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LGBT

What’s In A (Porn) Name?

When I started appearing in porn, I never considered that my porn name might be someone’s real name.

The email was from another Conner Habib, one who wasn’t in porn.

“My grandmother searched for me on Google and nearly had a heart attack,” he wrote. “So… Is Conner Habib your real name?”

I had just started appearing in porn and it was the first time I’d been asked what my real name was. The email ended there, but I imagined the sentence going on: “…because if it’s isn’t, can you please please please change it to something else?”

I knew I had screwed up all internet searches for him.

“What is your real name?” is a question every porn performer is asked, and asked often. Conner isn’t my birth name, and I was used to giving a snappy answer to that question. I’m sure I gave one to the other Conner, something like, “It depends on what I’m wearing.”

Actually, my name depends on a lot of things. It’s cut-and-dry on set, where directors and crew call me by my porn name. And it’s simple enough for anyone who knew me before I started porn. But sometimes someone recognizes me at a bar and says, “I know you from somewhere,” but won’t reveal if it’s because he saw my dick in his spam email or if he met me at a party. And sometimes I go to Starbucks and know for a fact that fans are sitting in the café when the barista calls my name. Sometimes a fan asks me out on a date, or knows one of my close friends.

If this all seems a bit self-inflated, let me explain: Porn performers pick their stage names for different reasons, but the most common idea is that if you create a name, you create an identity. That identity is a thin veil that’s supposed to help you avoid job discrimination in the future, prevent your family finding out, protect you from certain overzealous viewers who may think they have a relationship with you that oversteps the boundaries you’re comfortable with, and more. You live out your porn life under a performance name and the rest of your life typically under the name you’re born with. It’s just not always so easy to tell which is which.

To be honest, I didn’t think too deeply about any of that when I chose a porn name — I just thought porn stars were awesome, and that picking a name was a rite of passage. My name was carved from bits of my history. Conner: The name of one of two drunken Irish boys I saw dry humping each other at a pub in Killarney when I was 15. “Oh, Conner!” one jokingly yelped to the other, as they played at being gay. And Habib: the Arabic word for “sweetheart” or “beloved one.” I’m Syrian and Irish, and the name reflected my origins and displayed my Middle Eastern heritage, which is all-but-unrepresented in porn. It also helped me avoid innuendo names like Dick Powers or Johnny Thrust. Conner Habib sounded like a real person’s name (and it was!); it’s slightly clumsy, easy enough to remember.

But shouting baristas and other Conners aside, the name thing became increasingly complex.

When I began to publish essays and appear in mainstream media more, I had to decide what name to use. Initially, it seemed obvious: If I was writing about sex or pornography, I’d publish as Conner. But other essays seemed to call for Conner Habib as well. For example, I’d written an essay on the philosophy of time which I thought more people would read if it were published under Conner. I assumed — and was proven correct — that more people would be willing to engage with philosophical topics if they came from an unexpected source.

Then in late 2011, my friend and mentor, the renowned biologist Lynn Margulis, died. I had studied with her for three years at the University of Massachusetts and felt compelled to write an essay about her work. I knew many of Lynn’s friends and colleagues, as well as some of her family. Lynn herself knew about my porn career (“Habibi!” she’d often call me happily), but not everyone else did. If I published under Conner, they might miss it. So the essay appeared in Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of Scientific Rebel (Chelsea Green) as both: under my birth name, Andre Khalil, with a contributor’s bio in the book that included both names. Putting my birth name out there felt risky, somehow. But why?

There’s the old idea that when you’re done with porn, you discard name and identity and you’re born again. Putting the fact that many of us don’t want to be born again aside, choosing something “after” porn has become more difficult. The internet has made birth names more searchable and created a permanence of visibility, not just for porn performers who have started recently, but also for ones who had for a time faded into obscurity on dissolving reels of VHS tape. Now their porn pasts have been resurrected. There is no “after” porn.

Because sex is so compartmentalized — it’s often considered separate from the rest of life and hidden away — porn performers, who have sex publicly, are in a unique position to consider and talk about integrating private and public aspects of life. Of course, compartmentalizing different aspects of our lives has become more and more of a problem for everyone, not just porn performers. Potential employers investigate drunken Facebook photos, and there’s a pervading anxiety of making a public and YouTube-able misstep or off-colored comment.

At best, it can be confusing and annoying to juggle both identities and to keep them separate. At worst, it’s traumatic. As many porn performers know — particularly “outed” ones like school teacher Kevin Hogan or cop and reality star Michael Verdugo — the costs of compartmentalizing our lives can be high when someone forces our identities together for us.

I wish I had understood all this more deeply five years ago when I started appearing in porn; I might not have chosen a porn name at all. After all, the discrimination porn actors face stems in part from the separating of identities. And perhaps it would help end discrimination against and misunderstanding of porn stars if more performers expressed both their names publicly — neither name is “real” and neither is hidden; or new performers don’t have to take second names at all. If there’s no getting away from being in porn, why should one name be more important than the other? So I’ve been introducing myself more confidently as Conner lately. A porn name may now just be the name of a braver self, one that’s not afraid to be open.

A few years into my career, I was asked to give an autograph as Conner; but I had no idea what that signature would look like. I scrawled out Conner Habib quickly across the photo and saw that the frantic symbols tilted into the same gestures as Andre Khalil. They shared the same loops and the same dot on the ‘I’ just before the end. It was as if the name were there all along.

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