An Interview With Jiz Lee
Porn is a much discussed, and much argued over, topic in sex ed circles. But sometimes, the voices of performers are absent from those conversations. That's why I was so exited when the chance to interview adult entertainer Jiz Lee arose. Jiz is a nonbinary performer, speaker, author, and the driving force behind Coming Out Like a Porn Star, a collection chronicling how different porn performers have "come out" to family, friends, and loved ones. I asked Jiz their thoughts on identity, ethics, and the realities of making porn.
Coming Out Like a Porn Star was inspired from my own personal struggles in figuring out how to talk to my family about my work in adult entertainment. Coming out as "queer" to them was difficult enough, I feared that telling them I was expressing my queer sexuality on camera wouldn't go over so well. After all, being "out" by doing porn on the internet is one of the most public and permanent forms there is. In order to prepare myself—because I wished to come out on my own terms and realized they would find out sooner or later—I started asking friends in the business if, and how, they talked to their families about their work. Hearing their different stories really helped me begin that process.
Even more than helping me come out, the stories people shared revealed a lot of similarities, differences, and truths in how we who work in the industry experience sexual shame. I found these stories really helpful as I continue to learn and grow, and knew they'd help others too. It wasn't long before I identified a publisher and gathered about 50 stories from the industry into one bound collection.
I'm very proud of it, and grateful for its contributors, and hope it will help to heal those of us harmed by shame and stigma around sexuality. My biggest hope for the book is that it will become obsolete. Ideally in my lifetime.
Several years ago, you gave a talk at my college, and it was the first time I’d ever heard the term genderqueer. Do you feel like that identity is becoming better known and more embraced? Or does it still feel very fringe or stigmatized?
I'm so glad you brought this up. At the time, I was one of the few people I knew who identified as genderqueer—though now, I use the larger umbrella term "nonbinary," as I feel it's more descriptive and more easily understood. Part of the reason for this is because some people still consider the word "queer" as derogatory, despite its having been reclaimed, and the cisgender people I talk to can identify with the notion of existing within a binary concept of gender. After all, we all experience social aspects of gender in some way or another. Since they understand that binary, the idea of being nonbinary is something they can understand more than say, queering gender. When talking about binaries and what a nonbinary gender identity or expression might be, the people I'm talking with—however they identify—have experiences to share. Despite so many labels, we all feel the presence gender plays in our lives. It brings these relatable experiences together, rather than set us apart.
The world has changed so much since I first came out! Around the early 2000s, I used to feel so alone. My world opened when I came across zines that mentioned genderfuck or genderqueer, though I didn't know anyone personally who identified this way. Around the end of that decade, I started meeting others who felt similar, like Papí Coxxx, one of the first people I met who used the gender neutral pronouns "they/them" and who identified as genderfluid. I cannot tell you what it means to be able to talk to someone for the first time, who can relate to these feelings. I'm sure many people may feel the same thing when they discover my work. And now! Now there are many people who have come out as nonbinary, who use neutral pronouns, and/or who advocate for others.
I was delighted to see the use of singular "they" discussed in publications such as the Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, and of course Merriam Webster's Dictionary. When Facebook (which boasts nearly two million global users) added multiple genders and pronoun options, it had gone far beyond the "I'm not alone" feeling.
That said, it's still difficult, especially working within adult entertainment. I am limited to smaller (and less paying), independent productions, and feel ostracized when trying to fit within mainstream roles—in the rare times that option is presented. The privilege I have passing as cis is a double-edged sword that also invisibilizes. It makes me so proud of others who are just entering the industry or now coming out as they work in adult, and inspires me to do everything I can to continue to help us shine.
What are some things you wish the general public, and young people in particular, knew about the reality (or lack thereof) of making porn?
Take everything we aren't taught about sex, and times it by a million, and you'll get what people don't understand about porn. (Though, to be fair, we can't blame folks for not knowing about porn. This is one of many reasons why I advocate for age-appropriate, comprehensive sexual health, pleasure, and relationship education.)
There appears to be a general misunderstanding that 1) making porn is easy (i.e. "you just have sex"); 2) you make loads of money; and 3) porn is free to watch. The reality is that it's a difficult business to survive in, which is of course compacted by piracy, stigma, and discrimination from financial and tech corporations.
Of course, there are even worse myths out there, but thankfully they are finally starting to fade away thanks to the information age of the Internet. Still, some people actually believe: 1) the (incredibly misogynist) assumption that everyone in porn—especially women—is being exploited or trafficked, and that it is all equal to rape; 2) that no one practices safer sex (or has any self-respect to be risk-aware); and, 3) the general opinion that performers lack agency and self-worth. None of these are based in any fact, of course. For example, adult film workers are statistically the safest population on the planet—professional performers are tested approximately every 14 days, and because of our self-created testing system, there has only been one single case of HIV transmission in over the last 12 years.
Many people have a hard time distinguishing between documentation and fantasy, and believe anything that happens on a porn film to be taken at face value—including scenes of consensual non-consent, which can often be that performer's ideal way to work. Film is not real. Sometimes the sex and reactions are real, and sometimes they're not. Also, sometimes safer sex isn't only visible through barriers—a "Safer Sex Toolkit" can include many combinations of things, such as STI testing, barriers, preventative drugs, and of course communication to practice harm-reduction in risk-informed consensual sex.
It's no surprise to anyone visiting this site that many of us do not receive comprehensive sexual education. What's interesting is that many performers learn about sexual health and how to establish their boundaries when they first enter the industry. Because it's our bodies and our work and livelihood, we know a lot more than the average person when it comes to sex and sexual health.
Well, that was a bit of a tangent, but, I hope that people know it can be a healthy and rewarding job, and that it's worth paying for porn and not pirating or watching stolen work on tube sites. If you respect sex workers and find content you love, please #payforyourporn to help us continue to create quality content.
What, in your opinion, makes something ethical porn?
Lately when I'm asked this question, I like to turn it around and ask why you think porn isn't ethical in the first place? It says a lot that people feel the need to place a descriptive term like "ethical" before the word porn, as if porn by itself is inherently unethical. There's a lot of stigma to unpack, as well as hypocrisy, when most people who express a concern over whether or not what they're watching was respectful to the performers, want to watch it for free. Piracy has done irreparable harm to the industry, saturating the web with free porn tube sites that first earned their traffic of the backs of sex workers who couldn't even get a bank account. While we must continue to work to improve labour rights, I consider piracy the biggest exploitation in porn. And it's being done by viewers.
To continue on that topic, what does ethically consuming porn involve?
Thank you—being an ethical porn consumer means paying for porn. (Or else, finding ways to support the people who make it. In working with CrashPadSeries.com I created a trade opportunity for those in the community who cannot prioritize the expense.) But ultimately, it is a job and should be respected as much. It's very telling that people devalue sex in a way that they wouldn't other things we're used to purchasing. In my opinion, it's an extension of misogyny that sex work, one of the primarily female and femme driven forms of entertainment, is the one most stigmatized, most criminalized, and most labour-exploited.
Tokenism of things like race, sexual orientation, and gender identity is an issue in porn. If you’ve encountered tokenism, how have you dealt with it? And if not, what do think has helped you avoid it?
This is a big question and the issue permeates literally everything, so I'll simply address the end goal. The most impacting way we can alter the course is to take power by gaining control of our image. In porn, we can forge our own studios, and become our own publishers on social media and elsewhere. This in turn changes what the final product looks like, how it is consumed, and influences others in the field to follow. In this effort, we may be resourceful, courageous, and kind.
Rather than be an activist, I prefer to be active, period. I value positive momentum and try to create change by using any leverage I have to introduce opportunities that empower myself and others with the tools to produce meaningful works. There's incredible power in this art form, and so much yet to be expressed. Porn doesn't have to be limited—it can be as expansive as human desire itself! With affordable cameras and technology, we can democratize what's possible in alternative and honest visions of sexuality. As you can see, I love my job, and I have a lot of optimism and enthusiasm for what's still to come.