The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Madison Young

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The first time I saw Madison Young, it was in an episode of The Training of O, a series of erotic videos by the porn empire Kink.com. As far as I can tell, The Training of O is unlike any other porn offering in the world. It was conceived and developed by James Mogul, who, in his role as The Trainer, oversees the “journey” of a succession of submissive women during the five days and nights most of them spend within the San Francisco Armory (Kink.com headquarters and the site of all the shoots). What set Young apart from the many other women in The Training of O is that she was (and is) Mogul’s real-life partner. I have been astonished by the creativity, authenticity, vulnerability, and humanity of this series, and never more so than in Young’s episodes. I bought her recent memoir Daddy so that I could read her account of this interlude, but I was riveted by the rest of the book as well.

Madison Young is as hardcore a submissive as I’ve ever seen, and she brings this sensibility to her erotic performances in a stunning variety of ways. She is also a passionate feminist, devoted mother, award-winning director, curator of a San Francisco art gallery, international sex educator, and a frequent leader of erotic workshops. Here I talk with her about—among other topics—the potential tension of embodying all these roles, the intersection of feminism and pornography, the joy of rough sex and her love of the word “slut.”

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The Rumpus: How amusing is it that your signature scent is vanilla?

Madison Young: Haha! I guess it is kind of funny that the queen of kink loves vanilla. But vanilla is great. It’s warm and delicious and inviting, very earthy and sweet. The perfume I use is La Vanilla with hints of grapefruit and it’s all natural.  I’m a sweet, all-natural kinda gal. And vanilla sex can be nice sometimes, but it’s only one of many flavors that I enjoy.

Rumpus: “Sluts deserved to be worshipped and adored, and at the same time to give themselves to others. Sluts filled chalices with their come, sweat and blood; sluts blessed the town.” Talk to me about your relationship with the word “slut”—how did it come to mean something positive and beautiful to you?

Young: I believe that I started to reclaim the word “slut” while working at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. This could be an entire book in itself.  I was just starting to really dive into the sex-positive feminist writings of Carol Queen, Annie Sprinkle, Patrick Califia, and Susie Bright. The Lusty Lady was a wonderful, safe incubator for the development of my theories around sexuality and sexual desire and identity, as well as a laboratory in which to test out those theories and desires. It was a rich learning ground for sex-positive feminism, with brilliant feminists and queer women who were redefining sex work and sexual desire on their own terms. I remember reading a book around that time about the Sacred Prostitute. A goddess. A slut. That word just really resonated with me. I liked the way it sexily whispered its way out between my lips. The sacred slut.

Rumpus: Here at The Rumpus, there was a fascinating conversation between Antonia Crane and Cheryl Strayed about feminism and sex work. Both women are passionate feminists. They disagree about sex work. At the outset of their conversation, Antonia took issue with Cheryl’s statement that “Sex work is bad for women and soul-sucking for us all.” Antonia said: “I am a feminist. I am also an OUT, proud sex worker. I also know for a fact that sex work can benefit women personally, politically and economically because it has for me.” They’re both so smart and compelling. I’ve read this conversation many times and I still don’t have any real conviction about where I’d position myself on that continuum. Meanwhile, you’re a feminist and your memoir is about your work as an adult performer, among other things. You describe experiences in porn—like your Training of O shoot with your partner James Mogul—that were authentic, empowering, and beautiful, and you also describe experiences like a frightening internal injury incurred during a shoot for Speigler and his total lack of concern for your well-being. So even within the course of your book, I swung back and forth between feeling that sex work could be genuinely empowering and feeling that, at the end of the day, it’s a harrowing proposition for women.

I’d love to hear your specific perspective on the intersection of feminism and pornography. Are you ever ambivalent about it? Do you grapple with these questions yourself? Have your feelings about it changed over the course of your career?

Young: You know, things that are scary and things that are beautiful happen in life whether there is a camera there or not. I was no less a feminist or empowered when I was injured on set than when performing with my partner. And the emotional challenges of performing with my Daddy for Training of O were probably even more frightening than my anal tear.

Madison YoungThere are most certainly problems within the mainstream porn industry in regard to labor conditions, health care, misogyny, etc., but those are labor conditions that we must work to change, not ignore due to the societal fear and shame around sex/sexuality. It is not necessarily sex work that is itself empowering, but the individuals that have the self-awareness, courage, self-love, bravery, and ability to communicate and negotiate their desires and facilitate space for the expression of others’ desires.  It is the individuals with this specific honed-in skill set who experience an empowered sensation in their being, as they are taking control, being assertive in a taboo field of sexuality—an area of our lives in which much of society remains passive, non-communicative, and riddled in shame. That puts sex workers in a position of transgressive activism by the very nature of their existence.

Porn offers a powerful medium in which to document our sexual culture. We document every other aspect of our lives—in film, photography, art—yet when we address and delve into the innermost workings of raw human connection and desire, we hit a raw nerve: sensitive from decades of sexual and body shame that we are attempting to unravel. I’ve chosen to live my life without shame, and on film my sexual explorations and stumbling blocks are out there: the brilliant moments of connection, the moments of injury, the challenging emotional moments, moments in which I discovered my limits (physical and psychological), moments in which I was immersed in utter bliss, in complete ecstasy, in which I felt invincible, and powerful and whole in my body, present in the moment. I would not change a thing. My most human moments, my most vulnerable moments, the moments in which I have fallen, only give space and opportunity for me to fly, for me to move forward. Do I think that sex work is always an empowering experience for every individual who enters into pornography? No. But there are many strong, empowered feminist women and persons of all gender identities creating forward movement in the way we view sex and sexuality through their work within pornography and on the topic of pornography.

Rumpus: Something I admire and appreciate about you—and something I believe is still ground-breaking—is how visibly you are both an adult performer/erotic artist/sexual being and a mother. You touch on this in Daddy, when you take stock of your heroes and realize they’re all childless. You say: “Is it possible to be immersed in sexual culture…and also be a mother? I drew a blank.” As someone with a lifelong preoccupation with dominance and submission, I can’t help but notice that—generally speaking—the most vocal and visible members of the BDSM community, at least the ones of my acquaintance, are also childless. What has it been like for you to fully embody both roles? Is there ever any tension for you between those roles? Has being a mother changed your relationship to sex work in any way?

Young: Since becoming a parent I have met many influential and brilliant leaders within the BDSM, queer, and sex worker community who are parents. Some of them became parents just shortly after I became a parent. Developing relationships with other feminist, queer, sex worker, and kink-aware parents has been extremely helpful in the transition into parenthood. The first year of motherhood was incredibly difficult for many reasons, many of which I write about in my memoir. My Daddy and I were forming a new relationship with each other and with our child, and I was forming a new relationship with my changed and transformed postpartum body.

Now that my child is three, I feel that I’ve developed a stride, a comfort within my own new parent identity and a solid sense of where my career is headed, as well as a stronger-than-ever relationship with my Daddy. Daddy and I are a team; we are partners in every way. He is the love of my life and my role as his submissive is natural and instinctual and that dynamic of our relationship finds room to live and breathe and thrive and grow.

Being a parent to Em is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon me. There are moments of intense toddler tantrums and high emotions in which I wish there was something as simple as a safe word, but largely we find a lot of creative outlets for energy through art, dance, music…and we talk a lot about emotions, identifying emotions, navigating our way through conflicts, stating needs, wants, boundaries, giving language to Em to talk about consent, and empowering Em with agency of their own body. Mothering Em is the greatest experience and the most wonderful learning experience of my life.

Being a mother has changed my relationship to sex work in some respects but not in the ways in which one might expect. I haven’t gone and developed a sense of new conservatism now that I’m a mom. I’m more inspired than ever to pursue social justice through the creation of transgressive art, film, media, and education. But I tour a lot less. I want to spend as much time with my child as possible. I see my work evolving and changing. I’m working on a second book and writing a screenplay for a feminist indie film that I plan to direct next year. I’m still speaking at colleges, exhibiting at galleries, creating performance art works, teaching sexuality classes, and directing feminist pornography, but my production output is one-third of what it was pre-motherhood and I’m perfectly okay with that. In fact, that feels really healthy.

Rumpus: I have this dream that one day a pornographic, full-length feature film will be recognized as high art. Since sex is at the heart of what it means to be human, and very explicit sexuality has been depicted in serious literature and fine photography and many other art forms, why do you think it hasn’t found its way onto film? When I think of you and Stoya and James Deen and several others—sexual artists, sexual athletes—I can’t help thinking a movie like that is possible and I’d love to watch it.

Young: It depends on how you define high art, but art, film, and pornography have been intersecting culturally for decades. I was just in New York and speaking and performing at Grace Exhibition Space on the topic of Intersections of Queer Performance Art and Feminist Pornography, in which I was showing clips from my film Art House Sluts side-by-side with performance art documentation and discussing the intersections and cultural significance of feminist porn as an artistic medium. Films like Too Much Pussy by Emilie Jouvet illustrate this intersection, as she documents queer performance artists performing in theaters and galleries and then engaging in riveting sex scenes. There is also a growing visibility of sexually explicit video art works in galleries and erotic film festivals that bring explicit sex in film into a larger conversation that examines the cultural significance of documenting our sexual culture, bodies, etc. There is also a growing appreciation of the significance of pornography within academia. Early this month, I spoke on a panel with academic Sarah Stevens and performer Dylan Ryan on the academic and cultural significance of the erotic film 50 Shades of Dylan Ryan, which I directed as a critique of the book [Fifty Shades of Grey]. The talk took place at the University of Toronto during the Feminist Porn Conference, organized by the brilliant Tristan Taormino. There are also universities that are developing feminist porn studies programs and porn archives.

It’s definitely still highly stigmatized. Body shame, sexual shame, pleasure shame are all deeply rooted in our societal and cultural upbringings, in our media, our advertising, our film, our television, our schools, the way we communicate—and porn (a.k.a. the documentation of our sexual culture, of a body being sexual, or the documentation of pleasure) directly challenges that shame.  There is a lot of unpacking of our emotions and our relationships with our own bodies and the way we relate to other bodies that needs to happen before that societal shame is largely obliterated. That is why the feminist porn movement is so critical.  It’s not just about changing the way in which porn is made but also advocating for love of our own bodies, advocating for love of our own desires, and our partners’ desires.

Rumpus: Something that amazes me when I look at Kink.com is the staggering number of beautiful young women who have learned how to endure an astonishing amount of physical pain: electric shocks, caning, very intense rope bondage, being whipped on the genitals, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the list. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in another context, this kind of activity would be considered torture. I have no moral issue with it at all, since obviously it’s chosen and consensual, but I do find it fascinating. In a BDSM relationship, immense trust is often built over time, and a scene will start light and build slowly, and there’s a lot of genuine arousal to generate endorphins, etc. But in a setting without those mitigating elements, can you talk a little bit about this seeming trend: how are so many young women able to endure this kind of activity and what does it mean that so many are choosing to do it in this context? Do you have any thoughts about that?

Young: I find some of the language in the question problematic, or at least it’s language that doesn’t relate to my experience of sensation and sexual connection, shared affection.  I’d like to examine and unpack some of that language as I attempt to answer what I perceive to be the intended question.

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I can’t speak for other individuals (regardless of gender), but I can speak for myself. What I’m engaging in, in any particular scene (either on-camera or off), is not “endurance of physical pain” but the processing of and receipt of energy, sensation and pleasure. Every individual processes touch and sensation in a different way. Above you listed different ways that you have seen energy exchange occurring through video and photo documentation on one particular site. You state that “in another context, this kind of activity would be considered torture” yet context is everything. In another context, many of the things you mentioned would be considered performance art or part of spiritual or cultural ritual.  Did you know the violet wand is used by aestheticians during facials and a tens unit can be purchased from Walgreens to actually relieve chronic muscular pain?  I mention these two implements as they are implements used to facilitate sensation via “electric shock” that you mention above. So again, it is all about context. Even the most vanilla “normal” hetero sex can be abusive, coercive, or “torture.” An example being non-consenting power dynamics being abused, like in an employee and employer relationship. Abuse and torture are real things. They are non-consenting and abusive emotionally and physically, and have nothing more to do with a cane than a hand or a cock or a mouth.

As a child I always preferred “bear hugs,” tight squeezes, fitting myself into small spots that contorted my body, carrying in more firewood than anyone thought a small child could carry. I liked to push my body. As I approached puberty, I discovered that I found pleasure in things like spilling hot wax onto my hands or arms, that other friends would flinch, and my body would melt, I felt a warmth that was comforting. I found pleasure in even my own teeth sinking into my flesh as I was orgasming. I gravitated naturally to fisting, rough sex, spanking, slapping. Even when engaging in physical but non-sexual practices such as massage, I find/found a deeper, more intense touch to be more pleasing. A light touch, which some may describe as “sensual,” feels noncommittal, passive, lacking in connection, often disconnected. This is not to say that someone can’t exchange a large degree of energy through breath, intention and minimal touch, but my experience is that this is rare and still I enjoy a great deal of energy exchange even if physical touch is minimal (i.e., orgasmic breathing).

When you refer to a BDSM relationship as being one that develops over time, a key relationship that I think is being left out of that inquiry is that we don’t only develop a BDSM relationship or identity in relation to any other person. My submission, my relationship to BDSM, my queerness, my feminism are a part of my identity and my relationship with myself. If another person isn’t pouring hot wax on me or binding me with rope, then I’ll be facilitating that on my own—whether the cameras are rolling or not. Also, starting out slow is all subjective and dependent on the players. The need for negotiation and the clear communication of needs, wants, expectations, safe words, etc. is consistent but not all BDSM scenes start off in a sensual manner, whether there is a camera rolling or not, and if a dominant tries running a feather or a pinwheel down my body, the real challenge is going to be not laughing. It’s not going to be a type of energy or sensation that my body responds to with a positive sexual response. For me, genuine arousal comes both simultaneously from my submission as well as masochism. I can experience orgasmic climax without ever being touched, simply from following the instructed protocol of my dominant, or I can orgasm from the sting of a cane. I don’t need penetration or clitoral stimulation in order to reach climax.

I don’t know that the number of women or men or persons of any gender who experience submissive or masochistic fantasies has increased. I think that our access to media in which we see these fantasies being acted out has increased perhaps the conversation and a larger social acceptance of the acting out of these fantasies is now occurring due to the wretched book Fifty Shades of Grey (I directed a feminist pornographic critique/carnal reimagining of the book in my film 50 Shades of Dylan Ryan). I really don’t think there is a trend of any sort. I think the Internet has made education and access to BDSM and kink communities easier. Bondage and SM porn used to be much more niche. It existed outside of the Kink.com bubble. It still does. Kink.com has just developed into such a well-known mainstream empire that more people are now aware of bondage and SM porn.

Rumpus: I watched The Training Of O sessions between you and James—the ones you describe so poignantly in Daddy—several years ago. I really appreciated all you wrote about them, and yet there seemed to me to be some places in the shoot that involved anger and tension and maybe even some sorrow, and none of that was touched upon in the book. Am I making this up or is there something to that? And if the latter, I was wondering about what influenced that decision.  

Young: Hmm, I’m wondering if you could be more specific regarding which scenes or moments you might be referring to? I mention in the preface/artist statement for the book that this is one slice of my life.  My experience around Training of O likely could have been its own novella. I featured the most emotionally key elements of the Training for me and Daddy and the inner experience of what was seen on screen. The physical space of The Armory was most definitely thick with emotion for us both, but it was a journey we were definitely on together. There was no anger. There was love and determination and strength. There were lots of achy feelings and a lot of crying due to the personal significance of the training, our negotiations of a formal DS agreement, and my collaring. But I wouldn’t say sorrow. Deep aching love and devotion, emergence from the fire, the ashes, a rebirth of our relationship. I imagine our wedding ceremony this fall will garner similar feelings.

Rumpus: In Daddy, you talk about how other Training of O models would fall in love with James. Years ago, I watched several different episodes of TTOO and even then I saw exactly what you were talking about. These shoots would take place over several days, in the most insular setting, and they involved so much psychological and sexual intensity, and trust, and intimacy, and over and over I’d see these women just hovering on the edge of tears the entire time (and not in response to physical pain, but in response to their “journey” with James). When your shoot with him was over, the two of you could go home together and process it and incorporate it into your relationship, but that wasn’t an option for the other women, and I kept wondering about the ramifications of bringing this authentic psychodrama to a commercial venture, as so many of the shoots seemed to do. Was that something that James ever struggled with from an ethical or empathetic perspective?

Young: That is a question you would need to ask Daddy. I really can’t speak for his experience. But from my perspective and from his artistic process that he shared with me, Daddy built the character of the Trainer. The Trainer is not the same person as James Mogul. Daddy held space for the emotional journey of these submissives to discover something new about themselves, to face their fears and emerge feeling empowered and discover an inner strength that they didn’t know they had. It challenged them emotionally, physically, and psychologically. It was an intimate and personal experience for many and I think that James was often the object of their gratitude and affection from sharing and facilitating that experience for them.  I think that James’s character development of The Trainer helped in his facilitating these experiences and for the most part, retaining boundaries for himself.

authorphotoAlso, I must say, as someone who has been working professionally in the art and theatre world for the past fifteen years, that the experience of real emotional psychodrama as a part of our art, activism, theater, and film is not something new. In film and theatre, we borrow from our personal experiences, personal pains, loves, losses as we intimately connect with others in a specified context. It involves tapping into our emotions and psyche and connecting with our collaborators in a defined context and then exiting that context. Some are more skilled than others at this. Also I’d say as a performer, and in my experience of engaging in intense SM scenes with other people, that it is a skill developed as a submissive to ensure your support team and assess and prepare for post-scene self care—whether that is with a friend, a partner or a another performer. Sometimes it’s simply having decompression time for meditation or a hot bath and a funny movie.

Rumpus: Earlier we touched on how seamlessly you seem to integrate motherhood with a public sexual persona and how there’s no conflict for you between pornographic work and being a mom. In contrast, toward the end of Daddy, James wakes up one morning and says he can’t continue to make porn and still be a father. Do you have any sense of why you diverge in that way—of why the two are irreconcilable for him and not for you?

Young: In the book, Daddy says that he can’t continue to work at The Armory and be a father, which was true for him at that time. It had nothing to do with pornography and everything to do with the environment in which he was working. His work environment was stressful, consuming and full of triggers that were not optimal for his wellness and recovery, which he knew was necessary in his becoming a father. Daddy took nearly two years off work to focus on his wellness, recovery, and relationship with his family (including me and Em). He now works at Kink.com and is the director of three of their websites. We have very healthy communication and delineation between our personal and professional lives, and Daddy has found a good balance in life that works for him. I’m proud of him and I love him. We support one another in whatever we do.

Regarding my own career, yes: one element of my work addresses sex and sexuality, but above all I’m a feminist artist and activist. Raising a child as a feminist, as an empowered individual, who has the ability to communicate their emotions, their limits, their needs, and practice consent and agency around sharing affection with others—well, that is radical feminism to me. Whether I’m facilitating space for my child to communicate their emotions, needs, limits, express their individualism or facilitating that space for adults, it’s working toward the same goal of empowering others to live their own truth and furthering a dialogue that will encourage individual empowerment and be a part of disassembling systematic oppression.

Rumpus: Thank you so much for providing such thoughtful, detailed, in-depth responses. I hope and believe many readers will seek out more from you in the pages of Daddy. Are there any other specific projects in the works that you’d like others to know about?

Young: Yes. I’m working on several forthcoming books including DIY Porn Handbook: Documenting Our Own Sexual Revolution, which is a guide to ethical erotic film making as a form of activism.  I have several workshop intensives coming up, including Manifesting Sexual Mastery: A Weekend of Sexual Empowerment in San Francisco and How To [email protected]#k Like a PornStar in New York City, followed by the first-ever 30 hour certification training program for erotic filmmakers  – Erotic Film School—to take place in Brooklyn the first week of October. I’ve also recently launched a hub for feminist porn viewing consisting of a curation of different feminist porn directors and studios at FeministPornNetwork.  I’m excited to continue my tour of readings and book signings for Daddy and plan on making my way to Portland, Seattle, LA, and Chicago before the end of the year. You can find the latest on my book tour dates and Daddy inspired art work at www.DaddyTheMemoir.com.


Elissa Wald is the author of "Meeting The Master: Stories of Mastery, Slavery and the Darker Side of Desire" (Grove Press), and a novel, "Holding Fire: A Love Story" (Context Books). Her work has also been published in several journals and anthologies, including Beacon Best of 2001, Creative Nonfiction, The Barcelona Review, The Mammoth Book of Erotica, Nerve: Literate Smut, The Ex-Files: New Stories about Old Flames, and Brain, Child Magazine. More from this author →