Book Review: Stoya's Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn
By Amanda Henneberry
On Stoya’s Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn, 2018 | Review
Imagine existing in today’s world, but, through some phenomenon, never having absorbed a trace of the sexual repression or shame that causes most Americans to blush during sexually explicit movie scenes amongst acquaintances - like you were a kid in Huxley’s Brave New World, who’d had erotic play encouraged, but were transported to 2018’s America before the bureaucratic brainwashing set in – and you have the narrative voice of Stoya.
Through a collection of short essays, blog posts and anecdotes, Stoya’s Philosophy, Pussycats and Porn (2018) assembles entries that draw intersections between sex work, religion and art (and could manifest a successful Venn diagram of the three). Stoya shifts effortlessly between her careers in pornography and acting, romances, friendships and feminism. She offhandedly contemplates and explores Galileo, heliocentrism, Christianity, cats, sex, travel, sex abroad, politics, periods, pain, healing, her affinity for performing fellatio, and histories and theories of sex work. Sections of her writing are sprinkled with blips of Nietzschean and Wattsian-level examinations of truths and cultural critique, while evading pretention through charming self-admissions of having “no chill,” and encouraging readers to question everything, including her. Though she glides through taboo-filled passages with disregard for “taboos,” her candor should not be confused for naivety; misogyny, stigmas against pornography and sex work, and an insomnia-inducing awareness over her undesired role in “shaping young minds… thanks to this country’s nonfunctional sex education system and the ubiquitous access to porn by anyone with an internet connection” are all thoroughly addressed and unpacked.
Three [of many] topics that feel especially worth mentioning [in this phenomenally ADHD-positive book] are feminism, stigmatization, and Stoya’s passion for her work. In an anecdotal essay, titled “Patriarchy!,” she shares a story of a 32° F walk to meet a friend in Queens. She’d dressed herself in “a hat, three shirts of increasing size, topped by a hooded sweatshirt and a coat, a thick scarf covering the lower half of [her] face, with a pair of insulating long underwear under a pair of pants, boots, and gloves,” with only her eyes and the bridge of her nose visible - yet, was aggressively catcalled by a man on the street. She turned to tell him off, then heard her friend call out to her, considered the scene she’d create, and decided to drop it. Later, her friend made a comment about how they thought of street harassment as “linked to revealing dresses.”
Frustration with patriarchal culture reoccur throughout the book – in another anecdote, she mentions a nerve-wracking incident where a café staff assists her in calling the police after a man displaying stalker-ish behavior causes her to hide out in the café’s kitchen - only to be asked out to drinks by the police officer who’d arrived to escort her home. The officer’s behavior was clearly not on par with the “stalker,” but I found the inappropriate, low emotional-intelligence level disappointingly familiar and discouraging.
In an especially poignant chapter, Stoya shares an experience where a significant other assumed her straightforward suggestion to “go to bed” after a long, tiring day, meant “let’s go have sex.” This caused an argument that led her to behave “like the worst version of [her] mother.” She reflects on “his reasonable assumption blur[ring] into pent-up feelings about my years spent being subject to non-consensual objectification,” stirring a type of universal-understanding in women, and giving language to the “crazy” behavior of a woman who’s realized she’s allowed to decline sexual advances, because, despite growing up in a culture that teaches women otherwise, her body belongs to her.
Stoya challenges the contemptuous reputation that pornography and sex work have been assigned by the general Western public. She offers fresh, objective lenses for readers to view adult entertainment through. In a chapter comparing pornography to performance art, she muses “I’m definitely not arguing for a dedicated pornography wing in the Louvre, but I absolutely argue that adult videos are a kind of art… Pornography has undeniable mass appeal, and speaks to one of the most basic human needs. While it frequently caters to the lowest common denominator in an effort to be financially viable, it does occasionally produce timeless works.”
She breaks down the stigmatization of pornographers and sex workers in multiple chapters – skating over the more obvious (like that a consenting[<<keyword] adult’s decision to perform sex acts on camera or for work is an unproblematic, personal choice) and delving into intricacies that non-sex workers may not be familiar with; this includes the intersectional issues amongst the community, like economic hardship, exploitation and mass incarceration. A specific controversial issue in pornography, California’s AB1576 bill (which requires adult performers to use condoms in sex scenes as a prophylactic), appears universally disliked by the adult film industry – Stoya included. She compares the performers’ care and willing risk in their work to famous French ballerina Emma Livry. Livry died due to injuries suffered from her tutu catching fire during a dress rehearsal. The French government had introduced legislation that required costumes to be treated with flame retardant chemicals – a law that was unpopular and ignored by many dedicated ballerinas, including Livry, for making their skirts appear stiff and dingy, “spoiling the ethereal effect they went through years of punishing physical training to achieve.” Between catching fire and her death, Livry was asked if her opinions had changed on the flame-retardant chemicals. She stated a belief that alternative safety measures could be explored, but stood by her vow to never wear a treated-tutu if she were able to work again. In the case of pornography, Stoya states “I dislike the idea of being forced to use barrier protection when the accompanying friction impedes my ability to deliver my best performance possible.”
The idea that the government may set strict rules on some professions, but not others, speaks to stigmatization of sex work . Yes, porn actors risk STIs, but football players risk high-odds for head injury and concussion, and we cheer them on. 2018’s American graduate students who live in poverty commonly work full-time, chancing the mental and physical health issues that come with stress and sleep-deprivation. Why should a consenting adult, who takes their job performance seriously, be forced to follow safety legislation that effects performance in their specific field – especially while the same level of “safety” precautions don’t appear in other objectively risky industries?
Many sections of the book are soaked in some way with Stoya’s genuine love for her career in adult entertainment. She admires peers in her profession, expresses excitement over projects and new ideas, educates the reader in industry and sex history, and contemplates her field so thoughtfully that her passion and curiosity become infectious. The book challenges and inspires in so many ways, connecting and covering an array of fascinating thoughts, theories and experiences that I have yet to touch. Her writings include brief, hilarious hints at political leanings toward socialism, beautiful contemplations of relationships and humanity, and passages that read like love letters to lovers, ex-lovers, friends and places.
Stoya succeeds in packing so much into a short, witty, smart and heartfelt read. Of these successes, one of the most important is the picture she paints of human complexity – herself being a prime example. She’s not just a “porn star,” “feminist,” or even “woman,” but a complex human being who can observe and lament the patriarchy, while celebrating the male-bodied in passages expressing intoxicating appreciation, love and sex she’s had with men. Her blunt sincerity and fearlessness against the invisible boundaries meant to divide people into groups of “elites” and “inferiors” craft effortless challenges to the judgmental norms that infect Western culture, inciting freer, humane thought and fairer consideration of each other. Stoya reminds that we’re complex people who – mostly – love sex, despite multiple facets of society teaching us to look down on it.