The original "Backroom Casting Couch," via Wikimedia Commons

Re-Examining ‘Casting Couch’ Porn in the Age of #MeToo

We take a look at what makes the well-worn porn trope tick, and what it means today.

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Oct 9 2018, 3:04pm

The original "Backroom Casting Couch," via Wikimedia Commons

“If something exists, there is porn of it:” Welcome to Rule 34, a weekly column in which Motherboard’s Samantha Cole lovingly explores the highly specific fetishes that can be found on the web. If you’ve thought of it, someone’s jerked off to it.

The links and videos in this article may be considered NSFW.

You know the couch. Black leather, poorly lit, sitting feet away from a cheap faux-wood desk.

That couch is the well-worn centerpiece of many pornographic films that fall into the “casting couch” genre: The interviewer welcomes a woman into his office, under the pretense (at least to the viewer) that there’s a job to land. She sits on a couch across from him, and he interviews her for a modeling gig, a role in an adult film, or some other position. Eventually, they have sex on the couch. It’s porn about porn.

In some interpretations of the genre, the women know they’re walking into an audition for a porn gig. In others, they’re led to believe there’s a job when there isn’t. In many of these, the punchline of the plot is predicated on tricking the woman into sex—under the fantasy that the sex worker is naive in their own industry. In reality, of course, that’s not the case.

Like the gamer girl genre, the casting couch trope speaks to something that affects women outside of the fantasy of porn. Unlike any other fetish we’ve examined so far, however, this one is so well-known that it deserves a closer look. In a time when real-life producers are starting to answer for decades of abusing their power to assault women and coerce them into sex, it’s a genre that hasn’t aged well.

“The cum stained couches and the average sized penis poking out from the behind the camera just don't sell like they used to.”

The concept, outside of a pornographic context, is as old as Hollywood itself: The sleazy producer offers a young ambitious starlet her chance at fame, and all she has to do is be willing to do whatever he says. The term “casting couch” was coined as early as 1937 to describe a system at a Chicago radio station where only women were allowed to audition female radio talent, because the men couldn’t be trusted to stay professional. Over the decades, the same story of influential men taking advantage of women has played out over and over——the most recent being accusations against Harvey Weinstein that led to a reckoning for powerful men in Hollywood and the start of the #MeToo movement more broadly.

"The casting couch was always thought of as a joke," Helen Mirren said in a 1991 documentary Sex For Jobs in Hollywood. "But we never found it very funny.”

Now, it’s more than a joke. It’s both a meme and a moment.

BACKGROUND OF THE BACKDROP

The inception of “the couch” in porn dates back as early as 2007, with the launch of “Backroom Casting Couch” by Arizona-based pornographer Eric Whitaker. Since then, it’s also crossed over into Bad Luck Brians and rage comics, as a wordless punchline for what goes on in that room. The sparse, poorly-lit setting has come to be closely associated with stereotypical porn production in popular culture: Not glamorous film sets, but a dingy basement office in Scottsdale (Literally, that's where the porn videos that made the black couch famous were shot, according to the Phoenix New Times.)

But there are many versions of casting porn that predate Whitaker’s black leather couch: Pierre Woodman’s “Casting X” began in 1997. While Backroom usually features a hidden camera aspect—adding to the mystery, does she or doesn’t she know she’s being watched—Casting X uses a variety of angles and settings. They’re still “casting couch” interviews for porn gigs, but less seedy. Woodman’s not tricking women into anything. In these videos, the plot insinuates that the interview is set more on the porn performers’ terms.

I asked Laura Helen Marks, professor of practice in English at Tulane University and author of Alice in Pornoland: Hardcore Encounters with the Victorian Gothic, to help me break down the nuances of the couch, and the power dynamics at play.

“It's kind of tricky,” Marks said in a phone call. “I think the tendency would be to think, ‘Well, it's about male domination and control, it's misogynistic’—it's rooted in that, but I'm also really hesitant to make those kinds of straightforward claims about pornographic content, because you could also see it as, ‘Yes, that's a reflection of the larger society we're living in, and the casting couch is a real thing.’”

The casting couch “plays with that line of fantasy and reality,” Marks said. Most of it is seen through this kind of voyeuristic double-lens: The viewer is meant to suspend their belief, and assume that the women aren’t in on the trick.

Director, performer, and founder of BurningAngel porn studio Joanna Angel told me that the appeal of the casting couch may be in its relatability. “It strips away a lot of the glitz and glamour of porn and makes fans feel like they are right there in the room, and makes them feel more like they can relate to the penis involved,” she said in an email. “Some people like the fantasy aspect of porn, and get aroused by seeing erotic portrayals of people and things that are very off from their reality.” For others, she said, watching a set of six-pack abs have athletic marathon sex is a turn-off. “I found that the less glamorous the casting couch porn was, the more successful the series was,” Angel said.

She’s noticed that the trope isn’t around as much as it used to be—an observation backed up by statistics from YouPorn. As a search term, “casting” saw its highest months in December 2011, September 2014 and April 2015, a spokesperson for the porn streaming platform told me. It became a category in 2016, and visits to that category peaked in December 2016, but since then, visits to the category page have been consistently falling.

“High production value porn has made a return to the market, and fans desire to see girls with big names and big followings as opposed to unrecognizable first timers,” Angel said. “The cum stained couches and the average sized penis poking out from the behind the camera just don't sell like they used to.”

The trope itself is a subversion of the mainstream: It’s a meta-look at the industry, speaking about the industry, to an audience that wants to feel like they’re watching something behind-the-scenes. But as the springs on this cliche wear down, directors have had to get more and more subversive, creative, and shocking with it.

FLIP THE COUCH

One of Marks’s favorites in the porn-about-porn genre is Sexcapades, a 1983 film directed by Henri Pacard. Over a decade before Woodman and Whitaker, Pacard was making films about the casting couch in his own way. Eric Edwards plays Harry, a burned-out porn director, alongside Lee Carroll as producer Lorraine Loveborn, "America’s porno queen.” When I watched it, it instantly became one of my favorites, too. It’s hilarious.

In the first scene, Harry and Lorraine watch a couple enthusiastically auditioning for their next film. Instead of the salacious and seedy black leather couch in a bereft room, the setting is a fluorescent-lit office. An office assistant walks in and steps over the pair to deliver a message. The desk phone rings, and Lorraine answers it off-camera to forcefully deliver the film’s first line: “When it’s my picture, and my money, I do what I want, and fuck you.”

Both Harry and Lorraine are jaded about their jobs, but while Harry is a browbeaten husband grappling with his domestic life, Lorraine is a demanding force in a shoulder-padded power suit. Their respective characters turn the typical power-play around to question the male director’s role, while adhering to the traditional casting couch trope.

“It is much easier to target the much more overtly, intentionally provocative genres”

Angel put her own spin on the casting couch with her now-concluded series “It’s My First Time.” The premise for these films was that the amateur performers starring in them have never had sex on camera before—like casting couch, the viewer got a privileged look behind-the-scenes at the process of creating porn, especially when it comes to novice performers.

“I tried to put a happier coat of paint on the genre,” Angel said. “It very much felt like I was documenting a first day at summer camp or something like that.”

#METOO AND THE COUCH

Pornography has always reflected society, sometimes to an uncomfortable, overblown degree. Casting couch porn is no different. It reflects a real-life scenario that many women deal with at work, where men often abuse their power. It’s just sped-up and condensed into a couch, a desk, and an interview gone awry.

Marks told me that every interview she’s done leading up to her book launch has inevitably come around to “#MeToo,” and the misguided notion that porn could possible cause something like real-world sexual assault or harassment.

“It is much easier to target the much more overtly, intentionally provocative genres,” she said. “When something comes along that a pornographer can exploit as obscenely as possible, they're gonna do it. There is that instinct to transgress upon and poke at the mainstream.”

A more interesting and useful practice than condemning porn tropes is to untangle what makes them tick, and why they are popular in the first place. Why is fantasizing about easily-duped women popular?

In reality, of course, sex workers are savvy business women. “The idea that somebody is fantasizing that actually, they're not that savvy, they're not as in control as they appear... it's kind of interesting to think about that as a reaction fantasy,” Marks said.

Women who want to get into porn don’t need a couch anymore, and they don’t need a “powerful man” to get into the industry.

“With the rise of camming, clip sites and tube sites—it's very easy for amateurs to make their own porn, and they don't have to find a casting couch type of situation to break them into the industry,” Angel said. “Girls can easily make connections with directors, agents and studios through social media... and do their first scenes for the bigger studios as opposed to the local hero with a camera, a couch and a few extra bucks.”

If you have a freaky-obscure internet fetish that you’d like to see featured on Rule 34, please send your suggestion to sam@motherboard.tv. No judgement.