There’s been a lot of hysteria on Twitter lately, especially when it comes to celebrities and their alleged sex crimes. Mobs that pursued Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi a year ago are pursuing James Deen, the American porn actor, now.
For both, events unfolded predictably. Reports of rape, made by ex-girlfriends, produced headlines and a procession of angry and tearful accusers. The mainstream media responded in kind: the alleged assaults are being positioned as hidden horrors of our time, proof that evil is always with us, just below the surface of civilized society.
It’s a common narrative, one that has utterly saturated the news and entertainment media, as evidenced by the popularity of crime documentaries and dramas. Its dominance is important because as westerners we think of ourselves as individualists who are not suggestible. But with social media has come some awkward insights: the deep collective animus we occasionally see on Twitter, of the sort directed at Ghomeshi and Deen, raises the question of how we define evil. Some of us observing these eruptions are wondering: ‘Just who are the real victims?’
Deen is accused of sexually assaulting several fellow porn actors. Perhaps because he’s had the advantage of observing cases like Ghomeshi’s, his response has been terse. Most of the accusations against him, he says, can be disproven with video evidence. He also surmises that his ex-girlfriend, Stoya, who posted the first accusatory tweet, may be reacting to their break-up or trying to drive traffic to her site. Whatever her motive, the accusations against Deen are particularly important because of the granular way they parse the issue of consent. It’s hard to imagine more intimate sites of violation than orifices, especially when those in question are routinely penetrated, filmed and put in front of the public eye.
This is especially true since producers of porn have recently jumped on the consent bandwagon. Female actors are routinely interviewed at the beginning and end of videos to express their willing participation. Actors often flash identification cards at the camera to prove they are of age, and along with consent disclaimers in the credits, on or off-screen narrators will occasionally describe the details of how consent was reached between or among the actors being filmed. True to the nature of their industry, they’ve learned to cover all angles.
However, the problem with all these codified rules is that it’s a bit like having the long arm of the law reaching into our orifices too. That’s because porn producers, along with supporters of consent classes, are forgetting something. Their rules serve a specific purpose on porn sets and in hook-up culture, but do not augur with everyone’s idea of seduction. A lot of us know our partners well enough, or if we don’t, we may do the quaint thing and delay sex until we do. In those instances, trust is established and instructions on how to negotiate consent aren’t necessary. In fact, many of us feel that the push to normalize consent rules–coming from either the porn industry or prescriptive feminism–infringes on our privacy. It means regulating matters that should remain uncharted and private, lest we rob them of their mystery. After all, porn actors and prescriptive feminists can hardly be accused of being mysterious, so why pretend their worlds are just like ours?
It’s that pretence–that all sex is the same–that Deen addresses in a response to his accusers. ‘I’m in porn, and when you take porn activity into polite society it sounds really twisted.’ Critics may take issue with the word ‘twisted’ but Deen’s meaning is clear. Porn is marginal, not mainstream, and so the sex in it needs to be kept in context: it’s entertainment and taking lessons from it would be like taking lessons in astronomy from Star Trek. But the push to popularize pornographic and hook-up sex, and to uphold them as a generalized reality, is getting support from another quarter, one reliant on victimization and identity politics.
The porn actors accusing Deen say that reporting him is futile since the police won’t take their complaints seriously. Their sentiments align with those expressed by some female undergrads. These are young women who assert their right to casual sex, but may not be fit to handle it, if the rising number of campus rape accusations is anything to go by. However, conflating sex with a stranger with sex with a lover–a goal that slogans like “no means no” attempts–suggests that both are equally risky. This is an assertion that for many of us does not pass the reality test.
Moreover, most of us are sensitive to the pain of women who have been assaulted. When a porn actor says she has been raped, my tendency is to believe her. The deeper problem is identifying with her choices, a problem that those promoting a politically correct attitude would like to outlaw, despite the reality that responding with different levels of empathy to different situations is natural. I’m far likelier to feel empathy for a victim of a bank fraud, for example, than a person who loses all their money at a casino. The victim of fraud has fallen further, so to speak, from her expectation of safety, a fact my greater level of empathy reflects. This is not a moral failure on my part, nor is it a sign of narrow-mindedness. My response springs from my reason and emotional history, resources that all of us have and call on to make judgements.
Deen also addresses the issue of regret, suggesting that it may be an underlying motive for some of the accusations against him: ‘I have heard many stories from many different performers who have engaged in all sorts of various acts and then after either [sic] retiring, taking a break, or slowing down in the adult industry, change their desires and perceptions about things that have happened in the past.’ Linda Lovelace and Traci Lords are two well-known porn actors who repudiated their association with the industry. Lovelace joined the anti-pornography movement in 1980, gaining the support of feminists like Andrea Dworkin. In 1986, Lords admitted she had been underage for almost the entirety of her porn career, an admission that saw her entire (pre-internet) oeuvre pulled from distribution, effectively destroying any evidence of her involvement.
These stories raise the twin spectres of shame and regret, feelings experienced by women like Lovelace and Lords, who come to believe they’ve betrayed themselves. Although Deen could simply be capitalizing on his knowledge of this phenomenon, rather than observing a genuine truth about his accusers, his words resonate with anyone who’s done the walk of shame. These spectres also preside over accusations of date rape and make determining the intentions of both parties difficult, a fact that points to the advantages of caution, but is rarely heeded when desire or intoxicants gain the upper hand.
Stoya’s apparent victory has at least one feminist pundit claiming that ‘with multiple women having come forward to accuse Deen, it’s seen as more than enough proof of his guilt…ergo due process doesn’t really matter.’ In response, Cathy Young has written about multiple accusers and the bandwagon effect, a distinct possibility in this case, and Deen himself has admitted, among other things, to being arrogant. Of all the possibilities, I suspect it’s Deen’s admission that’s behind the drive to ruin his career. By all accounts the American porn community is a close-knit one. With such a clear focus on consent, how is it that Deen could abuse so many actors without being confronted in person first?
Despite the #SolidaritywithStoya sentiments, Stoya is an ex-girlfriend and apparently an angry one at that. Her relationship with Deen may have been abusive, but as it is with all of us, she too had a choice: she was always free to go.