Content warning: this article mentions rape.
Channel 4’s new four-part drama Adult Material follows Jolene Dollar (Hayley Squires), a mum-of-three who works as a successful performer in the adult entertainment industry until her life is turned upside down by an incident at work.
The trailer depicts an empowering story of women working in the adult industry battling stereotypes and challenging social norms. The creator Lucy Kirkwood made the show because she was fascinated by how porn pervades all of our lives yet most people know so little about the way it’s made. So far, so good…
However, after watching the series I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the exaggerated stereotypes and age old tropes about the industry that were employed throughout the series. It turned an opportunity to show the reality of the adult industry on mainstream TV into the same old scandalised and dramatised show about the “dark and dirty” world of porn, potentially making it even harder for audiences to understand what sex work is really like.
When it comes to depicting sex workers the show relies heavily on a number of outdated tropes.
Jolene is an underprivileged woman who by the end of the show has no agency and no choice but to engage in sex work. She also has a history of sexual abuse as a child, gross misunderstandings of consent & boundaries, and an alcohol addiction. Meanwhile the other performer, porn newcomer Amy (Siena Kelly), relies on drugs to get her through her work. Add this all together and you have your age old fallen sex worker trope.
These tropes feed into the Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminist (SWERF) belief that all sex workers are victims with no agency or are driven to a “demeaning lifestyle” by a damaged history. They ultimately believe that women do not have choices, or their own sexuality or desires and conflate sex work with sex trafficking.
It’s time for more inclusive, diverse and realistic depictions of sex workers. Not everyone who enters the industry does so because they have no choice, a turbulent history or alcohol/drug addictions. Some sex workers enter because they enjoy the work, they enjoy expressing themselves sexually, they want to be infront of the camera, or simply just because they want the money.
Next up in porn tropes 101 is the seedy adult industry which is run by creepy old men, riddled with STIs because performers can lie about their tests, and where you can be pressured into anything for extra money.
Now I’m not saying that this doesn’t exist and I understand that there are parts of the industry that do have elements of this, but is it not time to see some variation and an updated representation of all of the other parts of the adult industry? Such as those making porn for women.
There is a tendency in mainstream media to talk about porn as if it’s one thing, but just like any other big industry there are different businesses doing different things. Porn in its nature is not sexist or a male-constructed entity, like the rest of mainstream media formed in an androcentric society it became a male dominated industry, but in reality it can be, and is being, made from a variety of different perspectives.
In the first episode the viewer watches Jolene’s daughter being raped by her boyfriend while she is asleep. She later tells her mum about it and Jolene, who works with sex every day and would be more educated than anybody else to know what’s consensual and not consensual, brushes it off by telling her daughter that his behaviour is her responsibility. She tells her , “It’s difficult for boys, they’re not mind readers”.
This is such an outdated view that you would expect from an old fashioned mother in the 1960s, not an adult performer who works with sex & consent every single day. Adult performers engage in some of the most developed conversations about consent, starting during contract negotiations, during the pre production and again on set. They talk to their co-stars about boundaries and preferences and the conversation continues throughout the scene.
This isn’t to say that consent & boundaries can’t be broken , but it is to say that most adult performers would have a clearer idea of consent than the advice Jolene gave to her daughter. After all, they make their living from understanding and engaging with people sexually.
Although I feel disappointed by the tropes that the show has employed, Adult Material does also show some truths of the adult industry. We see the sometimes banality of porn shoots, the truth of juggling social media and private clips on the side, the aftermath of free porn, algorithms, and performers who head home to cook dinner for their family after a hard day’s work.
If you want to read more about the do's and don't's of sex worker representation in cinema read this guest article by Camgirl author Isa Mazzei