Bodies, Commerce, Complicity: Porn Star Dale Cooper


I can’t remember just how I stumbled across Dale Cooper, but I doubt it was while googling a French verb or cheap flights. But beyond the naked pictures, an interesting character began to reveal itself. Here was a Tumblr photo of Cooper and his friend and fellow performer Colby Keller, wearing nerdy glasses, checkered aprons and carrying a tray of cupcakes. There a porn-site profile, professing he likes the Times crossword and crackers. On the Huffington Post, he wrote a series of columns dealing with subjects ranging from gay suicide to the sociological implications of digital closeness on Grindr. On finding his blog, I finally had to abandon any last thought of pigeonholing this guy. It offers art of him (by fans who seemed to match their idol in geekiness, portraying the star through the medium of photo collage, or as a Final Fantasy character), and by him, including a selfie of him wearing nothing but reading glasses, erection in one hand, Roland Barthes’ S/Z in the other. 

When we talked he was wearing a chunky sweater, eating porridge and playing with his cat. We spoke about managing identity online, knitting projects, and the ethical nature of pornography.

The Awl: Barthes doesn’t like porn very much, does he?

Dale: No, he doesn’t. He’s an interesting character. He himself was gay. He was a gay French philosopher, and he generally doesn’t look too kindly on pornography. That was kind of the joke with me taking a photo of myself reading it like that. In fact those books were part of my Amazon wishlist—every porn star has one, right?

The Awl: Really? I didn’t know that.

This chat with Dale Cooper is second in a pair of interviews with new porn stars. Yesterday we talked with Stoya.

Dale: It’s a surprisingly common thing! When I started in the industry, I saw these other guys saying things like: I got these new sneakers, I got this iPad. So I thought what the hell, I need to get one of these! But I made the decision early on to just include books. I’ve always had an interest in queer theory and Marxist theory, and I figured this would be a good way to flesh out my library. So I do have this big list of books. It doesn’t mean I’ve read all of them by the way—I just like to get them in, but I have a fairly slow and meticulous process of going through them.

The Awl: Your system of sending naked photos with the books as a kind of erotic thank-you note must ensure you get hundreds of books.

Dale: Let me check. Part of the thing with that, and I’m a terrible human being in this regard, is that I got the books in, and I had to make a to-do list to take photos with them and do inappropriate things. I did the first bundle to encourage people to send more books, and I haven’t done any since then. But I have a friend I’ve been talking to who’s gonna help me out. That’s part of the problem with that: I don’t want the pictures to be some shitty webcam thing, trying to position myself in front of the computer with the book. I’d rather that they’d be taken by someone else, that there’d at least be a pretense of quality.

The Awl: That’s very considerate.

Dale: So that should be happening soon, but yes, I’ve been terribly bad about the rewards to be honest. But to get back to your original question, I have gotten, precisely… 61 books.

The Awl: That’s a lot!

Dale: That is a lot. Not all of those made their way to me, unfortunately. I went through the list and 6 or 7 got lost, I made a post of it and I hope the people who sent them got a refund. I don’t know who sends them, cause it’s all anonymous.

The Awl: How would you describe the way you earn your rent? The Huffington Post describes you as a social worker, sex educator, and porn performer.

Dale: To fund my rock ‘n roll lifestyle, I only do porn. I’m a porn performer, I do not escort as is common in the industry—I personally choose not to, though I don’t cast any aspersions on people who do, I just don’t like it, so I don’t. That is my current and only source of income. The Huffington Post description is hyperbole. To be perfectly honest, I was a social worker and I did work at a non-profit in the HIV-AIDS field. There was a really great non-profit when I first moved to Baltimore, where I currently live. It’s kind of like meals on wheels, but also provides transportation services and things like that.

The Awl: The many facets make it sound more titillating I guess. Why’d you lose your previous job?

Dale: Unfortunately, It was a really tough time. I graduated and found a job in the non-profit world. The agency I worked at does do a fantastic job fundraising themselves, but they are still largery provided for by the federal government. With the Republican party’s brinksmanship on the debt ceiling, there was a lot of concern about what would happen to federal funding for HIV and AIDS. So in the midst of all that, when we weren’t sure there would be a government shutdown, or a Republican takeover in the next election, and what they’d do to Ryan White funding in the future, in that climate of financial uncertainty, they decided that my position should be let go at that moment. 

The Awl: Do you regret not working in non-profit anymore, of having to go from that kind of idealism into the entertainment business?

Dale: I’ve aways enjoyed working in the non-profit field. I used to work at a camp for people with disabilities, and a bunch of other things, but I always loved the feeling that you got. But it’s really a mixed bag: there’s also often a feeling whether things could not be done more efficiently, or if we’re spending money the way that we should. Especially as a low-level functionary employee, you’re not in any mode to change that—not to say there was corruption or massive waste going on. The 9 to 5 thing was driving me nuts, and I would recommend anyone doing it that working for yourself, from home, is really amazing.

The Awl: When did you make the transition into porn?

Dale: I’d done it once in college, when I was 18 or 19. But honestly, it wasn’t until two years ago that I started working with intent and focus. 

The Awl: What was it like to make that transition, taking up a new identity? I assume the people at your old job didn’t call you Dale Cooper. 

Dale: No, they did not call me Dale Cooper. [laughs] They called me by my real name. It’s a kind of difficult question for me to answer honestly. Because I like to think, and I like to say that Dale Cooper is just a pseudonym and I’m just being me and doing what I would do normally, as me. That it’s just this outlet, through which either people expect me to interact with them or to perform as Dale Cooper, right? That’s one way to consider it. I do like to think that. But I think intrinsic to the idea of being of being a porn performer and having an online persona is there is a lot of performance acting and performing going on even if I’m away from the camera. So really, I think if you’re really honest with yourself you can’t escape that performance aspect. That said, anyone in media has checks and balances: should I post this, would I want my mother, my fiancé seeing this post, or this photo? There’s a little mediating politics embedded in what you want to share, what you choose to say to someone in the comment section. I think performance is always a part of that, as a whole.  

The Awl: For you it gets even more interesting: on your blog you have an in-between thing going, where sometimes you seem to try and humanize that porn character, but the freedom to do that comes from the separation with the actual person living in Baltimore. Do you feel you have to manage your Internet persona?

Dale: I’m not terribly good at it, to be honest. When I just started in the industry, I was going to choose a different name each time I performed, because a few of my friends in the industry did that. In the age of social media, everything is about advertising and branding, and social presence is essential as a porn performer, especially if you don’t have an agent. I freelance, so much of my work is about getting myself out there. You want to encourage viewers to interact with you, in scenes and otherwise. Rather, a large part of it should be: using the interest in Dale Cooper. But I didn’t think that’d be a nice job, and I didn’t think I’d be good at it. So I told myself I would just be in it more or less for the pay check, and that the opportunity had just presented itself to me. That is why I was going to choose a different name each time, and not have to worry about that. But, as I got along with it, I realized it probably wasn’t the best financial decision, or professional decision. So I settled on a name. The web site was really just a place on the Internet for people to land when they google Dale Cooper. I don’t think it’s much anyway beyond that.

The Awl: But do you put whatever you like on there, or do you have to take your employers in the industry into consideration?

Dale: I do whatever I like, that’s part of the fun about it for me. With Dale Cooper, and again, that’s part of the performance aspect, I have this opportunity to be this weird pseudo-celebrity—even using the word celebrity is ridiculous! This weird Internet entity that exists, and that people have relationships with in weird ways through watching porn or whatever, that they communicate with. And so part of that is me, just playing with the idea of what the experience of a porn performer and their attraction is. What do you think of when you are, like, tweeting at a porn performer? So there’s that, but then there are some things I like to avoid. I don’t like taking photos of myself—I don’t even own a camera! I feel like there’s more than enough photos of me naked floating around the Internet, if someone really wants to see them, it can’t be too hard to find, right?

The Awl: …right.

Dale: You know, many porn performers, to promote themselves as a business, and as a person, will send stuff like that to their fans, but that’s something I decided I didn’t want to indulge in personally. It is the reward for the people donating books to me, or supposed to be, but I send it to them personally—if they need another photo of my dick. But I won’t be posting them on the site. I did post the one with Barthes cause I thought it was funny…  

The Awl: And it is.

Dale: But that was mostly because the book came without any note, so I didn’t know who to thank. 

The Awl: So it takes some effort to maintain a boundary between the character that you’ve created and the person behind it. Is it difficult to keep that up?

Dale: It’s not something I concern myself with that much. I am invested in having a separation exist between what Dale Cooper is and what my real life is, because I’m not really interested in walking down the street and having someone go, hey, you’re Dale Cooper! 

The Awl: Don’t they anyway?

Dale: It has happened on occasion, but not too often. I don’t get out that much, so that helps. So there is that part of it, But in terms of trying to maintain distinction, I don’t feel that what I choose to do for a living has really impacted myself personally or spiritually or whatever. I don’t see it as being a risk for me; I know for a lot of people it can be very different, and especially with this spat of suicides happening in the industry that we seem to have, there’s a big tendency to link a person’s personality and life choices to their porn career, and whatever preconceptions people have: ‘he must have had a bad childhood,’ or ‘their mother never loved them,’ or ‘they never finished college,’ or whatever. 

The Awl: I could understand someone arguing that selling a product that also happens to be their own face can be strenuous, so that could partially explain it. But there used to be so much said about porn as being demeaning, especially to women, and then you see the more modern things, especially in gay porn of the kind you perform in, that’s positively cozy.  

Dale: To settle one point very quickly, and I don’t know how to put this delicately: the experience from a woman’s point of view in the industry is something I couldn’t even begin to try to approximate with words. Being raised as a woman in this society unfortunately comes with a whole slew of ideas about how a woman should behave, how they should act, what’s proper for them to do and try to achieve with their life. I got thinking about it recently when reading an article about Grindr. The CEO and founder of that company made a statement that I found hilarious: Talking about making a straight form of Grindr, he said for women proximity isn’t as much of a turn-on. Like for gay men, there’s the idea that that the closer the thing you can get your hands on and stick your dick in, the better, right? I found that funny, first of all as a statement thrown about by the CEO of a company—you’d think CEOs should have someone minding them a little better. But regardless, it interested me because men don’t grow up in that kind of rape culture. The word is used a bit heavy-handedly sometimes, but I think it’s an honest way to put it. I think the idea of the threat of an imposing male presence doesn’t happen to me as a man. Now as a gay man, my experience is modified somewhat. But that being said, I’ve never felt that demeaning aspect that second- and third-wave feminism really struggled with, with the pornography industry. To me it’s a profession, it’s manual labour more often than not. And the way I see my work, the only thing I’m jeopardizing is my own body, more or less. It lacks the sort of moral sphere of other industries. Like, are you being a good person with your job, if you’re working at a really great retailer, but all their shoes are made by five-year-old children in China? It’s hard to be a moral or immoral actor. Being a performer, I take charge of my body, I don’t rely on the labor of others, I try to do my best work when I’m there, and when all’s said and done, I get my paycheck and go home. But there’s also a sort of falseness to that, a false aspect I project. Because I try to distance myself from the work once it’s done. I never watch anything I’ve been in. I’ve never had any interest in viewing it, and I feel like that’s a way of me distancing myself from the consequences of having young guys seeing this. Not to suck my own dick or anything, I understand that some people find me attractive. If that were not the case, I wouldn’t be in this industry—but I don’t want to give kids, or anyone watching, the impression that they need to somehow make themselves be more like that body on the screen to have sex, to be loved. That’s an inherent tendency that I shy away from by saying that when it’s done, I don’t have anything to do with it. That’s bullshit. Of course I do, I was in it, right? 

The Awl: I can see why you’d feel that reluctance. But then, the better you get at your work—which is surely a good thing—the bigger your audience becomes, and the bigger your responsibility for what you represent and project. And speaking of the problems for women, gay porn reproduces all of these stereotypes and images of traditional masculinity. Compensating all these images of you representing these stereotypes, glistening muscles and all, are the photos you put on your website looking, it seems, deliberately different, with the chunky glasses, knitting, and baking cupcakes. Do you feel you’re queering against the current there?

Dale: That’s an interesting way to put it. Yeah, honestly, I do have that tendency. I like thinking about what would be fun to do when, say, someone tried to google me, ostensibly in the search for something to whack off to, or because they saw me once and want to see me again. I like thinking about ways to short-circuit that process. I have to admit to myself that I tend to shirk the responsibilities of projecting these macho, masc images. I try to lessen the extent of that image as much as possible. Whatever people might say about my body, it’s completely natural, I don’t do steroids, I really hate going to the gym—but I understand it’s important for my job, so I have to go regularly and try to improve my body enough to be camera-ready. So yeah, I am promoting the idea of [puts on macho voice] having a six-pack! Is important! As a gay man! Because you’ll get laid! There’s that, but then there’s going to the extreme, like ‘if you want to get laid, you have to get these giant muscles,’ and promoting this weird fetish of the male body and this really unhealthy, really unnatural and, I think, really unattractive form, which stresses the male musculature at the expense of the other parts of the body. Gay men and body hair have gone a similar way. What grows on my body grows—granted, I will play with my facial hair and I get haircuts, I will trim down there, it has a tendency to get a little extreme, and I’ve had complaints. So I’ll trim around my cock, but all my other body hair I’ll just let grow, and that in part is because that’s what I personally find comfortable and appealing about my own body, and in other people’s bodies as well.

The Awl: People are picking up on that though, saying hey, look at this guy who looks like this and who is making it in the mainstream porn business. Most commenters seem pleasantly surprised by it. 

Dale: That’s true. It would be flattering to think I’ve have anything to do with that. I think there’s a larger sort of tendency in our culture to start to move away from those older ideas of what a man is, what makes him attractive. The male body is now all of a sudden being inspected and being open for display, which I think is really interesting. Unfortunately, in a sort of counter to that, I’m starting see the display of the male body not as some form of late gender equality, in terms of which bodies are selected to display, but rather as the body in general increasingly coming under the domain of the economy—of advertisers. I think that’s the main problem. And for me, as a porn performer, I’m the steward of my own body, in a way that a lot of other people in the modeling industry aren’t. And a large part of that is because the porn industry doesn’t have the money the rest of Hollywood has. So it’s not like they’re going to go in and fine-tune my body. A lot of companies Photoshop, and I actually have a policy: they can remove blemishes and things like that from me, but please don’t make my cock bigger, don’t make my muscles bigger. If you want someone with a bigger cock and bigger muscles, go hire someone else. 

The Awl: Why?

Dale: I want my body to be real. If they want to take a zit on my ass away, I’m all for that, thank you. But beyond that, I think it’s really irresponsible and kind of gross. I did this one shoot, I won’t name names, and when I saw it… Most of the photos I’ve seen, you can tell they’ve been Photoshopped a bit: the colors they pop a bit more, and so on. These photos were the first where I didn’t recognize myself as being the person in the photo. And that is a problem. So I wrote them an email saying look, I really appreciated working with you guys, but if we’re doing anything else in the future, I want to look like me.

The Awl: What did they say?

Dale: Oh, they were amenable. I did some other work for that company, and I haven’t seen how those photos turn out. I should probably keep a check on it. But I think they understand, in a lot of ways, but it’s sort of a weird thing to ask, when I pretend I have this control over my body when I don’t, really, because it’s turned into bytes and bits of information and distributed and sent out all over, so that people may project on me whatever they want.

The Awl: You’d almost feel like when people like you and those like you have a following large enough, which will be any day now, you should all break away, get fat and hirsute, and start a new porn paradigm.

Dale: Funny you should say that, because we—no, just kidding. But yes, we are in an interesting moment with porn right now. I think what was happening to Napster in the nineties is happening to porn now. They’re having a bit of an economic crisis. Competing with porn piraters on the one hand, and with the amateur porn sites, more often than not featuring barebacking, on the other. The move away from selling DVDs and actual products, towards streaming and only having content online, has really put the gay porn industry in a weird position. They’re trying to find out how to keep making money, and one thing I’m finding really interesting is the rise of Tumblr, for example. You really have a forum for people to curate their selection of what they find hot or appealing or pornographic, and it’s a move away from the frank mercantilism of the gay porn site, with bodies flashing, and click here and click me and download now, and only pay this much per month. I like that move away from that. You see it on Twitter as well: you don’t even know who’s running that twitter handle, but they have like a bajillion followers and just retweet stuff onto the Internet. It cultivates a sense of taste in a purveyor, in what used to be just a porn consumer, and lets them stand out as opposed to the industry, or the money market, continually telling us what to find hot, or interesting.  

The Awl: Which makes it more difficult for you to be a screened-off semi-celebrity, because it forces you to interact with the community, right? As porn becomes community based, and as it develops these new practices and norms, it seems many favor realism in what they see.

Dale: I wouldn’t phrase it like that. What I find interesting about porn sites in general is that there was, for a time, a tendency to really split people, and porn acts, into types. You’d go to the website and click on their menu: black guys, white guys, interracial guys, Asian guys, twinks, dads, bears, cops, like, more categories than I could even imagine, like this weird, huge taxonomy of bodies doing different things to one another. And I feel like we’ve moved away from that now. That still exists in a way, but the original idea was to give the consumer as many choices as possible, to capture all of the market out there, for porn from two boys next door kissing to some guy strapped into a machine getting fucked by a robot blindfolded. Sites wanted to cater to everything to get as many people as possible. But I think they discovered it was easier to either pick up on what the mass market and the consumerist body politic thought was hot, and then tell them that was also what’s hot in porn, so you went from millions of categories to a bunch of white guys who work out a lot, fucking each other, and that’s it, that’s the only category now. White gym rats, who straddle the boy next door and the frat boy look, with pretty decent-sized dicks, fucking each other. And I think that’s pretty problematic. At first, when they were splitting up the types of bodies and acts, at least they were trying to capture every kind of consumer’s attention, no matter what that consumer thinks is hot. Now I feel like it’s: you better think that this is hot, because this is what’s selling and we’re going to keep on pushing this.

The Awl: But the move away from the attempted artistry of porn, traditionally trying to copy existing cinema in its style and narratives, towards just a body performing an erotic act, is very honest in a sense. Isn’t porn actually moving into pluriformity with the more realistic stuff: locking guys in a student dorm, home videos, there’s even a flourishing porn blooper genre. You do cam work, there’s a great realism in that. 

Dale: That’s an interesting way to put it! There is a plurality of forms out there still, not just white guys fucking each other—though there’s nothing wrong with white guys, I love white guys. But I feel like there’s this sort of pressure that’s trying to condense what used to be this burst of sexuality and difference when the Internet really opened up, allowing people to find one another. Whether that’s a gay kid in the middle of Oklahoma who’s never met another gay person in his life, finding out he’s not the only one, to looners—people who get sexually aroused by balloons—finding each other and hosting conferences. The Internet enabled that, bringing those groups together. I feel like that had its heyday, and now we’re moving towards a commercial aspect of the Internet, with the rise of these megasites that are trying to take the most of your time spent online. That’s what I like about websites that just offer tools, like Tumblr: it offers a service to people to create their own images or curate what they find appealing. There was an expansion of sexual possibility that started to shrink, either because people got bored or people got focused on the money making rather than sexual possibilities.

The Awl: In this bigger development, of porn becoming more generalized images, you are your own little movement of images made of your body, and being generalized, in a way, with Photoshop and styling. In that context, where do you see yourself going? Which way would you like to paddle that sea in the coming years?

Dale: A lot of my Amazon wish list and my reading and studies is to keep me in some sort of self-mandated academic training, which I’m about as good at I am at going to the gym. But it’s to prepare me for grad school. I don’t have a straight up plan yet or anything, but I tell myself that if by the time I turn twenty-eight I haven’t applied or haven’t been accepted by a program, I need to kick myself and get my shit in gear. So that’s the goal, to be there or figure out how to get there by that time. I studied science and technology studies as an undergrad. I was really interested in things like gay male networking online, and how that has moved, like I said, towards the commercialization of the Internet. A lot of that has been a commercialization of male homosexual interaction, whether through cruising sites, or Grindr. I’m really fascinated with pursuing that, but there’s a variety of programs that would allow me to do that. So I’ve been looking to a few things, from political science to anthropology to a straight-up gender studies program. I must say, I was kind of hoping that someone buys into this shit and would give me money so I could go to school, cause that’d be amazing! No, I’m kidding. I have no idea.

The Awl: Here’s hoping. How’s your knitting?

Dale: I got really sidetracked on that actually. I used to take that with me whenever I’d go somewhere cuz it’s an easy way to pass the time, but um, my friend bought me some Icelandic wool, and Icelandic knitting is circular, without seams. It’s really nice but I don’t really know how to do it yet, and the wool is sort of expensive, but some day I’ll get to it.

The Awl: Does getting back into academia also entail getting out of Dale Cooper?

Dale: I guess that’s a larger question. I could break it down a little bit. Does that entail me to have to continue to have to work as a porn performer? I don’t know. A lot of my consideration as to what I, as Dale, do, is economic. I need bread on the table, to pay rent, pay off my student loans. If I was in a situation where I could devote myself full-time to my studies and not have to worry financially, whether that’s through a stipend or scholarship or a program that covers that, then no, there’d be no further need for Dale to keep doing his thing. So we’ll see. I’m not sure. If you know of any programs looking for a porn performer, let me know.  





Bob van Toor is a freelance journalist, currently living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He is also a cultural historian, teaching at the University of Amsterdam, but he often gets distracted by the naughty parts.