||You know that old adage that you're never less than six feet from a rat in this world? Thanks to the internet and its related technology, now you can say with some truth that as you go about your day, you will never be less than thirty feet of someone masturbating. With free porn proliferating across the internet for some years now, you don't need to access it the old way, in glossy, wipe-clean magazines taken from sex shops in your local red light district, or, if you don't have one of those near you, the top shelf of your local newsagent's.
In 2019 the journalist Jon Ronson produced a podcast where he investigated the pornography industry called The Butterfly Effect which should have been sobering to the billions who use sex videos every day, but despite it lifting the lid on such matters as the male performers suffering impotence because simple sex didn't turn them on anymore, or the real money being made by videos ordered personally by clients to perform various specific acts other providers may not have even thought of, the industry continued much as it had.
You imagine this would happen after writer Lucy Kirkwood's Adult Material was out in the world as well. This was down to the users of porn not believing themselves to be bad people for watching it, therefore the degradation aspect did not apply to them: if they were going to put a human background on the artistes they were getting off on, then it would not necessarily generate any great sympathy for them. Indeed, for many that would enhance the experience, knowing they were masturbating to men and women being humiliated.
But Kirkwood wanted to delineate that background, while acknowledging this was far from a simple story. While it brings up that poverty can trap people into starring in porn, there was also the uncomfortable fact that a lot of them had been sexually abused as children, leading to a lack of self-worth and deep-seated issues. When you also know that porn stars suffer a fairly high suicide rate, not to mention substance abuse problems, quite apart from the social stigma involved once it is publicised you have been filmed having sex for money, then it's obviously problematic.
Yet there will always be consumers, because consumers mean money, and money drives the industry, as Kirkwood points out again and again in her script over the four episodes. Sexual material has existed since Ancient times, and it's an inescapable fact that however many or few are willing to admit it, there will always be a huge market for pornography, there's just no stopping it, the genie has been out of the bottle for longer than any current porn performer has been alive, even the elderly ones. So the producers would argue they were supplying a basic need.
Kirkwood, with the direction from Dawn Shadforth, does not present her protagonist Hayley Burrows (Hayley Squires) as one of life's victims, however, at least not at first. She is very positive in her attitude and her fans respond to that - we're invited to respond in the same way, for this is an independent career woman we are watching, one who, as she points out, is in the only job where women are paid far more than men. She's having fun, she's in showbiz, and she is not about to be anybody's doormat, as what she gets up to on camera is completely on her own terms.
But then the series begins to chip away at her confidence and position of power, seeing her humiliated in the way that the consumers of porn often like to see women suffer. This is socially as well as sexually: at first we notice she keeps rubbing her eye, which she puts down to hay fever, but the reality is a lot more unpleasant, call it an occupational hazard. At work, she attempts to take a debut performer, Amy (Siena Kelly), under her wing, before losing patience with her naivety and leaving her alone on the set with her regular crew who proceed to possibly take advantage.
The consent thing is paramount, in porn and life, but Adult Material demonstrates it's a difficult thing to prove. We see Hayley's teenage daughter (Alex Jarrett) is in a relationship with a boy her own age, and it's sexual, but what is she to think when she wakes up the next morning after he's stayed over and he is having sex with her while she slept? Is this rape? Should she feel guilty? Isn't this what her mother does for a living? Although very little about the series is explicit other than the language, it's the beginning of unfortunate situations cropping up time and again throughout.
So when it is revealed Amy was coerced - maybe, but there is a consent form she's signed - into having anal sex on camera which caused her to prolapse, it's the trigger for all sorts of dominos to topple, leading to Amy's downfall, which may not be all it seems, and Hayley's as well as she is involved with a lawyer (Kerry Godliman) who as an MP was connected to a porn scandal (so casting the first stone is a tricky business here), but leads to the final episode showdown as this turns into a courtroom drama. All the way through Kirkwood is forcing us to question what we accept.
However, the programme was not so judgemental that it was attempting to shame the audience, most of whom will have orgasmed using pornography at some point in their lives, it was more trying to reframe their sexual fantasies in a healthier, less spiteful and manipulative way. It never let you forget that porn stars were real, living, breathing human beings, and while any one of us can have someone fantasising about us at some point in our existence, especially the women, we should not lose sight of the fact that emotions should not be divorced from the sexual.
And Adult Material did get emotional, it was ruthlessly well-acted, particularly from Squires, but also Rupert Everett as her mentor and mogul who has been clueless in his pursuit of the profits as to how this was affecting his participants. The only folks it castigated were the powerful celebrity of sleaze (Julian Ovenden) who abuses his influence for his satisfaction, and the males who use sex and porn as a method of controlling women and their narrative, be they the camera phone-wielding teens who follow Hayley or the authority figures who betray the trust females have in them. This was assuredly not anti-sex, it was anti-abuse of power, and to illustrate that in the final shot it gives Hayley the present she should have had a very long time ago. Really, this was one of the most honest and insightful dramas of its era, there were laughs, but its benefit was its keen relevancy.
[Adult Material is released on DVD and digital by RLJE International.]