Three days ago, I was working out in my living room when I got a frantic text from a journalist asking me if I’d seen the rape allegations that porn performer Aria Lee had posted on Twitter. I hadn’t, but I know her. We’ve met a few times, and I found her to be lovely. I stopped what I was doing and logged on.
The video was hard to watch. Seated on a bubble-gum pink couch in casual sweats and a white tank top, she wiped back tears as she recounted the time she was cornered in the bathroom on set by Gamma director Craven Moorehead and coerced into giving him oral sex. Over the course of the eight-minute video, she painted the kind of picture we’ve become disturbingly accustomed to seeing in the wake of #MeToo — a man, in a position of power, pushing a woman onto her knees and taking something he felt he was entitled to. Like many women in her situation, Lee felt she had to comply to get it over with and not get fired, beat up or punished in some way. (When she came forward to Gamma about the assault, they ignored her.)
I sat silently for a moment after the video ended. Coming out like that wasn’t only brave, but rare — with the exception of a few high-profile cases like James Deen and Derek Hay, sexual assault and harassment is almost never reported in the porn industry. We’re taught it shouldn’t be — if we air our dirty laundry in public, we’re just confirming the stereotypes we’ve been fighting against for decades. That’s exactly why we give a standard quote to reporters about what our jobs are like: “This is a fun job of pleasure and profit! It’s empowering! We know about consent more than anyone else, and plus, we’re RICH!”
Because of this, performers who come out publicly about their harassment and abuse are likely to to be met with more vitriol than support. That, or they’ll be bombarded with the predatory and conditional “help” offered by abolitionist organizations that make offers of financial relief or housing in exchange for a complete condemnation of the industry, and, nearly always, some kind of religious conversion. On an everyday level, performers have to walk the same awkward path all women do when they speak up about what’s been done to them: navigate a network of friends and allies who feel they must take sides in an industry that’s already uniquely stigmatized. Coming out publicly comes with the risk of losing the very network we rely on to survive.
Lee’s words, then, aren’t light ones.
So you can imagine my surprise when another allegation hit just a few hours later. This time, it came from Jane Wilde, a new performer and total sweetheart who’s known for her personality and high-energy scenes. In a now-deleted Instagram video, she detailed her experience shooting for Ryan Madison, the talent and producer behind popular sites like Porn Fidelity and Teen Fidelity. What she described wasn’t “rape” in the “crazed psychopath drags a jogger behind a bush” sense, but a series of rough, non-negotiated acts during a scene that left her feeling taken advantage of and misled. Uncomfortable but afraid to be labeled as “difficult,” she went along with the surprise creampie and unexpected blow job he pushed on her. Like most young performers, she wanted to impress him, and he seemed to get off on the power he wielded over his talent that day.
Shortly thereafter, Maya Kendrick, a friend of mine, alleged that her agent, Dave Rock of Motley Models, had made sexual use of her while she was staying in his model house and relying on him for bookings and finances. Once again, her complaint was “mundane” — she had a gatekeeper to money and a career, he expressed interest and she was expected to satisfy it if she wanted to stay in his good graces.
In response, AVN and XBIZ, the trade publications for the adult industry, published Rock’s rebuttal without comment, context, critique or investigation. Despite both organizations being touted as the “news arms” of our industry, neither gave Kendrick a chance to tell her side of the story, and neither bothered to look into the incident. Instead, they gave Rock a platform to defend himself, which he did, and incredibly poorly. First, he admitted to having a sexual relationship with Kendrick, but justified it by saying that he thought it was based on “mutual attraction.” Then, he attempted to exonerate himself by saying he now has a girlfriend, as if that were some sort of moral defense. (Guess where he met her, too? She also was part of his model roster.)
Rock’s response is a perfect example of how endemic this problem actually is. Older men in positions of power getting into relationships with models who are often decades younger is so common in the industry that no one questions the ethics of it, and Rock thought nothing of admitting that he had slept with not one but two of his models. Our very own trade publications didn’t seem to think that warranted any comment, either.
Ordinarily, things might have blown over after that. Given how these reports have been squashed in the past, it would have been par for the course if Rock had been ridiculed, AVN had been thoroughly stink-eyed and then everyone went home.
But, there was something different about this particular #MeToo moment. The air felt different. The electricity in Lee, Wilde and Kendrick’s words felt stronger. Their stories felt louder, more resonant. And the flippancy of the industry response? It just flipped a switch.
At almost exactly the same time, a light turned on in the collective unconscious of performers industry-wide. A realization hit us all at once: It’s fucking 2020, a pandemic is raging, a revolution for racial justice is shifting the balances of power and none of us had to take this shit.
Immediately, director Lee Roy Myers started tweeting about how unethical it was to publish Rock’s statement because it was tantamount to picking his side and entirely hypocritical given that both trade journals present a “performer positive front,” running panels on racism and consent during their yearly conventions (which never foster any change or action).
I tweeted out that we should boycott both AVN and XBIZ, stop sending them traffic and stop attending their conventions. It’s our fans that fill their halls — if they’re going to side with alleged abusers without passing us the mic to tell our side of the story, we’ll happily find something better to do then let them profit off our bodies, our personalities and our content.
Other performers started tweeting their stories of assault and coercion, too. Some were at the hands of the same offenders. Others offered up new accusations and predators. There was even a petition to remove Madison’s videos from Pornhub.
To be perfectly clear here, the risk we’re taking in not only talking about these things in public but taking action against them is huge.
Porn performers operate without a union, which leaves us unprotected from our corporate employers (and believe me porn is corporate). Vixen Media, MindGeek, Gamma and Team Skeet run most of the porn sites that populate the internet and have a monopoly on the industry. If a worker has a bad experience on set for one of 20 sites run by Gamma, they risk not only losing work for that site but all 20 of them. When you understand this, it’s easy to see how a few people at the top of these companies wield considerable economic power over performers. One booker that books for 50 sites and books hundreds of scenes a month can derail a career over a personal grudge.
No one, it seems, can really do anything about it unless they want to go down and file a police report and spend money on a lawyer (which is exactly what Gamma suggested Lee do in their first press release, which, by the way, alleged no wrongdoing). These are two things that most sex workers are loath to do. The stigma of the job and the pervasive belief that sex workers can’t be raped because they “like sex” and do it for a living means they’re almost guaranteed to be written off by cops who think they’re “asking for it.”
Furthermore, there’s rarely obvious physical evidence in these cases. Most of the stories performers are telling aren’t about the type of violent stranger-rape that strikes fear into the heart of concerned nighttime joggers and evening news anchors — they’re about subtle coercion, hostility and assaults whose physical components were merely tools to inflict an emotional wound. And as anyone who’s ever tried report or a sexual assault knows, emotional wounds don’t hold up well in court. Unless you can see the abuse with your eyes — a bruise around the neck, a torn orifice — it’s difficult to prove that an assault took place, especially when you work in a field in which these markers of sexual interaction could have possibly come from a consensual scene.
A performer could report the assault to her agent, of course, but in doing so, she’s faced with a different dilemma. She relies on her agent to submit her for jobs and make sure she gets paid, so if she comes across as “difficult” — as in unwilling to be assaulted — he might stop booking her or drop her altogether. But since that would result in money lost for both the agent and the performer, the easier route is to pat her on the head, promise to be more careful about her bookings and suggest it was simply a miscommunication. In the eyes of the agent, no investigation is necessary — who wants to go digging around if it’s just going to lose them money?
And what if it’s the agent who’s pestering a performer for sex? There’s little recourse for that as well. Women like Kendrick — who faced that exact situation — could file a complaint with the licensing board, but she’d face the same biases that sex workers face everywhere. And since there are no rules bounding relationships between agents and their performers, what happens between them is its own Wild West. As one anonymous agent I talked to put it, morality and integrity are really the only rules.
Publications like AVN and XBIZ are a last resort, but they’re no help, either. Just like most news organizations, they’re funded by advertisers, and many of those advertisers are the production companies being accused of facilitating or covering up an assault. They have a vested interest in skewing their news items toward the people that fund their business, so if a girl wanted to go to them and share a story of some ill treatment on set, they have more reason to bury the story than to investigate it.
As Wilde notes in her video, these have been industry problems “since the beginning.” But suddenly, in the midst of everything that’s happening in our culture right now, they’re feeling more like bygone woes. A combination of factors has brewed into a perfect storm that’s allowed us to find a voice, and within it, a sense of our own power has started to take hold.
Twitter, bizarrely, has played a major role in this. With almost no terms of service around the kind of content that can be posted, performers can promote and market themselves with the press of a button and have direct access and engagement with their fans. Performers documenting their lives, speaking out about causes they care about, showing pictures of their pets, telling jokes and sharing memes have humanized us in a way that was nearly impossible before, and the impact of that can’t be overstated — the recent social shift in the acceptance of sex work and porn performers has, in part, been due to Twitter.
The recent rise of platforms for models to make and distribute their own content has also made us far more autonomous than we ever expected to be. On websites like Clips4Sale, ManyVids, OnlyFans and Modelhub, performers have been learning to create and market their own content with nothing more than a smartphone and some editing software, both of which have given them unprecedented control over their content and image.
Then the pandemic happened.
With the entire porn industry out of work and no foreseeable plan for returning to set, girls who had been relying on in-person shoots to pay the bills were forced to adapt and get on their independent content game. In doing so, they found themselves in a lucrative new world where they could make rent and pay bills creating content they enjoyed making, all from the comfort of their own homes. It was free and easy for them to promote it on their Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, and they could charge what they wanted. Suddenly, the means of production were in workers’ hands.
Even better, the migration off set and onto clip sites taught us to value ourselves in a different way. When I talked to performer Dana Vespoli, she told me that after years of doing extreme scenes that included double penetration, gangbangs and intense anal because she felt she “it was expected,” she found that on her OnlyFans, all people really wanted was her personality. She started to wonder about all the things she’d done in her career to get traction and began to question what she’d gotten wrong — no, what porn had gotten wrong — about the consumer. If her fans liked her for her, what had she been doing all these years?
Alone in their homes and with time to spare for reflection, many performers started to ask themselves whether they needed the porn industry at all. If they could create their own content, promote it themselves and charge what they wanted to, what was the point of having an agent? What was the point of the awards shows, the expensive STI testing, the increasingly rape-y scripts and the depraved directors who saw them not as people, but as props?
As the pandemic raged on, it became clear there was no point. They didn’t need the industry — at least in the sense that we know it — in order to survive.
George Floyd’s murder only intensified these feelings. Overnight, the Black Lives Matter movement got an adrenaline shot to the heart and protests ensued. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets demanding an end to brutality and racist cops, and police precincts were set on fire and then occupied by civilians and designated as “autonomous zones.” Through the smoke and the clamor, a powerful message emerged: The “system” was burning and the time had come for a reckoning. Not just for police, not just for oppressive and racist systems, but for every industry in which power and privilege was used to harm and silence the people who sacrifice their blood, sweat — and in our case, and cum — to make it run.
After these stories broke, I got on a Zoom call with a U.N.-like roster of performers to talk about how to address the problem of sexual abuse and assault in the industry. As we thought up a list of demands and of actions we could take — a boycott of the trade journals; a blacklist of abusers — it occurred to me that we could just very well sit on our growing piles of cash and simply wait for the industry to collapse on its own without any work force to hold it up.
After all, porn isn’t in the midst of a crisis, it’s in the midst of a revolution.