As A Porn Director, I Find the Beauty in the Gross Parts of Sex

Porn performer and director Vex Ashley of Four Chambers makes high-concept, artistic adult films. In doing so, she's learned the importance of staying true to her creative vision—and always being the first person to get naked on set.

by Vex Ashley; as told to Sirin Kale
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Oct 4 2018, 11:19am

Illustration by Soofiya Andry

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week we're talking to porn performer and director Vex Ashley of Four Chambers about her experiences in the industry. You can catch My First Time on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts.

My generation was the first to grow up existing on social media and the internet, and I remember going online and having very basic cyber-sex with people when I was at school. I’d also read erotic fan fiction online a lot, and go on chat rooms and sext people.

I was lucky because my parents were very open about sex with me: I remember asking my mum what masturbation was, and she drew me a picture of the vulva and the clitoris. It wasn’t a massive surprise to them when I started doing sex work, because I was always someone who’d had open and frank conversations with them about sex.

When I went to art school I started using my body in my artwork, taking photographs of myself in the nude and using my body as a sculptural form. I became interested in the idea of getting naked on the internet from a creative sense, so I started taking pictures for an alternative website. Some girls who worked there did webcamming, so I started doing that and really enjoyed it too. I became exposed to a community of people who were doing porn and sex work.

What I saw was there weren’t many people who were using porn as a creative medium for ideas. My boyfriend and I started making porn music videos; we’d take a piece of music and shoot some naked, writhing bodies, cut it to the music, and upload it onto sites like Tumblr. The response that we were getting from that was really incredible, so we decided to see if we could shoot real porn in that style.

It all started as a bit of an experiment, but then five years later, here I am. My partner and I had [initially] made a video that was of just me, and we’d got this macro lens on the camera. We were interested by the fact that most porn is shot from the middle distance in this very clinical way, and we wanted to see what porn would look like if the camera was uncomfortably close—so we shot a solo video of just me, where the camera is really tight on me.

We thought it would be cool to shoot with another person, and I’d met someone online who I’d been chatting with so we decided that he would be the right person for the job. I hadn’t actually performed with anyone else ever at that point, or had sex with anyone else outside of my relationship with my boyfriend.

The shoot turned out to be more difficult for my boyfriend than we’d been expecting. When we were filming, I was just super-focused on doing the best job I could. As soon as we finished, I realized that my partner looked really upset. Just the reality of watching me have sex with someone else had hit them harder than what they’d necessarily prepared for. We had to do all this extra work on us and our relationship and unpick what me doing porn really meant for us. What’s really fascinating about human emotions is that you can think logically that you’ll be okay with something, but when it comes down to it, your visceral gut reaction can surprise you.

You know how the first time you do drugs it’s the best time? Well, the first time I did porn was the best time. It was so novel and I really forgot about the camera. Every time since, I’ve been more in my head about it, or I’m thinking about what my partner’s doing, or how the scene looks.

When I’m directing porn films for my project Four Chambers, what I’m really interested in is playing with the aesthetics of porn and sex and seeing how we can use sexuality to talk about other things in a more conceptual way. I love anything that’s fucking weird, like liquids or pouring stuff on people. I’ve done shoots with eggs and fish. For me, porn is more interesting when it’s a little gross. Sex is half transcendent, and half dirty and a bit disgusting. It isn’t hot unless it’s a bit disgusting!

Photo courtesy of Vex Ashley

What I try to do with Four Chambers is capture a sense of the atmosphere of sex, rather than the graphic explicitness of it. What I’m interested by is: how can you communicate that build up of intensity, so that you’re not just seeing everything at once and having that instant gratification?

Being a director and a performer is really important to me. I feel like if you’re profiting off other people’s sexual labor, you should be putting yourself in the same situation so that you can really understand the politics of it and how that feels. If I’m directing a scene and performing, I’ll set the tone by being the first person naked or the first person to do the thing that’s a bit difficult or weird, because it shows I’m willing to do anything I’d expect someone else to do.

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One of the best experiences I’ve had on set was after the Berlin Porn Festival. We were going to shoot a scene after the end of the festival, and it was the morning after the closing party. I woke up and felt like, I can't be bothered to shoot today. But then we were filming and all of a sudden there was this intense energy on set. For the climax of the scene, one of the performers had these intense, earth-shattering orgasms where she was shaking and crying as we were all holding her and kissing her face. It felt like this incredibly magic, transcendent experience where we were all in the moment. I remember walking away from that feeling so invigorated by my love for shooting porn and making content and sex in general.

One thing I’ve learned from porn is how to communicate and talk about sex. On a porn set, you’ll turn up and have a conversation with someone about exactly how you’re going to have sex, which is something that rarely happens in day-to-day heteronormative society.

People think porn is this disposable, throwaway thing, and they don’t value porn performers as creatives or laborers. There’s this idea that all porn performers are is what they can do sexually, but as a job it’s much more nuanced than that.

There’s a mystique around being a porn performer, but the reality is that there’s a lot of waiting around, you probably don’t even get to fuck until the end of the day, you’re going to be tired, there’s going to be paperwork to sign. When I’m editing my films, I’m sitting around in my pyjamas for 12 hours a day while my cats mill around me. It’s not glamorous.

Since SESTA-FOSTA was passed, there’s been a huge cleaning of house and it’s become much harder for sex workers to exist online. The legislation [that makes internet service providers responsible for everything that’s published on their sites] has pushed sex workers into the shadows. I was funding my project on a website called Patreon, and within 24 hours I lost all my income. Now I have to figure out how I’m going to fund Four Chambers from the ground up again. In the last two years, everything’s become more conservative, and it’s so much harder for marginalized communities to exist online.

We criticize porn for not being diverse and having different perspectives and voices. But when there are avenues for independent work, we shut them down, so we just end up with the same repetitive porn again and again. We need to make it more possible for new voices and creatives to come through.