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Inside The Porn Industry's Reckoning Over Sexual Assault

There are few formal mechanisms for reporting and responding to rape in the industry. But recent publicity is leading to action as well as talk.

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Plush Talent, a New York City-based agency representing adult film stars, recently started giving new clients a welcome guide to the porn industry. Along with tips on social media (“Twitter is a must have for every porn star, period.”) and taking photos for producers (“Don’t use filters”) the guide has a section on “Reputation.” It begins: “The adult industry is a lot smaller than you think and everyone talks, especially if they run into a problem with someone. What I tell the girls is, they are to act like robots …. Little adorable performer robots.”

Telling women to be well-behaved may sound repressive, said Kelli Roberts, the 19-year industry veteran who wrote it, but her intention was to warn female performers to let their agents handle on-set issues. The guide even suggests that if an issue arises, they pretend to go to the bathroom to make the call.

Roberts, who serves as kind of den mother/advocate for young women in the industry, said on-set issues tend toward “jackass producers who try and change what they agreed to at the last minute,” like one director who booked a model for a blow job scene then asked her to perform in rape fantasy once she was on location, or adding new partners to a scene last minute.

Her advice is a reminder that on-set “issues” in the porn business are common enough that models literally need a guidebook to help navigate them, and that there’s a wide gulf between what happens on paper and what happens on set.

That ambiguity extends far beyond respecting agreements about what people are willing to do on camera. In interviews with dozens of performers, producers, directors, and agents, BuzzFeed News found that not only are avenues for reporting sexual assault on a porn set unclear — it’s even a point of contention whether such assaults are common. Many described the industry as a close-knit community that bands together to drive out bad actors, where assault is rare and consequences for it unforgiving.

Many also argued such an environment leaves performers, especially those new to the industry, vulnerable to abuse, with little formal recourse if something goes wrong. And the events of recent weeks have shone a harsh spotlight on the industry and one of porn’s few household names, who has been accused of — and vehemently denied — sexual assault against co-stars and fellow performers dating back years.

Since late November, nine women have claimed that James Deen sexually assaulted them, quickly elevating the issue from the insular porn community to the national stage.

Two of the allegations were related to incidents said to have occurred in his personal life, but the others allegedly took place in a professional context, at a shoot or in a porn studioduring and after a scene. None of Deen’s accusers formally reported the alleged assaults at the time; in the instances where the women did speak up in the moment, neither the studio nor the director investigated further.

The lack of reporting is a red flag, many believe. “The question I think our industry has to ask ourselves is why did the women feel that they wouldn’t be heard or why didn’t they feel safe coming forward?” Diane Duke, CEO of the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for adult film producers, told BuzzFeed News. “The avenues are there,” she continued. “Why don’t people feel comfortable using them?”

In contrast, the industry’s response to the women going public — long after the fact and without the involvement of authorities — has been unequivocal. “He’s the biggest performer in the industry,” said Eric John, a longtime actor and producer. “And they blacklisted him.”

Mark Spiegler, a prominent adult film talent manager dubbed the “Ari Emanuel of porn” by The Hollywood Reporter, explained how agents and other non-performers (such as directors and studio owners) help protect actors from sexual predators and sexual exploitation.

Spiegler tells his clients, many of whom do hardcore and BDSM work, to contact the agency if they are asked to do anything on set not agreed upon beforehand. “I tell ‘em, if anything changes, call us,” he said. “We’re there to help you, and also we’re there to look out for you.”

While Spiegler has never had an incident where a performer required a trip to hospital or the involvement of police, there have been times when performers get bruised or visibly injured, despite a prior agreement that they wouldn’t be marked in any way.

“They try to adhere to the girls’ limits, but sometimes you might get a little mark and they can’t work the next day, because the director doesn’t want to shoot them,” Spiegler said. If a flogging scene, for example, leaves a girl marked and she loses work, the studio may compensate the performer upwards of a few hundred dollars for the loss, according to Spiegler.

Kink, a high-profile BDSM studio, confirmed it has paid compensation in the “rare instance” where a performer has lost work.

Occasionally, the industry’s attitude toward consent mirrors the mainstream reaction to intimate partner violence or sexual assault. Even advocates for performers sometimes place the burden on women to speak up in the moment.

“Unfortunately what a lot of girls do in the biz — a scene will get a bit too aggressive — instead of them vocalizing on the set, the girls keep their mouth shut, then they call the agent afterwards and I’m like, ‘Well did you ever use the safe word?’” said Shy Love, a performer and founder of the talent agency The VIP Connect.

“Then I have to curse out the director,” Love told BuzzFeed News, “but at the same time you have to yell at the girl. She had the opportunity to give the safe word.”

Young women who enter the industry are coming “into a different lifestyle,” said Love, and that can discourage speaking up. “They see a lot of money and they think if they say something, they’ll lose that money. In their head, they believe that.”

Bad behavior can begin well before a model steps on set. In the past few weeks, Roberts said three actresses had called her to complain about a director for a major porn studio who is running a Los Angeles “model house” — the term for shared living quarters where performers stay while traveling for work — where “you have to sleep with the guy who runs it.”

Roberts mentioned the predatory director on an industry forum and was immediately threatened. In the online discussion about improving safeguards she was told to “shut the fuck up.” Later she received a message warning that someone was passing around her real name and address. “I’ve been in this business 19 years, [so] that doesn’t affect me as much, but I do think about the 18- or 19-year-old girls,” she said.

“Our industry loves to say we empower females,” said Roberts, “and then behind the scenes we have to keep them in line.”

Still, Roberts said assault was very rare. “In terms of society, we’re off the charts low.” In nearly two decades, she had only heard of three rapes. In one of those cases, Roberts said she made the mistake of telling the actress to go to the police rather than the hospital. Although the women was “brutally beaten, her face was bloody,” Roberts claims the officer listening to her report just stared at the victim’s breasts. A report was filed, but “she just kind of got laughed out of there.” Roberts declined to share the woman’s name because she quit the industry after this incident.

The porn industry is in flux. The internet has had a staggering impact on performers’ earnings and companies’ bottom lines, and fueled demand for what some described as increasingly violent porn.

The industry’s new economics have also led to a consolidation of studios, and in many ways, the business has professionalized. Protocols have been introduced, like model releases in which performers can specify their boundaries, "no" lists where models can name people they don't want to work with, and on-camera exit interviews that formally codify consent. Such standards have been enough, at minimum, to placate the credit card processing companies that require proof of the matter from the studios they do business with.

But porn is still largely self-policed. Regulatory oversight is limited to narrow, sometimes legalistic details such as verifying a performer’s age or keeping proper records. Studios were nearly unanimous in fighting mandatory condom regulations, arguing that anti-porn advocates were behind the supposed health campaign. The years of federal obscenity prosecutions may be over, but the business is still resistant to outside efforts to reform its practices, arguing that government agencies are biased against porn.

Recent investigations into rape in the military, agricultural work, and night-shift janitorial work have demonstrated that sexual assaults in work environments are rarely reported. Across the country, an estimated 68% of sexual assault goes unreported.

Porn performers face added roadblocks. The small size of the community can hurt assault victims as much as it helps, with added pressure not to alienate a studio, director, or actor. If the community acknowledges the claim, however, the power dynamic can flip and alleged predators are sometimes shunned immediately, as was the case with Deen.

Claims seldom make it to the authorities, who have historically stigmatized sex workers. Actors told BuzzFeed News they are especially reluctant to come forward if it means facing the false notion that porn performers are “unrapeable.”

Self-policing means that standards vary. Models may have "no" lists with the names of performers they don't want to work with. Some studios, like Kink.com, have security guards present during the filming. Others rely on the production staff or talent department. Exit interviews also depend on the studio. Kink asks for feedback from performers on camera and off camera; others have a more informal approach. In a producer’s mind, those interviews are a safe space to air grievances.

Steven Hirsch, the founder of Vivid Entertainment, emphasized the distinction between “traditional” adult film studios and some of the more extreme, BDSM production houses. Eric John, who works almost exclusively works on “traditional” shoots, said that Kink shoots are simply “higher stakes” — a lot more can go wrong when chains and whips are involved. “The likelihood of a limit being pushed on a normal boy/girl shoot is so much less.”

Dee Severe, founder of the fetish production company Severe Sex, sees things differently. She was appalled by the stories she heard voiced in the wake of Deen allegations, but said the type of pornography was not the problem. “All anyone on our set has to do is say ‘hold,’” said Severe. “It would make me horrified to think that someone was having a bad time.” Her studio produces instructional DVDs where consent is a central theme. “It’s kind of an easy answer to blame the BDSM community,” she said.

Both Severe and John, however, stressed that shoots were “a very structured environment,” as he put it. “I have never been on a set where someone said a specific thing and the person did a thing anyway. It wouldn’t happen.” According to John, what’s more common are “self-corrections” like “That’s too rough," or "That’s the wrong angle.”

Studios and directors are quick to bring up the model releases and exit interviews as proof of the industry’s progressiveness. However, those safeguards were initially designed to protect producers, not performers.

Lawrence G. Walters, a First Amendment lawyer and longtime counsel for adult film studios, said release forms were created 20 years go to help clients comply with the law. There has been “substantial litigation” around the forms, he said, but most cases were about enforceability — where a model argued she was intoxicated when she signed the document or that English was not her first language — or privacy and publicity rights.

In a similar vein, on-camera exit interviews became more prevalent during “the reality porn phenomenon” in the late '90s, said Walters. He pointed to a series called Bang Bus, shot by a large production company called BangBros. The films showed “a bus going around to pick up neighborhood girls,” said Walters, and “the public believed it hook, line, and sinker, and thought these things were really happening.”

It was around that time that companies became “motivated to make sure that they retained evidence” that the shoots were staged and the performers consenting. The exit interviews, he said, had “the side effect of protecting performers who had an issue or concern.”

But Roberts was dubious about a performer’s ability to speak freely during an exit interview, even when they’re not on camera. “If some guy sat in front of you with a paycheck,” she said, “how honest do you think that off-camera interview is?”

In addition to the release, federal regulations state that models have to fill out a 2257 form, which requires producers of sexually explicit material to get proof of age. Kink.com’s version of the form (embedded below) also requires models to sign a number of wide-ranging waivers, including releasing the producer and his employer from sexual harassment claims and “injuries (both physical and emotional).”

The nature of the porn industry influences what types of legal claims can be made, attorney Sonia L. Smallets told BuzzFeed. Smallets is representing the plaintiff in a harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit against Kink.com. “There’s no legit reason for your co-worker to be naked if you’re working in a bank,” she explained, but just because the bar may be higher in porn, “it doesn’t mean than an entire industry gets a free pass.”

Harassment issues are more “difficult to sort out,” in sex work, said Smallets, “but a sexual assault is, by definition, an act done without your consent. Nobody consents to being sexually assaulted.”

Now, as the fallout from accusations against Deen collide with politicized campaigns to mandate condom use, the adult film industry is in the midst of actively trying to open more reporting avenues more for performers.

“While it was a person who was doing this, the industry has to take responsibility,” said Duke. “Those conversations are happening. … I thank Stoya for speaking up. I’m proud of her and glad that she did.”

Since the Deen story broke and gained traction, the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, an informal union for actors, has met to discuss strengthening guidelines around consent. A few studios are also taking it upon themselves to pen new rules, such as a Model Bill of Rights, to demonstrate their commitment to change. Deen voluntarily stepped down from his position as an APAC board member. (Though he is still listed on the official website.)

For his part, James Deen has only given one interview to the press since the allegations first surfaced.

"I do believe there is pressure on sets for people to perform in certain ways that they may later regret. I do believe the adult industry needs a better structure for preventing and reporting on set misconduct,” he told the Daily Beast. "I do also believe that people need to take responsibility for their own actions."

At Kink.com, directors met last Friday to go through the company’s own Model Bill of Rights, previously considered an emblem of the company’s transparency and care for its performers. Spokesperson Michael Stabile said Kink is contemplating giving people the option of filing a report confidentially or anonymously, but the debate is ongoing.

“Would an anonymous reporting system make things better, or would it be subject to abuse?” Stabile wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Could we extend an affirmative consent policy across all workplace interactions? How to account for the fact that a performer still might not believe that they can report an incident?”

“The last thing we want with this document,” said Stabile, “is to create something so cumbersome that it’s signed and ignored like a cell phone contract.”

Nitasha Tiku is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nitasha Tiku at nitasha.tiku@buzzfeed.com.

Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.

Contact Cora Lewis at cora.lewis@buzzfeed.com.

Ellen Cushing is an articles editor for BuzzFeed News' tech section and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Ellen Cushing at ellen.cushing@buzzfeed.com.

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