Consent in Porn Debate Sheds Unprecedented Light on Myths, Issues

Feb 26, 2016 4:51 PM PST

LOS ANGELES — Never before had the issue of consent in porn been formally addressed by industry insiders, let alone on a worldwide level, as it was on Thursday via a live web broadcast jointly produced by XBIZ and Sssh.com.

It was an unprecedented insider look into the complex issues of consent, encompassing how performers and consumers can make better informed decisions, what communication systems already exist to proactively ensure consent at all stages of a shoot and why consent extends beyond sex to impact personal branding and revenue streams.

Moderator Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, author of “Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment,” guided the discussion between panelists Mark Schechter of ATMLA, Mercedes Carrera, Nina Elle, Mickey Mod, Dee Severe of Severe Society Films and Conner Habib.

The event took place in a speakeasy-like studio hidden behind the façade of a retail store. It was a symbolic setting, exemplifying the disparity between public perceptions held by non-industry “civilians” and insiders intimately familiar with porn production. From the exterior, the studio resembles a grimy establishment, but the brightly lit interior is actually an immaculately maintained space with an upscale bar, classic cars and scholarly patrons. Similarly, “Consent in Porn: Debunking Myths and Managing Realities” offered unvarnished transparency, as eloquent luminaries underscored that adult is one of the most rigorously and pristinely self-regulated entertainment industries on the planet.

Dr. Chauntelle first explored consent at the agency level with Schechter, president of Adult Talent Managers LA, asking him how he facilitates connections between talent, directors and production.

“Luckily for us, the industry is relatively small, so we know all the players," Schechter said. "We know what they produce, we know how they produce... what their final product is.”

Delving deeper, Dr. Chauntelle inquired about the vetting process when a performer on Schechter’s roster expresses interest in doing a new sex act for the first time on camera.

“They’re already consenting in terms of their desire to do it, but there are different levels of extreme, for example in BDSM," Schechter explained. "So, Kink is a very good client of ours, so the first thing we do when a performer gives us the indication that they would like to work for Kink... we say okay, have you watched every single aspect of the 10 to 12 websites and products that they produce?" 

Dr. Chauntelle observed, “This gets us into the idea of informed consent because… you do take steps… I’m sure it varies from case to case… to make sure that the performer is also informed.”

Nodding, Schechter said, “Whenever we have a situation — which rarely happens — that a performer is actually scheduled to work a particular type of scene, and then they get there and it’s not what they envisioned — so they don’t want to move forward with it... we have certain checks and balances before we actually send that person to set... the checks and balances are simple. We send them a very detailed email description of what they’re doing. We also give them links to the website and have them confirm they’re comfortable with it."

Pressing, Dr. Chauntelle asked, "Where does the line of responsibility occur between performers, producers and agents?"

"The ultimate decision clearly lies on the performer," Schechter said. "But there’s a shared responsibility from the producer to properly... describe the production details, for the agent to properly inform the performer and for the performer to give the ultimate consent."

Conner Habib, vice president of Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), framed the lack of informed consent as part of a larger cultural dynamic. “I just want to add that there’s a responsibility on the public at large, not just performers, because nobody who is a performer knows everything about the porn industry when they first start making porn, and one of the reasons why is because we have such a porn-negative and sex-negative culture… this sort of line between what people know about porn before they’re in it and what’s on the other side of that line once they get in it, there’s a pretty huge gap there and there shouldn’t be that gap. So, people should have access to more knowledge and more education, but unfortunately our culture is prohibitive of that kind of culture.”

This lack of data also affects academic understanding of porn, Dr. Chauntelle pointed out. “As a sociologist and a researcher who’s been involved in this area of study for over a decade now, there are no demographic captures, there’s no average income… how many people are actually in the performer pool or how long their average career lasts… this is information that we know about every other industry out there, and yet we don’t know that about porn, and part of the reason why is because we’re very sex-phobic, very sex-negative and the dollars are just not there to research the area.”

While cultural complexities and insufficient research may muddy clearer standards, BDSM and fetish director Dee Severe encourages simple honesty among directors and performers to create a pro-consent environment. “Everyone needs to tell the truth at the planning process," she said. "Workers shouldn’t have wishful thinking about what they can do… just because it’s your fantasy… if you can’t physically do it, please don’t pretend 'oh, I’ll be able to do this' and then you get on the set and no you can’t. So... there should be truth-telling at each and every level, agents, producers and the performers… it’ll go a long way.”

Echoing Schechter's earlier point, adult performer Mercedes Carrera placed the ultimate onus on the talent. “It’s a performer’s responsibility to choose which roles to take," she stated. "I personally do not do sub roles. I won’t be tied up, because eventually they’ll have to untie me, and there will be a problem! So we have a responsibility as performers to do roles that we’re comfortable with."

Adult performer Nina Elle also does not do sub roles. “I’m in the same boat as she is, I know myself, and I think the key as a performer is to know yourself," she said.

Once communication is established, there is still the issue of having sex with someone a performer may not have a natural connection with, which Habib believes non-industry people have a difficult time understanding in the context of consent.

“We don’t get to choose with great frequency… our scene partners… so already this complicates the question of consent," he said. "From the outside perspective, you’re not going to be having sex with someone you’re not attracted to. If the porn industry decided to only have people have sex with people they’re attracted to, there would be… a lot less scenes.”

More mundane realities like paperwork and contractual obligations also complicate consent. Carrera explained, “As a civilian coming into the industry I had absolutely no idea how much paperwork there is… I'm handed about 20 sheets of paper, a big contract that says here’s your payment information, what you’re doing, do you consent to this, there’s consent videos before and after a scene."

Severe sees it in more cut and dry terms. “The main thing about 'on set consent' is every performer needs to know that if they’re having a problem, they can stop the scene," she said. "Some performers don’t feel comfortable doing that because they think the director’s going to be mad at them and they won’t get hired again, or they’re going to get fired. So a lot of times people kind of just grit their teeth and they get through it, but that’s a completely wrong atmosphere… and it’s the director’s responsibility to let people on set know that if they’re having a problem, all they have to do is say 'hold,' even if it’s something they previously agreed to.”

Once consent has been established, Dr. Chauntelle asked, “From the performer’s standpoint, how is consent negotiated as the scene is unfolding, because I would imagine there is quite the interpersonal dynamic occurring?”

BehindKink.com editor Mickey Mod responded, “You know when you get to set, you often have very little time to make a connection with the person you’ll be working with, so even before the scene starts, there is a conversation that happens with your scene partner… what are your hard limits… do you like this sort of style, do you like choking, do you like to be tied up, do you like name calling. That’s something that is very common in the BDSM environment.”

In addition to performers establishing boundaries with one another, Schechter said, “I would like to point out that the industry continues to evolve better, more efficient and more safe [processes]… I think if this panel played out five, 10, 15 years ago, I think we’d be hearing a completely different story. The industry was much bigger in terms of quantity of production companies and now I think we’ve experienced a consolidation over the last five to eight years, and so it’s a very close community, there’s self-policing involved, everybody pretty much knows everybody… so you know, these lists of consent for performers-to-performers, a 'yes' list and a 'no' list, I keep one of those for every one of my performers.”

Carrera emphasized that no matter the systemic checks and balances already in place, performers shouldn't be afraid to speak up. “A lot of the negative points that we hear have to do with performers afraid to speak, but just because I’m afraid to speak doesn’t mean there’s actually a repercussion to me speaking.”

Circling back to the importance of agency representation, Elle believes, “It’s really important that the producer establish boundaries on set, but also it goes all the way back to the agent. The agent not putting you on [undesired] sets especially for people new to the industry… I think it’s very important to have a good agent."

Dr. Chauntelle asked, "How can a new performer coming into the industry know a good agent?" to which Elle replied, “Google the shit out of them!” Carrera underscored the importance of personal research. “It’s really easy to do some due diligence on who you’re working for… whether you don’t have an agent or you do have an agent… it’s really not as difficult in the porn industry as it might be taking a job teaching English in southeast Asia.”

The discussion soon turned to how consent can tie into a performer's personal life.

"Just because you see me do something, I play this character with that sort of sexual energy, doesn’t mean that’s who I am 24/7," Mod said. 

Schechter added, "Just because a performer has done something on camera professionally, doesn’t mean that’s what they do in their everyday life. That being said, on the other side of the spectrum, we have a performer that has indicated they have something they want to try to do, my first question to that performer is 'have you done anal in your personal life?' If the answer is 'no,' we’re not even going to the next step. If the answer is 'yes,' my next question is 'did you enjoy it?' And those are very important questions because if it’s not enjoyable in terms of consent, then it’s not going to play well on camera. They should stick with things that they enjoy doing.”  

Consent is also a moving target, Carrera points out, since adult performers sometimes find their natural sexual preferences evolving over time. “I think what people don’t get is when we’re talking about porn performers, we’re really kind of sex athletes," she said. "You say you can only go this fast, and then you come in and find out you can go way faster... so it is a broadening of consent. Being around people who are authentically honest about their sexuality I see a broadening of these binary gender roles, sexual preferences… not black and white, it’s a beautiful rainbow. And it’s interesting because it’s the outside world that imposes their binary understanding of what we do onto us but within it, we’re actually in Technicolor."

Taking a question from the Twitter audience, Dr. Chauntelle read, “It seems like all performers are empowered and accountable. How do you protect talent and producers from performers who don’t set boundaries and then later claim they were victimized?"

Carrera was quick to challenge the inherent assumptions behind the question itself. "To use the word 'protect' implies that the person does not have sovereignty, and has no ability to consent to contract," she explained. "You cannot absolve yourself of consent post-facto because you feel you’re unhappy. This is where the learning process comes in… we cannot protect people from their own decisions."

Severe again encouraged honesty. "It’s also the responsibility, especially with new people, to make sure that they know they can stop the scene," she said. "If they’re uncomfortable, please say something."

Consumer demand also contributes to the kinds of sexual acts being filmed. Schechter observed, “I believe there’s a common misconception out there that the production is based upon gathering up all these sex crazy people out there and filming them so that they get exploited. Really that’s not how it works. It’s the consumers that drive the production, that steer performers into an industry that they monetize [through] what they want to do."

Exploring those market forces, Dr. Chauntelle asked, "What about the way porn is marketed? How does consent operate in terms of how porn is sold, what we see on the shelves?"

Carrera thinks marketing stereotypes should be transcended by first embracing them. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a big butt Latina babe, because there are stereotypes and then there’s what we project onto the stereotypes," she said. "And for me, I have a lot of those markers. Latina, grew up poor, I’m actually on the autism spectrum... but there’s something empowering about taking that back.”

Payment structures impact marketing, according to Habib, who believes, "As far as consent in marketing… a huge problem is we get a one-time fee rather than royalties. A company without consent can use my image for my life and beyond. Of course, I agree that we sign contracts, that we can’t post-facto change consent. Performers don’t always have the best idea of just how their images will be used."

Schechter challenged Habib's characterization. “Conner, I’d like to challenge that a little bit," he responded. "I’ve been in the industry for 18 years, I’ve only been an agent for three and a half. I started in the industry as an affiliate. Somebody that has the ability to generate [Internet] traffic and make a profit. I think what’s lacking is the education process for the performers to take full advantage of their brand and of their marketing ability. Most, if not all production companies have distribution outlets that are on the internet... so, it’s really a matter of just a little bit of extra homework and work ethic to follow your product and assist yourself in monetizing your brand with that product. I’ve got a number of [studio] clients who have difficulties selling their product. And they come to me and say they only want to shoot performers who will help promote their product after it’s out on the market. So, the royalty factor is there but performers do have to go out there and get it.”

Disagreeing with the notion that performers should be expected to promote wholly owned scenes, when it mainly profits producers, Habib said, “There are problems of consent about labor, there are problems of consent about wages.”

Although larger studios may be able to afford paying royalties, Severe reminded the panel that smaller producers are on a tighter budget. “When we’re talking about smaller producers, trust me we don’t have enough money for royalties," she said. "Between tube sites and piracy, I mean, we’re basically making a decent middle class living.”

Carrera sees these challenges as opportunities for entrepreneurs, rather than exploitive top-down economics. “The thing about the porn industry, it’s a very interesting conundrum, because on the one hand, we are kind of disowned by the general industry because of 'porn!' and 'sex!' so we’re actually one of the last free market economies. Is it exploitive? No, here’s why. It would be exploitive if people were being forced to sign contracts and absolve themselves of their image and likeness in perpetuity because they had no choice, but the reason the industry works that way is the upside is still so great. And the opportunity to monetize your image is still so great. Less than one-tenth of performers make a career out of this, because it’s a competitive industry, but when it ceases to be competitive, the downside is so great."

Shifting the conversation back to consumers, Dr. Chauntelle asked what they can be doing to better support performers and promote consent through their purchasing and viewing choices. 

Habib thinks the fundamental issue for consumers to resolve is their own prejudices against pornography. "Why do we have a huge audience — you know, consumers are the largest sector of the porn industry — that like, jerks off to us and there's still this sort of conflict... thinking we did something good for them. Instead, it’s like as soon as the tissues are in the garbage, we’re in the garbage with them. Why do you hate people that make you feel good? So, what can you do better to decolonize and deprogram your perceptions that sex workers are fucked up, and that you can enjoy your sexuality without hating us… let’s demystify that a little bit… what can you do to like stop endorsing this stigma which is at the heart of every problem.”

Consumer support of porn is also critical, Severe said. “The other thing is, please pay for your porn, I mean if we all had more money, a lot of these problems would go away.” She added that the porn industry itself is a very positive and supportive community. “You know, porn people are the nicest people in the world... this really is the nicest, most interesting, most pleasant experience I’ve ever had in my life. It really makes me sad that people don’t see that, because people still think that we’re desperate, dumb and drug-addicted. I really want people to open their eyes.”

Elle agreed. “You know, every industry has its vices," she said. "Wall Street, they do drugs there too. So, at the end of the day we are all just normal people."

Carrera also pounced on the discrepancy between the reality of porn and what viewers project. “Stop projecting your problems onto us… go to hypnotherapy… because you’re seeing things through your lens.”

The industry-wide camaraderie separating "civilians" from porn insiders was described by Habib as a crucial support system. “In the industry, we do all stick together, even if we might disagree on how the best way to support each other is," he said. "There’s still active forces always working against us. To bring it back to consent, there are... anti-sex work feminists and their governmental cronies... neuroscientists who support what they’re saying, this kind of pseudo science. This kind of nonsense.

"Look, the thing is, we say we want to do and be in porn," he continued. "And then they say to us we can’t really consent to that because we’ve been brainwashed. Performer consent is already a problematic concept... [let alone] if you have a society that’s really screwed up about sex. So, when people are asking us, every online journalist asks about consent in the industry, as if they know more than people who constantly navigate it. The thing is, it’s not a problem of consent for us. We have a lot to offer the rest of the world when it comes to understanding consent."

As the debate came to a close, panelists ultimately concluded that the adult industry is a tightknit sex-positive community with thorough vetting systems already in place to ensure proper consent. However, like other industries, opportunities exist to refine upon existing processes and protocols. But most important, is the collective desire of the adult industry to continually push for optimal standards.

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