male feminists

Why Women Fell for James Deen

James Deen.
James Deen. Photo: Splash News

“Half of tumblr is apparently gif’s of me and stoya getting it on,” the porn star James Deen wrote in a 2012 blog post. That was right around the time Deen was starting to become known beyond the world of adult entertainment as a porn star that you’d love to hang out with (which, by implication, damned other male performers as ones you wouldn’t want to hang out with). Whether his rising star was due to his sense of humor, his boy-next-door looks, his savvy use of social media, or his outspoken support of sexual consent and communication was the matter of some debate. But dozens of magazine profiles agreed: His fan base was women. Feminists pointed to him as a role model. His younger fans, known as “Deenagers,” followed him on Twitter and shared the aforementioned GIFs — despite his website requiring visitors to be 18 or over.

These days a Tumblr search for “James Deen” is more likely to lead you to a debate about sexual assault than sexy GIFs. A few days ago, his ex-girlfriend — the porn actress, performer, and writer Stoya — tweeted that Deen had held her down, ignored her protests and her safe word, and raped her. The next day, Deen denied it, calling the allegations defamatory. But several other women in the industry have come forward to say that they, too, have been abused by Deen. Several of the reported assaults happened on set, in the workplace.

This news has been particularly upsetting to some of his admirers because Deen was a porn actor that women thought they could feel good about — if only because they knew lots of other women were watching him, too. “The bar he had cleared was not set particularly high,” writes Amanda Hess at Slate. “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 never claimed the feminist mantle himself — his fans did that for him. “I wouldn’t consider myself a feminist,” he told Elle earlier this year. “At the end of the day I want everyone to have the respect that they deserve and to respect people’s civil liberties and rights. I don’t know, maybe I am a fucking feminist!” The equivocation didn’t really matter. Jezebel called him “totally dreamy” in 2013.

Feminists have roundly rejected the Prince Charming myth when it comes to romantic partners, but seem to end up looking for men who exceed their expectations, anyway. Deen was just one of many male celebrities we have been quick to venerate for their supposedly decent feminist politics. These newly minted feminist icons have been thoroughly catalogued, on somewhat-flimsy evidence, in listicles like “28 Famous Men Who Prove You Don’t Need To Be A Woman To Be A Feminist”! “26 Times Celebrity Men Stood Up For Feminism”! “11 Male Celebs Who Are Proud Feminists”! These lists are generally culled from interviews on other topics, as the “Are you a feminist?” question is rarely posed to men — while it is routinely posed to women. The answers, while often heartwarming, are a far cry from the radical feminist theory we type over the top of Ryan Gosling’s face.

Women are desperate for prominent, positive male-feminist examples. But saying the right things doesn’t make you an icon. It makes you someone who’s in line with the mainstream politics of the moment. Yet, even if you don’t call yourself a feminist, we’re happy to offer generous interpretations of your interview comments about how you love strong women. As part of the larger project of branding feminism as cool and consent as sexy, there is a tactical appeal to anointing certain men as “good ones.” One study showed that Ryan Gosling memes made men more feminist. It’s legitimate to want to correct misconceptions about feminism and demonstrate that there’s not just one way to support gender equality. But it can go horribly wrong when the men you’ve anointed don’t just fail to meet the ideal but are revealed to actively oppose it.

Deen is a pretty extreme example, but this plays out in smaller ways all the time. Jon Stewart delivered many Daily Show segments decrying sexism, but employed basically no women writers on his show. You can probably think of countless examples in your own life of men who say the right things but whose private behavior is far from feminist. Obviously there is a huge difference between not hiring women and assaulting them: These acts are not comparable. But the point is that they are actions, not words. “Thinking about my own dating history, some of my most fucked up relationships were with men who talked the talk,” writes queer pornographer and writer Kitty Stryker. “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.”

Or we’re so distracted when we hear men say the right words about feminism that we don’t bother to assess the behavior that accompanies them. Sometimes that’s because we don’t know about the behavior — this stuff happens in private, and doesn’t often come up in interviews. It doesn’t organize neatly into click-friendly listicles. But sometimes it’s because we’re looking the other way, or because we’ve created an environment that makes it hard to contradict the public narrative about men who are perceived to be pretty feminist.

“That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist,” Stoya tweeted. “That thing sucks.” I believe Stoya and the other women who have come forward about Deen, I stand with them, and I think they are incredibly brave. The fact is, Deen is well-liked, whereas women who work in the sex industry are typically distrusted and reviled. I find myself asking today whether our pseudo-feminist veneration of Deen made it even harder for those women to speak their truth.

After Deen denied the allegations, many fans leaped to his defense. But many more (to my eye) have allied themselves with Stoya — quickly and unequivocally. Importantly, the porn industry was quick to respond. The site Evil Angel announced it wouldn’t sell any new scenes that featured Deen. Then BDSM porn studio severed all of its ties with Deen, reiterating that consent is a core tenet of the sex industry. “Our performers deserve not only safe sets, but the ability to work without fear of assault,” the studio said in a statement. “Rape or sexual assault, with or without a safe-word, off-set or on, should never be accepted as a hazard of adult production.” It was a sentiment that, were he not the subject of it, one could imagine James Deen expressing. The website the Frisky announced it would no longer publish Deen’s advice column. “I asked him to do an advice column because I liked his directness and his confidence, but most of all, I liked his emphasis on communication, honesty and, most of all, CONSENT,” wrote editor Amelia McDonell-Parry.

In a movement that equates the personal with the political, the stakes for private behavior are high — and the disappointment is deeply felt when someone’s behind-the-scenes actions contradict their purportedly feminist politics. History is littered with such men, from Bill Clinton’s public nods to gender equality and private choices to sexually pursue one of his interns; to writer Hugo Schwyzer and Portland activist Hart Noecker, both accused of abusive behavior even as they championed feminist causes. The rising pressure for men to identify as a feminist, and the rising confidence that women have in speaking out about assault can only mean more examples will be coming, from the celebrity world and elsewhere.

So what are we supposed to do? Not trust any public figures who talk the talk about feminism? Not get excited when our favorite male celebrity says he’s all for equal pay?

Perhaps we need to bring the notion of consent to bear here as well. One of the minor silver linings to the Deen saga is that every one of these women was clear that a line had been crossed, perhaps because of what they do for a living. What if, in the same way that affirmative, enthusiastic consent is necessary for sex, enthusiastic, affirmative feminism in all aspects of life were necessary in order for someone to be considered an ally? I think that’s a good, tough standard for people of all genders. And what if we then looked beyond surface-level quotes that sound great in interviews or look good once they’re reblogged on Tumblr? We need to go deeper than lists of “good” men talking about all the strong women in their lives. For everyone, of every gender, we need to ask, sometimes directly, how do you treat women? Not just women in the abstract, but the women you know and work with every day? And maybe ask some of those women about their experiences directly. The personal is political. We need to start praising celebrity men when they do great things for women rather than say great things about them.