Sexuality as Free Expression
Air Date: October 21, 2016
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Over six decades, this public affairs broadcast has chronicled free expression on the cutting edge, unafraid to explore the evolving social experience of the nation from civil rights and homosexuality to stem cells and robotics. So today we delve anew into an admittedly sticky realm, pornography in America. An estimated one third of data disseminated on the World Wide Web is porn and adult entertainment boasts double, at times triple the streaming measured of mainstream binge products like Netflix and Amazon. Our guest today, Asa Akira, confounds the boundaries of taboo. One of the world’s leading adult film stars, Akira is author of the genuinely candid new memoir Dirty Thirty, an approachably literature chronicle of her career in porn, bursting with feminist aspirations and sexual demons. While we’re, we’ve been focused like a laser on the presidential campaign, let’s pause to consider the wondrous, wonderful if bewildering world of porn, Akira’s personal fortitude, and her insight into an industry that is held in contempt by many as complicit in the deprivation of a generation coming of age. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
AKIRA: Thank you so much for having me.
HEFFNER: I know you take a different view. It’s what you do and it’s your experience and you said it’s awesome.
AKIRA: Absolutely. I mean I love porn. Porn for me was the goal, so um, it’s not something I fell into. It’s not something, you know, it’s not a stepping stone toward anything. Um, I always wanted to be in the adult entertainment industry and I’ve just been always drawn to the sex biz.
HEFFNER: Asa, I wanted to read a passage here because I thought in this contemporary culture, when one of the major parties in our country’s politics has nominated a woman, this passage in particular. In the growing equality in every industry, you say, “I often wonder if I would have picked the same profession if I were a man. As a woman with a high sex drive, porn is the perfect job. It’s a way that I can celebrate my sexuality. A way for me to use it to my advantage.” That was the goal because you describe yourself as someone who is enamored of sex but also enamored of the empowerment that it brings you.
AKIRA: Absolutely, and I think you know, myself included, I think a lot of women now are in porn because they want to be, and because it’s, you know, it’s, I’m a very hypersexual person, obviously, and porn has given me a safe, controlled environment to explore my sexuality in. Um, and it’s, yeah. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: Do you think that it’s become more mainstream in the decade that you’ve been doing this?
AKIRA: Absolutely it’s become more mainstream. And you know, by the time I got into the industry, I think it was already on its way there. Um, you know, the internet had already been around. Social media was there. I think Myspace was big back then. So already, the stars were um, you know, in touch with their fans and a little bit more humanized than like, the porn star of say, the 80s. Um, and I love that, like I, I like how interactive we get to be now. I like that it’s, it’s I guess a little bit more normalized. Um, but at the same time I, I love how taboo porn is. I think that’s part of the appeal for me.
HEFFNER: And obviously this idea of porn being perverse, I mean we, we all indulge in it to some degree. I had an English teacher once who said we’re all, and you I think concur with this, we’re all homosexual to some degree too.
AKIRA: I think so, yeah. I mean I, I, I believe in…
HEFFNER: It’s an interesting point to expound on.
AKIRA: I mean I believe in, in the scale. Um, I think…
HEFFNER: People are probably wondering what high school did I, a private high school, a boarding high school that used to not admit women, which is an interesting conundrum.
AKIRA: [LAUGHS] Right. Um, no, you know what, I do believe that there are people in the world who are totally straight. But I, at the same time I believe that’s just where they fall on the scale. I, I don’t believe in, you know, straight, bisexual, gay. Like I think there are so many different colors of the rainbow, so to speak. Um, but that’s a really interesting point, like I definitely, yeah. I… myself fall somewhere closer to straight, but not completely.
HEFFNER: But go back to this question of the perversion of porn,
HEFFNER: Because you have a positive experience around it and if anyone follows you on social media, you are witty and whimsical and hilarious and…
HEFFNER: Sometimes vulgar and explicit too. Uh, and this is public television so you’ll visit, uh, your social media feeds at your own risk, um, but I don’t want to say that there’s a dark side but the way that people approach you over those ten years, has it evolved at all? Because you think of the way that someone browsing porn on their computer might interact with another human being in a demeaning or dehumanizing way, how were you able to kind of flip that on its head so that you are empowered?
AKIRA: You know, in all my years in porn I’ve actually, I’ve been very, very lucky. Like I do want to make that clear, like before I go ahead with this. I, I feel that I’m the best case scenario in porn. I think for a very small percentage of us, porn, us as in us in the world, um, I think porn is the perfect job. I’m an exhibitionist, I’m hypersexual, I’m somewhat mentally healthy. Um, so I’ve been very lucky and I’ve, I’ve always wanted to do porn and this has been a great experience for me. That’s not always the case. I think anytime someone gets into the industry for reasons like money or love or whatever, I think it’s not, um, it’s not worth it, ‘cause it’s your body and it does ruin your life to a certain degree. It closes a lot of doors. Um, and what was the question again? [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: No no, you were, you were answering the question, I mean I think you were alluding to figures in your practice who aren’t able to come out unscathed and who, we had a guest here, Virginia Heffernan, also a new author of a book called Magic and Loss, which I urge you to read because it’s reflections on the internet age and like us coming to be digital natives during this transformation when someone can see a clip of you but to some extent, I think it’s the same when I write an op-ed or you do a scene, I mean you’re gonna read, you’re gonna curate…
HEFFNER: In your own consciousness what you read and what you actually process as legitimate feedback.
AKIRA: Mm-hmm. Oh, definitely. And I mean I’m sure the feedback I get is very different from the feedback you get. I mean, I mean…
HEFFNER: Well, but in one sense not, because in one sense, you’re opening people up as am I to different ideas, but the, the chamber, you could call it a death chamber of, of nonsense and hate is something that you feel and is real when people interact with you, but you’re putting yourself in ultimately the most vulnerable position. Your body is an intellectual property.
HEFFNER: I mean that’s the way to think of it, do you think of it that way?
AKIRA: Um, I do and yet I feel the least vulnerable when I’m, you know, on display, when my body, my physical body is on display. When I’m shooting a scene, I’m, I’m very, and you know, maybe I’m jaded. It’s been nine years since I started in the business, but when I do a scene like in, I’m not so, I’m much more insecure with the book. I feel much more open and vulnerable and quote unquote naked with the book. Um, I, I’m a lot more sensitive when it comes to my feelings and my emotions and my thoughts whereas my body is just my body. Like it, you know, it really is just a vessel. [LAUGHS] Um, I was born with what I got, except for a few things.
AKIRA: Um, but you know, I look how I look and there’s not much I can do about that, and I know that I can’t be everyone’s flavor and I’m okay with that. Like I, I have this very like um, almost like a cold objective view on my body and you know, it, I think being in the business, I’ve gotten very used to everyone is in a category. We’re very like com—um, just we all fit into a certain niche or a search term, I guess. And so I’m very used to that. I, that doesn’t bother me at all.
HEFFNER: In other words, you don’t…
AKIRA: I signed up to be objectified, my body.
HEFFNER: Right. Mm-hmm.
AKIRA: Whereas my thoughts, I don’t…
HEFFNER: But does that translate do you think into physical, um, objectification? Physical harm?
AKIRA: I think, I definitely signed up to be objectified as a sexual object, and I’m okay with that, like that is part of the job. I’m, it doesn’t hurt my feelings.
HEFFNER: People think that porn is a channel for societal abuse as a whole.
HEFFNER: But I think you speak to it differently in it actually creating positivity.
AKIRA: I totally disagree with censoring anything sexual or to, even to do with the naked body. Um, I think it’s so incredibly unhealthy that we have, we all are sexual beings, it’s how we’re here, it’s literally how we’re here. Um, so I think it’s just so unhealthy when we do things like ban porn or you know, women have to wear tops, it’s just, it’s crazy to me like to grow up with this stigma of like nude bodies are bad, sex is bad. I think that’s the most damaging thing we can do to our society. Um…
HEFFNER: Right, yeah I think, the sterilization of culture has led us to be depraved in a lot of ways.
AKIRA: Totally, and even like, I mean I think even something like when Kim Kardashian posts a selfie and then people are like I can’t believe that, she’s a mother, what is she doing? I think when a woman is appreciating her own body, for us to critique that, I think that’s so incredibly damaging to young women and girls. I think it’s, it’s, that being said, I don’t think all porn is a good example…
AKIRA: Of um, you know, not all porn is shot ethically. I’m very lucky to be contracted to a company that does. Um, Wicked Pictures. It’s very much a feminist set, that being, you know, women are treated equally. [LAUGHS] And my voice is very much heard. And I, I think, um, I don’t think porn has to be a bad thing.
HEFFNER: You’re evidence of that, highly articulate.
AKIRA: [LAUGHS] Thank you.
HEFFNER: You write here why is it the norm for men to have all the sex they want but not us?
HEFFNER: Why is it that when we go out looking for sex, we’re described as acting like men? If we aren’t meant to enjoy sex, why does it feel so good? I, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about this question of rights and the right to feel good and the right to not be labeled.
HEFFNER: It seems like the trans movement has gained some ground in claiming to be on the same level as straight, gay, we were talking about this before, but it doesn’t seem like men appreciate the full scale of women’s inequality when it comes to sex. And…
AKIRA: Definitely. I think we have such a long way to go. I mean I think we’ve come a long way as far as feminism goes, you know, rights, legally. Um, but we also have such a long way to go still because I hate that a woman being sexual is considered acting like a man. Like when a woman dates a lot of men at, you know, one given time, like let’s say I have, you know, a rotation of seven guys on my roster. Any, any person is like oh yeah, she’s just acting like a dude. And I think that’s so offensive, like why can’t a woman do that too? Like why, why is that not normal? We are all, we all have it in us to be sexual. Um, you know, to different degrees like the whole homosexuality thing. Um, I, I don’t, I certainly don’t knock a woman who wants to be monogamous or even just wants to you know, have sex with one partner for her whole life, that’s totally cool, she has that right. But I think on the other side we should also have the right to, we should do whatever we want with our own bodies and sexuality. Porn is interesting because as far as like inequality goes, it almost leans the other way. Um…
HEFFNER: It’s sort of the woman’s prerogative.
AKIRA: It kind of is in a lot of ways. We get paid more than our male counterparts. Um, we get treated a little bit better on set I think. Um, you know, I can demand things on set like I mean I try not to act like a diva but you know, if I wanted I could say what I want to order for lunch and you know, these kinds of things where a lot of times the guys are getting a bottle of water, [LAUGHS] and that’s it. Um, so I think as far as inequality goes, sometimes it does tend to lean the other way.
HEFFNER: The question of legalization of prostitution is an interesting one. We were talking about it off-camera a bit. If you were being paid to have sex in the space of a professional production…
HEFFNER: What is your, is your opinion about legalizing prostitution?
AKIRA: I absolutely think that prostitution should be legalized. I think the reason it’s so dangerous and so bad is because it’s illegal. Um, in porn we’re very lucky because while the very essence of it I think is the same as prostitution, we are at the end of the day having sex for money. Um, it’s different because we’re in a safe, controlled environment. We’re tested every two weeks. We’re working with partners that are also tested every two weeks. We know their, you know, STD status. Um, and we’re very lucky in that way, whereas prostitution, you almost have to resort to you know, like the shadier side of things, like people aren’t tested. It’s, it’s completely unregulated and you know, I think that’s what makes it so scary. Whereas if it were legal, you could, you know, demand things like prostitutes be tested every X amount of whatever. Um, I think it would make the world a better place if prostitution were legal.
HEFFNER: And regulated and te—with the kind of testing that you have, which is quite intense, right? I mean,
AKIRA: Yeah, yeah. It’s uh, we get tested every fourteen days. Um, nobody will hire you without a clean test. Um, and it’s, it’s taken very, very seriously. We’ve blacklisted people who’ve tried to cheat the system, and you know, um, there was actually a case a few years ago where a, a very prominent male performer, um, tried to alter his test. He tried to Photoshop it basically. Um, and he got caught and you know, he was one of the most famous male porn stars of all time and as an industry, we just totally blacklisted him ‘cause I mean that’s, you know, that’s the number one rule in porn. [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: Do you think that policies have made the difference or you think it’s more the people who are in the industry now take it more seriously?
HEFFNER: Do you think the rigors of the testing for example were as um, pronounced ten years ago? Uh, or do you think, you know, has, has porn always been regulated as intensely as it ha—is now?
AKIRA: I think porn is getting regulated more and more intensely as time goes on. Um, it, you know, just a couple years ago we were getting tested every 30 days. Um, now it’s 14. And I, I think our testing system is really, really, really good. Um, you know, there haven’t been any instances of HIV being transmitted on set in two decades. And I mean that’s, considering the amount of sex we’re having, that’s incredible. [LAUGHS] Uh, compared to the rest of society. Um, and that’s why I do feel so lucky to have found porn, which sounds crazy. But um, you know, being such a hypersexual person and needing that sexual outlet, craving that sexual outlet, porn has given me a place where I can express myself sexually and you know, be promiscuous and have various sex partners whereas in real life, you know, to find these things, I, the sexual acts I want to experiment with, like what am I gonna do? Go on Craigslist and find random people or just go to a bar and hope that this guy is tested and he has a condom on him and you know, it…
HEFFNER: How many people do you think are more like that than are willing to admit?
AKIRA: Oh, I wonder. I wonder. Um…
HEFFNER: Because you…
AKIRA: Probably a good amount.
HEFFNER: Yeah, more than half?
AKIRA: [LAUGHS] Maybe. I mean I, I know that I was always very insecure about it until, I mean even when I got into the porn industry, I was still very much like, when I wrote my first book, I wrote it out of a place where I was really like, I was confident in my sexuality but I really, really wanted to justify it. And I felt the need to like, find out why I’m like this. Um, my parents are still together, I’m from like a fairly normal background. I don’t, luckily I had no trauma growing up, you know, uh, I never really had anyone take advantage of me sexually or anything like that, so I was like why am I like this? Um, ‘cause as the stereotype goes, you know, women in porn are damaged.
HEFFNER: Right, right right.
AKIRA: And I’m not. So I, I really felt this like need to find out why I am the way I am, and in writing the first book I was hoping that it would be one of those things where like, I finished the book on a note that I’m like a-ha, and the answer was in front of me all along. And it wasn’t. [LAUGHS] I never really got an answer. And now with this book I think I’m, I’m okay with not having an answer. I think now I’m just kind of like hey, I’m just a really sexual woman, that’s okay. I don’t need an excuse for that. I don’t need to justify it. I can just be the way I am and that’s cool. So I, I found peace with it.
HEFFNER: When people write books, it’s about catharsis, just like the sexual acts to which you allude, right? What was the cathartic effect of this book in assessing these last ten years in the porn world and, and beyond now?
AKIRA: I think in Dirty Thirty, it has less to do with my sexuality, I mean it’s still a very sexual book just because that’s who I am and I think that just kind of comes out of my pores in everything that I do. Um, but I think in writing Dirty Thirty, I was reflecting a lot more on womanhood as a whole rather than just that one aspect of it. Um, you know, I think turning thirty is kind of a huge milestone in any woman’s life, um, or, and we’re told that it is in media. I think I grew up thinking, you know, when I turn thirty, I’m supposed to freak out. I’m supposed to have, like this you know, thirty-year-old crisis. I’m supposed to freak out about the things that I haven’t done yet and if anything, like I didn’t have that freak-out and then I was freaking out about that. Um, and, and also, in porn, when you turn thirty, it’s like we age in doggie years. Um, it’s very different than the real world because I’m working with, you know, 18, 19-year-old girls every day. And so I… Thirty feels a lot older to me than I think it would if I weren’t in the industry. So it, it’s just, and then I’m like do I want to have a family? Do I want to have kids? It’s all those things. Just reflecting on being a woman and you know, what, where I’m going in my life now that I’m thirty and I can’t do porn forever. I’m, um, very aware of that.
HEFFNER: If and when you, you have a daughter or a son, and I know you’re married still, right?
AKIRA: I am married.
HEFFNER: Uh, do you, what do you anticipate saying to them even more intimately than you do in this book, because this is like, they could read this book and, and find some harmony with their mom that they understand the motivations and it’s not, it’s not, you know, but I’m just wondering how you would sort of personally recount this experience.
AKIRA: It’s really hard to say because I mean no matter what I say now, I’m sure I’ll feel 100 percent differently once, if I had a kid.
HEFFNER: Why do you say that?
AKIRA: Um, just because I, I think it’s actually like pretty, it would be ignorant of me to say oh, I’d do this as a mom or you know…
HEFFNER: Right right right.
AKIRA: People should parent their children like this.
AKIRA: Um, but I, I feel super conflicted and, and that’s the main thing holding me back from having kids is I, I wonder like would it be totally selfish of me to bring a child into this world having done everything I wanted to do? Um… Is that just a lot to put on a kid? I mean I can’t even imagine, when I was in middle school I was already so insecure, you know, everything my parents did was so embarrassing and they were just normal people.
AKIRA: Um, I can’t imagine what it must feel like for a child when their friend comes up to them and you know, they’re like oh I saw your mom on the internet. Like that’s got to be really hurtful. So…
HEFFNER: But not if it’s a norm that we…
HEFFNER: Are cognizant of and is not taboo.
AKIRA: Yeah, the hopeful, the hopeful side of me is like maybe by the time my kid is you know, at that age, maybe society will be a little bit more open to you know, sex-related things.
HEFFNER: Foucault, right?
HEFFNER: If Foucault was, was Americana, we would all be dancing in the streets naked.
AKIRA: And, [LAUGHS]
HEFFNER: We’re far from that but maybe…
AKIRA: Yeah so I wonder, I, I mean realistically though are we gonna be there in…
HEFFNER: Who knows what the next golden age would be.
AKIRA: Who knows? Who knows?
HEFFNER: Right, I mean I think you’re leading us towards progress and recognition of our se—sexuality, so,
AKIRA: I would love to be, I mean I do want to be a part of that and like, but, but I, I just, I really don’t know.
HEFFNER: I think your ambivalence speaks to your thoughtfulness but I would not fear,
HEFFNER: I don’t think you have to fear, I think you should…
AKIRA: Thank you. And I mean the other,
HEFFNER: Just keep writing and,
AKIRA: The other hope is like, I would hope that I would raise my children in a way that, you know, not to judge others and to understand that when someone else is judging you it’s coming, it’s on them, you know? Like I, I would hope that I could raise someone like that but again, like who knows? It’s such unknown territory for me it’s, it’s scary.
HEFFNER: Oh don’t be frightened. Asa, a pleasure to have you here today.
AKIRA: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit the Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.