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Channel 4’s Adult Material 2
Hayley Squires in Adult MaterialCourtesy Channel 4

Adult Material is the series offering a rare, nuanced portrayal of sex work

Hayley Squires and Siena Kelly, the stars of Channel 4’s new show, reflect on why it’s so vital to show the mundane side of the porn industry

“I work in the only industry in the world where women get paid more than men,” asserts porn star Hayley Burrows, as she takes her daughter’s judgemental headteacher to task, “and that’s what you can’t tolerate. That a working class woman who left school with two GCSEs is paid three times your wages doing something she’s really good at.”

The line in Channel 4’s new show, Adult Material, is just one of many searing take downs of those who criticise and demonise the sex industry. The four-part series, written and created by Lucy Kirkwood (Skins), offers a rare, nuanced portrayal of sex workers, and tackles vital, and at times uncomfortable, questions about consent.

Starring Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) as seasoned porn star Hayley Burrows (her working name is Jolene Dollar), and Siena Kelly as 19-year-old, novice sex worker Amy, Adult Material gives viewers an insight into the mundane side of sex work – “I love that enemas are part of admin work,” laughs Squires – and offers a three-dimensional portrayal of adult industry workers, who, as Squires says, are often portrayed as “either villains or victims”.

Viewers are exposed to the banality of porn shoots – small talk in between takes, running a social media account on the side, and heading home to cook dinner for your family afterwards – as well as the opulence that the industry can afford you. See: the party mansion owned by Rupert Everett’s character, porn producer Carroll Quinn. Viewers are also encouraged to scrutinise their own ideas of sex and sex work, particularly in relation to consent and accountability.

“What I’d like viewers to take away from (the show) is the fact that regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, nobody deserves to be abused or taken advantage of,” Squires tells Dazed.

Here, Squires and Kelly reflect on why they got involved with Adult Material, the importance of telling these stories, and what it was like visiting a real porn set.

What appealed to you both about Adult Material?

Hayley Squires: Lucy’s (Kirkwood, the show’s creator) writing in the script. When I first read it, I thought it was amazing because she’s telling the story of an industry that none of us really understand, and she does it in a way that doesn’t tell you what to think or feel. What seems to be a secret, secluded world is actually a part of all of our lives.

Siena Kelly: I binge read the scripts so quickly! There weren’t any characters in there who felt like they were just there – everyone was fully formed and three-dimensional. It was really fun playing such real people, where viewers will love certain characters and hate others. I also really wanted to be a part of the conversation of the show. In my research, I was shocked at how little information there was about sex workers in Britain, and it made me realise how prudish we are over here. So I’m glad to be part of something that humanises sex workers.

The show offers a multi-layered portrayal of sex workers, which is rarely seen in the media. Why do you think it’s so important to tell these stories?

Hayley Squires: It’s such a weird thing, isn’t it? Porn is so secretive, and a lot of predetermined judgement happens based on it. In particular, the idea that women enjoy sex or could use their bodies to make money – (the only way) for men to understand this is to portray sex workers as either villains or victims. You’re either the mother, the virgin, or the whore, right? So a really interesting thing about Adult Material is that the characters are living, breathing human beings who don’t spend all their time on a porn set.

“The tone that runs through the whole show centres on the fact that porn is a fantasy. But we went on an actual porn set, and we were like, ‘this is the most ordinary thing’” – Hayley Squires

Adult Material also shows the ‘admin’ side of porn – Jolene is managing her social media account, doing enemas, writing her own scripts – which is a part of sex work that’s never seen.

Hayley Squires: I love that enemas are part of admin work! (Laughs). The tone that runs through the whole show centres on the fact that porn is a fantasy. But we went on an actual porn set, and we were like, ‘this is the most ordinary thing’.

Siena Kelly: It was fucking freezing! (Laughs).

Hayley Squires: Me and Siena were talking to the boys who were part of the crew – there was only a female make-up artist and a female porn star, and the rest were men – and were making eyes at each other thinking, ‘this is unreal’, because these boys were just tech geeks!

Siena Kelly: I felt like I was hanging out with some sixth form boys. It was so unglamorous. People have two perspectives of porn: glamorous or really seedy. Our experience was neither of those. Everyone was really nice to each other, which is (important for people who work in the sex industry) who might be ostracised as social outcasts. Rebecca (Moore, a sex worker who was an advisor on the show) was saying that if you work in porn, someone you know will find out. You have to accept that your family will find out, and that might mean you have to make your own family. It’s a whole group of outcasts who look after each other and care for each other.

How did consent come into play during filming?

Hayley Squires: We had a really brilliant intimacy coordinator called Yarit (Dor). We had about 10 days of rehearsals where we covered everything from our relationships with each other, to choreographing and rehearsing the sex scenes. Yarit gave us really technical advice and movements, on how to make it look real, where to place your leg or your arm, and that kind of thing. She made it very clear that she was there to be with the actors, she said, ‘I don’t work for production, I work for you. I’ll be here to make sure that you’re comfortable with underwear and protection, or anything’. Because we had Yarit, we had the moves and the understanding, then also had someone there supporting and directing it, so we were able to give those scenes emotional content.

Is there anything you learned about the nuances of consent while making Adult Material?

Hayley Squires: No, it was in line with how I felt. Lucy’s scripts are so nuanced and complex, and they come at consent from a number of different angles. What I’d like viewers to take away from it is the fact that regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, nobody deserves to be abused or taken advantage of. But for me, that’s just human morals!

“Regardless of who you are and what you do for a living, nobody deserves to be abused or taken advantage of” – Hayley Squires

There’s a moment in the show when Jolene has to debate her existence on TV, which is something that actually happens a lot to marginalised groups. Why do you think this kind of tactic is still employed?

Hayley Squires: It’s about ownership of control and happens when people don’t fully understand something, or don’t want to fully understand it. Some people are able to function better when they can go, ‘I know that you’re a sex worker, and that means you’re a whore’. It’s about making a subject feel small. The ignorance of it baffles me. They’ve convinced themselves that if these people have any power, then their lives are going to be affected negatively. When in fact, everybody should do their best to go about their own lives.

What do you hope people take away from Adult Material?

Siena Kelly: I hope that people will start looking at porn more critically, and I hope it helps humanise people who work in this industry. I hope it will encourage people to start listening to sex workers, or help them if they need it, instead of punishing them or telling them, ‘you joined the industry, so how could you be abused?’

Hayley Squires: Yeah, it’s just about bringing it into the light and stopping it being a ‘dirty little secret’. Porn is consumed on such a huge level by so many people that it’s society’s responsibility to help sex workers find regulations and safety within their jobs. 

This interview was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic sent the world into lockdown, and before the urgent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It has been edited and condensed.

Adult Material premieres on Channel 4 tonight (October 5) at 10PM