HBO's sexually-explicit mandate for "Westworld" extras is stricter than a porn contract

Extras had to sign a form consenting ahead of time to genital-to-genital touching and more [UPDATED]

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Published September 30, 2015 9:19PM (EDT)


UPDATE: Deadline reports HBO denies the casting note came from the network. "The document that the background actors were given was created by an outside extras casting vendor,” said HBO in a statement. "It was not requested, written or approved by HBO, Warner Bros. Television, or the producers, and contains situations that we do not require of any actor. We are rectifying immediately the discrepancies in this vendor’s document with our actual on-set practices, which provide a professional and comfortable working environment for all performers.”

HBO’s 2016 series "Westworld," based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name, about “a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin,” is causing a stir not because of its plotlines, or its cast, which includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, and Thandie Newton, but because of a particularly explicit casting call. According to The Hollywood Reporter, on Tuesday, extras were required to sign a consent form detailing exactly which kinds of nude sex acts they could expect to be required as part of their jobs. “The explicit consent form itself wouldn’t pass standards reviews at a broadcast network as it recites that the performer ‘may be required to perform genital-to-genital touching, simulate oral sex with hand-to-genital touching, contort to form a table-like shape while being fully nude, pose on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back, [and] ride on someone's back while you are both fully nude.”

The form went on to say, “If you object to or are not comfortable with working on the Project for any reason, including the graphic nature, required Various Acts, and/or the Project Environment described in this Disclosure & Consent, you will not be able to work on this project.” That wording seems to leave little room for asking questions, getting clarification, or stating preferences as to what types of sex acts an actor might find acceptable.

Union SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) posted a notice to members of the Westworld production stating, “This is to advise all SAG-AFTRA represented background actors who signed this document that to the extent it conflicts with the SAG-AFTRA Television Agreement, it is unenforceable. The SAG-AFTRA Agreement provides that consent to appear in scenes requiring nudity or sex acts may be withdrawn at any time (consent may not be withdrawn as to scenes already shot).”

As the Los Angeles Times put it, “It appears that the union’s true concern lay with the idea that its members may not comprehend that the SAG-AFTRA Agreement ensures that though they’ve signed a consent form, consent to appear in scenes requiring nudity or sex acts can be withdrawn regardless, so long as the scenes have not already been shot.”

The wording of the original form is highly problematic, especially if extras are being told, whether directly or subtly, that they have little choice as to what they do with their naked bodies. According to The A.V. Club, “SAG-AFTRA, the union representing the actors, is sending a representative to be in attendance for the shoot, which it only does when it’s worried about potential infractions. The union worked hard to ensure that its members know they have the right to withdraw consent at any time, at least until the scenes are filmed, at which point their rights become akin to those of someone who posts selfies on the internet.”

What struck me about the consent form was that it seemed even more overreaching than what porn performers are asked to do. Namely, performers seem to be being asked ahead of time to consent to various acts, such as “genital-to-genital touching.” I asked Kitty Stryker, head of production at porn company TROUBLEfilms, what she requires of her actors (Stryker has also acted in porn films). “We don't write contracts telling our performers what to do with their bodies,” Stryker told Salon via email. “They are encouraged to negotiate their scene offset ahead of time with their partner/s and to let us know how they want the scene to go. I imagine some companies might have contracts stating how much will be paid for what sexual acts, but that's not how we roll at TROUBLEfilms—you're paid the same regardless of sexual acts performed, gender, ethnicity, or ability.”

If even porn companies aren’t requiring actors to sign on in advance to performing sex acts—or simulated sex acts—on camera, why should it be okay for HBO to?

Refinery29 has suggested the contract terms were leaked in order to generate buzz about “how sexy” the show will be. Business Insider implied much the same with its headline, “This sexually explicit casting contract reveals just how kinky HBO's 'Westworld' could be.” Considering the vast coverage it’s gotten in a matter of hours, that certainly could be one possibility. A 2014 casting call for the show didn’t feature any language regarding sexually explicit acts.

It’s fine if HBO wants to tout that it’s got a racy new show, but its sex appeal shouldn’t come at the expense of the express consent of its actors. I’m sure plenty of extras don’t mind getting down and dirty for the show, but they should at least know their rights and not be intimidated into agreeing to performing in scenes where they fear losing their job because they don’t want to spread their legs.

Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 50 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms," "Serving Him" and "Irresistible: Erotic Romance for Couples." She writes widely about sex, dating and pop culture, and is a blogger at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake.

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