Critical Consent: The Tricky Task of Saying Yes

Article by · September 1, 2017 ·

By Ava Mir-Ausziehen

I have worked for the porn studios Wasteland.com and Sssh.com for probably about a decade. I started as a performer for the BDSM website Wasteland.com (as a submissive), eventually become a writer and performer for porn-for-women site Sssh.com, and have also acted as a crew member on sets for both sites operating boom mic and camera. I am proud to be part of a team that has long aimed  to provide  comfortable, consensual, performer-driven sets, and who has now taken initiative to formalize and share their best practices as an example for others and a way to remain accountable to these standards. I have enjoyed and benefitted from the environment they create on set; of the many sites I have worked for, I am proudest of my work with Wasteland and Sssh, because feeling safe and listened to on set simply makes for a better, sexier performance. As such, establishing and codifying best practices is one strategy to help both producers and performers get everything they want out of a shoot.

Despite companies like Wasteland, Sssh, and the many others that practice good workplace ethics, [certain] events demonstrate that we continue to wrestle with consent – and by “we” I mean humans in general, not just the porn industry. My experiences working on so many sets, both on those that strive for this high standard of consensual collaboration and on others that fail, both behind and in front of the camera, both on BDSM sets where consent is explicitly front and centre and on vanilla shoots where it is more implied, I think we struggle to ensure consent because we struggle to define it. Consent is far more complex than we typically make it out to be; it’s more than simply agreeing or disagreeing to do something. So alongside laying down best practices and accountability procedures, part of the work we need to do collectively is to rethink what exactly consent is.

Consent in occupational settings is inherently problematic, no matter what the job is. Because in a money-based economy where we have little choice but to work for a living, consent in employment is somewhat circumscribed from the get-go. While we may derive pleasure from our jobs, we are primarily there because we need a paycheque, and actually enjoying your work is often seen as a bonus. In work contexts (and in many other domains of life, but we’ll stick to work for the sake of this argument) we consent to do things that we do not necessarily genuinely enjoy, or that we wouldn’t do were we not being pay. When I am freelancing as a translator, I consent to work on TV shows and books that I would never watch or read on my own time, but I still put in my best effort to make them equally terrible in another language.

I’ll also consent to work long, stressful last-minute hours, as translation contracts always seems to be urgent and the nature of freelancing is that if I say no to a gig, I may never get another job from that company. When I am at work as a researcher, I consent to inquire about research questions that I don’t necessarily think are the most interesting or pertinent, but I still apply my skill set and tackle the project as if it were of my own choosing. And when I was working at a movie theatre as a 16 year old, I consented to mop up piss in the bathroom and clean a popcorn machine with toxic chemicals because I really wanted some spending money for life’s important things like bad jewelry and cigarettes.

My point is that work is by its very nature a matter of compromising between what I would ideally like to do and what I need to do in order to meet the requirements of my job and earn my paycheque. And if I like the work, I also consent to do unpleasant and challenging things because I want to please my employers and feel good about myself and my output. And this desire to do “a good job” further complicates matters. Having been raised in capitalist economies, we are socialized to value “work ethic:” the idea of going above and beyond in order to be exceptionally productive or to produce exceptionally high quality work. So the idea of pushing our boundaries at work can actually feel very positive rather than coercive. Staying late at the office, undergoing challenging training, tackling new tasks that require new skills, forgoing vacations and leisure time to make that promotion – these entail moving beyond one’s comfort zone but are not seen as non-consensual.

The murky nature of occupational consent becomes especially tricky when the work is sexual. If in our work we consensually engage in a sexual activity that we don’t necessarily enjoy, it’s seen as more problematic than if we engage in other kinds of less desirable activities for the sake of work. Sexual activity is seen as somehow inherently personal and vulnerable; it is believed to instantly demean and compromise the individual once it wavers from some fantasy of “authenticity.” I think this stems from how we have arbitrarily decided sex is categorically and qualitatively different from all other aspects of life, when there isn’t really any reason to do so. But as a result, we often find ourselves defending sex work in all its forms by arguing that we in fact love every sex act we engage in, that we would participate in these sex acts “on our own time,” and therefore no coercion or manipulation has taken place.

This defense misses the point. There are certainly times when the sex I’ve had on camera was mind-blowing, where I forgot the cameras were there (or where the cameras added to my excitement); there are also times where I have been less attracted to my costars, less turned on by what we were doing, but I shouldn’t have to love every second of every part of my job for me to be able to assert that I consent to be there. If one of our aims is to have porn respected as real work, we shouldn’t have to meet different, more idealized standards than other industries. Perhaps in my personal BDSM practice I prefer wooden nipple clamps to metal ones, but appreciate that the metal ones look better on camera (so shiny!) and so I consent to those for the sake of making a finer product. Maybe I’ll hold out a little longer on a scene to wrap before lunch, even when I’m tired or a tad sore. I don’t think this is categorically different from how when I am at my desk job, I’ll use certain kinds of language and guidelines that I dislike because they are the discipline standard, or I’ll stay late at the office to finish writing a paper before going home, even if I’m tired.

To put it simply: few of us would do all of the activities our jobs require of us if we weren’t being paid, but we don’t suggest that means we haven’t consented and are being violated. Yet it does occur that producers and co-stars push boundaries and violate other performers, it does occur that performers engage in sexual acts that they would prefer not to for fear of not being paid or rehired, it does occur that producers pressure, threaten, and coerce, and this is undeniably unacceptable. The tricky job we have is drawing the line between when a performer is pushing themselves with agency and autonomy, and when they are getting pushed by coercion or fear.

The difficult part of defining this line is that it must be done somewhat case-by-case, which leaves performers responsible for establishing their consent. This wouldn’t be a problem in an ideal world where we all feel safe and secure to set and defend our boundaries, where we all have a financial and social safety net that allows us to feel secure in saying “no” to something that we fear might cost us a shoot, a reputation, or a working relationship. The truth however is that we all come to the table with different histories, personality traits, and socio-economic constraints, and this limits some people’s capacity to define and stick to their boundaries.

Some of us have an easier time speaking up, confronting people, dealing with conflict, and negotiating our comfort zone. Some of us have a harder time finding and keeping work, and some of us simply need that paycheque more than others, due to a whole host of social and structural inequalities. Making sets equitable for all of us, regardless of where we are coming from, is the task of producers. Producers need to stop operating on the assumption that consent is just about respecting when a performer says “no” and start thinking about how they can design shoots that are built around performers saying “yes.”

Some ways of doing this are, as the Sssh/Wasteland document points out, gaining consensus on co-starts, scripts, sex acts, and safer sex practices before the day of shooting and not throwing any surprises at performers once on set, having policies on hand to pay people equally regardless of the acts they agree to (within reason of course – at least some kind of sex is sorta necessary for making porn…), letting performers choose their preferred safer sex measures, allowing performers to cut the action and take breaks or change their mind mid-shoot without consequence, and so on. By making shoots a joint effort between performers and producers (without burdening performers with the task of writing and directing all the action, unless you want to pay and credit them as such!), we can start to create environments where performers feel safe and empowered to only engage in sex acts they feel comfortable
with.

The importance of finding ways to make consent about “yes” instead of just “no” has been formalized in a lot of BDSM culture. Mainstream portrayals of BDSM often focus on the singular idea of a “safe word.” This is a crucial element to have in place, as it operates as an unambiguous stop sign. But many of us who play “in real life” prefer the traffic light system, whereby “green” means keep going, “yellow” means don’t stop but we’ve reached my limit and shouldn’t go any harder, and “red” means stop this right now. This system allows one to consent both positively and negatively. Setting boundaries ahead of time is important, but we all know that these boundaries can shift as we play; we may suddenly feel able and interested in going further than we planned, or we may realize that something we agreed to doesn’t feel good today or with this person.

As such, another important part of BDSM relationships is the act of reading a person’s body language and checking in, even when they haven’t verbalized any problem. There are easy ways to assess if a partner is feeling good or not, without disrupting the scene or pulling someone out of the mood if they are indeed having a great time. Sometimes it is only upon having someone “check in” that a player or performer may realize that they are in distress. Sets could learn from these more active, conversational methods of negotiating consent, as in how Sssh/Wasteland have institutionalized the practice of checking in via their commitment to providing an “on set
advocate.”

Finally, it is crucial to remember that the issue of consent causes confusion in all realms of life. I have experienced both subtle and explicit violations of my boundaries on porn sets; I’ve also experienced such violations at my non-porn jobs: grocery stores, call centres, academic settings, et cetera. That violations may occur on porn sets says nothing universal about the nature of pornography and the people that produce it; rather it simply demonstrates that porn is a part and product of a society with a broader problem around consent. Porn does not exist in a social vacuum. Recent years have seen more and more allegations of sexual violations and assaults in mainstream culture.

That these violations occur is nothing new, but the chance to speak as frequently and publicly about them is, and this has opened up an important space to begin a more nuanced and critical conversation around what sexual consent is and how best to foster it. It is encouraging that we are starting to speak about the violations that occur on porn sets as well, so we may finally establish systems of accountability and worker protection. Porn has never been the problem; the problem is a pervasive and persistent misogynist rape culture that permeates all avenues of life including the porn industry. Given our unique position, pornography has the chance now to establish new standards, encourage tough conversations, and set an example.

Find Ava Mir-Ausziehen on Twitter at @AvaMirAus.


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