Meet South Philly’s Stoya

She is young, 21, smokes Parliament Lights, and inhales deep with every drag before blowing out, visibly young — her pale skin soft, real, not manipulated. Her features are unmarked. No makeup that you can identify. No tattoos. Holes from ear piercings,…

She is young, 21, smokes Parliament Lights, and inhales deep with every drag before blowing out, visibly young — her pale skin soft, real, not manipulated. Her features are unmarked. No makeup that you can identify. No tattoos. Holes from ear piercings, but they’re unfilled. She beams with energy at every exchange and inquest, with every word. You wonder. You ask question upon question. You want to know more. And she tells you. Without hesitation. Everything on her mind. Forcefully. Streaming. Louder than you expect. More dynamic. Inflected. Strong. Kinetic.

Forcing the smoke from her lungs, from the right side of her mouth toward the sky and past her naturally brown, healthy head of hair. Her eyes are green, maybe closer to hazel. Her face is soft and expressive and constantly ready to break into a smile or a simper or a wince. It strikes you how youthful she appears. Visibly

Minutes pass.

She talks and you listen.

She’s excited.

Smiling.

She tells you more and more.

Details. Stories. Opinions. Troubles. Openly.

But then there’s a change.

She gets angry.

All of a sudden.

Then strangely guarded.

She gets inquisitive. Toward you. She gets mad. And mad again. Insulted by your ignorance. By your lack of insight. Or something else? Something you can’t see? She gets distracted. That car next to you? That car that just pulled up? The noise coming from it? That music? “Why does it suck so much!” she yells, through gritted teeth. Really yells this. Then laughs. Pointedly. Barely controlled. Almost frenzied. At the car, at the driver, at the music: Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now,” playing real loud, and probably too loud for anyone driving a late ’80s Honda Accord DX with crackling speakers and a stereo unable to support the volume. She can’t take it. She can’t take any more of this. She’s gotta get out of here. Gotta get the fuck out of here before she goes insane. She yells at you, then again at the driver, who has his windows rolled down and can definitely hear everything she says. But the driver. He doesn’t look mad, doesn’t even look surprised as he turns off his car and just stares at her, unmoving, and either unmoved or awestruck. She looks over at him and says “Fuck. You. And your shitty music.” Gets up and starts walking away. And you look around — at Danny, her friend; and at your photographer, your friend — and they just sort of shrug without a word and get up to follow her. You follow her, too. Because you just never know. You never know what’s going to happen. Especially with Stoya.

“Pornography is a complex daydream in which activities, usually but not necessarily overtly sexual, are projected into written, pictorial, or aural material to induce genital excitement in an observer. No depiction is pornographic until an observer’s fantasies are added; nothing is pornographic, per se.” — from Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, by Robert J. Stoller, M.D.

Stoya is about 5 foot 7 and slender and maybe 115 pounds. She admits to having “almost no tits” — which she brings up in conversation frequently — but also admits that this fact does not hinder her ability to make a couple thousand dollars every time she decides to have sexual intercourse in front of a camera. Porn is her full-time job. She is a “contract girl.” Which means she is legally indentured to perform sexual acts professionally, and exclusively for one company. 1

The company is called Digital Playground, or DP. Press releases for DP say it’s the “world leader in adult filmmaking,” and that, in addition to “boasting the largest HD library available,” it’s “female owned and operated … [emphasizing] quality first [and] employing fastidiously high production values in erotic film for women, men and couples.” And so on. It’s a privately held company, so it doesn’t release financials. But its defining Big Time breakthrough release is called Pirates, and it’s generally considered the most expensive pornographic film ever made — it supposedly cost more than $1 million, unheard of in porn. Most production-quality films, like those made by Hustler, cost about $30,000. Pirates II, which includes Stoya in a starring role, was released in September to major hype and fanfare.

If you’ve not already heard Stoya’s name or seen her face in Genesis Magazine — or any number of pornographic blogs, Adult Video News releases and Web sites — you might not know that she is, at the moment, an It girl of the mainstream sex industry. Those mags, blogs, etc., say she’s the first “alt-porn” contract girl. That she’s the “goth girl next door.” A “classic beauty.” That she’s young, beautiful and willing. A star. And, perhaps more surprisingly, that she seems literate and relatively intellectual and magnetic and able to keep actual readers of porn-related material interested in her various blog posts on MySpace and XCritic and wherever else she decides to write. It’s also interesting to note that, while her scenes — 33 in total so far (though they’ve not all been released yet), ranging from POV to creampies to gangbangs and anal sex 2 — are all filmed in Los Angeles, she chooses to live here, in South Philadelphia, where she hangs out, and walks around among all of you, just another pretty girl in virtual anonymity.

“I experienced a sense of numbness … that I can only compare to accounts I have read of combat. It was the sense of being in a group of people deliberately and methodically engaged in acts of insanity.” — from “Scenes From My Life in Porn,” by Evan Wright, LA Weekly, April 6, 2000

The pursuit of Stoya began months ago, via e-mails to Adella, her press liaison. Adella handles press and media inquiries for all of Digital Playground’s contracted stars — Jesse Jane, Katsuni, Riley Steele, Shay Jordan, Tera Patrick and a few others.

Adella is, from all indications, a media powerhouse and worthy of a story on her own. (On several occasions, Stoya will sincerely imply that DP’s extraordinary recent growth would not have happened without Adella, and that the sheer amount of time Adella spends promoting DP consists of more hours than three people would normally work in a full-time workweek).

Let’s assume you’ve been able to get through to Adella, and that you’ve explained to her some vague notion about why you want to interview Stoya. And let’s also assume that she’s said OK — that you’ve convinced her that you’re for real, not insane, not a stalker or a harmfully nasty and lascivious old man. Adella suggests that you meet Stoya in mid-September, at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center, during something called EXXXOTICA NY in Edison, N.J. You get a press release that describes the event thusly: “An eclectic group of exhibitors will be showcasing the latest products and services from both the adult and mainstream industries. From the latest DVDs and products from the world of adult, fashion apparel, health and beauty products and services, and just about anything the open-minded adult could desire from the world of adult and beyond.”

So you say, “That sounds great, Adella,” and at the agreed-upon time, pull up to the event with a friend/photographer.

First thing you notice is that EXXXOTICA NY is indeed being held at a convention center, but it’s not even a nice convention center. It’s buried in the back of a gloomy industrial park, with an unpaved vehicle lot, and lots of little stones everywhere that get tossed about every time anyone stops or starts moving. While searching for a parking spot, the first person you see outside the vehicle is male and morbidly obese and wearing a black bandana, torn jeans and a ripped T-shirt that says “I Fucked Your Mom,” which you take as extraordinarily — and, yes, surprisingly — lame and sad and so predictable that you almost don’t believe your eyes.

You park, get out of the car and look at the big, sterile-looking blue building in front of you. You see hundreds of people gathering around nothing in particular, smoking cigarettes, cigars, pot, whatever.

From outside, the strikingly strange thing (and it’s strange only because it’s exactly what you would expect) is that 1) there are probably five times as many men as women, and 2) that the women outside the building are all very scantily clad, wearing, at most, tight skirts barely covering thongs, and at least, pasties over their nipples and uncovered thongs so small that, unworn, they’d likely compress to the size of a rubber band. Conversation with media representative/press guy at building’s entrance, to get in for free (entry is between $35 and $100, depending on what kind of access you want):

“We’re here to cover this for Philadelphia City Paper.”

“Where’s your ID?” Media guy picks up a huge hot dog in a huge bun, wrapped in paper foil, and shoves it in his mouth. “‘ou’ll ‘eed vat.”

“Here,” say you, handing over your driver’s license, feeling weird about it.

“Oh.” Media guy swallows, gulps, pages through a big black binder filled with white sheets and names. He finds your name, reaches under the table to retrieve two shiny, gaudy, black and pink media passes. “Here.” Media pass given to CP.

CP photographer: “Are there any restrictions on what we can shoot?”

Media guy: “Ha ha ha. That’s a joke, right?”

Blank stares from CP photographer and you.

Media guy: “Ha, ha. You guys are funny. Ha ha.”

There are no restrictions.

You walk into EXXXOTICA NY. The room is set up as any convention would be, with high tables where reps for various companies are selling stuff. But instead of real estate opportunities or designer lawn darts, they’re mostly selling hardcore porn, various pay-per-view services, and also “beauty-related” things like laser hair removal and “new teeth-whitening technology.” Also stuff like subscriptions to Playboy Radio and “sin vacations.” Lines of people wait and talk to disinterested-looking stars and mingle with all sorts of disinterested-looking people — mostly women — in various levels of undress. The roving near-nudes are not the main stars, but in fact B-level stars and even fluffers, according to a woman who calls herself Tianna. They’re generally walking around hugging people, sending text messages, pillow-fighting, some absentmindedly dancing behind dangling chains or whipping men as they pass and saying things like, “Do you like that, Daddy?”

You walk around for a good hour or so, talk to some folks, but mostly just gawk at shit and try to absorb the surreal neutralizing effect this sudden overabundance of implied sex has on any actual arousal the event might inspire. Everything is either pink or black, but mostly bleak, and lit with unflattering fluorescent light. On the surface, everything seems for sale, like any of the featured performers in the room could be had for the right amount of money, but this is not true, and in fact part of the illusion. (In several interviews with performers including Stoya, it’s said that most successful male performers are total pros with inhuman abilities to sustain erections and to climax on cue; fans are, in fact, just fans; only desperate performers would make the jump into fucking random dudes for money at an event like this.) 3

Stoya is sitting at a table next to a performer named Sasha Grey. Ms. Grey is a year younger than Stoya, but much more prolific — she’s starred in something like 200 films already. Like Stoya, she’s noted for being very open about her thoughts on pornography, life, etc. Fans apparently love this, and the line to talk to her and buy her videos is literally hundreds long, stretching out the door. Stoya isn’t exactly being ignored, but her line is certainly shorter than Ms. Grey’s.

Because of this, you get to speak with Stoya briefly, make small talk and even get some concise background on her experiences and ideas. You notice that she’s quick, adept, that she actually answers your questions instead of, as you’ve experienced from some other stars today, mimicking copy from press releases and making insincere, rehearsed, spiraling thank-you speeches to a general fan base that is not you. It’s nice. You find out that, as a kid, she was home-schooled in North Carolina, that she moved north with her dad years ago, then came to Philly for art school when she turned 18. But this short interaction is soon interrupted by Adella, who whisks Stoya away to join a panel discussion (which is sadly and again predictably banal; it turns out mostly to be about who on the panel has sucked the largest cock). Before Stoya leaves, though, she makes a promise to meet you tomorrow, at noon, at Geno’s Steaks in Philly, where you can talk to her unperturbed. You look forward to this and make the best of your day here, amid all the insanity, depravity and façade.

“Sometimes, while he’s having sex with a woman, Dave will start thinking about pornography — things he’s seen, things he’s liked, things that turn him on. He’ll conjure up the images voluntarily, to maintain and enhance his arousal. Or the images will just pop up in his head spontaneously. Dave doesn’t tell his partner what he’s thinking about.” — from Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, by Pamela Paul

Think way back to the beginning of this story. That first blowup — with Stoya yelling at the guy playing Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” really loud. That wasn’t made up. She really did get that pissed off, that vocally irate. And as you got up from that table (it was outside Geno’s), you really didn’t know what was going to happen next. The excitement was palpable, but you also had this odd feeling that combined fear of uninvited physical confrontation (is she going to start a fight?) with a fear of possibly having to make excuses for this person who you have met exactly once, under hasty circumstances. You begin to wonder: Is this some sort of performance art? Some way for her to show you that she really does not care what anyone thinks? If so, it’s unclear why the projection of this carefree attitude/outright carelessness matters. You come back to: What will the repercussions of this lack of giving a fuck be if someone is less understanding, less willing to take shit from some young lady in South Philly? Regardless, you, photographer, Danny and Stoya walk up East Passyunk toward South Street without a plan, without anywhere specifically to go. The conversation is completely led by Stoya, who’s talking about her main hobbies — “making clothing and lots of sleeping” — and re-explaining the details of her “how I got into porn” story, which is known only among industry people and fanboys/girls who care. (It’s reproduced in a footnote at right. 4)

It’s an early Sunday afternoon in September. It’s warm, bordering on hot. The humidity makes everything feel somehow moist and invisibly waterlogged. After a few more steps, Stoya says she needs to go inside because she’s “sweating like a pig.” So you all head into Manny Brown’s and sit down in a booth for a beer. Stoya is in front of you, wearing a green tank top, nice jeans, hair pulled up; she’s red-faced, wiping away the sweat from her forehead and her cheeks. To her left is Danny, who you surmise is maybe her friend, maybe something more. He’s about 18, you guess — totally not allowed, by law, to be in here — and seems like he’s acting as Stoya’s guardian, her protector. But he’s not threatening. Maybe 5 foot 8 with an average build. He’s a little aloof, you notice. Always smirking like he knows something you don’t. Dyed blond hair. And wearing faded jeans and a ripped, black Che Guevara T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. Danny rarely talks. For most of the conversation, he says nothing, though it’s revealed that Stoya and Danny have an unexclusive (yet kind of monogamous) 5 sexual relationship, which they don’t care to discuss in depth. What follow are selected bits of the tangential, meandering conversation, which lasts about three hours in total, and eventually pauses so Stoya can go buy giant blow-up fuck toys at CP’s request (we’ll get to that) and then go to the bank.

Stoya on Relationships:

Stoya: I don’t. Do. Relationships. I’m in the adult industry. It’s not good to be unavailable. Like, somehow Jesse [Jane, fellow DP actress] has managed to make it work, but I don’t know how. Certain girls — the Jenna Jamesons, for example — they’re megastars and then they meet someone and they get publicly married and they publicly say: “This is the only person I’ll do.” But then their sales drop. And you see, inevitably, they come back and start fucking other dudes because of that.

You: Why do you suppose that is?

Stoya: Because we’re in the business of creating a fantasy. I don’t fake my scenes, but all of it is for the purpose of someone thinking, “That could be me fuckin’ that chick.” … The thing is, the kind of personality that ends up in the adult industry as a happy, emotionally healthy, stable performer? We’re not monogamous people. When you look at most of the relationships in the adult industry that are happy and successful — they know what they’re a part of. So one person will go do a scene, have fun — it’s all on set, and it stays there. Everyone has their own little rules.

On Disease:

You: How many people in the United States of America would you say have herpes?

Stoya: According to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s about half. 6

You: Hmm.

Danny: It’s more girls than guys, too. 7

Stoya: And also the geriatric community. Because people are living longer lives. 8 My stepmom ran a nursing home for a year and there was this one woman they had there who was like 80 or 85 and she had this boyfriend who was this ancient homeless person. And she met him somewhere and he would crawl in through her window at night and have sex with her. And one day she went upstairs — my stepmom — to call her down for dinner or something ’cause I guess she was late or something. … You know, old people: If they don’t show up, people get a little worried. And she goes upstairs and sees this 80-something-year-old woman bouncing up and down on this smelly, unshowered bum’s dick. And she says, “Hey, what’s up! How you doin’?” But then my stepmother had to sit her down and be like, “Hey — condoms, AIDS.” A lot of these old people got married early, before AIDS was even an issue. Like, in the ’50s. And they were with one person their whole lives, and then 50 years later, their significant other dies and they’re out being sexually active again. And they have no idea! 9

On the Industry:

You: What did you want to do this weekend [at EXXXOTICA NY] that you couldn’t?

Stoya: There was this dude that tricked me. Fucking asshole comes up with this stack of underwear, and like, he didn’t want me to put any name on it. So I sign it and I was taking my time because Adella was dealing with the office or something, so I didn’t know, but I thought something was fishy, so when I finished signing the rest of them, she comes over like 30 seconds later and says, “I just want you to know, there’s a guy and he’s gonna ask you to sign a bunch of underwear.” And I’m like, “I know.” And she’s like, “But he’s gonna take them and sell them on eBay.” And I’m like, “Oh, I figured it was something like that. ‘Cause I already signed them and he’s standing behind you with a shit-eating grin on his face, listening to our conversation.” So it’s even more obnoxious.

You: Is there anything you can do at that point? Can you take the signed underwear from him?

Stoya: No. There’s nothing you can do. And then, he comes up to me, and he walks past me, on the other side of the rope and gives me this big smile and says “Thhheeeaaaannnk yyyyouuu.” And I just want to go up to him and be like, “Oh, go FUCK YOURSELF!” But I can’t, you know? Adella’s like, “Calm down,” but I’m like, “No, you don’t understand. If it weren’t for the fact that we’d get kicked out and [Victory Media] would be less likely to work with Digital Playground in the future, at all, I would jump over the table, chase him down, punch him out, take his underwear, and then, like, pee on him or something.” That’s how I handle things.

On Being a Celebrity:

Stoya: To put yourself in the public eye as someone who’s naked, getting fucked in every hole by strangers, sometimes, because we do such a good job making [sex on film] look like it’s not our job, people just don’t think, “Oh, I probably can’t stick my hand in that person’s vagina.” Sometimes they actually think that’s OK to do.

On Her Parents:

You: How old is your dad?

Stoya: I think he’s in his late 40s. I moved here when I was 16 or 17. My mom is in her early 50s.

You: Can I talk to them?

Stoya: You can talk to my dad. He said that’s fine.

You: That’d be nice.

Stoya: It’s very important that you keep him anonymous. I can’t even e-mail him at work, because everything I have has Stoya all over it and, like, that would be bad. The company he works for, the owner is mega-Christian.

You: Almost any company would find that difficult to deal with. Probably can’t use his last name.

Stoya: He would rather you not even use his first name. Like, “Stoya’s dad.”

You: That’s fine. I can’t talk to your mom, though.

Stoya: Yeah, no. Like, my mom is cool with my job, but she freaked out last year when I told her. When I signed the contract I was like, “Shit. I’m gonna have to tell my mom, she’s not gonna be happy,” so I stalled. Until the press release about me signing came out late October. And I stalled until like a month after that. I was like, “Well no one knows, so I don’t really have to tell her yet.” Then I got to the point where I was like, “I’ve got to tell her before someone else does.” She flipped the fuck out. She was like, “I can’t fucking believe you would let someone exploit you like that — what are you doing? Are you on drugs?” She had all the negative media stuff about porn that’s been everywhere for years. She was a feminist. She protested. And stuff. And then she came around after, I guess after like a month we could talk without her screaming at me. And then I got her to listen. I said, “Well, what’s your problem with it?” And she was like, “You’re being exploited. You’re being exploited by men.” And I was like, “Actually, [Digital Playground is] female owned and operated. And I want to do this. They won’t make me do anything I don’t want to.” And she was like, “Well, I’m worried about your health.” And I was like — I gave her my best answers. And, thank God, she was willing to listen. But she’s still worried about my health. And she still doesn’t really. … She raised me. I didn’t wear makeup, like ever. I didn’t wear a fucking bra. I mean, bras, underwear, dresses. She was like, “If you’re gonna wear heels, make sure you can run in them.” Stuff like that. So, I mean, she wears sensible shoes. She just doesn’t understand it. When I was dancing — when I was doing ballet, I mean, I loved it, so she would do everything to make it happen — drive me to class, pay for classes, all that kind of stuff, but she didn’t really like that it was so appearance-based. And she feels. … She still doesn’t really like the fact that I’m in an industry where the first thing that people look at is my tits. She’d prefer that I be using my brain. So she’s still just a little uptight. It’s just … letting you talk to her would just piss her off. And we have a good relationship now. She’s taken my cat. And she’s gonna come up, and I’m gonna take her to the Japanese Tea Garden ’cause that’s where kudzu was first planted in the United States and she’s fascinated by kudzu. Her first degree was in engineering.

You: How many degrees does she have?

Stoya: Two. Engineering and accounting. 10

On Feminism:

Stoya: Some girls are like, I don’t want you to open the door for me. But it’s — it grew. Feminism grew and changed. It started with suffrage. The feminism [my mother] was involved with was an extension of that. In the ’50s and ’60s, she didn’t get hired for things because she was a woman. Her dad didn’t even want her to go to college — would pay for her brother to go to college, but wouldn’t pay for her to go to college, just because she was a woman, because she was just gonna get knocked up and have kids and waste the education. So even though she was a raging hippie and it didn’t make sense for her to join the Army, she went into the Army. Just so she could go to college. Which is why I think she has such strong feelings about my not being exploited. But, you know, things aren’t like that anymore. Now, here we are, 30 or 40 years later — and it’s getting to the point now where we just all need to be people.

“A simple rule of thumb in war is that the winning side is the side that does the raping.” — from Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, by Susan Brownmiller

Next morning, you become me, and I wake up around 5 a.m. and drive with Nate Boguszewski, the man initially hired to photograph Stoya, to Broad and Tasker. We’re supposed to meet Stoya and Danny here to catch the sunrise.

But they never show.

The day before, at the end of our conversation with Stoya and Danny, Nate shared some ideas about what he wanted to shoot. He was at EXXXOTICA NY, taking pictures, but now, he says, he wants something more descriptive, more ambitious and outlandish, to capture Stoya in a light — both literally and figuratively — that represents her personality. Three ideas are discussed with Danny and Stoya: 1) A straight-ahead shot of Stoya in morning light. 2) A shot of Stoya in bed, in the morning, waking up. 3) And this is verbatim, from Nate: “Could we buy a bunch of blow-up dolls, pour rubbing alcohol all over them and set them on fire behind her? Stoya is burning down the old conventions. Maybe we do this in front of a Philly landmark.” Stoya likes the third idea. Likes it so much, in fact, that she offers to go out and actually purchase the blow-up dolls with her own money. When she leaves us at the bar, we are set, on the same page, ready to meet at dawn and take some pictures. But we haven’t confirmed with Adella. So we talk to her on the phone. There is some confusing back-and-forth between her and Nate. She doesn’t like the idea. Thinks it is demeaning and too strange. Not up-to-date. “If you want to show conventions burning,” she says, “get some VHS tapes and burn those.” Nate says “OK, we’ll shoot the first two ideas and maybe think of something else while we drink.” He ends the phone call. We discuss the perversity here: that Stoya can be shot sucking her thumb in a silvery purple bikini, then stripped naked and anally penetrated in close-up, high-definition, but standing in front of a pyre of blow-up dolls at daybreak is “demeaning” and “strange.”

That night, Adella is expecting a phone call with a final third idea. Nate and I do not know this. We hear nothing from Stoya, nothing from Adella (though Adella insists she tries to call me several times, and my phone won’t ring).

“There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. It is basically not a question of the size in repose. It is the size that it becomes. It is also a question of angle.” — Ernest Hemingway, speaking to F. Scott Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast

It’s been more than a month since all this went down. It feels like a long, long time ago. I have Stoya’s father’s phone number, but I don’t want to call it. The point eludes me. A functional ending to a convoluted story could be with him, I think, in his words — about what it feels like to know his daughter is performing in pornographic films. I know he doesn’t like it. Stoya says as much. But I’m not sure I want his thoughts on paper, in view. Stoya shares and shares — her thoughts, her body. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it doesn’t matter what her dad thinks. And anyway, it feels like her father’s voice and words are elements I can hold back and leave just for her and her family. That feels right to me, but who knows? Maybe I’m just like that guy in his car, unmoving, and either unmoved or awestruck. I just want to get up and walk away.

    • Josh Kruger wearing a cloth surgical mask while wearing a tie and waterproof topcoat with City Hall's clock tower.

      Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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