Imagining the Impossible: An Interview with Conner Habib
Conner Habib went from academic to porn star. Andrew Darley talked to him about his upcoming book about how people learn to understand sex, and how his two career paths crossed.
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At the age of 30 and in a comfortable position in academia, Conner Habib found that his desire to become a porn actor was getting stronger. Realizing that he was on a path to becoming a professor, he decided to jump ship and make it in the porn industry. What may appear jarring for most – combining the two worlds – has lead Conner into public speaking and blogging about his own insights and perspectives about sex, sexuality and the body. He is currently finalizing his first book The Sex Book: Myths, Positions, Taboos and Possibilities which looks at sex from several disciplines and seeks to explore the ideals we inherit about sex to offer an understanding and potentially have a deeper understanding. Andrew Darley spoke with Conner about his multifaceted career, the relationship between sex and power and how believing in something impossible regardless whether it is true or not.
I’d like to start off by going right back to the beginning of your career in the porn industry. What sparked your desire to become a porn actor?
I wanted to be porn star since I was a little kid. I remember being 12 years old and wanting to make those movies. When I reached 30, I had done everything I wanted to achieve. I was a lecturer and making my way to becoming a professor. Porn was the one thing that I had left to do. The reason why I wanted to do it at that age was because you think it’s awesome that other kids are talking about porn. I wanted to do what they were talking about. Then as I got older, more reasons showed up for me. I recognized how porn would be confrontational for people. I knew that if I was in porn and people asked me what I did for living, my answer would create conflict for them. I observed the culture I was in and thought, “Fuck you, I’m not going to do things the way you tell me to do it”. I had been in academia for a really long time and I saw how nobody took sex seriously; it was something separate. If you’re in academia, you’re meant to be intellectual and smart and you never talked about sex because it doesn’t intersect with the things you’re meant to care about. I felt that this attitude created this artificial cordoning off of life.
Why do you think sex is removed or sanctioned off from everything else, not just in academia, when it’s an integral part of human nature?
I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One of the biggest reasons is historical. Throughout time, in most cultures and institutions, people in power use sex to get themselves more power. People can create legislations and social rules around sex. It’s been purposely divided in a calculated way to divide it from the rest of our lives. Most people think the way we interact with sex is normal and I do in my own way. We just accept the way things are. Yet, most of the things that bother me about sex can be traced to specific moments in history or particular institutions trying to gain control of something. Sex is so individualized. Everybody’s sexuality is different; there is no overarching rule but these institutions long for that. Sometimes people desire to be ruled and those in power are more than happy to take advantage of that.
Do you think sex has been used as an economy throughout time?
Sex ends up being a casualty of war, or what people perceive as a necessary casualty. Here’s a simple example: one of the reasons why there was no nudity in art for a long time in the 16th century, after there had been nudity in art for a really long time, was because the Catholic church had this big council when there was all this stuff going on with the Protestant Reformation. Protestants were gaining more and more power and destroying Catholic iconography by saying it was distracting people from God. They began censoring their art then because Protestants were diminishing Catholic power. They started using the naked body against them and so the Catholics began painting people in towels. They had to change the art so Protestants would have a harder time destroying it. This had huge repercussions because nobody was painting nudity for hundreds of years so people were not able to reflect on the body. This allows the genitals to become a different part of your body because everything else is fine to show except that one little area. That’s how these things come to be and this is just one example. Usually, there is some cultural battle and sex can be used as a way to gain power in conflict. The main point of what I’m saying is that the beginnings of these conflicts are not usually about sex itself. When people say the church is anti-sex, well it might be now, but that’s not how it started. Sex and the body are used for something else.
Working in the porn industry, has your view or relationship to sex changed over time?
One of the great things about working in porn is that it has cleared up all my knee-jerk reactions to societal beauty. When a guy walks into a bar with big pecs and big arms everyone looks over. I’m getting paid to have sex with people in better shape so I don’t have a reaction in an automatic way anymore. I feel those responses are about what society tells us what we should be attracted to. I’ve learnt to always recognize when you’re attracted to someone. In my 20s, if I were attracted to a 50-year-old guy, I would never say so out of fear of being judged. I’ve realized that when you don’t express your attraction to someone, regardless of how they look or their age or body-type, you never get to explore or expand on your own sexuality because of it.
Another strange thing of doing gay porn for so long and identifying as gay person is that I’ve become more attracted to women. Similarly, I’ve seen how straight male porn actors become more attracted to men over time. I still identify as gay obviously but porn has loosened things up a little in that you don’t have to be tied to one sexual way of being. It creates a sense of detachment around your sexuality.
Moving away from porn then, you’ve spoken out about LGBT equality. Why do you think there has been a cultural shift in the way the community is becoming more visible in mainstream culture?
There are loads of normal reasons that people give to this question like media visibility and the AIDS crisis; all the stuff people say all the time. There has to be something deeper there. I’m not entirely sure what the change underneath is but something has shifted. For instance, Almodóvar received a lot more public recognition for I’m So Excited than he possibly ever did with his other work. You have to question why now is he is reaching more people than just the simple answer of media visibility.
What was your own experience of growing up gay and coming out?
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania in a very conservative area. I experienced it the way a lot of people still do as being very painful. Isolation from everyone around me and feeling like I was the only one. Statistically, my town was small enough that I was probably was one of very few. Other people seemed to know that I was gay before I did. They called me a ‘faggot’ before I had any understanding or feeling that I was attracted to men. I knew I had feelings but I would never identify as gay. There has always been this streak in me that I was going to do what I want. Interestingly, when I said I wanted to be in porn when I was a kid, I never felt any shame about sex, until I started feeling attracted to guys – that’s what I started feeling bad about it. My experience of growing up gay tore my life apart for some time because I constantly felt alone. It was the feeling that nobody would understand me. There was also an aspect that even if I confided in telling someone I’m gay and they may well accept it, they would still treat me as different or separate.
Do you think the internet and advances in technology have liberated or limited people sexually?
I don’t think it’s black-and-white as that. I don’t think there is anything inherently liberating or sinister about the internet. It exists because of all of the different social forces that brought it into existence. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we made it and we use it for our own reasons. It’s liberating for a lot of people and exposes them to others who are in a similar situation and they can experience new kinds of sex and sexual imagery. Most of the problems related to the internet and sex are mostly because of the internet itself. When people say pornography is eroding relationships, I just say, “Is that just because it’s online? Is that not the same criticism you’d level against Facebook or playing online games?”. That argument is not about sex or pornography, it’s about technology itself. What actually matters is how we decide to greet it into our lives.
Given that porn is hugely focused on the body, have you thought about the way society views the male body, particularly in gay culture? Do you feel a pressure to maintain a certain physique?
I definitely feel pressure to maintain it. On my good days I feel it’s an honour to want to take care of my body. You wake up, you eat well, meditate and go to the gym which creates this thing that is part of me. When this is going really well, all the words and thoughts come out better and all the things I want to do happen more easily. There’s part of me that wants to eat really decadently and live hard and die young. But the thing that is most important to me is the relationships I have with people and ideas, and those work better when my body is healthy. I think there are a lot of people in porn who don’t have healthy bodies; they have big, huge bodies but those are on the edge, filled with gross protein drinks and steroids. That’s beyond porn; it’s in both gay and straight culture. It’s like what I was saying about technology. Our body is technological device; the way you treat it, the more you get to do other stuff.
From what I’ve read of your writing there’s a theme of transcending oneself to reach our desires in life. What are the things you have identified in your own life that have encouraged your own sense of freedom?
Punk rock definitely had a big influence. The thing about punk rock, which was really powerful to me, was the idea of “Fuck you, I’m not going to do what you tell me to do”. That was the spirit of it. Also, Christianity has been a big influence, which will surprise a lot of people. For me, the impossibility of Christianity is a profound thing for me. I was hanging out with a friend the other night, he’s an atheist and a comedian and he makes these jokes about being an atheist. But he asked me “So you believe in Jesus Christ? That this smart guy preached all this good stuff? You don’t believe in the entire walk on water or water to wine stuff?”. I said, “I totally believe in that, that’s the most important part”. What atheists say to all is “that’s impossible, it couldn’t have happened”. Whereas a more religious aligned person would say, “it’s impossible but it happened anyway”. Ultimately, it’s irrelevant whether it happened or not. The thing that is vital for me is about existing in a conceptual world where I can think of things impossible. I allow myself to think outside of the structures and confines of what I’m told is supposed to have happened, even down to the laws of physics and science. It allows everything to be possible.
I have that approach in everything in life. In an election you’re told that you can vote for one guy or vote for the guy that’s slightly worse. There’s more to it than those options because I’m going to do everything in my power to make the world a better place. If you think that you only have these two little options, then you’re stuck with that. It’s always about doing the impossible thing and seeing past what we’re told. That probably comes from the punk rock thing! When someone says, “You can’t do that”, I might agree; but I will always take a minute to think or imagine a way outside of this.
Following on from that, have you had to challenge your own conception of life and what others want for you?
I mean, I feel restricted every day, but I think that’s what everybody feels. Am I the person that watches television for 5 hours a day? Am I the person that goes to work? Am I the person that makes porn for a living? It happens constantly. I’ll probably never achieve the idea of ‘I am who I want to be’. The only way I can achieve this is by recognizing that I’ll never achieve it. Every day I simultaneously totally let myself down and feel totally satisfied and happy. The colour of my day depends on which one I want to pay attention to that day.
You’re in the midst of finishing your book entitled The Sex Book: Myths, Positions, Taboos and Possibilities. Can you tell me more about it?
The book is about how everything we know about sex is wrong and how giving ourselves more freedom in understanding sex can change our entire view of it. It’s a tour through history, science, economics, politics – everything that’s related to sex. It points to those moments that I mentioned earlier of when things started getting messed up and why. It explores the ideas that we’ve inherited and take for granted that we should think about more. It moves towards having a better relationship with sex.
In terms of writing, is there anyone’s career you find particularly inspiring?
Susan Sontag for being so veracious about life and living it. She was adamant about living a serious life and live meaningfully. I’m a lot more ridiculous than her and not afraid to show it. Part of living in this way is engaging with the arts and literature, that’s a serious thing. Don’t think that that’s frivolous. There are hundreds that are really inspiring people to me but she stands out because she wrote and did so much. She taught me to pay attention to the world and do things that are difficult sometimes.
With your career in porn, have you felt any barriers or prejudice as you’re moving more into the publishing world and public speaking?
Writing was always there even before porn. It just happens that I’ve been getting more writing gigs and getting paid to do it. I was doing it the whole time. On the whole, porn has mostly opened those doors for me because I could’ve been stuck being an English professor for the rest of my life, which thank God I didn’t do. I have my feet in both porn and academia which I think is always more interesting to me and other people. I was booked to speak at a school last year and they cancelled at the last minute, after flipping out that I was in porn even though they had signed the contract knowing that. I went and spoke in the town anyways; it was a much bigger audience than first planned and it was a national news story here. Even that resistance was good for me to feel. The biggest resistance is within myself. I keep reminding myself to own it and never second-guess myself. It might seem like I totally have it together but I have to remind myself of it all the time – “Don’t hide that you’re in porn from this person”. That can be with someone I’m about to have sex with or a person who is very spiritually inclined. There’s the flipside of that too like writing for a magazine that aren’t related to sex or porn. I have to remind myself of my worth beyond what people expect me to present. I’m my own worst enemy but I’m my best friend too.
The Sex Book: Myths, Positions, Taboos and Possibilities will be released in 2015 through Disinformation. For more information about Conner and his work, visit his official blog here.
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