The XX Factor

HBO’s Westworld: What’s the Difference Between “Genital-to-Genital Touching” and … Sex?

Evan Rachel Wood plays an inhabitant of a futuristic theme park in  Westworld


Extras currently filming for HBO’s forthcoming Westworld series are facing some unusually taxing demands—or, depending on their dispositions, fringe benefits. Consent agreements from Central Casting informed the background actors that their roles require full nudity, riding people as if they were horses, and performing an abstruse act the casting company calls “genital-to-genital touching.” The list of activities is too titillating not to publish in full:

This document serves to inform you that this project will require you to be fully nude and/or witness others fully nude and participate in graphic sexual situations. By accepting this Project assignment, you may be required to do any of the following: appear fully nude; wear a pubic hair patch; perform genital-to-genital touching; have your genitals painted; 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; ride on someone’s back while you are both fully nude; and other assorted acts the Project may require.

If this listing triggered images of a John Cameron Mitchell–orchestrated orgy to dance in your head, that’s because the sexual activities described in the consent form sound a lot like, well, sex. (FYI, genital-to-genital touching between two people with vaginas has earned the disquietingly sharp term of “scissoring,” which Orange Is the New Black dubbed mythical but which is actually a fine-and-dandy sex act.)

The line between pornography and a film with unsimulated sex often lies less in the actual sexual acts than in the non-sexual parts. Films that feature unsimulated sex, like Mitchell’s Shortbus, aren’t generally thought of as porn if they have substantial artistic and emotional merit. Actors in non-pornographic films, including the Westworld extras, are backed by SAG-AFTRA, a notoriously exacting union with highly specific requirements for sex scenes and nude scenes. The set must be closed; no still photos can be taken without written consent; and, perhaps most importantly, the actors can retract their consent for the scene any time before it’s filmed. For this reason, the Westworld consent agreement is unenforceable. Porn actors, by contrast, have no union or stipulations to protect them on set.

“It’s important that performers understand their rights, especially in circumstances like these that pose a high risk of exploitation,” SAG-AFTRA’s chief communications and marketing officer Pamela Greenwalt told me. “Employers should not be requiring performers to sign consent forms that do not accurately describe their rights under the collective bargaining agreement.”

The premise of Westworld doesn’t offer any immediate clues vis-à-vis the kinds of genital-to-genital touching viewers can anticipate. The series, based on a 1973 sci-fi thriller, takes place in a theme park of the future, where patrons can “kill” and have sex with lifelike androids in a historically accurate reenactment of the old American West. What with the bordellos, the transient gunslingers, and the outfits I’ve witnessed at those old-timey photo studios on the boardwalk, the possibilities for genital-to-genital touching seem endless!

In a 2012 interview, actor Richard Benjamin discussed the skills that helped him get the lead in the 1973 film, and they’re not nearly as strenuous or carnal as what today’s extras must do:

Well, it probably was the only way I was ever going to get into a Western, and certainly into a science-fiction Western. It’s that old thing when actors come out here from New York. [Casting directors] say, “Can you ride a horse?” And you say, “Oh, sure,” and then [you’ve] got to go out quick and learn how to ride a horse. But I did know how to ride a horse!

Today, Benjamin would have had to be the horse and the rider, and do it all in the dusty Western nude.