Nov 02 2013

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Sex, the Occult and the Witches Who Do Porn

Motherboard By Jason Louv

Photo via Peter Pal/Flickr

Conner Habib wants to break the rules. A gay porn star and an occultist*, he seems to embody all of the things that middle America told you to fear when you were 13.

“We choose desire where desire is forbidden,” he says of his fellow porn actors who are into the occult. “We do this thing that we’re told not to do. We’ve already gone against what seems to be a law. So why not break other rules? Why not defy right down to the laws of physics?”

Habib is talking about the prevalent New Age belief that a focused and positive mind can change reality and make dreams come true—the singular idea that underlies the vast marketplace of New Age ideas and products, from Wicca to “The Secret.”

Because of their promise of empowerment, such New Age ideas were a major trope in the sixties and seventies. So was sexual liberation. Both forces were a counterculture reaction to the boundaries that had been placed on reality by a more prosaic mainstream culture. Now, in 2013, those boundaries have not only been broken but, thanks to the Internet, disintegrated entirely. Take a tour through Tumblr, for instance, and you’ll find countless blogs proudly trumpeting a heady witch’s brew of pornography, the occult, and the intersections of the two. Sex, magick, and sex magick are the order of the day.

The revolt against traditional religion, and the revolt against traditional sexual morality, were once the domain of the privileged few, like the infamous English mystic and sexual adventurer Aleister Crowley, who found both to be keys to personal liberation. Now instant access to both the most outré sexuality and the inmost secrets of the occult are guaranteed to anybody with an internet connection. Is this a Jack Chick fantasia in which a society that has forsaken the Church revels in sin and iniquity? Or is it something more interesting: a collective striving towards a new kind of transcendence and spirituality, one that embraces the flesh instead of rejects it?

Not surprisingly, many pornography performers are, themselves, engaged in all manner of odd alternative spiritualities, even steeped in the practice of witchcraft.

Habib, in a rare SFW photo from his Twitter feed.

Habib is one such character. With a following in both the gay porn world and with the alt-spirituality and psychedelics crowd (he’s been a popular guest on podcasts like The Duncan Trussell Family Hour), Habib portrays himself as a rebel against reality, embodying an almost Luciferian drive to break through the walls of repression, a self-appointed spokesman for the fusion of sex and radical spirituality.

Nobody, however, is a greater authority on the intersection of porn and alternative spirituality than Annie Sprinkle. Beginning as a prostitute in the 1960s and 70s, she entered porn in the pre-AIDS era and made over two hundred films. She then jumped into a career as a sex-positive author and educator, which brought her into close conflict not only with feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, but also right-wing patriarch Jesse Helms, who denounced one of her sex magick performance pieces on the floor of the Senate. For Sprinkle, both sexuality and performance are explicitly spiritual and magical, part of her role as a cultural shaman.

“I think there are a handful of people in the sex industry that are very, very spiritual,” she told me from her cabin home in Boulder Creek. “There’s a lot of atheists, a lot of people who aren’t interested in anything woo-woo or tantric or magical, that’s for sure. But when you’re doing sex work, you’re so stigmatized and marginalized and prosecuted that anything that can help you cope with the stigma and the stupid laws… we need that. We need those archetypes and images to hold on to, to be able to cope with society’s prejudices and hatred and fear.”

Perhaps that’s the crux of it: that socially marginalized people so often turn to practices and self-images that convey a sense of power. For Spinkle, that marginalization is nothing new. In fact, it’s no different than the way that witches were treated in the Middle Ages. The irony for her, however, is that while sex workers are marginalized by mainstream society, they’re also in high demand; while mainstream America tends to see porn people as lost souls, at the same time it consumes their products to the tune of $13 billion a year.

“I think that our society is basically phobic about birth, death, and sex,” she explained. “America is puritanical. On the other hand, millions of people use the services of prostitutes and sex workers and porn. The adult entertainment industry is bigger than music and professional sports combined. That’s a lot of people using and loving it. More porn movies are ordered in hotels than mainstream Hollywood features. Millions of people are using the services that sex workers provide, and yet they’re very marginalized. I think it’s jealousy, partly; I think it’s a financial thing to keep [sex workers] down, a power dynamic, to want to be better-than. It’s an insecurity. People are very insecure about their sex lives, and sex workers have a certain kind of experience and pride.”

The occult sex aesthetic, as curate on Tumblr. Screenshot from English Heretic

The consumption of pornography fascinates Habib as a complex occult process in itself, a potential way to rewire the mind and body. “Masturbation is used in occult ritual by creating an image, and at the moment of orgasm charging that image, which is then meant to bring you something in your life,” he told me over Skype from his San Francisco apartment, summarizing the mechanics of Aleister Crowley’s sexual magick.

Habib’s mentor was Lynn Margulis, one of the originators of the Gaia Hypothesis, which suggests that the Earth is a living organism and a holistic system. He’s also an adherent of Anthroposophy, a complex set of occult beliefs and practices developed by Rudolf Steiner, who founded the Waldorf schools. But for Habib, there is little contradiction between his academic and occult pursuits and porn. Sex, for him, is a route to self-knowledge, as it was for the many mystics who used it in the same way before him.

This occult process, he explained, isn’t far off from what the average viewer of porn is doing while using their favorite product. They’re using sex to put themselves into an altered state of consciousness, and combining that with a symbolic representation of a fantasy—rewiring their nervous system in the process, for good or bad.

“What happens when a viewer watches a porn movie?” Habib asked. “We watch a symbolic representation of sex to arouse us, and we treat a symbol as a sexual partner. This is very occult. And when we masturbate, we combine mental images with physical responses, creating all sorts of expansive pictures of our inner landscape of desire, or translating whatever’s on the screen into our fantasy world, coupled with a limited physical action for five minutes that makes half the stuff of life come out of our bodies. That’s a really profound and powerful act, and all the mechanics of occult stuff are there.”

But while he’s willing to explore such possibilities, he described the world of at least gay pornography as very atheistic and full of people who are “deeply rebelling against a religious or spiritual upbringing that has in some way fucked with them.” Yet both the gay and straight porn worlds are saturated with practitioners of Wicca, he explained.

While Habib contextualizes his search for knowledge as a rebellion, a push to get out there beyond any constraints on sexual or spiritual repression, I talked to another individual who already is out there and who longs, instead, for social acceptance and normality instead of chaos.

Bailey Jay, known as Linetrap on the infamous image board 4chan, is a male-to-female transsexual porn star who likely rose to fame because of her resemblance to an anime character. She embodies a new type of sexuality, for an Internet-raised generation that often prefers the idea of M-to-F trans people to conventionally gendered sex stars.

Bailey Jay doing her best Elvira impression

(Porn researcher Dr. Ogi Ogas, who worked in anti-terrorism for the Department of Homeland Security before turning his mind to kink, used the Internet to study the habits of half a billion porn viewers, the results of which were published as A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Among his findings were that men around the world are as stimulated by images of erect penises as they are by breasts, rears and feet—and in the anonymity of the Internet, men can freely view porn actresses who combine female features with penises. “By combining them,” Ogas states, “heterosexual men often report inexplicable sexual arousal.”)

Jay was born a male with low testosterone; so low that she never entered adolescence (she told me that she willed herself not to undergo puberty), and began taking estrogen instead. She now has breast implants and retains her penis. Jay runs a website where she films porn with her husband; in her spare time, she dedicates herself to the study of spirituality, world religion and shamanism, and describes herself as a practicing witch.

Yet her life is quiet and simple, she says. Because she produces her own videos with her husband, she’s able to stay clear of what she describes as the destructiveness and in-fighting of the industry. “There’s a lot of in-fighting in the transgender community, and a lot of in-fighting in the porn community,” Jay said. “And being one of the more successful girls, a lot of heat is going to fall on me for no other reason than my success.”

She spends most of her time alone, or shopping in her sedate local community, yearning for the stable home-maker’s life. It is out of this silence, like that of a Trappist monk, that her spiritual longing emerges.

“For me, being around sex and being around gospel singing is the same ecstasy. Ecstasy is ecstasy.”

“When I first got into paganism I felt like I was rebelling,” she told me, explaining that it was a way to escape the feeling of being controlled by her “fire and brimstone” Catholic upbringing. “I viewed it as a way of finally having control. It was the opposite of Christianity. But my spirituality is not anti-Christian. It’s not rebelling at all.”

While she described a deep suspicion of organized religion, she also explained that the privilege of having a day job which allows freedom from the 9-to-5 grind allows her to devote her time to spiritual exploration and practice, a situation  Habib described as well.

“You’ll lose your mind otherwise!” she explained. “It’s great to not have a 9-5 job, but the reality is that the rest of the world does. And so you’re home and that’s a luxury, but after a while you have to start talking to somebody. It gets rough. It feels good to have a relationship with your God. And if you have a very liberal job, you probably have a very liberal mindset, you’re not rigid. So I feel like it makes sense. If I have a job where I feel free enough to be naked and have sex on camera, I might also be free enough to worship nature, or not feel stupid worshipping God.”

Magick, for her, is a process of becoming more comfortable with your own being and body, in order to allow your inner wisdom to shine through—and her pornographic performances are a part of that.

“I think getting comfortable in your own skin and being grounded and present opens up a lot more opportunity to hear the little voice that’s behind the loud voice in your head,” she told me,. “Your conscience, your guardian angel, your spirit guide, your higher self, whatever you call it… I think people who are present and comfortable with their bodies, who take care of their bodies, who masturbate regularly, without shame, without any unhealthy thing going on, and when they look in the mirror they don’t think anything other than, ‘Wow, this is my physical being’… they can’t help but feel good. You can’t help but thank God and want to talk to God and see that there’s something bigger than you.”

Annie Sprinkle as “The Neo Sacred Prostitute,” via Wikimedia

Sprinkle, who earned a place in performance art history with the ongoing sex-magick ritual “The Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute,” in which she ritually masturbated on stage, shared the story of her own spiritual awakening in the 1980s, when Habib was in elementary school and Jay hadn’t yet been born.

“I got spiritual when AIDS hit,” she told me. “I was raised humanist and agnostic, but when AIDS happened I just needed to be able to cope with all the death, and I started to explore really kind of New Age stuff, and spiritual stuff from all different cultures, and it really helped. For me, being around sex and being around gospel singing is the same ecstasy. Ecstasy is ecstasy.”

While Conner Habib described the occult dynamics of sex, and Bailey told me about the process of spiritual unfoldment through those dynamics, Sprinkle, as only a woman of her status could, offered the Holy Grail—the whole point of combining sex and spirituality, the oft-debated, controversial Kundalini orgasm, in which sexual release and spiritual enlightenment collide.

“A kundalini or full-body orgasm,” she told me of her own experience, “incorporates the whole body—every cell and pore and part of your body is streaming with electricity. I get them in my throat and I just scream, or I feel like my hands are plugged into electrical sockets. It’s a kind of streaming of life force energy coming through the body. Runners get this, or people who do trance dancing or swinging even, jogging. People who are very in the moment. Yogis can get it. When you’re in your body, and really in the moment, and in your breath and your body, and you surrender to the life force, and it comes through… It can be low, medium or high—or through the roof.

“It’s very similar to a born-again experience,” she continued. “The physical sensations, the bliss, the enlightenment, the feeling, the oneness, the love, the sheer joy—all of those things. I’ve met people who were born again about what it felt like—what did it feel like to have the spirit of Jesus come into your body? It sounds very similar to me to what I experienced on a good day doing my sex magick masturbation ritual on stage.”

Is such a lofty goal what the average porn consumer is looking for the keys to? Probably not, but such an experience is what each of the people I talked to were exploring, and conveying, each in their own way.

“More people are watching porn than ever before,” Habib said. “And more people are in porn than ever before. Sex in general provides us with altered states of consciousness. People are seizing control of their sexuality, but what hasn’t caught up with that yet is how to do that and feel OK with it.”

As it has ever been, such experiences and lives happen far away from the beaten track—like the Tantrikas of India and Tibet, or, more historically, the sacred prostitutes of Babylon, Greece and the Aztec empire. But perhaps, as the masses lose themselves in the trance tunnel of Internet porn, that something more, that promise of sexual and spiritual freedom, will shine through the exploitation.


Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Habib as a “practicing witch,” when he describes himself as an occultist. In an email, Habib wrote, “As a pop culture term, witch is fine for all sorts of things, but in an article delving into actual spiritual/religious matters substantively, ‘witch’ is a term religious studies people agree on as relating to specific, not general, practices.”

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