The pseudonymous Lux Nightmare burst onto the alt porn scene as a college student at Columbia where she launched the naked-guy-and-girl site That Strange Girl, featuring stills and video of herself and numerous other models who looked like they could be her fellow classmates. At a time when Suicide Girls and Burning Angel were coming to prominence, That Strange Girl (who, full disclosure, this interviewer posed for) was a homegrown, indie entry in the genre. Cut to the present, where Nightmare has since folded her XXX business and is a member of Gotham Girls Roller Derby, teaches sex ed to teenagers in East Harlem, and runs the smarty-pants sex site Sexerati, where she conducts interviews, explores Dating 2.0, and explains terms like "the pink ghetto." (Warning: many of the links in this interview are NSFW.) Currently, the "non porn star" is working on a book proposal about her time in the alt porn trenches.
You say on your site that you've been obsessed with sex since 1982. How has your sex obsession grown and changed over the years?
I've been interested in sex, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember. My parents were pretty good about being honest about sex and sexuality (my first book about sex: Where Do I Come From?, featuring illustrations of fat naked people and information on sex, baby making, and orgasms) and I never really got the message that sex was something I should be ashamed about or afraid of talking about.
I started doing work around sex at the age of fourteen, doing HIV/AIDS education for the Red Cross as part of a peer education program. When I got to college, I continued work in the sex education vein (working at the health education center, working as an HIV pretest counselor), but also started to branch out into other areas of work around sexuality. College was where I really started to get interested in the "sex positive" movement: I got involved with queer culture, and learned a lot about sex-positive feminism—and, in some ways, that was what really paved the way towards my work in porn.
These days, I'm more interested in being academic about sex, and examining sex and sexuality as a part of our culture as a whole. I find sex endlessly fascinating: no matter where you look, or what subject you're discussing, there's probably some way that sex has an effect, an impact. I find that pretty awesome, and still don't quite get why it is that people think I'm odd for wanting to devote my life to the study of this topic.
You started the alt porn site That Strange Girl when you were a college student at Columbia. What was your first exposure to porn and why did you want to start your own site?
My first memory of porn is pretty standard: I remember an encounter with a stray Playboy that I found in my grandparents' basement.
Growing up, I wasn't all that interested in porn: sex, yes, but porn not so much. While I was in college, I started developing an interest in pornography from a more theoretical standpoint: I was bothered by people who categorically denounced porn as harmful and degrading to women, because I felt that they were basically saying that sex was fundamentally harmful and degrading to women. While I recognized that a lot of porn on the market was poorly made and could be considered degrading, I had trouble accepting the fact that all porn, by definition, had to be that way.
I've never been the kind of person to just sit back and hope that someone else will take care of things: since I wanted to see good porn out on the market, and I didn't know anyone who was making it, it seemed only logical that I should go out and create the kind of porn I wanted to see.
You had male and female models on the site, a rarity at the time. Why did you choose to include both men and women, and was it harder to find men to pose? What was the breakdown amongst your readers?
I initially decided to feature male models simply because my boyfriend at the time wanted to be in porn, and I couldn't really see any reason why he shouldn't be on my site. The more I thought about it, however, the more sense it made: if I was really creating porn as a way to celebrate the human body, and celebrate sexuality, then leaving boys out of the equation made absolutely no sense—just because our culture likes to equate the female body (and only the female body) with sex didn't mean that I had to follow suit.
Finding male models was harder, for a bunch of reasons. Since there wasn't (and honestly, still isn't) that much of a culture of male alt models, there weren't that many men who actually thought of themselves as potential porn models, and, as a result, there weren't a lot of men sending in model applications. Of the men who did apply, there were quite a few who didn't quite get what it was all about: many assumed that it would be strictly hardcore, and more than a handful sent photos that were just of their penises (as though that was the only thing I was interested in). On the male models who made the cut and ended up on my site were actually some pretty amazing people who really got what I was doing and were very excited to be a part of it.
My membership was largely male, which didn't really surprise me: since many women assume that the world of porn is closed off to them, they wouldn't even be looking in places where they might find my site. I did have more than a few (very appreciative) female members, and several couples who felt that the site was a great boon to their relationship.
How did the site evolve during the time you worked on it, and what were the most rewarding and most frustrating things about running it?
I went from a site with five female models and two male models to a site with fifty-eight female models, eighteen male models, webcams, videos, an active forum, and a whole lot of writing. My site became bigger, I became smarter, and the whole thing just grew and grew, incorporating the efforts of several photographers and writers along the way.
The most rewarding part of running the site was the people I came into contact with: models and photographers who became my close friends, fans who thanked me for the work I was doing, people who noticed me because of my work and contacted me for other projects. The most frustrating part was the stress that comes from working in a stigmatized industry: I didn't like that I couldn't be totally open about my work, that I had to live a double life, that I had to worry about what and when to tell people about this career that I had set up for myself.
You were also a model on the site and for other alt porn sites; how did that influence the way you went about running the business?
I actually started my site because of my experiences on other sites. Working as a model showed me how exploited altmodels were—even on sites that claimed to be female friendly, that claimed to treat their models fairly. Frustrated and fed up with shabby treatment, I decided that a) if I was going to get naked on the Internet, I was going to be my own boss, and b) I wanted to show that porn didn't have to be exploitative. That Strange Girl was altporn that lived up to the hype: I treated my models the way that I wanted to be treated.
Do you think the site had a "New York" feel to it that was very different from porn produced in Los Angeles?
Well, there were fewer fake tits and fake nails...I think New York gets associated with a "gritty," more "real" aesthetic, while LA is thought to be more airbrushed and plastic. By that standard, the work I did was definitely "New York." I strove for authenticity, encouraging my models to show me what they thought was sexy, rather than dressing up and presenting me with what Playboy or MTV or Maxim told them to think of as sexy. I think self confidence and determination are some of the sexiest qualities a person can have, which I think was definitely reflected in my site. Self confidence and determination are also qualities I associate with New York, so I suppose it all goes hand in hand.
You said in an interview once that, you view the site as a "social mission" rather than a money-making one. Can you elaborate on the social mission That Strange Girl served? Do you think you accomplished the goals you had when you started it?
That Strange Girl was about challenging mainstream beauty ideals, about celebrating sexuality in a variety of forms, about creating porn that didn't exploit people, and about helping people feel good about sex and themselves. And yes, I do think I accomplished the goals I had: the models I worked with had really great experiences (I got some protests when I shut my site down, because there were several people who only felt comfortable working with me), and I like to think that I challenged more than a few people's ideas about what porn is supposed to look like.
More than anything, I'm proud of the effect my work had on boys in altporn: there are several sites that feature boys now, something you never saw before I launched That Strange Girl.
Why did you ultimately decide to stop producing the site? Do you miss the day-to-day excitement and urgency of running it?
I got into pornography because I wanted to talk about sex, and pornography seemed like the best way to do that—getting naked, putting my body on the line, and challenging mainstream ideas about what was sexy, about what "normal" sexuality looked like, seemed like an aggressive, guerrilla way to talk about how sexuality interacted with culture.
But after a while, porn started to seem like a really limiting medium for the conversation I wanted to have—and there were a lot of difficult, stressful factors (stricter 2257 regulations, Visa/MC fees that punished adult businesses) that made it less and less enjoyable. The benefits of being involved in porn started to feel vastly outweighed by the costs, and as a result I decided to retire.
I sometimes miss the thrill of doing porn—when I was on the set of The Bi Apple (which I had a cameo in) —I felt a pang of nostalgia for the days when I was the one getting naked, coordinating photo shoots, and being in on the action. At the end of the day, however, I know I'm a lot happier and less stressed than I was when I was running my site, so I'm pretty sure I made the correct decision.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from running That Strange Girl? Do you think you'd ever want to run a porn site again? What about modeling?
I learned a lot about business: what works, what doesn't work, and the importance of planning ahead. I also learned that I have the capability to mount a large scale project (and succeed with it) —even a project that most people assumed was doomed to fail.
I never say never, because I don't know what the future holds for me, but I have a hard time seeing myself running another porn site: it just doesn't feel in line with my future goals. And it's the same with modeling: while it's certainly possible that I could find a project that really excited me, that made me want to take my clothes off and get naked for the public, I'm currently valuing the privacy that comes with keeping my clothes on.
You now have a blog called "lux.nightmare.is.not.a.porn.star." What are the biggest misconceptions you face as a former nude model? Do you regret any of your previous work in the world of porn, or the "pink ghetto," as you've termed it?
I'm often hesitant to reveal information about my past to people I meet, because I never quite know how they're going to take it. There are a lot of misconceptions that people have about nude models: some people assume that it means I'm slutty, some people assume that it means I'm crazy, some people assume that I must have really low self esteem and be an attention whore. I've had people react really negatively to writing that I've done about porn, as though the fact that I've taken my clothes off means I'm completely incapable of intelligent, rational thought. Perhaps worst of all are the people who assume that having a history of sex work means I'm easy and disposable: I've had boys become really interested in me after learning that I did porn, only to disappear as soon as they got a chance to get in my pants.
In spite of all of that: no, I don't regret my previous work. I had good experiences, and bad experiences, and it's all shaped me and made me who I am today. There are things that I wouldn't do again, but I don't have any regrets about doing them: I had to live through everything I did in order to become the person I am today. Porn taught me a lot, and I'm really, truly grateful for that.
On the pink ghetto front: even though I no longer do porn, I still feel like I'm in the pink ghetto. The writing I do at Sexerati is rarely about porn, and rarely features images of naked people-but because the word "sex" is in the title, and because I talk frankly about sex and sexuality, I still run up against a lot of barriers when it comes to marketing, promotion, and talking to people about what I do.
For those looking for alt porn of the type That Strange Girl offered, where would you send them?
I'm pretty fond of No Faux, Bella Vendetta, and Fatal Beauty. It's hard to come by good sites these days, however: the fees and regulations that led to me leaving the business have also made it much more difficult for independent producers to start their own sites. These days, starting a porn site requires a whole lot of cash up front, which limits the number of people capable of entering the field.
You're currently running the online magazine Sexerati with Melissa Gira. What's the mission of the site and how do you plan to expand it?
Sexerati picks up where altporn left off: it's smart writing about sex and culture that analyzes and questions a lot of the assumptions we make about sex and sexuality (it's also fun and more than a little snarky). Right now, we post several times a day (and have a few recurring features), and regularly broadcast episodes of "The Future of Sex" (a podcast created and hosted by Melissa).
My hope is to build up Sexerati as a smart sex brand: something akin to the original mission of Nerve.com. Maybe one day we'll expand our empire (Sexerati books, perhaps?), but more than anything, I just want to put out the kind of sex writing that seems to be lacking from the blogosphere—and I want people to know that it's out there.
One of the regular features is the Sexerati Guide to Unpersonals. What are Unpersonals, and out of all the personal and social networking sites, which do you recommend for those looking for relationships and/or hookups?
I like to think of Unpersonals as a passive aggressive route to online dating. There are all these social networking sites that advertise themselves as a way to share photos, videos, music, or whatever—and also happen to be pretty good ways to meet people without actually admitting that you're trolling the Internet for dates (seriously now: if Flickr was just about photos, why would they ask if you're single/taken/open?).
Unpersonals tend to be targeted to specific audiences, so it's kind of hard to recommend one site to meet the needs of all the lonely hearts of the Internet. If you like photos, Flickr might be able to help you out; if you're into music, Last.fm is there to hook you up. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Twitter will surprise us and somehow turn out to be a great way for singles to connect. I also want Consumating to be cooler than it is (it's a pretty good concept, in its own way), but so far it's disappointed me.
You were an Urban Studies major in college, and I'm curious how that affected the work you've done in the fields of porn and sex ed.
When I was in college, I tried hard to force my interest in sexuality into an Urban Studies framework. I had limited success, but I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I was young and still forming my own ideas about the world.
I'm glad I did the Urban Studies program: I think it gave me a really great perspective on New York City and the environment that I live and work in—a perspective that shapes a lot of my interactions and experiences as I move through out the city. I'm sure that my increased awareness about the physical and social space of New York City (and urban environments in general) has shaped the way I think about sex ed and sexuality, but it's hard to come up with a specific example of what the effect has been.
Currently you work with teenagers in East Harlem and on the Lower East Side teaching sex ed. Can you tell me more about what topics you cover? Are you supplementing the education they get in the classroom?
A lot of people assume that sex ed means condoms, HIV, and birth control: but the work I do actually goes far, far beyond that spectrum. The curriculum I work with includes a whole bunch of topics, ranging from puberty and anatomy to healthy relationships and decisionmaking to gender and sexual orientation to (yes) condoms, STIs, and birth control. I work to give my participants a holistic understanding of sexuality: to help them understand that sexuality is about more than just the genitals, that it's something that involves your whole self (a lesson that a lot of people could use, actually).
Sex ed in schools tends to be pretty limited—it's just a few weeks of material, and usually sticks to the very basics. I like to think that the work I do does more than just supplement the classroom education: it goes far beyond it, presenting the kids with a completely different framework for understanding sex and sexuality.