ABOUT SEX, SOVEREIGNTY, AND STEAMPUNK

While doing research for a TV pilot she was writing, Cara Danielle Brown spent time on the set of Carnal, an adult film set in downtown Los Angeles. Intrigued by the cultural rebellion of women who unapologetically put their sexuality on display, she began to explore her desire to push conventional social-sexual boundaries and to be more fully seen by partners in her own life.


When I looped around the corner, filming had already begun. Jessica Drake, the film’s star, ran a silver revolver along her clavicle and seductively strummed piano keys as the director of photography, Barrett Blade, tilted the camera up and down. I tip-toed over duct-taped electrical cords, trying not to make noise or knock into stray chairs. Then I remembered there was no sound. “An artistic showcase piece where the emphasis is on stylized vignettes” was how Wicked Pictures’ publicist, Daniel, explained it to me. These establishing shots would be edited together with the final scene of the day: a five-person, steampunk-inspired orgy. 

I was there to do research on a TV pilot that I was writing. I was also unfulfilled in my relationships and sex life, and I suppose I chose this area of research as a way of working through that quandary. I struggled to be sexually satisfied in romantic partnerships where, after a short period of time, I’d tire of sex with one person. I was turned on by novelty, danger, and taboo (but I was uncomfortable discussing this with partners).

I had learned that being a woman in the world meant being put into a category: the Madonna or the Whore. That categorization has never been fair, but it represents the oversimplified, patriarchal world we live in. To make matters worse, I saw this narrative reinforced in my personal life. My ex-boyfriend, Travis, considered me “long-term material,” so when I brought up wanting to experiment in the bedroom, he “just couldn’t see me like that.” Conversely, Ben and I were boning in back seats and public places from the jump—yet I somehow became someone he “couldn’t take home to mom” (his words). 

I began vacillating between stints of loving-but-bland partnerships and stretches of adventurous sex with random people I could discard at will. I felt powerless. These adult film performers, however, were living on their own terms. Society might debase them for their chosen career—but that same society wouldn’t hesitate to turn around and type their credit card numbers into BangBros.com. These women understood, better than anyone, how the sociological gears turn, and they’d harnessed that knowledge into a full-fledged career. The key difference between them and me? They weren’t hiding. They were taking their power back by owning their sexuality in probably the most public way one can. I wanted to know what that felt like.

“Can we move that stand back?”

A crew member covered a light fixture with a bright red filter and swiveled it in Jessica’s direction. Punctuating just how on the nose this shiny “red light” was, she bent down to her portable iPhone speakers and pressed PLAY on Moulin Rouge’s “El Tango De Roxanne.” The crew collectively groaned as Jessica—clad in spiky boots and a black corset situated just below her exposed, body-glittered breasts—cackled. I giggled along with her from underneath the stairwell of the warehouse as she flashed me a cheeky smile. 

I’d met the 44-year-old buxom blonde earlier that morning in a walk-in-closet-sized dressing area when she tapped me on the back, extended her hand, and proclaimed with full-on, soccer-mom-type warmth, “Hi, I’m Jessica!” She gracefully maneuvered around me holding a bag of makeup sponges and began to change her underwear. Should I look away? Then I remembered this was a normal workday and no different than watching an ad exec send emails. It was also a liberating reminder that a body is just a body. After the shock wore off, I was just envious of her comfort level. I had become so overloaded by cultural messages regarding how covered or uncovered my body ought to be that I typically just swathed it in lots of fabric. 

To be honest, even I was skeptical of how much agency she actually had in it until I watched the steampunk orgy play out.

“Girl problems,” she jokes, holding up the makeup sponges. Inserting a makeup sponge in the vaginal canal is an old porn trick for having sex during one’s period. When fully costumed, she joined me in the corner of the warehouse where we carried on an entirely professional exchange while I tried not to stare at her very bare, very glittery breasts. 

"Originally, I wanted to feature dance,” she began, her fishnet-clad legs crossed and her top boot buoyantly kicking up and down. “I wanted to be one of those girls that the [strip] club pays and you go do the big shows." She started in the adult industry when she was 24 while attending college in San Antonio. More than twenty years later, she has a line of instructional DVD’s for couples; speaking engagements at colleges and universities promoting safe, pleasurable sex; a Fleshlight in her likeness; a novel in the works; and directorial credits under her belt. She’s a porn mogul—and I wanted to live vicariously through her. I asked a few questions about her daily routine (running through lines, coffee in bed with her dogs), and then I asked what I was really wondering:

“Any big fears or insecurities?”

“You’re gonna ask me that before I have sex?!” she joked. I agree that, yes, the timing was shit and we could totally skip it. But she graciously answered,

“Failure. And not being accepted. Also drowning. And wet socks, I don’t know why.”

“Not being accepted” was in direct conflict with her career as a porn star and, yet, here she was. She had managed to craft a brand around a primal need. How she retained the ability to be guided by what was fun—and then publicly display it—felt downright heroic, especially given the discrimination sex workers face in acquiring health and housing services, bank accounts, child custody, and due process under the law. 

Just then, Brad Armstrong, the film’s director and fifth cast member—and Jessica’s partner of fifteen years—gestured to her from behind a tripod that she would be needed in five. Brad was a stocky, soft-spoken man in a black button-down, pin-striped pants, and cobalt riding boots. The intricacies of this partnership were, well, arousing.

“We collaborate on a lot of things,” she courteously explained. “With Brad and I, he knows what I want to do in terms of how I like to have my sex. I usually end up trusting him. He builds the most fantastic sets and designs the greatest wardrobes and will make it a thing of beauty.” 

Staying in constant dialogue with your partner regarding your most elaborate fantasies and then getting a studio to pay you to fully design and enact them—with the added high of exhibitionism? Hot damn. And it wasn’t always Brad directing Jessica. 

In the 2014 documentary series, Love, Jessica, Jessica stated, “I really like directing Brad because I’ll tell him things that I don’t think anybody else will tell him. I’ll tell him to suck it in and arch his back…I like to tell him what to do…I also kinda feel like I owe him a really comfortable environment to have great sex in because that’s what he’s been giving me for years. He’s watched me live out some of my greatest sexual fantasies on a monitor in front of his face.”

I had never seen a relationship function like this. I was skeptical of how much agency she actually had until I watched the steampunk orgy play out. No one was putting Jessica in a corner. She, however, was putting herself on top of several couches, a wooden chest, an old-timey piano, and four other cast members in a Cirque de Soleil feat; Brad was, too. When they linked up, they touched each other with an energy that was specific, intimate, and palpable. Not only were they openly sharing their deepest desires with one another, they were sharing them with the world—without needing to assert ownership or control over each other, and without apologizing for who they were. And when the workday was over, they packed up their toys and went home.

When I got home that night, the hair on my arms stood up. My ears buzzed. I couldn’t sleep. Earlier that day, I felt like I had sailed away to Where the Wild Things Are. Only I, too, was a wild thing, and I didn’t want to return to my life where secrecy was breeding dysfunction. I had seen how liberating it was to live openly in a sex positive environment. And while I understood that this wasn’t the story of all sex workers, this specific experience tapped into my own desire to be seen and understood as a three-dimensional, thinking, feeling, sexual, and sensual woman. It opened my eyes to probably my deepest desire: intimacy in my relationships.

I suppose that this is the part where it would be easy to say that I immediately transformed, but the truth is that it’s hard for an average woman like me to have that much agency in the world. My new awareness does not change the culture to which I belong, nor does it instantly give me the bravery to combat old fears. And a year later, I’m still sifting through how elements of this experience can take shape in my life. Sometimes, being more open with my sexuality just makes others feel automatically entitled to it. Something as simple as an Instagram post of an adult costume shop will be met with comments reading, “what time should I come over?” Sharing myself because I want to—and actually inviting you—are two vastly different things (but thanks for reminding me rape culture is thriving). I have to remember that the problem isn’t me. 

Lately, I’ve been going on fewer second dates and also having less sex. I’ve been focused on meeting greater numbers of people to find my people—those with interesting sexual proclivities or fantasies who are also looking for a deep closeness. Those who understand that, while sexual expression is an extension of our personalities, it’s not what defines us. And I’m happy to report that there are a number of evolved individuals willing to indulge, or simply listen, without passing any sort of judgment. I’ve also educated myself on a variety of relationships and how many ways one can love—or lust. Perhaps I’ll discover that all I’ve really wanted is someone willing to accept me and give me the freedom to explore. I haven’t figured out where I’ll land. And I think it’s healthy to not know.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Cara Danielle Brown is a script writer, essayist, and inquisitive lady based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Travel and Leisure, Cosmopolitan, Peaceful Dumpling, and many others. Her teleplay won the prestigious 2017 Austin Film Fest and she currently has a TV series in development with National Lampoon. In her spare time, Cara enjoys experimenting with water colors, exploring art museums, cuddling tiny animals, and master minding new and exciting ways to stick it to The Man. She is a graduate of Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Author photo: Bruce Monach; Header photo: Cara Danielle Brown