James Deen And The Limits Of Porn’s Consent Culture

"No lists" give porn performers control over who they work with. But do they always work?

Dec 10, 2015 at 4:55 PM ET

Shy Love, a longtime porn performer who runs the adult talent agency The Vip Connect, represents more than 80 women. Roughly 20 to 25 of them, she estimates, refuse to work with James Deen.

“They just thought he was too aggressive, they didn’t like his style of shooting,” Love told Vocativ. She won’t work with him either, in fact, because she didn’t like how rough he was during performances—although she emphasizes that she never felt that he was abusive. “He kept grasping me down and tried to take control of the scenes like I was a little girl,” she said. “I’m very much a dominant person and don’t like to be pressed down.”

Love and the clients she has who won’t work with Deen signal to agents and directors their preference through the use of something called a “no list,” a tally of individuals a performer will not work with. These lists, which are not necessarily about people who have done something objectionable—an actor, including Deen, could show up on someone’s no list for a reason as mundane as lack of chemistry— are a widespread practice in the porn business. They are just one of many ways in which the industry, which may seem anarchic and care-free to people just watching the occasional video at a tube site, has attempted to codify informed consent. But the past week, in which a slew of performers have come forward with accusations against Deen of sexual assault, physical violence, excessive roughness and boundary violations—claims he recently denied in The Daily Beast—has raised questions about the strength of these safeguards.

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No lists are a largely informal affair—there is no master database. Instead, performers communicate their “no’s” to agents, directors or anyone booking them. Sometimes directors maintain their own records of who will not work with whom.

The no list is different from a “limits list,” although they are sometimes called by the same name. Limits lists are act-based checklists used throughout porn, but particularly in BDSM scenes, that detail, often exhaustively, what the performer is and is not OK with—everything from kissing to corporeal punishment to verbal humiliation. Kink can mimic violence and abuse, and limits lists protect performers in such situations by detailing in advance the exact boundaries of their consent. Last week, Lily LaBeau told Vocativ that Deen had violated her no list of acts, which prohibited the use of cattle prods, by holding one by her head during a performance.

Limits are also spelled out in less extreme porn scenarios. In the mainstream industry, performers detail which sexual acts they will perform on camera. Sometimes this is based on individual performers’ comfort levels, but it’s often more calculated than that. It’s common for a female performer to slowly expand the range of acts that she will perform—going from standard “boy-girl” scenes that involve oral and vaginal sex to more taboo acts like anal or gang bangs—in order to build suspense around her career. More taboo acts frequently come with higher pay rates.

“The top tier people have the luxury of saying, ‘I can have a no list a mile long.'” — Tristan Taormino

The subject of no lists arose shortly after the first allegations against Deen. Ashley Fires, the third woman to publicly accuse Deen of abuse, told the Daily Beast, “The reason I put him on my no list was because he almost raped me.” Sydney Leathers, a porn performer best known for her role in the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, also alleged that Joanna Angel—Deen’s ex-girlfriend, who last week accused him of abuse—had warned her against working with him. Leathers told Vocativ that she had put Deen on her no list shortly afterwards. Then, on Saturday, retired porn actress Bree Olson took to the live video-streaming app Periscope to speak out against what she said was Deen’s excessive roughness, and said she had put Deen on her no list.

There is no one explanation for why one performer becomes another performer’s “no.” “The reasons a person lands on it is as varied as the person himself,” said Nina Hartley, a veteran of the industry, in an email. Her no list is, she said, populated by men she thinks are “assholes,” “too well-endowed for me” or someone with whom she has “zero chemistry.”

No lists are typically a “no questions asked” affair. “You don’t have to have a reason, and you don’t ever have to explain your reason to the booker,” said porn performer Lorelei Lee. “It might be someone you met or worked with and had a bad experience, or you might have a friend who’s told you something about that person that lands them on your no list, or you might just get a bad feeling about someone, or every so often, it could be something trivial.” Lee noted that she had a friend who’d put a male performer on her no list because he had a slight foot deformation.

No lists can “feel like a place of autonomy for women,” as Tristan Taormino, a feminist pornographer and sex educator, puts it. But Lee says the system has issues. “One flaw is that there are fewer male performers than there are female performers, and the male performers usually work with the same directors again and again,” she said. “That means that if you’re a female performer and you want to work with a certain director, you’ll know which male performers they like, and you’ll feel pressured to work with and pretend to like those people.” Lee says this pressure is greater when you’re a new performer still making a name for herself and “feel like you can’t be picky.”

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Despite the aura of control that no lists provide, it can feel especially difficult to put a performer as popular as Deen on one. In LaBeau’s case, she continued working with Deen even after he caused what she told Vocativ was her “most traumatic” experience in the industry, because she felt she had to for the sake of her career. “The reason I couldn’t put James on my no list is because he’s so prolific in the industry, he’s so well-respected to the mainstream world and nobody had spoken up about him to that point,” she said. “That would be limiting my work.”

Taormino notes that there have been women who have gotten to the top of their porn careers only working with a handful of people, but they are the exceptions. “The top tier people have the luxury of saying, ‘I can have a no list a mile long,'” she said. “The people who are on the b-level and c-level are probably being encouraged by both producers and agents to be as flexible as possible.”

“Usually the performers on your no list don’t know they are on your no list,” said Lee. But sometimes they do find out. Fires, who said she was frequently pressured to work with Deen, told the Daily Beast that Deen asked her to lie about why she refused to work with him.

Some directors, like Taormino, have adopted more of an enthusiastic consent model, asking their performers for “yes lists” detailing who they most want as co-stars. “I say, ‘Who are your top five favorite performers and who is your absolute first choice?'” she said. Taormino, who hasn’t directed a scene in two years, says that Deen was one of the most frequently requested names when she was shooting. “People requested him at the top of their list all the time,” she said.

“My tears were very real in that scene, because he hurt me so bad.” — Bree Olson

It isn’t just women who maintain these lists, although it’s less common for men. “I put a girl on my no list because I don’t like the way that she performs,” said porn actor Derrick Pierce. “I didn’t feel she took direction very well and I felt it damaged the scene.” But Hartley says men in the industry tend to face pressure to “prove you’ve got what it takes to be a porn stud” and that they can perform with virtually anyone, especially at the start of their career.

During her Periscope broadcast, Olson said she did put Deen on her no list but then was allegedly pressured into taking him off by a production company. She said that she ultimately took him off her list and shot the scene. Olson went on to allege that in the resulting scene Deen hit and choked her too hard, and that he repeatedly pinched her in such a way that could not be seen on-camera.

“My tears were very real in that scene,” she said, “because he hurt me so bad.”

Some of the accusations against Deen could be used as evidence that no lists actually work—after all, Vocativ found more examples of women who appear to have successfully declined to work with Deen than the other way around. But in the cases of Olson and LaBeau, financial concerns and industry pressure allegedly got in the way. Even after an alleged violation of her limits list, LaBeau said she did not feel she could refuse to work with Deen due to his stature in the community. Clearly, money complicates consent—and that’s true for any industry, not just porn.