Why This Woman Wants People To Take A Closer Look At Casting Couch Porn

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
Of all the different types of pornography out there, the casting couch genre is one of the most recognizable. The premise is simple: A young woman, hoping to break into the pornography industry, enters a room outfitted with a couch. From there, the (usually male) "casting director" asks her a series of probing questions, gets her to undress, and then the two have sex — all so the woman in question can land a job. It sets up a power dynamic in which a woman needs something from a man, and she's coerced to use her sexuality to get it.
After realizing how prevalent this dynamic is (and not just in pornography), filmmaker Leah Rachel created The Curious Female, an improvised online series that inverts the tropes of casting couch porn by depicting women who strip down emotionally, rather than physically. Along with producers Jessica Whitaker, Sky Ferreira, and Markus Mentze, Rachel shot four videos in which four different women open themselves up to prodding male casting directors. The result is a sex-positive series that hones in on the discomfort these power dynamics create, and forces viewers to take a closer look at casting couch porn in general.
Advertisement
This isn't to say that the entire genre is inherently problematic — if the pornographic videos Rachel was inspired by are all, in fact, fictionalized, and both people consented to performing these acts on camera beforehand, that's no different than any other consensual porn that depicts disproportionate power dynamics. The problems start to bubble up when consent is murky. And while disclaimers on a lot of these casting couch videos do claim that the performers are all consenting, it's not 100% clear whether the women in the videos are professional performers who consented beforehand or women being coerced into consenting in order to get a job.
Ahead, Rachel speaks to her thought process behind The Curious Female, the major issues with how this power dynamic plays out IRL, and how the casting couch can induce just as much vulnerability as a therapist's couch.
What inspired you to create this series?
"I kind of started as somebody who watches a decent amount of porn. [Laughs.] And I’d just see how often these casting couch porns would pop up and how many fucking views they’d get. It’s one of the most searched-for porns, and the conceit behind it is that this woman has to fuck this dude in order to get a job. And so I just kind of wanted to explore that. And I started to wonder what would happen if emotional intimacy was pornographic, as opposed to physical intimacy. But I put it in a setting where you’re using all the conventions of porn, but it never turns pornographic in the traditional sense. The experiment is showing how disturbing it is to be asked how you felt in a situation like that."
Can you talk to me a little bit more about what you see as problematic about these videos and the power dynamic they show?
"In the way that art informs culture, I think that pornography informs how people think about sex. The interesting thing about porn is that it shows you what people are into sexually and what their fetishes are. And there was something really disturbing to me about the fact that a shitload of people are into the conceit of a weak, dehumanized woman who is at the male’s complete mercy in order to get a job. That was disturbing to me. And it’s not just how they do it sexually — that’s how they think about women, period, which is so awful."
Advertisement
A lot of the questions that are asked in the video are similar to questions that may be asked by a therapist, and I think that’s where a lot of the discomfort lies. Like in therapy, I want to share my feelings. But in this video, the women are seemingly forced to share their feelings, which is uncomfortable.
"There’s something about the black leather couch — and that’s a real porn studio that we filmed in. It wasn’t something that I went into this project thinking about, but as soon as I saw the studio, it reminded me of being on my shit-ass health insurance. And the only kind of psychologist I could afford was in an office that looked like this."
That was one of the more compelling elements to me. I watched Sky’s video [above] first, and the questions she’s asked reminded me of a therapy session.
"I'd actually prefer people to watch Sky's video last. What happens in hers — at the end, you realize that it’s just as intimate, if not more, to be forced to tell people how you’re feeling about things than it is to just fuck someone. It can feel more intimate to some people. With hers being last, there was that feeling of, 'Oh that power dynamic is still there, it’s just you asking me to be emotionally intimate instead of being physically intimate.' She’s the one to sort of reclaim the casting couch in some sort of way."
Did you give all of the women a character to play? It seems very improvised, but was it?
"My childhood best friend produced these along with Sky, and we had three meetings with the girls before where we just kind of hung out. The two guys who played the casting directors are actually screenwriters, so we had them in on these meetings to get to know the girls and know what emotional triggers they had. They figured out pressure questions to as them. It was a big psychological experiment. We had them talking to the girls, and asking them things that seemed to make her uncomfortable, so on camera we had them pressure her about these things. They were armed with these strong, emotional pressure points in order to illicit a response.
"The girls got to choose their own names and put together their characters in a way. But it was up to us and the casting directors to know each girl and know what they could play into and pushing them that way. So with Kansas [Bowing, who plays Tara, below], everyone is always referring to how young she is and how sexual she is, so we asked her questions having to do with that, knowing it would make her uncomfortable. So we had a rough idea of the trigger questions, and then kind of just went from there. And we let it be really natural on the day. The goal was to get them clothed, and to get them to open up."
It was really interesting to see that, as they became more undressed emotionally, the casting directors gave the girls clothes and they became more physically dressed. What informed that decision?
"It started as just a simple way to invert what typically happens on a porn casting couch — so they become less dressed as the videos go on. But the definition changed. [Dressing them became] just as misogynistic as undressing them. It became something like, 'Respect yourself, honey! Put on some clothes!' It’s a similar thing. It’s that power dynamic. As these women are becoming more human [by showing their emotions] they’re covering themselves up."
There’s also some subtle symbolism in there. In order for women to be respected, they have to be covered up. In order for them to be heard, they need to be covered up.
"Totally. And that’s something that pisses me off. Even when we were all making it, it was just like, 'Let’s do this to get people talking and see what layers evolve out of it.' We never had a specific meaning or a specific message behind it. We wanted to make people uncomfortable, and then talk about what made them uncomfortable."
Advertisement