Sucker Punch

Tom Hymes
I Watched A Movie Called "North Country" on the flight from New Zealand, where I went to talk with the ICANN people about .XXX — but more about that another time. The film features Charlize Theron (reason enough to watch it) as a single mother of two, struggling to provide for her family in the late 1980s. She gets a job in Northern Minnesota as one of the first women hired to work in the iron mines doing the same jobs as men and paid the same wages as her male counterparts. Deeply threatened, management and male co-workers subject her to daily abuse, from name calling — whore, slut, etc. — to physical and sexual assaults and unsafe working conditions. In the end, against the advice of her intimidated female co-workers, Theron rebels against the power structure, challenges the status quo in court, wins class-action status, and the women miners gain collective sexual harassment protection. The film is based on a true story.

I immediately thought of this industry and the video "Donkey Punch" in particular — a film I have not seen but learned about on Luke Ford's website — and a handful of other times over the past seven years when I was contacted by performers alleging abuse on or around the set.

At the same time, mainstream media is increasingly questioning me about the line the industry draws between free speech and performer abuse. My answer to those questions is easy: The line is between consent and coercion. But for me, everyday reality is far less clear, and the fact is that performers increasingly are put in a position where what appears to be consent is really a form of coercion not tolerated in other entertainment industries.

Now, I have already had conversations with people about this and heard variations on some standard response, and I know that the unabashed apologists for the industry are going to refer to Hollywood casting couches and all sorts of mainstream shenanigans that support their contention that what goes on in adult happens everywhere.

Besides being appalled by such a justification, I beg to differ. I have worked for years in film, TV and the theater, and even though actors and directors everywhere desire to make violent and sexual scenes as realistic as possible, a punch to the head with a ring on would never be tolerated by anyone other than an outlaw producer. And that is what we are talking about here, a performer who does not get paid unless he/she submits — and whatever you want to call it, that is not consent. For the myopic apologists, misogynists and sadists out there, if someone has to choose between getting hurt and getting paid, they are being coerced.

I also know about the obstacles for performers organizing to gain collective bargaining power, the communal apathy that everyone refers to and the entrenched power structure that rewards obliviousness. And I am, of course, aware that a majority of producers would never tolerate such behavior on their sets. But I also know that increasingly there are business models that in fact create incentives for the abuse of performers, and I find it ironic that we are in a situation where neither government nor industry cares enough about the most vulnerable among us, thus making everyone all the more vulnerable for it!

On a personal note, this is what keeps me up at night. If it continues, I will not be able to support an industry that beats up and spits out the very people on whose backs it profits.