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How Can You Know for Certain if Porn is Consensual?

How do you know for sure any porn is consensual? If you can’t, that’s something we should be concerned about as a culture that emphasizes consent.


It’s long overdue, but consent is at the forefront of many conversations about relationships, sex, and now, porn.

It’s probably been at the top of your newsfeed constantly for the last year or so, particularly because more victims of sexual assault by men in power have spoken out, and now our sex and our porn-obsessed society is dealing with what the definition of consent actually is.

It can be a gray area, especially in the world of pornography.

Let’s be real—the porn industry is far from transparent about anything, much less what goes on when the camera isn’t rolling, which is where consent between actors would happen—if it does happen.

The problem with porn is that, too often, the consumer assumes that because someone is in porn, they consented to be there. But we don’t ever see that consent process, do we? And here’s something to consider: what if it never actually happened?

Related: How The Porn Industry Profits From Nonconsensual Content And Abuse

And if the consent process happened and was documented before the shoot, what if their consent was violated during the shoot—is there a reporting system set up in that case, and are there protections for performers who speak out? (Hint: no, on both accounts. Click here to read more about those issues.)

Unfortunately, abuse in the porn industry is incredibly pervasive. And when you look closely, you find that there is virtually no formal system for reporting and addressing that abuse in a way that holds abusers accountable while keeping performers safe. What’s worse? Those who do publicly report or speak out about abuse are often blacklisted, threatened, dismissed, or further abused.Lange, A. (2018). This woman says authorities doubted her sexual assault claim because she does porn. Buzzfeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/arianelange/nikki-benz-porn-defamation-lawsuit-metoo#.ldPVz1Yg0YCOPY Clark-Flory, T. (2018). Porn actors Leigh Raven and Riley Nixon allege abuse, violence, and boundary violation on set. Jezebel. Retrieved from https://jezebel.com/porn-actors-leigh-raven-and-riley-nixon-allege-abuse-v-1823677195COPY 

Plus, many performers struggle to find work outside of the porn industry due to the stigma of being a former porn performer. Performers are punished inside of and out of the industry, the accused perpetrators walk free, and the cycle continues.

The definition of consent

Here are questions every consumer can ask themself when questioning if porn is consensual:

  • Did everyone in this video enthusiastically consent to have sex on camera and perform the specific acts depicted?
  • If there’s a woman depicted who is the recipient of violent sex acts, did she knowingly consent to all of them, or was it a surprise she didn’t agree to?
  • If there’s a man depicted who is the recipient of violent sex acts, did he knowingly consent?
  • What if a couple agreed to film themselves, but one individual didn’t know the other would share it online?
  • If there was initial consent involved, did everyone depicted have the freedom to stop the scene at any time without fear of repercussions if they did?

But wait, let’s back up and talk about what “consent” actually is.

Although the legal definition varies based on location and specific circumstances, sexual consent generally refers to a communicated, informed, mutual agreement to engage in sexual activity that can be revoked at any time. Meaningful sexual consent cannot be given by anyone who is underage, intoxicated, coerced, tricked, forced, or otherwise incapacitated. These same principles apply when it comes to sharing sexually intimate content.

Related: Not All Porn Is Consensual. Don’t Believe It? Just Ask These Performers.

With that in mind, we can agree that a “maybe” doesn’t cut it, and anyone with true consent can feel free to change their mind at any point, even if they’ve signed a contract, already said “yes,” or a scene is in progress.

But that doesn’t always happen in porn.

Consent isn’t all-encompassing, meaning if someone says yes to one sexual act in one video, that doesn’t mean they’ve signed up for everything. Also, consent is only legit if it can only be given voluntarily, and taken away voluntarily at any time. No pressure, no bargaining, no coercion, and certainly no threats.

Did you catch what we said, there? This is important: true consent can be withdrawn at any moment, yet many performers are required to sign contracts prior to the actual shooting, making it incredibly difficult to revoke consent even if the situation becomes uncomfortable or dangerous.

Is a truly “yes” valid if “no” is not a safe option? The fact that they won’t be paid or their industry reputation will be damaged if they do revoke consent in the middle of a scene is an element of coercion that invalidates their consent in the first place, and could even be legally defined as a form of sex trafficking.

The concept of consent is actually pretty simple. But in reality, sometimes people say one thing and mean another (pro-tip: sex is the time and place for clear communication) and in the porn world where sexual abuse is dressed up as a fantasy, it gets even more confusing.

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Where’s the consent in porn?

Consider this: there is no clear-cut way to truly know if the participants in a video on a porn site have consented.

In a Hollywood film, if a violent act occurs, the audience knows it is scripted and fake. But in porn, it’s all too real.

In most cases, a performer abused in a video is abused in reality—it’s not a trick of the camera, or fancy stage fighting. The blood, bruises, tears, and injuries are very often real.  And for some viewers, that’s part of the appeal of violent porn—it is real.

Let’s put this into perspective. There was outrage in Hollywood not long ago when it was revealed how movie director Bernardo Bertolucci did not receive or even seek consent from actress Maria Schneider before filming an unscripted rape scene with Marlon Brando in a film called Last Tango in Paris.

Related: Their Private Videos Were Nonconsensually Uploaded To Pornhub, And Now These Women Are Fighting Back

There was outrage then—and rightly so—because the film not only broke honesty with the audience, but affected Schneider for years afterward.

This situation is real, and yet, there’s not the same level of outrage for the actual rape videos and other forced sex acts uploaded to porn sites that are consumed daily by millions.

If you’re not convinced that there are porn videos on mainstream sites that are real rapes on tape, read this real experience from a woman who was sex trafficked by a popular porn company. And read these real stories from famed performers like Linda Lovelace, who reminds consumers that they’re watching her rape on tape when they watch the films she starred in.

“I got the &*%$ kicked out of me…. Most of the girls start crying because they’re hurting so bad…. I couldn’t breathe. I was being hit and choked. I was really upset and they didn’t stop. They kept filming. [I asked them to turn the camera off] and they kept going,” recounted Regan Starr, a former porn performer.

And in one interview with AntiPornography.org, former performer Vanessa stated:

“Like most porn performers, I perpetuated this lie [that I loved my job]. One of my favorite things to say when asked if I liked doing a particular scene was, “I only do what I like! I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it!” I would say this with a big fake smile and giggle. What a total lie! I did what I had to do to get ‘work’ in porn. I did what I knew would help me gain ‘fame’ in the industry.”

Related: Are Porn Sites Protecting Victims Of Nonconsensual Content? We Investigated, Here’s What We Found

To the outside world, porn performers have to appear as no-boundaries, sex-loving entertainers that make everything sound so sexually exciting. But as you can tell from Regan and Vanessa’s stories above, the reality is far different than what is seen on camera, or what even the performer is saying in interviews.

How did violence, lack of respect, and ignoring consent become the norm in porn? And even worse, how did we get to a place where enthusiastic consent isn’t more important than likes and views?

We now know that one of the industry’s secrets is it’s not all totally consensual.

We are not claiming that all porn is nonconsensual, but rather, raising awareness that there is often no way to tell if the porn a consumer views is completely consensual or produced with coercion.

And if you’re still not convinced content on mainstream sites isn’t all consensual, read this Jezebel.com storythis story on Complex.comthis Rolling Stone storythis Daily Beast storythis Bustle.com storythis story on CNNthis NY Post storythis Gizmodo.com storythis BBC reportthis Florida Sun-Sentinel reportthis Daily Wire storythis Buzzfeed News profilethis New York Times columnand this UK Independent story for further proof that the mainstream porn industry features nonconsensual videos and videos of trafficked individuals. And yes, this includes videos on Pornhub and XVideos and other mainstream porn sites like OnlyFans.

Consider that, in a string of events, it has been exposed over the last year that popular porn sites XHamser, Pornhub, XVideos, and even subscription platform OnlyFans, allegedly profit from nonconsensual videos, videos of underaged individuals, and/or content of potentially trafficked individuals.

Related: How Porn Can Fuel Sex Trafficking

Where consent gets muddled

Sure, there are plenty of times where actors agree to everything they are about to do on film.

Don’t mistake what we’re saying—there are videos that are produced consensually (though that doesn’t make them safe or healthy to consume). But as consumers, how do you confirm that? How do you really know for absolute certain?

Related: Content On Pornhub Reportedly Normalizes And Promotes Racism And Racist Stereotypes

Porn sites feature fantasies and fetishes where consent cannot be confirmed. For example, sex with someone who is unconscious or sleeping—which is, by definition, rape. Or worse, gang rapes, sexual assault, or any act involving teens. And even if the performers did consent to acting out a scripted assault or rape scene, what message is that sending to the consumer, who is often less than 17 years old? That it’s acceptable to be aroused by someone else’s violation?

The reality of the industry today is that many performers are forced into having sex on camera because they have been threatened, or they’ve been intimidated and coerced into saying yes. And again, this also happens in mainstream porn.

Consent is not optional

So, how do you know for sure the porn you’re watching is consensual? Well, the truth is, you can’t.

And in case you’re still unclear about the rules around consent, this video should help clear things up.

And let us never forget that the demand for porn is directly linked to the demand for sex trafficking, and at home, consumers have no way of knowing for sure what they’re watching, where it came from, and who consented to what.

This is why we need to stop the demand for sex trafficking, learn the facts about pornography, and be clear about consent in all relationships. As we talk about sexual assault in current events, and more perpetrators’ names keep coming out, don’t forget about the perpetration in porn that’s consumed every day.