Consent in Porn: Sobriety on Set

Let’s talk about something really important, everybody. Let’s talk about performer consent in porn. This is a topic that I’ve brought up here and there, but that I’ve largely avoided a frank blog post or column about because, to be honest, it scares me. The lines around what works as consent in my mind (the word “yes” explicitly said and restated as often as possible, eager participation by both parties, continual confirmation of eagerness to participate, and so on, not to mention all the correct forms signed by all parties of legal age and of sound mind and body) are not exactly the same as the lines around what constitutes consent on the set of every porno ever filmed. I know this. And it makes me uncomfortable.

I’m lucky to have a status in the world of professional pornography that brings me a lot of porn DVDs for review material. Which is to say that the majority of what I watch for review is made by large-ish companies that have a big enough budget to: A) make DVDs of their content, B) ship those DVDs to me for free, and most importantly C) employ professionals working in the adult industry, pay them on time and well (though that’s open to much discussion, of course), run all their paperwork, etc. One of the best things about content from these companies is that, because most of their content is protected enough to require people to buy it a lot of the time, they tend to film people who are, if not at the very top of their game, at least know what’s going on. They are professionals, who come to the set with a full understanding of what is expected of them and what they’re getting into. There are no “Surprise, buttsex!” moments, or forced situations–or at least very few of them and very unsurprising ones when they do happen–that would blur the lines of consent for me, the viewer. And just as important, there are few instances in which a performer appears to be less than sober in these movies, thus making consent a very sticky topic indeed.

This might be one of the main reasons I’ve avoided this topic. I do believe that there are certain jobs that can be performed absolutely brilliantly when certain substances are in use. I am not a hard-liner about intoxicants–I feel like, if I were cornered on the subject, I might argue that coming to work with a head full of cold medicine could affect my work performance just as much as smoking a joint beforehand, or somesuch nonsense argument. But the point is that while I absolutely see the need for total sobriety on set for legal reasons, I have never been one to think that if someone were to show up to a porn set with a little THC in their system, or a glass of wine with lunch beforehand, that should negate the scene. But there are limits. One reason I tend to steer clear of online pornography is that one is apt to see people who are not in control of their faculties–“party girl” scenes shot in clubs (whether these are really amateurs or not is open to debate, of course) where alcohol has obviously been consumed make me feel nervous. Girls Gone Wild makes me uncomfortable. Scenes in which any of the performers look “out of it” or “wired” or generally not in a sound enough frame of mind to decide whether they really want to be filmed doing what they’re doing… these all make me blatanly unhappy because I believe that pornography is a generally good thing that, although it’s often done wrong, deserves our money and a bit of respect. I want very much to believe that the porn industry can thrive on informed consent, depictions of real pleasure, and professionalism. I want very much to spread that message.

But it’s to my detriment if I pretend that a large part of the industry, the part that I rarely see, thrives on exploitation and loopholes in the law. I someone is sober enough to scripple a signature on a piece of paper and show an ID, that does not mean that the same person is sober enough to make the decision to be blowbanged on camera for all the world to see. But it happens to people who are not sober. And I wish it didn’t. My usual answer to this is to encourage people to pay for their porn–to spend some dollars on the offerings of companies who operate above the board and who would never film, much less release, footage of someone who was obviously intoxicated. Reward those who do good with your consumer dollars and more of the products they make–legally, consensually, and pleasurably–will be filmed. Avoid contributing in any way to the very real exploitation that some other companies participate in. The laws of economics will, if everyone follows my advice (hah!), tip in the favor of the Good Guys.

All of this is the elaborate build-up to me telling you that a few days ago I popped in a DVD from a VERY large and VERY well-known company with the intention of reviewing it. I decided to watch that one because I’ve gotten into a habit of reviewing only feature films with plots and scripts lately, and wanted to get back in touch with what was going on with gonzo porn. This one was a few months old, but it looked fun, and I was familiar with a few of the performers in it, so it would make a good study. I got most of the way through the film and had some really interesting notes, including some on one scene that was so intensely hot and so screamingly consensual that I couldn’t wait to tell the world how fabulous it was… when a performer I haven’t seen much of lately, but who I met a few years ago, showed up on the screen. Though the rest of the scenes thus far had followed a “tease” dance followed by sex, this went directly into the sex without any dancing or teasing from the actress. “Well, ok,” I thought. Gonzo movies often are just compilations of similar scenes and you can’t always get what you want.

But as the scene progressed I realized something was really wrong. The actress was visibly drunk. She seemed to be having a good enough time, but the vacant look in her eyes and the fumbling way she went about what she was doing made me realize that, if I were a director and this woman stumbled into my scene, I would get someone to drive her home because she was too far gone to get herself there. And in my book, if a person is too drunk to operate a motor vehicle, that person is certainly too drunk to be filmed having sex.

But then, of course, it’s not that simple, is it? This being a big company with “contract girls” who are actually employed and paid to make a certain number of movies or scenes, this actress may have already had all her paperwork squared away. She may have shown up to other sets drunk and was perhaps in danger of not fulfilling her contract; the director may have been trying to help by letting her shoot. There are all sorts of reasons that her inability to soberly consent may have been only one of many considerations going into this scene. But the fact remains: she was too intoxicated to be legally filmed. And if she was filmed, the footage should never have been released.

I tried to deny it to myself; this was a very above-the-board company. The director is well known. The performers were both professionals. But that look on her face told me another story. And was it just me, or were her nostrils a bit pinker than they needed to be?

I don’t like to stir up controversy, and I really don’t want anyone to ever see that scene, so I won’t use any names. But I remembered the first time I’d met this woman a few years before. She had been at a party after a convention and making an absolute spectacle of herself at the hotel bar. There’s social-drunk, which I absolutely was at that point, and then there’s self-destructive blackout drunk. She was the latter. It was uncomfortable to be around her in that state. Not that what I saw at a party years ago has much bearing on someone’s current state, but it did at least give me a clear memory of what this particular looks like when she’s far-too-many-sheets to the wind, and I was seeing it on my TV. I had turn off the movie and nix the review. I hope to my very bones that she is ok and that the scene I saw was just a one-off affair. I hope that things like that never happen to her again, or to anyone else. And I really hope that companies with reputations to uphold, who could act as good examples for the rest of the industry along with anyone who wants to cast aspersions upon it, don’t let things like this happen on their sets. Ever. Because I want so much for porn to be ok, and for people to be able to make movies and have fun and make money. But sometimes… it gets hard to keep up my hopes.

1 Comment on Consent in Porn: Sobriety on Set

  1. >It's hard to be a moral person once you understand that proper morality is about volition and intent—things that in essence live in human heads—and not about which body part is touching which other (or sex-toy), which is a lot easier to discern.

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