Centuries ago, possessing nothing more than an innate sexuality could get a girl burned at the stake. A woman who had the audacity to make money using her body was shunned by polite society. Women lived in constant fear of being branded a slut.Today, Sasha Grey, Jessie Andrews, and Tilly Lawless, are among the women taking back the word ‘slut’, with all of its connotations. They are sex workers – or former sex workers – they are highly visible, and they are all forging their own complex, personal definitions of what it is to be a publicly sexual woman.
Sasha Grey is probably the best known ex-adult performers in the world today, and one of the very few who have successfully made the leap from porn films, to mainstream film (she was also cast as a recurring character in Entourage). Moving to LA in 2006 to begin work in the adult industry at the age of 18, Grey quickly became known for her enthusiasm for extreme sex acts. But it was her genuine desire to seriously debate and defend her reasons online for working in porn that brought her to the attention of the media. After one of her earliest TV appearances, on The Tyra Banks Show, unhappy with how the editors had manipulated her responses to questioning, Grey took to the internet and blogged and vlogged about her real views. She stated, “I have a huge appetite for sex and self-exploration. I wanted to express my sexuality as a strong woman… I wanted to do all of this in a sex positive way.”
Grey doesn’t shy away from flaunting her sexual or intellectual prowess. She references Jean-Luc Godard’s work in her interviews, and during the promotional tour for her book ‘The Juliette Society’, she name checked Angela Carter, Voltaire and William S. Burroughs as literary inspirations. She is as likely to discuss Sartre or her interest in creating “David Lynch-ian porn” as she is to mention her sexual interest in spitting and slapping. While the porn Grey is best known could be described is degrading and violent, it’s clear from the way she discusses her work, that she is the driving force behind the aggressive energy of these scenes. “I am a pervert” she stated, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “If I am working out any issues through porn, it’s anger at society for not being open about sex”.
While Sasha Grey is all about the art, Jessie Andrews, the current social media darling of porn, is all about business. In her own words, she was always “money motivated”. Andrews also started her porn career at the young age of 18, after hearing how much a friend had made as an extra for a film shoot by “showing her boobs”. From the beginning, Andrews took a hand in the curation of her brand – a sweet, all-American girl – regularly posting images of her daily life, on and off porn sets on her Tumblr feed. This brand has served her well- her sex toy is named ‘The All American Pussy’ and is one of the best-selling sex toys for men in the world.
In interviews, Andrews repeatedly talks about her ambitions, and how “90% of my life is Jessie Andrews the brand”. She was one of the first adult actresses to gain major popularity on Twitter, currently with over 225.1K followers. In 2012, she launched her own jewellery line, Bagatiba. She also DJs – her performance as part of the line up at Australia’s 2015 Stereosonic was her highest-profile gig to date and received praise from house music fans. Unlike Grey, Andrews rarely talks about what she enjoys sexually but focuses on the sense of empowerment working in the adult industry gives her – in an interview with i-D in 2015, Andrews stated that “I would never be where I am without porn.”
Both Jessie Andrews and Sasha Grey literally acted the part of call girls in the past (Portrait of a Call Girl, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, respectively.) Tilly Lawless is the real deal. A queer sex worker based in Sydney, Lawless came to the attention of the digital media with her hashtag #facesofprostitution in 2015. Lawless created the hashtag in response to an article that generalised all sex workers as bruised, drug addicted and abused victims because she felt that, “There is no singular story or person to represent the varied and complex experiences of all sex workers”. The hashtag gained ground as hundreds of sex workers began to share their own images and stories online in order to protest the stereotypes that prevail around their lifestyles. While prostitution is legal in New South Wales, Australia, where Lawless is based, most other sex workers have no workers rights or legal protection and the continuing debates around the issue suggest an uphill battle for legal recognition.
Following Lawless’s feeds on Twitter and Instagram could be said to offer an insight into the life of a sex worker, but actually, they just offer an insight into the life of any sexually active woman. She discusses thrush, the difficulties of maintaining sexual boundaries, the wrist ache that comes with hand jobs. She also shares how she emotionally balances her queer relationship with her interactions with mostly male clients. For this woman, it is both possible to fuck for money and to remain loyal in love. All of us are carry our own contradictions, and Lawless chooses to engage with hers on a daily basis.
While these three women are absolutely admirable in their unabashedness and unique approaches to living, it is worth noting the physical similarities between them. All three, Sasha Grey, Jessie Andrews, and Tilly Lawless, are white, slim, small breasted and baby-faced. They fit the American Apparel mould of a teen-esque sexiness – both Grey and Andrews have modelled for American Apparel in the past. It is an aesthetic of acceptable, non-threatening female sexuality. It’s hard to imagine Nylon or i-D embracing Grey or Andrews with the same enthusiasm if either had sported a more traditionally ‘porn’ actress look – heavily made-up, tanned and large breasted.
What does this suggest about the outlets that have given them the coverage? Is it that fascinating, ballsy sex workers of different ethnicities don’t exist? Or is it that only a certain type or shape of woman has society’s permission to be sexual? Plus size lingerie ads for the brand Lane Bryant being banned from ABC and NBC news networks recently due to “”indecency guidelines”, suggest that this is indeed the case. The ad featured curvy models, and a model breastfeeding her newborn. The ads are far less sexually charged than the socially acceptable Victoria’s Secret ads. The furore regarding Kim Kardashian’s latest nude selfies suggests something similar, with most of her detractors using the fact that she is a mother as an argument against her. All this despite the fact that most women’s sexual drives peak between their mid-thirties and late forties. Kim Kardashian is 35.
In the past, the media needed to do nothing more than brand a woman a slut in order to rein in her disregard for social conventions. Now, that so- called slur encourages defiance in women – Kardashian’s response to her detractors being the perfect example. With the rise of social media, and of personal image curation, the word slut is slowly being reclaimed. Slut- shaming is being countered with Slutwalks. Not all women are interested in exploring their sexual boundaries, nor should they feel they have to, but for those of us who are, the rise in visibility of complicated, sexual women like Jessie Andrews and Tilly Lawless can be nothing but beneficial. In the words of Sasha Grey, “ I want to tell young women that sex is okay. It’s okay to be a slut. You don’t have to be ashamed.”
Áine Ní Laoghaire is an actor/performer based in Dublin. She tweets at @ainedunleary and writes mini fashion paragraphs at wantonboys.wordpress.com.