If you don’t want to, say No: a porn star's guide to sexual consent

Stoya can't give talks in high schools, because she makes porn films. If she could, here's what she'd say about respecting other people's boundaries during sex.

In August 2013, a bunch of performers in adult entertainment got together to talk about our industry and said: "Shit's fucked up. The shit in question is more fucked up than it was a few years ago. Someone ought to do something."

Rather than wait for someone to become an actual person who will fix things, we collectively pulled on our grown-up pants and decided to do something ourselves. Thus began the organisation called the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee.

We've got grand utopian dreams. We've got practical short term goals. We’ve got Nina Hartley (who, if the United States had a monarchy, should have been given the title of Dame by now) teaching us phrases like “best ethical practice guidelines”.

The first project we put together was an educational primer on performing in the adult film industry. We collected all the lessons we learned the hard way, and all the lessons we watched other performers learn the hard way. We cut out the personal opinions.

We prioritised the most important concepts and mercilessly edited them until they fit into 15 pages of solid dialogue. Medical professionals donated their time and expertise. People with experience in workers’ rights and the fight for recognition of sex work as real work gave their wisdom.

On 5 January, we shot the video. Thirty performers showed up on very short notice. As I was listening to the script being read over and over, I noticed that almost everything boiled down to three subjects:

Are you really really sure you want to make the decision to have sex on camera?

Here’s all this sexual health information you need to know.

Let’s talk about consent and boundaries.

 

 

I was overjoyed at the amount of support shown by both the performer community and people who have absolutely no stake in the adult film industry, but I also couldn’t help thinking that it’s kind of absurd that people sometimes make it to 18 or 22 without knowing at least the basics of this stuff.

For instance: “You always have the right to say No, and you do not have to defend or explain your choice. ‘I don’t want to’ is a perfectly good reason for saying No.”

Before you assume that inability to express limits is a porno problem, think about how many times you’ve heard a friend talk about not knowing how to say they’re uncomfortable with something at work or during sex. Toddlers are generally fantastic at saying No. How do so many people lose their ability to say No to things between the terrible twos and adulthood?

Not only is there a sad lack of publicly accessible education regarding physical sexual health, there’s a sad lack of discussion about mental sexual health.

A person’s first condom, strap-on, or lacy thong doesn’t come with a pamphlet explaining active consent. Tampon companies don’t print statements on the back of their boxes encouraging teenagers to express their desires and ask for the desires of their sexual partners. Someone should do something about this.

It would be extremely inappropriate for me to march into high schools and begin expounding upon communication, respecting other people’s limits, and taking responsibility for expressing your own. What I can do is expound upon some basic guidelines on the internet and hope the core concepts trickle down. So, here they are:

1. Ask the people you will be having sex with what their preferences and limits are. This fosters active consent and encourages communication.

2. In order for a sexual partner to be able to give you what you want, you have to tell them what your desires are. A sexual partner can’t respect your limits if you don’t express them.

3. It is completely OK to retract your consent during a sex act. You can say that something is more intense than you thought it would be and you are no longer OK with it. If you do not speak up your partner(s) have no guaranteed way of knowing that you are unhappy or uncomfortable.

4. If a sexual partner says something hurts, uses a “safe word” or other signal to communicate that they want the sexual interaction to stop, or just looks unhappy, freaked out, or generally not OK, you need to stop what you’re doing and check in with them.

5. If your partner(s) are drunk or high, their ability to consent is questionable. If they’ve previously expressed distaste for anal sex and are slurring “Fuck my asshole” you should politely decline and bring the subject up later when they’re sober. This applies to any sexual act that you have not previously engaged in with this person.

6. As a general rule, don’t penetrate an orifice, pee, vomit, or bleed on someone, or slap them around without discussing the act first.

7. If your sexual partner(s) express a limit or ask for something to stop and you do not respect it, you are stepping onto a scale that ranges from “jerk” to “full-on rapist”. Personally, I don’t want to be on that scale at all, and I don’t want to engage in sexual activity with anyone who does hang out on that scale.

8. If one of your sexual partners steps on to the jerk-to-full-on rapist scale, call them out on it. You have the right to end the sexual activity you are engaged in and to decline sexual activity with them in the future.

There you are. If any condom companies want to use those bits on their wrappers, hit me up.

Stoya with James Deen. Photo: Getty
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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.