On Thursday, the major, annual technology conference South by Southwest removed a virtual reality “documentary fantasy” encounter with a sex worker entitled “GFE” after the lead actress alleged misconduct by the director. Liara Roux says she never signed a release form, and the film’s screening – which failed to credit her – was news to her. Her first reaction? “I feel incredibly violated.”

News2Share’s Ford Fischer spoke to Liara Roux to hear what happened, in her own words.

News2Share: It seems you’re extremely uncomfortable with a VR video featuring you that was released at SXSW. Can you introduce yourself and explain what transpired?

Liara Experiments with a VR Headset

Liara Roux: I’m Liara Roux, a sex worker, indie porn producer and director, and organizer. I’ve been a sex worker for around 4 years, making photos as well as doing in-person work for that time, and have been producing my own video work for about under a year. I originally worked with Patreon as my payment gateway, with a relatively simple archive website for distribution. When Patreon changed their Terms of Service to exclude the kind of porn I was making, I organized and penned (along with a working group) www.openlettertopatreon.com. While it was unsuccessful in our ultimate goal – getting Patreon to join us against the credit card processors in fighting financial discrimination against sex workers – we were able at least to get them to clarify their process and work one on one with some people to keep their sites. I wouldn’t consider it a real win, but we’ve mostly moved on to other fronts in that battle.

I am now close to launching www.liararoux.xxx [editor’s note: link extremely NSFW], where I’ll eventually be producing and distributing videos that center on other performers as well, not just including me as a star. I’m represented in those business efforts by Alex Austin Law Group, who also represent Kink.com among many other porn sites.

While I normally produce my own stuff, I don’t have the equipment at this time to produce VR videos. I’m very interested in the medium and own a variety of VR equipment myself. I’m actually currently setting up a greenscreen and tethered setup with my Sony A7S II so I can do mixed reality streaming on twitch in April.

When Michael Jacobs contacted me about working on a VR film together, I felt it was worth sharing creative control with another person in return for collaborative effort on this technology. While my long term ideas with VR include interactive scenarios and hardcore pornography, I liked the idea of giving it a documentary feel, since it seemed the easiest way to make something more immersive for a general audience. Even though we wanted it to be documentary-like, from the start I was working on setting up a narrative, planning events in advance, and creating a visual story to go along with an interview that would include truthful sentiment.

As with anything, I was concerned with the possibility that things would not represent my viewpoints if edited improperly. I was clear about this and Michael agreed to let me have veto power over anything I was uncomfortable with. He was a bit disorganized, which is common with creative people, but seemed earnest so I gave him a pass on not having his release the first day of shooting. When he did finally send one over, it was boilerplate and overly broad. I told him I would like to see our agreed upon stipulations about creative control baked into the contract before signing. He agreed he would try again.

Eventually he came back with another contract that, again, didn’t match our original agreement. Sometime during this process he also showed me cuts that had parts that needed to be changed. Eventually it seemed best to let our lawyers handle the negotiations with regards to the contract and final say on cuts. They were still in that process, as far as I knew, when I learned of the film being screened – and without my name or credit on it.

While there were some things about the shooting and negotiating process I didn’t like, I didn’t feel betrayed or hurt until I found out he was showing the footage to press and the public without my consent. Even if one consents to be nude (say you let a partner take your photo) that doesn’t mean they have a right to do whatever they want with it.

I was honestly really taken by surprise – it’s just clearly bad business to show anything without a release. I’m not sure what he was thinking. My lawyers were successful in getting him to cease and desist, but I felt I had to speak out about shoddy business practices.

News2Share: You said before that “the project could be important and my fans know I’m excited about VR.” Why is VR important, and what did you hope would be accomplished with this film?

Liara Roux: On a very basic level, I’m a huge nerd. I might be a bit of a trans-humanist and I’m definitely a gamer. I like all kinds of things possible in VR – switching bodies, exploring new places, sharing experiences, and a sense of scale and immersion that is unique to the medium.

I wanted the film to accomplish several things.

Liara Appears in GFE

I wanted people to feel connected to a sex worker while hearing their words – to be unable to avoid the idea of a sex worker as a real person. While doing that, I wanted to educate them about one of the ways someone can be a sex worker that is often unconsidered – everything around sex that is still intimacy.

I wanted to give fans who can’t afford to spend time with me in person an option that might give them a taste.

I wanted to explore the idea of doing documentary style experiences in the medium. And I just wanted to experiment. Making media is fun, especially with emerging technologies!

News2Share: What went wrong?

Liara Roux: I think that this is a good case study in how people can go into a situation with the best of intentions, but think that very different things are happening. Michael just isn’t a sex worker, and he isn’t femme presenting. On some levels, he just doesn’t understand what should and shouldn’t be expressed in a piece about sex workers, and he doesn’t understand how important consent is on every step of the way.

Unfortunately, it seems he also doesn’t understand business and legality. It’s a fairly clear cut situation – you get a release when you shoot someone. For any purpose, documentary or otherwise. You stick to your agreements. You communicate in a timely fashion and set your expectations by that schedule. If you have sexual content, you need a 2257 compliance release and documentation of the person’s ID to confirm they are over 18.

He dropped the ball in a lot of places – I just never expected that he would actually go ahead with a screening without having the rest of that in place. It does feel like it could be underhanded, but what keeps me from fully feeling that is that it was just so incompetently executed. Did he think I wouldn’t see the press and might not notice if he distributed it uncredited? Did he think that taking off my credit was a solution I would be comfortable with, if I thought the content represented me and my brand badly? It took less than 24 hours for a fan to post about it in my fan subreddit (which has 20 thousand subscribers itself, aside from my other social meda).

On some level, I feel that maybe it was just a man unable to comprehend that someone who isn’t a man might be more competent than he was. It only took a few hours for bad press to come out about him, a cease and desist to be issued, and the festival forward it to him – and then for him to stop the screening. I’m not sure what he thought would happen.

Maybe even after interacting so much, he still just doesn’t get who I am.

News2Share: You wrote that the filmmaker released the simulation “without your consent.” Can you tell me what consent means in the context of erotic video?

Liara Roux: It’s pretty simple. As with anything, you get consent along every step of the way, and if you intend to not be in contact for every step, then you get a clear contract saying what you are allowed to do. Often both!

When I shoot someone for a porn video, before the shoot the actor and I discuss activities, agreed upon rate and so on. Either before the shoot or on the shoot day, they show ID, I get a picture of it, and it’s attached to a combination model and 2257 release which I keep on file. My model releases are fairly standard work-for-hire ones since I work with a subscription model. They also include compensation, whether the other performer has any rights to distribution (I give them full rights to any still images, but I keep all videos of myself behind my paywall), specific written consent for any activities that seem to require it (like bdsm) and so on.

It’s important to note that this is LEGAL consent and mostly is in place so the person who ends up with rights to the material can continue distributing it even if the other performer, say, retires, passes away, or is otherwise unreachable. Otherwise you’d need an agreement for any new distribution, which is pretty inconvenient.

It is STILL wrong to abuse a performer on set or continue with a scene after they have objected, no matter what. I’m not an expert on the legality of that, but many in the industry have talked about this.

Some people do profit sharing, or on projects like this contracts can be more complicated and involve specific stipulations about control over the editing process, and so on.

In terms of making media and distributing it, consent is very clearly defined. You need consent to make the media, and you need consent to distribute it. Say if you take a picture of your romantic partner. You can’t post or share that picture without explicit consent to also do that. It’s not just a potentially hurtful action – it’s also illegal now in many places under so-called revenge porn laws.

Liara in GFE

While I consented to being filmed, was paid for it, and was negotiating a contract for distribution, him going ahead and screening it felt like violation. I hadn’t seen the cut and it was scary to think that it might portray me in a completely different manner than I was comfortable with. I wasn’t told it would be screened so I didn’t have a chance to see it myself. I wasn’t credited, and he told press I didn’t want to be contacted, so I wasn’t even able to speak for myself while my body was being exhibited. It should be immediately clear how wrong that is.

There has been some talk of documentaries. They still require releases. Super basic. And sure, sometimes people sign a release and regret it. That’s sad, but if it’s professional media and someone else is relying on that income (co-stars, people who created it), in that case consent is more complicated. It might not be fair for one person to decide the livelihood of everyone else involved. Still, an ethical distributor might decide to stop selling it anyway out of respect for that performer.

In this case, it’s pretty clear cut. He knew I had said no to the broad terms with regards to his edit, knew I objected specifically to pieces of it (which I eventually found that he did include, out of laziness or intentionally, I don’t know)and knew that our legal teams were actively negotiating a new contract we’d both be happy with. No media lawyer could say in good faith that his actions in sidestepping that process were right.

News2Share: It seems like VR has a simulating factor that could make it different from other forms of porn. Do you think it’s more personal? Intimate? What do you think?

Liara Roux: VR porn can be pretty weird and disorienting at the moment. I may catch some flack, but I think it still has a long way to go. Some of the problems have to do with movement – you might be able to look down and see another performer’s body, but if it’s just a video your movement and interaction is extremely limited.

Rendered porn can be more interactive, but the headsets aren’t yet at a point of full immersion and graphics can’t quite be as complicated or high resolution as games on flat screens. This is going to get better and better, though, and one of my biggest interests in the medium involves the creation of 3d models of me instead of (or perhaps in addition to) footage.

It can definitely be extremely intimate and personal. Even on your screen, it takes some very willful suspension of disbelief to feel that a performer in a jerk off instruction video, for example, is talking directly to you. That is, actually, part of why cam performers and custom videos are still so popular, despite the easy access to pre-recorded porn.

However, in VR, you’re really blocked out from the external world. Even with the graphical and interaction limitations, now that the latency issues have been mostly solved your brain just can’t help feeling there. For most people, anyway. And I think that will be a very powerful thing to explore with regards to sexuality.

Of course, we’ll also use it to make you tiny and stuff you into a butthole. Because we’re humans and that’s the kind of thing we do.

News2Share: You wrote that the video has “Me talking about emotional labor while he puts the voiceover on video of me in my underwear. I told him this was absolutely unacceptable in the first cut I saw and that it suggest emotional labor is an euphemism. It’s not.”

Something we have to grapple with in the media is how video editing can take truths and turn them into something else. At the same time, the subject of a documentary isn’t the editor or the director. Is there an element of vulnerability handing your imagine to someone who can manipulate it like that? How do you preserve truth?

Liara Roux: How do you preserve truth? You absolutely can’t. You can have things that are facts, and that you can corroborate. You can gather a lot of information and find sources you trust through critical analysis.

But to be successful, a documentary will always require a narrative and that will always make it subjective. History isn’t a narrative, it’s just stuff happening. Something someone said isn’t a quote until someone else takes it out of the context of everything they’ve ever said to allow it to stand on its own.

It’s super important these days to think critically, be interested in getting as close to the truth as possible, avoiding alternative facts for good faith ones, but in the end, whoever is delivering information to you is also controlling what information they are not delivering.

This is why we often find “truth” in fiction. And that’s why I wasn’t as concerned with this being a “documentary” as much as a “documentary” feel. The aesthetic of something representing reality is something we are familiar with. Questions and interviews, voiceovers, people in the background that aren’t paid actors. But a viewer should always think critically – what is the filmmaker trying to say? Is it the same thing the people in the film are trying to say? What is being left out?

Liara is shown in her underwear in the film, while an unrelated interview quote narrates the moment

The euphemism I mentioned is a good example of that. Sometimes I sit with a crying client and show them pictures of puppies to help them through a trauma. Sometimes I walk for hours with a client, silently affirming them, on their very first date. Emotional labor is extremely important. Cutting that phrase outside the context of what that actually entails and putting it over the footage of lingerie sends a different message. I absolutely do sexual performances! Sex is absolutely an emotional thing! But what he decided to say with it was not what I wanted to say with it.

Many of these things could have been fixed with small edits. At the very least, we could have worked together to present a shared approach at the truth. For him to do the exact opposite of what I wanted is what felt violating. More so than other creative decisions since it included my body in the piece, sure, but also just because of how little respect for me it signaled, how important he felt his narrative was compared to mine. And I’m literally the only person in the film! It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that particular film would not have existed at all without me.

News2Share: It seems the film was originally to be framed as documentary and was later reframed as fiction. Is this a meaningful shift for you?

Liara Roux: Yes, he originally approached me about doing a documentary. I’m not sure it’s a shift for me, though. I immediately told him that I would discuss certain things and not others, and I was always approaching it as a way to tell a story. It may be my story, but as I’ve just indicated, I’d rather embrace the performative aspects of it to get closer to real understanding in the viewers, than trying to make it fit every ethical requirement I feel would be in place to call it a true documentary.

The idea of indicating that it’s a fictionalized account was mine. Something immersive and educating, but still not recordings of an actual day in my life. We blocked it out, planned it out, created a situation. The idea of cutting me out altogether was his – that’s the shift.

News2Share: What can others in the industry, or customers, do to more ethically move forward into an increasingly digital era?

Liara Roux: Listen to sex workers. Listen to women. At least listen to their lawyers.

Actively seek out consent and if you are unsure, keep trying to understand until you feel sure. And then when you’re wrong, apologize, ask how to make it up, and own your mistake. I can’t expect everyone to know every boundary, to understand the fuzzy borders between consenting to one thing and experiences a similar but non-consensual other thing. Not every time. But we can approach consent as we do business, in good faith, as an ongoing negotiation, and with respect to each other.

Pay people fairly – this, at least, he did. I want to at least say that, he paid me an agreed upon rate and I am happy with that. I was not asking for shared distribution rights or any percentage of profits. Ok, mostly because I didn’t believe the film would ever make a profit and I’d rather get my cut up front, but I don’t think that part of the negotiation was wrong.

I’m very insistent on this. A lot of people say they are making ethical porn but don’t pay actors fairly. That’s just not ethical.

News2Share: At the time I’m writing, it appears SXSW has removed the film. Where do things go from here?

Liara Roux: Yes, that was something I found out about through a press contact, actually. They’ve been saying it was removed voluntarily. Honestly, that’s kind of BS. It didn’t go anywhere until after my legal team sent an extremely sternly worded and clear Cease and Desist. It was forwarded by SXSW to Mr. Jacob’s legal (who tried to say we’d agreed to it stopping screening at end of day, which is ridiculous since then it would have done its entire planned screen run) and then we heard it was no longer going to screen. I don’t believe they decided to do it “because it was the right thing.” It’s very clear how much legal trouble they are in.

Where things go from here? I’m not sure. I believe I have grounds to pursue some pretty serious action, but revenge was never my motivation. While I put a lot of time into setting up the shoot, negotiating, two days of shooting and so on, I’m not sure I’m really attached enough to the final product to feel it’s worth going back to the table at this point. It’s just technically not where I was hoping it would be from his team.

The project just feels bad now. It would be easy for us to keep the terms of our Cease and Desist and have the whole thing shelved indefinitely. Still, I’ll hear him out. Perhaps the communication broke down with his lawyer and he didn’t understand what he was doing. But to be honest, at this point my energy may be better spent working on my next original VR project with full creative control.

News2Share: Would you ever pursue a project like this again? What does this experience mean for you going forward?

Liara Roux: Will I ever make a VR project again, for sure. Will I have something screening at SXSW at some point? Probably.

Will I shoot without a contract? Nope. I felt bad for everyone else on set and didn’t want to shut down production, but really, it wasn’t my fault. Next time someone shows up without a contract, that’s it.

Will I work with male civilian (non sex worker) directors? You know, I hate to say it, but probably not. There are plenty of creatives out there who are not cis men, there are plenty of creatives who are or were sex workers themselves. They’ll be a lot more likely to understand the boundaries and work harder to avoid them. On average anyway.

Honestly, though, when I did this shoot I was not in as good a position to do a similar project on my own. Now that my production company has finalized its legal hurdles and has a good running budget, there’s not much point in me sharing creative control or profits. I’ll just do it.

Michael Jacobs released the following statement after the film was removed by SXSW:

“I have the utmost respect for [Liara Roux] and I was very communicative about what we were doing throughout the prep and during the shoot.

I clearly stated my intention to culminate in nudity, and she agreed to this. I hired a stylist and makeup artist and had my wife on set in an effort to make her feel as comfortable as possible. Also I want to note that I offered her a robe between takes and she chose to not cover up. She was also friendly and open with the crew throughout.

I tried to ensure the project was handled with honesty, openness and integrity. My intention was to put a personal and human voice to the escort world while at the same time juxtaposing the visual nature of her work as a VR fantasy.

I treated her as I would any professional, any subject of any film. I made efforts to create an environment where her physical and emotional comfort were top priority, and the interactions between she and I were witnessed by the crew as such.

The moment she requested the film be taken off the floor, it was. I honor her and want to do right by her, as was my intention to balance her needs and film the entire time.”