Behind the Curtain: Asa Akira’s Insatiable: Porn: A Love Story

Asa Akira: A brave foray into the life of a porn-star.

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and everybody watches pornography. Exact figures are understandably hard to work out, but the biggest video streaming website, Pornhub, reports over one billion visits a month. At one website, in one month.

Media coverage in general woke up to this fact recently and for about a year now has latched onto it as an issue to stuff column inches and boost page views with. Most of this has been hilariously out of touch as one age bracket tries to come to terms with what has been a mundane reality for another. However, some has also been horrifying, such as in the tabloid-headline style linking of watching porn with child porn, sex crimes and the tragic murders of Tia Sharp and April Jones a year ago.

Out of this mess of coverage comes Asa Akira, a hugely successful America porn star, with her memoir Insatiable: Porn: A Love Story, and it is worth stopping to note how brave an act this is. For a start, Insatiable does not toe any narrative line of what might be expected. This is no misery memoir, or apologetic tale of corruption and redemption, just a straightforward account of what it is like to be in an industry that is just another part of most people’s lives now.

Moreover, Akira is putting out this emotional honesty in a world that is extremely hostile to it. For, despite those billion visits a month to one of many websites, we sure as hell do not seem to like porn stars. Belle Knox, the ‘Duke University’ porn star is example enough of that. It was not just the gallons of bile hurled at her for an assortment of vague, self-righteous reasons, but the faux-civilised discussions of whether or not she was justified for working in porn to cover her tuition fees.

The novelist Zadie Smith once commented that the man who watches porn on his computer downstairs is not the same man who goes upstairs to kiss his children good night. It is this attitude of using porn, but keeping it in its own denied universe, that feeds into the confused and more often than not disgustingly aggressive reactions towards its performers. At least a notable portion of users feel on some level that they own the women they watch, and they do not like them stepping out of viewer windows and being actual people. In a profile on Belle Knox in the Duke Chronicle, a forum post was screen-grabbed where a commenter responded to criticisms of his posts with ‘I don’t ask her to censor her behaviour. I’m just making fun of her for being a huge slut.’ Even more disturbingly, the article seems to refer to this as ‘thought-provoking conversation’ . Retired porn star Madison Scott sums up this self-contradictory attitude perfectly: ‘Many people are quick to judge me and think they know me, but they’re afraid to admit the reason they recognize me is because they watched my work.’

Is this important? Even if it was just about a vocal public’s attitude to certain women the answer is still yes, but the issue is wider than that. While the panic-mongering and hand-wringing of the media is, as always, overblown, it is very true that porn is now an influential part of our culture, sexuality and attitudes towards gender (and most likely much more as well). A widespread view caused in some way by porn towards women as throwaway sexual objects is something that needs to be addressed. Someone looking to do so, to come to terms with what modern pornography is or means, could do much worse than starting with Insatiable.

What makes the book work is that Akira comes across as an actual person rather than a type. You find out a little of who she is and she’s not afraid to present the parts of herself people might not like. It has a brilliant lack of self-consciousness and is never awkwardly trying to second guess how the reader will react. This makes it all the more frustrating, though, when the wall comes down and Akira stops letting us in. It would be bizarre to claim we should not act as if we own her except in literary terms, but it is frustrating when she addresses everything from addiction to relationships with refreshing candidacy, free of any puritanical overbearing for this to be ‘confessional’, while keeping back large parts to remain private.

Unfortunately, it is not just what Akira holds back that makes the book feel a little light. Some of the chapters feel included to get the text to book length more than anything else. It is at its strongest in chapters like the second one, by far the highlight of the book, on Akira’s three experiences with hooking. It’s delicately written, balancing along the point where sex, capitalism and fantasy all touch. A rich CEO becomes boy-like seeing his pornographic video fantasies come to life in his hotel room and Akira falls into a quietly heart-breaking semi-relationship with a wealthy, socially awkward client. There are occasionally awkward bumps in the writing indicative of a first book, but on the whole it’s a refreshingly humanising take on subjects whose excess usually infects any artistic representation of the people involved with them.

An incident in another chapter describes Akira waiting in an airport where she talks a little with a young man also waiting. Clearly recognising her, they both enjoy the thrill of the secret they share together amongst the other people waiting. Then he grabs her breast before running for his plane. It’s a complex moment both culturally and emotionally and Akira does not shy away from describing how instead of reacting angrily she felt violated and broke into tears, grabbed without permission as a possession.

But she isn’t. There are no salacious passages here to make the book an extension of Akira’s pornographic career. The intention behind the writing that details sex both on and off the camera feels muddled, but it is never to please the reader like old Penthouse columns. Rather it seems to reach after trying to explain or show something to us and even if it does not always succeed it becomes another part of the book’s tendency to whet our appetite for more than it gives us.

Does it leave us insatiable then? And what about the rest of that title, is Akira really in love with porn? Yes, with no reservations. For any other criticism you may want to throw at her, Akira honestly embraces a career of extreme appetites that would make most of us queasy (her Papa John’s order makes my own takeout enthusiasm look like the cute occasional treat of a hardcore athlete.) She is neither apologetic nor does she feel the need to be unapologetic. Those feverously holding their porn use at arms-length, letting it transform into at best immature outrage and at worst violent aggression, could learn a lot from her.

Leave a Reply