Why straight male porn stars can never be feminist heroes

Porn stars like James Deen should not be given a platform in the feminist movement.

Internet Culture

Published Dec 3, 2015   Updated Feb 29, 2020, 3:07 pm CST

Numerous accounts alleging sexual abuse by straight male porn star James Deen have emerged in the past few days since his ex-girlfriend Stoya first went public with her own story of abuse on Twitter.

This is the same James Deen who was formerly the darling of the feminist press, appearing in a number of films winning “Feminist Porn Awards” (NSFW link).

The public momentum of the accounts of abuse by Stoya and now Tori Lux, Ashley Fires, T.M., Amber Rayne and Kora Peters has prompted serious soul-searching in many of the same outlets that enabled Deen’s “sex positive,” consent-oriented image in the first place.

While much of the commentary so far has revolved around the issues of how feminist James Deen is (or isn’t), the problem with male feminists or how men can be more feminist, an important labor issue within the porn industry has been absent from the conversation—the men and women who work together in porn do not perform sexual labor together as co-equals, but, historically, work in roles characterized by gendered inequality, a situation wherein abusive dynamics are easily normalized.

Heterosexual male porn actors have a role in the sex industry unlike any other: They perform what appears to be sexual labor, but their bodies are not the object of the male consumer’s sexual interest. Though many women are exposed to and watch porn, it is very rare for women to pay for pornography. The adult industry is almost entirely fueled by the purchasing power of men. Accordingly, when men perform sexual labor for consumption as sexual labor, it occurs outside the context of heterosexuality. As porn producer Joshua Lehman said:

“Even James Deen. You may see him in every movie, but do you see him at the center of a box? I don’t think so. If you put a man in the foreground on a box cover, male and female customers are going to assume it’s gay porn.”

That James Deen achieved prominence through a primarily female fandom was therefore an anomaly, both within the adult industry and for Deen himself, who, Lehman goes onto say, would more commonly serve as a “prop” in porn. The typical role of male talent in straight porn is to act as a surrogate for the straight male consumer in the mediation of the sexual labor of the women in porn—women who these consumers might in another context pay to see as strippers or escorts. It is in this sense that the male porn star in the heterosexual scene is a “prop,” an anonymized figure with whom the viewer can identify.

The typical role of male talent in straight porn is to act as a surrogate for the straight male consumer in the mediation of the sexual labor of the women in porn—women who these consumers might in another context pay to see as strippers or escorts.  

It follows that straight male performers in porn have less earnings potential than gay porn performers or women. They aren’t “sex workers;” they don’t perform the same kind of sexual labor. Straight male porn stars simply consume sexual labor on camera to facilitate the home viewer’s experience of enjoying said labor vicariously—mediated through digital content.

This economic reality is reflected in the language James Deen uses in his Twitter bio:

“my name is james i am a simple guy who likes to eat sleep and watch tv… oh ya i also bang chicks for a living :-)”

That he describes, with intended humor, his occupation as “bang[ing] chicks for a living” (which, in and of itself, is sexually objectifying) and lists it alongside activities like eating, sleeping and watching TV indicates that he thinks of his work as another form of consumption or leisure. A similar phrase with the genders reversed—“I have sex with men for money”—would not likely have comedic value to most audiences, because such a phrase describes an activity more readily parsed as work, not consumption or leisure. So not only do straight male porn stars have a role in the industry that involves consumption, but James Deen seems to be very much aware of this fact.

The historical development of the sex industry and the evolution of institutionalized rape (or “rape culture”) are inexorably linked. As Silvia Federici notes of the European Middle Ages in her book Caliban and the Witch, “efforts were made by the political authorities to co-opt the youngest and most rebellious male workers, by…access to free sex…[T]he municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class.” Regarding the fate of survivors, she continues, “[women] could not easily regain their place in society. Their reputation being destroyed, they would have to leave town or turn to prostitution.” Parallelling this development, “Another aspect…municipal authorities pursued to diffuse workers’ protest was the institutionalization of prostitu­tion, implemented through the opening of municipal brothels.”

The sex industry, therefore, has developed for a very long time in a feedback loop with rape culture, the latter reproducing the former by filling its ranks and both fulfilling a compatible social agenda. Inevitably these institutions have served to expand the size of the lower classes as well, with the lack of access to contraception and abortion during much of history generating additional reproductive labor for affected women (especially notable in the context of slavery in the Americas). The rape culture ideas surrounding sex workers—the lack of bodily autonomy implied by the proposition that sex workers are incapable of being raped—developed in this historical context.

This attitude of entitlement to reproductive labor and denial of sex workers’ bodily autonomy is evident in MMA fighter War Machine’s claim during his trial for sexual assault and attempted murder that it was impossible for him to rape his porn star ex-girlfriend as well as in the narratives of sexual abuse of porn stars off-set about professional sex work consumers like James Deen. That rape culture continues to generate economic value for the adult industry—and the role of male talent in extracting that value—is especially apparent in the account of Kora Peters, who alleges that after James Deen raped her on set, “The crew all high-fived [Deen] and told him what a great job he did getting an anal scene for the price of a boy/girl scene.”

There absolutely are male sex workers with experiences relevant to a feminist understanding of the sex industry: rentboys, gay porn performers and other men who are sexually objectified in their work. Men like James Deen should not have ever been given a platform in the feminist movement, not because they are bad “male feminists,” but because they occupy a position in the sex industry where they are necessarily complicit in the objectification of women, that gives them power over said women—and they willfully abuse that power.

Rebeka Refuse is an adult entertainer and moderates Trans Housing Network. She can be found on Twitter or Tumblr at @jobhaver.

 Illustration by Max Fleishman 

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*First Published: Dec 3, 2015, 5:34 pm CST