The Casting Couch: Sex Should Be a Personal Choice, Not a Condition of Employment

Actress Thandie Newton has spoken out about a highly unprofessional screen test. Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com

“Many stars only do one thing well. Of course, the best one-trick-pony is Kristen Stewart, who got a whole career by being able to juggle a director’s balls.” – Joan Rivers, Diary of a Mad Diva

Comedians joke about it and producers pretend it’s just a myth, but for many aspiring actresses the casting couch presents a serious problem. One that far too many of them encounter. Inexperienced and eager for success, young women become easy prey for the vultures of the entertainment industry, coerced into sexual situations with the mere promise of a job. Frequently taking place within a professional office setting, these women find themselves at the beck and call of those in power and often oblige the whims of powerful men from the confines of a comfortable couch.

These days the term “casting couch” is frequently associated with the porn genre, which mirrors this exploitation of women. As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, casting couch is “a couch in an entertainment executive’s office on which aspiring actresses are reputed to perform sexual acts in exchange for desired roles; broadly:  the practice of abusing one’s power to obtain sexual partners.”

In recent years Hollywood stars have come forward, sharing their stories and giving a voice to a younger, powerless version of themselves, hoping other young women can learn from their experiences. Award winning British actress Thandie Newton, known for her roles in such blockbuster hits as Mission Impossible II and The Pursuit of Happiness, described to CNN feeling exploited, objectified and abused as a teenager attending auditions. But the incident that haunts her happened when she was 18, a legal adult.

“It was a screen test,” a now 42-year-old Newton recounted. “There were two other people in the roomthe director and the casting director, who was a woman… the director asked me to sit with my legs apartthe camera was positioned where it could see up my skirtto put my leg over the arm of the chair.”  Then before she began her dialogue, Newton was instructed to “think about the character I was supposed to be having dialogue with and how it felt to be made love to by this person.”

Because it was a professional environment, in the presence of both a director and casting director, Newtonthough confuseddecided the requests “must be normal.” Three years later she realized just how unprofessional it was when she discovered the director was using that video to entertain party guests.

It’s difficult to imagine esteemed Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon putting up with any form of misogyny. She’s an outspoken free thinker with an authoritative presence, and yet in her initial years as an actress she wasn’t always treated with respect. “I just went into a room, and a guy practically threw me on the desk. It was my early days in New York, and it was really disgusting,” she told Elle magazine. Tight-lipped about the details of the encounter, all Sarandon will say is, “it was not successfulfor either of us.”

Actress and TV personality, Lisa Rinna has a similar story. “I lost a role on a BIG TV series because I wouldn’t bend over a chair in a producer’s office for ‘just a quickie.’ ‘Just pull your panties down and bend over and the role is yours,’ he said to me.”

Just 24 years old at the time, Rinna left in tears but has never forgotten it.  

The prevalence of these stories is alarming. Aside from the few women willing to go on record about how they’ve narrowly avoided becoming a casting couch causality, how many starlet hopefuls have gone along with it? It’s rare to hear an actress credit a sexual encounter for landing her a role, or worse: who wants to admit to banging the boss for nothing in return?

And because the powerful men behind these stories can make or break careers, few actresses will ever name them.

Due to the adult industry’s exploitation and marketing of the casting couch, some now regard it as a myth, a fun X-rated concept but hardly a reality. However, even adult performerswell versed in exchanging sex for favor or cashhave experienced these real-life pressures. Women shouldn’t be badgered into having sex to get a job, especially when the job is sex-work. It’s like asking an adult actress for a freebie, or worse a “buy one get one free.”

People in the adult industry are very direct when it comes to sex, something I’ve always appreciated even when it’s made me uncomfortable. One of the few times a producer propositioned me was during an audition in his office. After I’d read for the part, he applauded my performance by making a big show of clapping his hands. Then pushed his chair away from the desk, instantly revealing a stiff woody with his pants around his ankles.

His message was clear: one quick blowjob and the part would be mine. I’d rarely worked for this particular big feature company and loved doing movies with speaking roles. It was an opportunity I considered, but only momentarily. On the one hand, some might argue, sex was my job so it shouldn’t matter. While people outside the adult industry might not see the difference between sexually appeasing this producer and doing a scene with a performer, I maintained professional boundaries. And expected those I worked with to do the same. Deep down I knew it wasn’t really about the sex. It was about the power he was attempting to wield over me.

Giving in would set a precedent for future encounters. Embarrassed for the both of us, I apologized to the producer as if I’d done something wrong and left in a hurry. I never worked for that company again. At times I regretted that decision, mostly when I was passed over for certain roles. However, I would have regretted compromising my integrity even more.

This sort of thing never happens just once. There will always be fewer roles than the multitude of women auditioning, and the odds will always be in the producers’ favor.

AVN award-winning porn star Missy Martinez had a similar, though less graphic, experience. Throughout the six years of her career, Martinez can recall only one casting couch-like experience. She was given a printed proposition alongside her pre-scene paperwork.

“He’s a director for a well-known, smaller company. Attached to the paperwork was a questionnaire inquiring whether I’d ‘be interested in having sex with the director in exchange for money’ and if so ‘what would your rate be?’ I refused to fill it out,” she says. “Needless to say, I haven’t been requested back to shoot for that company.”

As a newbie, turning down producers may feel like the end of a career whether that’s in adult or mainstream. When she first entered the porn business, starlet Carmen Valentina handled all of her own bookings from online resources. Without an agent or industry contacts she relied heavily on the honesty of producers she’d never met. Until she was taken advantage of.

“I was still so new, I didn’t think to ask for references and all I had was the production name of the company. I was naive and assumed they were safe,” Valentina says. “After I arrived on location, we shot the scene, they recorded all of it. At the end I asked about payment, and that’s when they said it was just a test shoot.”

With little recourse, Valentina extracted herself from the awful and potentially dangerous situation. “Since I was a female and there alone, I didn’t want to start drama that could end in a bad situation. Later that night I got a text from one of the guys, saying if I’d come fuck him, he would convince the other guys to pick me for the DVD.”

It’s an experience she won’t soon forget.

Adult actress Mercedes Carrera has avoided awkward demands for sex in exchange for work, thanks to her no-nonsense attitude. “With my personality, I don’t tend to get propositioned the same way. I came into the porn industry with a breadth of experience, so it’s harder to push me around. I feel bad for the some of the younger girls who haven’t learned where to draw their boundaries yet,” she says.

Before porn, Carrera says she worked as a mainstream commercial model from the ages of 15 to 21. It was there that she learned first hand about casting couches.

“When I got into adult it all seemed really clean compared to being a 16-year-old girl in commercial print modeling. At 16, you have these guys that are 35-year-old photographers dating and fucking 16 year olds and that’s par for the course.”

“In mainstream it was whoever you were fuckingif you were fucking the casting director you were more likely to get the call back or even get to the castingthat was the way in,” Carrera says.

Young girls venturing into mainstream entertainment hope to become the next top model or leading actress, so they feel a substantial amount of money hinges upon their success. “It’s a cutthroat environment with all types of people who are ruthless and willing to do things that people in porn aren’t willing to do,” says Carrera who has intimate knowledge of both industries.

And that’s the crux of it. Some women feel pressured to have sex to remain competitive. Or worse, some oblige producers to be “nice” because they don’t want to come off as bitchy.

But sex should always be a personal choice, not a requirement to secure a job.

Aurora Snow is a former adult actress and a contributor to the Daily Beast.