Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
Name: Madison Young
Original home state: Ohio
Job: Artist, porn director, sexual educator, writer, bondage model, porn actress, and founder of the Femina Potens art gallery. Young has also written a memoir and she’s been interviewed on Salon, The Huffington Post, XO Jane, and The Rumpus, among other publications. She has won several Feminist Porn Awards and has taught workshops, given lectures, and spoken on panels at Yale, Hampshire College, Northwestern University, the University of Toronto, the University of Minnesota, UC Berkeley, and the Berlin Porn Film Festival. She also runs an erotic film school and is touring on a one-woman show.
How did you get your start?
Everything I do works towards de-stigmatizing sex and creating a world where we can have healthy conversations about our bodies and identities, where we can talk in a healthy and not shameful way about pleasure and connections and relationships that we truly desire.
I grew up in southern Ohio and didn’t really find any of that there.
I didn’t grow up with a great knowledge of my body or healthy role models around sexuality. I was told that my body was shameful, so it was a real journey in reclaiming this thing. A lot of that grew through art. I went to a performing arts school, and the first medium in which I worked was theater. It was a real journey in reclaiming my body. I was like, “If this education isn’t out there, I want to change the world and the way that people view our bodies and sexuality. I want to make a space where we can talk about these things.” I’ve really dedicated my life to that.
How have you seen the adult entertainment industry evolve during your time in it?
I’ve been working in it for the last 15 years and directing for the last 10 years. Technology has changed quite a bit. Many people see this as not a great thing — that there’s places like PornHub where there’s all this free porn, so people don’t pay for mainstream porn much anymore. But the great thing is because they’re not paying for mainstream porn, and many of these mainstream porn companies are failing and losing money by the month, it’s created space for others to have a voice.
What I mean by that is independent erotic film makers, queer erotic film makers, queer pornographers, feminist pornographers. The feminist porn movement has grown exponentially. It’s really blown up in the last five to seven years. There are books and academics that study feminist porn; there are academic journals on porn studies. It’s finally being recognized as a valid medium that captures and documents our sexual culture.
It’s really the only medium that graphically depicts our sexual culture, and I think it’s a powerful medium that can empower others and teach others about destigmatizing sex and different desires, as well as how to communicate about them. I think that when people watch a film, if they see that Madison Young can make it sexy to put a condom on and to ask for more lube, then others can also see that and be like, “Wow! I can ask for more lube and it can be sexy!” It’s a way we can teach people how to communicate about sex and make it not awkward. It really empowers others to do that as well.
So did your interest in feminist porn grow as that became more known? Or was that always your interest?
I was always coming from a feminist ethos. The first porn I really got into and really loved wasn’t just based on looks, it was based on endurance, skill, balance. I’m known for my rope work. The things I’ve done in front of the camera don’t necessarily take great beauty; they take strength and focus and trust and skill. Being in a rope suspension where I’m hanging by a single ankle from the ceiling with 5 pounds of weights hanging from my nipples takes a skill in processing intense sensations and body endurance. I really enjoyed that aspect of BDSM porn. When I started directing my own films, it was important for me to say, “I can be a feminist and a submissive, I can be a feminist and a masochist.” I don’t stop being a feminist when I enter a kinky scene. It actually takes a strong, articulate woman to say, “These are my desires, these are my boundaries, these are things I want to explore.”
What do you think is the most common misconception about the industry?
There are misconceptions about the people in front of the camera being “victims” or not having other choices: that it’s something they’re forced into or it’s not something they actually want to do, they’re being objectified or exploited. But I think people don’t think about labor and workforce in general. I felt way more objectified when I was very young and did waitressing than I ever did in front of the camera. Women are constantly being objectified and dealing with an objective society. In front of the camera it’s a place of power, where I’m able to articulate my desires and show a strong outward declaration of my sexuality, rather than someone trying to take that from me, which is what I feel when I’m walking down the street and someone is catcalling me. The adult industry is really one of the only places where women make exponentially more than men. A scene that a woman does in mainstream porn, they’re making $1,000 to $1,200 a scene and a man is making between $400 to $600.
Have you had any negative experiences?
Everybody has, especially when you’re working with different producers, or someone you haven’t worked with before. Having a great support system is really important. Whatever is happening in your outside life can affect how you’re feeling and if you’re bringing your A-game to set. Within mainstream, there were definitely moments where it was like, “This producer that I’m working with is saying things that I feel are sexist and homophobic. I am queer and I do a lot of work within the queer community and I find what they’re saying offensive. Okay, I’m going to need to take a deep breath, maybe come up with a recommendation for a good book they should read, and try to let it go.”
That can be challenging. I’ve also had really challenging physical things happen during shoots. One of them that I write about in my memoir Daddy, that came out a bit ago, was that I was on set and experienced an anal tear. There was quite a bit of blood and it was pretty frightening. I was fine, but it was scary at the time. I didn’t feel like my agent was supportive at all in the experience, but luckily I was on a really supportive set. The director was really amazing, everyone did really care about my health. We stopped immediately and I went to the hospital. Scary things happen.
How did the memoir come about?
I started writing the last version of this back in 2005. But there have been three full rewrites. In 2012, I went with my second full rewrite to Rare Bird, a publisher. They looked it over and really liked the voice of it, and zeroed in on what the heart of the book was, which was this relationship to the daddy figure, the daddy role. So I went back and rewrote it and did that. It was really nice to work with a publisher that wasn’t censoring or trying to make the content more palatable for a wider audience, which I felt like I was experiencing working with some of the literary agents. I had been like, “That’s not who I am; I don’t want to censor this.”
It’s a coming-of-age story, the sexual evolution and the journey of this woman finding herself, finding her strength, finding her chosen family, and really examining what family is, what community is. You think you don’t have to be kinky in order to get it.
It’s one of the most intimate works I put out there. When I’m doing body-based performance art in front of the camera, it’s all about really getting to this visceral experience. With the memoir, it was really this internal relief of so many emotions.
I also have two books coming out this year, one is a DIY porn handbook documenting our own sexual revolution, the other one is The Ultimate Guide To Sex Through Pregnancy and Motherhood.
How did your transition to the college speech circuit come about?
I started talking at conferences and giving workshops in 2004. I was then asked to come and speak at different universities. The first university that brought me in was Yale. That was a little intimidating, but I had taught a lot of workshops at that point. I was teaching a BDSM 101 kind of workshop and I took my top off to demonstrate how to do a “zipper”, which involves string and clothespins and applying it to a skin in a certain pattern so you’re able to pull the string.
I thought it was fun, the students could pull it, but I guess there was some Republican magazine that was there and just thought it was dreadful! They walked out in a huff and wrote about how this porn star came in and took their top off — it was the first time someone took their top off in a class at Yale. I was like, “It’s a sex conference,” but I guess it was a learning experience. Since then, when I spoke at Northwestern, they had me sign something so I wouldn’t be taking my clothes off. It’s funny, the stigmas we have around bodies in different spaces. It’s something that would be perfectly acceptable within a sexuality conference.
Do you see the cultural attitude changing in the next few years?
We are furthering the conversation around sexuality and gender, and we are really making some progress. The academic acknowledgement of the importance of sexuality and consent and pornography has grown so much. In 20 years there are going to be so many more voices. It’s very exciting. There are also a lot of erotic film festivals that are happening, people are gathering together and watching erotic films, so I think that’s also very telling of where we’re headed. The fact that there is a changed comfort level in viewing erotic mediums, speaking about sex and sexuality. There are a lot more women-owned sex-toy stores. Sex education in general and the role of a sex educator have also really boomed in the last decade. These are all really great signs.
In regards to gender, we now have queer, genderqueer, trans representation within popular television shows. I think this is all really furthering the conversation and awareness of sexuality and gender. I didn’t see any of that growing up. When we’re able to make it within television and film, then we’re able to make it with middle America and provide this window for people. Especially as a teenager, it’s really difficult identifying as queer or other. When you’re able to see representation of yourself within media, it’s incredibly empowering. In 20 years it’s just going to continue to evolve.