing. Obviously, there are other women in porn–like Jenna Hayes, Tori Black, Kimberly Kane and Bobbi Starr–who have natural bodies, so maybe it’s a generational thing as well.
So, why did you decide to write a novel?
Well, I’ve been writing since I was young, but I had become very frustrated because I was writing screenplays with my mentor Anthony D’Juan for quite a while, and we were shopping them around, and then last year I was at the Cannes Film Festival trying to find financing for a film, but nothing came of it. After then I started thinking about a conversation I had with one of my agents about five years ago, as well as various conversations I’d had with fans who all said I should write erotica. More recently, erotic literature has become a huge part of pop culture, far more than it’s been in the past. Erotic lit has always sold well, but it’s never been talked about this much in the mainstream. So I started to familiarize myself with what else was out there, and I found there was a lack of female characters that represented my generation. I didn’t know if writing a novel was something I could do, but I wanted to challenge myself, and I wrote a few sample chapters and shared it with my agent and some friends, and everyone responded really well to it, so I kept going.
Can you name some of your influences?
Well, what I feel is missing from a lot of contemporary erotica is satire, whereas the erotic novels I enjoy have a sense of humor, even if they sometimes deal with dark subject matters. I really wanted to pay homage to novels like 120 Days of Sodom and Therese the Philosopher and Voltaire’s Candide. Those were three books that really inspired me to write The Juliette Society. We’ve become so liberal with the term “erotic literature”–when people think of erotic literature today, they think of romance novels, but there is a fine line between the two genres.
I based Catherine at the beginning of The Juliette Society on myself when I was 17 or so. Like me, she was experiencing extreme sexual fantasies that she didn’t quite understand, and she didn’t know where to take them. I personally overcame my insecurities and ended up going into porn, where I had room to explore those fantasies, but Catherine doesn’t have that outlet, so she’s pulled into a Juliette Society by her friend Anna. Obviously, there’s some sex scenes in the book are based on my personal experiences, but not all of them are, by any means.
In writing the book, was part of your goal to provoke or shock people? Personally, with my writing, my goal isn’t to piss people off, but I definitely enjoy pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable or appropriate…. and I love hate comments :) Is provocation something that fuels you?
Back when I was performing, most definitely. That was a huge part of what I did, and a necessity in order to accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish in the world of porn. But now, as I grow, I sort of vacillate, because I think if provocation becomes too much of a tool then it becomes it’s expected, which makes it uninteresting. When I was writing The Juliette Society I just wanted to tell an entertaining story, a story that allowed people to find a part of themselves within the characters, and hopefully be less ashamed about their own desires. That’s something I wanted to accomplish when I was doing porn, too–to inspire people to not be ashamed of who they are sexually. Another thing really wanted to explore when I set out to write the book, which I suppose some people might find shocking, was male sexuality, because it’s something that’s still incredibly taboo. There’s this idea in society today that women are inherently bisexual, but if you’re a man and you have a sex with another man, you’re gay. I think that’s ridiculous.
Do you remember, when you were younger, when it first started to become apparent to you that you were a hyper-sexual person, or at least someone who was potentially more open or interested in exploring sexuality than your peers?
Probably when I was 12 or 13. I had a lot of BDSM fantasies, and it was very difficult to deal with. I grew up Catholic, and I thought my fantasies and desires were wrong and immoral, and I didn’t have anybody to talk to about them, and the few friends I felt comfortable speaking to thought I was crazy. I wish I’d read 120 Days of Sodom when I was that age–I think it would have healed me as a person a lot. On average I think I was fairly normal, and dealt with the same hormones that every other kid my age was dealing with, but I suppose I had a hunger and a drive to explore more than most other people, and that’s where the divide comes in.
Man, there’s something about Catholic girls… they’re the best at being bad. So did your Catholic mom have a difficult time dealing with your porn career?
Yeah. I actually tried having conversations about sex with her when I was younger, but she always said it was not to be discussed. The only time pre-porn it was ever talked about was when she found my birth control and got really angry. At the time I was actually in college and working and supporting myself, and I just said, “Well, you should feel lucky that I won’t have a kid at eighteen,” and then the conversation was over. But when the porn started, she was very opposed to it, and she felt like she failed me. But I don’t feel that way.
But now that you’ve become so successful, is she like “Woops… you were right!”?
Ha, no, she just laughs says, “Oh, my little black sheep. It’s okay, you’re done now.” She jokes about it now, so that’s good. I remember once when I was cast in the film Would You Rather, I told her, “Mom, I’m doing a horror movie,” and she goes, “What? A whore movie? Didn’t you already do those?” She’s the worst at jokes.