Disclosing derogation and disregard

'Adult Material' on Channel 4, reviewed by Chloé England.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Adult Material is not an easy watch, but it is an important one. Peeling back the layers of this outwardly comical Channel 4 drama exposes a dark and uncomfortable side to the porn industry. The four episodes follow 33-year-old porn actress Hayley Burrows (played by Hayley Squires), embedding themes of consent, trauma, addiction, classism and the fluctuation of power.

The series begins by presenting Hayley as empowered, the poster girl of porn, whilst also being a mum of three and a good wife. However, when Hayley meets Amy, a new girl on set not much older than her own daughter, everything collapses. Amy is humiliated and unknowingly abused on set, and Hayley is determined to fight for justice despite struggling with the consequences of her alcoholism. Hayley is defended by MP Stella Maitland, forming an unlikely friendship which forces Hayley to relive her own traumas and understand her true motivations behind fighting for justice.

The themes represented in the drama are scarily common to the real lives of porn performers – see Rebecca Whisnant’s 2016 paper ‘Pornography, Humiliation, and Consent’. The demand for humiliation and degradation is increasing in modern pornography, according to a 2015 meta analysis led by Paul Wright, Robert Tokunaga and Ashley Kraus. It’s also common with sex workers, who are incentivised with elevated financial gain. This is something Adult Material highlights in episode one. Research has confirmed severe public humiliation, such as that shown in the programme, can result in major depression, suicide, anxiety and psychosis. Furthermore, Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner have suggested that the consequences are exacerbated when humiliation is photographed, such as within porn.

Despite this, there is limited research on sex workers’ experiences of humiliation and trauma. Whisnant suggests this is due to the assumed consent actors give; in other words, that actors have chosen to be there, so it’s fine. Adult Material brings to light the ignorance of that point of view. Instead, it publicises the negative consequences that can and do occur when experiencing severe humiliation, despite consent. Hayley experiences this with her major depression, anxiety, alcoholism and PTSD like symptoms.

In a 2008 article, ‘the camera as a weapon’, Carsten Bagge Laustsen suggests the audience prefers to believe the women on screen are there because they want to be. This is reflected in episode one, which frames women using their sexuality to their advantage, working in the ‘only industry women can get paid more than men’, as Hayley puts it. However, in the last episode Hayley flips this narrative, making for a more uncomfortable yet honest watch. Hayley speaks to Tom, her rapist, who is behind the camera, ripping apart the façade and exposing Tom’s actions. This forces ownership onto the viewer and reminds them that what goes on behind the camera may be very different from what is shown.

The ending of Adult Material is bittersweet, with Hayley losing her court case. But this is real life. It’s not just on Channel 4, or even isolated to on-screen porn. The lack of regard for trauma in sex work is affecting everyday people; a 2016 qualitative study led by Cicely Marston was reported as showing that UK teens are reporting a ‘climate of coercion’ and ‘consent not being a priority’.

Adult Material unapologetically initiates a much-needed conversation. Isn’t it time stigmatisation no longer took precedence over the protection of human rights?

- Reviewed by Chloé England, a recent Psychology graduate from the University of Leeds, aspiring to be a clinical psychologist

Culzac, N. (2016). Anal Sex Study Reveals Climate of ‘Coercion’. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news...
Torres, W. and Bergner, R., 2012. Severe public humiliation: Its nature, consequences, and clinical treatment. Psychotherapy, 49(4), pp.492-501.
Whisnant, R. (2016). Pornography, Humiliation, and Consent. Sexualization, Media, & Society, 2(3), 237462381666287. doi: 10.1177/2374623816662876
Wright, P., Tokunaga, R., & Kraus, A. (2015). A Meta-Analysis of Pornography Consumption and Actual Acts of Sexual Aggression in General Population Studies. Journal Of Communication, 66(1), 183-205. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12201 

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