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Reflecting on Sex: Sasha Grey's Neü Sex and Her Uphill Battle

PopMatters Staff

Candid style photos make Grey's book a very personal work. She urges mainstream media to “send a positive image. Don’t just give the image of sex. Talk about it."

I don’t want to have to be what you expect of me. I want to be what I want to be. I feel I’ve done that and I’ll continue to do that by making my own choices. -- Sasha Grey

For those of you who do not recognize her name, you may recognize her face. Sasha Grey has been featured in music videos from the Roots (“Birthday Girl”) and the Smashing Pumpkins (“Superchrist”), has starred in HBO’s Entourage as Vincent Chase’s girlfriend and she’s appeared in American Apparel ads. Grey also played a high class call girl in The Girlfriend Experience, an experimental film by director Steven Soderbergh who selected Grey as the lead because she was someone forging a new path in the adult film business. Though she has moved on from the adult industry (only making it official very recently), fans of that period of her life may find her latest release engaging because it pulls from those experiences. But Grey doesn’t transition into Hollywood naively thinking it is a vast improvement. She urges mainstream media to “send a positive image. Don’t just give the image of sex. Talk about it."

Her newest work is a collection of photographs entitled Neü Sex put out by VICE. Yet it's not a book about sex. The hardcover book contains pages of photos taken by Grey and her partner Ian Cinnamon, with a few pages of text interspersed. As apparent on the cover, Grey controls the camera to document and liberate herself. She reclaims her identity and image, which facilitates her transition to Hollywood. Her inspiration comes via Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman, two photographers who have engaged the notions of sexuality in their work. The snapshot aesthetic of Grey’s work is closely aligned with Goldin’s style, but some of the costuming and conceptual photos connect with Sherman’s. Overall, the candid style photos make the book a very personal work, as if we are glimpsing into her diary, rather than a purposeful artistic presentation.

Indeed, at first it may not be clear the photos are not snapshots (unless you are already familiar with Goldin or Sherman). In an interview, Grey revealed they are instead “very thought out and aesthetically they are meant to look that way. By putting a description or a caption or a date, it just kind of takes away from the photo. You are putting a definition on the photo." Since this is not a collection of found snapshots, the deliberate decision to exclude any frame of reference for the images is unfortunate. Grey said Some commentary, even if it was just chapters, would have helped identify a narrative arc for her life within the work. The images are not of hardcore sex but they are personal, glamorous, sexual and raw. Grey is shown observing a lesbian tryst, making faces into a mirror (as so many on Myspace did), dressed up in a little plaid skirt and something that looks to be covered up vomit.

In her writing (which could use a boost in contrast), Grey articulates a variety of taboos and hypocrisies in our culture, from human and male sexuality to desire. She wants us to assert ourselves, restart the sexual revolution with the help of the internet as she expressed her outrage at the society of repression. But Grey’s monograph does not elucidate or reinforce anything outside of what is already in the mainstream discourse on sex and sexuality. She puts up a good fight against female objectification allowing her to discard the adult film world from her shoulders.

But, it still remains to be seen if Grey will make it into the mainstream. Aside from sharing herself in front of and from behind the camera, she also plays in the band aTelecine, an industrial outfit akin to Throbbing Gristle. Talking about Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti, Grey explains, “if I would have known sooner about some of the artists that I admire who aren’t really in the mainstream, that would have helped me bunches growing up to feel more confident about who I was. But those people are unfortunately not part of the masses." Grey’s music and performance art allow her the creative freedom to be true to herself, but neither are conventional forms. In a society very conflicted about sexuality, one may wonder if there will ever be a backlash against Grey if she does achieve mainstream status. Adult stars like Jenna Jameson or Mary Carey have become recognizable for other activities besides porn but still have that career branded to them. With her book, Grey attempts to shift away (“while I was on top”) from adult film and chart her own course into the great unknown.

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