Duncan Bayne

How ESR is wrong about the casting couch

November 24, 2017

ESR is someone with whose opinions on programming I usually agree with, and with whose opinions on politics I often agree. I’ve chatted with him on a few occasions by email, and consider him to be a (very) smart, personable, and moral individual. He’s someone I’d be keen to befriend if we moved in similar circles. This is important context.

As usual, I’m more than happy to discuss this position by email. With permission, I’ll amend this post with any interesting rebuttal or discussion.


ESR recently opined that the “casting couch” phenomenon may in some cases represent a consensual trade:

It’s exactly because Weinstein is a contemptible blob of muck that we need to be extra careful about asking that one question: should we condemn the consensual behavior of Weinstein and J. Random Starlet trading sex for a shot at the big time?

I’m not comfortable with treating the women in those restaurant scenes as helpless victims. Yes, I’ll stipulate that Weinstein had victims, the women he groped and raped. But a woman who has dolled herself up and is visibly flirting with a man is not a helpless victim; she’s in a dance she could easily end, and if she doesn’t it’s because she’s fishing for something she wants.

In the sense of legal consent, I do agree with ESR: exchanging sex for, say, a movie role shouldn’t be in and of itself illegal, for much the same reasons as other forms of prostitution shouldn’t be illegal.

But that behaviour (on the part of both parties) fails several other hurdles. Specifically, it’s neither ethical nor professional to solicit or accept sex in exchange for favours in business, nor is it ethical or professional to offer it. (Although I would argue that on a scale of transgressions, the former is considerably worse than the latter. I’ll focus on the former here for that reason). It is also literally dangerous.

To avoid accidental strawmen, let’s consider the best-case scenario I can think of: a single, healthy, studio head accepts an offer from a single, healthy, would-be star: sex in exchange for a potentially breakthrough role. The studio head accepts, the sex is had, the role is granted, the movie is an unqualified hit, and the would-be star becomes an actual star. No regrets are had by any party involved.

This is still unprofessional, unethical, and dangerous.

Unprofessional: professionals are supposed to be rational, goal-oriented individuals who act in the best interests of their clients. A studio head should be hiring stars based on their performance as actors, either current, future (in the case of franchises), or potential (in the case of would-be stars). Offering a role to a would-be star based on his or her willingness to exchange sex for the role is at best a flagrant breach of the client’s trust, and at worst professionally negligent. In addition, it exposes the professional and the client to extensive legal and reputational liability.

There is no upside here.

Imagine how you’d feel if a software project you were working on floundered, and during post-mortem, it came out that the tech lead hired a junior candidate because that candidate offered sex during the interview. How do you think that would go for everyone concerned, even if the candidate would otherwise have been a stellar hire? The movie industry is no different. Humans don’t get to be less rational in some fields than in others.

Granted, in our hypothetical movie scenario the project didn’t flounder, but it’s the unprofessional, irrational nature of the risk that is the issue.

Unethical: unoriginally (they’re Rand’s) I consider the main virtues to be: rationality, honesty, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. Building a culture where exchanging sex for work in the aforementioned manner falls down on several of every single one of those virtues:

Dangerous: this is the subtlest but the most significant problem. Some relevant statistics:

In addition to the ethical and professional compromises, a culture that allows hiring managers to accept sex for employment is literally a dangerous culture. I can’t point to studies backing this up, but my strong suspicion is that promoting the idea that sex is a commodity on the table during commercial transactions will worsen the unsafe working culture prevalent in many industries.

To summarize my position: I think ESR is wrong that the movie industry is a special case, I think that the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon is bad no matter where it crops up, and that it should be stamped out of all professional settings.