06/18/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

The Duende of Porn

One of the biggest obstacles to society's acceptance of porn as an "art form" is the belief that to perform it requires little talent, skill or training. Conventional wisdom tells us that having a pretty face, an impressive body and the ability to moan like she means it is enough to bestow any young woman with a goofy alliteration of a name change and top billing in Please Stop Banging My Friend's Stepmom! Granted, it would be impossible to argue against this point if it were true -- but I'm here to tell you it isn't.

But first, let's agree that every sport, artistic medium or profession, be it music, baseball, literature, or theater, includes an abundance of forgettable, lackluster talent. In every generation there are but a handful of names destined for "greatness" in their field. And while most would agree that porn meets the criteria for "an abundance of forgettable talent," few would consider that an adult performer could be so exquisitely, artistically gifted as to achieve any type of exalted status, let alone "greatness."

Because, come on, it's just porn. You don't need "talent" to have sex on film, just an extreme case of exhibitionism. It's not ballet -- or even baseball -- that porn stars are "performing," but a base, undignified act.


My first porn-paradigm-shifting experience came about seven years ago in the form of a 20-something single mom named Elexis Monroe. At first glance she seemed like any pretty college student next door: shoulder-length brown hair and pleasant features, with full, natural breasts that distinguished an otherwise average body type.

As we engaged in small talk before her scene, Ms. Monroe's conversation tended toward the banal: the stress of moving into her new apartment; her young daughter's recent bout of bronchitis. She expressed no desire for fame or fortune, confessed no artistic aspirations of any kind, nor did she try to "sell herself" to me to gain future work.

Why was she in porn? I wondered. Shouldn't she be working as a receptionist or something? The notion that she was doing this "for the money" didn't seem to fit, either. If she'd come to the industry to hustle up cash, why didn't she throw on some makeup and a sexy outfit and "work it" like the other starlets? Something about her didn't add up.

In retrospect, the only tip-off to what was to come were her frequent, nonchalant references to an insatiable desire for sex with other women. These casual comments, delivered in a matter-of-fact tone, peppered her conversation as if it was something her mind just naturally came back to every so often, in that way our minds tend to do with a topic we love.

Perhaps it was because I was so underwhelmed by Elexis Monroe the person, that I was so unprepared for Elexis Monroe, Performer. When I yelled "action" and she began to make love to her scene partner, I was suddenly transfixed, unable to look away. I'd never been so mesmerized by a performer -- but I couldn't tell you why. Was she runway-model gorgeous? No, just a pretty young woman, as I said. I realized she wasn't even making an effort to "be sexy." There were no come-hither poses or seductive affectations; no artifice of any kind. Just raw, unfettered sexuality and hunger for her costar expressed in a way I had never before witnessed.

It wasn't just confidence or lovemaking skill that set her apart, but her economy of motion; or as they say in mathematics, her "elegance." Like an eagle in flight, she performed with the spontaneous majesty of a creature simply doing what it was born to do. Every gesture, every smile and moan and slight turn of her body, was both unexpected yet somehow inevitable. I felt as though I was watching a symphony translated into sex. The room felt charged with electricity and time seemed to stand still. She was, simply, the most shockingly authentic performer I'd ever seen.

I didn't know it then, but there's a word for what I experienced while watching Monroe perform: Spanish Gypsies call it duende. It's not exactly a quality -- it's more like a gift, or even a spiritual possession. And -- much like pornography -- it's almost impossible to define but you "know it when you see it." Or perhaps feel it.

Flamenco music historian Brook Zern describes duende here in what seems an apt description of what I observed watching Monroe make love to her costar. It was the first time I realized that sex -- and porn -- could transcend the ordinary to achieve the status of "high art."

In the years since, I've encountered other performers who have stunned me with their ability to convey -- through sex alone -- profound expressions of beauty and elegance. From the matador-like brilliance of Manuel Ferrara to the raw, vulnerable intensity of Dyanna Lauren. Or the riveting, nuanced performances of industry veteran Mark Davis.

True artists do exist in porn; quietly, humbly tending to their art despite society's giggles and mockery. Driven by unseen forces to express their gift, often without knowledge or insight that they even have one. Do they wonder, as others do for them, why they had the bad fortune to "end up" in porn? Do they hate themselves for feeling so self-actualized, so alive, when they're performing life's most intimate of acts for a world of strangers? We insist they have no gifts to offer, no special abilities of any worth, only tragic tales of lives gone hopelessly wrong.

But the real tragedy is how often they believe this lie. And what it does to them as they continue trying in vain to convey their art to an audience that simply chuckles at the bad music and pushes the "fast forward" button.