Sasha Grey and Isabella Lovestory are the future of post-digital desire

The porn legend and reggaeton pop princess on sexuality, art in the attention economy, and making their Catholic guilt work for them

When I was 19, I changed my Instagram handle to @sashagreysintern. I was not, in fact, Sasha Grey’s intern. I wasn’t even a superfan of hers—I was just a teenage girl in a hurry to understand sex, power, and femininity. I felt that Grey knew a secret that I was too shy and wordless to express—that sex ran through everything, the way magma moves silently under tectonic plates. It wasn’t always perceptible, but it was there.

Starring in her first adult film in 2006 at the age of 18, Grey redefined what it means to be a woman in porn. At the time, the stereotypical adult film star was blonde and bimbofied, with a small, tanned ribcage, enormous fake boobs, and a whispery voice that was almost always modulated to express passive pleasure. While women like that will always hold their rightful place in the libidinal imagination at-large, Grey immediately distinguished herself through her extreme performances and unique aesthetic sensibility akin to a sharp-eyed, goth Anna Karina (which was almost her stage name, in homage to Godard). This wasn’t an accidental fall into glory—Grey approached her work with serious, premeditated creative direction, even publishing a mission statement on her MySpace page. Grey’s career in adult film was short and intense—by the time she performed in her last scene at the age of 21, she was already a canonized porn legend.

These days, the line between civilian and sex worker is not as sharply drawn as it was ten or fifteen years ago. Much of that is thanks to Grey, whose success across a variety of creative mediums helped normalize the idea that pornstars are people with talents, abilities, and interests outside of having sex on camera. First came aTelecine, Grey’s experimental noise collaboration, followed by a buzzy transition into mainstream acting—landing the lead role in Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 indie drama, The Girlfriend Experience. She’s also published a photobook, a series of novels, and toured as an international DJ. Recently, Grey’s taken to Twitch, where she streams gameplays and cooking segments to an audience of over 670,000.

People often say Grey is special because she was able to transcend her identity as a porn actress, but in simplifying her success to the novelty of its trajectory, they’re missing so much. Grey’s impact is so powerful because she understands that sex is the throughline between all forms of art, between creation and destruction, between you and me. It can be dirty and in your face—and God bless it when it is—but it can also be funny, cerebral, poetic, and subtextual. Grey is unparalleled, not because she’s a beautiful woman who reads Sartre and Žižek, but because she gives her all to everything she does and she doesn’t care if you think it’s vulgar—whether she’s embodying American Apparel’s ‘real girl’ in their controversial 2000s ads, or responding to backlash for being photographed reading to elementary school students by calling attention to education as a universal right.

In many ways, Grey was the fearless first lady for a generation of women pushing the boundaries of what female sexuality can look like and, in the case of Isabella Lovestory, sound like. Born in Honduras, Lovestory is a new kind of popstar—layering bass-heavy reggaeton with glossy pop synths and lyrics that revel in the complexities of female eroticism. Lovestory’s creative vision is perhaps best articulated in her music videos, which feel like surreal yet self-aware dream-tributes to the hypersexual visuals of early 2000s reggaeton. Essential to that video era is the appearance of perfect women dancing provocatively and looking at the camera like they want to fuck it, while a male artist stands nearby and sings about wanting to fuck them. The Lovestory fantasy world looks much the same—in the video for “Mariposa,” she emerges from the trunk of a white Corvette to perreo in various bikinis that look like they’ve been borrowed from the storage units of Y2K’s finest retired video girls.

The difference is that in Lovestory’s universe, she is both the perpetrator of desire and the object of it. On “Whiskey & Coca Cola” she sings, “Quiero Coca Cola / Whiskey en la roca / Y tus dedos en mi boca / Me gusta cuando me sofocas,” which translates to, “I want a Coca Cola / Whiskey on the rocks / And your fingers in my mouth / I like when you suffocate me.” Lovestory creates her own fantasy world, one full of vice and lust, but directed by her nonetheless.

Like Grey, Lovestory understands the modality of desire—the many different shapes it takes, how gritty and dark it can get, and how funny it can all seem after the moment’s passed. “Love can be nasty and violent, it’s not always a sugary fairytale,” says Lovestory of the passionate stories behind her songs. “Sex is liberating and the most primal creative expression, but this same feeling can be found in other sides of life, not everything sexy is about sex.” Recently, Lovestory was shot by Richard Kern, the legendary downtown New York photographer known for his transgressive portraits of unvarnished female sexuality and an early collaborator of Grey’s.

Sasha Grey and Isabella Lovestory join Document Journal to discuss making music, the OnlyFans economy, and the future of post-digital desire.

Biz Sherbert: Something you two have in common is that you’re not afraid to work in extremes or beyond norms, particularly when it comes to expressions of desire. How do you see the role of sexuality in your work?

Isabella Lovestory: Sex is everywhere, and to say otherwise is just maintaining shame about it. Aesthetically, I love eroticism and the darkness [of sexuality].

Sasha Grey: We are all sexual beings. Sex is just as an important part of our lives as the need to eat, breathe, drink water, and socialize. There will always be a group of people who are asexual and people who don’t relate to it, but as a whole, it is vital to our survival.

Shame and the taboo around sex actually contribute negatively to [the problem of] sexual harassment, [which] we’re now putting to the forefront with the #MeToo movement. If we’re not able to talk about sex in a positive way, how are we supposed to talk about the bad side that comes along with it?

We’re regressing in a way. I think the mainstream media has a lot to do with that—they don’t focus on positive stories. When they decide to focus on [sex], it’s either done in the same way that it’s always been done, in a negative light, or it’s done as a marketing tool to say, ‘Yeah, we support queer people.’

Isabella: It’s such propaganda. There are so many more ways to make a change in real life with these issues and to actually heal people. It’s so performative to always be talking about all these issues [only] online.

“I’m trying to be the star I was envisioning, or the girl I needed, when I was young.”—Isabella Lovestory

Sasha: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people be very outspoken [about social issues] online and then I’ve met them in real life and they’ve tried to push me down and disclude me. I’ve also seen it happen to a lot of friends and people I’ve worked with. People are like, ‘I cannot allow this person [in] because I would have to either take a backseat or, simply by being related to them, I am potentially hurting my public persona.’

Biz: Moving back to the physical realm, you’ve both worked in traditionally male-dominated fields. What challenges have you faced?

Sasha: [Laughs] You don’t wanna know.

Isabella: There aren’t a lot of women in reggaeton. Especially in Honduras, the only recognized reggaeton artist is one guy. There are amazing woman producers, but they’re hard to find, especially Latina producers. But it’s growing, and it’s inspiring to see [that growth] and to infiltrate this man’s world.

Reggaeton is sexual dancing music; it’s all about liberating yourself and moving your body. By discovering my sexuality [through music], I’m doing my past self a favor. I’m trying to be the star I was envisioning, or the girl I needed, when I was young.

Biz: Have you gotten feedback from people in Honduras?

Isabella: Oh my God, yes. I have ads on Facebook, and since Facebook is mainly used by older Latino people in smaller towns, all my comments are like, ‘Ew, gross. Poor thing, she’s going to hell.’ Or like, ‘Another reggaeton artist, just what we needed.’ They just crack me up.

Biz: Sasha, you were raised Catholic, and Isabella, you’re from Honduras, where there’s a strong Catholic influence. You also incorporate Christian iconography into some of your imagery. Did these early influences shape you? Were they a point of rebellion?

Isabella: Rebellion was always inside of me. I was a troubled child, and I had a problem with authority in school. I wanted to do it my way. That’s always been part of my philosophy and personality, being rebellious at heart. Playing with the cross and [Christian] iconography, it’s fun to have humor with those stereotypes.

Sasha: I remember being in church and I hadn’t had my [first] communion yet. [My sister] would come back from getting her communion and I would say, ‘Haha, you just ate God’s dick!’

There are key moments from my childhood that imprinted so much shame onto my life. My mom would not even let us use the word vagina, like the scientific word. I used to go outside without a shirt and then one day my mom was like, ‘You have to put a shirt on.’ And I was like, ‘What? I don’t understand.’ I had to have been only four years old. She told me that at a certain age girls need to wear shirts, that [we’re] different than boys. On the other hand, my dad sort of treated me like a boy. He told me the truth and told me how men thought. I [was] confronted with this real world of, ‘Men want to fuck, be careful.’ But my mom was like, ‘We’re not allowed to have these conversations—they’re for man and wife.’ It was a real juxtaposition between the two ways of thinking that made it difficult for me to find myself.

By the time I found [my] strength, using my sexuality to be empowered became a very important tool to me, and I decided to make it part of my life’s mission. I don’t think that work is done. It’s just finding different ways to adapt it. How do I continue to communicate that to my audience and to new people in different ways than I have in the past? The end goal is [always] to inspire people to come together and be accepting.

Biz: That’s something that’s entering the Gen Z collective mind—this reexamining of traditional values.

Sasha: It’s also showing the hypocrisy that lies within institutionalized religion: you claim to care about humanity, yet when somebody is different than you, you ostracize them. Going back to these online communities, even when people are sincere about their approach, the hardest struggle is finding that in real-life community. It’s important to remember that you can’t change everybody’s mind overnight. It’s going to take baby steps, but I think [the first step is] focusing on your immediate community, if you have one, to try and create change there first and then on a broader scale, create longer-lasting, impactful change around the world.

Biz: I think focusing on that opposes the atomization and alienation that social media does to us all.

Isabella: People don’t know how to really be personable or social anymore. Social media can be so fake. First of all, [people] believe everything they read, then they cancel people. It’s like they get this fake rulebook of who’s a good person and who’s a bad person. That’s [what I like about] music. It’s so accessible—everybody can heal through it and everybody can connect through it. It’s not elitist. Coming from Honduras, I feel like music is the most healing thing for communities and for people to connect to each other.

Sasha: It’s anecdotal, but I have friends who are queer that have had to leave their countries because they don’t feel that they can even progress in their careers.

Isabella: That’s a big problem in Honduras. It’s like you either die or you kill yourself if you’re queer.

Biz: You have both been photographed by Richard Kern, who’s well known for his explorations of female eroticism. This conversation is happening at an interesting time, especially in relation to his work, because we’re living in an unprecedented era in terms of image-making, the female erotic, and ownership of those images. A great example of this is the massive success and impact of OnlyFans, which speaks to a shift in who owns the means of production and distribution for images that activate desire. What does desire look like in this accelerated hyper-digital world?

Sasha: I think it’s great. It’s powerful because it gives the creator agency, but OnlyFans takes 20 percent of [creators’] earnings. Twenty percent is [more than what most] agents take. Is it right that they’re taking 20 percent when they’re only providing a service? You have to think about all of these other platforms that are providing a service to individuals to make money. What does Airbnb take? What does eBay take? From a monetary perspective, 20 percent is still too high for what they’re providing.
What’s also happening often is that users are taking the [content] that they pay maybe $10 a month for and then they’re sending it to people. They’re exploiting that creator once again by not allowing them to retain the ownership of those images.

Isabella: Taking someone’s image, copying someone, or selling their images, is inescapable in this culture. There are [right] ways to do it and there are immoral ways to do it. Even right now, there are big celebrities going on OnlyFans…

Biz: Bella Thorne did that.

Sasha: I don’t know the whole story behind that. But from what I’ve read, she went on there saying she was going to get naked and didn’t get naked.

Isabella: She just posted an underwear pic or something.

Sasha: As a result, so many millions of people that expected to get that content [asked] OnlyFans for their money back. Because they lost so much money, OnlyFans then had to implement a 30-day payout [for creators]. I don’t know her work, but on the surface, I appreciate what she’s trying to claim and her [expression of] sexuality and not conforming to a mold.

But when that happened, it [was] just so disappointing because it’s like, you don’t even need that. You’re an ex Disney star. You can [just] talk about sex and people are going to pay attention. I would love to speak to her. I don’t want to be like, ‘We demand an apology,’ but like, ‘Hey, let’s have a conversation about this.’

Isabella: With the internet, it’s so hard to own everything you put out. You’re always going to get misinterpreted and misused.

Sasha: Talking about Richard Kern and desire, one of the reasons that I have such a high level of respect for him is his background. He is punk rock. Talk about a culture that empowered itself in the face of adversity during a really turbulent period. Working with him throughout the years, the way he approaches women on set is always super respectful. But also, I love to see the kink in his eyes. I love to see the perversion, but also knowing I felt safe. I knew he wasn’t there to take advantage of me. He was always communicative in the right ways that allowed him to pull something out of his subject. I love the way he deals with desire and how some of what he does is humorous.

As an individual, I’ve also tried to find ways to reconnect and communicate desire and empowerment in new ways outside of social media, where the goal is to get you to stay embedded in these platforms. I’ve been thinking of ways to create a more tactile object. How do you give something tangible to people that will give them a lasting impression that isn’t just a photo they like and scroll on from?

Isabella: It’s [all] so destroyed by the algorithm and censorship. What is the ultimate social media? Where is it going? I think it’s all about [finding] ways of making things tangible and easier to absorb because now everything’s so fast. You can’t fully grasp art in the way that it should be.

Biz: You make music that’s meant to be danced to. I feel like that urge is like an innate tactility. Anything that compels you to move is a rare and special thing now.

Isabella: That’s what I love about music. I love your music, Sasha.

“I think the powerful thing about porn is that it is the one industry where women as performers are the dominant figures. But then at the end of the day, who owns those companies? Men.”–Sasha Grey

Sasha: Thank you. You were asking earlier about being in male-dominated industries and this is something that goes through my mind on a weekly basis, just like, fuck, all women deal with this. I think the powerful thing about porn is that it is the one industry where women as performers are the dominant figures. But then at the end of the day, who owns those companies? Men.

I did this album with Death in Vegas, and I wrote the lyrics for the songs that I did vocals on. A journalist, and it was a fucking woman, wrote, ‘The album is too misogynistic for me, and I’m not really interested in covering material like this.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck? I wrote this.’

I want to be able to talk about these things as a woman. Why do they only belong to men?

Biz: You’ve both been confronted with people being rude about the fact that you’re making music about things they don’t think a woman should make music about.

Isabella: It makes me comment on the projections [people make]. I make fun of it [in my music]. People are like, ‘Wait, wait, wait, are you making fun of me? Are you agreeing with me?’

Sasha: I think, culturally, we’re living in a moment I’ve dubbed stripper chic. It’s taking over everything. It’s even taken over the fashion industry; it’s taken over every aesthetic aspect of how people are presenting themselves. My worry is that people are depicting themselves in a certain way, but they’re not really understanding of their own sexuality or of other people’s. So it just [becomes] an image, and by not having these conversations about sex, [we’re] just perpetuating an aesthetic.

Isabella: It’s trendy.

Sasha: I’ve found myself in situations where somebody was aesthetically presenting themselves as potentially submissive, and I went up to them, politely, and asked something sexual and they scoffed at me. This is the danger of presenting this aesthetic but being unable to just turn it down. If you don’t like it, if you’re not into me and you’re not vibing, turn it down. It’s like we don’t have the experience to say no, or, ‘I’m not comfortable with that.’ But why then why are you representing an aesthetic?

Isabella: People don’t understand the absurdity of it—they just see all these images of overly sexualized aesthetics that are popular right now. They reproduce it without understanding what it really means. I think you have to have experience to know how to portray what you mean.

Biz: You’re saying you need that perspective to be able to be like, ‘Oh, I’m wearing this BDSM choker and I’m not into BDSM, but I’m not going to get fucked up if someone asks me about BDSM.’

Sasha: Exactly. That’s why these conversations about sex are so important and [why we should] have them with people from a young age. Even if you don’t know what you’re wearing and you just like it and somebody does come up to you and talks to you about BDSM, you now have the strength to just say, ‘No, I’m not into that.’