Porn, Violence and Consent

By Michelle Kelly

As a trafficking survivor who later went on to enter the UK porn industry, I have been following the recent media focus on trafficking in porn with a lot of interest, even though, as I have previously expressed, I am highly cautious of the influence of what is often termed the ‘religious right.’ Nevertheless I believe that calling for — as a bare minimum — greater regulation of sites such as PornHub to be a matter of urgency.

This is why.

In the West, the pornographic industry is largely legalised. In the UK only pornography which features child abuse, necrophilia, bestiality or life-threatening acts is subject to criminal laws concerning its distribution and possession. Trafficking and coercion of course remain illegal, but as I found out they all too often go on in plain sight, as does ‘revenge porn,’ the stealing of sex workers’ own content and rape and abuse on set. These abuses are then immortalised when sites like PornHub allow content to be uploaded without verification. Trafficking survivors have had videos of their abuse uploaded onto PornHub and other sites to be watched by thousands while moderators drag their heels in removing the content — while profiting from it in the meantime.

Seen as a commercial industry and a legitimate business enterprise one would expect that pornography would be the safest area of the sex trade for the women and minorities within it.

In my experience, that is far from true.

For me, the porn industry was by far the most abusive and toxic form of the sex industry that I was involved in — in many ways my experiences were more brutal than when I was outright trafficked some years before. The fact that it was legal may have given me rights on paper, but I was in no position to exercise them as it also provided an unregulated environment for pimps and pornographers to abuse and exploit at will, and law enforcement rarely care about porn performers.

This was an open secret. At the time I was involved the two most sought after female performers had originally been trafficked into the industry at 14 and 15. They told me this themselves after I had shared my own experiences, and I was given the impression that this was far from uncommon. I heard the procuring of fake ID for minors being discussed among pornographers and was privy to a conversation in which it was stated that young women ‘fresh out of the care system’ were the most likely to be amenable to working within the industry. I never heard this blatant grooming of vulnerable girls condemned once by those — primarily men — who organised, made and distributed porn films.

Porn is no different in essence to prostitution; there are other people involved and one has a camera recording every minute, but ultimately it is simply prostitution on camera. There is also a great deal of overlap when it comes to the individuals involved. Most female porn performers are also escorts and vice versa. Many of the pornographers I met also managed escort agencies, brothels or advertising sites. As was my experience with prostitution, exploitation and outright trafficking existed alongside consensual sex work, and for an outsider it would not have been immediately obvious which was which. While I am not an abolitionist and lean more towards decriminalisation of prostitution for reasons of safety and harm reduction, my experiences in the porn industry chill me, reminding me that no law, or lack of law, can keep vulnerable people safe until we tackle the culture of abuse.

That porn is becoming more and more violent is no secret and yet often I still hear the excuse that ‘it’s only acting.’ It’s ‘sexual expression’ or ‘free speech’, and to say otherwise is even classed as ‘kink shaming’. But actual abuse, and getting off to it, is not a kink.

It is often not acting, either. The girl being choked is really choking. The woman in the ‘painal’ scene really is pleading with the man who is anally raping her to stop because it hurts. The clue is in the name. Facial abuse, gang rapes and torture are not ‘acted’ and yet somehow the screen acts as a buffer, helping the viewer to dehumanise the woman on whom this abuse is being inflicted. She is a ‘performer’, with no agency on set beyond the ability to perform and be consumed by a (predominantly) male gaze that demands more. More pain. More suffering. More degradation.

I was, essentially, gang raped on camera. This is still no doubt floating around in the digital ether for men to masturbate to. One of the afore-mentioned most popular ‘actresses,’ cried on my shoulder after a shoot in which she had been made to crawl through faeces while being verbally abused. When she protested, she was told that if she refused she would not be paid, and her career would be over. That is not consent. This was in the mainstream industry, shot by a guy who was also a prolific director for well-known channels, not some obscure corner of the sex trade.

This is what happens when we allow the porn industry to operate unchecked. Profit takes precedence over human rights. And a lack of fear on behalf of third parties means abuse goes unseen, unheard and unchecked.

For women caught up in other areas of the sex industry who may never go anywhere near a porn set, this can affect them too. Punters will often seek out a sex worker or prostituted person to enact the violent scenes they have seen in a porn movie, inflicting on them the abuse they were previously only able to masturbate to. As one abusive punter memorably told me, ‘I’m paying you not to say no.’

In many cases, the porn actress finds her ‘no’ means little once the cameras are rolling. In fact her ‘no’ may even be required to meet the demand for ever more abusive scenarios. I learned the hard way that whatever boundaries were established beforehand, once the camera starts rolling all bets are off. The fact that in this case the ‘punter’ is also being paid as a fellow ‘performer’ does not absolve them of responsibility for the abuse they inflict. This happens to men too, particularly in gay porn, but we hear even less about this.

More and more porn performers are coming forward to expose abuse within the industry and call for greater rights and regulations, yet they are often shouted down and silenced by those who want to preserve the status quo. This is wrong. The stigma of being an out performer is hard enough without also being gaslit and re-traumatised by those who would rather defend unscrupulous companies and abusers.

I left the porn industry after having my drink spiked while on set. To this day I have no idea what happened to me while I was unconscious, but I have no doubt it’s floating around on a website somewhere. Quite frankly, I’m too scared to look.

‘Rape porn’, by the way, isn’t illegal, as long as the physical violence shown isn’t extreme enough to threaten life.

Violent pornography makes a mockery of our sexual consent laws.

This needs to change. Now.


Editor’s note: We are deeply grateful to Michelle Kelly for allowing us to publish this important and insightful article even though we don’t totally see eye to eye about what is the best way forward for the sex trade in the UK.

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