I recently spoke with Pacific Standard magazine about “Sex Work, James Deen, and the Term ‘Feminist Porn'” (12/15/15).
Though I love talking to everyone, I absolutely hate the verbatim transcription of my words (valley girl to the max!). Reprinted below is a condensed version of the conversation I had with Pacific Standard. The version they published was further edited and condensed – you can read that here.
Enjoy! What do you think?
PS: How could public support for Stoya and Christy Mack command greater support for lower-profile sex workers? Do you think these allegations against James Deen will help steer the conversation in a positive direction?
DrCT: In terms of sex workers in general, even in 2015, there’s a common misconception that just because they consent to sex through their workplace or work process, that they then consent to sex in other situations. For example, an exotic dancer may not be consenting to sex, but she may be consenting to a sexualized behavior. We tend to think that consent in one instance carries over into consent in the future or in other occasions. Like, “Oh, you had sex with this person before, for work, how could it possibly be now that this was a non-consensual assault?”
However, when see people who have a high measure of public cache, such as Christy Mack or Stoya, come forward and speak about these issues, and really kind of follow through on it, people pay attention. Christy Mack, for example, is not the first woman who is also a sex worker to be assaulted in such a graphic and terrible manner. The fact that she is sharing her pictures and speaking out, and also continuing with her suit against the person who attacked her, it’s terrible, but it also makes people pay attention to the fact that this woman can be both a sex worker and a survivor of abuse.
PS: I’m interested in the complicated relationship between rape fantasies in porn and sexual assault among female pornographers. Because of the rape fantasy subculture, are we less likely to take female porn stars seriously if they come forward with assault allegations, for example? I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.
DrCT: Unfortunately there shouldn’t be a relationship between the two, but I think we have created an environment where there may be, in the sense that porn is very mysterious for those who are either outside of the industry or who do not study or follow it closely. Porn is not monolithic. There’s so much porn and so many different types of porn. I’ve been watching it closely — the community, the content — for over a decade now, and it is constantly evolving. We are uncomfortable as a culture with sex. And you add to that sex as a performance, sex as an occupation, uncommon or infrequent of types of sex that people may be unfamiliar with, all of that, and porn all of the sudden is very shocking. Because of that, you have this sort of synergistic relationship where the porn community then responds by being very insular and very internal and protective of its own norms. That contributes to this sustained narrative where we look at porn, and we don’t understand what it is that we’re seeing. We don’t understand that we’re seeing professional sex performers like you would see a professional stunt person or professional car driver. We don’t see that there’s staging and lighting. It’s taboo.
There have been, since the 70s, studies and research that talk about the prevalence and the frequency of rape fantasy. Depending on the language, this varies. So if you’re talking about “rape fantasy” versus being “overpowered.” Something like 50 percent of women have these fantasies of being overpowered. That does not mean that people want to be assaulted in daily life or “real life.” This is a fantasy that exists and many people have them, but when we get into the rhetoric of breaking apart porn and breaking down or critically evaluating it, because we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with porn as a film genre or as a medium, we then allow ourselves into the slippage where it’s like, “Is this real? Is this fake? What’s happening?’ It’s almost a perfect storm of incomplete thought patterns and inconsistency where we then look at porn and it’s confusing to us. It scrambles our brains.
PS: Despite how popular porn is, why is social acceptance still hard to come by for porn stars especially when it comes to dealing with sexual assault?
DrCT: I think that the main problem has to do with our discomfort with sex on a systemic cultural level. I’m sure there are other factors, but that is the root problem: We are uncomfortable with sex. We are uncomfortable with sex work, we are uncomfortable with sex education, we are uncomfortable with commercializing sex. All of those things are related to that core discomfort. We still live in a very gendered, unequal society. A woman who is a porn star is experiencing the intersectionality of all of those issues. Even though porn is something wildly consumed and sexuality is something we all have, that particular occupation triggers all of these issues, inconsistencies, and uncomfortable dimensions related to sex in our culture.
PS: Feminist opponents of porn criticize it for being inherently degrading and stripping women of their sexuality. Can feminism coexist with porn, including genres like rough sex, rape culture, BDSM, for instance?
DrCT: The historical debate within feminism is that either porn is terrible — it’s inherently bad, it’s inherently degrading to women. The pro-porn, pro-sex argument says certain types of porn are oh-my-gosh amazing, and wonderful and liberating. It’s kind of unfortunate because [feminist pornography] still falls into the same old rhetorical patterns that say that there is one correct or a series of correct forms of sexual expression and desire. In my opinion, the key issue that one should be thinking about when talking about whether or not porn is “feminist” is if consent is involved. If the performers and the people who are expressing themselves — and this includes the directors and the people working on set and whatnot, as well as the viewers and consumers — are consenting to a piece of content. If we have consent and we understand the narrative, then all porn is fine. Rough sex, for some, is the kind of sex they want to be having, and that’s OK. And if perfectly “vanilla” sex is the kind of sex that someone else wants to be having, then that’s also just as OK. The idea that there are genres of porn that are more or less feminist, rhetorically, is a false flag. Feminist Porn, even within the community of feminist pornographers, has no set definition.
What’s “hardcore” is very subjective. The content that we would traditionally think of as rough sex, hardcore, “degrading,” whatever that is, can still be feminist porn. There’s nothing about that that says that it’s not. You can also find content that is the most vanilla, the most mainstream – a superhero narrative that showcases nothing but conventional, vaginal sex – and depending on who is directing it and everything going into the project, it can be the most non-feminist content around.
Feminism is for everybody, but not everybody’s feminism is the same. So for whatever reason, we continue to see this, “My feminism is the correct feminism and yours just isn’t,” rhetoric. I really think that harms the movement in general, and it definitely draws these lines within adult content that serve to fracture it, rather than move it forward.
PS: Can you explain what “feminist porn” is? it seems like it’s a buzzword that has been tossed around a lot recently.
DrCT: I don’t know how it became a popular term. In terms of it being an outward facing narrative, probably the most cornerstone would be the work of Candida Royale, starting in the 80s. She was the first person who seemed to make it very prominent. There has always been women directing porn, even the most “mainstream” aspects of the industry, always. I remember this was this woman in the late 90s – she was a performer/director named Jewel De’Nyle, and she for the time, directed some very hardcore content. There’s also a woman named Mason who directs some of the most hardcore sex around, still to this day, and has been for over a decade. It is beautiful, her content. I don’t know why porn for women is another buzzword or buzz-phrase.
It’s an interesting thing to see what sticks in terms of a cultural lexicon and what gets inserted into it or not. It’s interesting because with any other kind of genre, anal sex means this, and we know the factors of BDSM. Feminist porn doesn’t necessary have that. Unfortunately it’s sort of an unanswerable question as far as why it became popular and what exactly it is. But content created by women with this whole “authenticity of sexual expression” in mind has been there always. We just haven’t always been paying attention to it.
PS: How has James Deen been cast as a feminist porn star? I’ve read varying hypothesis about this — that his boy-next-door vibe stood out in a sea of uber-muscular, hyper-masculine men that weren’t really appealing to most women. So when Deen came along, it attracted a ton of women, who then became his fanbase, and that his brand as a “feminist idol” came to me only because his fans cast him as such, not because he is actually a believer in feminism, for example.
DrCT: That’s pretty much what happened, with one additional point, and which is that he has been a porn performer for over a decade. He’s hammy and he’s good looking and he’s all of these things. It’s not just arbitrary – there is something about the James Deen factor. But I think at least in part, this fixation on James Deen is another artifact of what I was talking about earlier in that we don’t know anything about porn. There are men who work in porn who run the gamut of looks. It’s not like there’s just a bunch of oily, skeezy porn guys and then James Deen who’s this young little diamond unicorn; there many of men out there that have different dimensions and different things they do well.
I was on a panel once at USC and a student raised her hand – she wanted to know where are all the guys in their early to mid-20s are in porn. I was like, “Let me tell you about Tyler Nixon who looks like Mr. Boy Next Door who plays rugby or Xander Corvis who looks like Mr. Bad Doy next door who plays the guitar, or Tommy Pistol who is a character actor. You have this world of content where people are just like, “I don’t know what that is, and I’m not allowed to investigate it, it’s a violation of a social norm for me to go and look into this.”
Couple that with the media fixation on James Deen, he’s a really savvy individual. He’s had various publicists over the years who are very good at their jobs who can then cast a person in that manner. I don’t mean to attribute any of his cultural cache to Joanna Angel, but James was in a very public relationship with one of the most powerful feminist icons in the adult industry. She started an entire genre in 2002, so when she was at her most significant in terms of cultural cache, James was right there with her. She started Burning Angel in the early 2000s and she started — I know we can almost 100 percent attribute to her — started that “acceptability” of “alt-girls,” tattooed chicks, punk-rock girls, things like that. Pre Burning Angel, it’s not to say that people only were interested in women who looked this way or that way, that content existed, but Joanna put it in the mainstream.
PS: Is sexual assault within the porn industry common? Is there any pressure as a female porn star not to come forward with allegations because of the stigma sex workers often face regarding sexual assaults?
Honestly, there’s no data on it. There are so many negotiations that happen on set, before booking a scene, and all of those things. In many ways, those negotiations are no different from what would happen in any other workplace. But to have those negotiations related to sex and then to think about the boundaries of when the negotiations are OK and then when they the negotiations are exploitative, how frequently those things happen, are questions to ask performers.
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