The Rumpus Interview with Madison Young


Bondage star and filmmaker Madison Young had the best job title in the world: “sexual revolutionary.” She earns it as a director, porn star, artist, sex educator, and all-around fierce lady whose life work happens to center on being tied up and dominated, usually on camera.

We’re not talking light bondage here—the intensity of Madison’s BDSM scenes breaks out of the “porn” genre and into the realm of performance art.

Madison’s work is all herself: kinky and intellectual, feminist and submissive, primal and ethereal and just really fucking real. Like any good revolutionary, her life is a bundle of seemingly contradictory identities: She’s a Midwestern girl from a town called Loveland who found a home in the kink scene in San Francisco. She runs several businesses, including pay-to-play porn websites (the very NSFW and Feminist Porn Network) and the nonprofit arts organization Femina Potens, which she founded in 2001 to promote the work of women and transgendered artists. She’s a queer woman in a dom/sub relationship with a biological man. Oh, and she just had a baby. Is Katie Roiphe’s head exploding yet?

Madison and her partner, photographer and shibari/rope bondage artist James Mogul, recently relocated to Southern California from San Francisco, where Madison is launching Femina Potens’ LA programming and saving on the cost of living with a one-year-old baby. We talked over email about her current projects, Fifty Shades of Grey mania, and how to survive San Francisco’s gnarly rental market as an artist.


The Rumpus: So, you have like 20 jobs at any given time. Can you bring us up to speed on some of your projects?

Madison Young: I just returned to California from a whirlwind tour of the Midwest presenting workshops on sexuality, feminism, and pornography at independent sex shops. In my teaching, I focus on how to have mind-blowing sex and then document those pleasurable moments on film. I’ve been really drawn to creating more documentary style pornography in the last couple of years. I have two films I’m releasing in the next month: Women Reclaiming Sex on Film is a documentary/porn. We listen as women unveil their fantasies, we listen to their sexual negotiations, and then we witness some incredibly hot and intimate sexual moments that these women are courageous enough to share with the camera. To Sir with Love is also a documentary porn that captures a snapshot of my life and relationship with my real-life dominant and partner, James Mogul. The film looks at submission through in-depth interviews and then follows me on the road, into the dungeon, into the bedroom and the physical practice of BDSM within a long-term relationship.

I’m working with some mainstream film production companies on concepts for television and film projects but nothing that I can really talk about yet. But I’m really excited about where those conversations are going. I’m also very excited about beginning to direct for Girlfriends Films, and we’re in conversation about an educational line [of videos].

Rumpus: What are some of the main differences between being behind and in front of the camera in porn?

Young: It’s two completely different jobs and skill sets. Directing is cerebral and visionary; performing is much more visceral and primal, like the creation of dance, theater, or art. As a director, my key responsibility is to truly listen to my performers. As a performer, my main goals are authenticity, pleasure, connection, and communication. I love them both, although sometimes when I’m performing in my own productions it can be challenging. Have you ever tried to direct a film while hanging suspended upside down with a ball gag in your mouth?

Rumpus: No, no I have not.

Young: It has its challenging moments. When I’m performing and directing I just try to do as much pre-production work as possible and have very detailed conversations with my videographers regarding the shots I’m looking for and the vision of my film.

Rumpus: And what about the differences between working in mainstream and independent, queer porn?

Young: I’ve worked a good deal in mainstream porn but I only perform for my own company now. All of the queer pornographers that I know also identify as sex-positive and would call their films and productions sex-positive. Mainstream porn is produced purely to generate income. This doesn’t mean that independent pornographers don’t want our films to generate income, but it’s not the bottom line or the sole motivator for the production of films. The mainstream porn industry has found the fastest way to produce the most content for the largest profit. It’s the difference between eating at McDonalds or at a local restaurant that makes everything from scratch with local produce. That said, the mainstream adult industry is going through a lot of shifts and changes right now and I believe those shifts could leave space to be filled with sex-positive pornography and a more positive outlook on sexuality.

Rumpus: What about the outlook of these broader TV and film projects you can’t talk about yet? The mainstream entertainment industry seems to me like it gets off on subcultures while at the same time diluting or misunderstanding them—particularly when it comes to women and our bodies. Is that something you’ve encountered in developing projects with bigger media outlets or giving interviews?

Young: I have no interest in appearing in mainstream media if it means conforming to a dumbed-down stereotype or caricature of my identity or the communities I’m a part of. My interest lies in expanding the conversation about the complex identities of people in LGBTQ, kink, sex worker, and sex-positive communities. These are all sub-sects of our culture that are often targeted in hate crimes, rape, and abuse—as well as depression and suicide—simply for being who we are. The work I do is about creating space for people to feel confident and safe in exploring their full and complete identity without judgment. If we are able to expand this to a mainstream level, it breaks a wall of isolation that individuals might feel when they are discovering parts of their identity that might set them apart from the people they see around them.

I remember the first time I visited San Francisco’s Castro District at age 17, in 1997, and just sat at Orphan Andy’s diner people-watching. It was the first time that I had really seen other queers who had partners. I had two friends that identified as gay but none of us had ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend. We were alone in our gaydom. [Laughs] But that moment of watching dykes and queers sitting down, eating dinner, staring into their lovers’ eyes in love or lust, it was magical. It gave me hope. It made me realize that I wouldn’t always be alone. I think that was a key moment of empowerment for me.

I’ve experienced my life and actions being taken out of context and used purely for sensationalist journalism before and it’s very painful and challenging. I understand that as someone in the media I’m putting myself out there, and that not everyone is always going to agree with me. If they did, it would be a pretty boring world. But there is a difference between ignorance and hate, and intelligent discourse on controversial subject matters.

Rumpus: Speaking of controversial mainstream discourse… Fifty Shades of Grey. New York Times bestseller. Dom/sub erotica. Media hype. Either fun sexy smut, or abusive anti-feminist crap, depending on which critic you ask. Have you read it?

Young: I’ve read the first couple of chapters so far. The dom in the relationship isn’t actually that much older than the college student, which makes me feel like it’s less realistic. Of course there are younger dominants, but it’s not like you just pick up a whip and you’re instantly a dominant. Dominants have to find their own path and take their own journey into discovering who they are, just as submissives do. I think that was one of the fascinating elements of the movie Secretary. It wasn’t just about the submissive woman discovering herself but about the dominant discovering his own path as well.

Thus far in Shades, the main character who is the submissive woman is kind of young and annoying and is crushing like a schoolgirl over Mr. Grey. I haven’t gotten to the BDSM elements of the book thus far so I can’t comment on whether or not their interaction comes across as abusive. But thus far I’m not finding the characters terribly relatable.

Abuse is a word that is much too commonly paired with BDSM, which is unfortunate. BDSM is a form of energy exchange similar to massage, meditation, or sex. The practice of BDSM relies on communication and consent to create boundaries and structure for the safety and pleasure of both dominant and submissive (or “sadist and masochist”). Abuse involves physically or psychologically harming another person. For example, there is a huge difference between receiving a spanking that you are consenting to while having sex with your partner versus your boss spanking your butt as you are leaving the board room after a meeting. One is an exchange of pre-negotiated physical intimacy and energy. The other is a non-consensual physical invasion and abuse of power.

I’m anxious to read the rest of Fifty Shades and to see how it is interpreted to film. I do think that the book has opened both the mainstream media and “middle America” to conversation about BDSM and will be a catalyst and opportunity for more projects (whether documentary, narrative film, and literature) that explore the intricacies of alternative sexual cultures, including BDSM.

Rumpus: What erotica would you recommend to readers turned on by Fifty Shades of Grey?

Young: Personally I find The Market Place series, by Laura Antoniou, and Carrie’s Story, by Molly Weatherfield, much more engaging and erotically stimulating, although I can see how both of those examples might be too much for someone outside of the BDSM community.

Rumpus: You recently had a baby, Emma, who’s a year old now, and you worked throughout your pregnancy. Was it difficult to place that much physical stress and focus on your body while pregnant?

Young: Working while I was pregnant was cake. I love my work. I love what I do. I think keeping active and working during my pregnancy helped to keep me sane and healthy. I could never imagine just sitting at home waiting to have a baby.

I was very clear and communicative with my obstetrician regarding my work both in adult performance and my bondage performances during my pregnancy. I think its key to have doctors that you trust and who aren’t judgmental. I was able to continue doing rope suspension performance until my second trimester and continued to do bondage modeling up until I was nine months pregnant, with the approval of my doctor and being very conscious of my changing body and circulation.

My first shoot was a self-portrait shoot about four weeks after Emma’s birth. I had gained about 60 pounds during the pregnancy. It was challenging stepping in front of the camera for the first time after having my daughter. It took a lot of self-love and acceptance. But I’ve always felt drawn to documenting my life as a sexual being and I don’t think that our sexual desire stops because we are pregnant or post-partum.

Rumpus: How has your work itself changed, or not changed, since you had a baby?

Young: My life feels much more balanced than it did pre-mommyhood. I’m very selective about where I expend my energy and what the benefit is to me, my family, and my community. I create work around my life so a lot of the art that I’m producing right now is reflecting on my experiences of motherhood, balancing work in the sex industry and motherhood, and the concepts of family, home, and alternative parenting. My life used to be completely consumed by work. I now have an intimate personal life with my family that is supported by the powerful work that I do in the community. I didn’t have that before. My work was my baby.

Rumpus: How do you anticipate negotiating your public/private persona as you go forward raising your child and making films that feature your real-life partner?

Young: It’s something that is always changing and is multi-dimensional. My identity as a public persona versus private lover or mom are not very different. The only thing that varies is subject matter. Whether there is a camera there or not, I’m going to be honest and speak from the heart. Regarding the media and my family, I try to only post things on my personal blogs and social media outlets that relate to my experiences, rather than divulging anything too private about my partner or our daughter. It’s something we’ll have to continue to negotiate on a case-by-case basis and as Emma gets older.

James and I do have a kinky relationship that often involves a DS [dominant/submissive] dynamic. With having a kid, I’ve found that the key is really keeping intimacy and connection between James and I, whether it’s kinky or not. That might involve giving each other a massage or it might involve running off to get tied up in an orchard while we have a babysitter. We love each other and we express that love in a lot of different ways. Sometimes that involves kink and sometimes it doesn’t.

Rumpus: Do people have trouble reconciling Madison Young the feminist with Madison Young the ‘submissive,’ or misunderstand your being a queer woman in a relationship with a man?

Young: At this point in my life I realize that people are going to judge and make assumptions and there isn’t much I can do about that. I don’t need to fight to defend my identity or my sexual choices. It’s simply a part of who I am and how I like to fuck and the community I belong to. I fell in love with James as a person, not a gender. My decision to have a child was one that I made as an individual. Whether or not James was present, I would still be a queer parent. I don’t lose my individual identity simply because I’m in a relationship with someone else. I respect James as an individual and he respects me as an individual as well. We work together as an alternative family to raise our daughter and love one another.

Rumpus: How’s your other baby, the nonprofit arts organization?

Young: We’re expanding! Femina Potens continues to have programming in San Francisco and we’re expanding to Los Angeles and New York City. We did a sold-out SXSW program this year, Intersections of Erotic Performance Art & Pornography. It was an amazing panel discussion, film screening, and performance art event. We’re doing the event again in Brooklyn on May 4, with all new performers. The organization has also secured a board of directors, which includes Margaret Cho and Violet Blue. We’re partnering with the Yerba Buena Arts Center for our fall film programming in San Francisco and have multiple performances lined up for the National Queer Arts Festival. On the horizon are online projects, like a digital feminist art magazine and, which will look behind the scenes of Femina Potens events and programs, and hopefully expand to a global audience.

Rumpus: How have you seen the feminist art scene grow in the eleven years you’ve been programming for Femina Potens?

Young: There has definitely been movement and change but there’s still a long way to go. It’s challenging because many of the organizations that are doing amazing work are volunteer-run and we have a lot of turnover. This turnover creates a sense of impermanence and an inability to gain the strides that I wish we could be making.

What I’d really like to see next for the feminist art movement is a greater sense of organization. I think its time that we own the land, we own the space, the building in which to archive our culture, in which to create. I’ve seen major funding cuts in the past couple of years, which has also created great challenges for many non-profit organizations.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about money…

Young: The economy totally sucks right now. It’s not really great for anyone, at least most of the anyones that I know.

I really have to hustle and have several income streams coming in order to make ends meet. I tour and travel a good deal in order to make a living. It’s challenging. You just really have to believe in the work that you are doing and then others will too.

Rumpus: What practical advice would you give an emerging artist who’s starting out here?

Young: I really felt like surviving financial hardship when I moved to SF in 2001 during the first dot com boom/crash was like a rite of passage for me as a young artist. I was 20. I remember living on couches and impossible rents—folks were renting out walk-in closets. I think when you move to a place like San Francisco or New York as a young artist you have to realize that unless you are independently wealthy, you are going to be living with multiple roommates, in a small apartment, and living on potatoes, ramen, and Mission burritos. You make friends quickly and hope that you have a couch to crash on when times get tough. Solidify your goals. Write them out. Find a mentor or an internship, even if it is unpaid. (On a side note, I’m always taking applications for interns both for Feminist Porn Network and for Femina Potens Art Gallery.) If you are interning 10-15 hours a week, most likely you’ll need to find paying gigs the other 20-30 hours a week. Sometimes those hours are spent tending bar or waiting tables, or if you’re an exhibitionist with a love for sex you might decide to try sex work: cam modeling, pornography, working at a women-owned peep show like Lusty Lady, or professional dom or sub work. If you decide on this route, always get references and talk to friends in the industry first.

Freelance work is your friend as an artist and finding those steady clients whether you are a graphic designer or sex worker is really important when paying rent comes around. Having control over your schedule helps an artist nourish yourself even in small ways, like a walk through the park at lunch with your dog. I think that nourishment allows us to continue to develop art that we love and that we believe in.

Being an artist isn’t an occupation for the weak. You have to be determined, goal oriented, and aggressive at times. You also need to be open, listening, and receptive to what is going on around you… and still pay your rent. Even at the level of work that I do, I don’t expect all of my income to come from one source. I’ve become really good at time management and assessment of how much energy I’m giving to any one part of my life or career and the return – whether that is nourishment of my self creatively, or financially providing for my family.

Manjula Martin lives in San Francisco, where she makes fiction, criticism, and poetry for journals like Post Road, Deep Oakland, and Fugue and works as a nonprofit communications type. She writes about music at The Record Daily. More from this author →