We need to talk about the ever increasing number of men like James Deen who utilize feminism as a marketable identity to cover up their abusive behavior.
When performer and writer Stoya tweeted that her ex, porn darling James Deen, had ignored her safewords and raped her, I have to admit I was not terribly surprised. As someone in the industry, I had heard rumors that he was not necessarily safe to work with, something that made me raise my eyebrow at his work around consent, but nothing specific I could point to. Another ex girlfriend, Joanna Angel, tweeted in support of Stoya, who has not returned to Twitter since her statement. Deen and his PR team have been notably silent.
Her two tweets gave rise to the hashtag #solidaritywithstoya, and a flurry of people expressing disappointment, shock, and a sense of betrayal. He was supposed to be “one of the good guys”- after all, Deen has spent some time cultivating a brand as a male feminist in the porn industry. He’s been actively a part of Project Consent, even. He’s mad about racism in the industry. He’s been called “the acceptable face of porn” and hailed as being a male porn star women can feel good about watching because he’s just so ethical.
Some people are already using this situation as proof that porn is abusive. I do believe that we need to discuss how the intersection of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy entwine to create a particularly toxic environment in the sex industry, one of the only industries where an entry level “position” will usually pay women a much higher rate than men. People in the industry who have experienced rape, abuse, and coercion tend to stay silent for fear of losing work (such as was seen with Kink.com a couple years ago). People who do speak up are often harassed, victim-blamed, and blown off as being “drama”. Production companies and directors, including many cool “feminist” ones, have the policy that if it didn’t happen on set, it’s not their problem. This is absolutely an issue and one that needs to be discussed and addressed seriously, not just for ethical reasons (though that should be good enough) but for workers rights reasons.
Expand this out to “sex positivity” in general and I can tell you that when I was taking stories for Consent Culture about abuse in BDSM, many of the repeat offenders were “pillars of the community”, leaders, workshop presenters, party hosts. As long as only cis white men have the power to have sex without consequence, and as long as we ignore the impact of privilege on sexual capital and agency, I believe that the misuse of the term “sex positivity” has the potential to be a shield that protects abusers from being held accountable.
However, I do not want us to forget that we have seen this behavior before, in environments that have nothing to do with the sex industry, or even with sex at all. Remember Hugo Schwyzer? Or Hart Noecker? Or Kyle Payne? All supposed and self-identified male feminists, allies, social justice writers and activists. All accused of rape and/or abuse of women behind closed doors.
This is not about sex. This is about power. And that power, mixed with toxic masculinity, is a poison that affects all aspects of life, not just the sex industry. While the sex industry cannot and should not ignore this, and need to stop pretending that porn is not political, the underlying issue is far more widespread.
I want to add that this is also, in my opinion, about how much we value and encourage narcissism when we talk about how men should behave. These men all seemingly share narcissistic tendencies, whether they are diagnosable as such or not. Many of them (if not all) refuse to give up their space to signal boost voices more marginalized than theirs, something that would demonstrate them acting as allies. And many of them make a point of how vulnerable they are, how troubled, in order to ensure that caregivers are drawn to them like a moth to a flame. They can feed off of a caregiver’s empathy while ensuring that caregiver (most often a woman) doubts her own mind when she begins to worry that maybe she’s being manipulated.
Thinking about my own dating history, some of my most fucked up relationships were with men who talked the talk. The ex who threw me down a flight of stairs and terrorized me (and his mother) by throwing plates was heavily invested in feminist activism, spending most of his time volunteering for feminist spaces. The ex who used his sexual capital to keep his (often less privileged) lovers feeling insecure and unstable, who then gaslit and neglected them when confronted? He said all the right things about institutionalized racism and sexism. I stayed in these relationships because I believed they were invested in fighting oppression, excused their manipulations and their emotional abuse as their mental health issues I just needed to be patient with. Perhaps they were trying to redress the imbalances of their privilege… but they certainly leaned heavily enough on it when it served them.
In one situation I was encouraged to be “careful” about what I said, because he was “more private” than I am. In the other I was threatened if I spoke out. Men who center social justice as part of their core identity can become very dangerously defensive if their actions are critiqued. They become dependent on the women in their lives to cover for them so they don’t lose their feminist cred- and so they demand our silence. Dare I say, they depend on our own understanding of the failures of the prison industrial complex, the ways in which patriarchy hurts men, to keep us from shattering their facade. To speak out anyway is terrifying and necessary, and I hope that Stoya has all the support she needs to speak her truth and begin to heal.
As for you men- want to do something about it? Talk to other men. Listen to marginalized people and their experiences, even if (perhaps especially when) the man accused “seems like a nice guy” or “is a friend”. You need to confront each other. You need to speak up when you see street harassment. You need to shut down rape jokes. You need to tell other men that talking about women like we’re sexual prizes to be won is not ok.