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Why Sexual Assaults On Adult Film Actors Go Unreported

Attacks in the adult film business are rarely reported to the authorities, in a situation some performers compare to the crisis on college campuses.

Posted on December 2, 2015, at 6:05 p.m. ET

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The main government agency responsible for workplace safety has not received or investigated a single complaint regarding sexual assault in California’s adult film industry in the last decade, and a regional manager says the agency does not consider sexual assault a recognized workplace hazard in the porn business.

“I don’t know that in adult film we would expect someone to be assaulted any more than in any other work environment,” Peter Riley, regional manager for the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency (Cal/OSHA) Santa Ana region, told BuzzFeed News. “In convenience stores, schools, and hospitals, often the client, student, or patient does hit or strike an employee, and we expect employers to have protocols in place and conduct regular inspections there.”

The stance of the regulator reflects a dynamic that some compare to the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses: Victims, for any number of reasons, are reluctant to report incidents to the authorities, and the lack of reported incidents may lead to authorities underestimating their prevalence.

Sexual assault on porn sets has received widespread attention this week after six women made serious allegations against high-profile actor James Deen. Those in the industry say concerns about sexual violence — and about the challenges of reporting incidents to management and authorities — have been long-standing among workers.

Tori Lux, an adult performer who has said Deen assaulted her, wrote in the Daily Beast that “people — including the police — tend to believe that sex workers have placed themselves in harm’s way, and therefore can’t be assaulted.” Workers point to a 2007 case in Philadelphia, where Judge Teresa Carr Deni called gang-rape of a sex worker at gunpoint “theft of services” and dismissed aggravated sexual assault charges.

Asked about whether structures existed for performers to report sexual assault, adult performer Bonnie Rotten told BuzzFeed News: "Not so much of a structure — it’s more of a social structure. Word gets around, it’s like high school."

Another former performer compared the culture in the porn business to that on college campuses.

“There are strange similarities, where theoretically the assault allegation is going to be handled without going to the police — either because people are hesitant to go to the police or because they don’t think the police will take the situation seriously," said Carol Queen, a former adult film performer and founding director of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, which provides resources for sex workers.

"And the entity, the college or porn company, might be hesitant about having the police involved and so emphasize the possibility of it being handled in-house,” she told BuzzFeed News.

Bret Hartman / AP

Workers who report incidents could also be branded troublemakers by porn production studios, meaning “you could risk your career and income and getting jobs,” said Heather Jarvis, community coordinator for the Safe Harbor Outreach Project, an advocacy group for sex workers. Jarvis recalled that Kink.com did not rehire some workers who made allegations of unsafe labor practices at the site in recent years.

"Blacklisting happens," performer Sandy Bottoms told SF Weekly at the time. "It can be unsafe to be a whistleblower."

“People are afraid to speak up because they want to work,” Ashley Fires, another of Deen’s accusers, told BuzzFeed News.

While Cal/OSHA has not received any sexual assault allegations in the industry in the last decade (and so does not consider workplace violence a hazard in the business), the agency does consider sexually transmitted diseases a workplace health and safety issue in porn. Since 2004, Cal/OSHA has received between 35 and 40 complaints related to blood-borne pathogens, which led to investigations and citations for production companies, with fines for serious violations ranging from $25,000 to $70,000.

“Our jurisdiction is health and safety, so exposure to STDs is a health issue, but assaults are a crime and the police investigate crime,” said Riley. Yet in cases of assaults in settings where violence is considered a workplace hazard (such as health care), OSHA may choose to investigate concurrently, Riley clarified, as the agency is empowered to investigate these types of cases.

When on-the-job assault takes place in the industry, performers may report the incident to the production company handling the shoot, to the police, or to OSHA. But sex workers are less likely than the general population to report cases of sexual violence to authorities, as highlighted by the dearth of complaints made to the regulator.

This means the industry is largely self-regulating, according to interviews with advocates and current and former sex workers.

“We need to think about porn sets ... as work settings — and sex work as work — to ensure that people are protected from sexual violence while engaging in sex work,” said Katherine Koster, the communications director for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). “We need to stop conflating sex work and sexual violence, because then when a sex worker steps forward and says they’ve been a victim of sexual violence, people don’t hear them.”

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

According to the most recent research compiled by SWOP, sex workers globally have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point in their careers and a 32% to 55% chance of experiencing sexual violence in a given year. Both the World Health Organization and Amnesty International have recognized violence as a meaningful threat to sex workers.

Statistics on criminal assault cases connected to the adult industry are difficult to come by, and a spokesperson for the L.A. District Attorney’s Office said their data does not categorize sexual assaults based on factors like the job, ethnicity, age, or race of the victim. But even if such data were available, it would not be representative, those in the industry say, given the underreporting of assaults to the police.

Koster said some performers are simply unaware of what, if any, options are available if they are assaulted during filming. “If this happens on set,” one adult film actor asked her, “who do I contact?”

It's a serious question at many porn production businesses, said Nina Hartley, a performer in the industry for 30 years (who also cameos in Boogie Nights). “These companies are so small they don’t have human resources departments,” she said.

And some stars today remain unsure of first steps. "Is there a complaint form you fill out?" performer Ashley Fires asked rhetorically. "Is there a human resources department? How do you even go about making a complaint? I don't know."

- Kate Aurthur contributed to this article

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