How to Talk About Consent Like a Porn Star

In the wake of the James Deen rape allegations, we talked to industry insiders about how actors say yes on set.

Porn actor and producer Stoya<a href="http://www.apimages.com/metadata/Index/REX-AP-2946172p-The-Canyons-film-premiere-70-/f350e9a9ac8f4843b352f7ccc742275c/8/0">REX/AGF s.r.l.</a>/AP


For the past several years, porn star James Deen has been at the top of his industry. Known for his mainstream crossover appeal and popularity among women, Deen once told reporter Amanda Hess it was his “nonthreatening, everyday look” that gave him a leg up in the industry. (Indeed, one woman called him “the Ryan Gosling of porn” on Nightline in 2012.) Though he doesn’t identify himself this way, lady mags and news outlets alike labeled him a feminist.

Then, on November 28, porn actor and producer Stoya tweeted that Deen, her former boyfriend, had raped her. The revelation rocked the relatively small adult-film community, and sparked a Bill Cosby-like cascade of allegations—some of which involved on-set incidents. At least 13 women have shared stories so far, ranging from excessive roughness to rape; Deen has since denied the claims.

American pornography, an estimated $10 billion industry, has years of knowledge to contribute to the cultural and legislative debate over how to define sexual consent: According to sexologist Carol Queen, porn has been grappling with these questions for decades. This week, as porn’s practices have come under scrutiny following the allegations against Deen, we decided to ask adult actors, researchers, and advocates about how they handle consent. Here’s what they had to say.

How does the porn industry talk about consent? “There is a more developed everyday conversation about consent that goes on in the industry than you can find anywhere else,” says Constance Penley, who teaches a class on the history of porn at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

“There is a more developed everyday conversation about consent that goes on in the industry than you can find anywhere else.”

The conversation starts during contract negotiations, Penley says, when actors, often represented by agents, agree to the number and gender of partners, the kind of sexual acts, and how much they’ll be paid for a shoot. The formality of the arrangement tends to increase with the size of the production company, ranging from verbal agreements on minor shoots to the three-page “limits” packet that performers fill out for Kink.com, a major producer of BDSM pornography.

Still, consent in a contract is just paperwork. Sovereign Syre, who’s been in the business for six years, says that before every shoot she’s done, she also has talked to her co-stars about boundaries and preferences. The conversation continues throughout the scene. Even directors she’s known for years, Syre says, will ask before tucking in the label on her underwear or rearranging her hair. If, during filming, things get too intense, actors on BDSM shoots use agreed-upon safe words. To stop, “red.” To slow down, “mercy.”

“Being on a porn set, there should be far more room for you to convey those boundaries,” says Cyd Nova, a porn performer, producer, and the program director of the St. James Infirmary, a sex-worker-friendly clinic in San Francisco. Even if someone doesn’t say no or use the safe word, professional adult actors are better equipped to notice when their partners are bothered or unenthusiastic, Nova says. “You’re paid to understand and engage with people sexually.”

Doesn’t money change things? Of course. The mental, emotional, and physical calculus that most people use to determine their sexual boundaries shifts on set, where adult actors also have to consider their income. When they’re under financial pressure, they might feel as if they can’t afford to have a strict “no list.” “When you’ve got $1,000 on the line, there’s a psychology at play that says, ‘I’m willing to do it because I need the money,'” Syre says. Still, “that doesn’t mean that they deserve to be abused.”

It helps to be able to say no. Newcomers to the industry might not know they have that power, or they might be concerned about losing work, explains Conner Habib, vice president of the Adult Performers Advocacy Committee. (APAC is the closest thing porn actors have to a union. Deen resigned from its board after the allegations began to surface, though it’s still headed by his girlfriend). In part, it depends on the director: Most are receptive when performers ask to stop or change the scene, while Habib says others have asked him to reconsider his limits. A few are more insistent. “I’ve said no and had a director be like, ‘You’re not the director,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t care,'” Habib says.

“There have been jobs I’ve gone on where I went home and I said, ‘I don’t want to do that again, or I don’t like that person.’ I don’t think I’ve been traumatized by it. But I see that potential.”

Performers also may agree try new sex acts on camera, signing up for more extreme shoots to make extra money, only to realize later that they felt traumatized by whatever they agreed to do, Syre says. “There’s this larger dialogue going on about how can you consent to an act that is dynamic,” she says. “There have been jobs I’ve gone on where I went home and I said, ‘I don’t want to do that again, or I don’t like that person.’ I don’t think I’ve been traumatized by it. But I see that potential.”

Habib says his consent has been violated on camera—it’s just not anything he would label as rape. “I’ve definitely done scenes where I had a performer who just kept sticking his thumb up my ass,” Habib says. He stopped the scene and told the man to quit it. “And then he did it again.” Habib walked away for a few minutes. “When I came back, he said, ‘I just totally forgot.'” They finished the scene, but Habib created what he calls an “inward boundary”: If the man did it again, Habib would quit the shoot. “In my opinion, he’s someone who shouldn’t have worked in porn because he wasn’t able to listen.”

What are porn actors’ options for reporting rape? For now, there’s no protocol for reporting rape aside from going to authorities outside the industry. One obvious option is law enforcement—not an attractive choice for many people facing the stigma of sex work. Tori Lux says she decided not to tell the police that Deen raped her on set because of the common belief that women in porn can’t be assaulted. Likewise, Nicki Blue told the Daily Mail that she was afraid the police wouldn’t believe her story about Deen: “When you’re an adult actress, especially in BDSM, and you go to a cop and say, ‘Oh I’ve been raped by this guy after doing a scene,’ they are not going to take you seriously, like if you were a normal person.”

Alternatively, actors could file reports with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates reports of workplace sexual assault (the industry is based in the San Fernando Valley, with 60 to 70 percent of US adult films shot in Los Angeles county). But several performers told us that battles over mandatory condom regulations have alienated workers from the agency, and Cal/OSHA has not received any sexual-assault complaints from the adult entertainment industry in the last 10 years.

“If you say that you’re assaulted at work, some producers may decide they don’t want to work with you because they see you as a liability.”

Still, actors who consider reporting sexual assault to their producers and directors may be afraid of backlash, Habib says. A woman identifying herself by her initials, T.M., told LAist that she was afraid talking about Deen would hurt her career; Kora Peters says her agent at the time of her alleged rape told her she should be “honored” that Deen wanted her. The fear of blacklisting isn’t far-fetched, according to Nova: “If you say that you’re assaulted at work, some producers may decide they don’t want to work with you because they see you as a liability.”

In the absence of mechanisms for reporting and accountability on set, performers try to warn each other about actors who push limits—the same kind of rumors some performers reported hearing about Deen. According to Syre, some circles of performers have successfully shut out men who became known for abusing their girlfriends. But for those who are new to the industry or lack connections, word of mouth is “not very foolproof,” Nova says.

How will the Deen allegations affect porn moving forward? It’s difficult to say for sure, though at APAC’s last meeting of performers, directors, and producers, attendees discussed designing a possible industry-wide reporting system. What is clear is that just because porn has its own “best practices” doesn’t mean that people follow them. Even with Kink.com’s limits checklist, Ashley Fires, Nicki Blue, and Lily LaBeau all allege that Deen assaulted them under its supervision. There are rules, and then there are rule breakers—just as in any industry, Penley says. “This does not represent porn,” said Joanna Angel, a prominent alt-porn director and actor who spoke about her past relationship with Deen to radio host Jason Ellis last week. “This represents a specific individual, and I do not want the public to blame porn for anything.”

Yet several industry-specific factors, from the lack of reporting options or the stigma that keeps women from talking to the authorities—or convinces them that speaking out would invite attacks on their community—work to keep many sexual-assault victims in porn silent. “In the absence of people’s legitimate issues being taken seriously and addressed,” Queen says, “people tweet and write blogs and go to the court of public opinion.”