On Monday evening, August 8th, on the third floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble, up past the children’s books, through the business section, and squarely in front of the history shelves, more than 130 fans sit listening to porn star Asa Akira read an essay from her new book, Dirty Thirty. The story she’s reading, in which she grapples with committing adultery with a quadriplegic fan, is recounted with the unabashed hyper-sexuality that has endeared her to fans not just as an adult film actress, but as a full-blown public personality. At her first mention of her anus, cheers erupt from the crowd. Barnes & Noble security personnel stand dutifully at the edges of the event, arms crossed, expressions blank. Sales representatives pass out pins that declare “I got inside Asa Akira”. Anybody under the impression that pornography was still relegated to seedier margins of society has been put on notice by Akira’s voice, booming through the store’s PA.
The statistics on porn consumption today, while tough to pin down, are generally staggering. PornHub, the internet’s biggest pornography site, stated in its most recent “Year in Review”, that “in 2015 alone, we streamed 75GB of data a second, which translates to enough porn to fill the storage in around 175 million 16GB iPhones.” In that same review, PornHub lists Asa Akira as the 6th most searched-for adult actress of the year. She’s exceptionally accomplished in her field, racking up performance credits in over 500 films along with 16 Adult Video News awards — often described as the Oscars of adult film — during her six-year career. Her accolades include back to back wins for “Best Anal Scene” and, in 2013, the coveted “Female Performer of the Year” award.
It’s not surprising, then, that her book signing has drawn more attendees than there are seats. What is noteworthy is the makeup of the crowd, which diverges from earlier depictions of porn events. David Foster Wallace famously visited the AVN awards in 1998, where he provided an account of a stereotypically creepy fanbase of “sheepish and salivaless” men. When Amanda Hess reported on the Adult Entertainment Expo in 2013, she found a male fanbase that was, if a bit more mainstream with its makeup of bros and hipsters, consistently lewd and misogynistic.
This book signing, though, does not have the feel of a porn event. Following the reading is a Q +A session moderated by writer Mary HK Choi, who corrals both the author and the crowd into a thoughtful consideration of Akira’s writing. The audience is skewed about 60-70% male and is excited and respectful throughout the event. At first glance the group is as typical and diverse as any New York City subway car. There are men in shirts and slacks, seeming to have come straight from work. There are multiple couples holding hands waiting for the event to begin. There are groups of young women excitedly taking seats toward the front. Fedoras and exotic facial hair, for the most part, appear at rates consistent with the general population.
Whether the diverse cast of attendees is due to pornography’s popular normalization or to Akira’s rising profile as a mainstream celebrity is tough to say, though it seems to be a bit of both. “It legitimized me, but not fully,” Akira says about her book before the event. While she’s still known to most for her films, her recent ventures into other mediums, including a podcast with artist David Choe, have allowed for a broader public reach. “That’s actually the cool thing about the book, and [the podcast], is that now I’m more approachable,” she says. Before, she concedes, a fan’s saying hello on the street was a de facto admission of having watched her films.
Not that that admission seems to be of particular concern to anybody at this event. During her weeklong visit to New York, Asa Akira is promoting her book with signings at Barnes & Noble and radical feminist bookstore Bluestockings, a radio appearance with Howard Stern, and TV interviews on “Good Morning New York” and PBS’s “The Open Mind”. While most fans heard about the signings through Asa’s social media accounts, a few tell me that they had stumbled across write-ups in mainstream publications. The first couple I speak with had never viewed her pornography at all — they saw an event writeup in Time Out New York and figured that hearing a porn star speak about her experiences might simply be a fun thing to do.
And so there’s little shame among the crowd — those who know her from porn are happy to admit it, and those who know her from elsewhere are curious to meet a celebrity like Asa. The event at Barnes & Noble, and the more intimate version that follows the next night at Bluestockings, are “book events” first and “porn events” second. “It’s definitely a broader audience,” Akira says, “but the really hardcore porn fans come here as well”.
Many of the attendees I speak with are hesitant to categorize themselves as “fans” of porn. They are instead devotees of Akira’s pithy, sex-positive social media presence and essay writing, and they had either come to her films later or not at all. “It’s hard to count myself as a fan [of porn] when I know it’s not for me,” one woman tells me. Her affection for Akira comes from her unapologetic stance on a lifestyle that she loves. “She’s embraced something that’s very controversial and she’s turned it into her brand, and I respect that.”
Another group of young women, having driven up from Philadelphia that morning specifically for the signing, echo the inspiration drawn from Akira’s commitment to candor. “In her first book where she’ll say ‘I said I would never do that, and then I did it’… [I] get to thinking about all the things that I ever said I would never do … why would I ever say that? Or anything I’ve ever judged, or anything I’ve ever been afraid of … why was that?” The degree to which Akira reflects on and makes peace with past decisions seems to resonate with her readers.
One man, Mike, who speaks openly about knowing Akira primarily through pornography, was affected by the humanity that her writing exposed. “That opened up a lot of doors,” he says. Going back and viewing her films after following her other ventures, he tells me, resulted in a more personal connection. “Some people follow sports stars, some people follow porn stars.” During the Q+A, Mike raises his hand to ask Akira about the process behind her “dirty haiku” writing.
Not all fans are as taken with the increased personalization. As Akira herself writes in Dirty Thirty’s Acknowledgments, “Thank you to the reader. If you don’t want to jerk off to my porn anymore, I understand.” While most of her writing is tongue-in-cheek, this speaks to a phenomenon amongst certain fans of which she is aware. For some, peeling back layers into her personal life renders Akira ineligible as an object of sexual fantasy. One porn aficionado I meet at Bluestockings, who identifies himself as “The Sucklord”, tells me: “If I know somebody in real life or know them as a real person, somehow I can’t go there. I think certain porn, certainly more of the intense stuff, requires a disconnect from the humanity of the person doing it.” These particular fans have difficulty watching Asa Akira the porn star after meeting Asa Akira the writer.
Over two successive evenings, I watch Asa Akira take photos with hundreds of fans. She speaks with each of them directly, grabs phones from their hands for selfies and gives hugs. She poses with couples, groups of friends, single men, single women. Many of these photos will appear shortly thereafter on Twitter and Instagram, proudly posted by the fans themselves. At times a lewd question or Akira’s reference to anal gaping highlights the bizarre collision of explicit content with mainstream cultural spaces, but in the end nobody seems offended. While many were secretly watching Asa Akira at home, she was busy visiting your neighborhood bookstore.
Read the full interview with Asa Akira below:
Zack: I heard you were on TV this morning…
Z: Good Day New York? A: I was, yea.
Z: How was that?
A: It was a lot of fun, it went by really fast, and I was really nervous.
Z: Have you been on that sort of program before?
A: I’ve done TV things here and there, but I’ve never done a morning news show… or a news show.
Z: So what sort of things were you talking about with them on the morning show?
A: Um… what did we talk about? We talked about the book…
Z: I just assumed certain things can’t really…
A: Yea, well that was the thing, I went there and the first thing I asked them was if there was anything I’m not allowed to talk about, or any words I’m not allowed to say and they said “Hmm, not really,” and I was like “Can I say anal?” and they were like, “Oh no.” I think it didn’t even cross their minds that that might come up, which that does. Like, it came up right now.
Z: Do you feel like in the time that you’ve been in porn you’ve watched it become more normalized or accepted?
A: For sure. I mean by the time I got into porn I think it was already on its way in that direction. When I got into porn MySpace was really big, Twitter was just about to start. Social media existed and people were already pirating things on LimeWire. So I never really saw what they call the “Golden Age of Porn” when people were making all sorts of money, and you were still making money off of DVDs and VHS and where no one was in contact with fans or the public. I don’t even know that version of porn, but my husband is from that era.
Z: Well, I guess I’m more thinking in terms of the fact that you were even on Good Day New York.
A: Yea, oh yea. Like for me personally, for sure. I think the book has a lot to do with that. I think, like, in a very small way it legitimized me, but not fully. I do think that, yea, I’ve had a lot of mainstream opportunities. I think I’ve been able to reach a broader audience because of it.
Z: Did that happen with the first book, too?
A: For sure. And, like, my parents I think have proud moments now. Whereas before it was like, “Oh, what daughter?”
Z: Well, two printed books, that’s quite an achievement.
A: Yea I think that now when their friends ask what their daughter does they can be like, “Oh, she wrote a book”. It’s kind of true.
Z: I’m very interested in your fans, who’s going to be at this event. Are the people at these book events the same fans that are at porn events? Do you have new, different fans?
A: They definitely cross over, but I do find that I have a new audience as well. Yea, it’s definitely a broader audience here, but the really hardcore porn fans come here as well, to the book stuff. But not as much.
Z: How do fans act when they meet you?
A: Well, I don’t know, like what if no one comes? Z: I can confirm that that’s not the case.
A: No, I mean, my biggest fear is that no one will come. I’m always like, “I’m not even showing my tits, why would anyone come?”
Z: So, what do they… how do people act when they meet you? You say in your book that you walk by people in the street and you know that they’ve watched you have sex?
A: I think that when I’m with other people, it’s more rare that they’ll come up to me. When I’m alone is when people really seem to feel the most comfortable. I think part of it is like they don’t know if the people I’m with know, or maybe it’s more embarrassing. I mean, anyone who comes up to me, there’s like a 90% chance that they were masturbating to me. Or, passed by me while masturbating, so… 10% are the book fans.
Z: The “just the book fans”.
A: Well, that’s actually the cool thing about the book, and I did a podcast, is that now I’m more approachable. Whereas before it would have to be I was just jerking off to me. Now it can be like, “I love your show!” And I like that, I like meeting fans and stuff.
Z: So you’re pretty open about being an exhibitionist, and it being part of the fun of porn for you. How do you feel with some of the information you’re sharing in the book? Is it that same feeling, sharing these personal stories? There’s some heavy stuff in there.
A: I think… I think it’s heavier.
Z: Than having sex on camera?
A: Oh, absolutely. I’m definitely way more shy about my feelings than I am about my asshole. I definitely feel the most vulnerable when I’m talking about the book, or the most shy. I guess, not embarrassing but, like, I feel the most shy about it. It’s the hardest to talk about, for sure. I think it would hurt my feelings more if someone didn’t like the book than if they didn’t like, I don’t know, literally anything else.
Z: I was wondering about self-branding in 2016. What that’s like for you and sort of what the challenges are there in interacting with fans. Do you feel like that’s a really important thing for a porn star in 2016?
A: I definitely think it’s really important. It’s not only really important for fans, I mean obviously it’s important for that, too, to gain fans and followers. But I think now social media has become so important even within the industry. Like if you’re not on Twitter or Instagram, directors will just forget you, and producers will just forget you. Like you don’t even exist anymore, so they’re not gonna book you. Whereas, if you have a really big social media presence, you’re almost like in their face all the time and they’re like, “I need a girl with big tits, oh! So and so.” Whereas if you’re not on it, they’ll just forget you. Social media has been, I think, crucial to me getting where I am, for sure. And I think, like, I’m more of a personality person than a looks person, so for me it’s worked to my advantage. I’m sure there’s probably people out there who it probably works to their disadvantage.
Z: Well you’ve also successful now sort of transcended the porn industry, no?
A: Um, I don’t know. I don’t know that I’ve completely transcended… I don’t even know that that’s a thing, really. I mean, I don’t know that I believe that that’s a thing. For a woman, anyway, I think that’s a lot harder. I think that like, James Deen for example, was on the verge of it, and I think it was probably easier for him as a male. Ron Jeremy, the most well-known…
Z: Like crossing into non-porn ventures?
A: Yea, I think so, yea.
Z: Cool, well, I’ll let you get ready. Thank you so much, and congratulations.