Conner Habib: Gay Porn Star, Sex-Worker Rights Activist, Author and Speaker
Moments after the solar eclipse peaked over Los Angeles on Monday, I found Conner Habib perched on his porch. We sat on the bricks and dared to peek at the sun for just a second or two at a time. An orange butterfly fluttered around his flowers and a gray, hazy light shined on us, either apocalyptically, hopefully or both. His yellow socks matched his yellow Vans, which matched the garden, and we soaked up a few more minutes of cosmological activity before we retreated inside to a room full of books.
As all the reading material suggests, Conner Habib is, without a doubt, the professor I never had but always wanted — a revolutionary thinker who exalts bodily pleasure and esoteric spirituality just as much as he encourages critical thinking and analysis, a writer who synthesizes his well-researched, multifaceted ideas into accessible essays, videos and tweets.
His main project is his life, which not only combines his experiences as an author, college lecturer, gay porn performer and sex workers’ rights advocate; it also engages all that he’s gleaned from living as a half-Irish, half-Syrian guy from Pennsylvania, who now lives in L.A. and teaches, through his digital publishing and community events, about radical philosophy, sexual liberation and the occult. He was the first gay adult film star to speak at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I’m guessing, the only porn performer to win the Distinguished Teaching Award at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he studied fiction writing and evolutionary biology and taught literature and composition before moving to L.A.
He has also published a number of provocative essays, including the iconic 2014 piece, “What I Want to Know Is Why You Hate Porn Stars.”
Habib is currently in the thick of producing Against Everyone With Conner Habib, a video lecture and conversation series where he talks about whatever he wants to talk about in-depth, exploring notions like “how pleasure and political resistance meet,” “the longing for a politician we can believe in” and “why work is state-supported blackmail.”
Finally, in anticipation of today, his 40th birthday, he’s spent the last month starting and finishing one book every day.
On Monday, I spoke to Conner Habib about his new show, the removal of Confederate monuments in the South and how the Trump era gives us an opportunity to re-write the future of American history.
Where did the name, Against Everyone With Conner Habib, come from?
There’s sort of a dual meaning. One is resistance, this idea of being against everyone, like all the shit I hate in the world. I’m against these idiots in power, dumb ideas and bad public conversations and stupid think pieces. These are things that piss me off every day. But on the other hand, “against everyone” reflects my aspiration to be against everyone, in the sense of literally pressing up against everyone. Embracing them, holding them, fucking them, getting fucked by them, sleeping with them. That’s sort of the hidden “against” that I want, and it’s the one I’m seeking to reach by resisting stupidity.
What are the Against Everyone episodes like?
The show alternates formats, so I’ll give a short lecture in one episode and then be in conversation with someone during the next. The idea for a lecture series came up because Twitter made it clear that most people out there are just parroting their politics. This is always how it’s been, but it’s intensifying now. People are spitting out parroted lines in all caps, obvious things like, “Gay people are people too!” I wanted to create something that encouraged me and others to originate thought for themselves and ask, “What do you actually think?”
The only organizing principle then is having a deep conversation with an interesting person. It’s not about who has a book or an album out, because people aren’t news items, they’re people. Most people who are fascinating don’t have something new coming out all the time. They’re just in the world thinking thoughts.
Let’s switch to politics. How did your relationship with Jill Stein and the Green Party develop?
I’m not a huge fan of any political party, but I feel like the Green Party can open up spaces for new kinds of conversations. That’s what I loved about both Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders — they were creating possibilities for new conversation, no matter how contentious or flawed those conversations were. So I was following the Green Party, and at some point, I saw something about sex work that irritated me. I felt like Jill Stein had rather outdated views about sex work and feminism, essentially informed by second-wave feminism, and that the Green Party’s position was irresponsible when it came to sex work.
I said something about it on Twitter, and a LGBT member of the party reached out to me about revising it. We had some phone meetings, where other sex workers and me talked about better approaches to sex work. I don’t know where that platform stands now, but the fact that they even reached out said something to me.
Overall, I’m hopeful. I’m not necessarily hopeful for the party itself or any particular candidate, but for what kinds of conversations can happen when the third-largest political party in the U.S. begins to make a pro-sex worker statement.
It’s interesting, people are increasingly critical about the way the police operate in America, but most liberals still trust them to control sex work.
The broader question is, why do we ever trust institutions in power? When it comes to sex work, it’s harder for people to wade through, because they have such knee-jerk reactions to sex that they’ve been brainwashed to believe for centuries and millennia. There has been a long war against sex in many ways, so it’s harder for people to untangle why trusting the police to somehow arrest johns and sex workers is weird when we obviously don’t trust the police in other realms.
It’s sort of like climate change. Climate change is unquestionable, but it’s another thing we need to wonder about — in terms of, “How are the people in power utilizing this against us?” This question needs to be asked. Not because climate change is fake, it’s not, but because all people in power use overarching cultural narratives to their advantage. Like United Airlines asking us to pay an extra $50 to offset our carbon footprint on a certain flight. That’s bullshit.
Another great example is the California drought. Everyone is encouraged to turn their sprinklers off, but only 7 percent of the water in California is used by residents. So it’s like, “Fuck that!” Shut down your fucking wasteful factory farm. Stop supplying water to these giant office buildings and to the military. Don’t act like not using my water is going to make any difference when you refuse to shut that shit down.
How, though, does this relate back to sex work?
In general, whenever the law and sex intersect, it’s bad news for all of us, because the people who are the least capable of coming up with good regulations surrounding sex are politicians. They have the most distorted, fucked-up sex lives and desires of anybody. They’re not allowed to talk about sex. They’re not allowed to express their sexual feelings. They’re not allowed to even really talk about who they are and aren’t attracted to. They certainly can’t talk about their kinks or their interactions with sex workers or porn. These are people who are ultra-hyper repressed. And so, it’s the stupidest body of people to allow to create regulations around how we should have sex.
That’s why I support decriminalizing sex work instead of legalizing it; it’s so much more hands off that way.
Earlier this year, you wrote that if our takeaway from this election is “This president lies” instead of “Presidents lie,” you’re wasting an opportunity to think critically about our country and its institutions. As Americans cry out for revolution, albeit opposing revolutions at times, what do you think we can do to rehabilitate our relationship with the way our country works?
The real lesson of the election, in this shattering of people’s worldview, is that we need systemic change. It’s not enough to just swap out faces and figureheads. That doesn’t work and never has. There’s a demand right now to change the entirety of the institutions in power, and unless we do that, we’re going to keep creating the same problems. This type of change doesn’t come from voting one way or another; it means something much more profound, actually reimagining the past, present and future in historical terms.
In this regard, it’s interesting how people are pulling down Confederate monuments. What’s so profound about this isn’t the sentiment, “Oh, fuck these racists,” which is great, but that they’re actually saying, “Let’s not let history lead us to this point anymore.” Such a movement shows us that history hasn’t led us to honoring these concrete images of the partial victories of bigots and racists; history has led us to denying those images as representative of our history.
I think that’s our job — not just to change the candidates or Congress, but to actually change where history has led us.
How does all the talk about contemporary Nazism fit into this idea, too?
Here’s how: It doesn’t make sense to be like, “We just need to beat the Nazis again like we did in World War II.” If we do that, we’ll probably face this problem again, just like we are now. Our efforts to overcome today’s Nazism means we have to become better people, and therefore, shift what Nazism means in the larger historical context.
In terms of looking at the future, we need to have goals that go beyond electing Democrats. If that’s how people think, we could lose everything this moment could lead to and we will continue to erect new shitty monuments.
There’s a great part in Michael Moore’s last movie, Where to Invade Next?, about monuments in Germany. It shows monuments to people that have been exterminated. That’s something completely different than what we have in America. We don’t have monuments reflecting the genocide of indigenous people; we have monuments to the executioners that killed those indigenous people.
Walter Benjamin has a line in his “Theses On the Philosophy of History,”where he writes that if we lose these parts of history, “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy.” You can see this with the Pulse nightclub shooting. It happens constantly when LGBT people are killed. The dead are immediately appropriated as a reason for hating Muslims or hating repressed gay people, depending on how someone chooses to spin it. My point here is that in America, not even the dead are safe from being exploited as excuses for more violence in order to perpetuate our system.
So let’s not just tear down the monuments; let’s tear down the type of thinking that’s represented in these monuments and change history.
What are your thoughts on Charlottesville?
I’m grateful for the large resistance to what happened there, but if that resistance isn’t inclusive, it almost doesn’t matter. So what disturbs me is how peaceful what happened in Charlottesville was. Of course, the white supremacists were promising violence, so it was violent in that sense, but for the most part, it was just people marching — and yet, it really affected people. Black people, however, are actually brutalized by the police every fucking day, and you don’t see the same sort of outrage. That’s because when people are threatened by the state apparatus, which is more powerful, more racist and more terrifying than individual racists, people aren’t willing to stand up and put themselves on the line for something in the same way.
I don’t condemn people, especially white people, outraged by what happened in Charlottesville. But in some ways, those reactions are an exhibition of their cowardice just as much as they are exhibitions of their bravery. I’m glad they’re saying Nazis are bad, but that’s not edgy. As an American, you aren’t risking much by saying Nazis are bad. The opportunity here for people like me — who are more radical than simply saying, “Nazis are bad” — is that this huge public outcry gives us a little more leverage to have these conversations.
There was similar space right after Trump was elected, too. There were these protests in downtown L.A., and while there were plenty of people there who support the American political system as is and who just wanted a different candidate, there were also people who wanted systemic change. Some people wanted the electoral college to be abolished. Others — communists, anarchists or whatever — were like, “Tear the motherfucker down!”
What was your education like, and what influences have shaped your thinking the most?
There are things that you can point to in your past that have clearly led you to where you are now in terms of your thinking. Some of that is easy, and some of that is mysterious. Something that’s obvious is that I grew up a smart half-Arab who was eventually attracted to men in conservative, small-town Pennsylvania, surrounded by skinheads and religious fundamentalists.
But equally present is stuff that’s still unexplainable. My first memory is a dream. So before I was conscious, I was dreaming. I was eaten by a fox that was eaten by a wolf that was eaten by a bear. And when the bear ate the wolf I was in, I woke up and remember tottering down the hallway into my parents bedroom and lying between them, terrified.
My first memory did not involve the material world. It was a fantasy and that’s weird. Why is that my first memory? I have no idea. But maybe it explains why I’m so interested in the occult.
Similarly, I was drawn to books about magic when I was a kid. Given where I grew up, that wasn’t normal or necessarily expected. Nor was I raised religious; I was allowed to understand spirituality on my own terms. Somehow, though, I’ve come to deeply care about esoteric Christianity.
I’m framing it like this because people tend to express everything in their lives as if it’s understandable, as if a lot of it wasn’t simply a gift to them or that it wasn’t something arranged before their birth. For me, who I am and what my life has been like, feels like a combination of both of those things. I can point to some things that I chose, and some things that chose me.
You mentioned your interest in the occult — the meaning of which isn’t necessarily simple. So what do you mean by it?
The occult is, in some ways, the only thing I’ve ever cared about — in the sense that it’s the framework for everything else I do. The problem is that when I say that, people don’t know what I mean about the occult. They think tarot cards and Wicca; those, of course, are versions or components of the occult, but mine is more of a radical phenomenology. What I mean by that is, when you look directly at your experience and how things actually are in your everyday life, things start getting fucking weird. So much so that you can’t take certain basics for granted anymore.
Here’s a prime example: “Isn’t it bizarre that I walk through the world and can’t see my own face?” Everyone else can see my face; I’m literally the only person who can never see it. And I just pretend that I’m having this normal experience that everyone else is having. But it’s actually completely different than anybody’s experience of me and my experience of them, because they can’t see their faces either.
I, of course, can look in a mirror, but it’s always two-dimensional. Actually, it’s not even two-dimensional, it’s just light and whatever.
That’s a basic occult question in the sense that, if I think about that, now how do I frame my everyday life? And you may not think that’s connected to questions like should I vote for Hillary or Bernie? But when you start getting down to it, what’s the actual fabric and texture of people’s lives? What’s the connection between my thoughts and objects?
Well, my thoughts are just as real as objects, and in fact, the only way to apprehend objects is through my consciousness and my thinking, so it’s all one piece. What then does that mean about bad ideas or good ideas? How real are they? How do I approach them? How do I deal with something that’s just as intensely present as a table or chair?
It starts to rework everything.
Do you ever miss being a college lecturer and working within the university system?
I left academia to be in porn, although I didn’t have to leave academia in order to do both. And many of the other reasons why I left it are the same reasons I don’t have the desire to return to it, which is that there’s no sexuality or spirituality to academia. You can learn about spirituality in academia, but you definitely can’t learn about sex in academia — it always detracts from the actual sexual feeling and experience.
I do miss the humanities and the sciences, both of which I studied in grad school, but I wanted to live in the world of spirituality and sexuality more directly. I miss teaching creative writing and literature, and I miss having more people to talk to about those subjects. But I think that universities and colleges are mostly dead places. I don’t think they’re really giving people education anymore. Most of what you can get out of school, you can learn online or by directing yourself. And the things that you can’t come courtesy of good professors, and good professors are exceedingly rare, largely because people now want programmed non-critical thinkers.
I think there’s still potential in these beautiful places, but until then, we’re out here creating our own universities and inviting people to join us.
Another component to your self-education is your reading challenge. How does it feel to read a book a day?
I’ve always wanted to. Reportedly Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag both read a book a day. Chomsky might still do it. I just thought, “Why the fuck not?”
I created parameters for myself in order to make it work. They’re simple: Don’t read a book that’s longer than 200 pages. Schedule your time each day. Have some shorter books on hand, like books of poetry or a play, for a day when you’re reading a book and you can’t finish it. And while you can read longer books, the idea is to complete a book each day, so this is a good time to return to books you only half-finished however long ago.
Mostly, though, it’s just fucking awesome. It actually energizes you. It’s like how going to the gym gives you more energy even though you’re depleting it. Also, it’s like how fucking can make you horny. It’s this positive feedback loop that makes you want more and more and more.
I’m currently reading a book a day until I hit 40 books, in honor of my 40th birthday. I was originally going to have 40 guys fuck me, but that was too much to organize. Books are easier.
We haven’t talked much about sex, but since I saw you tweeting about this, why do you think people consider monogamy so romantic?
Monogamy is a sexual perversion that people don’t realize is a perversion. I think it reaches its best state when people are like, “I’m a pervert, and this is the kind of perversion that I prefer,” which is to completely and submissively restrain yourself and your partner at all times. You punish each other when you stray from that repression, and you get off on that. I think that monogamy can be erotically charged and awesome in that way. Yet, people don’t treat it as such. Instead, it’s treated as an imperative.
All of which is to say I think there’s potential for monogamy to become something much better than it is. Instead of ethical porn, let’s talk about ethical monogamy, which would be a rearranging of monogamy. Something that we could do with our partners for a month. Or a day. Or better yet, however long we want. But there shouldn’t be such a thing as a default demand for a type of relationship.
What we need to do is normalize seeking pleasure instead. Monogamy is always violated, there isn’t a single instance where it’s not. Monogamy is violated when you see your girlfriend texting another guy. She hasn’t had sex with him, but maybe she had a thing with him many years ago, meaning that in that moment, the parameters of your monogamy feel violated. That’s non-monogamy. We can pretend all we want that monogamy is having some kind of grand, singular affair, but within that idea is the fact that monogamous pacts always lead to partners feeling violated in one way or another.
Tierney Finster is a contributing writer at MEL. She last interviewed a father about raising his gender-creative son.