People often assume that sex/sex_fantasies/biggest-porn-stars/”>porn stars come from extreme family circumstances — trailer-trash homes, meth addiction, physical and sexual abuse. The story might be that a woman’s porn career is the happy ending, her escape from a fraught home life. On the flip side, people could also think of a sex/sex_fantasies/why-women-go-into-porn.html”>porn star’s career as the tragic end for a normal girl with lots of “potential” who threw her life away.
But neither of those stories describes me. I am quite sure that the relationship I had with my parents growing up was far from normal. But it was also far from dysfunctional. My upbringing wasn’t tragic or scarring, and it also wasn’t picturesque or affluent. But I think I can safely say it was unique.
I’m a first-generation American on one side and third generation on the other. My mother is Israeli, a Sephardic Jew with Iraqi roots; she moved to America just shortly after marrying my father, a Jewish American man from Ohio. My mother lived in a tent in a refugee camp with a family of 10 as a child. My father, on the other hand, had a fairly typical, fairly happy childhood in Midwestern America in the ’50s. When two people from such different corners of the earth reproduce, the result is sure to be some shade of weirdo.
Growing up, I lacked whatever fear other kids had of their parents. If I did the right thing, it was because I felt like it, not because I was trying to please my parents. My English surpassed my mother’s at an early age, which I guess gave me the sense that I was in charge. I helped my mother study to get her driving license. I translated signs at the supermarket for her. I taught her some basic American etiquette — for instance, shaving the mass of hair growing from her armpits before accompanying me to the local swim club (razors were completely evil in her book, but she agree to get rid of the hair with homemade wax she made out of sugar and lemon).
What my parents really had to offer me was unconditional love, which wasn’t exactly what I was interested in as a preteen. I was much more interested in getting a boyfriend, beating Super Mario Bros. 3, and obtaining a T-shirt that changed colors when you put your hand on it. I didn’t hate my parents, but I didn’t admire them either. I didn’t particularly respect them, and I certainly didn’t fear them.
One day when I was 14, I carelessly lifted my arms and revealed to my parents the belly ring I’d recently gotten. My mother cried. As usual, I was mostly unfazed by my parents’ anger and disappointment. The same was true when I started to come home reeking of cigarettes and when I was caught shoplifting at the mall. They didn’t approve, but I wasn’t seeking their approval. Life went on.
It was around that time that I met the people whom I would come to truly respect the way kids are supposed to respect their parents. It was the world of punk. These were people whose approval was incredibly important to me, whose morals and values and traditions I followed dutifully, even religiously. This world dictated how I dressed, what I ate, what I studied in school, where I hung out, who my friends were, and what movies I watched.
It was about so much more than just music. Punk gave me an identity and a purpose throughout high school, and then a real community in college. I didn’t go to football games or frat parties; I went to punk shows. The punk community became my family, and my family became more and more distant. My parents didn’t understand me! They didn’t know me. As far as I was concerned, they weren’t my real family.
With the growth of the Internet, this punk family grew larger and larger. Message board threads argued on and on over what was punk and what wasn’t. Some punks prided themselves on doing drugs, while others went straight edge. Some punks were atheists, and some were hardcore Christians. Some were vegan, and some considered cows just a means to an end — the end being a spike-studded leather jacket.
I stayed out of most of the punk drama. I read the message boards to find out about new music, where shows were, and on occasion to stalk a cute guy in a band. I was vegan but not straight edge. I was active in both animal rights and human rights groups, went to protests, and my record collection contained all the essentials. I was never the target of any message board that questioned how punk I was. That is, not until I started a porn site.
A Star Is Porn
BurningAngel.com launched on April 20, 2002. My roommate Mitch and I started it ourselves. We had no funding, no investors — just us. I thought it was a pretty anti-conformist move to start a porn site and work for myself instead of getting a “real job.” No animals were harmed in the process of making our website, and no sweatshop labor was used. The launch of the website contained five different photosets of girls I knew from my own little punk community, and the photos were taken in my bedroom and basement by a guy who’d borrowed a digital camera from someone.
In addition to the photos I also included an interview with a local hardcore band. I truly didn’t think I was violating any punk laws. I was proud of what I’d created and I assumed my entire world would be proud too. I had always supported my friends when their bands went on tour or when they put out their own records. Even if I didn’t love the way a band sounded, I supported them if they were part of the punk scene.
The day of the launch also happened to be 4/20, and there was a party at my house with bands playing in the basement. The party had already been planned by one of my roommates before we ever knew it would coincide with the launch of BurningAngel. So what started as a celebration of pot accidentally morphed into a celebration of porn.
There was a lot going on that day, and at that time in my life I didn’t even have my own computer. I used to use my roommate’s or I would go to the computer lab on campus. Before I got dressed for the party, I went downstairs to my roommate’s computer and checked two websites. First, I checked my own. My programmer friend had been telling me for weeks “I think it will be up tomorrow,” so I wanted to see if it was actually live or not.
The good news: It was. Just like that, with a refresh of the page, all my efforts were laid bare, naked on the Internet. The next site I checked was my favorite punk message board. There, I found a nasty thread titled “Porn’s not punk” with over 400 responses. Someone had pasted photos from my website into the message board thread. The comments were not pretty. Some were long-winded philosophical rants about domestic abuse and feminism. Some declared that it’s not punk to make a profit off of punk (mind you, at that time our net worth was about $20). Some comments were much more straightforward: “She’s fucking ugly.”
Mitch found me there, crying, with my eyes glued to the screen. I wanted to respond to the commenters. “No,” he told me. “Just stop looking at it. People will be over it by tomorrow.” I walked away from the computer and drowned my sorrows in a vegan pot brownie.
The evening proceeded to get more and more uncomfortable. Suddenly, all these people I thought I knew felt like strangers. Everyone was talking about me — well, maybe the pot brownie had a little to do with my thinking that. Everyone who approached me had something to say to me about porn. They sex/sex_fantasies/women-who-aren-t-ashamed-to-admit-they-love-porn/”>loved porn. They thought porn was horrible. They respected me, they were disgusted by me, and they wanted to know how to get into the industry. When asked by someone if porn empowered me, I responded: “I really don’t know! My website has been up for six hours!”
I went downstairs to the basement to watch some music. It was a local band I’d always liked. The lead singer was a girl who was in the Women’s Studies Department at Rutgers. Before her set she gave a long speech about sexual abuse and how it was tied to porn, and then in a nutshell she said that porn had no place in the music scene. My heart stopped. Was she directing this at me? Or did she just happen to choose today to air her grievances about sex/pornography.html”>pornography? Did she know that this was my basement she was singing in? Did she know how many shifts at Applebee’s I had to work to afford my $220 portion of the rent, which included basement access?
The next band played, and before their set, they dedicated a song to “a certain girl who stands up for what she believes in.” Was that who I was now? A girl who believed in being naked on the Internet? What the hell had I gotten myself into?
A Mother’s Love
I ran up the three flights of stairs to my bedroom and shut the door. I panicked on my Ikea twin bed, and the walls seemed like they were closing in on me. (OK, so maybe the pot brownie had a little to do with that too.) I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t expecting any of this. A part of me wanted to take down BurningAngel, move far, far away and never speak of this again. And another part of me felt that this strange thing I’d started had the potential to become something really amazing. It had to be one or the other. I had to make a choice. And then I thought to myself, for the very first time in my life: I need my mother.
I drove to my mother’s home the next morning. Though I didn’t tell her I was coming, she was thrilled that I’d come. When I walked through the door, she gave me a big hug and immediately cooked me a meal. She lectured me about my veganism and told me I should really consider trying to just eat fish or eggs because my diet didn’t have enough protein. Then she asked me to help her write a letter to the police department, because earlier that day she’d gotten a ticket she didn’t think was justified.
It was a regular day at home, and that was so comforting. I had already told my mother several weeks beforehand that I planned on starting a porn site, and she certainly wasn’t thrilled about it. But she was able to put that aside and just be my mom; she wouldn’t even know how to not be my mom, even if she wanted to.
My mother definitely sex/sex_education/are-you-watching-too-much-porn.html”>hated porn and me doing porn. She still does. My decision to do porn probably hurt her more than anyone else in my life — certainly more than the punk kids at Rutgers. But having a daughter was more important to her than fighting. That was the moment I realized how important and rare unconditional love really is.
I spent the next few days being fed and tucked into bed. I felt more like a child than I ever had in my childhood. When I left, I hugged her and said, “I love you,” which was something I’d never actually said to her before.
It’s been about 13 years since the launch, and this college experiment has since grown into a real alternative community that has changed the face of porn. And by the way, the punk world and I are on perfectly good terms. Even most of the message board trolls would agree with that nowadays.
Not too long ago, my mom came to visit me in Los Angeles, and she stumbled on my sex/sex_education/the-history-of-the-fleshlight.html”>Fleshlight. She obviously didn’t know what it was—she was fussing with it, trying to get the “flashlight” to turn on. “Joanna, how do you work this?” she asked. Then we exchanged a look, and I could see that she realized she didn’t want to know anything more about it. She set it back down and we went about our day.
This is my life. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s mostly been a blast.
Check back soon for Joanna’s next tale for AskMen — what shooting her first porn scene was like. And if you have any questions for her about what it’s like to be a porn star, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org?Subject=Joanna%20Angel%20Question” target=”_top”>email@example.com and you might see them featured in a future column!
This article is adapted from an essay Joanna wrote for the book Coming Out Like a Porn Star (ThreeL Media, 2015).