No Agenda: Golden Goddesses by Jill C. Nelson (2012)

Hi folks! An exciting book review for you today: Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women of Classic Erotic Cinema 1968-1985 by Jill C. Nelson, who previously co-wrote the John Holmes biography, Inches. This book is a real labor of love; a collection of lengthy interviews and background stories behind 25 women of the golden age. Each chapter is effectively a mini-biography, with intimate interview responses from the women themselves and occasionally their loved ones (as in the case of those no longer living, such as Marilyn Chambers and Ann Perry), as well as brief analyses of significant works by the women in question and a plethora of photos. At nearly 1000 pages, this is no fluff piece, and Nelson's (and her publisher's) willingness to allow the space necessary for these women to voice their experiences - diverse, unexpected, often inspirational, sometimes sad, occasionally unsettling - should be applauded.

Sex work usually polarizes people, as evidenced by the simplistic "pro" and "anti" porn binary, a binary that affects not only writers on the subject, but sex workers themselves when representing their work and themselves. The lack of agenda behind Nelson's project naturally leads to a diversity of stories, some of which are not positive. This, to me, is one of the strengths of the book. When considering the ways in which people write and talk about sex work, I often think about a comment I read from Dutch sex worker Jo Doezema in Wendy Chapkis's fantastic book, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. Reflecting on her work Doezema writes,

"I think for almost everybody I make it more positive than it is, because everybody has such a negative idea about it already. So you tend to only talk about the good things or the funny things. With most jobs, if you have a shitty day or a bad client or something, people don't immediately say that it's because of the kind of work you do and that you must stop right away. But with prostitution, I've always felt that if I didn't convince everybody that this work was fantastic for me and that I really loved it that they would all be on my back to quit. Anytime something negative happens in your work, it just confirms peoples' worst suspicions" (120-121). 

This insightful perspective can, I think, be applied to all types of sex work, and Nelson's agenda-free approach is refreshing in that it allows for the full spectrum of experiences: good, bad, and in between. For this reason, the book is not always a comfortable read. The project prompts questions, provokes critical thinking, and opens up a space for these women to truly voice themselves and their experiences rather than functioning as a "ventriloquist's dummy," to borrow Anne McClintock's phrase, for whichever agenda-driven group needs them. Through careful structuring, Nelson manages to narrate these women's stories while at the same time never overshadowing or undermining their voices.

Ginger Lynn
What piqued my interest about this project, aside from the opportunity to read about the lives of such incredible women who are too often overlooked or dismissed (at best) by mainstream culture, is the fact that Nelson is not a long-time porn fan. For this reason, there is a refreshing degree of subjectivity throughout the book - a lack of agenda, as Nelson puts it - which leads to interviews that are thorough, yet also intimate and often surprising. Nelson explains in her introduction, "Occasionally, family and friends have been puzzled and queried as to why I have chosen to dedicate much time and energy developing two books centering on this unusual group often misunderstood and even persecuted by society. I smile, and answer, 'I'm not interested in writing a book about Julia Roberts'" (16). Indeed, Nelson seems drawn to these women for the same reasons I am, and her goals for the book are made clear from the outset: "My intention is to escort readers toward a clearer understanding of the beautiful and intrepid females who favored an alternative profession in adult cinema that was cultivated at the apex of the 1960s sexual revolution" (17). What sets the book apart is the diversity of women included. While superstars of the screen such as Seka, Amber Lynn, and Marilyn Chambers take up the majority of the focus, women who worked behind the camera are also featured, such as screenwriter Raven Touchstone, writer/director Roberta Findlay, and writer/director/producer Ann Perry, creating a project that acknowledges a fuller spectrum of female contribution to adult film than is typical.

FYI, the 25 women included in the project are: Ann Perry, Barbara Mills, Georgina Spelvin, Marilyn Chambers, Roberta Findlay, Jody Maxwell, Candida Royalle, Gloria Leonard, Rhonda Jo Petty, Serena, Annie Sprinkle, Sex "Kitten" Natividad, Sharon Mitchell, Kay Parker, Juliet Anderson, Seka, Kelly Nichols, Veronica Hart, Julia St. Vincent, Laurie Holmes, Ginger Lynn, Amber Lynn, Christy Canyon, Raven Touchstone, and Nina Hartley, followed by honorable mentions.

Marilyn Chambers
I was naturally more drawn to some chapters than others, especially as some of the women featured have had very little written about them. I was particularly excited to see a chapter on Raven Touchstone, one of the most prolific and talented screenwriters in adult film. I have long admired her work, especially as I write extensively about one of her films in my ongoing book project, and to be able to read an extensive discussion of her life and work was a real treat.

Jody Maxwell
Another woman featured whose chapter I jumped to is Jody Maxwell, an actress who I know predominantly as the woman who climaxes after the man in Expose Me, Lovely, which I wrote about in my Subversive Money Shots blog post (though she is better known to the public as "the singing cocksucker" thanks to her unique talent). She also features in classics such as Satisfiers of Alpha Blue, Neon Nights, and Outlaw Ladies. Her filmography is shorter than some starlets of the era, though, and having not read her 2004 book, Private Calls, I knew almost nothing about her prior to reading this book. The same applies to other starlets in the book, most notably Serena and Rhonda Jo Petty, who I adore on screen, yet knew very little about in terms of their personal lives and careers. These chapters were particularly intriguing to me as a result, not only in their details of the industry, but in their wildly divergent and fascinating lives pre-, post-, and during porn. Their work in porn does not define these women, and Nelson deftly allows this truth to manifest in raw and organic narratives.

Even the chapters on women I thought I already knew well were compelling. Georgina Spelvin, for example, whose autobiography I have read did not initially seem to be a must-read section. The same goes for Veronica Hart, Nina Hartley, Sharon Mitchell, and Annie Sprinkle - all highly visible, frequently written-about stars of adult film. What more could there be to know? Yet, as with all good interviews, Nelson draws out stories and information that built on my existing knowledge and respect for these women, rather than feeling like repetitions of previously read material. The information I had heard before, was still fresh in this new context.

Book signing, Hustler Hollywood 2012
Jody Maxwell reflects at one point, "I honestly don't have what might be considered a typical porn background" (204), and indeed none of the women fit neatly into this societally-prescribed box. What Nelson's book, and others like it, can reveal is the extent to which motivations behind sex work and entering the porn industry are complex, and the women who are involved in this work are dynamic, diverse, and human. This book is recommended equally to those familiar with the stars of the golden age as well as those who are not. Golden Goddesses really is as complete an overview of the main female players in adult cinema there is. The very fact that so little material is written about these incredible women speaks to the importance of Nelson's work. I can only hope for a sequel focusing on the men. Buy it here and check out Nelson's blog, featuring coverage of the frankly once-in-a-lifetime gathering of these wonderful women at the book signing in L.A. Lord, how I wish I could have attended.

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