What Does Consent on a Porn Set Look Like?

The rape accusations against porn performer James Deen have raised important questions: how is sexual consent defined on a porn set? Is a signed contract between performers and producers enough to keep people safe?
March 6, 2016, 5:00pm
Alessio Bogani via Stocksy

The matter of consent in porn has been an increasingly visible issue since a group of adult female performers brought allegations of rape and abuse against porn performer James Deen. These accusations shed light on the exceptional challenges facing sex workers who attempt to report being raped. One performer, Amber Rayne, claims Deen physically assaulted her with a closed fist punch to the face while they were in a sex act, with cameras rolling.

The Deen accusations have raised important questions: how is sexual consent defined on a porn set? Is a signed contract between performers and producers enough to keep people safe?

"We're generally handed about 20 sheets of paper, a big contract that says, 'Here's payment info. Here's what you're doing. Do you consent to this?' many times," porn performer Mercedes Carrera told an audience gathered for a recent panel discussion called "Consent in Porn: Debunking Myths & Managing Realities" held in Los Angeles. "People try to interlay their personal understanding…of what they think consent is, with this very cut and dry legal understanding of consent."

Some performers don't feel comfortable raising objection because they think they won't get hired again.

Before production starts, performers send in their "Yes and No" list to producers. The list outlines which partners they would ideally like to work with, and which ones they absolutely will not. The "No" list also states what sex acts are off limits. Honoring "No" lists is one way in which producers and agents work to ensure consent. However, there are gray areas between yes and no, particularly when one performer is working with another performer for the very first time or when a performer changes their mind about what they feel comfortable with between takes.

Once on set, the director needs to ensure the performers' comfort, porn director and producer Dee Severe told the crowd. "You need to keep checking in with your performers. For the most part, it's pretty easy because our performers will call hold and say, 'that was too hard.'" Severe went on, "Every performer…knows that if they're having a problem with anything, they can stop scene." While Severe is diligent in assuring her performers' comfort, that's not necessarily the norm across the industry.

I hike. I go to the beach. I do things in my off time where I'm not constantly sucking dick.

"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," Severe added. "I've heard some production companies do that thing where they'll hire somebody for one thing, and then you get on the set and it's more intense, or it involves something you didn't think it was going to involve," said Severe.

Read More: The Insidious Myth of the Unrapeable Sex Worker

To avoid that last minute indecision, agent Mark Schechter explained that the industry tries to create certain checks and balances. "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…The ultimate decision clearly lies on the performer," Schechter says. "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."

But if a performer does ultimately walk away from a job before it starts because they felt uneasy, then money is lost, so there is a financial pressure to go along to get along.

According to Conner Habib, vice president of Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), adult performers have very little control over the ways they can fairly monetize their work. "A huge problem in the industry, and way in which porn performers are exploited—and when I say this, it tends to piss producers off—is that we get a one-time fee and we don't receive royalties… It ties into a greater economic aspect that I think is exploitative," Habib said.

"As a performer, I've heard, 'Oh you lose roles that way,'" Carrera says. "Yes, you do, but my comfort is more important to me than taking every single role. 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."

Habib framed the murkiness 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."

There is a clear disconnect between the amount of porn Americans consume and the amount of respect we give to the real people who play out our fantasies. Throughout the discussion, many of the panelists emphasized their humanity. "I hike. I go to the beach. I do things in my off time where I'm not constantly sucking dick," performer Nina Elle joked.

As the discussion came to a close, the panelists discussed the chasm between their world of tight-knit sex workers and "civilians," even though, as Habib pointed out, civilians make up the largest part of the porn industry: consumers. While the two worlds are ruled by different norms and different ways of expressing consent, the consensus was that we all have the same basic rights to have our wishes honored—especially when it's on camera.