Director Madeline Marlowe posing with a performer during a BDSM porn shoot.
Image: Madeline Marlowe

Several years ago, Angie Rowntree was on a porn set—a stark, unadorned dungeon—watching as an actor fingered his female co-star. The woman, kneeling on a bench with her wrists secured in front of her, suddenly shifted her body and inhaled sharply. Rowntree, who was taking still photographs as the director filmed the scene, started to worry. “I wanted to make sure that she was comfortable,” says Rowntree. So, she raised her hand and was about to yell, “pause,” the word she uses to bring a scene to a sudden halt. But the woman frantically responded, “Angie, I’m having an orgasm! I’m fine!”

“I thought she was gonna bite my head off,” says Rowntree with a laugh. “I probably call ‘pause’ and check in way too often.”

Rowntree is the founder of Sssh, a porn site for women, but she also does still photography for the BDSM porn site Wasteland, which was founded by her husband Colin Rowntree. While taking photos during these shoots, where performers engage in everything from spanking to verbal humiliation, she doubles as the “on-set advocate”—meaning, she takes responsibility for ensuring performers’ comfort and consent. Her vigilance can sometimes needlessly interrupt a scene—or get in the way of an orgasm—but she says it’s a necessary sacrifice to keep actors safe.

The question of how to best protect performers—particularly during “rough” shoots—has arisen once again as the adult industry reels from allegations of on-set abuses. Directors, like Rowntree, who have both extensive experience shooting physically-intense BDSM scenes and reputations for being especially rigorous about consent, might have some answers.

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Earlier this month, porn actors Leigh Raven and Riley Nixon filmed a YouTube video detailing their allegations of consent violations during two separate shoots, including misleading booking practices, excessive face-slapping and choking, and boundary crossing. Both say they were told beforehand that the scenes in question would be rough, a subjective word often used to describe shoots involving some degree of slapping, choking, and aggressive blow jobs (or “face-fucking,” in search-term parlance). Although consent is always a concern during shoots, it is especially so when a scene involves those kinds of acts, which can present a set of unique challenges, given their physical, and sometimes emotional, intensity.

These recent accusations follow two earlier cases where porn performers have alleged on-set abuse during rough or kinky shoots. Last year, performer Nikki Benz accused director and performer Tony T of excessive roughness during a shoot. In 2015, several performers accused porn star James Deen of on- and off-set abuses. Among the on-set accusations was alleged boundary violations during a BDSM shoot.

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The Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the adult industry’s trade association, has been working on best-practice guidelines around consent for months now—but these recent allegations have added a greater sense of urgency to the project, according to Mike Stabile, FSC’s communications director. He says many directors already follow strict protocols, but argues that there is a need to better communicate what kind of safeguards performers should expect on sets. “Today, anyone with an iPhone can call themselves an adult producer, and people all over the world are creating content without any connection to the traditional industry in Los Angeles,” he said. “That presents a tremendous challenge, but it doesn’t mean we can shy from it.”

After Benz’s allegations, the Adult Performers Actors Guild, a porn industry union, released something it dubbed “The Benz List,” a document performers could voluntarily bring to shoots to indicate consent, or a lack thereof, to a wide range of acts and the level of aggression with which they are comfortable.

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Dee Severe, a director and co-owner of the BDSM production company Severe Sex Films, is in favor of formalized consent standards, particularly when it comes to rough shoots. Although there is some overlap between rough shoots and BDSM shoots, they are generally seen as slightly different creatures. BDSM porn often has a kink aesthetic—leather and latex, whips and rope—while rough scenes typically do not and are thought of as existing within the larger world of “vanilla” or “mainstream” porn. “I think the more strict protocols of a fetish set need to be implemented on a rough sex set,” she says.

Madeline Marlowe, a Las Vegas-based dominatrix, longtime BDSM director, and co-owner of Hotel Divine Films, agrees. She knows of non-BDSM producers shooting rough content who follow strict protocols around consent, but she says there are others who don’t. “That is a problem,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s because they are ignorant to the fact that in order to pull off something on that level, you, the director, have a much larger responsibility. Maybe they don’t care? Maybe they don’t think it’s an issue. I am here to tell you that it is.”

Severe’s protocols start before a scene is even booked. “We’re very picky about the talent that we use,” she says. “We use BDSM players who really have skills and make sure no one is performing beyond their skill level.” That means, for example, that performers know how to deliver a slap so that it reads well on camera, but doesn’t go beyond their co-star’s comfort levels. After Fifty Shades of Grey, Severe saw a boom in kinky porn produced by people outside of the BDSM community—and that, she says, is a recipe for trouble. “Just because you put a woman in latex and give her a flogger, it doesn’t make her a dominatrix,” she says. “You have people hitting people in the kidney with a cane and stuff they absolutely should not be doing. You have to be careful who you’re hiring.”

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Severe tends to hire within a small network of performers that she’s worked with routinely—and, often, her co-stars have worked together several times before and are already familiar with each others’ limits. Rowntree, on the other hand, says that she typically works with real-life couples during shoots both for Sssh and Wasteland, which can remove some consent challenges, but it also introduces new ones. “They like to push boundaries,” she says of couples. “They tend to go further than what I feel comfortable with.” Both directors make a point of detailing performers’ each and every “do and don’t”—from flogging to wax play, face-sitting to bondage—before the shoot begins.

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Similarly, Marlowe emails performers an extensive checklist of sex acts before shooting. She has performers indicate hard limits, which are “things the performer absolutely does not want to do,” like anal or choking. Then there are soft limits, which are subtler preferences—like being slapped on only one side of the face or with the intensity of no more than a five on a scale of one to 10. On the day of the shoot, she again goes over the checklist with the performer, and not only reviews each item, but talks at length about how they’re feeling about the scene ahead of them. “We’re dealing with human beings and their bodies,” she says. “Head space can change day to day.” That can mean that a performer no longer feels comfortable with an act that they had previously said was OK. That can also happen in the middle of a scene, so she tells performers that they can stop and adjust their limits at any point.

Both of the shoots Raven and Nixon participated in included pre-shoot on-camera interviews about dos and don’ts—but the performers allege that the boundaries they indicated were not respected, and that the intensity of the slapping and choking far exceeded what they had agreed upon.

Marlowe admits that “in the heat of the moment, things can happen.” Sometimes a performer gets carried away and pushes or forgets a stated boundary—but she says it’s the director’s job to immediately call out the transgression and address it. “If someone didn’t want spit in their face and then the other actor spits in their face, I stop the scene,” she says. “I remind the actor about the other actor’s limits.” It’s then up to the performer whose limits were crossed to decided whether they want to take a break or stop the scene entirely. If a performer crosses a hard limit, there is no warning. “The scene stops and they will be escorted off my set immediately,” she says.

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Performers always have safe words, like “red,” that will bring the scene to a screeching halt, but sometimes Marlowe intervenes on their behalf if it looks like things have gotten too rough. “I can often see it coming before they even say something,” she says. “Often they are in a deeply intense head space and it can be hard [for them] to call it.” There have been times where she’s had to suddenly call off a scene entirely. “It’s important that you learn the signs of when you need to call the shoot, even if the actor gets mad at you,” she says. “Most actors will come to you later, sometimes years later, and thank you.”

In fact, in response to Raven’s and Nixon’s video, Marlowe unleashed a series of tweets calling on directors to “actively engage with your talent in a respectful way and be able to read them when they are deep in the throws of rough sex and take that shit seriously.” She wrote, “Be prepared to recognize when you need to call shoots, even if the main talent is not able to do it themselves. BECAUSE IT’S YOUR FUCKING JOB.” In response, a performer she had worked with in the past wrote, “Yep. You called it once during my very first scene when I didnt know any better and because of that I was able to finish my scene with a smile on my face and was able to conquer other scenes and even have a better idea of my own limits going forward in my career.”

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While acting as an on-set advocate for Wasteland, Rowntree once canceled a scene when a female performer seemed to be in pain while performing with a particularly well-endowed male performer. “She held her breath and closed her eyes and did a hiccup kind of thing,” she said. “I stopped it right away and I said, ‘You don’t need to do this.’ She said, ‘No, no, no, I really want to do this.’” Ultimately, though, Rowntree felt that the performer was in too much discomfort and brought things to a halt. That is in part because she knows that performers can feel pressure not to speak up. “I think that they’re scared that they’re not going to be asked back, that they will get a reputation that they don’t follow through,” she says.

Severe, who checks in directly with performers every time the crew takes a water break or has to change the camera battery, says many actors are hesitant to voice discomfort. “Because of the old guard of porn directors who were jerks, a lot of performers have gotten it in their heads that they just need to grit their teeth and get through it to get their paycheck,” she says. “So even if you tell them they can speak up, they don’t.” Severe says that will likely change as more female directors enter the industry—right now, she estimates that 30 to 40 percent of porn directors are women. “I think female performers feel more comfortable with speaking up if the director is also female,” she says.

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In Raven’s case, she said she was too afraid to air her discomfort during the shoot in question because, as she put it in the YouTube video, “I was in a warehouse, it was nighttime, there were multiple men on set, it was just me, I didn’t have a car.” It’s worth noting that Rowntree, Severe, and Marlowe—all of whom have reputations for good practices around consent—are not only women, but they also frequently work with female dominants, or femme dommes, and male submissives.

The protocols for a BDSM shoot often don’t stop once the scene has ended. “I always sit down with them after and talk about what they are feeling,” says Marlowe. “If it was a particularly intense scene, I will check in with them the next day, too.” Despite all her years of shooting, Marlowe says she has never had a performer complain of a consent violation—probably, she says, “because I run such a tight ship.” That isn’t to say that there aren’t slight mishaps. “I’ve had performers pass out in bondage, people have been accidentally cut, buttholes bleed and people can get emotionally overwhelmed,” she says. “We are sexual acrobats doing extreme acts with our bodies and minds.”

All the more reason to have protections in place. Now, with these latest allegations of abuse, even some of the most cautious of directors are considering whether added safeguards are needed. Severe says that shooting with friends and a familiar talent roster has allowed her and her husband to run a more laid-back “mom and pop” set—but it might be time for some changes. Typically, they have simply emailed beforehand with performers about their limits—but now she’s considering having a physical checklist on-hand during shoots. As she puts it, “We should probably formalize some of these things just to make sure there aren’t any problems.”