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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Porn Star Activist Jiz Lee Talks About When and How Sex Workers Can Give Consent

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 9:30 AM

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The ethics of consent is becoming a hot, vital topic of discussion in alternative sexuality communities. While talking about consent is something that never quite goes away, especially in BDSM communities, a lot of the dialogue doesn't stray much beyond making sure that everyone is over 18 and knows his or her safeword. A few months ago, local activist bad-asses Maggie Mayhem and Kitty Stryker talked to us about their attempts to speak openly about abuse in BDSM and build "consent culture." As they prepare to take those ideas on a cross-country tour, plenty of other people are continuing the conversation here in the Bay Area.

One such discussion takes place Thursday night at the Center for Sex and Culture, when art gallery Femina Potens presents a panel on sex work and consent. Consider that after 40  years of sex workers saying otherwise, many feminists don't accept that they even can consent, and you understand just how radical such a panel can be.

One of the people in that discussion is local porn star, educator, and activist Jiz Lee. Lee is what's known as "genderqueer" -- one who rejects the male-female gender binary. Lee has performed in queer and mainstream productions and brings thoughts about consent not only to the Femina Potens event, but to a panel at Mills College on Friday. We spoke to Lee about the realities of consent on and off the set.

Give us a quick description of what the panel will cover Thursday.
It's about consent in terms of sex work. For me, I'm bringing my experience doing porn to the panel, and so some of the questions I'll be addressing are things like how do I portray consent in a sex scene, what are negotiations like with my co-stars or with producers and directors, how do I define boundaries with fans, how do I work consent into relationships, things like that. I'll also talk about my own philosophies around porn and sex positivity and what I consider a lot of ethics around pornography. I find that I like the word "ethics" a lot because it's a really all-encompassing word that includes feminist ideals and also consent.

How do you negotiate consent on the set, where it's a workplace situation instead of a personal relationship?
I often choose my co-stars myself, so most of the work I've done, I've gotten a chance to e-mail with my costar well before the scene happened, and often I'm friends or lovers with them. Those kinds of situations are different than working with a complete stranger, although I have had that happen. In those situations, a lot of people are familiar with the "Yes/No/Maybe" lists, where it's like "What are your boundaries, what do you definitely not want to do?"

Some of the work I do affords performers a lot of autonomy, and the director's job is to provide a really safe environment that's not distracting, including safer-sex supplies if needed, just basically letting the performers have the stage to do what they feel they want to do, and their job is to operate the camera.

As we understand it, that level of autonomy is available mainly on indie and queer productions. Is there a difference between working with indie companies and mainstream productions shot in Southern California's "Porn Valley" in terms of how well consent is respected on the set?
It's funny, because I was doing queer and indie porn for a lot longer than mainstream stuff. I think I had presumptions about what the differences would be, and I found that surprisingly and pleasantly, I've been wrong. With an assumption where maybe on a mainstream production shoot, they might want something really specific and tell someone how to perform, actually the directors act just like a lot of the queer porn directors do, where they just want a certain number of minutes. There have been only a couple of circumstances where the director did want a certain kind of thing. And that's been the case for mainstream, L.A. productions and the smaller indie/queer porn sets. I've used gloves in a mainstream production where my presumption before was they definitely won't want to see gloves. Just the same, there have also been productions in queer porn where they didn't have gloves.

What are some of the issues around consent for adult performers in general? I do have a unique situation because I can afford to be picky and choose work that I feel most reflects myself. That's not always the case with porn performers. When I've had a shaved head, and gone to a mainstream set, I've met female costars who would be like, "Oh, I really wish I could shave my head, but I can't because then I wouldn't get as much work." So, there's that kind of question of how you negotiate something as simple as a bob haircut or a tattoo.

Other things are less aesthetic, such as models who will shoot only with condoms and whether or not they feel pressure to shoot without condoms. Models must remember when they are working what boundaries are important to them. A lot of people ask "Oh, how is porn empowering?" I feel like for me, it has helped me establish boundaries, because I've had to really think about what they are and then be able to articulate them to others.

The issue of condoms has been a big one, and just recently L.A. County passed a law requiring condoms be used on all porn shoots. What do you think of that law, and do you believe it strengthens or weakens performers' abilities to consent?
That law is 100 percent against any performers' consent. I have never met a single performer who's in favor of it. I myself am somewhat indifferent, but I don't like that it's a mandate. My personal opinion is that it should always be the performers' choice about how to be safest.

I think the law's ridiculous. It's only going to affect Los Angeles-based productions that get permits anyway, so it's not even all of Los Angeles porn. I'm really curious to see what happens when it does start. I definitely know no one who's happy about it. I definitely think the decision was not made in the best interest of the performers. There's ulterior motives going into play. It may endanger their health if it means that productions stop doing testing. I'm not sure that's going to happen, but if that does happen, it creates a much less safe environment, because the testing works.

The Other View starts at 7 p.m. at the Center for Sex and Culture, 1349 Mission (at 10th St.), S.F. Admission is free-$10. Also appearing on the panel are Chloe Camilla (a sex educator, performance artist, model, and writer), Cyd Nova (coordinator of a transgender-care program at the St. James infirmary, a clinic devoted to sex workers and their partners), and Good Vibrations' staff sexologist Carol Queen (also a sex-educator, author, and performer who co-founded the Center for Sex and Culture).

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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