the kid who asked too much
an interview with conner habib
Conner Habib is a writer, lecturer, and adult film star. He is the Vice President of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, a nonprofit which works to improve quality of life and experiences in the industry of currently working adult performers. Conner’s writing has appeared in The Stranger, Salon, Vice, The Rumpus, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @connerhabib and visit his blog at www.connerhabib.com.
| Q: What were your first experiences with porn, and when did you start thinking that you wanted to be a part of that world?
CH: I found it by accident. My parents had just gotten divorced, and my father had a cable-cheater box which stole channels from the neighbors. I was with my dad, my sister, and my stepmom, and we were all watching the TV. My dad was flipping through the channels, and it was an old-time TV so the remote only went up and down to change the channels. He was flipping through the channels and as he advanced we hit channel 27, which was a porn channel. At that moment, the remote just died. It was fated to happen to me, I suppose. There was this sex happening in front of me, and my sister screamed and covered my eyes, and my dad ran up and turned the TV off.
I learned at a very early age that there’s this ‘repression of desire’ principle - which I didn’t completely understand then - when it comes to sex and images of sex. Those two things are really bound together. In other words: “here’s something on TV for everyone to see, but don’t look at it!”
That tension was something that I thought about as I got older. I was realizing that I didn’t have any shame about watching porn or thinking about porn. I always wondered if I was missing something, if I was missing part of my brain, until when I was much older, someone told me: “No, you have something, you’ve gained something.”
| Q: Do you think there should be an effort to normalize the talk and viewing for younger people, or do you think it should stay something that’s privatized?
CH: If you want to get rid of pornography and sex work, the best thing to do is to promote them and make them accessible to everybody, because the way that pornography exists right now is based on a lot of tensions around repression. The more that pornography becomes available to people, the more it sort of changes the nature of repression and what we repress and allows different kinds of desire to emerge. I think that this a complicated task, but we’ve seen cultures in the past that have different relationships to sexual imagery.
The thing about sex work is: if you want to get rid of sex work, well, let’s get rid of the stigmatizing of sex, and then sex will transform and become more available to more people. Let’s transform the nature of work and overhaul labor and then people don’t have to have jobs in the same way that they have them now, and then we don’t have sex work anymore. It doesn’t happen through deeper repression. I think that’s idiotic. Any basic psychology student can tell you that all that does is distort the desire.
| Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your childhood? I know in your interview with Polari you talk about the difficulty of identifying as gay in your small Pennsylvania town. What was it like growing up?
CH: Growing up was rough. I was kind of a “smiled-upon golden child” until a certain age. As a child, everybody was excited because I read super early and I was known as a smart kid. But at a certain point, I started to diverge from what people wanted out of a smart kid in a small town: to obey. I wasn’t interested in that, and that felt very alienating. I’m not saying I was too smart for everybody else, I just mean that nothing was set up for someone that was intelligent and wanted to direct their own lives and interests. At least not where I was.
That kind of alienation brings me a lot of pain. Out of all the things in my life that have brought an outsider-ness, whether it’s being a sex worker, being half-Arab, being politically rebellious, the thing that has been the most alienating and isolating is being intelligent. Even now when I say that to you, I cringe, because we’re not supposed to say it. There’s that much of a taboo on it. You say that and people think you’re an asshole - instant judgement. But I’m not saying that I’m smarter than other people; I just know that I’m smart, and that feels alienating to me. So that was pretty rough where I grew up, because the interests of where I grew up were elsewhere, not in books or intellectual pursuits or those sort of things. And any sign of that was pretty troubling. It happens pretty quickly that people stop liking you when you start asking questions, because we have an image of that in churches, in Sunday schools, in public schools; the kid who starts asking questions gets a B minus.
| Q: You also mentioned in the Polari interview that punk and the punk attitude influenced you - that “fuck you, I’ll do what I want,” attitude. Did that play into your childhood as well?
CH: So much. In some ways I’m still that angry kid, and I don’t ever want to lose that. I’d like to not express my anger in such a dick way, but that punk rock anger is still a big part of who I am. Still that kid who was really interested in what a world without compromise could be. Imagining that impossible as possible is what punk rock is really about. Being sixteen and starting a band with friends and getting in a van and playing in people’s garages and sleeping on their floors and depending on their hospitality and somehow have a record come out - it’s all these things. “I know this is impossible, and I’m going to do it anyway.” I love that. It’s a huge part of who I am. It’s utopian. You don’t think of punk as utopian; people from the outside think of it as decay. They think of it as a sign of the decaying, angry world. But when you’re in it, you think of it as your home that’s actually going to make everything better. It gives you hope.
| Q: Who were the musicians that you were listening to in that time period that really gave you that feel?
CH: All those Dischord Record bands. Fugazi’s the typical one, but that wouldn’t be my go-to. I would say sort of more post-punk bands were really what I was interested in - so Lungfish, who remain my favorite music to listen to.
I was setting up lots of shows and I started a record label, so I would try to bring in bands that I liked. That’s how I heard about The Dismemberment Plan, and I booked a ton of shows with them. And Ted Leo and his band Chisel; his brother’s band the Van Pelt. All of these bands that were doing something kind of weird. Braniac was a band that was extremely important to me, because they were just crazy, and then sort of louder bands from my area that meant something to me.
I will say that it’s a very special period of time in my life, because I’m not really connected to music in the same way anymore. I’m very connected to writing. I’m still connected to sex and porn, and I’m connected to teaching, but the music scene, I’m not really doing that anymore.
And what is there to say? It’s like, having those people from those bands tour through and sleep on my floor or couch, just some band that you liked coming through and you would tell them to have a show and say, “You have a place to stay, you can come stay with me,” and just sitting up with these musicians all night, just talking - that was awesome. Having Ted Leo sleep at my mom’s house when I was a kid - that was awesome. Those are really special memories, and those people are still in my life. In one way or another, I’m still connected to a lot of those people.
| Q: Has anybody ever told you that your sex work changed their life?
CH: Yes, but I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because of the punk thing, because I interacted with all of these artists when I was a kid and it became my thing. If I think that someone’s amazing, I just reach out and say “Hi”. And it almost always works! So when people come to me, and they say “thank you, you’ve done this and this for me,” it feels like I’m talking to a friend.
| Q: Did you have to curate your sexuality? When did you come out, when did you feel comfortable coming out?
CH: I was totally quiet about it and sort of suffering in silence, but when I was seventeen I started understanding that this thing wasn’t going anywhere, it wasn’t going away. I really fell in love with this kid that I was in high school with, and when I fell in love and started having these feelings, I would masturbate thinking about holding his hand. Which was like, huh, that’s different. I was eroticizing something that is much, much different.
Also around that time, maybe a year or two before, was when I got into punk rock. I think that gave me enough of a sense of rebellion in relation to my sexuality that it was like, “Okay, I’m just going to talk about it and other people can deal with it.”
| Q: Did being biracial have any affect on you as a child?
CH: My father’s from Syria, so there was already sort of a difference if anybody had seen him when I was growing up. And I’m dark-complected compared to the people I grew up with. But in any other place, people would just think I’m Italian or something. It’s not immediately apparent, although that translated into something else. I didn’t feel like I was anything different. It’s a very confusing thing to be Arab in this country, or even to be half-Arab. Nobody knows what to make of us - they know very well what to make of Muslims, and now those two things have sort of blurred together. Even we don't know what to make of it.
I didn’t really feel any different, but then suddenly in middle school, in seventh or eighth grade, people started calling me slurs. My teacher said to me in front of the entire class, “If you don’t shut up I’m going to send you back to Syria on a camel.” Now I look back and think, “I would have had that asshole fired in a second,” but at the time I felt ashamed for being different enough that someone could say that to me. And everybody with the teasing, when they saw the teacher do it they definitely felt permission.
| Q: Has that happened to you in any way regarding the writing world or as a porn star? Have you had any sort of similar discrimination?
CH: Anybody that writes about sex, ever, is going to be asked to write about sex forever. It’s this weird thing - it’s not just sex workers. Anybody that crosses that line suddenly becomes a sex writer. I know someone who was going to write a piece on sex work for the New York Times magazine, and someone in the upper-echelon there said, “If you do this, you become a sex work reporter.” That kind of stuff is happening to everybody writing about sex, and some people like it that way. It’s not necessarily bad for those people who just really want to write about sex. But in that sense, it’s this sort of unspoken discrimination. You write something, and people want you to “sex it up”.
I have been working on fiction for a while, and I shared them with my friend who’s a writer, who’s really smart, a really great guy, a really nice writer and also gay. And he said “I don’t understand why you don’t have queer characters.” Even with people who know and understand, I feel myself asking, “What do they mean? Why does it matter if I have queer characters? What are they asking me to be?” And I think those kind of things permeate all identities. I mean, there are so many shitty books that are directly about identity, by authors of a certain marginalized group, and people lap them up when they’re actually just kind of mediocre. But if you’re a person of color or a queer writer or queer person of color writer or trans or a sex worker or whatever, and you write about something that’s not that - I mean, how many narratives like that get famous? Now, this is very tricky, because I’m not saying that we need to have books that are less about identity or less about who we are or anything like that. I’m just observing the kinds of things that straight white people love, and then also what the marginalized communities end up loving, instead of a variety of narratives and what we get corralled into writing about.
There’s this mindset that says, “Let’s compromise your identity by having you write about them more and more and more until that’s all we allow you to write about.” And I think that is really shitty. I mean, there’s a difference between that and stories that come from your identity, you know, the ones that arise and are born from who you are. Those stories are really powerful, too, and they’re often thrown away or ignored or not published.
| Q: Have you read anything recently that you enjoyed that you might wanna talk about?
CH: Last year I got into this big César Aira kick. You can read so much of him that you almost get exhausted, because they’re all sort of similar, but he’s really excellent. He’s said about writing that he never writes a draft. He sort of sets himself up for this impossible challenge at the end of his writing session for the day, and then has to overcome it the next day, and he never knows where he’s going. You see that in his books - it can really just turn anywhere. He throws himself into a challenge, and I love that, because it feels like that’s what I’ve done with my life. Choosing to be in porn, too, is sort of like throwing a wrench in the gears of my future, so I’ve got to crawl out of it - it was a good challenge to myself.
Right now, I’m reading a biography called Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives by François Dosse. When I'm grappling with philosophical works -- I've been reading Deleuze and Guattari lately, their work together and separate -- I often like to read personal stories about them because it gives warmth to their ideas.
I also really like The Corn Wolf by Michael Taussig. It’s about embedded mythologies and magic in our culture, but also he’s a real anthropologist. To an anthropologist, everything must have meaning. The Corn Wolf starts by evoking Wittgenstein; I love Wittgenstein now, suddenly. It starts evoking him and illustrating his idea that “there’s an entire mythology in our language,” meaning if you just look at the words we use, the spaces we use between the words we use, the shapes of the letters, all that, you’ll notice something extremely mystical. Which is not what people like to think of when they think of Wittgenstein, but in my mind he is phenomenologically occult in his interests.
The writers that really mean so much to me - Michael Taussig being one of them - are ones that write in this certain kind of style that is really profound to me. And the style, it’s a style that really takes thought seriously. If you’ve ever read stories by Joy Williams, or a novel by her, you notice that she moves, or rather, she refuses to name the interior in opposition to the exterior. So she is very interested in how things bridge between our thinking and feeling, and the world of objects. Michael Taussig does that too. These writers, those that really demand that we take thought as seriously as the material world in their style of writing, are so profound and rich to me. I wish I could do that more - present the world in writing in that way. Maybe one day I’ll get there.
| Q: Do you have any way of practicing writing?
CH: Sometimes I have to find my way into writing something. I write by stealing someone else’s style. Basically, all I need is a cue. I don’t steal someone else’s style wholesale, but I need a cue to steal. So, for What I Want to Know is Why You Hate Porn Stars, I took a cue from this book called The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, which is by Thomas King, and he says in this book “Why do you hate us?” about indigenous people and Native Americans. So that was my cue. I kept trying to find my way into the essay. I’d circled around, I’d written little parts of it, and then as soon as I read that I was like “Oh! I need to not fuck around and demand that this question be asked, again and again.” Once I got that, I was in. And so a lot of times practice for me will just be reading, reading to kick up a certain mood for myself.
I think that when you’re writing, style is a mood. In other words, style is really this unique mood that you’ve created out of yourself. No one else has that mood, no one else has access to it. When you’re actually in your style, you experience a mood that you don’t experience in any other space, a mood that no one else can experience. That’s how you know you’re doing it. It’s this feeling of some emergence from you, and so my exercise in my writing is to trigger that mood in myself. And I can’t do it alone. I need help. I need someone to make me feel that way, but then when I feel that way, it’s really just me.
| Q: If you were asked for a strict definition, what would you say makes somebody a writer?
CH: To put it plainly, a writer is someone who feels more compassion for the world through the act of writing than without it. If I write about a tree, or grass, I’m evoking it in myself and then translating it into words. So I’m creating a relationship. In that moment I’m doing it, it’s in me, it’s in my inner landscape, and I’m giving that to someone else. And as I do that, as I write about the trees or the grass or a person, I am encountering it all inwardly before I externalize it. So that’s where the compassion and empathy comes; it’s like I’ve allowed the world to rise up in me. Now I’m going to give what rose up in me to others.
| Q: I feel like in pornography there might be a similarity there - the giving of pleasure, the giving of a sort of feeling to others. Both onscreen and off.
CH: I think that’s still developing in porn. I don’t think that it’s there yet, and I say that because I feel like we’re trying. I feel like all sex workers are trying in some way. Maybe it’s not consciously, it’s just who they are, it’s just what they do. We’re sort of trying to redeem the suffering that people feel when it comes to sex in the world. We turn it into pleasure, and that is definitely an act of compassion.
| Q: You turned to porn when you were thirty years old. Can you tell us about your first experience on camera? Were you nervous?
CH: I was nervous on the way. It was an orgy scene, so I just dove right in. I wasn’t attracted to any of my scene partners, and I don’t remember how many of them there were, but we were all having sex in a gym, and I loved every second of it. I was like, “Okay, I guess this is what I’ve been waiting for.”
| Q: Do you have anything that makes you nervous now?
CH: I see a growing body of people that are attacking porn and sex work because they’re very threatened by it. These people and movements are doing everything they can to undermine something that is progressive, which is people having access to the internet - it’s not porn, it’s the internet. It’s the ability to access and encounter all sorts of information. And they single out sex as the expression of the things they’re most anxious about. And that worries me, you know. The French government recently started following the Nordic model, the sort of "end demand" model, by criminalizing people who hire sex workers. Why would anybody ever do that? How would you ever think it would ever work, ever? “Oh, we’re just going to ban porn, we’re just going to ban sex work.” It’s completely crazy, which is why I said before that the only way to get rid of it is to support and encourage it so that it transforms into something else.
There’s a quote from Wilhelm Reich: “The problem of the sexual misery of the population can only be solved by a movement towards freedom from any kind of oppression.” So nobody’s going to be happy sexually until we work on all of it. And nobody’s going to be happy with all of it until we work on things sexually as well. The other side of it is also true. That concerns me, that people are still trying to do this thing when there’s such an opportunity now, to use all of this sexual imagery and the sex work rights movement and positive information about sex. But they’re clinging on with everything that they have because they’re really scared.
And the ones who aren’t scared, those are the really horrible ones; some notable anti-sex bigots eroticize demonizing sex workers and sex work. Their erotic pleasure comes from that. It’s very evident from the way they speak, how turned on they are. So they’ll never let go of it, because that’s their source of erotic enrichment: hating sex work and hating porn performers - hating other people’s pleasure. They’re the ultimate sadists. And in some way the ultimate masochists, as well. And that worries me that people are listening to them. There’s always a fragile moment for sex, and you always have to stand up for it because it will always be used to seize power in one way or another. So I would just say anybody reading this: please stand up in whatever way you can for sex work freedom. It’s so important, and it’s always so precarious.
| Q: Thinking of you having meshed the two worlds of sex work and writing, I wanted to ask: what are some conflicts you may have faced in your writing career?
CH: Rejection for sure. I don’t have any fiction published anywhere, and it’s a weird balance right now because I get paid for everything I write. I could publish fiction somewhere and not get paid, but I don’t want to do that anymore because writers need to get paid. There’s this whole thing where, when you get to a certain point, you don’t want to downgrade your livelihood. When you start getting to a point where you’re getting paid for your work, certain things start to sound unreasonable, and maybe that’s not right. Maybe I also need to understand that people running journals are also making art and curating - in a positive sense - art, and then disseminating it to people.
I’m not some major league famous author, I’m not wealthy. And that’s where most people are. I don’t have a job as a professor, I have nothing in the pipeline to be a professor, that’s not what’s going on with me. I think a lot of people are really in this position: established enough to sort of get paid. It becomes this place where, if I take a step back, I’m fucked. I have to keep moving forward. And to justify writing for free, you just can’t do it at a certain point, because it’s a priority and time thing. Would I rather write a story and give it to a journal that was publishing fiction and sort of edgy stuff than write something about porn and sex right now? One hundred percent. However, I have to prioritize this thing that’s going to pay me a nice chunk of money, and also create the psychic space that makes that meaningful for me.
| Q: What would you say to your younger self? What about to kids who have a particular ambition that they fear they could be judged for pursuing?
CH: First of all, to my younger self, I would say “I love you. You’re a lot smarter than you think you are, because you got me here. You’re the one that navigated all that stuff. I don’t even know how I’d do that now, but you did it.”
For the people who fear being judged for their ambitions, I’d say if you’re wondering about if you should do what’s practical or do what you care about, remember the world is a monstrous, crazy and dangerous place, and you’re not going to get any security by doing the thing that’s practical. The practical is generally a lie. If it’s in your heart to do what’s practical, go for it. But understand that you love practicality more than you love this other thing, and just admit it, really admit it, so you can really enter into that. Learn how to be uncomfortable to do what you love. Don’t flee in terror from being uncomfortable or being bored or being poor, because it’s not going to give you anything. You’re running the risk of your soul being deadened.
I mean, in a similar sense, if I or anyone would have said to me when I was a kid, “you only live once,” that cliche, I wouldn’t have heard it. You don’t feel that way when you’re a kid. It doesn’t mean anything substantial. And then when you turn 38, you start noticing certain things ending forever in this lifetime. You start really getting that sense. Maybe you have another lifetime after this, and after that and after that, but this time, this go-round, you only really get it once. And when you start seeing things are permanent in some way or another, that’s when you really start assessing your life. Anything you say to someone who’s younger, it might not stick, since you really don’t substantially have that feeling until you’re older. It’s like you haven’t developed the organ to feel that feeling. But the feeling that you have when you’re younger, it’s like real passion for something, and that passion should be coupled with a “Fuck you, this is my life, and my life does not belong to anyone else, ever. This is mine and it doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s.”