As you might imagine, a porn star takes her lingerie drawer very seriously. “This is the working lingerie desk,” says Stoya, gesturing to a vintage-looking writing desk in her Brooklyn apartment. “It’s for sets that are special for me but haven’t been shot, things I haven’t worn on-camera. They live here.” Up the staircase in her loft bedroom there is a similar setup, organized by color, style, and texture. “You should see it when I’ve had time to go through and redo it,” she says, gazing at what appear to be immaculate rows of multicolored lace and tulle and mesh. “I’ve just had a lot going on.”
Stoya’s is one of the most well-known and in-demand names, faces, and bodies in porn. She got her start during the mid-aughts alt-porn boom — when sites like Suicide Girls and its competitors marketed arguably feminist, certainly subcultural porn to the Vice generation — and soon had a contract with one of the most prominent porn studios in America. Over the past ten years, her unusual blend of sexual candor, intellectualism (she speaks with equal eloquence on Foucault and anal play), and what most people would consider an unconventional look (she’s whippet-thin, small-breasted, and very pale) has made Stoya, who turned 30 this month, a pop-cultural force.
She became even more well known when, in 2012 (according to the social-media trail), she began dating fellow porn star James Deen, who, with his sensitive good-guy image, also represented a deviation from the porn norm. In part owing to a campaign waged by Bret Easton Ellis (Deen starred alongside Lindsay Lohan in the Ellis-penned, Paul Schrader-directed erotic drama The Canyons), Deen’s name was tossed around on Twitter as a possibility to play the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey. At a time when, thanks to the success of the book of the same name, the basics of BDSM were topics of mainstream conversation, Stoya and Deen became porn’s power couple. “The New York Post called them the Brangelina of porn, which fit,” recalls Amelia McDonell-Parry, former editor-in-chief of the Frisky, for whom Deen wrote a sex column. “Their relationship was highly romanticized by their fans. I mean, it was porn’s version of romantic — he would say things in the press like ‘Her asshole belongs to me’ — where it’s like, well, I wouldn’t put that on a card! But something about it really appealed to the public.” Even well after the couple ended their two-year-plus relationship and stopped filming scenes together, you’d still see heartbroken fans posting old photos of the pair and calling for a reunion.
Then, this past November, while on location in Serbia shooting her first big role in a non-pornographic film (Ederlezi Rising, a science-fiction romance in the spirit of Her), Stoya sent out two tweets accusing Deen of rape, and it became a global news story. In the weeks and months that followed, 12 other women came forward with accusations of assault, abuse, or threatening behavior, and multiple porn studios cut ties with Deen (who has maintained his innocence and has not been charged with any crimes). After the tweets, Stoya attempted to go back to business as usual. But as the press requests mounted and the slut-shaming by some threatened to drown out the support of others, Stoya began to unravel. She tweeted that she was not going to attend the Adult Video News Awards and that she wished she could get out of hosting XBiz, one of porn’s biggest awards shows. She also announced that she was turning over her stake in TrenchcoatX, the progressive-porn start-up she had launched in 2015, to her co-founder, Kayden Kross. Then she began musing (again, on Twitter) about whether she even wanted to be this person known as Stoya anymore.
Stoya stands at the breakfast bar in her kitchen, lights a Parliament, and grinds beans for coffee. She has on black leggings so well worn they’re almost sheer and a thin gray tank top. A tuft of dark hair demurely pokes out from her armpit as she opens the fridge in search of dulce-de-leche-flavor Coffee-mate, her favorite. “What I’m doing right now is lying fallow, like a field, or hibernating like a bear — existing in a rest state,” she tells me of her self-imposed exile. “But also trying to figure out how much of myself as a human I am willing to risk. Do I want to keep investing my own time and effort in Stoya as the person in the world that other people put things onto? Because the weight of that could conceivably pass the limit of what I’m willing to go through with the resources I have at my command.”
Stoya was 19 when she shot her first porno. “June 6th, 2006,” she recalls. “But I had already been posing for nude photographs, and go-go dancing, and doing a very bad job at trying to be a pro domme, for a couple of months.” Stoya, whose legal name is Jessica, and who in her private life goes by both, was living in Philadelphia then. The year prior, her roommate, an amateur photographer, was contacted by one of Suicide Girls’ competitors, Razordolls, wondering if he might be interested in taking some shots for the site. The catch: He needed to find his own models. “He comes into the living room, and I’m sitting there in, like, a Technicolor fishnet shirt — a pair of fishnets that I had cut a neck hole in — with Band-Aids over my nipples,” Stoya remembers. “And he’s like, ‘Here’s the situation, you don’t mind being naked, right?’ ” Her response: “Clearly not, sir!”
As a girl growing up in North Carolina and later Delaware, Stoya was a serious ballerina, and professional dance was her plan for the future. Then she endured a series of injuries, including a stress fracture in her foot, which sidelined her for good. “I was in my mid-teens, going, What the fuck am I going to do with my life?” she remembers. “The first couple of years in Philadelphia” — where she moved on her own at 17 — “were very much: I guess I’ll just do things until I figure it out, which might be why my response when someone asked if I wanted to be naked in pictures was ‘Why not?’ ” And when the enthusiastic reaction to her nude photos led to an offer to appear in Razordolls’ first-ever adult film, she didn’t see any reason not to try that either. “Basically, I’m a cat,” she says. “I’m so, so, so curious.”
In 2007, Stoya signed her first contract with one of the major porn studios, Digital Playground: $2,500 per scene for up to 25 scenes — minus the cost of STD testing, she points out, which in porn is admirably rigorous, amounting to another $100 to $200 out of the performer’s pocket every 28 days (though, Stoya says, she still managed to contract chlamydia and gonorrhea). She was 21 years old, meeting with Digital executives who were telling her, “We’re going to make you a star,” she remembers. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever, this is not my first weekend in Los Angeles, the guy who sells me cigarettes in the morning says he’s going to make me a star.’ But they were actually serious.”
Stoya sees in sex the opportunity to process emotions that arise in her life. “It’s like, ‘Thank you for letting me work out my issues with your balls!’ ” she says. “Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a number of ongoing big, long projects, I might do the dishes and wipe down the kitchen counter to have a sense of ‘I have completed a task.’ Or I might be like, ‘Hey, can I figure out your three-button move with your genitals and nail that a couple of times just for finishing-a-task gratification?’ For me, that’s normal.”
There’s a widely held belief that a disproportionately high number of the women in porn were sexually abused. It’s one of those casually accepted notions that are difficult to disprove, because there isn’t enough reliable research on the subject and because it happens to be true for several high-profile porn stars, such as Jenna Jameson and Traci Lords. We like to tell ourselves stories about why some women decide to do “this kind of work.” But until her experience with Deen, Stoya says, she had not been assaulted — at least not in the way we typically think of sexual assault. “When I was 17, I would walk around in these enormously baggy Army pants and a big baggy sweatshirt and no makeup and definitely not sexy hair, kind of smelly, and I still got harassed and groped,” she recalls. “I learned that by virtue of walking out of my front door, I am seen by sections of the world as someone they can just take sexual pleasure from.” Dancing onstage for money and eventually having sex on-camera allowed Stoya to reclaim a position of power in that dynamic. “I was like, at least when I’m being looked at and sexualized, it is under my conditions, and if somebody says something to my face, instead of having to hustle past them on the sidewalk and hope they don’t grab me, I can say, ‘Bouncer!’ Instead of just having this done to me and me getting nothing out of it, I get a paycheck.”
That’s not to say Stoya doesn’t enjoy her work. Her signature performative skill, the thing that makes a scene starring Stoya different from a scene starring anyone else, is the elation she expresses when having sex. In nearly all her performances, there’s a moment when she starts to laugh. It’s not coquettish. It’s not goofy. It’s not embarrassed. It usually comes as the actions of her partner or partners are starting to really turn her on. The sound Stoya lets loose is a sort of primal giggle of pure pleasure. In a world that exhibits at best a complicated relationship with pleasure (especially female, especially sexual), modeling that kind of unequivocal, physical joy is itself a radical act. Particularly when contrasted with the grotesquely vacant cum-shot montages that characterize so much of corporate porn, it’s also intensely hot.
“I’m so turned off by 99.9 percent of all the porn out there because you just have the feeling that these people are completely checked out, and that’s not sexy to me,” says the writer and musician Amanda Palmer, who cast Stoya as her love interest in a recent video. “To me, sexy is the Stoya style, where you’re actually in the room with the person, feeling the feels.”
Among the most-viewed clips of Stoya is the first episode of a series called “Hysterical Literature,” in which women read from a literary work of their choosing while being stimulated with a vibrator under a table. There’s no lingerie, no story, no music, no dim lighting; there isn’t even any nudity, just a six-minute shot of Stoya’s face as she reads and, eventually, reaches orgasm. A screenshot of the look on her face as she climaxes, eyes closed, head tilted back, throat exposed, her pale hands grasping at the table, is among the most popular GIFs of her available online. More than the alt-girl with the armpit hair and the nipple piercings, this is Stoya’s brand: real pleasure.
Many anti-porn activists argue that one of the reasons porn is destructive is because it warps reality in a way we’re not always conscious of. It manufactures unrealistic expectations of how people having sex are supposed to look, and how the sex they’re having is supposed to go, ultimately deepening a sense of collective alienation. Stoya works in the realm of fantasy, for sure; like any other porn star or porn director, her clips are edited, so you’re not seeing the in-between awkwardness of adjusting to a new position. But everything else — from her body to her orgasm — is real, and deliberately so. She has refused offers from Digital Playground to have her breasts enhanced and for most of her career has displayed a relatively full bush. She is up front with her fans about the fact that, yes, she has periods. When an Instagram post about her DivaCup elicited “ewwww”s, she responded: “You can find on a Tube site, HD video showing the interior of my rectum. But periods? How disgusting.”
Of course, there are still those who want super-waxed, blonde, tan, open-mouthed, pneumatic bombshells. Once, owing to a scheduling change at a porn convention, Stoya found herself in a booth, Sharpie in hand, ready to sign autographs for a long line of people who were expecting to see Jesse Jane. “She’s blonde, huge boobs, tan, real short, huge smile, huge green eyes, really bubbly and perky, just sunshine — sex bomb!” Stoya says. “And I’m me.” Half of those queued up decided to bail, mostly “dudes in their mid-30s, 40s, maybe early 50s,” who came of age during what Stoya calls “the contract-girl era,” the early heyday of internet porn wherein studios recruited a stable of young women to bring to life the Jessica Rabbit image of female sexuality that you would have seen a decade prior in Penthouse. These guys are not her people. Stoya’s people are younger and more self-consciously countercultural. They’re millennials who’ve forged their identities, sexual and otherwise, in an economically uncertain, politically polarized, sexually progressive, post-gender world, and who prize authenticity and anti-Establishment thinking. Stoya is the sex icon for a generation that doesn’t trust institutions, and a greased-up, moaning blonde is the face and body of institutionalized sexuality. “The next time I saw Jesse after that convention, we were comparing notes,” Stoya recalls. “And she was like, ‘Oh my God, they did that to me too, a different day. You left, and they put me on your spot, and it was all these guys — they were really nice, but they were like, ‘You’re not Stoya!’ ”
Stoya had known Deen for years before they started dating. When he was involved with another porn star, Joanna Angel, the three of them used to hook up from time to time. There was one instance, Stoya remembers wistfully, when she was so exhausted after a long day that she literally fell asleep with her face in between Angel’s legs. “I woke up and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s not a pillow, that’s a vagina!’ ” she recalls, laughing. But there was another instance that she’s since added to a long list of red flags about Deen that now haunt her. “I can’t remember if it was that same sexual interaction or another one, but in the middle, Joanna got up to go to the bathroom,” she recalls. Stoya was worried and asked Deen if Angel was okay, but he didn’t respond. “He just did not give a flying fuck.”
By 2012, Stoya and Deen were officially together, and she was spending a lot of time at his house in L.A. The aerial hoop she used to practice acrobatics hung from his ceiling, much to the delight of their social-media followers, who observed the couple’s every Instagram move like a still-life reality show. Initially, she kept her own place back East, until Deen objected. “He told me I was using my apartment in New York as an escape hatch and a way to avoid committing,” she recalls. It was about a year into their relationship that she says the rape occurred. Until Deen, “there had never in my life been a time where someone had held me down and penetrated me with their penis while I used all the words that you should be able to use to stop it.” They continued dating for approximately another year. As she wrote in a blog post on her website, “I felt as if I had no recourse. I didn’t know what to do. So I kept working with him, and we kept dating.” Looking back, she says, “I just feel so fucking dumb.”
By the time Stoya sent the tweets, she and Deen had been broken up for well over a year, and she had started going to therapy at the suggestion of Joanna Angel. Not that Angel knew, exactly, what had happened, but there was a shared understanding. “She had an idea. I had an idea,” Stoya says. After Stoya’s accusations came out, Angel would tell the world that Deen had been abusive to her as well: “He made her sleep on the floor, like a dog,” says Stoya. That summer, a film crew was doing a documentary about Deen and asked to interview Angel. Stoya advised against it: “As your friend, it is the worst idea in the entire world to tell anything close to the truth about him. You’ll be massacred as a crazy, bitter, jealous ex. But that said, I am 99 percent certain that anything you experienced with him, I experienced something similar.”
Stoya thought of this advice late one night in Belgrade, after a difficult day on set (the film includes a rape scene). But she also thought about how, every day, she would see “some teenager on Tumblr being like, James and Stoya #relationshipgoals.” (Deen’s teenage fans, of which there are many, call themselves “Deenagers.”) She thought about Deen’s “Do a Scene” feature on his website, where literally anyone can apply to have sex with him, so long as they are willing to be filmed. “When we were still dating, it would be him and the camera and the woman in his house, unsupervised,” she remembers. She thought about how she let her perception of Angel as “smart and successful and awesome and funny” fuel her self-doubt. “I would think, Oh, he can’t be terrible, Joanna dated him for six years,” Stoya recalls. “And I’m now complicit.”
So she opened her computer and tried to reach Kayden Kross on videochat. “I was calling to say, ‘Kayden, remind me of the slut-shaming, remind me how I will ruin our business, remind me how I will be told that porn stars can’t be raped, remind me of how I will be called a liar, remind me that it will quite likely undo and undermine a decade of work in the porn industry.’ ” But Kross didn’t pick up.
“The tweets just fell out of my hands,” Stoya says: “That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks,” she wrote. And then: “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.” Then she closed her laptop and went to bed.
As is the case with many public rape accusations in the era of social media, Stoya’s charges against Deen opened the floodgates to more abuse allegations. Tori Lux said Deen had held her down and repeatedly hit her in the face on set; Ashley Fires said he had tried to rape her in a bathroom at the studio; Joanna Angel said Deen was “dead on the inside.” In the end, Kora Peters, Lily LaBeau, Bree Olson, Amber Rayne, Nicki Blue, Holly Jee, Farrah Abraham, Bonnie Rotten, and a woman known as T.M. would add their accusations to the pile, making a total of 13 women who say they were assaulted or threatened by Deen. In response to each, Stoya tweeted, “I believe …” and the woman’s name or Twitter handle. The hashtags #istandwithstoya and #solidaritywithstoya both began trending. Deen, who declined to comment for this article, took to Twitter to call the claims against him “both false and defamatory,” adding, “I respect women and I know and respect limits both professionally and privately.” And he had his supporters as well, among the Deenagers and men’s-rights advocates. “I’m with you man, from what I’ve seen you would never do this and I’m with you, in the court of public opinion, men have no say,” tweeted @Knight4Trump (whose Twitter bio reads, simply, “@realDonaldTrump’s worshipper”).
In the middle of all this, about five weeks after Stoya sent the initial tweets, the porn industry gathered for the XBiz Awards, which Stoya hosted and which Deen attended, and where Stoya made what she thought was a pointed comment about the controversy. “Before we get started, I hope you don’t mind, I’d like to say a few words from my heart,” she said after taking the stage. “But really” — she paused — “I’d prefer not to. It doesn’t go over very well when I speak from my heart.” Then she introduced the first presenters. The line was her lit-nerdy attempt at protest. “It’s Melville! I’m Bartleby!” she exclaims, referring to Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” “He is in the capitalism–commerce–American Dream machine, and one day somebody asks him to do something and he says, ‘I’d prefer not to,’ ” she explains. “His cog brings the whole machine around him to this very strange, slow, grinding halt!” Needless to say, no one got the joke.
But there’s a way in which Stoya really is the Bartleby of the porn industry. When Deen wanted to join her on the Adult Video News conference’s panel on consent the week after XBiz, she declined to participate in the showdown and the whole thing fell apart. “That would be really emotionally difficult for me,” she says. “It’s so weird to be the human in the middle of this.”
Earlier in her career, she’d engaged in a work stoppage of sorts in a battle with Digital Playground that was also, at its core, about consent. “I was expressing to the producer on Digital Playground sets that no, I don’t want to work with this person who is not on my ‘yes’ list,” Stoya recalls, referring to the list that many adult performers keep of other actors they will or won’t do scenes with. “And he was like, ‘Well, I mean, you could be working at Walmart.’” That’s when she called a lawyer. (Digital Playground declined to comment.)
Porn performers consent to have sex on-camera, but Stoya objects to the idea that she — or any other performer — is just a collection of orifices to which she’s signed away unrestricted penetration rights. The number of times you’ve said “yes” does not in any way disempower you to say “no” at any point, for any reason.
Stoya’s lawyers agreed. “The lawyer told me exactly where my loopholes were on my contract, and of course the biggest one was: It’s the United States in the 2000s, you can’t make me have sex,” she remembers. “Then I went and waited tables.” She wanted to prove to the Digital executives (and perhaps to herself) that she was capable of walking away. “For a fucking year I waited tables, and I waited for it to get back to Digital Playground that I was waiting tables,” she recalls. “I had a normal job where my shoes stank like duck sauce.” Eventually, Stoya says, “they relented,” though she declines to get into specifics, saying only that she “fought for the hope of being able to do this work under something closer to my own terms.”
This is the attitude that inspired her to start TrenchcoatX with Kross: “Trying to make better porn, trying to make porn that isn’t total shit,” she says. Trying to make porn that respects both its audience and its performers. “Obviously, no one cared on a set when someone said, ‘Where’s the rape kit?’ ” she says, referring to what the industry colloquially calls the container, usually a milk crate, that contains “paper towels, douches, enemas, condoms, and dental dams … So, you know, trying to not do that.” It’s just a bad joke, of course, but it affects attitudes about women in the industry, and it perpetuates the idea that women in porn can’t really be raped, or, rather, that being raped is in some way what they’ve signed up for.
Stoya gets asked a lot of questions about feminism, which displeases her. “I think part of my problem is, don’t put me in the pink corner,” she says. “I am a deeply conflicted feminist person who gets regularly called a feminist pornographer when I see nothing inherently feminist about the pornography I produce. Feminism is not my focus.”
Perhaps a better way to describe her pornography is progressive. TrenchcoatX is a lot more inclusive than its competitors in terms of the many ways that gender and sexuality are expressed. On many standard corporate porn sites, you see, in addition to merely unimaginative terms like “blow job” or “big tits,” outright derogatory categories like “shemale.” TrenchcoatX offers a broader selection of tags that aim to take into consideration gender identity (“pubic parts: mostly external,” “pubic parts: mostly internal”), encourage a less narrow way of thinking about technique (“blowbang,” “slapping: genitals”), and responsibly push boundaries in terms of fantasy (“portrayals of nonconsent,” “religious satire”). Customers can also designate any TrenchcoatX term as what Kross and Stoya call a “squick” — as in, I’m not into this, it “squicks” me out — or a “squee” — as in, I’m really into this, it makes me “squee.”
In the initial wake of Stoya’s accusation, Deen’s career appeared to take a genuine hit. Multiple production companies, notably BDSM giant Kink.com, severed ties with the performer, sex-toy manufacturer Doc Johnson dropped Deen’s line of products, and his reputation as the Ryan Gosling of porn seemed to be forever tarnished. But six months later, Deen is as busy as ever, appearing regularly in new scenes by companies like Vouyer Media and Reality Junkies. Earlier this month, his spokesperson announced that jamesdeen.com would be increasing the amount of new content for its members. Apparently, a lot of people still want to watch him have sex on-camera, and a lot of women are still willing to work with him for that reason.
For Stoya’s part, she wants more than anything to move on. “What I don’t want is for my entire career and therefore entire life to be all about James and what he did to me,” she says. “Has my life not been all about James and what he did to me for long enough?” She has plans to return to on-camera work in the next few months, but BDSM is off the table for the foreseeable future. “If somebody put their hand on my throat, I would burst into tears,” she says. She is still seeing her therapist and has been diagnosed with PTSD. In a way, the blend of crisis and catharsis that came after she spoke out about Deen forced her to seriously consider questions she had already been asking herself, like: Why, exactly, am I doing this? In April, after she’d returned to work at TrenchcoatX, she told me she’d finally come up with an answer: “Because right now the only things standing out about porn are the garbage. And I know you don’t fix something by walking away from it.”
A month later, we meet outside Penn Station early one morning to take the train to Baltimore, where Stoya is shooting a new project. Last fall, a 26-year-old transgender activist named Ava approached Stoya about directing her in a series of scenes that would document her transition. Today is Ava’s debut pornographic performance, a solo masturbation scene, and the only one to be filmed before she goes to Thailand to, as she puts it, “get my vagina installed.”
But there’s been a slight snag: Ava’s partner, who didn’t want to participate in the shoot but was supportive of it, is having a last-minute freak-out. Ava has gone into the hallway to call them (the pronoun her partner uses) on the phone. As we wait, Stoya sits patiently on Ava’s floor, surrounded by the detritus of a young person exploring progressive womanhood; the bookshelf holds The Zinn Reader, a slim volume called Anarchism: The Feminist Connection, and a tiara. “So now the thing is making it very, very clear to her that she absolutely can back out, even though it doesn’t seem like that’s what she wants to do,” Stoya says. “Every time anything changes, it has to be like, you know you can be done. And even when we’ve shot ten minutes of footage, she can be done.” Stoya has already paid Ava $700, a typical rate for a female performer in this kind of solo scene, and advised her not to email back the release papers until Ava sees and signs off on the edited footage.
“That always happens, right?” Ava asks as she comes back into the room, a little shaken. “It always happens,” Stoya confirms. “There is not a single person I’ve dated who hasn’t needed to have ‘the conversation’ right as I’m arriving to set … Including Bryan [Deen’s real name is Bryan Sevilla], who was a performer himself.” After a few more minutes of conversation, during which Stoya tells Ava, again, that she can back out at any point, Ava starts to casually undress and Stoya moves behind the camera. For about 17 minutes, as Ava brings herself to orgasm, Stoya stays in a loose crouch, saying nothing, moving silently around the room to get her shots. The look on her face — a kind of appreciative smile — is one I recognize from watching her in group scenes; she appears to enjoy watching other people have sex as much as she likes having it herself. Afterward, as Ava is coming down, Stoya asks how she feels. “Comfortable,” she says, spooning her pillow and smiling. “Snuggly.”
On the train back to New York, I ask Stoya about a text she’d sent me a few days prior, in which she declared: “I know what I want from my 30s.” She nods. She’s been thinking more about how to make porn better, letting that quest animate her. Lately, she’s feeling excited about the idea of aging on-camera as a form of self-expression and of rebellion. “Ava wanting to show a sexualized trans body is what inspired me to say, Okay, I want to show a sexualized aging body,” she says. “And I’m really the best person positioned to do this.”
Sitting cross-legged in the window seat, a little flushed with the excitement of having made work she cares about, Stoya says she has a lot to look forward to. Such as? “I’m joyfully awaiting my first gray pube.”
*This article appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.