James Deen Stoya rape accusations: The porn star was never a feminist idol.

James Deen Was Never a Feminist Idol. Women Invented Him, and Now Women Can Cast Him Aside.

James Deen Was Never a Feminist Idol. Women Invented Him, and Now Women Can Cast Him Aside.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 1 2015 11:39 AM

James Deen Was Never a Feminist Idol

Women cast the porn star—now accused of sexual assault—in their fantasies. They can just as easily cast him out.

151130_DX_James-Deen-Stoya
James Deen has managed to siphon off some of the feminist credentials of the array of truly dazzling women he’s associated himself with, including Stoya.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images.

James Deen—the porn industry’s boy next door, the toast of Tumblr, the international sexual sensation who earned plaudits from Bret Easton Ellis and Lorde—built his career on the back of a thousand naughty GIFs. It only took a couple of tweets to tear it all down.

Stoya is a porn actress, a performance artist, an essayist, and Deen’s ex-girlfriend; she was just the first woman to publicly accuse Deen of sexual assault, in the pair of tweets posted on Saturday. On Monday morning, two more porn performers—Ashley Fires and the since-retired Tori Lux—joined her in telling their own stories of being abused by Deen. Both alleged incidents occurred at work, both just behind the scenes of major porn studio sets, both to women who barely knew Deen when he approached them unexpectedly as they dressed (in one case) or showered (in another) after a shoot. That afternoon, a writer identifying herself only by her initials, T.M., told LAist that she, too, had been assaulted by Deen, at a hotel party in 2009. Deen has countered the accusations with some tweets of his own: “There have been some egregious claims made against me on social media,” he wrote on Sunday. “I want to assure my friends, fans and colleagues that these allegations are both false and defamatory. … I respect women and I know and respect limits both professionally and privately.” Through his lawyer, Deen declined to comment further.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Advertisement

Many of Deen’s associates have already heard enough. The BDSM and fetish porn site Kink.com, which cast Deen in hundreds of scenes over the past 10 years, dumped him from its roster. The porn company Evil Angel suspended sales of Deen scenes. Sex toy maker Doc Johnson ceased production on a dildo molded to Deen’s proportions. Pop feminist site the Frisky, which hosted Deen’s iterant, off-the-cuff advice column, canceled all future installments. Oh Joy Sex Toy, the erotic online comic that once lauded Deen as “the porn industry’s current ladies man of choice” and “the personification of sexy charm,” revoked its endorsement and encouraged Deen’s fans to revise their masturbation material in light of recent events. Joanna Angel, the alt-porn director who has worked with Deen and dated him, tweeted in support of Stoya: “He’s dead on the inside and dead to me,” she wrote. “He’s literally the worst person I’ve ever met.”

If this is not the end of Deen’s career, it certainly marks the conclusion of his online-feminist-idol stage. Stoya’s tweets unleashed “a flurry of people expressing disappointment, shock, and a sense of betrayal,” the writer and queer pornographer Kitty Stryker wrote on Medium, as Deen “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.” Mic lamented that “Deen is the closest thing to a Male Feminist the mainstream porn world has—which makes the accusations against him all the more jarring.” As one online observer put it, “Looks like another self proclaimed ‘male feminist’ and ally is anything but.”

This disillusionment is valid and understandable. I feel it. I’ve sat in Deen’s house, listened to him describe his persona as “nonthreatening,” and quoted him on it in a magazine. But it’s also worth investigating just how Deen rose to the heights of feminist acclaim in the first place. If it were all a PR offensive, it wouldn’t have been a very coherent one. On his blog, he wrote about turning down porn scenes he found a little bit too “rapey,” but on Twitter, he joked about rape. A lot. And he’s repeatedly disavowed the feminist label. In 2013, he told a reporter: “Why am I not a feminist? Because ... I have a penis.” In 2014: “Absolutely not ... I don’t know, I’m a dude … I think there’s a lot of really bad people in the feminist movement. And I think that it is just, uh, I just don’t care.” In 2015: “ I don’t associate with any ism. I don’t like isms.” When Observer reporter Jordyn Taylor interviewed Deen over lunch in 2014, she already knew how Deen answered the feminist question, and yet she posed it again, and when he replied as expected, she was so disappointed that she seethed through the rest of the exchange, “eating my salad as calmly as possible in a way that I hoped concealed my growing fury.”

James Deen has always been the least essential element of the James Deen phenomenon. In the summer of 2011, I drove to his sprawling San Fernando Valley mansion to interview him about his work. I found him to be open but not exactly deep. He had little interest in analyzing his own career or interrogating the norms of his industry. I mean: His personal blog was largely dedicated to women’s buttholes. Considerably more interesting was the crew of rebellious young women and teen girls who had led me to Deen’s door. Adolescent boys have long been welcomed to explore their sexuality in semipublic scenarios, whether through a filched nudie magazine or a late-night group Skinemax viewing or a passed-around porn link, but even in today’s “porn culture,” girls are not similarly encouraged to get together and watch sexy men do sexy stuff. So these girls created an outlet of their own: They scanned the porn movies that were made to service their male peers, fixated on an actually-kinda-cute guy who wasn’t supposed to be the focus of the scene, and transported him to Tumblr, where they cut his movies down to the few tantalizing seconds that focused squarely on his body. They translated them into GIFs and set them on endless loops.

Advertisement

Yes, Deen’s fans would point out all the special little details in Deen’s performances that made him stand out from the male porn star pack—his scruffy and scrawny looks, his penetrating eye contact, the way he whispered secret messages in his partner’s ear. But let’s be honest: The bar he had cleared was not set particularly high. To me, it was more impressive that these women had surveyed a pornographic landscape made for men and managed to pluck him from the scenery, pick up these signals, and build their own fandom around him. “He’s like a porno gateway drug,” one Tumblr admirer told me in 2012. “His online presence is an excuse to discuss him in polite company without referencing porn specifically.”

It’s not that James Deen appeals to women—in the face of extreme erotic scarcity, women molded Deen into someone who appealed to them. For many of them, Deen was little more than just a conduit for expressing their sexuality, or a key to an online erotic world that had previously been closed. Soon, many of them found that the greatest benefit of fangirling over Deen was getting to meet all the other fangirls. “Finding a fellow fan of your favorite performer is kinda like when you meet someone who loves your favorite band. You share a special bond and stick together like a family,” a Deenager named Jade told me in 2012. “We always have each others’ backs.” That is subversive. They are the feminist icons.

As soon as these girls launched Deen to mainstream recognition, however, they were recast into minor supporting roles in Deen’s narrative.  In magazine stories and television specials (and in one case, a porn parody of a television special starring Deen himself called Channel 69: Breaking Nudes), they were recast either as hypersexual groupies or innocent victims trapped under his torrid pornographic spell. Nightline drummed up a Deenager exposé in early 2012 that began: “For any parent concerned about what their teen does online, the huge popularity of the young man you are about to meet may be deeply disturbing.” It spent the next six minutes stoking fears about porn-watching teenage girls but failed to actually interview anyone under 20. Meanwhile, Deen was being heralded as some kind of god among men. Shortly after I published my profile of Deen and his fans, an editor at GQ told me the magazine liked my story so much that it had commissioned a man to write his own version. Wells Tower shadowed Deen on set in a bid to uncover “the secret of his success” with women and give “the nation's gentlemen” a taste of “what it would be like to be able to bed an infinite rotating population of beautiful women”—in short, to recast Deen in a male fantasy. Neil Strauss invited Deen onto his podcast and gave him a signed copy of his pickup artist manual The Game, bound in leather molded after the actual Holy Bible. Tortured chronicler of anxious masculinity Bret Easton Ellis wrote a role for Deen in his limp psychosexual thriller The Canyons and said he bonded with the porn star over “the unearned feminist hysteria we both received at certain points in our careers.”

Feminist commentators worked a similar game from a different angle. The idea that Deen himself is a feminist icon is another side effect of a media narrative that warped his fans beyond recognition and erased all the truly subversive work they did to make him a star. Credit for the community they created was transferred to Deen himself. Deen has also managed to siphon off some of the feminist credentials of the array of truly dazzling women he’s associated himself with. He’s gotten Twitter love from Lorde and starred in Web videos alongside the rising feminist YouTube star Gaby Dunn. And he’s dated women who brightened his image just by standing by his side. Joanna Angel has a Rutgers degree and a Margaret Atwood tattoo, and is a fierce pioneer for both the alt-porn movement and for lady bosses in the porn industry. (She launched her own Web porn outfit, Burning Angel, in 2002). Then there’s Stoya, a writer of wise personal essays and sharp op-eds who brazenly identifies as a feminist and recently launched her own porn site, too. Her power coupling with Deen raised his profile among feminist-aligned young women to dizzying new heights, even if the boost was not exactly earned. As New York magazine writer Marin Cogan tweeted Sunday, “What if our feminist porn star hero was *gasp* a woman?”

Now, Deen’s fans are realizing that they were the ones who wrote James Deen into their fantasies, and they can write him out of them. Many have already removed Deen from their psychosexual Rolodexes. On Tumblr, well-trafficked porn blogs have cast Deen out of their collective spank bank, blacklisting his material and erasing his image from their digital archives. One pinned a notice declaring the blog “James Deen Free” from here on out. The “James Deen” Tumblr tag, once pulsing with GIFs that explored Deen from every angle, is now populated by fans announcing that they’ve seen enough. As one Tumblr sex blogger put it in his official kiss-off: “Good riddance, you pretty motherfucker.”