Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

the kid who asked too much

an interview with conner habib

Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl

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.

TMR:  What were your first experiences with porn? When did it appeal to you as a career? 
 

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. 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 part of my brain, until when I was much older, someone told me: "No, you have something, you've gained something."


TMR:  Should be an effort to normalize porn 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 promote them and make them accessible to everybody. 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 changes the nature of repression and what we repress. It allows different kinds of desire to emerge. This is 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, 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. Then we don't have sex work anymore.

It doesn't happen through deeper repression. That's idiotic. Any basic psychology student can tell you that all that does is distort the desire.

There's always a fragile moment for sex, and you have to stand up for it because it will always be used to seize power in one way or another. To 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.


TMR:  Can you tell us about your childhood? In your interview with Polari you discuss 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. 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. 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 life and interests. At least not where I was. The interests of where I grew up were elsewhere, not in books or intellectual pursuits; any sign of that was pretty troubling. It happens pretty quickly that people stop liking you when you start asking questions.

It happens pretty quickly that people stop liking you when you start asking questions.

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, I cringe, because we're not supposed to say it. You say that and people think you're an asshole—instant judgement. I'm not saying that I'm smarter than other people; I just know that I'm smart, and that feels alienating to me.


TMR:  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.

I'm still that kid who's interested in what a world without compromise could be. Imagining the impossible as possible is what punk rock is really about. 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.


TMR:  Did you have to curate your sexuality in your hometown? When did you come out, when did you feel comfortable coming out?
 

CH:  I was totally quiet about it and suffering in silence, but when I was seventeen I started understanding that this thing wasn't going anywhere. I fell in love with this kid that I was in high school with 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."


TMR:  Did being biracial have any affect on you as a child?
 

CH:  My father's from Syria, so there was already a difference if anybody had seen him when I was growing up. 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, 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 that 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.


TMR:  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. Anybody that crosses that line suddenly becomes a sex writer. 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."

Anybody that writes about sex, ever, is going to be asked to write about sex forever. 

I've been working on fiction for a while, and I shared them with my friend who's smart, a really great guy, a 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?" I think those kind of things permeate all identities.

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, and you write about something that's not that—how many narratives like that get famous? I'm not saying that we need to have books that are less about identity. 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.

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." That's really shitty. There's a difference between that and stories that come from your identity—the ones that arise and are born from who you are. Those stories are powerful, and they're often thrown away or ignored.


TMR:  Have you read anything recently that you enjoyed?
 

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 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.

The writers that mean so much to me write in this certain kind of style that is really profound to me. It's a style that really takes thought seriously. If you've ever read stories by Joy Williams, you notice that she refuses to name the interior in opposition to the exterior. 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.


TMR:  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 by Thomas King. He says in this book "Why do you hate us?" about indigenous people and Native Americans. 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. A lot of times practice for me will just be reading to kick up a certain mood for myself.

style is this unique mood that you've created out of yourself. No one else has that mood, no one else has access to it.

I think that when you're writing, style is 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.


TMR:  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?
 

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.

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: 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. You're not going to get any security by doing the thing that's practical. 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 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.