Rooster was preparing to shoot a sex scene for Erika Lust Films—a Barcelona-based porn production company that markets itself as an ethical, feminist alternative to the mainstream adult industry—when they allegedly asked for a break. The then-26-year-old performer, who uses they/them pronouns, says they told the film’s director, Olympe de G., that they would like to have a chance to speak with their co-star about sexual boundaries before continuing.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, this felt especially important, says Rooster. This is why, according to Rooster, they had only agreed to the shoot—for a film titled Don’t Call Me a Dick—on the grounds that such a conversation would happen. But, says Rooster, the request was brushed off and belittled. “It was ‘you’ve had enough time, we need to get moving,’” they said. “It was ‘we don’t have time for that.’”
Olympe, who has directed four movies for Erika Lust Films, denies Rooster’s allegations. She alleges that she agreed to give Rooster an opportunity to discuss boundaries, consent, and triggers with their co-star, which did happen several weeks before the shoot. Olympe also notes that she sent a storyboard of the expected shots and acts to the performers ahead of time. She argues that there was “plenty of time on the day of the shoot” for the co-stars to talk and says Rooster never asked for a break.
Rooster says they could have pushed the issue further at the time, but that they felt doing so might get them labeled as a “diva” and damage their porn career, which was just getting underway. “I was like, OK, this is how this set is running,” they said. “I’m just like a robot or mannequin. I’ll just go through the motions.” They went ahead with the shoot and Rooster says of performing that day, “I felt very disassociated.”
Rooster took these concerns to Olympe and, eventually, to Erika Lust Films. A year after the shoot in question, in early June of this year, Olympe published a post publicly refuting the claims against her, which were starting to surface at porn film festivals, and to which Rooster responded. Then, after many months of conversation and negotiation with Lust Films around how to address the issue, Rooster published a full accounting of their accusations to Medium, in a post titled, “Erika Lust has a serious #MeToo Problem.” The post—which has since been removed by Medium—detailed several other allegations, including that Olympe had intentionally outed Rooster on social media and used her power as a director to coerce them into a sexual relationship. (Medium declined to comment, citing “privacy reasons.”)
These allegations, all of which are denied by Olympe, who says she is filing defamation and harassment claims against Rooster, have partly inspired Erika Lust Films to “do something to improve and secure the work environment,” as the eponymous founder put it in a statement provided to Jezebel. On Wednesday, the company released guidelines for guest directors—a project that began before Rooster’s complaint, but that advanced with their input—as well as a “performer bill of rights.” Rooster says they are considering civil and criminal claims against Olympe.
Rooster’s allegations, as well as Lust’s protocol changes, come amid a broader conversation in Europe about what, exactly, it means to make ethical, feminist porn in particular. Earlier this year, Nico Bertrand, another leading porn director in Barcelona with a reputation for ethical production values, was accused by several women of abusive behavior—including using his power as a director to have sex with performers. In response, Lust removed several of Bertrand’s films from her online store, which sells movies from select outside production companies. Bertrand has denied the allegations.
“The important thing here is to ask the question of what, exactly, ethics should look like and not just use it as a marketing tool,” said Lina Bembe, one of the women who accused Bertrand of abuse and a performer who has worked several times for Erika Lust Films. “‘Feminist porn’ doesn’t equal ‘having ethics.’” She added, with a laugh, that most of “the people who are really ethical, they’re not like, ‘We’re ethical, trademark!”
Lust, an outspoken critic of the mainstream adult industry, has long positioned her work in opposition to it. In 2014, she delivered a much-circulated TED Talk that critiqued “bad, wrong, chauvinistic porn” and declared it “time for porn to change.” Three years later, she offered a similar critique during an appearance in the controversial Netflix series Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On. She said of mainstream pornography, “The people creating it are more interested in punish-fucking women than showing good sexual encounters.”
In her ongoing critique, Lust has voiced concerns around porn performers’ rights—from adequate pay to mandatory STI testing—but she has often focused instead on the themes and aesthetic of mainstream adult films. As she told me when I profiled her earlier this year, “I am very tired of all these images of women not participating on their own behalf,” she said. “It’s this power-culture of men dominating women.” Lust’s films pair cinematic production values with beautiful performers with a tattooed-barista kinda feel, and avoid the usual tube-site genre labels—like “interracial” and “MILF”—and instead focus on images of women’s pleasure.
Now, issues of safety and consent are the focus as the company releases its new guidelines.
The mainstream U.S.-based adult industry has already had something of a #MeToo moment, the results of a which are debatable. In 2015, porn star James Deen was accused by several women of abuse, some of it allegedly on-set. In response, Kink.com overhauled its policies in an attempt to avoid abusive situations and some major porn companies cut ties with him. But Deen, who continues to perform prolifically, was hardly blacklisted from the industry. Deen has denied the allegations.
In the years that followed, other abuse allegations emerged against performers and directors—including those made by Nikki Benz against director Tony T. and co-star Ramón Nomar, who has performed in two of Lust’s films. (Both have denied the allegations.) Although Benz’s allegations did not result in charges (the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office cited “insufficient evidence” in an email to Jezebel) they did lead to the development of The Benz List, a document that performers can voluntarily bring to shoots to indicate their sexual boundaries.
Amid these allegations, The Free Speech Coalition, the adult industry’s trade association, has been working on a pre-shoot checklist to allow performers to thoroughly detail their sexual boundaries ahead of time. It’s expected to be released soon.
Erika Lust Films’ protocol revisioning has been necessitated in part by its attempt to bring in new talent. In 2016, the company launched a worldwide open call for guest directors for the XConfessions series, which turns viewer-submitted fantasies into pornographic films. “I believe in the importance of the female gaze in the adult industry and I really believe these directors are creating an alternative to some of the misogynistic stereotypical male-driven porn and its tropes,” said Lust in her written statement to Jezebel. “I wanted women in positions of authority and I wanted to get more women directing films to make female-led erotica relevant and normal, not the exception.”
As a result of that open call, the company has produced 25 guest-directed films, many of them award-winning. “Within this range of talented directors, some have shot adult content before and some others haven’t,” Lust told Jezebel. “Creatively speaking it has been a success, but the growth in production has resulted in [a] certain lack of control.”
Few, if any, of the XConfessions guest directors have anything like Lust’s 14 years of experience. That experience has led her to develop certain skills, she says—for example, being “able to read a performer if they seem hesitant to voice discomfort or concern.”
In May, Lust published a blog post titled, “We Care,” in which she acknowledged that there had been “undesired situations” on several of her company’s shoots. The post specifically mentioned “situations” during the production of seven different films, most of them guest-directed, including Don’t Call Me a Dick, the film Rooster appeared in. Since then, however, the post has been edited to exclude the names of specific films. The exact nature of the “situations” was not made clear.
Rooster, who says they have felt disillusioned by Erika Lust Film’s delay in releasing the new protocol documents, provided Jezebel with a draft of the guidelines for guest directors. But, shortly before publishing this story, Lust Films provided Jezebel with an updated version, as well as the performer bill of rights, both of which were published Wednesday on the company’s website. The guest director document addresses administrative concerns—like paying for STI tests and performer accommodations—as well as issues around sexual consent. “As we have noted before, everything about the sex scene should be discussed in advance and agreed-upon,” it reads. The document also notes that performers should be given “advance notice” before the sex scene.
In a passage that might partially address Rooster’s complaint about the allegedly pre-negotiated boundary of having a day-of consent conversation, it reads, “Have a quick overview of the sex scene and clarify any doubts or questions beforehand.” The document ends with a simplified “checklist” for guest directors, which calls for a Skype session with performers ahead of a shoot to discuss sex scene details, as well as a “pre sex scene talk” to “go over last minute details, concerns, etc.”
The document also addresses issues around sexual relationships between performers and directors, which is one of the concerns raised by Rooster. They say they had an off-camera sexual relationship with Olympe that was almost entirely conducted under the auspices of “practicing” for another shoot for Erika Lust Films in which they would be co-stars. Rooster says they were new to the industry at the time and didn’t realize that this was not standard protocol. Olympe told Jezebel that their sexual relationship began consensually and “outside of any professional context,” but says they did talk about “rehears[ing]” for the Lust shoot.
“We really recommend that personal relationships between performer/director do not conflict with a shooting,” the document reads. “This can create a power imbalance and can really affect the dynamic of a movie and also the well being of a performer.” It continues, “To keep things professional on set, it’s better to not have a romantic/physical relationship that could be a conflict of interest with the performer/director.”
The issue of outing is also brought up. Olympe admits to outing Rooster while promoting Don’t Call Me a Dick on Twitter by using their birth name, as opposed to their stage name, but told Jezebel it was unintentional. The document warns that it’s “very important to ONLY use the performers [sic] ‘stage name’, and NEVER their birth name, not just on social media but also when talking to press or just working on set.” The document adds, “This is a very sensitive subject, and we need to avoid any situations where a performer’s real identity could be ‘outed’.”
Most notably the document states: “I will have a meeting with my scene partner at the beginning of the day to talk about the sex scene.” It ends by directing performers to an online form where they can provide feedback on their experiences while shooting. It has performers rank “the care and attention of the director and crew” on a zero-10 scale and asks, among other things, “Did you feel that your concerns were heard and respected while on set?”
There are some limits to what the protocol document can anticipate, according to Lust. As she said in her statement to Jezebel, “not every single problem that could occur on set or in a workplace can be forecasted in a bill of rights or a guide.” But, she added, “We are responsible for making sure we hire guest directors, who also hire a crew, who have the personal skills and empathy to work with sex workers, understand what they need, listen to them and accommodate to that,” she said. Lust added that the company will be “prioritizing work with directors who have positive feedback from performers.”
Lina Bembe, one of the performers who accused Bertrand of abuse, says of Erika Lust Films’ decision to release new protocols, “It’s a good step, but it’s still a baby step.” She’s worked several times for the company, largely with very positive experiences, but more recently, Bembe says, she has had “mixed feelings” about the company. That is in small part because of Rooster’s experiences and more so because in the summer of 2017, she performed with Ramón Nomar on a shoot for Erika Lust Films without knowing that he had previously been accused by Benz of on-set abuse.
Benz’s abuse accusations were made on Twitter in December of 2016. Then, in January of 2017, Nomar, along with Tony T, sued Benz for defamation. Bembe feels that Lust’s team should have been aware of the accusations and not hired Nomar. In March of this year, Nomar was a VIP guest at a Los Angeles screening for Lust’s work—but Lust’s publicist says she was unaware of the allegations at the time.“It’s something that I’m still processing,” says Bembe of the shoot with Nomar. “I don’t understand how they could possibly have let that slide.”
The question of just what it means to make ethical or feminist porn does not have any single answer. “Ethical porn is whatever porn fits your personal system of values and ethics, and they are subjective, person to person,” said Vex Ashley, the creator of Four Chambers, an indie porn company with a reputation among performers for being feminist and ethical, but that does not actively market itself as such. “There are no general[ly] accepted specifics, there’s no naughty or nice list.”
She chooses to prioritize the welfare of performers, which in part means paying “fees that are as high as possible.” (To that point, Lust has said that “a decent fee for performers is around 600 to 800 euros per sex scene” and that “bargaining this amount is ... the beginning of exploitation”—but both Rooster and Bembe say they have been paid €500 for an Erika Lust Films shoot.) It also means “working in collaboration with performers” to make it feel “like their needs are paramount.” This means, in part, that on the day of the shoot she listens to performers’ needs while being flexible and adaptive in response. “I also give performers control in post-production, to veto or remove any shots they’re unhappy with so that there’s a degree of control of their own image,” she said.
Of course, there are some widely agreed upon ethical concerns—like establishing sexual boundaries and consent—but even those are approached in different ways by different directors. Some rely on physical checklists which detail the acts to which performers consent, while others rely on more informal conversations between co-stars on the day of the shoot or in the weeks leading up to it.
Marit Östberg, a longtime independent Berlin-based porn director with an ethical reputation, says she carefully prioritizes negotiations, but what those conversations look like can vary depending “on what kind of negotiation the performers need.” What’s more, pre-shoot negotiations are not enough, she says. “During the actual shoot there are often things coming up that can’t be predicted,” she said, and they can influence a performer’s comfort and, even, consent. Those things can include everything from technical difficulties to thirst or hunger to vulnerable emotional states. This is part of why she has taken to employing a “caretaker” on her sets—someone whose task it is to “be there for and listen to the performers during the shoot.”
It’s worth noting that Erika Lust Films has a talent manager who fills a similar role, and who was on-set during Don’t Call Me a Dick. As Östberg acknowledges, the pursuit of ethical productions is an imperfect one. “The safe spaces we strive to create in our film productions easily can fail in one way or another, in smaller or in bigger ways,” she said. “After every film production... I learn something new that needs to be added to the list about what is needed to make a film production a safer space.”
Similarly, Ashley acknowledges the inevitability of mistakes, even under the best of on-set circumstances. “No one is going to get everything right all of the time and we’re all growing and learning together to navigate this landscape,” she said.
Sex workers have fought long and hard, and continue to do so, just to have their jobs recognized as just that: a job. But that isn’t to say that performing in porn is just like any other job. As Ashley who is also a performer, puts it, “Asking people to have sex on film is asking people to be in a state that is probably one of our most vulnerable, which is why it can be so powerful,” she said. It is “imbued with all these social complications and pressures and we all come [to it] with our own complexities.”
There is also the tension inherent in any politically-minded business enterprise. As Östberg observes, “In a feminist, or ethical, porn film production the human being should be the most important and everything else should come in second place.” But, as she puts it, “If you wanna make [a] business out of porn you have to play the rules of capitalism and in the rules of capitalism money comes first,” she said. It’s not that it is impossible to turn ethical porn into a successful business, but, says Östberg, “it is complicated and something we need to talk about in a time when the market for ethical and feminist porn has opened up.”
Östberg poses a familiar question: “What happens when feminism becomes a label used to sell products?” Outside of the X-rated realm, it tends to result in watered-down values in the service of feel-good marketing and consumption. When the product is porn, the consequences of watered-down values are most likely to fall on sex workers, who already bear the brunt of anti-porn stigma. “What’s most important is that we prioritize the experience of those people on the ground and listen to them as to how we can all be better,” said Ashley.
That approach—listening to sex workers—is all too rare, argues Bembe. As she puts it, “Our voices are still not taken seriously enough and that needs to change.”
Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Olympe alleges that she agreed to facilitate a consent conversation between the co-stars without specifying when it would happen.