I haven’t watched Backdoor Teen Mom, the 70-minute pornographic film starring MTV Teen Mom reality star Farrah Abraham and porn star James Deen that was released by Vivid Entertainment this week. But I’ve been following the media narrative around the video obsessively, and the reports spurting out of TMZ play like a whodunit of sexual shaming: Who can be blamed for this porn they all made?
Here’s what happened: Abraham approached the adult entertainment company Vivid to make a porn flick. They arranged to present the flick as a leaked sex tape; they’d pretend the male actor was Abraham’s boyfriend. But after the tape was “leaked,” James Deen, the male lead, refused to lie. When asked, he confirmed he and Abraham were not dating. Abraham retaliated by telling tabloids that Deen “does not respect women” and adding, of his penis: “I haven’t seen many, but his is definitely not big.” When he failed to respond in kind—his demonstrably enormous penis speaks for itself—Abraham announced that she had received a “threatening” email from a person claiming to be Deen. (It was not). Upon the film’s release, Abraham tweeted, “I can't believe the one time I have sex in the past year has turned in to this #UNREAL,” then retweeted a stream of positive reviews from viewers. The actress reportedly earned six figures for her pornographic and tabloid performances.
The interesting thing about this inane story is the audience for the tabloid plotline and the accompanying video. Backdoor Teen Mom is the rare mainstream porn flick targeted at young women, the group that composes the fandoms of both James Deen and Teen Mom. (As Deen revealed in an interview this week, the film was also directed by a woman). Its target viewers are even more interested in the fraught sexual context of the film than they are its actual sexual content.
Young women may not typically buy porn—on the Internet, they don’t have to—but they’re more socially invested in it than any other group of viewers. On the constantly refreshing hive mind that is the James Deen Tumblr tag, fans trade Deen quotes, fully-clothed photos, and industry gossip as frequently as they do actual porn clips. A lot of that talk is dedicated to picking apart the sexual shaming that’s heaped on women who produce porn, and those who admit to watching it. Deen earned his female fan base not just for being an attractive guy who’s good in bed, but through his unrelenting positivity about the work that he does, the women he does it with, and the people who watch. “I just wanted to do my job and make a good porno,” Deen said after the tabloid machine had painted him as a bad man with a small dick. “I don’t want to perpetuate negativity.” Contrary to the stereotype, women don’t require horny-pizza-boy plotlines in their porn—the fact that they’re enjoying porn at all creates its own compelling story.
The tension of sexual shaming is also built into MTV’s reality show 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off, Teen Mom, though the takeaway is less empowering. “College students, according to all reports, form a hefty and reliable part of the Teen Mom audience,” the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Gina Barreca wrote of the show. She quotes an anonymous MTV insider who explains that those viewers watch to get a better understanding of the quasi-realities of unplanned teen pregnancies, but also to “experience the delights of genuine Schadenfreude … to think that the girls who perhaps were more popular in high school and did not study or take practice SAT’s are now having a really lousy time.”
With Backdoor Teen Mom, Vivid and TMZ have crudely slammed all of those cultural messages together—a Teen Mom claiming to have a really lousy time with a porn star known for making women feel sexually empowered. The Internet has made porn more accessible and acceptable than ever, but it's also collapsed the old business model for mainstream porn companies. In response, they are trolling us. So far, that's paid off for Vivid—the company claims to have attracted 2 million clicks within 12 hours of the video’s release—but at some point, this story will get old, too. “Ugh. I am tired of all the drama,” Deen said. “There are a lot of very amazing, confident mothers who make porno all the time.”