Last year, Sara Brown, Italian-born, Barcelona-based performer, educator, writer, founder of art platform 'IL MONSTRO', and adult film actor, was invited by Italian high school students to lead online talks about porn. Together with theater actress Antonella Questa who co-hosted the discussions, they hoped to educate and make teens aware of how they shouldn’t use what they see in porn as a tutorial or reference for their own sexual experiences and make them more critical of what they see online.
What was supposed to be educational and safe conversations, turned into a national scandal after an article published in a local newspaper in the province of Florence. “I've been framed as the "porn star" giving "porn lessons" to "innocent" young people," Brown wrote in our email exchange, "with no mention of the crucial information I've shared with students about how the porn industry works in terms of production and distribution and how to consciously navigate the so-called mainstream representations of sex and gender they can find online.”
After months of media scrutiny and misconstrued narratives of these zoom talks, during which Brown was outed as an adult film performer to relatives, she is moving on from scandal and regaining control of her narrative.
Ultimately, the experience with the media didn’t deter Brown from further conversations and sex education initiatives. If anything, it has shown them how important these conversations are even more. Since doing the talks, Brown has gotten a certificate in porn literacy and is now able to train and turn these talks about porn into actual workshops on pornography.
Porn literacy is exactly what it sounds like; it’s an understanding of what you’re seeing in porn. It is particularly relevant now when more and more teens turn to pornography to teach them about sex. A key part of porn literacy is understanding that porn is not a depiction of real-life sex. It’s a fantasy and while it can provide pleasure, it shouldn’t be a blueprint for your own sexual encounters.
Brown reached out to me through email and we got on Zoom to talk about her experience with the stigma surrounding sex work, the media’s misrepresentation of the adult entertainment industry, and the importance of porn literacy.
Our conversation was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
SHAME: What made you want to get a porn literacy certificate?
SB: Because of my experience last year. What I was sharing with these students were things I was exposed to, like how the industry works, the different types of porn, why there are certain types of content, why there’s not a certain [other] type of content, what are the potential harms that porn can cause.
It’s a responsibility to talk to these younger people. I was actually not feeling that confident because it’s one thing to share your experience in porn and it's another thing to know exactly how the porn sites, industry, etcetera work. These topics are normal to me but you need to have the basic knowledge to know how to talk about them with teenagers.
The porn literacy course was all about [creating] a safe space. It’s not just a traditional class where you talk about the topic and they take notes and that’s it. The biggest part of the workshop is [on opening] up the space for teenagers and young people to talk and share their experiences and feel that they can be open and honest about their experiences and at the same time, be educated about [why they shouldn't be] judgemental about the experiences of others.
At the end of the day, that’s the core of it, no? It’s not really about having technical knowledge [but] it’s really about being educated and talking about certain [topics] without falling into cliches.
SHAME: How do you think having the certificate in porn literacy is going to help you with or change your approach to these workshops?
SB: Last year a certificate wasn’t even required because they were talks, not workshops. They were expecting me to talk and then asked me questions.
Now, I would like it to be less about me and my experience. My experience is more to [show] that I’m not a random person talking about porn. I’m talking about porn because I did it myself and that gives me a different awareness.
I hope that this time, with this knowledge that I have, it’s going to be more about them. It’s not about ‘oh, Sara, how does she do porn? What does her family think of it?’ No, what matters is what you think about porn, what your family thinks about it, how you related to the porn you watch, what your interpretation is of the stuff you see online, and if you feel like that affects your behavior in your real life.
SHAME: How were sex workers and porn performers represented in this course?
SB: When they were talking about porn performers, the only myth they wanted to debunk was that not all porn performers have glamorous lives. So basically, while they wanted to debunk one myth, they were, probably without even realizing it, reinforcing another myth: that porn performers have precarious lives or that their life is hard, or that it’s not an easy job. Which not to say that it is an easy job, but any job is hard.
These people are academics, they come from porn studies, they studied porn, they know a lot about it and they created this course which is amazing. But I was feeling that they were missing the perspective of sex workers. It was obvious that they didn’t talk to the people who make [porn] when they were creating the course.
SHAME: How do you think your perspective and experience as a sex worker will enrich your workshops?
SB: I know that my perspective as someone who [has done porn] can enrich it. Because I feel like people will never really understand how porn works and what happens behind the scenes when it’s produced and distributed.
[We] don’t normalize the fact that there are normal people doing it as jobs [and] these people are all around us. I feel that if people understand that the guy who serves you pizza might be your neighbor, a sex worker can also be your neighbor and probably is. I feel like people have a lot of stigmas and they are not ready to see that yes, sex workers have normal lives, or glamorous lives, or precarious lives, or very basic lives, just like anybody else.
SHAME: What do you want the teens to take away from your workshops?
SB: I know it might sound cliche, but it’s distinguishing fantasy from reality. It’s one of those phrases that has been repeated so many times that people lose the real meaning.
I would like them to be more aware of [the question]: can you relate to what you’re seeing? If not, maybe you don’t need to see that. When I’m talking about relating to the content, we’re talking about: do you see yourself doing that in your sex life? Would you imitate certain practices in your real life? Do you feel like a potential partner that you have would enjoy what you’re seeing in this video?
I think that the most important thing is also to understand that there’s a big thing missing in the majority of porn which is people asking each other if they like this or [saying] “I’m about to do this, would you like that?” It’s the whole topic of consent.
When we open the space for talking about our desires, fantasies, or things that we didn’t like, then naturally our sexual life would improve because we would feel more confident about what to ask the partner to do or when to say no.
I hope that they can understand that sex is about consent and that they shouldn’t imitate porn as if it was a tutorial but that it’s more of an extra representation of sex. [Sex] that can sometimes be very weird and trash and fun but that’s missing these big things.
Find more of Sara Brown on Instagram, the Instagram of IL MONSTRO, and don't forget to watch her video 'mercy', which she released after dealing with the media attention and increased stigma of being a sex worker.