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What Media Coverage of James Deen’s Assaults Means For Sex Workers

Stoya in 2012 at the AVN awards. (Photo by Michael Dorausch via Flickr)
Stoya in 2012 at the AVN awards. (Photo by Michael Dorausch via Flickr)

Content warning: this piece contains general discussion of rape.

I got a call from a reporter from Mother Jones the other day, her voice nervous. She was one of the many journalists who called the sex worker health clinic I work at, St. James Infirmary, looking for comments about the public sexual assault accusations made against James Deen over the past week.

She told me, “I’m learning about this world from this story, let me know if I say something wrong.” We tried in stops and starts to lay a groundwork of understanding about what Stoya’s tweets meant. It seems hard for people outside the industry to digest this story. This time around, most journalists seem to want to be survivor centered, and they want to be clear that they know a sex worker can be raped. But their understanding of the environment of porn is always one with contracts which, once signed, mean that anything can happen to you. Where all men on set are lurid in their gaze, and the sadistic domination they demonstrate is heartfelt and misogynist. It’s a world view in which porn shoots are a battle field where women try to keep as many of their boundaries up as possible.

For the survivors of James Deen whose stories are told and untold; for the sex workers whose perpetrators used the stigmatized environment of the profession to prey on their vulnerabilities; for the sex workers who have been assaulted and then continued to work, sometimes with the same person who assaulted them, because at that moment that was what they had to do to survive; this news cycle has been hell. The only thing more unrelenting than the new stories of James Deen’s violent misogyny cropping up every day is the understanding that these reports are only the tip of the iceberg, that there will be more stories of his attempts to “break women.”

There is a way in which these revelations are also exhilarating. I’ve never seen such public furor around the assaults of sex workers. It’s left everyone I know drained thinking, talking, or reading about it. Waiting to see what direction the narrative will take—will the news coverage continue to slant in favor of the survivors? What will the consequences be for Deen after the scandal of this story is dusted over by another? Will any long term systems be created to ensure worker safety, and will those be driven by performers themselves or placed on top by an outside enforcement agency?

These questions will take a long time to answer, but what is clear is the deep breath many took after Stoya’s two tweets were posted. It spread across my Twitter feed and it felt like witnessing a spell break. Arabelle Raphael said in an interview with Melissa Gira Grant that, “It was a big relief. Finally, someone had put it out there.”

Hump! Amateur Porn in Portland

Three strippers and a well-adjusted boyfriend attend the 7th annual Seattle and Portland amateur porn film festival, Hump!. This was Kat and her friend’s first time attending and the second for my man friend and myself. We learned that we never want to see sex to piano music again, that stop-motion animation can be more obscene than real life, and that Kat’s former coworker wasn’t afraid to be penetrated with a knife.

Standing in the long line outside of Portland’s Cinema 21, I was immediately struck by how chipper the crowd was. An equal proportion of mid-twenties to late-thirties men and women chattered excitedly in the rain. I actually stood on my tiptoes to peer down the block, looking for solo older men lurking in the shadows, but didn’t see any. All six Portland showings had completely sold out and the line of hip young people wrapped around the block. Kat overheard a guy tell his girlfriend that they were at the new Harry Potter movie, which didn’t seem unreasonable given the mob of excited people.

After Porn Ends(2010)

The unfortunate thing about a film as honest as After Porn Ends is how disingenuously it can be used by those with an anti-porn bias. The Huffington Post declared that the film “reveals the dark side” of the porn industry, an angle that LA Weekly and Inquisitr, solely based on a viewing of the trailer, echoed—as though porn is usually regarded by the public as harmless and wholesome as Disney films.  But After Porn Ends, much like porn itself, embraces all comers. (Heh heh insert stupid pun here.) There’s room for the born-again Christians who crusade against the industry on a whole, just as there’s room for former performers who say “I’m happy I did it” and “[being in porn] has changed me for the better.” Each subject is given plenty of nonjudgmental camera time, salacious details are few and far between, and there’s a refreshing lack of ominous or plaintive music played over the dialogue. Aside from one mean-spirited moment of editing, when Mary Carey is shown checking with someone off-camera to make sure she pronounces “unprecedented” correctly before talking about her run for California governor, the filmmakers seem respectful and gentle with their subjects. How could they be otherwise? One of film’s focuses is how stigmatized performers are by the same civilians who regularly consume their work.

Interview: Porn Performer Sadie West

image via New Sensations

To know Sadie West is truly to experience an enigma. The girl has an exceptionally deep voice and her rumbling laugh will drop to a whisper, unexpectedly. She is an outrageously attractive woman with full natural lips, huge green eyes, deep olive skin, and dark hair. Her breasts are real as is her round, full bubble butt.

Beneath this outwardly goddess-like woman is the little girl that I knew and grew up with. This rowdy tomboy stole my underwear and hung it on the clothesline for her brothers to see at the family barbecue. As kids we would play hide-and-seek late at night on the deserted high school campus, where we would often hide in the drainage sewer. We would spend afternoons at the public pool, Sadie speaking loudly in an English accent, yelling “bloody fuck!” off the high dive. When the new neighbors moved in next door to her parents’ house, she had them thinking she was an adopted British kid for at least a week.

Fuck Your Feminist Porn

(Still of 1920s silent film porn by Narisa Spaulding)
(Still of 1920s silent film porn by Flickr user Narisa)

Last year, I was short on cash and struggling with full service work. For the first time in my life, I approached a porn company.

This was no ordinary porn company—they made this known every step of the way. They were “alternative” and “empowering.” They were “feminist” and made “erotica.” They were a company that was not like the others.

They were full of shit.

Here’s what working for them looked like:

They had me sign a form in which I promised that filming for them was just a hobby, not my job. It was a lie—one that was already pissing me off. They handed me a camera, took my passport for collateral, sent me home with a list of very exact specifications for what to film, and had me shoot my scene myself. Then, they had me come back to deliver the work. They complained about the amount of makeup I wore—said it didn’t fit their more “natural” style, though it was the same amount of makeup I had worn every day for the past 10 months—and handed me $200. They didn’t invite me back. They did invite back my skinnier, scar-free friend.

So feminist, right?