I never pictured I would be in this position: that I would be a victim of sexual assault, much less an assault that happened on a feminist porn set. Especially not on Erika Lust’s “feminist” porn set. Lust is the pornographer who was “making consent sexy,” at least according to a 2018 Rolling Stone article praising her production company for creating the kind of porn that feminists wanted to see. The overwhelmingly positive media coverage of Erika Lust Films praises the fact that performers ask their partners if they would like to use condoms on screen, to model real world pursuits of affirmative and enthusiastic consent. Performers on screen discuss their feminist politics, as well as their sexual limits and desires. In a world in which many feminists worry that the only access young people have to sexual education is through pornography, Rolling Stone tells us that Lust is here to save the day: “Lust believes her work can help the rest of us find our way toward a better sexual future, where explicit consent is a matter of course.”
And so when I was sexually assaulted on the set of Erika Lust films, it was the last thing I thought would happen.
Standard protocol: performers are introduced to or are made aware of who their scene partners will be at least a day prior to shooting. Mandatory protocol: on the day of the shoot, a conversation regarding consent, sexual boundaries—sexual acts each performer is happy to perform, other acts that are an absolute no, and those that might be considered a maybe—is verbally established with a director or production assistant present. Increasing industry standard: a list of those agreed upon sexual boundaries is written into a contractual document which outlines sexual boundaries, in-order to circumvent and prevent “he said, she said” cases of sexual assault or misconduct.
In my case, things strictly didn’t happened according to the protocols or the industry standard. My scene partner and I established consent and sexual boundaries a month prior to filming our scene. She invited me to practice, train and rehearse for the scene a month before the shoot, and so we practiced, trained and rehearsed—in full— all the agreed sexual activity. Being a relatively new performer, I didn’t question the nature of this proposition. I later came to understand this wasn’t standard industry protocol, but my scene partner/co-performer, Olympe de G, who was also my director and my employer for two other additional scenes, misled me to believe it was.
Despite practicing, training and rehearsing for the scene—already a violation of protocol—and despite clarifying my sexual boundaries on the day of the shoot, my scene partner violated my consent and the boundaries, sexually assaulting me in the process of shooting “ethical porn.” Now, I can still access and view my boundary violations and rape, as can any other viewers of the film, by searching for Erika Lust Films online. This is an aspect of sexual assault on set that is particular to porn production: performers can re-experience their assaults time and again, on any screen. My sexual assault is being advertised and sold for profit as “ethical porn.”
After I came forward and talked about the ways that my boundaries were violated, I heard from others who had suffered the similar violations, by the same director. I also learned that the “feminist” porn company CEOs, Erika Lust and her husband Pablo Dobner, were aware of her previous unethical behaviour and boundary violations, but decided it wasn’t in their best interest to warn or alert their performers. Instead, they placed me in a position of danger by having me perform with a known boundary-violator. A few months later, when I alerted them to my experience, they tried to wash their hands of all responsibility by placing the onus of responsibility and blame on me. “Erika Lust: The Feminist Pornographer” was a brand. It was what distinguished them from their competition. It was an image they were desperate to protect.
Inspired By #MeToo Stories:
When I first started hearing stories from the #MeToo Movement, I didn’t immediately recognise my story or experience in any of those being shared. I am a black, queer and non binary, male presenting, performer of color. My race and gender weren’t reflected in those stories. Sex workers were also invisible in those first stories.
After the initial onslaught of white cis women’s stories, I followed the experiences of Jimmy Bennett (the former child actor who accused Asia Argento—herself a victim of Harvey Weinstein—of sexual assault, after having worked with the actress when he was seventeen years old); Terry Crews (the actor and former NFL player who recounted being sexually assaulted by a Hollywood executive); and Nimrod Reitman (a gay male graduate student who experienced sexual harassment at the hands of his well-known female faculty advisor at NYU, Avital Ronell). Then, accusations started rolling through the porn industry as well: Jenny Blighe recounted her exploitation on an Evil Angel porn set. And before the explosion of the hashtag, there was Nikki Benz. With all these stories I slowly realised my own trauma on set was being reflected back to me.
What I saw in those stories was fundamentally an abuse of power. Cis men have historically perpetuated abuse of power, because they have held onto positions of power for far too long. But we have now seen how feminists and advocates can also be culpable and contributing in abuses of power, and enabling abuse of power to continue: Asia Argento, Avital Ronell… Erika Lust.
Privilege was and is still a contributing factor in whose stories get a platform. Sex Workers, Trans and Non-Binary folk, Women of Color and other marginalised folks need our more privileged feminist comrades to stand together and help fight for our voices to be heard. In particular, the fight for sex workers voices to heard necessitates with de-stigmatising sex work. Stigma deeply affects and impacts whether or not victims of violence come forward to share their stories and experiences.
Ethical Porn can’t be made without the voices of it’s performers. Ethical Porn is a labor right and labor issue first and foremost!
~ Rufai Ajala
Facing Stigma Head On
Despite the stigma, I came forward. Addressing the trauma and sexual assault I faced was difficult. I took care to make my co-performer, employer, and director—Olympe de G—acknowledged and listened to the ways in which she had harmed me. This proved to be extremely difficult. Navigating the power dynamics that existed between us was challenging. I was alone in addressing these issues, with Erika Lust Films having few existing structures in place to address issues like these. If you label and regard yourself as an ethical, feminist company, you start to assume you won’t need these structures in place.
I started my journey of confronting how the impact of sexual assault has on sex workers. This made me realise how much sexual assault disrupts our work: we often force our bodies to continue to work onwards, past the trauma, in order to survive. If we stop and recuperate, we have little to no benefit or insurance to financially support us. It’s almost like being an athlete, but athletes have insurance policies that guarantees when others injure them they still have a basic income to survive. Why aren’t there methods in place that help to support sex workers? This inspired and moved me, I needed to address these issues.
I started talking about my experience at film festivals where one of the films was being shown publicly. Performers and filmmakers were asked to attend and openly discuss their experiences without consequence. Introspection and critical analysis was welcomed: this was the one place I found where this could happen. But what also came with going to these festival screenings was seeing your abuse, on screen, in public, being played for an audience, time and time again. An audience that might not be aware how sexual assault can look different for sex workers and performers, example: a scene may be visually stunning, but ethically questionable in it’s production. “Feminist” producers tend to use Aesthetics to demonise “mainstream porn” & content creators. But aesthetically pleasing films should not be a substitute for ethical production or what is considered as ethical. —Ethical Porn is a Labor Right and Labor Issue first and foremost.—
I had these difficult conversations time and time again, at festivals all over Europe and North America. I made sure to keep an air of non-accusatory poise, since the director wasn’t there to defend herself and her actions, saying things like “consent can be tricky, especially for those who aren’t well versed in it.” I did this because I never wanted to demonise anyone without giving them a chance to defend themselves. I learned that the same courtesy wouldn’t be extended to me.
The Failure of a Feminist Icon
Erika Lust’s response to me carefully talking about my experience—tiptoeing around the details, ensuring I didn’t upset anyone—was much different from their response 6 months earlier, before the explosion of the hashtag. It seemed the #MeToo conversation had changed their response to dealing with sexual misconduct and violence. They weren’t as dismissive as they were prior. They sent me an email with the subject line: “SINCERE APOLOGIES/ We are improving our qty controls.” However, a sincere apology was nowhere in sight, and what they wanted was for me to work with them on a document to ensure the safety of future performers. I did, but I would never be credited as a co-author for my labor and time.
Olympe de G’s response to being “called in,” to have a mediation process to resolve the issue, was to escalate it to the public domain. Erika Lust CEOs, friends, colleagues and myself all discouraged Olympe de G taking the issue to social media. But she did, writing an open letter, accusing me of being a scorned and jilted lover.This public accusation was quite shocking considering the evidence I had: various correspondences that proved otherwise & a letter from her lawyer clearly outlining my sexual boundaries. I pleaded with Erika Lust Films to take a public position regarding this, but they refused to act, despite their media persona claiming they will always do the hard work of being an “active ally” and speaking up for victims of sexual assault. But this wasn’t the case when it concerned their own company and workers.
Once the incident became public, everything changed. The private support I had been getting from CEOs; Erika Lust and Pablo Dobner evaporated. I was mischaracterized as ‘a black brute’,a common stereotype used to discredit and incite unease and agitation about black men; and a stalker, engaging in theonline harassment of a white woman. To ensure I wasn’t demonized and misrepresented by the caricature that Olympe de G was creating, I scrambled to present the private emails of support Lust and Dobner had previously sent me. —Consider how depictions of black men as aggressors in incidents of their own abuse have historically been used to silence and gaslight us.—