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A Flood of Sexual Assault Allegations in the Porn Industry Are Met With Deflection

Illustration for article titled A Flood of Sexual Assault Allegations in the Porn Industry Are Met With Deflection
Photo: AP

This month has brought a flood of allegations of sexual abuse in the adult film industry. While the last several years have seen many allegations of on-set boundary violations, this sudden outpouring directed at multiple alleged abusers by over a dozen women is unlike anything the industry has ever seen before. The reactions of those accused, and their defenders, however, are familiar. Again and again, when allegations of abuse arise within the industry, an iteration of the same defense is repeated: She didn’t say anything. She didn’t speak up. I can’t read minds. Concerns raised by accusers around insufficient pre-scene boundary negotiations are ignored, as are the complex power dynamics that make speaking up difficult. The anxieties performers may have about long-term career consequences and the material need for a paycheck are also ignored, positioning the “speak up” defense as an uncomplicated matter of personal responsibility.

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This idea has become persistent despite the fact that experts say freezing is a common response to sexual assault. It effectively casts mounting claims of sexual misconduct within the industry as discrete personal failures on the part of accusers, as opposed to a systemic problem.

This attitude was plainly reflected in recent comments from the longtime director John Stagliano, who was accused in 2018 by performers Jenny Blighe and Ginger Banks of non-consensually touching them while directing a scene for the porn documentary Cam Girls: The Movie. The allegations recently resurfaced on Twitter and, when asked by the trade publication XBIZ about the claims, Stagliano pointed to a YouTube interview in which he said, “We’re all assuming that you’re an adult and you can just say ‘no’ when you don’t want to do something instead of say, ‘Well, I didn’t really want to do it. Oh, the pressure [pretend crying]. Oh, help me.’ Well, say ‘help me!’” He continued, “Women want the right to be equal to men, and there comes a little responsibility with that. Which is: stand up for yourself.” Stagliano added, “Don’t expect us to treat you like a full human being if you don’t act like a full human being.”

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In a related shoot for Cam Girls, Blighe alleged that performer Manuel Ferrara strangled and hit her excessively, forced her to squirt, and left bite marks on her body during a scene she was told by Chris Gentile, the director of the project, would be “fairly vanilla,” as documented in a text message. On June 12, Ferrara responded to the allegations of abuse, which were first made in 2018, but which recently regained traction on Twitter. “All involved are smiling, laughing, and communicating how happy they are with the experience in the moment,” he wrote in a statement shared with XBIZ. “I am not more clairvoyant than anyone else who was present that day. I regret that Jenny’s experience in hindsight was not what she wanted it to be, but given the messages she was sending, I see no way that we could have known to change it.” Ferrara, who said he would be sharing the entirety of the footage, wrote:

As the scene progresses, you can hear me checking in, as I always do. At the 29:45 mark of the scene, I say “Tell me what I can do to you.” Jenny answers, “Everything.” When I smack her ass at 36:40 I ask, “Is this what you like?” Jenny’s answer is, “Yes.” At the 46 minute mark, Jenny says “Fuck me harder.” At 48:10 she says “I love it when you fucking slap me.” At the 54:29 mark, as Ginger is choking Jenny, Jenny is saying repeatedly, ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming.

Like Stagliano, Ferrara emphasized the responsibility of a performer to speak up at the moment. This line of defense seemed to resonate with some prominent industry figures: The following day, director Jules Jordan tweeted of Blighe’s allegation, “[I]n the video I see her saying ‘Choke me more.... Fuck the cum out of me’ i’m having trouble understanding this level of consent? Help me understand this... .” In response, the performer Abella Danger wrote, “Right? Make it make sense please.”

Blighe alleged that after twice calling “cut” during the scene, she was told she was disrupting the flow. “I did not call cut again because I was almost in tears and tried my best to just make it through the scene,” she told Jezebel in an email. She has repeatedly highlighted the physical intensity of the shoot, during which she was allegedly strangled to the point of losing consciousness. Recently, she explained in a series of emotional videos posted to Twitter, which have since been deleted, that she was triggered in the scene due to prior sexual abuse. Additionally, she emphasizes that she was told beforehand that it would be a “vanilla” scene and that the exact parameters of the shoot were not appropriately discussed or agreed upon beforehand.

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On June 13, Ferrara, Blighe, and Gentile put out a joint statement announcing that after a lengthy conversation with an aim of “mutual understanding,” they now “bear no ill will toward each other.” The statement acknowledged that there was a lack of “detailed conversation” before the scene. “Manuel apologizes for not recognizing Jenny’s discomfort,” the statement read. “Jenny acknowledges that Manuel acted with no malicious intent. Neither side denies the other’s experience.” After posting the statement, Blighe wrote, “For the first time in weeks i woke up hungry and ready to eat! ... My body is now going back to normal and i feel peace. This IS justice for me.” Just over a week later, however, Blighe recanted the joint statement, writing she no longer believed that Ferrara “meant what he said in the statement.” She added that they were “empty words to shut me up.”

While some directors rely on detailed pre-shoot conversations about boundaries, these approaches are not consistently adopted. In 2019, the BDSM site Kink.com, which was named in multiple abuse allegations against performer James Deen, released consent “checklists” meant for other companies to “customize, adjust, and use to safely create adult content.” (Deen denied the allegations against him.) Of course, even with boundaries clearly detailed, it doesn’t mean performers feel safe saying something when one is overstepped. Often, speaking up, even after the fact, means engaging with someone who has perpetrated or participated in the alleged abuse.

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Some porn companies have human resources departments, but there are disincentives to reporting. “As with other harassment and assault in society at large, those who come forward, whether to HR or elsewhere, worry that word will get out, or that it will affect their careers,” said Kink spokesperson Mike Stabile, who explained that the company has tried to create multiple routes to reporting, including launching an anonymous tip line. Additionally, many companies contract with third-party producers, which can distance performers from corporate resources; sometimes performers don’t even know the name of the site for which they are shooting.

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Banks, who co-starred in the scene with Ferrara and Blighe, told Jezebel that she used to share the “speak up” mentality. Then she met people in the BDSM community, who explained the way submissives can enter what’s known as “subspace,” which can involve disassociation and someone being “unlikely to make rational decisions about his or her safety or well being,” as the sex-themed publication Kinkly puts it. Banks said these seasoned BDSM practitioners “explained the protocols for rough sex scenes and what they do to avoid people getting hurt and I realized that nothing like that was in place that day.” She argued that boundaries and consent were not appropriately discussed ahead of filming. Instead, she pointed to her own experiences with dominants as an example of a more consensual practice. Dominants, she said, will “break away from the dominating aspect and really look at you and be like, ‘Are you okay?’” “That does not happen during these gonzo scenes,” she added. “It’s just start to finish, don’t fuck up the flow of the scene. That’s where these problems come in.”

Banks said that it’s not uncommon to hear crew members joking about a performer being “crazy” or “difficult” to work with. “They say that about the girls who speak out,” she said, which can feel like a warning to not speak up. “You notice that the biggest names never speak out,” she said. “You notice that the people who do the craziest, most intense, rough scenes win the awards. It’s all pushing us in that direction of doing these crazy, intense, rough sex scenes without talking about it beforehand, because it makes you look difficult to work with.”

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In late May, Banks filed a police report in West Hollywood over Stagliano’s alleged sexual battery, XBIZ reported. (In response to a request for comment, Stagliano directed Jezebel to the scene itself, which has been made available for free on Evil Angel’s website, along with the request to “please judge for yourself.”) Banks only filed the report because a friend who advocates for survivors of sexual assault survivors reminded her that she could. “That was the first time as a porn star that anybody has ever said that to me,” she said.

The stigma around sex work provides both a deterrent to reporting and a potential shield for alleged abusers. For years, whispers circulated within the industry about legendary performer Ron Jeremy’s alleged sexual misconduct before the allegations gained mainstream media coverage. (Only then was he banned from the yearly Adult Entertainment Expo and Awards, key industry events.) In 2017, one of Jeremy’s accusers, former performer Jennifer Steele, told Rolling Stone’s Ej Dickson, “He hides behind other women’s scarlet letters, is what he does,” she said. “[He] know[s] if someone’s a porn star and they say they’ve been raped, people aren’t gonna take it seriously.” (Jeremy has denied all allegations against him.) Just this week, he was charged with sexually assaulting four women, seemingly outside of the context of the porn industry.

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During the recent flood of allegations, several women spoke in particular about the performer Ryan Madison on Twitter. He was accused of numerous instances of alleged boundary violations, as reported by the trade publication AVN. Performer Annabel Redd tweeted that Madison “violated my boundaries. he was not supposed to creampie [ejaculate inside] me. he forcibly held me down while he did so.” She alleged that he also deep-throated her until she repeatedly threw up and wrote that he “wrapped his hand around my throat tight enough that i couldn’t properly talk, had difficulty breathing.” She said, “there were lots of times that i was in pain and i couldn’t tell him i was in pain.” In response to this allegation, Madison’s production company, Kelly Madison Media, told AVN in a statement, “Annabel Redd worked with us for 2 days, left after the first day and she had complete free will to cancel the following day or to request no cream pies on that 2nd shoot. None of that occurred.” The company sent XBIZ what it claimed was “unedited behind the scenes footage” from the shoot to assist “in evaluating the false allegations made by Annabel Redd.” Jezebel has not seen the footage and Kelly Madison Media did not respond to a request for comment.

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Redd acknowledged that she didn’t raise any concerns with Madison between the two shoots. “I wanted to be likable and be agreeable,” she told AVN. “When people say to you, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ That is all a sort of uninformed stance on what it means to go through something that is traumatizing. When you’re scared your brain shuts down. I felt like I did not have access to those feelings and those thoughts to really process what I was feeling. It took me at least a couple weeks or a month or so.”

Redd is not just describing her own experience, but also a known reaction that often happens during a sexual assault. “When someone is experiencing sexual assault or a violation, one of the most common reactions is a freeze response,” explained Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “People often think of ‘flight or fight,’ but actually the most common reaction is freezing.” She said victims often describe feeling “as though their body is shutting down or they’re no longer present in their body.” This can arise from being traumatized or from the re-triggering of past trauma.

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“Obviously, many people go into shock in moments of distress,” said Lotus Lain, who manages industry relations for the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the industry’s trade association. “In a perfect world [someone speaking up in the moment] would make everything easier for everybody, but we are human, we should understand that’s not the way humans work.” Earlier this month, the Twitter account for the Adult Performers Actors Guild, an adult industry union, tweeted, “Too many times models are upset after a scene, but when we ask them did you communicate that with the director and the answer many times is no. Ladies and gentlemen if you don’t communicate it’s hard for the director to know you are uncomfortable! Please communicate!” The tweet received a flood of outraged responses.

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The recent response blaming performers’ failure to speak up recall several allegations of on-set abuse from previous years. Last year, the podcast Last Days of August investigated the suicide of performer August Ames and found that before her death, she shot a scene with Markus Dupree that she described in texts to a friend as “WAY too rough.” Ames wrote that she “was literally in panic mode so I froze and didn’t say no or stop” and that she “just wanted it to be over.” (Dupree did not respond to a request for comment.)

As I wrote in a 2018 story for this site:

The texts said that during the Las Vegas-based shoot she “was looking at the sound guy with ‘help me’ eyes and he was looking back at me with ‘I’m sorry eyes.’” She added, “It felt like rape but I was in a ‘fuck it’ mood and I was just pissed and wanted to get paid for the bullshit I went through.” If she had walked off set, she said in a text, “I wouldn’t have been paid.” She alleged that she went along with an exit interview—a standard industry practice in which a performer typically says on-camera that everything that happened in the shoot was consensual before receiving their paycheck. “I said that everything went fine and I had a good time,” she said in a text. “But I was holding back tears because you don’t get paid if you say you were uncomfortable.”

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In 2018, Leigh Raven and Riley Nixon uploaded a video to YouTube that alleged boundary violations during separate shoots with the performer Rico Strong for a director known as Just Dave, as Jezebel reported. They alleged misleading booking practices, boundary violations, and excessive roughness. (Strong and Just Dave denied the allegations.) In the YouTube video, Raven explained why she didn’t say anything while shooting the scene:

To be perfectly honest, I was afraid,” she said. “I was afraid because Rico had mentioned in the past to me that, you know, if people fuck with his money he’s not going to have it. So if I were to call that scene in that moment he wouldn’t get paid, I wouldn’t get paid, and I didn’t know what could happen to me. I was in a warehouse, it was nighttime, there were multiple men on set, it was just me, I didn’t have a car.

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She added, “I just said to myself, ‘Let’s just get this over with.’” Similarly, Nixon said that she didn’t speak up about her discomfort during the shoot, because, as she put it, “I don’t want to make people angry and I need to pay rent... I kinda did what I thought I had to do to get the job done and get that check so I can pay my rent.”

In response to Jezebel’s reporting on the allegations, Just Dave shared “unedited” footage of Raven’s shoot, claiming that it would exonerate him and Strong. Instead, it revealed a troubling, discriminatory work environment. Just Dave used the word “tranny” and the phrase “man thing” to refer to a transgender woman, while Strong joked about beating up a transgender woman. The staff was heard repeatedly joking disparagingly about “gay shit,” and Raven is married to a woman. In between takes, Strong joked about “whoop[ing]” Raven’s ass. Now, Raven tells Jezebel, “It’s the director’s responsibility to make sure everyone feels safe enough to [speak up],” she said.

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A few months after Raven went public with her allegation, Jezebel reported on performer Rooster’s allegations against the director Olympe de G. during a shoot for Erika Lust Films. Rooster alleged that, among several other issues, their request to speak about boundaries with their co-star on the day of the shoot were brushed off. (Olympe denied the allegations.) Rooster worried that pushing the issue would have negative career consequences. “I was like, OK, this is how this set is running,” said Rooster. “I’m just like a robot or a mannequin. I’ll just go through the motions.” They went ahead with the shoot, feeling, as Rooster put it, “very disassociated.”

A few years earlier, in 2016, performer Nikki Benz alleged on-set abuse during a shoot for the porn production company Brazzers at the hands of performer Ramon Nomar and director Tony T. (Both men denied the allegations and Tony. T sued for defamation.) Benz filed a lawsuit for sexual battery, alleging that she was stomped on and made to bleed. (Both lawsuits are pending.) Of the shoot in question, she explained to the New York Daily News that she was gripped by fear at the moment: “I just remember thinking, I just want this to be over with,” she said. “They can do whatever the fuck they want to me. I just want to go home.” During her exit interview, Benz was asked whether she would do it again. She said “no” and alleged in her lawsuit that Tony T. yelled in response, “Fuck Nikki, you can’t say that!” Benz claimed she had to say “yes” to get her paycheck.

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These issues were already apparent as early as 2015 with the flood of allegations against Deen, some of which involved on-set incidents. One of his accusers told Buzzfeed that she “didn’t have the courage to speak out in the moment,” because she “was more of a quiet person then” and “was really scared.” As Banks put it, “My whole thing is: How does this keep happening?”


The issue is not that performers and directors should be “clairvoyant,” as Ferrara put it, but rather that there has been a systemic failure to broadly adopt a production approach that not only sufficiently facilitates boundary setting, but also understands common responses to sexual assault, expects difficulties in speaking up, and works to protect against related pressures and complications. All industries “need to take proactive steps to look at how their current systems and status quo is creating barriers for survivors of sexual harassment and assault, and potentially protecting people who commit abuse,” said Palumbo. That approach is dramatically different from simply telling performers to “speak up.”

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Recently, FSC committed to formalizing “a process for receiving reports” of on-set sexual abuse “and escalating them to the companies or individuals who need to act on them,” as well as to publishing sexual violence prevention guidelines for the industry. Over the years, many industry safeguards have been suggested. The widespread adoption of detailed boundary discussions before shoots are one needed measure, argued Banks. Pressures around payment might be partially addressed by policies like the one adopted by Kink, which allows performers to end a shoot at any time and receive a prorated payment.

In the past, some performers have suggested the use of on-set talent advocates or intimacy coordinators, as mainstream Hollywood has done post-MeToo, but that hasn’t gained traction. Lain said that “in-the-moment check-ins,” outside of the scene, might help. “You cannot have too many,” she said. “There’s always a moment of pause or readjusting the lights… even a five, 10-second pause—in those pauses, everyone should be checking in with each other.” The current practice of doing a post-scene “exit interview,” in which performers attest on-camera to the shoot having been consensual, are meaningless. “In my opinion, exit interviews don’t mean shit,” she said. “To me, that’s still part of the acting. You’re acting.”

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Lain also proposes a day-after check-in with performers, ideally by someone other than the director. Currently, Kink is exploring “software that allows people filing complaints—formally, anonymously, or otherwise — more control over the process,” said Stabile.

Of course, the reactions of accused directors, production companies, and performers to allegations deliver their own message. There is responding seriously, and compassionately, to allegations of abuse, and then there is, as Lain puts it, “becoming defensive on Twitter.” In a number of cases, accused performers and directors have kept getting work without any form of resolution around allegations. As Jezebel previously reported, it’s often the accusers who face career consequences for speaking out in the industry. Even casual on-set chatter about allegations and particular accusers impacts the perceived risks of speaking up, as Banks points out. This level of industry change, however, can feel out of reach when powerful industry figures are dispensing requirements for being treated like “a full human being” and mocking a survivor of sexual abuse for alleging that she was triggered during a scene.

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“There are a lot of shitty people still in the industry,” said Raven, who feels that a meaningful shift won’t happen “until we weed them out.”

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

Before anything else, Jesus Christ that John Stagliano quote. Even if I knew nothing else of the man, that quote would make it clear how big of a scum he is.

Then on the matter itself. Recently I’ve been listening to old episodes of the Holly Randall podcast which deals with adult industry and interviews performers as well as directors. There are four things that come up there constantly that are really indicative of the big challenges here.

First, everyone there, especially Randall herself who is a director, are putting over how important the male talent is and how rare those guys are who can do porn. It really illustrates how much worth they carry in the business and why it the industry is inherently hesitant on punishing them. Second, it’s pretty clear from the talks there that there are essentially only two types of sets in adult industry, professional and those where the moment the performer walks in every guy starts hitting on her. Which feeds in to this play-along mentality. Third, that while veteran performers are usually pretty good with establishing boundaries, there are so many ways fresh talent is exploited. And fourth, unfortunately being most damning, even on the podcast when they are laughing about all the scummy behaviour they’ve had to deal with, they never name names. It is so instinctual to the discussion that even when acknowledging the horrors, it is never given a name, which just makes it easier for those who do it to exploit others.