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James Deen and Stoya at The 70th Venice International Film Festival in 2013. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)


James Deen was never a feminist

December 2, 2015

Over the weekend, porn actress, director and writer Stoya broke a month-long Twitter hiatus to share two brief thoughts with her 231,000 followers:

James Deen is the professional name of her ex-boyfriend, 29-year-old Bryan Sevilla, arguably the most famous male star in the porn world. Under his moniker, Deen has starred in thousands of adult films while speaking out about the importance of consent and diversity. He’s been called “porn’s boy next door” for his benign, slender-bodied looks and crossover appeal (he starred alongside Lindsay Lohan in 2013’s The Cayons.) He’s been appropriated as the sex industry’s male feminist hero, but never claimed the designation himself: just last year, Deen told Elle, “I wouldn’t consider myself a feminist.” Now, news that the crowned prince of smut may have assaulted multiple women has ruptured the media-created “good guy” bubble that had encased him.

Stoya’s claims were met with the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityWithStoya and in the days following her accusation, other women have come forward to allege that they, too, have been subjected to predatory behavior by Deen. Adult-film actress Tori Lux told the Daily Beast that Deen brutally beat and sexually assaulted her in front of witnesses in 2011. Ashley Fires also told the Beast that Deen is on her “no list” because he “almost raped” her at San Francisco’s famed porn studios.

A year later, Deen asked her to “stop telling people about it,” Fires claimed. “’Say that I remind you of your brother’ is what he says — his advice to me,” she recalled his having said. A third woman, identified only as T.M. by LAist, claims Deen assaulted her in 2009 at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo at the Venetian in Las Vegas. Amber Rayne and Kora Peters on Wednesday said they were both individually violated by Deen on sets. Joanna Angel, who once dated Deen for six years and called him “the worst person I’ve ever met,” told the Jason Ellis SiriusXM show that he made her fear for her life and was an emotionally abusive and controlling partner, once holding her head underwater against her will while he had sex with her. Adult actress Nicki Blue said Thursday that Deen once urinated in her mouth and anally raped her with a beer bottle when she was a 21-year-old virgin.

Other women were warned about his behavior. Sydney Leathers said that she was told to avoid Deen when she entered the industry, as was Kitty Stryker. “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,” Stryker wrote in a piece on how Deen has successfully cashed in on feminism’s “brand.” Sex educator Lux Alptraum claimed on Twitter that she knows “for a fact” that Stoya is just one of many victims.

Deen has fired back at the flurry of assault allegations, saying they are “egregious.”

“I respect women and I know and respect limits both professionally and privately,” Deen wrote on Twitter. Despite the denial he has since been dropped by, the United States’ leading producer of BDSM films and a firm for whom he was a major star. Production company Evil Angel, and the feminist site The Frisky, for which he wrote an advice column, have also dropped Deen. “No amount of good rapport between us or traffic to his columns would ever supersede the fact that I believe women,” editor-in-chief Amelia McDonell-Parry said. NSFW illustrator Erika Moen has dropped all ads promoting his work and Project Consent, a campaign to end sexual assault, announced that it removed an April interview with the star. Deen also voluntarily resigned from the board of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, which said in a statement released Monday, “We stand with performers and other sex workers who are victims of any sort of sexual assault. APAC is committed to being a safe space for performers, and to creating a safer and healthier industry.”

During his 11-year career, mainstream outlets have applauded Deen’s sex-positivity and touted him as a feminist in the industry based on his popularity among women who watch porn rather than on the merits of his work as a feminist ally, which has been minimal. His persona was propped up when he vocalized what women had already been saying for decades: Porn is something both sexes can enjoy. He has been applauded for stating the obvious on this matter. “It’s 2015,” Deen said in that Elle interview. “I think our society in this day and age should admit, agree, and accept that females have sexuality.” His public character was smartly angled through a woman-friendly lens—on a mass level, his palatable appeal to porn-watching women was conflated with “feminism.”

(Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
Bryan Sevilla aka James Deen (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Author and sex advocate Tristan Taormino told Women in the World that collapsing those two groups into one category is a disastrous over-simplification. “Women who watch and love and are vocal about their watching and loving of porn—and Deen for that matter—aren’t all feminists,” she explained. Seeing him regarded as a hero for women without doing any helpful work felt like “total erasure” of what she and other scholars of sex have tirelessly researched and debated for years.

The conflation could be attributed, in part, to semantics. “Jezebel and some other places have said, ‘we’re into James Deen[‘s porn],’ but … no one has critically gone back to those sources and seen where they’ve said, ‘and James Deen is a feminist.’ People are now reporting as fact that he’s a feminist porn star—which he’s not,” she said. Those who openly advocate for a feminist porn movement in the independent and mainstream industries–and there are plenty, she stressed–wouldn’t call Deen a feminist. There’s a reason that people like Taormino, who think critically about sex work and gender, have never named him as a hero. “He’s not even on the list,” she said.

Indeed, Deen has made some distinctly un-feminist comments in public forums. He called California’s “Yes Means Yes” consent legislation “the dumbest fucking law I’ve ever heard of” in the same 2014 interview where he told a female reporter, unsolicited, “I wouldn’t have sex with you.” Though Deen’s work on film is largely aggressive and often depicts rape fantasy in which he plays the dominant role, it’s expressed within the confines of BDSM, where safety and expressed boundaries among partners is key. His focus on female pleasure on film also doesn’t equate to alliance with feminist values. “We’re setting too low a bar to say, ‘He seems like a nice guy and he’s willing to give women orgasms, so yeah, he’s totally a feminist!’” Taormino said. Knowing his own politics Deen, whose wealth is estimated at $1 million, still cashed in on opportunities – columns, major magazine profiles, films – that were increasingly provided as his woman-friendly persona grew, built by a public eager for such a role model.

Digestible and blue-eyed, endorsed and desired by teenage girls and their moms alike, Deen is a sex symbol who has, as explained by Taormino, “violated our fantasies.”

When prompted about male feminists in the industry who deserve the activist accolades Deen has received, Taormino said she believes that while some exist, the majority of the people who identify as feminist in the industry are women or gender-queer. “They’re not men,” she said.

Some have argued that the multiple rape accusations against Deen prove that porn is unhealthy and oppressive, or that the women he’s been accused of assaulting – sex workers – put themselves in the position of harm. “Being involved in sex work does not equate to being harmed,” Tori Lux explained in her article for the Beast. “Sex workers are silenced and our negative experiences are swept under the rug as we try to protect ourselves from the judgment of others—or worse, a variety of problems ranging from further physical attacks to professional issues such as slander and/or blacklisting.” Sexual assault and rape are among the most difficult to crimes to prosecute, as evidence largely lies on the victim’s body, and only 32 percent of all sexual assault claims are actually reported to authorities, according to Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). For Lux at least, it was the stigma of victim blaming that kept her from filing a police report.

“Simply put,” she said, “I was afraid.”

Taormino said the Deen accusations could help further break down the myth that men who commit sexual abuse and violence are “unknown creepy people with no social skills,” when in fact the vast majority of victims know their attacker. “The majority of men who commit sexual assaults would be described…as ‘really good guys’,” Taormino said.

“[They] may be really popular and may, in fact, have loyal fans and friends.”

This story has been updated to reflect the number of accusations against James Deen as of December 3.

Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter