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After James Deen Rape Allegations, Porn Companies Debate the Issue of Consent

Dec 21 2015 6:35 PM
After James Deen Rape Allegations, Porn Companies Debate the Issue of Consent

Photo by Stefania D'Alessandro via Getty

When adult performer Stoya publicly accused her former boyfriend and co-star James Deen of rape, porn companies and professionals began grappling with how best to protect sex workers in an oftentimes complicated environment.

Last month, after adult entertainment star Stoya took to Twitter to accuse her former boyfriend and co-star, James Deen, of raping her, the porn industry seemed to reach a sudden tipping point. Deen, the "Ryan Gosling" of porn, is a mainstream star who has performed everything from aggressive hardcore scenes for kink.com to vanilla romances that spurred feminists to write think pieces about how they approved of their daughters masturbating to the man. He owns his own company, James Deen Productions; has threaded his way into Hollywood movies; and was glorified by women as the "feminist" male porn star they could all publicly adore without being deemed gross. His mild, boyish looks helped.

In the wake of the controversy, production studios began to understand that consent on set is a serious, complicated issue that is not going to go away quietly. News spread quickly after Stoya's allegation, and several other women came forward claiming that Deen had sexually abused or violated them either on or off set. Deen soon was exiled from the BDSM super-site kink.com (where he was their top performer), porn company Evil Angel refused to sell any of Deen's new content, the Frisky canceled his sex advice column, and eventually, he himself stepped down from the board of directors at the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee. As more women detailed their stories of on-set abuse at the hands of Deen, more companies had to take action. At the Daily Mail, actress Nicki Blue claimed that after she accused Deen of brutally raping her at a kink.com party on one of the site's forums, her post was removed. At Vocativ, another performer, Lily LaBeau, claimed Deen deliberately ignored the guidelines they had agreed upon before a BDSM shoot and abused her, punching her so hard in the face that her jaw locked. (Two other people on set that day confirmed the allegations were true.)

Read More: Female Porn Stars Stand in Solidarity Against James Deen

While half the public rallied support for Deen's alleged victims, the other half regressed to scrutiny of pornography. These allegations seemed to give anti-porn feminists their dream argument wrapped in a bow: They could argue that pornography is fundamentally bad for women because, as anti-porn feminist Robin Morgan wrote, "Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice."

Deen's apparent hypocrisy bolstered these claims. Although Deen maintains that he never called himself a "feminist," the now-disgraced star supported enough public movements of that nature to have his female fans convinced that he was.In May of 2015, for example, James Deen Productions teamed up with Project Consent to integrate consent into the adult industry. "Inspired by our interview with adult film performer James Deen, we wish to bring the message of consent to more and more companies," the mission statement reads. "Project Consent highly encourage other porn companies in joining James Deen Productions by sending the same message to viewers. By promoting consent, we wholeheartedly believe that any company has the potential to help end the battle against rape culture."

The porn industry creates a particularly difficult environment for reporting sexual abuse. "The pathways to proof are obliterated when it comes to sex workers," says Conner Habib, a gay adult performer, activist, and writer who also serves as the vice president of APAC. "Imagine you are someone who, for your job, has had sex with five guys in one day in a gang bang, and one [man] stepped very far out of line. So, you have to go tell the police that one of the five men violated you. Then your rape kit, which is the only tool [the police] have for evidence and documenting DNA of rapists, is completely worthless."

Aside from this, the pressure to avoid speaking up is huge; performers also have to fear losing their jobs, never being booked again, or developing a reputation as being difficult to work with. As alternative male performer Chad Alva points out, bad behavior is rewarded in the adult industry.

"If the industry wants a safer, more respectful work environment, then it needs to make a conscious effort to stop rewarding troublemakers and miscreants," Alva, who shoots mostly for alternative sites like Burning Angel, says. "When a performer demonstrates genuine sadism, a lack of restraint, or carelessness and then sees a progression in their workflow and income, naturally they are going to think they should continue behaving in a similar manner."

[Hardcore pornography scenes] are an aggressive, combat sport.

Alva details how he has seen performers deliberately ignore the requests of their co-stars. A girl says her one "don't" is being spit on, so the guy lobs one into her face right when the scene starts and does not stop. Pricks like this exist everywhere—this is not unique to adult entertainment—but what about when that spitter is a coveted star that the industry bends over for like he's Tom Cruise?

"Creating new, pre-shoot policy agreements is a great start," Alva says, "but porn is a very aggressive form of entertainment. There [will] likely always be the production crews who are just looking for the hardest cocks, the juiciest asses, and the people who fuck like they're gonna be dead tomorrow." After Stoya's allegation, the company that operates BDSM site wasteland.com and the soft-lit woman-focused site sssh.com formalized the studio's first set of mandatory guidelines, "On-Set Policies and Best Practices." The document establishes rules like "The nature of individual scenes and the sex acts they require will be negotiated and agreed to before the day of the shoot" and specifies that performers have the right to say "no" to any sex act, even "if what you're saying no to is something you've already agreed to." It should be noted that kink.com has a three-page document and checklist performers must fill out, sign, and approve before a scene as well.

Director and performer Dana Vespoli is an award-winning director who focuses mostly on lesbian scenes, and she's known for her aggressive water films, the series Fluid. She got her start as a performer at 31, after an office job led her to dancing and ultra-successful girl-on-girl live shoes for San Francisco's Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater. After talking for a while, Vespoli starts to reference the recent UFC champion fight between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. A boxer herself, Vespoli draws a parallel between hardcore sex scenes and fighting in a ring, surrounded by spectators. She details the moment when Holm had knocked Rousey out cold, yet kept punching until the referee called it.

"It's not personal. No one is really trying to hurt that person, but the goal is to knock them out and win," Vespoli says. "It's like so much of BDSM play, so much of this dangerous play that we do, which relies on safe words and consent. [Hardcore pornography scenes] are an aggressive, combat sport."

Award-winning pornographer Seymore Butts has been in the industry for 20 years, and says he has watched it change from coveted VHS tapes to Twitter clips and titty-fucking pop-ups in the corner of every computer screen. Detailing the ambiguities of consent in porn, Butts (whose legal name is Adam Glasser) says that in the adult industry, "the blowjob is basically the equivalent of shaking hands" and that most performers are aware that, when they step on set, they are walking into a situation where boundaries are blurred. People have sex off-camera, while still on set or in their cars or homes. Performers often get asked to do things that were not discussed beforehand. Sex is a regular occurrence at industry parties.

It's a really weird time for the business and consent. It's not as simple as I thought it was.

"The female performer in particular not only has to navigate all that, but they will most likely experience the additional expectations of sexual favors from agents, directors, company owners, award [show] voters, movie reviewers," Butts says.

"This happened to me when I got into the business: 'Hey, for an extra $200, can we do a POV blowjob?'" says Vespoli. "My boyfriend [also a director] tells me that there are brand-new girls he has [worked with] who are shocked when the shoot wraps and they don't have to blow him," she continues; women new to the porn industry often don't realize that there are plenty of companies with directors that would never put them in that position. "'Oh, our agent told us that is something that might be expected of us'," Vespoli says. "APAC exists, and I wish more girls would go to the meetings and get schooled about their rights."

As a director, Vespoli provides an intimate set: just herself, the performers and crew, and a production assistant. She feels as though performers have an easy time communicating with her, but she acknowledges that consent is not as black and white as the lines on the paperwork signed before the cameras start rolling.

"Sex is this mutable thing, and things can go in different directions," she says. "On both ends, you have to rely on a lot of cues and communication. If two people have never worked together before—or if those people have worked together so much that they make assumptions about each other in the throws of a scene—it's such a slippery slope. It's a really weird time for the business and consent. It's not as simple as I thought it was." Vespoli details a typical list of realities that would stop a performer from complaining about a co-star's behavior: I did not want to get fired, I was too scared, he's a big star, I needed the paycheck. "You have to speak up, even if it is uncomfortable, because [crews] do not always know."

While the accusations against Deen are fairly damning, however, many porn performers speak positively about their jobs, bristling at the idea that abuse in the industry is as rampant as anti-porn feminists would claim. They say that the difficulty inherent in dealing with consent on set extends to understanding the industry as a whole: It's a very complex environment, with specific codes that outsiders do not understand.

"There is an extreme lack of media literacy when it comes to pornography," says Tasha Reign, a UCLA women's studies graduate who performs exclusively for her own content company. "[The public] has no idea what goes on. [Pornography] should be treated like any other genre of entrainment: There are professionals and amateurs, and those are not the same thing. Not every company works the same way. We are not all painted with the same brush."

"Vivid [Entertainment] gave me a checklist before my first movie," says Sydney Leathers, a television production student in Indiana who got into the adult industry as a "hobbyist." Leathers was offered a porn deal after her public sexting scandal with prominent New York politician Anthony Weiner went viral. "I always talk to the male talent beforehand. No one has ever crossed a line with me, and [they] have been very understanding of my boundaries."

There is a lack of information about what an actual sex worker's life is like.

Leathers has been in the adult industry for two years and shot just over ten scenes; she lives in Indiana, still working on her degree, so she admits that she probably hasn't experienced quite the same pressure to push her boundaries for money or fame. "It sounds funny because you go [on set] expecting to be objectified, but most guys do not treat you like a piece of meat," Leathers says. "I have never been in a position where I felt like a director was trying to get something out of me."

Alix Lynx, the petite blonde famous for her small penis humiliation videos and quirky social media presence, says that she has also only experienced mutual respect on set between directors, performers, and personnel. "I have never had any issues with someone going against my wishes, and I know others will say the same about me," she says. "As a performer, part of [your] job is to be respectful of the boundaries your coworkers set."

Habib insists support from non-adult entertainers is simple: "If you are not in porn, your response should be support, compassion, and care for the person who says they were sexually assaulted, then directing your anger to helping, donating, or giving support to sex worker-friendly and decriminalization organizations. That is it. Instead, what is happening is we are getting think piece after think piece about how the porn industry works, questioning if male porn stars can be feminists, rape on set, and so on, all from outsiders who have no right to make those critiques." As any performer will tell you, sex on camera is very different from private sex; just because you aren't a virgin doesn't mean your opinion actually matters.

"It hit me today," Reign says over the phone. "I think the main part of this entire issue is that there is a lack of information about what an actual sex worker's life is like. There is a disconnect. The character I play in movies—of this slutty girl who wants to have sex with everyone—is just a character I am paid to play. But due to the lack of voice given to an adult performer, people don't grasp that is not actually me. What world are they living in? If we can figure out a way to make the American consumer understand that this is a job, like any other acting or stunt job, then maybe that will help turn sex workers into humans."

But doesn't porn survive on the fantasy? I ask. On the "disconnect" between actor and "slutty girl"? Porn stars have to maintain their characters' brand in every aspect of their public lives, including social media. Even if they did understand it, would fans even want to believe that slutty girl was just a fable?

"Well, that's just too bad," Reign says angrily. "Something [had] to come that is so big [to] change how we talk about adult performers. Stoya and James are very big in our industry. [Stoya's movement] could help people understand that sex workers need protection, and yet we do not have it."

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