This guest post is by Thomas MacAulay Millar, feminist, kinkster, litigator and essayist. He blogs regularly at The Yes Means Yes Blog and is a frequent contributor to Feministe.
I don’t buy porn from any of the big companies that make BDSM porn. It’s not that I have a problem with consenting adults making depictions of sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of arousing viewers. In concept, I’m a fan of some writers who also make porn, and I’m friends with a few people who make or have made porn. And when it’s my friends, I’ll watch as much of it as I can get, because I have some certainty about what kind of experience they had.
But when the producer is some big company far away and I don’t know any of the people involved, how would I know if the bottom’s limits were negotiated and respected? If the bottom had a good experience? I recently posted about the Bagley abuse case in Missouri, where a woman was kidnapped for years and raped and abused, in a relationship that had all the underlying dynamics of a near-terminal domestic battering case. She ended up on the cover of a mainstream porn magazine with a BDSM theme. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that that’s a fluke. How common are those flukes? I have no way of knowing.
It has become common in BDSM-themed porn to give post-scene interviews of the bottom, or of the top and bottom together, and the bottoms always seem to say they had a great time and would do it again. They never had a tough time. They never felt the experience was mixed. They never say that and even if they are glad they did it, they probably won’t do it again. They never felt stressed and at sea. I’m not even talking about having been forced beyond their boundaries; that’s rape. I’m talking about normal emotional processing that sometimes goes with a hard scene. I’ve been in the “that was tough, and I’m glad I did it but I may not want to do it again” place with certain activities. And a month later I’ve been in the “I remember how hard that was, but I want to do it again” place. What we do pushes our physical and emotional boundaries, and that’s part of the point. But the interviews I’ve seen are just about all sunshine.
Clarisse Thorn interviewed Tim Woodman, who works in that industry niche. Here’s what he says about the interviews:
I know too many models who have been paid “hush money” to keep quiet about their injuries at the larger fetish porn companies. I know too many who have had their paychecks withheld until they do a positive interview. They are forced to lie on camera, telling how they enjoyed it and would do it again, when in fact the opposite was true. I know too many girls who have worked for these larger companies, and when they refused or even objected to activities that were beyond their limits, they were told that they were a “problem girl” and that they would not get much work with an attitude like that.
This kind of business practice is reprehensible. In the BDSM community, if you play like that, word quickly gets around that you are an asshole and are not to be trusted. But in the adult movie business, you can threaten and cajole women by withholding their pay. You can intimidate them by warning that nobody will hire them if they have self-respect, and are unwilling to bend or break their personal limits. That is rape. That is illegal.
[Emphasis in original.]
I’d love to cosign what he says about the BDSM community, but I’ve written before that it doesn’t always work that way. People make excuses for their friends and avoid washing their dirty laundry in public, and the effect is that too often people — and in my experience, too often women — who have been sexually assaulted in scenes are silenced.
There’s an illusion that the producers create that the models in these movies are all … well, that they’re all Calico Lane (and I’m using her illustratively because she’s public about doing some heavy bottoming in her personal life, and because she puts her own experiences out there with an eloquence that is not easily matched.) But there just are not enough models who are all the things porn audiences want — young and thin and conventionally attractive; and who are BDSMers in their personal lives; and who are willing to appear in BDSM-themed porn. So the industry attracts porn models who are not kinksters to do kinky things on film. Says Woodman:
Admittedly, this would be easier if fetish companies only hired models who are actually into BDSM. Lifestyle fetish models know the lingo. If her wrist is numb, she says so right away. If what you’re doing is too painful or beyond some other limit, she knows to stop the scene and have it dealt with. Mainstream models don’t necessarily know this. When a mainstream model is pushed too far, she’ll usually say “How much longer are we doing this?” to which a bad director will respond “Five minutes.” Twenty minutes later she’s scarred for life. Save the intense shit for the professionals — for the lifestyle girls who love to be tied up and tortured on-screen.
On the other hand, I make a lot of my career hiring mainstream porn stars to appear in rape and torture videos.
I don’t think it’s all about the experiences of non-kinky models doing kinky work, either. I read translations of a Hungarian report about a police raid on a BDSM-themed porn company in Hungary that did extreme whipping and caning scenes; the person translating the report said that the model negotiated a safeword but the producers ignored it and kept whipping her. (I’m talking about Elite Pain, and all I can find are discussion forum references. If anyone has better sources, let me know.) And even the serious kinksters who do BDSM on film because they really want to sometimes come away with a bad taste in their mouths.
So let’s just say that I really want to watch kinky people like me do kinky things like I do, on film, but I don’t want my dollars to go to abusers. I wish all the consumers for BDSM-themed porn had this view, and it sickens me to think that many don’t.* But I do. So how do I know?
TW: Okay, so as a good customer, you want to be responsible. You want to vote with your dollar and only support companies who treat their models well. How does a consumer like you know a good company from a bad one? The same way you would with any other industry — whether it is plumbers or car salesmen, the same principles still apply:
1) It often seems the more money a company spends on PR, the worse the company actually is. When an insurance agency spends millions on advertising, don’t you worry that they are not actually paying out their customers’ claims? When an attorney plasters his billboard all over town, does it make you think he’s a little too desperate? This can be said for BDSM porn producers as well.
2) The larger the company, the greater the chance it is owned and run by assholes who do not treat their employees well. If you have a day job, you already know this. The small guy who is struggling like mad to keep his doors open and put a quality product on the streets is far more likely to treat his employees and customers really well. He can’t afford a negative experience. He can’t just pay hush-up money, or threaten “You’ll never work in this town again!”
3) In the BDSM lifestyle world, we depend on our reputations. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and other social networking media, if something goes wrong in Los Angeles, they know about it five minutes later in New York. You want to know you’re spending money on legitimate, honorable companies? Do the research. Don’t trust their own advertising. Ask around, just like you would with a potential new play partner in the real world. You can ask absolutely any model I’ve ever worked with and she’ll say only good things about me. Can the bigger companies say the same? They can pay to keep most of the “problem girls” quiet, but the truth always gets out.
Which all makes some sense, except for two things. I know people, and I have at least some ability to do that kind of homework. But … not everybody is me. Not everybody who wants to watch BDSM porn knows a bunch of kinksters who know people who do BDSM-themed porn and can get those answers. It’s not like the bad model experiences pop up in the Google searches. The second thing is that “smaller is better” is a very self-interested thing for a small producer to say, especially in the same interview where he complains that the horde of free samples from Kink.com — he doesn’t call them out by name, but he might as well — are crushing him out of business. I can’t be uncritical about the self-interest.
I can never tell.
* Maybe they don’t care, or maybe they prefer to believe what is comfortable. I’m remembering something Amanda Marcotte wrote on a FB thread: “Some folks really can’t handle the possibility that some women in porn might not be fully consenting. Once you allow that possibility, then you have to allow the possibility that you have watched and gained pleasure from an act of rape. So there’s a lot of denial when something like this happens.”
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