Porn Stars Are Just Like Us (Except Happier)

A new study says female porn stars aren’t more damaged than the rest of us, and that’s upsetting a lot of long-held beliefs.

by Alex Heigl

A longstanding cultural assumption holds that pornographic actresses arrive at porn via a history of emotional damage. After all, nobody who wanted to have sex for a living could possibly be all right in the head, right?

But a new study, published in the Journal for Sex Research, suggests that the so-called Damaged Goods Hypothesis (or DGH, which posits that "female performers in the adult entertainment industry have higher rates of childhood sexual abuse, psychological problems, and drug use compared to the typical woman") is flat-out wrong. Female porn stars experienced no more abuse than a matched sample, and they were found to enjoy sex more, have higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction, and spirituality. 

This will come as a big shock to a lot of people. For years, people have attached negative stigmas to porn actresses: a 2001 study from the same journal revealed that porn actresses were universally perceived to have come from more dysfunctional families than their male counterparts, and that porn actors were attributed more positive motivations for their work than actresses. A 1996 survey of college students (from The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality) found that porn actresses "were viewed midway between movie stars and prostitutes — more positively than prostitutes but more negatively than movie stars and the average woman."

This new study is one of the first positive, academic repudiations of what's basically been decades of negative publicity for the porn industry. Linda Lovelace famously decried her time spent as a porn actress, to the point that journalist Hart Williams coined the term "Linda Syndrome" for "porn stars who seek acceptance from 'overground' society by disavowing their porn past." That Lovelace was actually abused as a child and adult, and had her share of drug and alcohol problems probably went a long way towards establishing the DGH — she was one of the first nationally-visible porn actresses. 

Society loves when the Damaged Goods Hypothesis gets reinforced, because it validates the shame we associate with sex in general. It's refreshing for us to see that these people were unhealthy or unhappy during their time as porn stars, because we're taught to believe that enjoying sex — which is what porn stars do for a living — is wrong, and so the people who make porn must be wrong in some way. It's a comforting narrative: we get skittish around people who enjoy sex too much — even when those people are ourselves — and so we just love hearing how that enjoyment was a mistake, and that we're much better now, thanks. 

It really wasn't until porn moved online that we started to get alternate opinions. We learned that Asia Carrera is card-carrying member of Mensa with an IQ of 156, who earned a full ride to Rutgers and coded her own website. And obviously there's Sasha Grey, arguably the first Web 2.0 porn star — we know more about her, and her relative personal stability (she is in an industrial band), than any other porn star prior. Gradually, we’ve started that all women in porn aren’t damaged, or flawed, or coerced. Most of them are just people.

There are and probably always will be downsides to the porn industry. There are and probably always will be porn stars with erratic personal tendencies. But there will always be corruption in any industry, and people with personal problems working in those industries. An electrician who goes nuts or an accountant who develops a pill addiction isn't working in an industry that happens to be a socially-accepted punching bag, and their "field" — so to speak — isn't one of the only human activities we still view with equal amounts of gusto and shame. 

The criticisms lobbed at female porn stars are really just the same criticisms we lob at sexually active women the world over, but it's so much easier to justify negative attitudes towards porn stars because they put it out there for everyone to see. They're asking for it, to dust off an old chestnut. But now we have hard evidence that there's nothing endemically wrong with porn stars. The old ideas and stereotypes are wrong. And maybe it's time to rethink your career.

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