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More than just a whore. (On society’s ambivalence toward porn stars and sex workers.)

Recently there was some controversy about a program in Southern California that brings celebrity-types into school classrooms to read to kids. It turns out that they invited an actress named Marina Ann Hantzis to come to Emerson Elementary School in Compton. Hantzis has appeared in a recent Steven Soderbergh movie, and she has had a recurring role in the HBO show Entourage.

She acts under the name “Sasha Grey.”

And before having success in mainstream acting, Hantzis/Grey was an extremely successful porn star. She was featured in both Playboy and Penthouse. In 2007 she won the “Adult Video News Award” for “Best Group Sex Scene.” She also won the AVN for “Best Three-Way Sex Scene” – this one for her work in the film Fuck Slaves. In 2008 she won the AVN for “Best Oral Sex Scene,” and, at the tender age of 20, she became the youngest woman ever to win the AVN for “Female Performer of the Year.” In 2010 she again won the AVN for “Best Oral Sex Scene,” and topped that off with the AVN award for “Best Anal Sex Scene” for her work in Anal Cavity Search 6.

She was clearly very good at what is very physically and emotionally demanding work.

True ambivalence. I am a pretty opinionated guy. And I like to think that my opinions are generally well considered. But in this case – having a porn star come into an elementary school to read to kids – is something I feel pretty ambivalent about.

I make no secret of the fact that I do not like porn. And I am especially troubled by the sort of porn produced by the corporate porno houses that Hantzis/Grey worked for – companies that mercilessly exploit and wear out their talent, and who are constantly on the prowl for fresh meat.

And in those rare instances where a porn actress happens to meet with mainstream success (like Hantzis/Grey has started to do), these corporations just re-cut, re-package, and re-release the old footage of their star over and over and over again. Try as you might to leave your porno past behind, your porno past never leaves you. It just gets re-edited.

Real humans. Over the years I have known a number of “sex workers” (also known as: “women involved in systems of prostitution” – your  terminology tends to betray your ideology on this issue: it’s either porn as “work” vs. porn as “exploitation”). But actually knowing women and men who do this “work” (and/or are “ensnared in these exploitative systems”) makes a difference. Because, love or hate the products being produced and the “services” being provided, you develop a connection with the real human beings who live underneath the makeup (and the bruises). You know that they are just trying to get through life – just like the rest of us are. They drink their morning coffee, walk the dog, and raise their kids. Just like the rest of us do. And as to the “sex work” thing (regardless of whether you see it as a freely chosen line of work or as sexist exploitation), you have to admit that it is, at the end of the day, very, very hard work. It is physically demanding (and often physically damaging) work.

But a porn star at the local elementary school? On one level Hantzis was just a young woman who was trying to get ahead. She found something she was good at, and she excelled. Now she would like to leave that world behind. And she is having some success breaking into the world of mainstream acting.

And when she went into the schools, she went as Marina Ann Hantzis, not as Sasha Grey. But someone found out it was her, and published pictures of the visit. (Hantzis herself also tweeted on her Sasha Grey Twitter account that she had spent the morning reading to young kids. That’s probably not exactly the sort of details that her followers on Twitter were hoping for. They were probably hoping to hear about the daily morning gangbang…)

But my main hesitation about Hantzis having been invited to the school that morning is that the kids will probably find out about her previous line of work. If the adults know, the kids will soon become aware. (Older siblings can always be relied upon to spill the beans.) And so now we will have young girls (and young boys, for that matter) who met a pretty young actress whom they no doubt liked and admired. And they will probably find out what she has done for money. So I feel for the parents whose six year-old kids will now be asking them all about the wonderful world of pornography.

I can just see it now:

Mommy, do you like to watch naked people on t.v.? What about Daddy? Does he like to watch naked people on t.v.?

Why?

(Kids ask some pretty darn good questions! I think more adults should probably also be asking themselves why they like to watch naked people on t.v.!)

An introduction to parental hypocrisy. But as I think about the parents and their possible struggle to provide accurate and developmentally-appropriate information to their kids about the fact that their guest that morning at school happened to be a recently-retired porn star, I find myself wondering: how many of these parents have ever consumed porn? How many of these parents have private x-rated video libraries or subscriptions to porn websites? How many of them have ever taken explicit pictures of themselves or made their own sex videos?

And, more directly related to this specific situation, how many of them have ever masturbated while watching images of Hantzis/Gray performing sex scenes for the camera?

“Sasha Grey” would not be a star if we had not made her into one. And it took a lot of people (and their money) to do that.

There is a duality here that I find very troubling: that a porn actress is considered to be good enough for the t.v. screen in the bedroom, or for the computer screen in the den, but it is not considered okay for the actual actress – the real human being whose performances and role plays may well have been a source of arousal and titillation for those very parents the night before – to volunteer her time in the children’s classroom the next day.

Refusing to be just a whore. Unfortunately the modern world is still stuck in a millennia-old contradiction that seems to pervade all patriarchal societies: we want women (but only a certain few women!) to be our whores. And that is all that we want them to be. And as for other women, they are not allowed to be whores. They must be mothers.

(And God forbid that a woman might want to be both.)

But for as long as we men have been trying to build these cages for women, women have continued, throughout the millennia, to defy our simplistic attempts to categorize them. Women simply refuse to comply with our attempts to reduce them to mere oral, vaginal, and anal cavities into which we seek to ejaculate. Despite the intense pressure that we put on some of them to be nothing more than a whore, they continue to find ways to express their insuppressible humanity.

Just why did Marina Ann Hantzis go read to the children that day? It is best to let her speak for herself:

“Promoting education is an effort that is close to my heart. Illiteracy contributes to poverty; encouraging children to pick up a book is fundamental. I believe education is a universal right.”

And unlike so many people who voice noble sentiments about the immense value of an education but never actually do anything to help, Hantzis went into a school in an impoverished neighborhood to read to the kids. The school is in Compton, California, which according to CQ Press is the eighth most dangerous city in the United States. A place where having the ability to read can mean the difference between having a life of options, or having a life that ends far too early in the violent streets.

And as to the controversy surrounding her visit, Hantzis said:

“I committed to this program with the understanding that people would have their own opinions about what I have done, who I am and what I represent. I am an actor. I am an artist. I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am a partner. I have a past that some people may not agree with, but it does not define who I am.”

Hantzis is clearly telling us that she is not now – and she never has been – just a whore.

"whore"

"Hantzis is clearly telling us that she is not now – and she never has been – just a whore."

I hate to nitpick but...how about scratch the "just" and say she has never been a "whore"? You legitimize the vilification of our sexuality by saying there is such a thing as a whore, by not acknowledging that it is a hateful word invented to dehumanize women. She is a person who once acted in adult films and wants to move on with her life, end of story. The "dirt" of sex only clings to women it seems, and it can't wash off ever, even when you no longer are in the sex industry.