Every Story is an Epstein Story: A conversation with Stoya

Stoya has been a pornographer for over a decade. Her first book, Philosophy, Pussycats, & Porn, was published last year. She is the co-founder of ZeroSpaces.com.

Andrew Thompson: PornHub has a view counter for every video, like YouTube. Every word in this graph occurs at least 1,000 times across PornHub. Take, for example, the word “hardcore”: A video with “hardcore” in the title would, on balance, be expected to get 38,000 more views than a video than one without the word. The word most correlated with higher view counts—

Stoya: Is “step”. Followed by “sister”, “brother”, “stepmom”, “daughter”. And then “caught.”

AT: Which are all within this general theme. At the same time, there’s this growth curve of the existence of just the word “step” in titles over time. It hits an inflection point around 2015 and has exponentially grown since then.

There are really two questions. One is why this began when it did, which is 2015, and why has it continued this runaway growth? And the second more fundamental question that I think I want to spend the most time talking about is, why does this type of porn exist at all?

S: There was a performer named Kay Parker who was in a movie [with an incest theme] called Taboo during the golden era. And in 2013, 2014, 2015, I can’t remember, the XRCO Awards had Kay come present one of the awards. You have a lot of the people who make pornography in that room. So I wonder if partially, and only very partially, being reminded of the success of Taboo and how much of a classic it was reminded people of that theme. But I don’t think that is the whole bit by any stretch of the imagination.

AT: I think of 2015 as being the year where analytics finished inserting itself into every nook of the internet. BuzzFeed peaked in 2015 off of this strategy of almost instantaneously responding to trends by creating content that rides a wave, however short lived, discernible from people’s activity online. My hunch is that this was when porn companies started to do what all the content companies were trying to do, which is getting really sophisticated about creating super responsive content.

S: You do have this feedback loop that I believe is replicated in [internet porn conglomerate and PornHub owner] MindGeek’s world itself, where people who don’t value pornography, who don’t value the people who make it, go to the tube sites because they don’t think it has value, it should be free. So they go to the tube sites and they see the chaos of the front page, and some of them go, “Oh my God, this is too much for me,” and they wander off and they’re like, “Porn’s terrible.” And the rest go, “Oh yeah, fucking whore gets gang banged through the wall. Yeah, that’s my shit. I love that. Oh, what’s the stepson video? Yeah, stepsons. That’s hot. That’s really hot.”

AT: You link the tube sites to this particular kind of user, but it feels like that user is the broadest base of porn user. Everyone I’ve told this to is instantly familiar with what I’m talking about with this incest trend. And they’re familiar with it because they go to the tube sites.

S: I was in Southern California a couple of years ago speaking at a university, and a hand goes up and they’re like, “There’s no women in porn. We need women in power in porn.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? A director?” And they’re like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “You know Mason?” And they’re like, “Who?” Then I’m like, “Does anybody know Mason?” And no hands go up. And I’m like, “Okay, can anybody name a single porn director?” Nothing. No one can name a single porn director. I’m there speaking with them, they don’t even know that I direct. That’s how little people care about the creators of pornography.

I’m not saying that these are inherently bad people,  I’m saying these are people that inherently do not value the work or the workers in this specific context. And maybe they also don’t value the work of musicians or film makers. But it’s a person who’s in a headspace of dehumanization. To use a tube site is to be in an intellectual space that is disconnecting from the value of humans. You’re not thinking, “This is a fucked up power imbalance that could really wreck someone’s life.” I think the act of using a tube site is part of why they’re feeling okay about step incest.

AT: Step incest also maybe feels like innuendo for real incest. I don’t know much about obscenity law, but I always got the feeling that you couldn’t even say that this is a real sister on the tube sites. You can’t say this girl is 16 even if she’s actually 19.

S: I don’t know if that’s a legal thing or an obscenity squeamishness thing. Although I think it’s right to err on the side of caution on obscenity. Cards on the table, I think incest is wrong. I think it’s wrong if you’re a blood relation, I think it’s wrong if you’re only family by law, because of the power imbalance. You have just as much power over your stepson as you do over your son. And if we wanted to have a fun intellectual experiment about equal love between first cousins, we could, but that’s not what we’re here to do today. In the kinds of fake incest porn that we see happening, there’s a power dynamic.

AT: The existence of a power dynamic in and of itself is not the element that bothers me in this.

S: I’m not critiquing boss-secretary porn, I’m not critiquing some other power dynamic porn. I also find it very alarming that when the kink.com scenes show up on the tube sites, they’re not as connected to the pre- and post-scene interviews that telegraph the consent. When there’s a video on kink.com, there’s all this other stuff around it that’s like, “Here’s the performer talking about what they’ve negotiated and are about to do. Here are the performers talking about what they just did and how they felt about it.” And that context is really important. And so if these fake incests scenes were framed that way, if each scene started with, “Hey, this is a person I’m not related to. We’re going to play with the power dynamic of family as a sexual adventure, because it does this for me, it does that for me,” then I wouldn’t be worried about a 12-year-old seeing it. It would have a different feeling. But also if most of what kink.com was pumping out or most of what people were searching for on kink.com was rape, I’d also be like, “Whoa, what’s happening here? This is fucked.”

I worry about a world where people aren’t thinking critically about things like incest. That’s what’s happening. People are going into tube sites, they’re not thinking critically about what they’re watching, and what they’re watching is fake incest. That seems very dangerous and combustible to me.

I also have this chip on my shoulder about the tube sites in general. I’m like, They need to get some age verification going on. And if they have a good system, I want in on it for my own stuff. If someone comes up with a good age verification system, I want to implement it. We’re still, as a culture and a country, working on getting functional sex-ed. How old was I when I first saw porn online?

AT: I must’ve been like 10.

S: For me it was before I was 13. I didn’t have a pubic hair yet. There were still images of people. And it was just like, “What are these people doing? They look like they’re having fun, but I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

AT: The first porn I remember looking at was also the most fucked up porn you could have shown me. You’re dropped in the middle of the ocean, and whatever you see, you see.

S: That, when combined with the lack of sex-ed, can be really harmful for people. It can take them years and years to unlearn false beliefs. People absorb these from romance movies just as much as they get them from pornography. But until we have good sex-ed—kids stumbling onto incest porn? No, this is a not okay situation.

AT: I mean, to me, it seems like the fictionalization of it is so explicit that it loses all implausibility.

S: People actually think Melody Star is my roommate. They think we were roommates at one point because we were roommates in a porno. You can’t overestimate the critical thinking ability that people engage in when they’re watching porn. It goes out the fucking window. It’s so weird.

AT: That never even occurred to me. It’s so campy.

S: Not to some people.

AT: One of the major problems I have with it, actually, is its campiness

S: Yeah, what’s your problem with incest porn?

AT: My problem with it is that it’s totally deaestheticized. You’re taking, basically, as young a character as you can cast and putting them through the “step” door so that they are then plausibly 15 or 14 years old or whatever, and essentially packaging meat. There is no aesthetic to the fantasy. There’s just this positive value on the dimension of “step”.  It’s a thoughtless product. It’s also worth repeating explicitly, this isn’t just a thing people like on the sites, it’s the thing they like most on the sites.

S: By far. There’s a fixation. As a socially responsible pornographer, I’m like, All right, I have feelings, I worry about stuff. Now that I’ve heard from actual teenagers, saying “I’m learning about sex from porn online.” I carry that into my work. I don’t require barriers, but I use them whenever possible. Like the last scene we put up in Zero Spaces, we used a condom. As long as it’s possible to incorporate visibly safer sex tactics, I want to put those in there. For a reasonable adult, watch whatever you want to watch, as long as no kids are involved and no animals get hurt. Just do whatever you’re going to do. It’s the fact that it’s the most popular stuff that bothers me. And what’s popular rises to the front page.

AT: That’s the feedback loop I think of.

S: But also I think there’s been a sloppier feedback loop since the ’70s where only the people who want the envelope pushed in one direction or another feel moved to be vocal, so that’s the feedback the company hears. And then if the majority of that is like, “Oh, put them in pigtails,” then that’s what’s going to happen. And now, the feedback loop is much cleaner, it’s more direct, it’s efficient. It’s interesting, and goes back to what you were saying about the algorithms only really getting off to the races in the past few years.

AT: I have yet to have stumbled upon a step video that felt like it was artfully executed in any way. And that, to me, is what defines porn on the tube sites—these decontextualized, denarrativized, deaestheticized pieces of content. Which might be fine. I don’t know if I need to spend a lot of time watching porn. I don’t know what my life would be like if I watched Tarkovsky-directed porn versus whatever video of two minutes.

S: Oh man! I’ve already done what if Hunter S. Thompson directed porn, Tarkovsky might be my next. I don’t know much about his work.

AT: Maybe I’d fall asleep in the middle of it.

S: I’d have to do a lot of research. But that pacing really appeals to me.

AT: I can tell you with certainty that my life is better with great music. I don’t know if my life would be better if I were watching great porn. And so on the one hand, I dismiss this step stuff because it’s so shitty, among a hundred other reasons that we can enumerate. On the other hand I do wonder, what is the consequence of tastelessness in porn? Because step porn is the height of tastelessness to me.

S: It turns off people who want something different and then eventually they stumble over my work, Erika Lust’s, Ovidie’s work, Madison Young, Annie Sprinkle, Candida Royalle, whoever. I’m realizing there aren’t any women of color other than Shine Louise Houston that are coming to mind. I’m just marking that. But eventually they stumble over that and then they’re like, “Oh, what is this?” And then they fall into this world of Jennifer Lyon Bell and the the La Fille d’O lady, who mostly makes lingerie, but she made a porno, or Four Chambered Heart, and all the other creative, feminist, or artistic stuff.

Part of the thing about it being interesting or multilayered or high production, whatever it is, is that it can’t be done in a factory model. I can’t churn out an Around the World in 80 Ways once a week for the next two years. It’s just not possible. Shine Louise Houston can’t churn out her features that investigate queer sexuality every month, either.

AT: I guess there’s a more fundamental question that allows us to evaluate the step porn, which is, what is the point of porn to begin with? Why is it good? Why do we want to have it?

S: It helps people have a decent orgasm, that clearly serves a very valuable function in a lot of people’s lives. Oh, here’s a contradiction. Depending on what you’re watching, it can be a great way to learn about sex. If you’re watching Shine Louise Houston’s product, you’re able to see a lot of dental dams in use, and get an idea of how to use one properly in a way that you can’t figure out from a book. In my capacity as an advice columnist, someone’s like, “My boyfriend has a really hard time coming from oral. What do I do?” Trying to explain that with words is more difficult than demonstrating it in a one-minute video.

It can be useful for intellectually exploring. If you’re curious about something. This week’s advice column question for the chat was a guy who’s been married for 45 years, and in the past five or so, the sexual chemistry has petered out, and he’s also begun fantasizing about men. And because porn exists, he can watch some gay porn and imagine himself doing those things and take a little thought adventure before he goes and does it.

AT: The uses you’ve described are largely educational. They almost serve the role that story does throughout civilization, which is a sequestered space in which you perform thought experiments, so you can interrogate consequences of different actions. Porn, in this particular conception, would be very similar in that you are able to sequester something and see its consequence before actually performing it.

S: For me, the brain is the most important sexual organ. So that explains my biases and where this perspective of porn is coming from. Because I know mostly people just use it to get off, and go like, “I want to come, I need a little something extra to get me over the edge in an efficient manner because I got shit to do. I gotta get in the shower, shave my face and go meet my girlfriend,” or whatever.

But also, rather than worry about what’s popular and what’s selling, I’ve made what I want to make and put it out there. And then every series you do, as time goes on, you take constructive criticism and shape it and it becomes more of a collaborative thing. But I’ve made my weird stuff and put it out there and attracted people who are like, “I didn’t jerk off to it, but it was really an interesting experience.” And so there are people who have a similar conception, it’s just, there’s only like a few hundred of them so far.

AT: I guess within this question of, what is porn supposed to do or why is it good, if it’s established that it should exist in some way and that it serves some purpose, then there’s the further question of, what form should exist? What form of it serves this ideal purpose that we want it to serve? There’s the porn as you imagine it should be with Zero Spaces or even people you’ve mentioned. And there’s the tube sites, which predominate most people’s experience of it. Just like most people’s experience of music now has nothing to do with the purchase of an album.

S: Most people treat porn like I treat music. I go on YouTube, if I really like something, then I’ll go, “Oh, who is this?” I might listen to something else they did. If I listen to it like 20 times in a few weeks, I’ll buy it.

AT: So you’re aligned with this predominant method of listening to music now, which is on streaming sites. I use streaming sites. I buy albums sometimes too. There’s, to me, this idea of the role music should play in our lives, what a musical experience should be, and then how it’s been adapted to fit Spotify Mode. And Spotify Mode is this mode in which everything exists on these  very cut and dried dimensions, in which a piece of music is happy or it’s sad or it’s danceable or it’s not danceable, or it has an acoustic sound or it doesn’t have an acoustic sound. And every piece of music within this mode is broken down into its component parts in order to more precisely target and influence broadly defined affective states. That is Spotify Mode. That has become most people’s experience of music now.

S: And it’s the same thing with porn. They watch porn to achieve an effect, rather than buy the whole album, rather than watch the whole scene. They zero in on the two minutes and 30 seconds of action that works for them and move on to the next clip.

AT: I see these tube sites and the step porn as existing in parallel with streaming services, between Spotify, between Netflix, where there’s this attention-deficient bouncing between pieces of content, this hyper fragmentary form of engagement, which is just postmodernism. Spotify or Netflix are designed to fulfill a very shallow engagement with music or film and television, and you can see certain content rise to the top of both of them because each of these modes has an optimum. In the case of Spotify, I think Drake has largely achieved his unfathomable success because he is the precise sweet spot within Spotify Mode, this endlessly listenable, mostly ignorable, affect-regulating muzak. To me, the exponential emergence of “step” is arguably the sign of a similar phenomenon, like step porn is the Drake of porn.

Just the way that by existing in Spotify Mode for long enough you’ll find your way to a Drake-like playlist of some kind, by just being on PornHub, you will start watching step porn, because that mode’s optimum has a gravitational pull that sucks you in.

S: My dude was like, “I watch step porn all the time. I just skip past the plot. What the fuck do I care?” And maybe they say something weird in the middle and you shrug it off. But then, clearly, there is a need for the plot because that’s what people are searching for.

I want to know, what the hell are we collectively processing? There’s a book called A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam. They scraped the AOL search data that leaked like 10, 15 years ago, and I wish I could remember what the top 10 were and whether “step” was on it. I know “trans” was high as a search term. And it was of high sexual search within AOL users in the early 2000s. And then we have Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and Caitlyn Jenner. We have now all these trans people being accepted. And so I legitimately wonder, was there some processing happening that set us up for this? And then what the hell are we processing with this incest stuff?

AT: If you think of media as the externalization of desire, then these are desires that we are externalizing and projecting onto a screen. If music now operates in Spotify Mode and the way we consume videos in YouTube/Netflix Mode, I think sexually we exist in Epstein Mode. And Epstein Mode is where you just transgress as much as possible and fuck as many young bodies as possible that are as young as possible. The reason the Epstein story is something I’ve started tying everything back to over the past month is because I think it reveals the libidinal dynamo of the system at large. So it makes sense to me that if a sizeable portion of our society’s stewards are associates of an underage sex trafficking ring, the fact that we all exist within their modality is not going to escape us. We’re not outside of it. That would inform sexual predilections at large.

S: I, at 33, find how young I looked in porn at 19, 20, 21 unsettling. I have always held that the porn that gets made is a manifestation of the society it’s made in. Japanese porn, German porn, American porn, very different. Even San Francisco porn, different from LA porn, New York porn, different for both of them. And that’s only talking about the professional stuff. So I have always held that like, “Oh, anti-sex feminist, anti-porn feminist, you’re all spun up about this thing”, but it happens because it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the real world. And my concern with the tube sites and the kids is that we may now be dictating instead of reflecting.

AT: Right, so let’s say media is an externalization of desire. At the very least, it’s an externalization to a receptivity to the introduction of something. There’s a symbiosis between them that I don’t think allows you to determine which is happening more or less than the other, whether what’s on PornHub, for example, is more a reflection of our tastes or a dictation of those tastes by the site’s managers.

S: Which is why it’s a loop. I’m very concerned that so many people are so interested in fake incest. It worries me. And I can’t quite put my finger on why. I don’t think seeing incest porn is going to make people go out and assault their family members, but I do worry that seeing incest porn is going to make a kid feel like it’s normal and not speak up.

AT: Someone recently sent me SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas. In the introduction by Michelle Tea, she mentions how her stepfather, who was always the “cool” stepfather, the guy who would hang out and was the funny drunk or whatever, she learned at some point that he was drilling holes in her wall and spying on her. On top of that, someone else recently told me that their stepbrother would try to fuck them when they were younger. There was a four-year age disparity between them, he was 18 and she was 14. And he would send her dick pics and try to fuck her. So this is a manifestation, arguably, not of just a taboo or idealized transgressive eroticism, but an actual, literal desire that people have.

So the way that you described this guy who hit middle age and wants to start fucking men, how he gets to imagine that and play with that online—for him, that’s also an actual, literal desire. Perhaps one of the reasons incest porn is so un-fantastical in its imagining is because the matter-of-fact nature of the videos parallels the  matter-of-fact nature of the desire itself. There is this immediate reality and this immediate desire that people have to actually fuck their stepsisters and stepdaughters. It’s important to remember that a lot of the step porn is a stepfather fucking his stepdaughter. That’s something that we’ve left out.

So the question then becomes, is there something now about this time in which stepfathers want to fuck their stepdaughter? I don’t know, divorce rates are higher, people have more stepchildren and step-siblings than they used to? Is that a possibility we’re confronted with in a way we wouldn’t have been a hundred years ago? I’m just thinking.

Mark Fisher wrote an essay about this Vogue fashion shoot in 2006 with these scenes of the National Guard or SWAT teams roughing up models in Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It was this violent eroticism that Fisher used as an example of what, in his eyes, porn could or should begin to look like. This step porn is not that, it’s not staged in the same phantasmagoria. It’s very literal. And so one of these things feels more … I don’t know. The step-porn maybe feels more achievable and real to viewers perhaps than the Vogue photos would?

S: Well, first of all, very few people who like porn, like porn that looks like a fashion magazine. And I learned that the hard way with Graphic Depictions. But then I also learned that there are plenty of people who don’t think they like porn but like that stuff. It makes my skin crawl a little to focus on how much stepfather there is. Because that’s where the real power imbalance lies. It’s like how a prison guard can’t have consensual sex with an inmate. A parent can’t have consensual sex with someone who’s in their care. Society says, and I believe this, that consent is not possible in those conditions. Yeah, what’s being processed. And I want to know, is this an American thing? Is this a global thing? Is this men searching? Is this women searching? What’s the gender breakdown?

There’s data from the Nordic countries, and I think there’s similar data points in the US, that the rate of sexual assault goes down when porn is more available. The more porn and the more different kinds of porn, the easier access to it, the lower the sexual assault rate.

AT: I would have expected not necessarily the opposite, but I would have expected, at the very least, if you control for other factors, that there would be no change.

S: So we’re the first generation of digital natives. We’re the first generation who encountered all the porn instead of just one magazine under dad’s nightstand. And in our generation, we’re having less sex, we’re having less unwanted pregnancies. And it’s the same with the teenagers now. We’re doing more of everything but penetration. There’s a lot of, “Oh, I made out with this person,” but we’re not procreating at the same rate. That’s pretty strange. I think someone would need to take all these data points and look at the cultural context and what else was happening.

AT: I’m always interested in this current de-eroticized eroticism. I’m thinking of an Unsplash photo. You know Unsplash? They’re like the Squarespace of stock photos, basically. And so you get the faded filtered stock photos. There is, on the one hand, this hyper sexualization of nearly everything, in which it feels like rooms, signage, a couch, whatever, are engineered to subtly play on libido in one way or another. I think about this all the time living in New York, in which graphic design, exteriors and seemingly all matter here seem to possess a vaguely  libidinal quality. It’s like the graphic, architectural, inanimate manifestation of Instagram models.

At the same time, these very environments and these very artifacts are also incredibly antisceptic, they’re extremely sanitary. They exist within this super sterilized culture at large, in which everything is in frictionless Spotify Mode, where everything is smooth and clean and iOS-like and mess-less, which is what actual eroticism involves. So you have this sterilized eroticism that actually has a hard time finding fulfillment. Because in order to do that, it has to confront realities like mucus and semen and the filth of the human body.

S: I hope someone goes and does the research with those correlations and figures out what’s happening. Because if it is porn, we need to know that. And if it’s something else that is important, we also need to know that. Because dropping sexual assault rates and teen pregnancy rates are really cool. And so whatever we can do to keep up that trend is good.

AT: Although if the trend is being driven by the things that I described, I would hope that there was another way to drive that trend. Because that other stuff sucks. It sucks to live in.

S: But you don’t have to live on PornHub.

AT: No, but you do live in PornHub. That’s the thing, we all live in PornHub. We live in these various modalities that are PornHub-like or Spotify-like.

S: The thing is patriarchy. Epstein is patriarchy. Preying on young women is patriarchy. Distancing the worker from the work is patriarchy. It’s all capitalism, patriarchy, all tied up together. I know everyone is tired of hearing the intersectional feminist shit, but it’s actually a thing. And Epstein, MindGeek, PornHub, patriarchy, capitalism, it’s all this Voltron of not being particularly kind to people, dehumanizing. For someone to abuse a child, they have to dehumanize the child. For someone to go to war, they have to dehumanize the enemy. And when people go on PornHub and can’t name a director, they’re dehumanizing the worker. PornHub makes it really easy to not pay attention to real people.