Olivia Davis has done two modeling gigs involving her pretending to be dead. One was beautiful, one was ugly.
Editor’s note: This is a hard article to read. It’s long and explicit and deals very frankly with the filming of one of the most extreme and disturbing forms of pornography that exists, the faux-snuff films in which a model pretends to be killed. It will be upsetting, triggering, frightening for many readers, and we have been debating for some time whether to run it. We have chosen to run it for one very important reason: because it is from the model’s perspective. The “victim” in the porn movie is telling her side, describing her own experience, her own motivations and memories. The overwhelming majority of discussion of pornography, especially such esoteric and specialized pornography, is from an outside perspective. We at the Good Men Project believe in providing a platform for perspectives that might not otherwise be heard, and we believe that Ms. Davis’s experience, and her thoughts about it, provide a valuable perspective on extreme pornography that is needed if we are to have any serious discussion on the matter. Once again, many people will find the following article upsetting or triggering, and readers should exercise discretion.
Death is big. Death is scary. Death is important. Death is inescapable. It’s the end.
As such, we talk a lot about death. We philosophize about it, write about it, obsess over its prevention. As such, death is the subject of a lot of art, and plays an important role in a lot of media that is, uh, maybe not so much art. Our media mulls it over, sometimes exploiting its horror and extremity, sometimes infusing it with peace and beauty. And sometimes, we make death sexy. We make corpses into glamorous, morbid objects that we show off.
I, myself, have been dead twice, and once it was beautiful.
The first time, a photographer and friend covered me in baby oil so my unmarked skin shone and glowed. She had me lie on a moldering shipping palette and sprinkled me with water so it beaded and pooled on my skin. She tossed a clear, plastic shower curtain over my legs and took photos as I lay in silent repose. Still life with tits.
The second time was on the set of a porn shoot. We’d been shooting the film in chronological order, parts one, two, and three, had been standard porn torture: a lot of hitting and a lot of clamps. And then he put a plastic bag on my head, telling me to struggle a lot at first, but to slowly fight less. Then, I’d die. He’d edit the scene together later. He’d make it look like he’d killed me.
This is how it happened:
I’ve been an amateur fetish model for more than a year now. Despite my Model Mayhem profile, despite the fact that my face will be in a gallery space in April, modeling had netted me exactly one hundred dollars. So, when a porn producer sent me a message offering to shoot with me, I was surprised and pleased. I knew that there was plenty of BDSM and fetish porn work to be done in my city, but hadn’t yet had an opportunity to try my hand at that game.
I found his work unpleasant, but in a rather pedestrian kind of way. The aesthetic was very Kink.com: set in somebody’s unfinished basement, with practical ropework and nobody having a good time. It intimidated me. I like to think I play fairly hard in my private life, but that’s with my partner who I love and trust implicitly. It’s not for a camera and it’s all stuff I’m happy to do. I wasn’t sure that I was tough enough for his brand of kink, which included some stuff I hadn’t done, but I knew there was only one way to find out.
Even after I’d accepted his proposition, he was miserly with information. He gave me a nickname and a nom de pr0n sillier than “Max Hardcore,” so I’ll just call him Brick Hardmeat (a name I promise is less ridiculous than his actual pseudonym). He told me that we didn’t have to shoot anything that involved me and his dick (boy/girl, as they call it), what he usually pays models for non-boy/girl work, and the date and time of our shoot. Other than that, he wouldn’t tell me what we’d be doing and only assured me that “every model has a discussion on video about limits.” He didn’t tell me how much content he planned to shoot, or how long it would take. He wouldn’t initially tell me the location of his studio. Instead, he informed me that he’d text it to me on the day of. When I reported that this wouldn’t fly because I’d be taking public transit, he offered me a ride.
Between his cageyness, my concerns about my abilities, and the mere fact that actually moving into porn was a big, frightening step, I sat on the edge of calling the thing off for weeks. It was only a glowing recommendation of Brick by the only porn star I know and the knowledge that he and I would have a twenty minute drive just to talk to each other and interact as regular humans that tipped me into going, alone, to the studio of a strange man to do unknown, but painful things for pay.
Brick Hardmeat is, indeed, a strange man. He is in his forties and 6’2”, with gray hair cut into a Mohawk, but pulled back in a small, goofy braid. Both of his arms are sleeved in tattoos and his cargo shorts reveal more on his calves and ankles, including a tribal design overlaid by a marijuana leaf. His voice is gravelly, as though he constantly needs to clear his throat, and there are gaps between his teeth. I found him friendly and affable. As I’d hoped, our car ride does a lot to set me at ease. We talk about leatherwork, girls who can’t come, and his slow-going attempts to buy the building that houses his studio. He reveals that he’s a felon: he did time for smuggling marijuana into the country. When he asks if I smoke pot, I tell him no.
When we arrived he gives me a tour of his studio. Originally an office building, it’s now a labyrinth of well-appointed sets: bedroom, girlier bedroom with pink walls, medical room, kitchen, office, morgue, living room, and torture chamber. We’ll be using the torture chamber. There’s also a $3,000 shower in a laundry room and an office with a standing desk where Mr. Hardmeat edits his films.
In the office, Mr. Hardmeat hands me a bottle of water, double-checking to make sure I want mine “pre-roofied.” Despite myself, the joke makes me smile, makes me feel better. His acknowledging the tension causes some of it to dissipate. I reply that I take my roofies separate, thanks. He brings up some previews for non-BDSM movies he made, explaining that folks ordering things special like this is a good way to make money and that he can’t shoot me just doing BDSM work forever. As a model, I have something of a shelf life. So, hopefully, I’ll be able to shoot this sort of content. One of the videos is all acting, the crack of a whip, a flinch, a scream, but the whip never makes contact. The model is very good. Mr. Hardmeat explains that she was raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, has six or seven brothers and sisters, and is “all about black cock now.”
At least two of the three clips he shows me end with the girls “dying” and the camera slowly panning over their bodies. Nothing that happens in any of them is portrayed as consensual.
The first thing Mr. Hardmeat tells me about our video and interview on the subject of my limits is that it is not for publication, so he needs real information. I’m relieved. This means there’s no pressure for me to present myself as a super-sub or mega-masochist with no hard limits. He asks me my name, my age, if I’ve been coerced into coming to the studio, if I’m a lifestyle BDSM’er, and what my pain tolerance is (I reply “moderate” to that last question—trying to discern just how much of a masochist you are is a loser’s game). And then we talk about limits.
In retrospect, I realize that there was just no good way for Brick Hardmeat and I to talk about my limits. BDSM is vast and strange and there are things in it I’ve still probably never heard of. When Mr. Hardmeat asks me what my limits are, the understanding is that he is allowed to do everything else, even things I’ve never done before. And that, frankly, is terrifying.
But I’m a grown-ass woman, I’ve been getting beaten up regularly and with increasing intensity for more than a year now, I am confident in my ability to endure pain, especially for short periods of time and for money. And I have a safeword. So, we agree that he won’t put his penis in me, and that there will be no blood, urine, or scat (which are his limits, incidentally). Aside from that, he has carte blanche. And then we go to shoot.
We shoot four scenes. At the beginning of the first one, he tells me that I ought to look scared, like I’m a captive, “almost like there’s something non-consensual going on.” We’d shoot for ten minutes straight, I’m not allowed to say “no,” or “stop.” I get most of the way through the first scene before I have to use my safeword. I haven’t eaten very much this morning and having my shoulders pulled behind my back sometimes makes me nauseous and dizzy anyway. I don’t quite fall over.
Mr. Hardmeat reacts without apparent annoyance. He just gets me out of the bondage. When I tell him that laying on the floor for a bit will be really good for me, he helps me down. Embarrassed, I apologize profusely. He brushes over my apologies and suggests that I eat a bigger breakfast in the future. When I tell him I am all right to stand again, he tells me to relax for a bit longer. I feel good about his reaction.
I get through the second scene without nausea or feeling like my limits are being approached, though I learn that wearing a ball gag hurts my jaw.
Scene three is fucking machine, Hitachi, and cattle prod, and he tells me that it goes until I’m done. Scene three is weird and intense. It’s difficult for me to get off, because I can’t concentrate on any one sensation, because I’m tied down and can’t move with the machine, or adjust its angle. Mr. Hardmeat keeps zapping me with the cattle prod, interrupting any progress I’ve made towards coming. So, I do something I’ve never done in real life: I fake orgasms until the real thing eventually arrives. It’s easy because I’m blindfolded and gagged. I don’t feel bad about faking it.
The final scene is Mr. Hardmeat’s signature move. Most of his videos seem to end this way: he’s going to put a plastic bag over my head. We do it in stages and I end up having the bag on my head nine or ten times. He holds it on with his hands (“for that ‘bag-held-on-head-with-hands look’”) until I safeword or he can tell that I’m experiencing real panic. This is neither a very safe, nor competent way to play with breath, but the panic, he explains to me, is important. It’s really what looks good on camera. If models could just look really panicked without the lack of oxygen and the terror of inhaling a plastic bag, well, “there’d be no need for bag.”
This scene actually ends up being the most fun. We talk a lot in between the baggings, because I’m terrified of them. He uses the word “bag,” most often without articles, like a proper noun. He jokes with me that “you love Bag, I can tell.” “Well, I’m not a therapist, but I think that Bag is therapeutic. I put a bag on your head, and I take it off and you’re okay, so you learn that you can have a bag on your head without anything bad happening.” And “okay, time for slobbery Bag again.” Somehow, altering between sharp fear, relief and wonderful air, and the repetition of “Bag” jokes ends up being a pretty good time.
I’ve had Bag on my head six or so times when Mr. Hardmeat tells me that I should struggle less and less from now on. After that, he’ll take the bag off my head and I’m to just sort of lie back against the St. Andrew’s cross I’m on and “die.” Then he’ll do some body pans.
It is only at this moment that I realize the video I’m shooting would end in my “death.” I wonder instantly if I should have expected this, given the endings of the clips he showed me. I’m uncomfortable acting out my own murder, I don’t want to participate in this kind of porn. But I don’t think to refuse. I don’t want to ruin his scene, I’m too surprised to think quickly on my feet, the coercion of money, and pure momentum, are all elements of why I don’t say no right then. It is only later that I really come to regret my consent.
But the baggings finish. I “die.” The camera pans slowly over my naked body, my eyes wide.
And we’re done.
My work with Mr. Hardmeat is different from any other kink I’ve done because I can’t talk to him. I can’t tell him that everything is fine, but I’d prefer if he switched to my other breast for now, or that he is getting close to my limit with one activity, but it would work if he did something else, or that I’ve just barely learned that I really hate being cattle prodded just under my butt, or even, god forbid, that I like something and want him to continue. I also spent enough time blindfolded that, if something was coming that I really didn’t want, I couldn’t safeword in anticipation. I could only do so afterward. My options were just two: suck it up, or safe out. I’m uncomfortable being limited to only those options.
I wonder if this is a problem with other BDSM pornographers, or if Mr. Hardmeat just happens to be pretty bad at negotiations. With better pre-scene communication, we might not need to talk in-scene. I’d have the same limitations, but those limitations would be less constraining. It’s even possible that someone else might work with me to find things that I like and would sell well. And, hey, I might not die at the end, either.
With the scenes over, I dress and Mr. Hardmeat has me fill out some paperwork. He then hands me a cheque. Brick Hardmeat pays between $2-400 for non-boy/girl BDSM. I’m pleased to note that I’ve earned the full amount and amused that Mr. Hardmeat’s handwriting is such that it’s unclear if I’m being paid for “acting” or “action.” Despite this,an earlier reference of Hardmeat’s to the fact that I am nice to work with because I don’t use my safeword “every five minutes” like some models leaves me worrying about how I’d feel if I worked with him again and needed to safeword for non-health reasons. Two hundred dollars for three hours of awkwardness and uncomfortable, painful work is way less sweet than four.
Mr. Hardmeat is kind enough to drop me off at home. I am quite sore, physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally stable. The scenes I did weren’t fun for me and I didn’t have a good time doing them. At best, they were interesting. They weren’t particularly bad, though, either. They just weren’t for me.
I’m concerned about Mr. Hardmeat’s poor communication and the necessity of giving him carte blanche. I’m very uncomfortable with the implications of some of what I did. But, personally, I feel accomplished. The scenes I did were tough and highly physical. They felt like work and I did a good job. After all, I only cried once, and that was after taking a cattle prod to my genitals. I know now that I’m strong enough to do this sort of work, even when it involves doing things I’ve never done before and things that frighten me. That knowledge is empowering. It feels good to know that I could do this sort of work again.
I’m officially a badass now, I know. And, damn. Feels good to be a badass.
When I got home, the first thing I did was take a long nap. The second was start to write about my experience with Mr. Hardmeat. In writing, reflecting, and talking to my partner, my feelings of unease at my death crystallized and blossomed into fully-fledged moral condemnation.
Once they did, it was hard for me to justify them to myself. I definitely felt like what I’d done was wrong. Really, actually wrong, not just icky or not my kink. That’s a foreign feeling for me. In the land of BDSM we have this acronym (because we are all about acronyms): YKINMK. It stands for “your kink is not my kink,” and means both that and “your kink is okay.” In general, I believe pretty strongly in YKINMK, despite how stupid it looks typed out. Just because I don’t like something, even if it grosses me out or upsets me it’s not my place to judge people doing it safely and consensually. What I felt about my death not only went against that, but called into question everything else I’d done. Why was the faux-snuff not okay, when I felt all right about aping non-consensual violence? And against a woman, no less.
It was especially confusing because I’d been dead on camera before, and I stood, and still stand, by it. I think it’s one of the closest things I’ve done to making real art. In the photos, I’m glamorous and haunting. Sometimes my eyes are open, accusatory. I’m not sure if it’s what the photographer intended, but I’ve felt like those images present serious tension between sexiness and death. They exist in dialogue with images of glamorized violence.
And that helped me to discern the difference. Everything I did with regard to violence and non-consent is different from my deaths. But what matters is the way my first death differed from my second: everything else I’ve done was fetishized, as was the first death. The second death was only eroticized. I think the difference between these two things is titanic yet subtle.
When we fetishize something, we hold it to the light. We admire it, even if we also despise it. We find things to love in it, things to covet. When we fetishize something, we love it. It’s that moment when we see a foot and think to ourselves about how elegant and beautiful it is, and oh what we’d like to to/with that foot.
When we eroticize something, we merely smash sex into it. It’s a murder scene in a slasher movie where somebody’s breasts are out and bouncing around like nothing’s wrong. Most fetishization is also eroticization, but those streets don’t go both ways.
We fetishize a lot of objectively horrible things. Rape, torture, humiliation, incest, Nazis. And all of those things are and can be eroticized, too. We can do either to anything, but something cool happens when we fetishize rather than only eroticize: we talk. We talk about what we think is hot. We examine it. We contextualize it within our lives. We make something deliberate out of external horrors. We make it ours. We erect ways to do it, or to come as close as we can, safely. We engage with it explicitly and thoughtfully. We consider matters of consent and health, both physical and mental. And through discourse, we destroy fear. We make light of terror and pain. We rob these things of their real power.
Only a very small number of people have actually fetishized death. The vast majority of us lack the scaffolding on which to erect eroticized death scenes that aren’t just that: the eroticization, sans fetishization, of awful violence. Fetishization is the only thing that can make the eroticization of the horrific acceptable. And we just don’t do that with death very often.
And maybe we never will. Maybe we can’t rob death of its power like we can rob pain, and maybe that’s okay. I mean, it’s death. It’s kind of a big deal. But until or unless we erect the discursive structures necessary to even make light of it, or begin to love it in the way that we love what we fetishize, it will remain violence, will remain wrong. And I will not participate in it again.
My first death may not have defanged death, but it made death into something beautiful. It made my body, a corpse, into something lovely and eerie. It may not have taken ownership of death, but it found something within death to cherish. It was liebestod. My second death was brutal and exploitative. Death was not coveted, but inflicted, not examined, but brandished. I reject my second death, but I’ll keep the first.
Photo—Ophelia, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, public domain