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.”
Although I’d always hoped that someone would out him publicly, I understood why, for a long time, no one did. I’ve been a sex worker for 13 years and have performed in or produced porn for most of that time. The world that Deen existed in is one I barely touched before gender transitioning my way out of porn catering to straight audiences. However, I know that being a porn performer means living a life open to public inquiry. The wider public loves to take a stance on how much you enjoy your job—from fevered fans to “Porn Kills Love” types, from the browsers of Cosmo magazine to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Building an illusion of blanket positivity about your job is not only about being a good porn star, it’s about building armor against a society that wants you to be damaged.
I tried with the reporter to explain what the limitations were for women looking to speak out about assault in the industry. We talked about how Stoya, as a white woman with an independent company and a huge fanbase, could still feel pressured to wait “over a year of months to be able to be able to call it what it was – which was rape.” Even with the status and relative privilege she has, speaking out against Deen meant not only coming to terms with sexual assault from an intimate partner, but also knowing that it would affect her career. Knowing that people would continue to watch videos of her and Deen with a new obtrusive lens; knowing that some porn studios would decide working with her was a liability; and knowing that since she, like many sex workers, has not chosen as of yet to go forth with a criminal case, that she could be subject to a defamation suit—although at this point Deen has stated that he will not be pursuing that option.
Which leads us to what Deen has said. Many people I know have chosen not to read the interview he did with Aurora Snow at the Daily Beast. The interview is exhausting to read. Snow asks him about each accusation and he discredits them each one by one, suggesting that the survivors are jealous, vengefully lying exes; bandwagon jumpers in it for money and attention; or—perhaps the worst accusation of all—they are poor professionals who later regretted their work. He invites the audience to watch the scenes in which he allegedly raped Kora Peters and Amber Rayne for themselves. For who among us does not want the world invited to watch their assault, edited and marketed, so that people can decide for themselves what really went down? His tone is cavalier. Apology is so far from his mind that he defends his right to tell racist, rape, and dead baby jokes as just “dark humor”. His interview responses creates a world in which his reality is the norm, in which the women who have come out against him are just not cut out for the environment of porn.
I found this difficult to believe. When I started doing scenes with men from the cross-over mainstream porn industry I didn’t expect a certain type of graciousness I encountered, especially considering that these were people for whom working with trans men was a curiosity they were encountering for the first time. I’ve always felt that the environment of porn encourages you to be careful about your scene partner’s comfort. In all the shoots I’ve been present for as a producer or an actor, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that the actors will flirt and create real chemistry with each other, but that this chemistry is mutable. My fellow performers have always maintained a respectful distance, even as their tongue is in my mouth or their fist is inside me. I’ve felt safe during porn in a way that I have felt nowhere else.
I asked straight porn star Owen Grey, who worked with Deen for shoots on Kink.com, what he thought of his co-worker’s attitude. His response was:
In our culture where cis(gender) het(erosexual) men have the privilege of not being sexualized by strangers constantly, they can often lack the awareness of appropriate boundaries, especially in a sexual atmosphere like working in porn. I personally approach all of my scenes with the assumption that the person I am working with is not genuinely interested in being sexual with me, they are there to perform a job, not to comfort my ego or give me sexual favors.
The betrayal of James Deen is not just the betrayal of a man who rapes, but rather, the betrayal of a fellow sex worker who is supposed to get the game. He’s supposed to be able to put his hands around your throat while fucking your ass one minute, and respectfully sit next to you making small talk waiting for the camera crew to fix lighting the next. Sex workers are supposed to have this shit down, because we know where the line between fantasy and reality is. Despite the protestations of those who claim that if you shoot aggressive porn eventually you will start abusing women, it feels to me that if you shoot aggressive porn than you should be highly aware of when to turn energy on and off and be equipped with a commitment to always respect those boundaries. Sex work is a job, and one of the job requirements is your ability to negotiate consent. If you won’t honor people’s boundaries, you don’t belong anywhere near another human being, much less on a porn set.
Teetering on the edge of its time at the front of the new cycle, the questions this story brings up for sex workers remain: can this call forth a new culture wherein porn performers do have an awareness of “appropriate boundaries”? Will systems be created that provide the opportunity for workers to report sexual violence in their workplace without fear of reprisal? Moreover, does the relatively dignified national conversation about James Deen’s assaults mean anything for other sex workers who are assaulted? Does the furor about Deen extend also to the 13 black women, many of whom were sex workers, who were sexually assaulted by police officer Daniel Holtzclaw? Or does the public only feel solidarity with sex workers who have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers?
I hope this signals a tidal change. A moment where a sex worker calls out her assaulter and is not immediately, aggressively minimized is a blessing. When she is joined by others who say that they believe her, it is a blessing. When her story being amplified provides room for others to tell theirs, it is a blessing. Thank you to all those who spoke out, who will speak out, who told their stories even if no one listened, and who tell their stories to themselves to remember that it was not their fault.