HEALTH

Consent In Porn: It Takes A Village To Keep Performers Safe

After the quiet cancelation of an industry panel on consent in porn, a rescheduled event took on the difficult questions

HEALTH
(Illustration: Tara Jacoby)
Feb 26, 2016 at 9:34 AM ET

After allegations of abuse by one of the porn industry’s most beloved male performers, James Deen, last December the Adult Entertainment Expo announced the inclusion of a panel discussion of consent in the porn industry. And then, days before the panel was supposed to take place, it was quietly cancelled, leaving some concerned that the industry was squandering an opportunity for an essential conversation about performer health and well being.

But fortunately, the conversation wasn’t abandoned entirely. On February 25, AVN competitor XBIZ Media and Sssh.com teamed up to present “Consent in Porn: Debunking Myths & Managing Realities,” a livestreamed panel discussion watched by about two thousand viewers. Moderated by sociologist Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, who collaborates with Mindbrowse, the panel featured a diverse group of voices from many corners of the adult industry.

But viewers hoping for a public reckoning of porn’s wrongs were quickly disappointed. The bulk of the hour and a half panel was devoted to demystifying the various practices within the industry that ensure performer safety; from performers’ agents doing due diligence to pre-scene conversations and negotiations with co-workers to directors remaining engaged and aware of their performers’ state of mind.

“The narrative around sex workers and porn performers is that we … don’t have agency.” — Mickey Mod

Any insinuation that performers might be “exploited” or require “protection” was quickly dismissed by the panel. “The narrative around sex workers and porn performers is that we … don’t have agency,” noted performer and editor Mickey Mod; later in the panel,  performer Mercedes Carrera echoed this sentiment, arguing that “to use the word ‘protect’ implies that [performers] can’t consent to contracts.”

By and large, panel participants wanted to be very clear about the fact that, for the most part, performers readily choose this work, know what they’re getting into, and are not regularly subjected to nefarious or malicious treatment during the course of their work—no matter what the fantasy storyline they perform might suggest.

Prior to the panel, Vocativ spoke to a few of the participants about what they hoped would come out of the conversation. The most common thread? The notion that—as simple a concept as consent may seem—it can actually be rather complex, and, in porn, it’s compounded by the unique array of individuals who have a hand in any scene. This means not only the performers, but also directors, agents, and anyone else involved in the creation of an erotic fantasy. Everyone must be incredibly mindful to ensure that porn sets are safe, comfortable and conducive to performers speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.

Consent must start with the performers themselves, who need to be self aware enough to acknowledge, and advocate for, their own boundaries, says performer and director Dana Vespoli, who was scheduled to appear in the panel, but had to cancel her appearance. Over the phone, she recounted a story from the first year of her career, a time when she was still discovering her boundaries—but was shooting a lot of rough sex scenes in the process. During one particularly rough blowjob, Vespoli’s mouth began to bleed; the director stopped the scene and reminded Vespoli that she needed to speak up if things went “too far.” It suddenly dawned on her that she wasn’t really aware of what “too far” meant to her.

You want the best product possible. The best product is going to happen when talent feels good.” — Dana Vespoli

That sentiment isn’t an uncommon one, especially for newer performers who are still testing their own limits—or for male performers, who are rarely taught to think about sex in these terms. “Men are not educated in any way to understand … where our boundaries are in the same way as women are,” Conner Habib, a performer and Vice President of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), told me. “I don’t think men would even necessarily know how to identify a feeling of violation.” If a performer doesn’t have the knowledge to understand—let alone communicate—what is, and isn’t, okay for them; it’s nearly impossible for a co-star, director, agent or other advocate to ensure their boundaries aren’t violated.

But while consent necessarily begins with the performers, it should not end there: the production team has an essential role to play as well. As a director, “I worry a lot about performer safety [and] comfort,” Vespoli told me. She does her best to keep the lines of communication open throughout the process of shooting a scene in order to avoid what she calls “buyer’s remorse”—a post-scene feeling of shame and regret that can arise when a scene takes an unexpected, or unwanted, turn.

In her work as a director, Vespoli strongly prefers to cast performers she knows well. If she’s not as familiar with a person, it can be harder to sense of if a scene has gone awry. Vespoli also favors small sets for this reason. The fewer people who are around during filming, the less intimidating it is to stop the action if something goes wrong.

Another important—but rarely discussed—component is the role that agents, who act as a buffer between performer and production company, can play in ensuring performer safety. For Mark Schechter, the president of adult talent agency ATMLA, that means everything from educating new talent about the details of their work, vetting production companies before booking talent jobs with them, and making sure that both talent and production companies have clearly communicated their expectations and obligations—before anyone ends up naked, vulnerable and in the middle of a sex act they might not be comfortable with.

But—even though consent is still an ongoing conversation within the adult industry—it’s important to remember that the porn community is still miles ahead of most of us. The pre-coital conversations about turn ons, turn offs, and deal-breakers that are mandatory on many porn sets aren’t readily found in most American bedrooms. Despite the stereotype of the exploited, helpless porn performer, many porn sets can actually be great models of enthusiastic, well-negotiated consent, in part because porn producers have a strong financial incentive to make sure everyone has a good time on set.

You want the best product possible. The best product is going to happen when talent feels good,” Vespoli told me. Though people outside the industry often talk about the ways that the business side of porn might compromise consent, in many ways, that business aspect – and the desire for quality product featuring enthusiastic performances—is one of the best ways to ensure that consent is a high priority on set.

More The “Porn Oscars” Missed A Big Opportunity To Talk Consent

Though the panel was billed as a discussion of consent practices within the industry, it quickly became clear that there were other pressing issues that some panelists thought meritted discussion. When asked about how consent factors into porn marketing, Habib redirected the conversation to touch on the one aspect of porn he considers truly exploitative: performer pay structure.

Noting that porn performers are almost always paid a one time fee in exchange for the eternal rights to their image, with royalty payments rarely on the table, Habib argued that an industry-wide conversation about equitable compensation was much more urgent than one about on-set consent.

In the panel’s final moments, discussion shifted to one of the most universally troubling issues for anyone in the adult industry: the way stigma and negative stereotypes about sex work and pornography impact people who make their living from porn. Despite porn’s status as widely consumed medium, “as soon as the tissues are in the garbage, we’re awful people,” Habib noted. The disrespect the mainstream world shows the adult industry (which, Mod complained, few understand or recognize as a legitimate business) has a far-reaching, negative impact on the lives of porn performers.

There’s no question that ensuring on-set consent, and safeguarding performer wellbeing, is an important and ongoing conversation. But the ultimate message of the panel was very clear: if consumers are going to hold the adult industry accountable for the ways it may wrong its performers, they need to be prepared to hold themselves accountable as well.