Two years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog called, "Ethics Part I." Shortly after, I conducted a number of interviews with adult industry talent and directors. I was to use these interviews to write an essay.
I did write it - two years ago. It's since had a rocky path getting on to any readable platform. Some of the information appears elsewhere (like the upcoming The Feminist Porn Book), though not in this form.
Instead of waiting longer, attempting more drastic edits, and so on, I think it's best to just post it here. I apologize for the wait. But I think it's just as relevant today.
The Case for Consent: An Examination of Ethics in Porn
They are introduced to me like relics from the past: Andrea Dworkin, Gloria Steinem, and their peers of radical feminist, anti-porn activists. To a postmodern spirit like myself, their ideology appears as archaic as the porn it once lobbied against. I'm convinced that however the adult industry used to operate in the 1970's and 80's, it has changed. Because I am here now, and I make smut for a new generation.
My role as a pornographic performer allows me to function with this degree of naivety. I'm able to wrap myself in an imaginary, porn-positive bubble. According to those around me, to those I associate with, the anti-porn agenda is fading into extinction. And that's what I have believed for some time. That is, until I read a book published in 2010, titled, Empire of Illusion.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Chris Hedges, appears neither as a radical feminist nor a right wing moralist. In fact, his liberal politics often align themselves with mine. But when it comes to pornography, Hedges depicts a reality I find quite different from my own. He writes this of female performers: “The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the woman's physical and emotional degradation” (57).
To endorse this perspective, Hedges recounts the testimony of ex-porn performers like Patrice Roldan. In her own words, she tells the author, “'I thought roughness in porn was OK. I would say, “Treat me like a little slut,” or “I'm your bitch,” or “Fuck me like a whore.” I would say the most degrading things I could say about myself because I thought this was what it meant to be sexy and what people wanted to hear...You are just a slut to those who watch. You are nothing. They want to see that we know that'” (62). While Roldan continues to recount her experiences, Hedges makes the following observation: “As she talks of her career in porn, her eyes take on a dead, faraway look. Her breathing becomes more rapid. She slips into a flat, numbing monotone. The symptoms are ones I know well from interviewing victims of atrocities in war who battle post-traumatic stress disorder” (60).
Hedges goes on to describe the misogynistic selling points plastered on DVD box covers, the equivalent of sexual circus acts performed on set, and the seemingly atrocious exploitation of borderline-unwilling participants. He concludes that “The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy” (72-73).
After setting down my copy of Empire of Illusion, I find it difficult to write off Hedges' findings. After all, his work cannot be categorized as some fringe manifesto. The themes are emulated in other contemporary works, and captured in films such as the 2008 documentary, The Price of Pleasure. Anti-porn feminists like Gail Dines remain vocal in their disapproval of the entire industry. Even the famed linguist and political activist, Noam Chomsky, has gone on record to say that “pornography is a humiliation and degradation of women”#1.
Outside the realm of activism, popular media carries its own anti-porn sentiment. Lie to Me, a television series that appears on the FOX network, recently aired an episode in which a young woman runs away from home, participates in several porn films, and then contracts HIV. The actress who plays the young porn star recites her line, “I can't live like this anymore,” to which the show's lead responds, “Well, you don't have to, do you? That's why we went to that dump, pulled you out of there, and brought you back here.” The show's message is loud and clear: women in porn are victims who need only to be rescued.
Ex-porn star, Shelley Lubben, runs an organization based on that very notion. According to the website for her nonprofit group, Pink Cross, Lubben's goal is to “reach out to adult industry workers offering emotional, financial, and transitional support to those who want out of porn”#2. Archived on that same website is testimony from women who have already escaped the industry. Former porn star, Jersey Jaxin, claims that during her career in porn, she spent much of her free time holding her roommate and crying.#3 Another ex-performer, Sierra Sinn, writes, “My first scene was one of the worst experiences of my life.”#4
I have often felt that criticism from outside the industry stems from a misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge about what transpires both on and off camera. But condemnation from those who have experienced the very workings of pornography is something different altogether. Such claims conjure up a genuine curiosity. During my five years as an adult performer, I've never once met an industry professional who boasted such animosity. Sure, I've witnessed my fair share of complaints. Everyone I know has bad days at work. Even I can attest to instances of exploitation. However, such experiences are not characteristic of my time in porn. They are exceptions, anomalies, or at the very least, events sporadic enough to prevent me from leaving.
When I hear of ex-performers claiming such widespread abuse, I am genuinely concerned. I want to know what experiences have spawned their pain and hostility. Because I am only one person, and perhaps naive to the suffering that other performers have endured at the hands of the adult industry.
It is for this reason that I purchase Shelley Lubben's self-published memoir, Truth Behind the Fantasy of Porn. But within the book, I find little of the expected pornographic horror stories. Instead, I discover the tale of a woman molested as a child, raped as a young adult, addicted to hard drugs, kidnapped, and then nearly forced into prostitution. All of this comes prior to any involvement in the porn industry. In fact, of her 275 page manuscript, only 23 pages deal with her experiences as a performer.
More startling, however, are Lubben's reflections on her short-lived career. Through the lens of her religious beliefs, Lubben gives claim to demonic influence and Satanic possession. She writes, “With six men penetrating me in every hole and way possibly imaginable, I became sicker and more twisted... Satan himself entered me to give me unlimited strength.” (90). Later, after being diagnosed with “Bipolar Disorder, Impulse Control Disorder, Alcohol Dependence, Depressive Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Lubben recalls the following instance of communication with god: “I would have thought it was Schizophrenia after reading the pamphlets, but the Voice was too nice to me... I knew Who it was. God Almighty had been talking to me for years” (168). Passages such as these suggest a disconnect from reality, and a lack of logical assessment in relation to her own experiences.
While Lubben's account is indeed tragic, her narrative sheds little light on the evils of pornography. Instead, it reinforces the notion that childhood abuse, drug addiction, and mental illness often lead to self-destructive behavior and an array of coping mechanisms.
It would be irresponsible of me to categorize the anti-porn movement by the writings of one woman. But equally irresponsible is it for that movement to characterize the adult industry by the extreme examples highlighted by Lubben and her cohorts. Therefore, I find it necessary to provide a counterpoint to those examples. If one is to understand how the industry truly operates, it seems necessary to go to the source.
Armed with my own knowledge and a compiled list of the anti-porn movement's allegations, I approach a number of performers and directors to get their side of the story. I want to know if their experiences validate claims made by the likes of Hedges and Lubben. If they do, I want to find ways in which these negative experiences can be avoided. Further, I want to discover how porn is currently being made with the safety and consent of performers in mind. Because it is my experience that pornography can be produced in an ethical manner, and even be regarded as feminist. But my experience only goes so far. I want to know what others have to say.
My intent, however, is not to depict some white-washed, industry fairy tale. I know what my colleagues and I are asked to participate in, and it's not often making love. Most every dissenting voice has pointed out how pornography documents rough sex. I don't seek to disagree. In fact, one of the first things I ask of my interviewees is to provide examples.
Pornstar, Dana DeArmond, tells me, “I do a lot of just really hard, rough, high energy sex scenes that include spanking, or face slapping, or choking, or gagging.” Another performer, Ashley Blue, adds, “Choking, slapping in the face, not just grabbing the hair, but actually being grabbed by your hair and being pulled in different directions.” Director, Tristan Taormino, provides perhaps the longest list of acts filmed for her line of Rough Sex movies: “I've filmed scenes for this series where there is face slapping, spanking, flogging, hot wax, knives but no cutting, wrestling, spitting, verbal degradation, psychological play, psychological degradation and dominance, some interesting sort of fetish stuff... I think that covers a lot of it.” It does. And if not entirely comprehensive, it should at least validate my point. Aggressive sexual fantasies exist in spades, and pornographers do their best to capture them.
No one's disputing such content exists. It is the performer's relationship to it that often falls into question. Abuse, degradation, and coercion are the charges aimed at participants of such rough sex performances. So I ask my fellow pornographers whether they've ever degraded their industry peers.
Male performer, Wolf Hudson, tells me he's never done such a thing. “I know firsthand that the person I'm working with wants to be there and enjoys what they're doing,” he says. “I love to talk to models before a shoot. I like to get into a kind of camaraderie. I like to set up chemistry with them. So I get an insight into what they're into; their likes and dislikes. I get a sense that I'm not doing anything that's degrading. And if it is in any way offensive to them, I will stop.”
Dana DeArmond's perception is of a similar sort: “I don't feel like I've degraded anyone. I've definitely, as a dom[inant], made girls cry. But I've felt like it was with good reason. I've felt like it was cathartic, and it was something they wanted to feel. I didn't do anything malicious or mean... I extensively discuss with them what is okay and what is not okay beforehand. I ask them, 'Is there anything you don't want me to say to you? Do you not want me to pull your hair? Do you not want me to call you a whore?'”
This conversational testing of limits is something I'm quite familiar with. It's what pornographers often refer to as discussing their do's and don't's. In rougher scenes, it often comes standard, and is even initiated by a member of the production crew. While it may not ensure that every performer enjoys every filmed act, it establishes guidelines in terms of what's allowed to happen on set. According to some, however, such conversation is not always a fail safe.
Porn star, Andy San Dimas, tells me, “You kind of have a talk with your cast mate before your scene. And you say, 'Don't do this to me. You can do this me.' Kind of your do's and don't's. And this girl, I would never disobey her do's and don't's. But before we got into the scene... she said, 'You can do anything to me. You can beat me up, you can slap me, you can talk shit to me. I like being degraded. I like being tortured.' She was basically giving me this free-for-all... So we get into the scene, and right away I can tell she was totally blowing herself up to be something she wasn't. Because as soon as the scene started, she started throwing up and crying... That was really the only time I felt I physically degraded someone.”
I ask San Dimas whether anyone stopped during the scene to check whether the girl was okay. She answers, “Yeah, we did. But she was the one who was stopping a lot. It was more her stopping than anyone else.” This ability to take a break mid-sex scene suggests a certain degree of performer control. By the same frame of logic, however, so does one's decision to continue. But when external forces are factored in, perhaps such a decision is not always so easy to make.
Male performer, Tyler Knight, recalls a situation in which he worked with a girl he believed to have been coerced. “There's one scene in particular, and I'm not gonna mention who the actual participants were,” says Knight. “But I was one of three people. And the girl effectively burst into tears. It was found out after the fact that it was because she had serious reservations against black people. She was, for all intents and purposes, being manipulated into doing an interracial scene. So I'm sitting here trying to work with a girl who's crying. And I wasn't necessarily pissed at the girl. I mean, hell, she could be a Klan's member. That's her prerogative. I was pissed at the director for knowing the situation, and for thinking that an extra hundred bucks would be the cure for her deep rooted point of view, and that it would make the scene go well.”
The example is a perplexing one. The female performer's racial bias effectively brought on her distress. So if Knight is to blame, his role is simply participating as a black man. But the account lacks a deliberate act, or at least intent, on Knight's part. The only allegation could be that he continued on despite his knowledge of the girl's discomfort. “In a situation like that,” continues Knight, “you have to make a value judgment as another human being. Whether you want to continue the scene or have a little pow-wow and talk about it with the director and the female talent, or just say, 'Screw it, it's not gonna happen.'”
The act of coercion, according to Knight, is a financial one: extra money is offered to a performer in hopes that she will continue on with something she'd rather not. In this instance, it doesn't seem entirely unfair to make the comparison to other lines of work. For example, many employers offer increased hourly wages to those who work overtime in non-pornographic careers. To be fair, it is generally assumed that overtime will not prompt an employee to burst into tears. But illustrations aside, pornographic performers are sometimes asked to do things they don't want to do, and are offered more money to do them. Yes, this is a form of coercion, and yes, it sometimes works.
But is financial manipulation the worst porn has to offer? To find out, I ask my interviewees whether or not they have ever felt degraded or taken advantage of.
Performer, Kimberly Kane, tells me, “Yeah, I guess. There's a difference between knowing that's what you're being hired for though. For instance, Zero Tolerance does a line called Who's Your Daddy? And the whole time you have to say, 'Yeah, daddy this, daddy that.' I don't like daddy play, or brother/sister play, or under-18 play. I'm not into that kind of role-playing. So that, to me, was degrading even as a twenty-year-old girl. Because I'm not into it. I guess it's all a level of what you're into.”
To clarify, I ask whether she was aware it was going to be a daddy play scene prior to her participation. Kane answers, “Yeah. They're like, 'Okay. You have to say “daddy” a lot. Because it's called Who's Your Daddy?, and that's the fantasy, and blah, blah, blah.' And it's like, 'Ugh, God. Alright.'” From Kane's description, her discomfort appears minimal enough to avoid refusing the scene altogether. But she still refers to it as degrading based on the fact that daddy play is not something she enjoys or is “into.”
Still, I press further to ask whether she ever felt degraded or taken advantage of in the more traditional sense. “I've had people attempt to,” says Kane. “I had a situation where I met Khan Tusion, the guy from Meat Holes, [a controversial line of porn films]. I was, like, twenty. And he tried to strangle me. This was not even on camera. This was him strangling me in a bathroom somewhere... I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm gonna be murdered, this sucks. Everyone was right. Porn's so evil.' But he's the most evil person to ever come into porn. He's like that nightmare that every mother and father who's child is in porn is like, 'That's who they're working with every day. It's Khan Tusion.'”
Dana DeArmond has a story about the very same man. “I guess I worked for Khan Tusion for Anal Lick Fest and he tried to degrade me, but I laughed at him... I was very amused that this man was trying to figure me out and decode my brain in so many different ways to try to hurt my feelings... He tried to call me old and insult the way I look, and stuff like that. I was like, 'I'm doing pretty well for somebody my age in this business. And I'm pretty fucking hot because people pay me to be naked. So I don't know what you're problem is'... I actually had lunch with him one time, and he tried to choke me in public, and I said, 'Oh dad, you're so funny.' Because, I'm not gonna let anybody try and fuck with me. Not even Khan Tusion can degrade me.”
Both Kane and DeArmond's accounts seem to corroborate each other. They suggest that controversial directors like Khan Tusion strive to make degrading content, and even carry their antics into the real world. But the performers' mention of only one such director may actually paint the industry in a more positive light. Khan Tusion is, by Kane's admission, “the most evil person to ever come into porn.” Thus, the rest of the industry should exist in some less sinister space.
To test this theory, I ask whether my interviewees have ever felt safe on set, particularly when performing in rough scenes. Ashley Blue tells me, “Oh yeah. When I think about everything now, it is really safe. Now I'm older and I see that there are other alternatives. I got into porn. I didn't go down to Santa Monica Boulevard and try to hook. There are different parts of the sex industry. Porn's a really nice way of doing it because you have everybody around you... It's scary to do something new, but now I don't feel scared at all.”
Feeling safe is one thing, but I've been operating under the assumption that many performers actually enjoy their work, even when participating in rough scenes. In fact, the pro-porn assertion is that such scenarios can be self-empowering. So I pose the question, “Have you ever felt empowered during a rough scene?”
Andy San Dimas answers, “The time that I did my DeviceBondage[.com] live show... I felt really empowered because that day was all about me... That was the first time I felt like I was 'in the zone' and really high off the so-called abuse. I had never experienced a forced orgasm before... They had me tied to a cross with a Hitachi [vibrator] tied to a stick that was tied really tightly to my vagina. Meanwhile, I'm being hit, and pinched by these crazy little nipple clamps... I hadn't taken any drugs or anything like that. I was just really, really intensely fucked up from all these different things happening to me, sensory wise.”
San Dimas continues, “During the live feed [on the website], there's a robot voice that's reading the chat to you of people who are watching you. I was thinking, 'All these people are jerking off to me right now. And I'm coming, and I can't stop coming. And they're forcing me to come.' I felt this sense of power. I actually ended up crying a little bit in that scene. But I didn't realize that I was crying until half-way through the cry. It wasn't like I was crying out of being upset, or crying out of feeling abused. I can't really describe it. I was just so high off the energy there.”
Her explanation of sensory-euphoria is not unique. In fact, the feeling is often described by those well-versed in BDSM practice. It is her overwhelming sense of attention that is perhaps exclusive to porn. San Dimas claims her awareness of being put on display actually adds to her empowerment. She understands that her body elicits a reaction in others (i.e. masturbation, desire, etc...) and feels elevated because of it, not despite it.
Wolf Hudson provides his own description of pornographic empowerment. “I'm not really that submissive,” he says. “When I do it on film, I expect a lot from a woman. I want her to completely take over me. Once a person can take over, I feel very righteous as a bottom. I can take so much more. It becomes a challenge. I wouldn't say that I'm trying to gain authority over my dominant, but I'm trying to show them that I can do it.” Hudson's account describes his on-screen submission as almost athletic in nature. In such instances, the sex act becomes a challenge of endurance or goal-oriented achievement.
Given this testimony, I question whether feelings of degradation and empowerment can occur simultaneously. Ashley Blue says, “Yeah. Because there's an ending point. If you can make it to that point where it stops, then you can say, 'Yeah. I did do that.' It's like an accomplishment... It's like strength. It's like, 'What do you bench? Oh yeah, well I took one that was this big.' It's just that physically, I feel stronger.”
It's clear that physical ordeals can instigate such feelings. Yet sensory stimulation and a drive to exceed expectations are not the only ways a performer can achieve empowerment. Dana DeArmond adds, “At the end of the day, when I'm getting fucked, I have someone's cock in my mouth. That's more of a power position than anything else. Because that person has to trust me with their cock in my mouth.”
DeArmond's assertion is a practical one. She derives a sense of power from the knowledge that she can just as easily sever one's phallus as perform fellatio. But this example of a sexual stalemate is not her only asylum. She further addresses the issue in less combative terms.
“I take everything as a whole experience,” says DeArmond. “It's not just that I'm submissive to this person, and I'm dominant to this person. It's all very empowering because it's a lifestyle that I actively choose.” This may be one of the most convincing arguments in support of pornography. Despite what happens on set, women like DeArmond continue to shoot more porn. Even with the argument that financial reasons are a chief motivator, one simple fact remains: the money is typically enough to adequately support oneself - at least prior to the new wave of Internet piracy, and often despite it. Performers who work on a regular basis can easily achieve a six-figure-a-year income.
“I generally feel empowered as a sex worker because it affords me a certain lifestyle,” says DeArmond. Her statement addresses the anti-porn movement's concern that pornography is an example of modern-day slavery. Real instances of such, like sweatshop labor, do not provide workers with the relative luxuries afforded by a performer's income. A disgruntled porn star's hesitancy to leave the industry, if financially based, can be accounted for only by the lack of well-paid career alternatives. So utopias aside, porn provides a means for educated and uneducated women - and men - alike to achieve financial security and monetary success.
But all the money in the world cannot ensure that a performer enjoys shooting porn, or even consents to every act performed on camera. So I go to those who make the films in order to discover how performer participation even comes about.
Director, Eli Cross, claims, “My ideal sex scene is that close to a rape scene,” as he closes his fingers to a minuscule gap. His productions seem a great place to start given such a statement. Because without informed performer consent, Cross runs the risk of creating highly unethical, borderline-illegal content. But according to the director, he does no such thing. “You do not see the normal cast in my features because I intentionally cast people who really like [rough sex],” says Cross. “I don't want to talk anybody into doing anything that they don't want to do... So if I'm going to shoot a really hardcore bondage scene with somebody who's supposed to be raped against her will, I cast that scene with Alex Sanders, Adrianna Nicole, and Julie Knight. Because Julie Knight loves playing rape victim. She had the best time doing that. She has a scream that is blood curdling and at no point during that scene do we ever wink or say, 'Oh no, she's enjoying it.' She's pretty much just getting abused and forced. And at some point, so we could have her stop struggling, she said, 'How about I just go into shock? And I'm just letting them use me.' I said, 'Oh, that would be great.' And she loved it. She had a great time.”
“She actually suggested this?” I ask.
“Yeah, she's totally down,” he responds with no hint of sarcasm.
Cross' twenty-year career in the adult industry grants him a certain knowledge about which porn stars enjoy which particular sex acts. But another way to ensure his performer's eagerness is that when Cross directs, he's typically shooting feature-length porn films. “I hold real auditions. I'll send out scripts. I have days of readings and callbacks,” he tells me. Admittedly, he operates this way to ensure the quality of theatrical performances in his films. Yet, it's also insurance that those cast in his productions are signing on for more than just acting. He wants to know they can deliver the sex too. Cross adds, “I can tell in those meetings who's blowing smoke up my ass, and who really means it.”
Still, I have to ask whether Cross has ever coerced a performer into fulfilling a sexual act. He answers, “I have never in my life, ever, asked somebody to do something that they didn't want to do. With the exception of something that they might normally have been fine doing, but just didn't feel up to. Like, you know, 'I'm kind of sick today. Do you really need the anal?' 'Well, you were booked for anal. It's the last scene of an all anal movie, so yeah, I kind of need the anal.' But even in that situation, I'm not gonna say to somebody, 'You have to do it.' I'm gonna say, 'Decide now before we start shooting.' If you can't do it, no harm, no foul. Go home. I love you. I'll book you next time. But let me know so I can get somebody else in. If you're gonna commit to doing it, and I gotta have it, then do the anal. But that's the business side of it. That's where I respect you as a professional, so respect me as a professional.”
Cross' explanation pegs him as no worse than any other businessman. His demand for mutual respect in the workplace only elevates his craft to a discernible standard. Thus, he exploits his performers purely in the capitalist sense. “Porn is entertainment and it's a business,” Cross continues. “That's all it is. It's all about physicality. So that is the limit that I'm willing to exploit people.”
Photographer and director, Dave Naz, says this about his first porn film: “I didn't really know what I was doing. When I wrote the description for [the film], it was every little detail. I was very meticulous about every sexual act. I was like, 'Oh cool, I can do these kind of, like, perverse things that I'm into and kind of script them out.' But as you know, it doesn't always work out that way... But it was still fun. And yeah, I still like to get a few things in, and if I find that people aren't willing to do it, I just don't hire them.” His conclusion suggests that performers are aware of what they're in for prior to arriving on set. Just to be sure, I ask him, “Do you tell the performers [what you want them to do] beforehand, or when they get to set, or what?”
Naz answers, “Before. I've had a few instances where people wouldn't do what I wanted them to do. And it was either an issue with the agent [failing to give] information to them, or them chickening out. Not that I want anybody to get hanged by hooks or anything, but there's stuff that people feel uncomfortable doing. I'm definitely not out to make people feel uncomfortable, but I also want to make the movie I want to make.”
The agent's role is one not often discussed, so I'm glad Naz brings it up. On many productions, the director has no actual contact with the performer prior to their arrival on set. So the agent often acts as a middle-man, funneling information one way or the other. It's a system bound to produce error. On occasion, performers are sure be provided inaccurate information. But as Naz states, even when a performer knows what's required of them, they may still bow out. So I ask the director what happens in a situation like that.
“Typically, if someone has a problem, they just stop,” says Naz. “I had someone in one of my movies... they were supposed to do an anal scene, and it was all up front. I wasn't trying to hide anything. And, of course, right before the scene, she says, 'I can't do anal. My ass is bleeding.' I'm thinking, 'Oh, great. This is fucking me up.' I can't exactly get on the phone to Spain to ask [the production company], 'Well, what should I do? I've got this performer - the one you want the most - who is refusing to do anal. Should I send her home, or should I continue to shoot her?' I ended up shooting her, and it ended up being the right call.”
Naz appears frustrated at the performer's unwillingness to concede to the scene's original structure, but it should be noted that his compromise (shooting a non-anal scene) is the one put into effect, not the performer's. As exemplified in this instance, a performer can sometimes refuse participation in a sexual act, go on with the scene, and still be paid for it. Such a scenario suggests a profound sense of performer agency.
Still, many directors would rather bypass this brand of concession. As Kimberly Kane says, in regards to her own directorial efforts, “I don't usually hire people that I don't know. I don't experiment with the new girl, and I don't give the new guy a chance. I prefer to shoot 'stallions,' sexual performers, people who I have seen on many occasions blow my mind... I'll put the same fucking girls in all my movies. Because I know they will give me exactly what I want.”
Kane's position is not uncommon. Positive, performance-based relationships between performers and directors are what often ensure a steady work-flow and a rise to relative porn stardom. But is an ability to to perform well under any circumstance the only key to a performer's success? Are there no alternatives to performing in productions with rough and extreme sexual acts?
Nica Noelle runs both Sweetheart and Sweet Sinner, two subdivisions of the production company, Mile High Media. With the former, she directs exclusively girl/girl content. “The fact that you can be more emotional and intimate in girl/girl porn is why I've always preferred watching it, and why I never really liked boy/girl,” says Noelle. It may seem paradoxical, but it's with that same mindset that she started Sweet Sinner, the boy/girl counterpart to her original creation.
NOTE: Noelle has since partnered with AEBN. Her directorial lines are called Candy Girl and Hard Candy.
“A lot of the people... who are watching Sweet Sinner are giving it a chance because they hope I might be able to show them something different,” Noelle tells me. “Because they abandoned boy/girl porn for the same reasons that I didn't watch boy/girl porn: it looks tacky, it looks uncomfortable, there's no intimacy. It looks like the people barely know each other, much less like each other.” Noelle's collected a number of emails from the fans who share such sentiment. She keeps a few of the excerpts in a binder on set. In fact, those who work for her are often asked to read the fan mail in hopes to better understand what Sweet Sinner aficionados are looking for. Noelle explains, “They have some criticisms about the way the guys behave, for one thing. They don't want to see the guys opening up for the camera, they don't want to hear the trash talking all throughout the scene... They don't want the clinical close-up shots of genitals. They want to see bodies touching each other and the couple looking into each other's eyes. They want to see real kissing.”
That is not to say Noelle shies away from anything edgy in her scenes. “It's not always high romance with candlelight and flowers. The sex gets raw and intense. In porn you usually have the raw, rough, gonzo stuff or you have the romantic, vanilla, kind of boring stuff. But Sweet Sinner doesn't stick to just one formula. Sex in real life isn't formula, and sex on film shouldn't be either.”
While Noelle admits to capturing raw, intense performances, she also establishes her niche as an alternative to gonzo porn (i.e. hardcore, often violent sex, plenty of closeups, and little-to-no story). “It's a strange thing to say,” she adds. “But the public does watch porn and say, 'Well, this is the way professionals fuck, so I'm gonna fuck like this too.' They don't realize that the porn stars are fucking like this because the director's telling them to move their hands out of the way and open up for the camera. They don't realize that this is not really the way you have sex. So I think it's very positive to show people actually making love, and touching each other and looking at each other.” In striving to capture this, Noelle effectively creates a space to work for performers who may not wish to participate in extreme, rough sex scenarios. But while existing as an alternative to “typical boy/girl porn,” Sweet Sinner must be defined as atypical. Noelle's brand of pornography alone cannot sustain any single performer's livelihood.
Thus, to define personal choice as inherent to a performer's career, it must be established that alternatives to mainstream pornography exist in more than one form.
The work of director, Tristan Taormino, proves just that. In her attempts to create feminist pornography, Taormino strays from the ideal of capturing a feminist image. “For me, feminist porn is about how you create the product,” she says. “That's really my emphasis.”
Taormino is fully aware of the accusations aimed at the adult industry, especially by those who might, under different circumstances, make up her peers. “Anti-porn feminists fear that everyone is being coerced into everything they're doing,” she says. “So I want to flip that entirely on its head... I want to know where [performers] want to have sex, what kind of sex they want to have, and what pace they want to go. I want them to participate in their own representation. Because I think that is where you're intervening in the argument of objectification. Objectification is like, 'They're just doing what you want. They're like sex robots.' But when the performer is participating in their own representation, that gives them a whole other level of agency and power.”
Given that Taormino puts such care into the process of making her porn, it seems almost inherent that performers participate with the highest degree of informed consent. Still, I ask whether she's had any problems, such as performers not wanting to work with each other. She answers, “Well, the way that I cast is that I usually call the girl up and ask, 'Who do you want to work with?' ... I would say, ninety percent of the time, when women pick guys, those guys tend to like them too. It's a mutual thing. People are pretty smart about this stuff, and aware about who they have chemistry with and who they don't.
“However, the wild card in all of this is the flake factor... On my movie, The Expert Guide to Female Orgasms, I did a ton of research and a ton of interviews to pick the five perfect women for this movie. And then one of them flaked. Everything about the movie revolved around the fact that these five women have very different experiences and stories about how they have an orgasm. I knew them inside and out, the stories, and how they were gonna fit together in this movie. So when someone flakes, it's not like I need a white girl with blond hair and a big butt. I need a person who meets all the criteria I just talked about, and I need to know how the fuck she has an orgasm, and if I can fit that into the movie.
“In that case, it worked out great. But I have had situations where there were last-minute replacements, and I would say those are the most challenging for me. My ideal thing is that the girl is on top of the guy's list, and the guy's on top of the girl's list, and they're crazy about each other. And I get that a lot. I strive for a hundred percent, but I would say I get that most of the time. Because that's what I want to do.”
Taormino's account suggests that even with the best of intentions, things can go awry. Porn exists in a world of flux, and pornographers do their best to adapt to any given circumstance. But at the end of the day, money is at stake and a product must be delivered. The feminist porn model cannot restructure the economics of capitalist exchange simply to prove a point.
To move any further in the direction of non-coerced consent would imply a porn film documented as a sort of found object. Perhaps anti-porn feminists would approve of real-life couples who accidentally leave their cameras running in the midst of making love, and then decide to capitalize on the footage afterwards. But even such theoretical scenarios could be influenced by a number of extraneous factors. The sex could be initiated by one partner, while the other might prefer to read a book. Such is the nature of real-life exchange, sexual or otherwise.
Admittedly, the inherent artifice of pornography allows for greater instances of coercion. The Khan Tusion's of the industry will continue their attempts to degrade performers. Some will even succeed. But categorizing the adult industry by the work of infamous directorial sadists is like characterizing the belief in god by highlighting religious fanaticism. You may not like religion or want anything to do with it. But that doesn't change the fact that most church-going folk are normal people who happen to pray before they eat a meal.
As illustrated again and again, pornographers are just men and women trying their best to make a product. Given that product deals explicitly with sex, it is no surprise that physical, psychological, and emotional aspects of one's self enter into the work. Performers have strong reactions to the scenarios they're asked to participate in. Many times these reactions elicit pleasure, euphoria, and a sense of empowerment. In other instances, they induce feelings of degradation, whether intentional and agreed upon, or not. In the rare cases wherein such negative feelings come about unexpectedly, performers almost always reserve the right to stop a scene, say, “No,” and either cancel a shoot or come to a compromise.
It's true, depictions of rough sex run rampant in pornography. This reality speaks to the nature of human sexual fantasy, and the desire to fulfill it. If one is naive to the possibility of being asked to perform in rough sexual acts, it is only because of the ease in which – primarily female and gay male– performers can enter the industry. A performer does not require the training necessary to participate in many other industries and careers. So if pornography is to be faulted, it's because it allows for the possibility of a performer to work without any prior knowledge of porn itself.
But if we are to respect performers as autonomous beings capable of intellect, choice, and agency, we should respect them as such in other areas of their life. The decision to become a performer is a difficult one. Aside from the potential stigma, porn demands much in terms of one's physicality. Performing is a job, and not everyone is capable of doing it. But once a decision is made to appear in a porn film, a certain degree of responsibility should be attributed to the performer. That responsibility includes continuing to make positive decisions for one's self in regards to one's career and to one's physical, psychological, and emotional well-being.
That said, responsibility also lies with directors, agents, and everyone else engaged in the production of porn. Care should be taken to ensure the safety and health of performers on set, and to confirm their willingness to participate. Examples have already been made as to how this can be accomplished. More go unmentioned. And they're enacted every day.
Still, I have one more question to ask my interviewees. I want to know whether they believe content depicting rough sex should be held to higher standards in terms of conveying consent. Because some porn is made with the intent to appear non-consensual, such as staged rape scenarios. While the performers are most likely willing participants, the consumer may not know this to be true. So is there anywhere to draw a line and demand transparency?
Eli Cross tells me, “There's almost always a give-away that what you're watching is obviously consensual. No staged rape scene that is actually a rape scene is going to work as porn... If you're doing a real rape scene that you're presenting as a real rape scene, you're not gonna see anything. You're not gonna show anything. It's not gonna be lit. There's not gonna be any excuse for it to be shot unless there's some accomplice there who's also shooting it. It's gonna work as something violent that's in the movie, but it's not gonna work as porn.”
Cross continues, “You can look at the Katherine Breillet movie, Baise Moi, where she's got what is supposed to be a rape scene, and it was all controversial because it was hardcore. Well, it's a rape scene where the girl's opening up for the camera... If it were an actual rape scene, then that girl's not gonna be pulling her hair out of the way when she sucks his cock. She's not gonna be sucking his cock. She might be forced on to it, but she's not gonna be helping... I don't care how well they act it, I don't care how well they play it. If they are at any point making it porn, it's not going to work as a rape scene.”
Cross' point is valid. However, he may have a leg up on the common spectator. After all, he's well-versed in the language of pornography and knows exactly what to look for. In terms of establishing on-screen (physical) consent, Cross demonstrates a tactical advantage. But there may be concerns he fails to address.
Tristan Taormino says, “I think when you get to simulations of violence and rape, there absolutely has to be a higher standard. Because the fact of the matter is women are raped in this country. And that's reality. It's not just fantasy. That needs to be addressed. It has to be addressed. You're not making this in a vacuum. So I guess I want people to have some awareness of what it means.”
If such standards were put in place, they may not have as drastic an effect on porn as one might expect. Companies such as Kink.com already employ before-and-after interviews to establish consent. But of all the performers I talk to, not a single one claims these interviews actually effect the sex scenes.
It is perhaps the cultural ramifications that serve to be most profoundly influenced. As Taormino points out, porn does not exist in a vacuum. It could be that increased use of implementation designed to convey consent (such as interviews) might leave the anti-porn movement with fewer options but to bite their tongue. Further, it could help facilitate discussions around rough and violent sexual fantasies, and label pornographers as not only responsible to each other, but to their consumers.
But at the end of the day, pornography is primarily a form of entertainment. It should be held accountable to the same standards placed on other forms of capitalized entertainment, not subject to more of them. If standards are to be implemented, I believe they should be self-enforced. The history of censorship is too awash with personal subjectivity and bias to delegate something as intricate as sexual fantasy/practice to any single person or organization. It is the pornographer's responsibility to operate with transparency should they find it worthy of respect. And it is the consumer's responsibility to seek out such content should they wish to see more of it.
If you, as a consumer, don't know where to begin, start by looking up any number of the people mentioned in this essay. You may not receive an individual response, but there's enough information out there to point you in the right direction. I promise.