The Armory in San Francisco, headquarters of Kink.Com. Photo credit to Armory Studios

What Does It Take To Believe A Whore, Or, Why Writing About Sex Work Should Be Left To Sex Workers

This article was published on Medium as a teaser for HARLOT Magazine prior to their formal launch in February 2016. You can view it on the Harlot site here.

The past week has seen an unyielding tidal wave of articles written about the latest porn industry scandal, predominantly penned not by industry workers themselves but by journalists outside the community–as seen here,here, and here–occasionally flirting with legitimacy by quoting sex worker correspondents.

“I have to tell you, I am filled with rage right now,” begins Lorelei Lee, a blonde bombshell and porn industry veteran celebrating fifteen years in the business. She’s spitting fire over the phone, a palpably resonating anger.

“I’m used to being a mouthpiece for my community. Most of the time when I talk about sex work, I’ve addressed the topics so many times that I’m calm, controlled, poised. But not this week. These recent events are just publicized versions of hundreds of similar incidents that have happened to my [sex worker] friends and I over the years. It reminds me how far we still have to go to be seen as humans to the rest of the world.”

Sex workers are easy targets for those looking to take a swing. Sex work exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) get to swoop in and be the “saviors” while they speak over, for, and ignore the words of actual sex workers in lieu of pushing sex-negative agendas and claiming that every instance of sex work is one of exploitation. Law enforcement officials spend valuable time and resources conflating non-consensual, underage sex trafficking with consensual, adult sex work in the public eye, in the hopes of being recognized a hero for yet another “bust”. Then there are your regular run-of-the-mill bigots who actively work to create a fantasy framework of good vs. evil with apocalyptic urgency, whether it’s in their own home or through their Facebook statuses, so they can sleep easier at night. After all, it’s a lot easier to attack something than to address our own mistakes and inadequacies in comprehending it.

As we’re all undoubtedly aware of at this juncture, Stoya called James Deen out as an abuser on Twitter and War Machine argued Christy Mack’s career in porn suggested she consented to his violent sexual assault, and the subsequent drama has effectively drawn people with petty scores to settleback into the ring.

I don’t use the words “alleged” or “accused of” in the citing of these horrific displays of aggressive misogyny and abuse, and I strongly advise others to follow suit. Utilizing those words stifles abuser accountability and delegitimizes the multifaceted, lifelong struggle of survivors. It’s important to look at the ways we discredit or devalue someone’s account of assault. Assuming innocence until proven guilty is in itself a microaggression; most instances of sexual assault happen in private, thereby eliminating the possibility of witnesses. Abusers know this, and capitalize on it.

Since Stoya’s initial disclosure, a number of prominent industry professionals have come forward with their own painful stories about Deen, and a quick Google search of Christy Mack’s name provides scores of graphic photographs of a woman beat nearly to death.

How many black eyes and broken spirits need be witnessed before someone listens? What does it take to believe a woman? What does it take to believe a whore?

We don’t need another sensationalized piece about all those “poor disempowered victims”. We don’t need “investigative” accounts highlighting every layperson’s opinion of Deen followed by conveniently anonymous testimonials of people who “saw it coming” and “weren’t surprised”. And we certainly don’t need journalists outside the sex industry calling sex workers to ask us basic fucking questions about our jobs in the spirit of being “relevant”.

If seventeen seasons of Law & Order: SVU has taught us anything, it’s that Americans love a sex scandal. Flashy headlines about sordid affairs, sex trafficking rings, and porn industry betrayals remain a relative goldmine for website analytics. Journalists know this. They thrive off of it, and they’re always going to prioritize an angle of controversy over doing their homework. No matter that affairs are not sordid by definition, that labor trafficking is actually a much more urgent national issue than sex trafficking, or that betrayal is by no means limited to those in the sex industry.

I don’t believe that the majority of society is actively gunning for the marginalization and perpetual punishment of sex workers. Instead I believe that ignorance is our greatest societal illness, and when the only windows to our community are those constructed by non-sex workers, well, everyone suffers from the inherent misinformation. Not allowing sex workers to be the authors of our own history erases us and does us no justice.

Society doesn’t benefit from glamorized, introductory-level “not all sex workers are bad” garbage.

“When you’re a member of a minority group that works really hard to not internalize that oppression, that work usually consists of you devouring materials produced by other members of your community,” Lee notes, “When non-workers are writing about sex work, they can’t know the history and the culture the way people within the community do, no matter how well-intentioned they are. There’s no excuse to start from square one, to call me up and ask ‘What are common stereotypes of sex workers and how are they wrong?’. That question has been answered a million times. Just do the goddamn work or let someone else who’s done it take the credit.”

When you’re a marginalized person, the aspects of your experience that mainstream media mouthpieces always want to focus are only the tip of the iceberg of unending labor you are expected to provide for society. This work — the grueling emotional labor of being a 24/7 advocate, educator, and defense attorney to your own community — is just as vital to your survival and, in a lot of cases, just as dangerous to your safety.

Those of us who experience intersecting oppressions wind up responsible for teaching and reminding the rest of the world that we’re human beings. We make ourselves unnecessarily vulnerable in doctor’s offices, educating them on the distinction between our gender and our genitals. We shell out hours of unpaid time defending our “lifestyle choices” to our families. We get into social media disputes dispelling harmful societal myths like The Bootstrap Theory. We regularly confront those who perpetuate rape culture, shame us for our sexual autonomy and insist we’re “asking for it”. And this is all while we’re attempting to have lives — to travel, to engage in meaningful relationships, to provide for ourselves, to get a good night’s sleep. Why is that our responsibility?

Why does being a sex worker imply that we deserve to do this emotional labor over and over again? Similar expectations are not held of our abusers — instead, society is quick to demand clemency and understanding for them. Why is it that Stoya and Christy Mack have to repeatedly relive their trauma by convincing the general public that their assaults are not linked to their work or to whom they inherently are as individuals? If it’s the responsibility of every marginalized person to educate on the nuances of their marginalization, how can we as a society claim to be wholly egalitarian?

Maxine Holloway is both a longtime sex worker and the founder of the Ask First Campaign, a project created in 2013 to promote awareness around consent in public spaces. Though the campaign’s slogan is “Ask First. It’s really that simple.”, Holloway has complex opinions on consent politics and the porn industry.

“Consent is so much deeper and more faceted than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” saysHolloway, “On porn sets there are a number of variables involved that can impact your ability to consent, such as your gender, race, current financial stability, and professional reputation. While all porn sets are different, the culture on set can be one of entitlement, where the women’s bodies are perceived as constantly accessible to the male talent. Unless you’re feeling empowered to do so, it can be difficult to change that narrative and protect yourself.”

The term “fluffer” has been used colloquially to refer to a person employed on a pornographic set to ensure that the male performers are kept aroused. Problem is, fluffers are a myth — no porn set ever budgets for an extra set of hands to maintain erections. In fact, in a hideous display of irony, James Deen himself is credited on Wikipedia as one of the people who dispelled the myth of the fluffer. This doesn’t seem to faze some male actors, who assume blanket consent of their female coworkers as soon as they step on set. As a woman, depending on how situationally impressionable or uninformed you are, other performers can take advantage of your vulnerability and push your physical and emotional boundaries fairly easily. Particularly if the porn director or company is more than willing to look the other way.

There is a longstanding narrative within porn of women as “overpaid starlets”, and men as a “struggling underclass”. This calling out of James Deen has, among other things, highlighted the ways that porn, however ‘counter-culture’, is still part of the culture. It’s an industry, and where there’s an industry there’s a workplace, and where there’s a workplace under patriarchy, cis men will take up as much space as they can, in sometimes egregious ways.

Just because a porn performer signs a contract consenting to a sex scene, this does not in any way imply that they are available for non-negotiated acts or time. If I’m being paid to clean your house — which is not, by the way, beyond the realm of possibility because sex work doesn’t pay to the degree that the public imagines, and many of us need to take on side hustles to survive — I’m not going to also wash your car and walk your dogs when I’m there unless I agreed to it beforehand and am being adequately compensated. If I’m taking a water break in between shots on a porn set, I shouldn’t have to worry about male talent groping my ass or inviting me to blow him on the couch while he relaxes.

None of the reporters trying to go viral with their one-dimensional pieces on sex work have to put up with these invasive expectations in the workplace, so why should I?

Last year Holloway was on a porn set where the male talent was having trouble ejaculating. The shoot couldn’t wrap until they had documented the “pop shot”, and so the cameras were turned off while the male performer masturbated in hopes of getting himself close to orgasm. Soon thereafter, Holloway unwittingly found herself being propositioned as a fluffer.

“At some point the guy requested my assistance in ‘finishing’ him,” Holloway recalls, “I was reluctant because I didn’t really want to do it and hadn’t signed up for it. I knew that the scene would be brought to completion by providing him that access to my body and attention, though, and I wanted to be a ‘good sport’, so I did it. No one pressured me. I just wanted to be a perceived as a ‘good’ performer and as being ‘helpful’.”

Assault isn’t only assault if it’s motivated by violence — assumption and entitlement can be just as much at fault, as can gender socialization. This is the very definition of rape culture.

Male desire is expressed externally and female desire expressed internally; men tend to have a more difficult time on porn sets. They’re expected to sustain a hard-on for hours at a time, as well as orgasm on command. No “pop shot”, no paycheck.

This attitude is directly responsible for the widespread abuse of erectile dysfunction drugs in the porn industry. Cisgender men in their twenties and thirties routinely pop ED pills to ensure pharmaceutically-assisted erections for the duration of their shoots with devastating long term consequences. Cisgender women have no such expectation attached to their bodies or performance. Faking an orgasm is a walk in the park for most of us, and as such there’s a certain professional sympathy felt for male talent when their boner takes a nosedive. Combine that sympathy with cultural expectations dictating that girls are more compassionate and nurturing than boys (and therefore should be readily available to assist and console them when necessary), and you’ve created an especially loaded environment for women to work in.

“In my experience, I do think it’s been a lack of awareness [on the part of male talent] more than anything predatory,” observes accomplished pornographer and dominatrix Mz Berlin, “My experience in the adult industry has been a good one with regards to my boundaries being respected, but then again I’ve always felt empowered to say ‘no’. I feel like participating in BDSM in my personal life equipped me with the necessary communication and negotiation skills regarding my body and my limitations that then translated to my work. I have had to shut down male entitlement early on in some interactions with male performers, but I’ve never had anyone respond negatively to me telling them to cool it.”

It would seem that we’re back to the topic of responsibility. We’ve already established that it should not be the responsibility of the sex worker to educate others on basic principles of consent and agency, even if the “other” is also a member of our community. So who gets held accountable for assault on set?

“This is a great opportunity for the adult industry to talk about consent on set and what that looks like to us,” Berlin continues, “Basic guidelines regarding consent on set would be helpful. Women need to be encouraged and empowered to own their bodies, and men need to learn to respect that agency. I believe much of that responsibility falls on the studios themselves to uphold consistently higher standards of safety and awareness.”

Notorious fetish porn super-studio Kink.com was quick to sever ties with Deen after multiple women stepped forward with stories of assault. Even so, a few of the assaults happened under their watch, and people within the community are calling for severe internal reform.

“Over the coming weeks and months, we will review our Model Bill of Rights to strengthen rights of performers off-set, and work with the larger industry to help performers who have been assaulted to more easily come forward,” the company wrote in a recent statement responding to the criticism.

Here’s the thing, though: Kink.com has one of the most evolved consent policies of any porn company currently operating in the United States. Theyhave to, due to the rigorous physical and emotional conditions their models endure. To get thrown in their Talent Office’s pool I had to submit an online application, then undergo a virtual interview via Skype (I was living on the other side of the country at the time), then fly out for an in-person interview to, in short, make sure that I a) was who I said I was, and b) knew what I was getting myself into. I had lots of time in between these stages to Google the studio, talk to other performers who had worked there, and watch a bunch of their content.

From that point on, every time I arrived for a shoot I had to fill out a comprehensive questionnaire that asked everything from my current fitness condition to that day’s sexual preferences and limitations. I was impressed every time. If you think every porn studio adheres to similar practices; you’d be dead wrong.

Can assault still happen at Kink.com? Abso-fucking-lutely. It has, and it probably will continue to, just as it happens on street corners, in schools, in churches, and in private homes. There are over 130 paid employees under their expansive roof, each employee a unique individual with their own motivations and intentions, and people can be assholes. But I bet if we made the same efforts to ensure enthusiastic, safe, and sane consent across the adult industry’s board performers would experience a lot less trauma. Perhaps we should even go a step further and provide a paid advocate in-house or per-shoot whose sole mission was to ensure the health and well-being of the performer. A pornographic “house mom”, if you will.

In addition, it seems as though performers with agents are much more susceptible to unsavory work environments as a result of having less of a personal hand in the booking process. Do we crack down on agents? Encourage industry workers to move away from utilizing them and towards taking control of their own empires? Or turn a magnifying glass to the communications that happen between agents and studios?

I’m only one person with a single set of experiences to speak to. I’ll never pretend to know any, let alone all, of the answers. But let’s remember who deserves to rise to action when change in the sex industry is called for: the workers themselves.

The rest of y’all can just pull up your lawn chairs and listen.

Illustration by Tessa Black

Andre Shakti is an educator, producer, activist, and professional slut devoted to normalizing alternative desires, de-stigmatizing sex workers and their partners, and not taking herself too seriously. @andreshakti,www.AndreShaktiXXX.com

This article was produced and published on behalf of HARLOT Magazine, an intersectional e-rag set to launch in January 2016. For media inquiries and article pitches, contact us at dirtiestwellknownsecret@gmail.com.