The London-based writer and lecturer Reba Maybury and the New York-based writer and musician Esra Padgett met last summer in New York through mutual friends. They quickly discovered a shared interest in writing and research pertaining to the adult entertainment industry, Padgett through a more academic, ethnographic lens, Maybury conducting interviews with women involved in the business. They were both “obsessed with a formation of feminism that doesn’t really exist anywhere else,” Maybury told me over email, “one that isn’t bourgeois or fashionable but one that loves women who revel in a patriarchal aesthetic in a naïvely unconscious way.” A few months later, the two decided that they would travel to Las Vegas to attend the 2016 Adult Video News Awards, the world’s largest adult entertainment expo. It was there that they conducted interviews with female performers that would form the basis for their new publication Sisters of Pornography (out on Maybury’s own Wet Satin Press), which launches tonight at Shoot The Lobster on the Lower East Side in New York.
Before heading to Vegas, the two—who told me they both have experience in sex work, as dominatrices—did research through social media, seeking out performers who were public about their intra-industry friendships. Padgett told me over email that the process was an “interesting experience because we were essentially like trolling these girls, just like stalking their feeds and looking through all their pictures, and for me it kind of unraveled the experience of being a fan.” She said that the actual interview process was “really amazing … We interviewed several of them as pairs, and Reba and I were both present in every interview as we asked them about their friendships and relationships with other women. I think there was a pretty immediate feeling of trust between everyone.”
It was Maybury’s first time in the city. “Las Vegas irritated every single one of my British senses of taste and culture,” she said, though she admitted she found it to be “fabulous in its absurdity.” She called the AVNs a “colossal explosion of excess—every time you turned your head you could see a sea of fake breasts walking up and down the carpeted hallways decorated with ‘rock ’n’ roll’ memorabilia or overweight men in electric wheelchairs smoking cigarettes while asking for photos with perfectly sculpted women. I suppose what became seriously evident was how sexiness is a construct for women that is so pressured and barely exists for men.”
Sisters of Pornography is interspersed with drawings by the Portland artist Michelle Shepperd, whose gentle portraits fit within the fan art idiom and provide a nice framework for the text. Maybury discovered Shepperd through Instagram channels, and from there she commissioned the artist to make new work for the project. “We had been struggling with how to visualize the women in the book,” Maybury said. “The male gaze is so inherent to how these women are processed—but with Michelle’s work she regurgitates this gaze into a female one that is as sensitive as it is arousing.”
According to the Padgett, one main impetuous behind the project was to explore “this beast of mainstream feminism that’s kind of tearing its way through pop culture right now,” something that she sees as positive for some but ultimately flawed. “I think we wanted to point out how this new brand of feminism is highly selective in who it includes—how it is elitist, and how the class-, color-, and general privilege-blindness of it needs to be reconsidered.” The decision to focus on adult video performers was an active attempt to zero in on a group that they believe is currently neglected and negatively judged by both “pop” and contemporary academic feminist circles.
The end result is a nonjudgmental, de-sensationalized look at the work and relationships between women in the adult entertainment industry, letting the performers speak for themselves. “What I love most about this project is how it allows these women to be complicated,” Padgett said, telling me that although the performers communicated many genuine feelings of support, love, and friendship, they also “spoke to us about their issues with other women in the industry—how extremely competitive it can be between women.” To Padgett, this was crucial to include. “I didn’t want to gloss over these facts—just because we are showing that there are good things about the industry doesn’t mean that it’s all good,” she said. “It’s just never that simple.”