My Journey from Victim to Activist:

—The Road to Ethical Porn
How One Marginalised Performer
Navigated Sexual Assault

Being sexually assaulted on an Erika Lust, a feminist porn set,
was the last thing I expected or crossed my mind experiencing as a;
queer non-binary performer of color. “An aspect of sexual assault on set
that is particular to porn production: performers can re-experience
their assaults time and again, on any screen.” ~Hello Rooster

 

     I never pictured I would be in this position: that I would be a victim of sexual assault, much less an assault that happened on a feminist porn set. Especially not on Erika Lust’s “feminist” porn set. Lust is the pornographer who was “making consent sexy,” at least according to a 2018 Rolling Stone article praising her production company for creating the kind of porn that feminists wanted to see. The overwhelmingly positive media coverage of Erika Lust Films praises the fact that performers ask their partners if they would like to use condoms on screen, to model real world pursuits of affirmative and enthusiastic consent. Performers on screen discuss their feminist politics, as well as their sexual limits and desires. In a world in which many feminists worry that the only access young people have to sexual education is through pornography, Rolling Stone tells us that Lust is here to save the day: “Lust believes her work can help the rest of us find our way toward a better sexual future, where explicit consent is a matter of course.”

And so when I was sexually assaulted on the set of Erika Lust films, it was the last thing I thought would happen. 

Brief Background

Standard protocol: performers are introduced to or are made aware of who their scene partners will be at least a day prior to shooting.
Mandatory protocol: on the day of the shoot, a conversation regarding consent, sexual boundaries—sexual acts each performer is happy to perform, other acts that are an absolute no, and those that might be considered a maybe—is verbally established with a director or production assistant present.
Increasing industry standard: a list of those agreed upon sexual boundaries is written into a contractual document which outlines sexual boundaries, in-order to circumvent and prevent “he said, she said” cases of sexual assault or misconduct.

In my case, things strictly didn’t happened according to the protocols or the industry standard. My scene partner and I established consent and sexual boundaries a month prior to filming our scene. She invited me to practice, train and rehearse for the scene a month before the shoot, and so we practiced, trained and rehearsed—in full— all the agreed sexual activity.  Being a relatively new performer, I didn’t question the nature of this proposition. I later came to understand this wasn’t standard industry protocol, but my scene partner/co-performer, Olympe de G, who was also my director and my employer for two other additional scenes, misled me to believe it was.

Despite practicing, training and rehearsing for the scene—already a violation of protocol—and despite clarifying my sexual boundaries on the day of the shoot, my scene partner violated my consent and the boundaries, sexually assaulting me in the process of shooting “ethical porn.”
Now, I can still access and view my boundary violations and rape, as can any other viewers of the film, by searching for Erika Lust Films online. This is an aspect of sexual assault on set that is particular to porn production: performers can re-experience their assaults time and again, on any screen. My sexual assault is being advertised and sold for profit as “ethical porn.”

After I came forward and talked about the ways that my boundaries were violated, I heard from others who had suffered the similar violations, by the same director. I also learned that the “feminist” porn company CEOs, Erika Lust and her husband Pablo Dobner, were aware of her previous unethical behaviour and boundary violations, but decided it wasn’t in their best interest to warn or alert their performers. Instead, they placed me in a position of danger by having me perform with a known boundary-violator. A few months later, when I alerted them to my experience, they tried to wash their hands of all responsibility by placing the onus of responsibility and blame on me. “Erika Lust: The Feminist Pornographer” was a brand. It was what distinguished them from their competition. It was an image they were desperate to protect.

Inspired by #MeToo Stories:

When I first started hearing stories from the #MeToo Movement, I didn’t immediately recognise my story or experience in any of those being shared. I am a black, queer and non binary, male presenting, performer of color. My race and gender weren’t reflected in those stories. Sex workers were also invisible in those first stories.

After the initial onslaught of white cis women’s stories, I followed the experiences of Jimmy Bennett (the former child actor who accused Asia Argento—herself a victim of Harvey Weinstein—of sexual assault, after having worked with the actress when he was seventeen years old); Terry Crews (the actor and former NFL player who recounted being sexually assaulted by a Hollywood executive); and Nimrod Reitman (a gay male graduate student who experienced sexual harassment at the hands of his well-known female faculty advisor at NYU, Avital Ronell). Then, accusations started rolling through the porn industry as well: Jenny Blighe recounted her exploitation on an Evil Angel porn set. And before the explosion of the hashtag, there was Nikki Benz. With all these stories I slowly realised my own trauma on set was being reflected back to me.

What I saw in those stories was fundamentally an abuse of power. Cis men have historically perpetuated abuse of power, because they have held onto positions of power for far too long. But we have now seen how feminists and advocates can also be culpable and contributing in abuses of power, and enabling abuse of power to continue: Asia Argento, Avital Ronell… Erika Lust.

Privilege was and is still a contributing factor in whose stories get a platform. Sex Workers, Trans and Non-Binary folk, Women of Color and other marginalised folks need our more privileged feminist comrades to stand together and help fight for our voices to be heard. In particular, the fight for sex workers voices to heard necessitates with de-stigmatising sex work. Stigma deeply affects and impacts whether or not victims of violence come forward to share their stories and experiences.

Ethical Porn can’t be made without the voices of it’s performers.
Ethical Porn is a labor right and labor issue first and foremost!
 

 

Facing Stigma Head On

Despite the stigma, I came forward. Addressing the trauma and sexual assault I faced was difficult. I took care to make my co-performer, employer, and director—Olympe de G—acknowledged and listened to the ways in which she had harmed me. This proved to be extremely difficult. Navigating the power dynamics that existed between us was challenging. I was alone in addressing these issues, with Erika Lust Films having few existing structures in place to address issues like these. If you label and regard yourself as an ethical, feminist company, you start to assume you won’t need these structures in place.

    After trying and failing to address these issues in private with Olympe de G, I went to the CEOs of the company: Erika Lust herself and her business partner/husband Pablo Dobner. But what I learned in my discussion with them was that a similar incident had happened with the same director in question, a year prior to my experience. This example was used not to validate, but to brush aside and minimise my experience. I was told that I should forget about it and move on. Considering I was in no position of power to challenge this, I took their suggestion to heart and decided it was in my best interest to move on. This occurred in September of 2017, a month before the explosion of the #MeToo Movement online and on social media. Without #MeToo, I would have buried the whole ordeal deep within my psyche, left it unhealed and unaddressed like so many marginalised, masculine presenting victims of sexual violence have done before me.

I started my journey of confronting how the impact of sexual assault has on sex workers. This made me realise how much sexual assault disrupts our work: we often force our bodies to continue to work onwards, past the trauma, in order to survive. If we stop and recuperate, we have little to no benefit or insurance to financially support us. It’s almost like being an athlete, but athletes have insurance policies that guarantees when others injure them they still have a basic income to survive. Why aren’t there methods in place that help to support sex workers? This inspired and moved me, I needed to address these issues.

I started talking about my experience at film festivals where one of the films was being shown publicly. Performers and filmmakers were asked to attend and openly discuss their experiences without consequence. Introspection and critical analysis was welcomed: this was the one place I found where this could happen. But what also came with going to these festival screenings was seeing your abuse, on screen, in public, being played for an audience, time and time again. An audience that might not be aware how sexual assault can look different for sex workers and performers, example: a scene may be visually stunning, but ethically questionable in it’s production. “Feminist” producers tend to use Aesthetics to demonise “mainstream porn” & content creators. But aesthetically pleasing films should not be a substitute for ethical production or what is considered as ethical. Ethical Porn is a Labor Right and Labor Issue first and foremost.

I had these difficult conversations time and time again, at festivals all over Europe and North America. I made sure to keep an air of non-accusatory poise, since the director wasn’t there to defend herself and her actions, saying things like “consent can be tricky, especially for those who aren’t well versed in it.” I did this because I never wanted to demonise anyone without giving them a chance to defend themselves. I learned that the same courtesy wouldn’t be extended to me.

The Failure of a ‘Feminist’ Icon

Erika Lust’s response to me carefully talking about my experience—tiptoeing around the details, ensuring I didn’t upset anyone—was much different from their response 6 months earlier, before the explosion of the hashtag. It seemed the #MeToo conversation had changed their response to dealing with sexual misconduct and violence. They weren’t as dismissive as they were prior. They sent me an email with the subject line: “SINCERE APOLOGIES/ We are improving our qty controls.” However, a sincere apology was nowhere in sight, and what they wanted was for me to work with them on a document to ensure the safety of future performers. I did, but I would never be credited as a co-author for my labor and time.

Olympe de G’s response to being “called in,” to have a mediation process to resolve the issue, was to escalate it to the public domain. Erika Lust CEOs, friends, colleagues and myself all discouraged Olympe de G taking the issue to social media. But she did, writing an open letter, accusing me of being a scorned and jilted lover. This public accusation was quite shocking considering the evidence I had: various correspondences that proved otherwise & a letter from her lawyer clearly outlining my sexual boundaries. I pleaded with Erika Lust Films to take a public position regarding this, but they refused to act, despite their media persona claiming they will always do the hard work of being an “active ally” and speaking up for victims of sexual assault. But this wasn’t the case when it concerned their own company and workers.

Aesthetics vs Ethics.
Ethical Porn is about Ethics NOT Aesthetics.
Ethical Porn 102

Once the incident became public, everything changed. The private support I had been getting from CEOs; Erika Lust and Pablo Dobner evaporated. I was mischaracterized as ‘a black brute’, a common stereotype used to discredit and incite unease and agitation about black men; and a stalker, engaging in the online harassment of a white woman. To ensure I wasn’t demonized and misrepresented by the caricature that Olympe de G was creating, I scrambled to present the private emails of support Lust and Dobner had previously sent me. —Consider how depictions of black men as aggressors in incidents of their own abuse have historically been used to silence and gaslight us.

Further, as a consequence of sharing my experience openly and publicly, to combat Olympe de G’s misleading narrative, I was blacklisted by Erika Lust Films’ CEOs. My peers were warned against associating, defending or collaborating with me. If they did, they faced being blacklisted as well. All this was done by Erika Lust who had stated in a Huck Magazine interview a few months prior: The media needs to report on sex workers’ stories of assault, not only because they are at more risk but because they are often unable to report their abusers for fear of punishment. The effects of sex work stigma are active in society and a huge majority of media is complicit in further entrenching and normalising it.”

Guidelines for creating ‘Ethical Porn’

Before Olympe de G began her smear campaign against me, diffusing my accusations of sexual assault, I worked privately with Erika Lust Films to create better ethical standards for their company. This work took the shape of two documents: a “Guideline for Guest Directors” and a “Model Bill of Rights. I was dedicated to helping Olympe de G, Erika Lust CEOs, and others understand the trauma and harm that had occurred to myself and others, and the vulnerability performers endure when performing for their cameras. I used my experience and other sex workers’ experiences as a template for creating these guidelines that would help improve the ethical working standards and practices at Erika Lust Films. Through these documents, I transformed from victim to activist.

The fourteen-page document meant to guide guest directors includes sections on casting, fees, sexual health testing, how to interact with performers before, during, and after sex scenes are shot, as well as how to interact with cast and crew on social media after the shoot. Before going through a checklist of items, Guest Directors must consult with cast to make sure that performers are in the best care. The document states that, “It is important, in creating ethical porn, that we try to balance the power between directors and performers, and create a safe space where performers can express their concerns (openly).” The protocol behind this philosophy was missing when I performed for Erika Lust Films, and I am proud to have been part of a team that has put it in place for other performers going forward.

But the company erased my labor and contribution in creating these ethical standards. This erasure coming after the fact, of my sexual assault, made me wonder: as a victim of color, was my humanity even seen or acknowledged? Tarana Burke (the creator of the #MeToo Movement), must have felt very similarly when her voice was left out of discussions of who started the #MeToo movement. But even as I write this, I wonder: why does the onus always lie on us, the most marginalized, to make change. (Marginalized) Victims are often looked toward to find the solutions to end rape culture and structural violence, when porn production companies and people in positions of power should really be the ones to hold themselves accountable.

Helping to find solutions was something I deeply cared about, but having my contribution erased was a re-traumatizing experience. When all was said and done, my experience became a silent, silenced contribution, to the story of “ethical porn” marketing. The experiences of those who have been pushed to margins can’t continue going unchecked. We must abandon Selective Feminism, eg:— SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists), TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), White Feminism and others that prioritise the few—and embrace Intersectionality (Kimberle Crenshaw). We must listen to and prioritise the voices of marginalised sex workers.

The Road to Ethical Porn:
—It’s about Labor Rights & Labor Issues—

The creation of truly ethical (and feminist) porn is an ongoing project, that requires ongoing conversations. One document can’t fix the problem of rape culture and sexual violence. Sex workers and performers must come together: organize, unionize, and build safe(r) communities and structures. No one should feel they must be silent. No one should fear being blacklisted in order to keep the peace, with the desire to be treated fairly and have reasonable working conditions. The road to building ethical porn starts and ends with prioritising the voices and labor rights of sex workers & porn performers. We must give performers the tools they need when seeking justice for sexual misconduct and sexual assault on set. Sexual assault can’t be sidestepped, brushed aside and excused with a simple apology, and a statement that is used too often; “let’s continue shooting.” 

By prioritizing “apologies”, Producers, Directors and company owners, say they are relying on a model of reparative justice. There is nothing reparative about this approach. This approach enables rape culture. The choice of how to proceed after a sexual assault and what steps are considered necessary for repair should be given to the victims. As sex workers, we are always on the front-lines of the fight against rape culture. Sexual assault is an everyday risk and hazard of our job, and the tools for mitigating those risks must ALWAYS belong to us!

How can we create Ethical Porn? Ethical Porn can’t be made without the voices of it’s performers and workers. It’s a labor right and issue first and foremost! This is how we create Ethical Porn.

 

*Chapter from: #WE TOO: Sex Work in the Wake of a Movement. —An anthology of non-fiction, personal essays by sex workers that allows us to consider our place within and beyond #MeToo and other feminist movements to end sexualized violence in the workplace.—
Release date: Fall 2020.
Associate Editor: Tina Horn & Natalie West
Feminist Press

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

There are 3 ways beside financial help to support me:

 

Share my story on social media | #BelieveALLSurvivors. Please help support victims of marginalised identities.

Join my online protest by signing my petition (change.org)  |Email Erika Lust Films, Comment on their Social media; Instagram, Twitter, etc. ⇒ Let them know it’s unethical to profit off the visual record of someone’s rape and sexual assault.

Donate to help me fundraise to seek justice.