From a distance, it feels like you can get away with a lot when you’re a porn star. Having sex with people on camera and getting paid for it, for a start. A unique freedom to express yourself because anything goes, right? There’s no room for prurience in porn. Especially today, when algorithms are uniquely capable of connecting a provider of niche services to an unusually eager customer base. It makes money, therefore it’s an economic model and legitimate.
Of course, people on the outside of the profession are free to retain a view of you. That’s not particular to porn though, it’s more a cultural thing. If you’re cis male, there’s a good chance your hearty sexual appetite with multiple partners is applauded by your peers because you’re fulfilling your primordial role in procreation (slightly self-limiting for men but no one wants to be accused of being an Incel). If you’re cis female you are automatically granted the status of slut, slag or whore. You know, the Unholy Trinity first popularised by Mary Magdalene, who, when you think about it, has had an incredible tenure at the top.
After a career spanning ten years, adult actor, artist and educator Madison Young discovered, to her surprise, that the tolerances in her own community were less flexible than she assumed too.
In 2011, after the birth of her daughter Emma, Young launched ‘Becoming Milf’, an art exhibit questioning ‘the way mothers are both stripped of sexuality and conversely, also made a fetish. Her exhibition included breastmilk milkshakes and a baby quilt made of burp cloths and “porn star panties”.’
This was back in the days before the internet had become fully operational, although, like the Death Star, it still had some capacity. When the responses started coming in, its destructive power was on full display.
Madison, who is a guest on Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking Everything podcast this week, said “the specific image that came under attack was an image that I tried to recreate of a famous image of Marilyn Monroe, where she’s kind of looking to the side and she’s very pensive and she has this like, halter dress on it’s black and white. And I’m doing a similar image dressed as Marilyn and a halter and breastfeeding and looking to the side just like you know, this transitional period of time. You don’t see my nipple, you don’t see a breast, you don’t see the face of my child. If I was anyone else, no one would think this image was sexual at all or erotic at all. But the attacks coming and we’re saying that even though I had a long history as an artist because I had done porn, that my image and myself were always under an erotic eye and would always be sexualized. And so if I was bringing my child into an image thing then putting their child in porn, yes.”
Internet pile-ons often begin with an explosion of antipathy which, over time, distils into simplified accusations everybody can get on board with. This equation is an easy one. Porn star plus baby evokes the madonna/whore complex, therefore Madison Young is exposing her child to the industry and potentially attracting a different, darker audience to her work. Result? Exploitation of children. Motherhood and sex should never be connected. It instinctively feels wrong.
While the principle of this argument is pure, it relies on the assumption that sex and pleasure are not analogous to babies. Yet, they kind of are in daily life, aren’t they? A lot of the sex people engage in can and does lead to pregnancy and new life.
So where’s the line? There has to be one. But the one we laid back in the day, when chastity and monogamy were established to encourage a version of morality for polite society, has failed to adapt with the times.
A significant side effect of this establishment was to shatter womanhood into disparate concepts bound by ideals and conventions. Mother. Worker. Housewife. Chattel. Sex worker. Spinster. Each in turn coated with various thicknesses of shame, inhibition and judgement.
We’ve lived within these realms for such a long time that even the most conscientious among us baulk at imagery that challenges boundaries. That’s natural. What’s important is that artists continue to push us to ask questions of our culture and ensure it evolves. A shift towards a less prescriptive morality doesn’t have to mean all boundaries will be removed. Only those that prevent consenting adults of all genders and sexualities from safely pursuing their own pleasure.
Madison Young is an artist unafraid to pick up disparate skeins of womanhood and put them together to create new shapes. At a time when our world is moving towards a more conservative outlook, it’s essential we acquaint ourselves with these unfamiliar configurations and the assumptions we find challenging. It’s our responsibility if we don’t want to see our culture regress to a place others worked so hard to leave in the past.