Sex as Backdrop: Christopher Zeischegg Interviewed by Chelsea Hodson

The writer on working in the porn industry, the theatricality of violence, and the mundanity of capitalism.

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Chris Z

The cover of Body to Job (Rare Bird Books) credits the author as “Christopher Zeischegg aka Danny Wylde.” This dual identity is purposeful: “Danny Wylde” was Zeischegg’s porn persona for years, and the book is about the time he spent in the industry. This was the first book I’d heard of that was written from the perspective of a male performer, and I was really fascinated by Zeischegg’s ability to balance the grit of the Los Angeles porn industry with scenes of both true affection and true horror. I tore through this book in a matter of days. I imagine it could be easy to write off a book like this, assuming that it might be nothing more than a diatribe against the porn industry, but Body to Job is much more complex and insightful than that. Zeischegg interrogates the consequences of turning his body into a commodity, and reflects on what it means to realize he’s good at his job, and what it means to lose that identity. In the book, he writes, “I wondered if it was my calling in life: to be slightly misled into exchanging my pleasure for someone else’s.” Porn isn’t portrayed as an entirely ugly industry here. Though it is often slimy and manipulative, it’s also where the narrator falls in love, and where he began to consider his purpose in this world.

—Chelsea Hodson

Chelsea Hodson In your writing, you often portray porn as something dull or ordinary. The first section of Body to Job is called “Nothing Profound,” and towards the end of the section, you write, “No one took themselves too seriously. We’d done nothing artistic, nothing profound. Just porn.” In your second novel, The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space, the main character says to a friend, “Everyone can have sex … When you break it down, there’s nothing interesting about it.” In your experience as a porn performer, did you ever experience the work as something profound or special? And if you ultimately found it uninteresting, how do you go about making the scenes interesting on the page?

Christopher Zeischegg I’m sure that when I was going through the initial experience—driving to the porn studio, doing my paperwork, stripping down, getting tied up, fucked, and so on—I felt something new, different, interesting, and maybe even special. There was certainly a novelty aspect to the whole thing. But I also have the distinct memory of sex without connection or chemistry. That was something I’d never experienced before. I had this feeling of being inside a factory. There was an air of rote professionalization.

So, after performing in about six hundred scenes in a span of eight years, I did begin to find the process mundane. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the scenes I performed in or that there weren’t experiences that stood out as special. But it was my job. If you do anything every day, it feels normal.

As for making the scenes interesting on the page, I usually have two approaches. One is to explore sex as a point of conflict, even if that conflict is internal. The other is to explore sex in relationship to love or some other heightened emotional state. And, maybe there’s a third approach when writing about porn: sex as a backdrop to describe the mundanity of capitalist labor.

CH You also write about sexuality as stigma—specifically, the backlash you faced as a result of performing in both straight and gay porn scenes. This part of the book is a fascinating look into the discrimination that goes on behind the scenes. Did that come as a surprise to you?

CZ It did come as a surprise. When I first got into porn, I did both gay and straight scenes. I was living near San Francisco, so I was surrounded by queer culture. If I was going to have sex on camera, I didn’t feel like it would matter whether I’d be fucking men or women. I didn’t anticipate the sexual conservatism that existed in Los Angeles-based mainstream porn.

When I started working in LA, I quickly learned that it was impossible for male performers to actively work in both gay and straight porn. The typical argument (for making men choose a side) was based on the difference in testing practices. Historically speaking, straight porn required testing for sexually transmitted infections but no condom use. Gay porn required condoms but not testing.

A lot of people in straight porn believed that men who worked in gay porn were a high-risk for disseminating HIV among the talent pool. One could argue that point, based on CDC statistics about HIV and men who have sex with men. But the sexual politics around that position started to become tricky when sexually fluid men were singled out. Meaning, I’d never heard anyone in straight porn refuse to work with a performer based on any other high-risk activity, like intravenous drug use or traditional-prostitution-without-condoms. There only seemed to be an issue around men who did straight porn but who also had sex with men.

I ended up working mostly in straight porn for a variety of reasons. Mid-way through my career, I decided to do some bisexual scenes. Shortly thereafter, the adult industry went through a production moratorium. Basically, a “straight” male performer tested positive for HIV. No one could shoot until we figured out who he’d had sex with, and who they’d had sex with, and so on; who, if anyone, had contracted the virus. People were losing money and wanted a scapegoat. Rumor had it that the male performer had done some gay scenes. So, there was this movement to call out other male performers who had done gay porn or who had sex with men in any other context.

My name was on a list that circulated the industry. I ended up getting blacklisted from working with performers at a top talent agency. I started getting dropped from shoots. It was the first time that I felt my career was in jeopardy because of my sexual identity or practice. There were other interpersonal conflicts, such as girlfriends taking issue with the fact that I had sex with men. But it was the financial end of it, the blacklisting, that felt scariest.

Chris Zauthor

Photo by Maggie West.

CH I’ve heard you say in other interviews that retiring from porn was disorienting for you since it essentially happened overnight after years in the industry. How did you go about reclaiming your identity, and is that still something that you think about?

CZ That’s true—I quit performing in porn overnight. I’d become reliant on erectile dysfunction medication as a performance enhancer, and landed myself in the hospital for priapism (my erection wouldn’t subside for many hours). A doctor told me the risks I faced if I continued to use the drugs. So, I quit. I didn’t believe that I could do the job without the meds. Not with the consistency it required. There’s a lot of stage fright, performance anxiety, unreasonable filming hours, and so forth that goes on in porn. It’s not as easy as some people may think.
 
I didn’t get into porn with the idea that it would be my career. But over time, I benefited from it. My role as performer became important to me. I was making decent money and I had this feedback loop that I’d never experienced before, which was basically a response (from fans and colleagues) to my appearance or sexual prowess. I mean, it’s not like I was always in a great place, emotionally or psychologically. There were a lot of pitfalls along the way. But I can say, overall, that porn did wonders for my self-esteem. Also, there were things I got involved with, like sex work politics, that made me feel like I had purpose. I didn’t think my identity was so wrapped up in being a porn performer. But when my career ended, I felt a kind of hole in my life.

All of that fell apart very quickly. My financial situation plummeted. I became very depressed. I went from the guy fucking in the movies to the guy cleaning up cum-soaked baby wipes on set. Talk about a blow to my ego. Ha.

I think I’ve been hesitant to define my identity ever since. It’s easy to get wrapped up in my work, and define myself that way. I’ve become a professional video editor. And I work a lot on set—in the adult industry and on documentaries, music videos, and commercials—doing various jobs. I’d also like to call myself a writer. I guess that I’d like the important things in my life, the things I believe define me, to be quieter. I might be afraid to define them out of fear that they’ll be taken away.

CH Body to Job is careful to avoid categorization. The word “memoir” appears in small type on the back cover above the barcode to indicate where to shelve the book in the store, but the word doesn’t appear again. In the past, you’ve written two novels, and there are moments in this book that pivot to dream logic, or more surreal, seemingly-fictional scenes. I’m curious how you approached the writing of this book versus your novels.

CZ Body to Job began as a pitch to my publisher, Rare Bird. I told them that I wanted to put out a short story collection, but I didn’t have a cohesive concept yet. Most of my short form writing had to do with my porn career, and I’d written a lot about sex work and politics on a now-defunct blog. I searched the blog for content I still connected with. A thread of personal short stories emerged, and I could see pieces of a memoir. But there was a lot missing.

I began to think about the book in a different way, and the structure of a memoir appealed to me. It was something I could grapple with. But I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested in the story of Danny Wylde, a middle-of-the-road porn star. I wasn’t a James Deen or Sasha Grey. My celebrity, if you could even call it that, was minor. I wanted the book to hold some appeal beyond the reader’s interest in my persona.

Also, porn memoirs were having a moment. Asa Akira had put a couple of them out. Tyler Knight had just put one out. Oriana Small’s memoir, Girlvert, had already reached the pinnacle of that kind of work. I thought, what can I really add to the genre? To try and differentiate the manuscript, I went back into what I’d already been doing: auto-fiction.

My second novel, The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space, was explicitly about me, even when it wasn’t true. As narcissistic or self-involved as that novel may be, I found that writing it helped me process certain issues or traumas. It served a functional purpose. With Body to Job, I thought about the fiction from a more aesthetic and structural point of view. Because I love horror movies, black metal, the philosophy of pessimism, and other work that revels in a kind of theatrical violence. That stuff is my playground, even when I take it very seriously.

CH I’m interested in this idea of writing as having a functional purpose beyond art—something that could actually help the writer process something, as you said it did for you. Can you discuss what kinds of topics or issues you felt differently about as a result of writing about them?

CZ When I was writing my second novel, The Wolves That Live in Skin and Space, I was fairly active in sex work politics, from a progressive and feminist point of view. At the time, there seemed to be an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of sex work in the media. Of course, there were the traditional right-wing and religious moral objections. But also, “the left” had painted this picture of porn as an industry rife with coercion and exploitation.

So, I, along with many other people, felt this drive to champion the positive aspects of sex work. Many people, women in particular, were coming out with stories of sexual empowerment. I felt that porn had done some good in my life, and I wanted to broadcast that. However, there were negative aspects of my work, too. Just as real, but harder to talk about without feeling like I was jumping on the anti-porn bandwagon.

For example, the juxtaposition between chronic physical intimacy and a perpetual feeling of loneliness and isolation in my day-to-day life. Or feeling drained from the emotional labor that accompanied non-porn sex work, like camming and escorting. Or my desire for physical and emotional intimacy with men, despite not really identifying as gay, and my inability to fully access that without fucking up my career.

I didn’t know what I felt, specifically, about any of the aforementioned “issues.” But I thought it would be easiest to write about them in a semi-fictional context, at my own slow pace, so that I could figure myself out or process my thoughts in a controlled way. A lot of my writing has started that way—with a problem I’m trying to figure out. By the end, it doesn’t matter. I’ve dissociated. I don’t even know that I learn anything, intellectually. But I no longer feel a heaviness around the material.

CH I’m curious about the “theatrical violence” you mentioned that you’re drawn to. What is it about certain horror movies, black metal, and pessimistic philosophy that resonate with you as a writer?

CZ As a kid, I was most into and influenced by aggressive music. The focus of my middle school and high school years was playing in metal bands and going to as many shows as possible. When I think about those years, I think about the energetic sound, the cathartic performance, and the audience participation inherent in the live shows; the community of subculture. But also, the biting and often devastating poetry imbedded in the lyrical content.

Some of the more sophisticated bands seem to engage in a play between emotional turmoil and mythology. For example, when I was in high school, my favorite band was Converge. They’re not black metal. More of a hybrid between hardcore and other forms of aggressive metal. Their lyrics have to do with loneliness, longing, depression, anger, suicide, and so on. All of the stuff that’s extra relevant as a teenager, because it feels so new and all-encompassing (at least, it did for me). The way the band expresses those emotions, though, are through violent metaphor.

If I look at early Norwegian black metal bands, it’s the same thing: young people making music about feeling isolated, angry, and suicidal. But it’s encased in Norse mythology mixed with a kind of fictional Satanism, gleaned from horror films.

This music probably informed the way I express myself in writing, music, and whatever else. It makes sense for me to write about depression as bodily trauma or demonic intervention, because I grew up watching other people do it. It’s a language I understand.

CH Auto-fiction seems somewhat performative in the sense of having to decide which parts of your life to pull from and put on display. Do you see your writing as a performative act, or is it something else?

CZ Auto-fiction is definitely performative. But so is straightforward memoir. I think it’s funny when people talk about authenticity in art, as if anything so carefully crafted doesn’t sift through a thousand personal filters. The older I get, the less I care about performing authenticity. For one, my life is objectively more boring: I no longer fuck for a living; I’m no longer a hooker; and I no longer have such a romantic relationship with death and depression. Not in real life, anyway.

I’m attracted to content that’s big, heavy, and stylized. I still want to go to a movie and cry; to have my chest tighten when I read a passage from a book; to be drowned by a soundscape. But I’ve also become more interested in a slick pop sensibility. I like all that heaviness shoved into a well-designed package. I no longer have the patience for the unharnessed flailings of teenage angst.

Chelsea Hodson is the author of the book of essays, Tonight I’m Someone Else.

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