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I Can Never Tell

October 7, 2010

I don’t buy porn from any of the big companies that make BDSM porn. It’s not that I have a problem with consenting adults making depictions of sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of arousing viewers. In concept, I’m a fan of some writers who also make porn, and I’m friends with a few people who make or have made porn. And when it’s my friends, I’ll watch as much of it as I can get, because I have some certainty about what kind of experience they had.

But when the producer is some big company far away and I don’t know any of the people involved, how would I know if the bottom’s limits were negotiated and respected? If the bottom had a good experience? I recently posted about the Bagley abuse case in Missouri, where a woman was kidnapped for years and raped and abused, in a relationship that had all the underlying dynamics of a near-terminal domestic battering case. She ended up on the cover of a mainstream porn magazine with a BDSM theme. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that that’s a fluke. How common are those flukes? I have no way of knowing.

It has become common in BDSM-themed porn to give post-scene interviews of the bottom, or of the top and bottom together, and the bottoms always seem to say they had a great time and would do it again. They never had a tough time. They never felt the experience was mixed.  They never say that and even if they are glad they did it, they probably won’t do it again. They never felt stressed and at sea. I’m not even talking about having been forced beyond their boundaries; that’s rape. I’m talking about normal emotional processing that sometimes goes with a hard scene. I’ve been in the “that was tough, and I’m glad I did it but I may not want to do it again” place with certain activities. And a month later I’ve been in the “I remember how hard that was, but I want to do it again” place. What we do pushes our physical and emotional boundaries, and that’s part of the point. But the interviews I’ve seen are just about all sunshine.

Clarisse Thorn interviewed Tim Woodman, who works in that industry niche. Here’s what he says about the interviews:

I know too many models who have been paid “hush money” to keep quiet about their injuries at the larger fetish porn companies. I know too many who have had their paychecks withheld until they do a positive interview. They are forced to lie on camera, telling how they enjoyed it and would do it again, when in fact the opposite was true. I know too many girls who have worked for these larger companies, and when they refused or even objected to activities that were beyond their limits, they were told that they were a “problem girl” and that they would not get much work with an attitude like that.

This kind of business practice is reprehensible. In the BDSM community, if you play like that, word quickly gets around that you are an asshole and are not to be trusted. But in the adult movie business, you can threaten and cajole women by withholding their pay. You can intimidate them by warning that nobody will hire them if they have self-respect, and are unwilling to bend or break their personal limits. That is rape. That is illegal.

[Emphasis in original.]

I’d love to cosign what he says about the BDSM community, but I’ve written before that it doesn’t always work that way. People make excuses for their friends and avoid washing their dirty laundry in public, and the effect is that too often people — and in my experience, too often women — who have been sexually assaulted in scenes are silenced.

There’s an illusion that the producers create that the models in these movies are all … well, that they’re all Calico Lane (and I’m using her illustratively because she’s public about doing some heavy bottoming in her personal life, and because she puts her own experiences out there with an eloquence that is not easily matched.) But there just are not enough models who are all the things porn audiences want — young and thin and conventionally attractive; and who are BDSMers in their personal lives; and who are willing to appear in BDSM-themed porn. So the industry attracts porn models who are not kinksters to do kinky things on film. Says Woodman:

Admittedly, this would be easier if fetish companies only hired models who are actually into BDSM. Lifestyle fetish models know the lingo. If her wrist is numb, she says so right away. If what you’re doing is too painful or beyond some other limit, she knows to stop the scene and have it dealt with. Mainstream models don’t necessarily know this. When a mainstream model is pushed too far, she’ll usually say “How much longer are we doing this?” to which a bad director will respond “Five minutes.” Twenty minutes later she’s scarred for life. Save the intense shit for the professionals — for the lifestyle girls who love to be tied up and tortured on-screen.

On the other hand, I make a lot of my career hiring mainstream porn stars to appear in rape and torture videos.

I don’t think it’s all about the experiences of non-kinky models doing kinky work, either. I read translations of a Hungarian report about a police raid on a BDSM-themed porn company in Hungary that did extreme whipping and caning scenes; the person translating the report said that the model negotiated a safeword but the producers ignored it and kept whipping her. (I’m talking about Elite Pain, and all I can find are discussion forum references. If anyone has better sources, let me know.) And even the serious kinksters who do BDSM on film because they really want to sometimes come away with a bad taste in their mouths.

So let’s just say that I really want to watch kinky people like me do kinky things like I do, on film, but I don’t want my dollars to go to abusers. I wish all the consumers for BDSM-themed porn had this view, and it sickens me to think that many don’t.*  But I do.  So how do I know?

Woodman says:

TW: Okay, so as a good customer, you want to be responsible. You want to vote with your dollar and only support companies who treat their models well. How does a consumer like you know a good company from a bad one? The same way you would with any other industry — whether it is plumbers or car salesmen, the same principles still apply:

1) It often seems the more money a company spends on PR, the worse the company actually is. When an insurance agency spends millions on advertising, don’t you worry that they are not actually paying out their customers’ claims? When an attorney plasters his billboard all over town, does it make you think he’s a little too desperate? This can be said for BDSM porn producers as well.

2) The larger the company, the greater the chance it is owned and run by assholes who do not treat their employees well. If you have a day job, you already know this. The small guy who is struggling like mad to keep his doors open and put a quality product on the streets is far more likely to treat his employees and customers really well. He can’t afford a negative experience. He can’t just pay hush-up money, or threaten “You’ll never work in this town again!”

3) In the BDSM lifestyle world, we depend on our reputations. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and other social networking media, if something goes wrong in Los Angeles, they know about it five minutes later in New York. You want to know you’re spending money on legitimate, honorable companies? Do the research. Don’t trust their own advertising. Ask around, just like you would with a potential new play partner in the real world. You can ask absolutely any model I’ve ever worked with and she’ll say only good things about me. Can the bigger companies say the same? They can pay to keep most of the “problem girls” quiet, but the truth always gets out.

Which all makes some sense, except for two things. I know people, and I have at least some ability to do that kind of homework. But … not everybody is me. Not everybody who wants to watch BDSM porn knows a bunch of kinksters who know people who do BDSM-themed porn and can get those answers. It’s not like the bad model experiences pop up in the Google searches. The second thing is that “smaller is better” is a very self-interested thing for a small producer to say, especially in the same interview where he complains that the horde of free samples from — he doesn’t call them out by name, but he might as well — are crushing him out of business. I can’t be uncritical about the self-interest.


I can never tell.

*Maybe they don’t care, or maybe they prefer to believe what is comfortable.  I’m remembering something Amanda Marcotte wrote on a FB thread: “Some folks really can’t handle the possibility that some women in porn might not be fully consenting. Once you allow that possibility, then you have to allow the possibility that you have watched and gained pleasure from an act of rape. So there’s a lot of denial when something like this happens.”

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Julian Morrison permalink
    October 7, 2010 11:02 am

    I wonder if there’s some way to extend the reputation economy into the movie business. Some sort of private non-profit “seal of approval”, based on the insider knowledge of people like yourself.

    Yeah, reputation is less than perfect in a lot of ways, but it’s better than guessing, or buying some dude’s unsupported claim to be the only honest producer in the business.

  2. October 7, 2010 11:17 am

    This is what makes me uncomforatble about porn and sex work in general. There are people who do it and love it and are fully consenting and have never had their boundaries ignored, and that’s great. But there are bound to be people who don’t get that, and that’s horrific. And every side is self interested. The anti-porn/sex work people will only talk about the negative experiences. The pro-porn/sex work only talk about the positive. (generalizations, but mostly true from my experiences) The corporations making porn want their work to sell, they’ll do the work to look good even if it’s not a deserved image.

    Ideally, it’d be good if all people who act in porn and all people who do sex work can do so in a way that’s safe- but we aren’t there yet. And, with our society’s views on porn and sex work and kink, I doubt we’ll be there soon.

  3. October 7, 2010 1:33 pm

    I am not an expert at all on porn, and I don’t even watch BDSM porn cause that’s not my thing.

    However, I am a businessman (granted in a far more vanilla industry) and I do know a little bit about that.

    So I can say with some authority that the generalization that small businesses treat their employees better is nonsense.

    Speaking as a small businessman myself, (I recently started a residential interior painting company) I can tell you that when you are running a marginal business you are always trying to look to cut corners – and, considering the weakness of modern American unions, one of the first places you cut corners is on labor.

    In my industry, residential construction, the small marginal companies pay lower wages than the more successful firms, we have less benefits (typically no benefits at all beyond social security and workers comp – and a lot of us don’t even pay those costs) and our working conditions are less safe (because, generally speaking, the safe way to do a job is the expensive and slow way and the fast and cheap way is the dangerous way).

    Wouldn’t the same logic apply to studios making BDSM porn films?

    If you have a marginal studio, can you really afford to let a model stop a shoot just because she’s in pain?

    You already paid for the set, you have to pay the crew and the other model(s) and you’re still going to have to pay the model who wants to stop the scene anyway, even if you can’t get any usable video because she cried out her safeword.

    I’m quite sure a lot of the more marginal producers would keep shooting anyway, even if the model is in agony – because they had to make a choice between having to let a, let’s say, US $ 20,000 investment go to waste and having a model (who’s not even into BDSM anyway) suffer

    Yeah, I know that sounds ice cold and evil – but the logic of trying to keep a business profitable often leads businessmen and businesswomen to make profoundly fucked up decisions like that.

    Small businesses, particularly the more marginal ones, often find themselves having to make ugly decisions like that just to stay afloat – and I’d be surprised to find that this iron law of business doesn’t apply in the BDSM segment of the porn industry.

    I am NOT in any way trying to justify any of this – I’m just trying to explain it.

    Also, I seriously doubt that individual boycotts of porn that you don’t think was produced under nonexploitative conditions are effective – at the end of the day, somebody is going to buy the product, even if you don’t. If it makes you feel morally purer to only buy “fair trade porn” by all means do so, but don’t think for a minute that your personal consumer decision has any impact on the industry.


    • October 7, 2010 4:41 pm

      This was one of my thoughts. There’s a livejournal community, “bad_service”, and small businesses get plenty of posts there from customers, often because the employees aren’t happy with their job. And, as you pointed out, losing $20,000 is a bigger deal to a company that makes $100,000 a year than one that makes $1,000,000, so they may be a bit more desperate to make sure that they get things done than a bigger company.

      But they also don’t really have as much ability to bounce back from a serious setback. If the model is big enough, having a black spot by your name from zem and anyone who listens to zem can cause serious problems. Similarly, if someone mentions it openly they don’t have the money to fight it (which Tim Woodman said was his reason for not giving a list of places to avoid buying from).

      “don’t think for a minute that your personal consumer decision has any impact on the industry”

      That’s the idea behind finding out and making more available the people who actually are respectful of their models, I believe. One person? Yeah. But the more people, the more of an effect. Especially for small businesses who, as you pointed out, are more easily hurt. If it becomes obvious that their choice is “shape up or go bankrupt”, well…

      • October 7, 2010 11:32 pm


        The problem is, the world doesn’t work like that.

        Social responsibility is expensive – it sure as hell is in my industry, and I’d expect the porn business to work the same way.

        It’s much cheaper and more effective to lie to your customers so they’ll think you run a socially responsible business than to actually do the social responsibility thing.

        Even if there was some sort of website where you could (at least on paper) find out how a porn studio treats it’s models, I’m sure the studios would figure out a way to game the system.

        Hey, quiet as it’s kept, that’s what happens on sites like Yelp and Citysearch, that (at least on paper) provide information to consumers about restaurants, home improvement contractors and other small businesses.

        The user reviews on those sites are supposedly neutral and independent but in practice businesspeople routinely and matter-of-factly bribe customers to give good reviews and even outright plant reviews written by nonexistent customers.

        I’m sure the same sort of corruption would happen with any porn studio conduct review website – models would be bribed and/or coerced to say that everything is all wonderful at that studio, much the way that they are currently bribed and/or coerced into lying on those commentaries on the video that Thomas described.

        Short of BDSM porn models unionizing and forcing the studios to treat them better, there really isn’t a solution to the problem of bottoms being abused in these videos. Consumer activism certainly will not solve the problem.


  4. ginmar permalink
    October 12, 2010 3:46 pm

    Thomas, I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you not tolerating crap from the trolls. One thing that comes up over and over is the subject of male allies tolerating the same old misogynist arguments as long as they’re politely worded. I cannot tell you how tiresome it is to deal with polite hatred. Behind every argument about’ how false rape accusations are common’,’how women lie about this or that—frequently—-and how women want to take over and subjugate men’ are the beliefs that women are liars by nature, that women are vengeful and hateful, and that women want to be tyrants, along with a whole host of other offensive beliefs. Dealing with this every day, all over, one loses patience for it. We get that all day, every day. Very few people stand up to it. It’s sad that it’s notable.

    • October 12, 2010 4:02 pm

      Thanks. I was very influenced by Alas, back in the day, where I saw the way “civility” was used as an excuse to let Robert derail and antagonize. I don’t believe the marketplace of ideas is any more perfect than any other marketplace and I know that discussion can be drowned out by the drumbeat of the same old shit. I think I provide a lot of room for people to express dissenting views, even people I don’t agree with or even like. But when it comes right down to it, I’m not going to let antifeminists just drone on and make this space unpalatable for the discourse I want to have.

      I also don’t see this space as a place for feminists to build bridges people who disagree. I see this space as a place for feminists to kick around ideas and tune them up before carrying them to the wider world. So I’m going to privilege the feminist voices over the critics here, and anyone who doesn’t like that is likely someone I can do without.

  5. Clarisse permalink
    October 13, 2010 10:16 pm

    I wanted to share a really smart comment from Orlando C. that was posted to my second interview with Tim:

    While Woodman is unwilling to name names, the particulars of his criticism strongly suggest that he is talking about, and indeed it would seem like he _wants_ us to make this inference. I share Woodman’s general uneasiness with any large-scale industry: I tend to assume that most businesses put profits before the best interests of their workers or society as a whole.

    I’m hardly comfortable with his critique, though. In the first place, it reminds me far too much of something I have seen in researching BDSM. Many of the scholarly references to BDSM-related fatalities boil down to pro-dommes saying “I know these other pro-dommes who killed someone, but I can’t name names, because of legal issues.” This would certainly appear (as Woodman admits his own claims are) to be a self-interested way of aggrandizing themselves at the expense of both their rivals, _and_ the reputation of BDSM as a whole. Or in Woodman’s case, the reputation of porn as a whole.

    Clearly, anti-pornography pundits are not going to split hairs about “big porn” and “small porn.” And why should they? There is no compelling reason to think that small-scale porn producers are less dangerous to their workers than large ones. Tim Woodman may be a saint in leather chaps, for all I know, but it is reasonable to question whether garage porn in general is really all that worker-friendly compared to big-box porn. I would assume that at the end of the day, is probably out to make a high profit margin, and they probably don’t mind stepping on a few toes in the process. On the other hand, I very much doubt that a business with scores of employees exists _mainly_ to gratify one person’s sociopathic sexual urges, damn the profit margin. But I am quite sure that that is true of a number of indy porn ventures.

    I think the suggestion that producing freely-distributed content is “dumping” is fairly disgusting in any arena. By that logic, musicians should never play public concerts; art should never appear in public galleries; blogs such as this one should have an admission fee, lest they compete unfairly with other blogs.

    I also think that the suggestion that people “ask around” to find responsible porn is banal. It is equivalent to the localvores’ contention that everyone should just make friends with their neighborhood farmer. That’s nice, but in reality most of live in Los Angeles. I mean, I happen to live on a family farm in farm country and half the people I know are farmers, and I _still_ don’t know where most of my food comes from.

    It would be very lovely to create a rating system for the workplace ethics of porn producers, much as Consumer Reports (and others) have done for other industries. But that project needs to be taken up by a third party, not a porn producer who is already talking up how awesome he’ll be when he’s finally made it as big as all the “big porn” he is currently badmouthing in a legally insulated way.

  6. April 15, 2015 6:41 am

    Great article. A very portsnt read for any bdsm fans/performers and those looking to get into the industry. Do you know what country Elite Pain is produced in? I can condiently say that from what I briefly viewed that most, if not all of these performers go way beyond their limit. The only thing i can think of is that it must be poor country where regular income is very low and that these performers are desperate, beyond desperate for any money they can get. So what country are these made in?


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