Apr 25, 2011

Thinking About Consent Again: What's the Best Model for Porn?

A Newsweek article I read today about male-male rape in the military (seriously, only click on that link if you're in a pleasant frame of mind; if you start out unhappy, you'll end it wanting to go out and hurt someone) got me thinking about issues of sexual consent, and human ugliness, and how it relates to my favorite topic: porn.

Human sexuality is such a fraught and difficult arena for most of us that our ugliest bits and pieces, our most violent tendencies and irrational prejudices, tend to swirl around it. It's usually private, in the dark, and unpoliceable. More easily kept quiet. But pornography, as the public side of our collective sexual consciousness, doesn't get the veil of mystery around it that other parts of our sexuality do. And because so much ugliness often, unfortunately, centers on sexuality, some people find the ugliness they feel or have experienced about sex in what they witness pornography, and not without reason.

Some of the things we see in pornography these days is shocking, upsetting, and almost violent. From the corpophilia and bestiality of Ira Isaacs to the skull-fucking and pee-drinking of Max Hardcore to the relatively trivial exploitation of drunk co-eds in Girls Gone Wild and the various out-there doings of the Kink.com family, pornography can show consumers just about any corner of the spectrum of human sexuality they wish to sample. And, with the internet's annals of porn set up like the maze that they are, it can also show people corners they never wanted to venture into. As a writer on the topics of pornography and sexuality, I spend a lot of time thinking about these things and come into every experience I have with pornography with an understanding, however abstract, of how far-removed from reality the people I'm watching really are. Porn is performance. It's fiction. But I can't help remembering my first forays into the fray. They were terrifying. And they make me aware that, to the average consumer who doesn't spend all day thinking about the logistics and technicalities of a porn shoot, the acts one sometimes sees can come across as extremely degrading and upsetting.

Porn doesn't enjoy the high level of suspension of disbelief that Hollywood movies do. There's little in the way of special effects, no stunt people, no safety harness. Most porn we see, particularly online, is clearly fantasy, yet it's presented in a realistic way to encourage the viewer to put him or herself "in the action." To imagine that this could really happen. And to emphasize that for the people on the set, though they're performing in a controlled environment, this really did happen. Porn, for all its smoke and mirrors, implants and fake tans, isn't the kind of entertainment that consumers go into thinking that they're about to see a blockbuster masterpiece of fakery. They go in thinking that what they see is what really happened, and, in most cases, it kind of is. If they see a girl begging for mercy or being choked, the reaction isn't very often, "Oh my gosh what a crazy scene!" It's more along the lines of, "Oh my god that poor woman! Porn is awful!"

For those of us more in the know, this isn't a problem, however, because we understand the issues of consent that are tightly wrapped around every professional porn shoot. I know people who  have worked in the porn industry for years who laugh when they see women "tricked" into doing something or "forced" to do something on camera, because as professionals they understand that if the film they're watching is from any well-known, established company, the people doing the "forcing" and the people being "forced" knew exactly what they were getting into and consented to everything they did. While there can still be a cringe factor at the sight of someone doing something you'd never want to do personally, there's a level of removal from the emotional implications for the performers because, after all, they did At least in theory, of course.sign up for this. Not that that's a blanket to throw on any long-term consequences on all of our psyches, but it's at last a flame-retardant to spray on the, "Oh my god that poor person!" fires. There was paperwork. There was STD testing. There was consent. At least in theory.

But that's where it gets sticky. Theory and practice can be miles apart, and, as Julian Assange will no doubt attest, issues of consent are multi-tiered. Signing the paperwork up-front and understanding that today you'll be doing Act X does not mean that you'll actually be ok with performing Act X when it comes time to do it. Act X might end up being extremely uncomfortable, or your partner, who's doing Act X to you, might be disagreeable to you in some way. Anyone who's not in porn can attest that fantasy and reality rarely meet up in the middle, and even for porn performers whose fantasies are regularly fulfilled, the reality of Act X may not be nearly as pleasant as you'd imagined. You may want to stop. If you do, then is consent still present since you signed the paperwork? Is it ok for the director to throw you off the set without pay if Act X isn't completed? Where does consent land, and how is the consumer to know that it landed there?
There are many answers to this question. Some directors, mostly of the old school, take a stern approach: you said you'd do it, so if you don't do it, you don't get paid. You can go home. Others work with performers to make sure everyone is happy throughout and edit out the negotiations. Some keep the negotiations in the final product for the consumer to see, and some do before-and-after interviews to show that everyone is happy, healthy, and having fun. Others just try as hard as possible to make sure the performers are not just consenting, but chomping at the bit to do everything they're about to do, thus greatly reducing the risk of changed minds and withdrawal of consent.

Arguments can be made for all these models, and have been. I'm trying to figure out which is the best, if any. For instance, the standard model of cutting out any not-sexy moments and dismissing a performer who relinquishes consent disturbs me. Not only does it punish performers for having limits they didn't foresee, but it also puts out a finished product that misrepresents the actualities of having sex. While many would argue that fantasy is what makes porn worth watching, I'd argue that making porn in a world where everything is pirated and available to young and uninformed consumers at any time comes with a lot of responsibility that many pornographers just don't want to deal with. And that's fair: should one censor oneself or change one's product to cater to people one doesn't even consider as one's market? If one considers oneself an artist, then the response to that is no. If one considers oneself a businessperson, the answer is again no. Freedom of expression should give all producers of adult content the ability to make the sex they film look however they want it to look, and sell it to whomever they wish, as long as that "whomever" is of the age of consent.
And yet there's a problem there: if movies and images of adult sexual behavior portray it in an "everybody's always having fun and nobody ever gets uncomfortable" way, or an "it's ok to treat this person this way because look, this person is already doing degrading things and deserves to be degraded" way, then the message taken away from it by uninformed viewers can be frighteningly similar: sex is always fun for everyone, except for the people who are degraded by it, but that's ok because they should  be degraded.

Obviously I'm skipping over hours of philosophy and science here, drawing massively overgeneralized sketches of the human mind that can hardly fit into an accurate shape. But the ideas are worth pondering. After reading Cindy Gallops "Make Love Not Porn" Kindle book this weekend, I've been thinking about the issues of creativity, consent, and interpretation a lot. Should creativity and freedom of speech necessarily take the burden of responsibility off of people who make porn? Should they be able to make whatever they want and put it out into a world that's so confused about sexuality that their work can be misinterpreted to someone's detriment? Or should they be able to, like other businessperson in creative fields, do their job and not worry so much about how it's received? Should pornographers be held to higher ethical  standards than slasher movie directors simply because it's easier to pirate porn?

Young people, according to Gallop's book and many other resources, are being exposed to hardcore pornography very early these days, and if they watch a fantasy-oriented scene in which nobody needs lube, women all love anal sex and facial pop shots, men all love hairless bodies and blond hair... What will they come away with, then apply to their budding sexual repertoires? And worse, if they watch borderline violent content with kink or degradation in it without any context to put it into (ie, interviews, unedited content of safewords being used), what will they consider normal?

It's not that we all need to have the same idea of normal sex. Far from it. Everyone's sexuality develops independently and beautifully, hence the richly woven tapestry of human preferences. But to assume from an early age that slapping, choking, hair-pulling, unprotected sex, perfect sex... any of these things... is strictly normal is to paint over one's own idea of what's ok and limit oneself to a sadly narrow experience. And not just narrow--undereducated.

I believe that, although porn as fantasy certainly has its place and can be loads of fun, for the many people in this world, young and old and in between, who come to a porn site for the first time every day, it's important that the content they see shows some small bits of reality. If it's a pre-scene interview (or maybe a post-scene is better, to get into the viewer's brain during the afterglow) in which the performers are laughing together and showing their willingness to participate, great. If it's not editing out the part where the woman goes, "Ouch, that hurts, can you move a little to the left?" that's great too--it's important to those getting their education on sex through pornography that they understand that sex isn't always mind-blowingly pleasurable. There are times when it hurts to put that there, when this position isn't working, when that one thing isn't so much fun for everyone involved. Or even if it's just showing, as I can't say enough about Kimberly Kane in My Own Master doing, all the performers having such a fantastically good time that their enjoyment is easy to see and impossible to misinterpret, fabulous. But I think it's important that consent be actively shown in porn, fantasy be damned. Those who really thrive on the fantasy aspect can figure out a way to make a "ouch, that hurts" into a part of our fantasy, I'm sure. We've got pretty active imaginations, right?

Anyway, all I'm saying is that for many of us in the real world, who may be young or conservative or survivors of sexual trauma or simply sensitive, consent is the biggest issue we face when we try to watch adult entertainment. Without the flag of performer consent flying high in one way or another, the incredibly delicate tissue of human sexuality that is put on the line when one watches porn can all too easily be damaged or warped, resulting in a disgust for porn in general or a skewed version of what sex should be like.

Just sayin.'


  1. One problem with the post-scene interview we have been trying to figure out is this: if the scene is scripted, including all the degrading acts as well as the girl's seemingly innocent pleadings, then how can one convince viewers (and regulating institutions) that the post-scene interview isn't also scripted. Not everyone can handle the that kind of punishment hardcore and laugh it off like a Phoenix Marie or Chloe Camilla.

    -Herr Schmeckelstein

  2. @Herr Schmekelstein...

    That's a good point, but then what about a pre-scene interview? In a pre-scene one, performers could discuss the acts they're about to perform and how excited/ok they are by/with performing them. And one would hope that the ladies in the scenes CAN laugh it off, or else maybe they shouldn't be doing them? I'd love to hear more...