A Sociologist Weighs in on Sex Work, James Deen, and the Term 'Feminist Porn'

Pacific Standard sits down to talk with Chauntelle Tibbals.
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Pacific Standard sits down to talk with Chauntelle Tibbals.
James Deen. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

James Deen. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

There's a reason James Deen is on a very short list of pornographic actors to have successfully crossed over into pop culture at large. Long heralded as porn's boy next door, Deen has been embraced as a feminist icon by an enormously devoted female fanbase, many of them eager to find a more seemingly relatable male porn star. But in recent weeks, amid a slew of sexual assault allegations against Deen, devotees and onlookers have witnessed just how quickly his celebrity stardom has crumbled.

First there was Stoya, an adult performer, writer, and Deen's ex-girlfriend, who took to Twitter at the end of November to claim that Deen had raped her. In the days and weeks since Stoya first came forward, at least nine other women—many of them adult performers—have also expressed similar allegations of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse against Deen.

Deen responded by calling the allegations "false and defamatory," adding that he respects "limits both professionally and privately." He has since resigned as chairman of the board of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee. The adult film company Kink.com also cut ties with Deen, as has the Frisky, a women's lifestyle website for which he had penned a sex advice column. Some porn studios have also since published performers' bill of rights to better protect their actors and to address issues of consent on and off set.

Such allegations against Deen raise several key issues within the porn industry, including rates of sexual assault among adult performers, how society at large responds to sex worker assault, and ongoing stigmas against pornography and sex work in general.

Pacific Standard spoke with Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, about consent within the adult entertainment industry, Deen's rise to stardom as a "feminist porn star," and how genres of porn like BDSM or rape fantasies can exist as so-called "feminist porn."

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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?

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, 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 we see people who have a high measure of public cache, such as Christy Mack or Stoya, come forward and speak about these issues, people pay attention. Christy Mack, for example ... the fact that she is sharing her pictures and speaking out, and also continuing with her suit against the person who attacked her ... it makes people pay attention to the fact that this woman can be both a sex worker and a survivor of abuse.

Because of the rape fantasy subculture in porn, are we less likely to take female porn stars seriously if they come forward with assault allegations?

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. Add to that sex as a performance, sex as an occupation, uncommon or infrequent types of sex that people may be unfamiliar with, and porn all of a 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.

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 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 down or critically evaluating [porn], 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.

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals. (Photo: Beau Holland)

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals. (Photo: Beau Holland)

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?

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 widely 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.

Feminist opponents of porn criticize it for being inherently degrading and stripping women of their sexuality. Can feminism co-exist with porn, including genres like rough sex, rape culture, and BDSM, for instance?

The historical debate within feminism is that either porn is terrible—it's inherently bad, it's inherently degrading to women—[or] that certain types of porn are amazing, wonderful, and liberating. It's kind of unfortunate because [feminist pornography] still falls into the same old rhetorical patterns that say 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.

"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 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.

Can you explain what "feminist porn" is? It seems like it's a buzzword that has been tossed around a lot recently.

I don't know how it became a popular term. Probably the 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 have always been women directing porn, even within the most "mainstream" aspects of the industry.

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.

How has James Deen been cast as a feminist porn star? It seems like his "boy next door" vibe stands out in a sea of uber-muscular, hyper-masculine men who weren't really appealing to most women, and his status as a "feminist idol" came to be only because his fans cast him as such.

That's pretty much what happened, with one additional point: He has been a porn performer for over a decade. He's hammy, 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 men out there who have different dimensions and different things they do well.

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 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, but Joanna put it in the mainstream.

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. 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 when they are exploitative, how frequently those things happen, are [all] questions to ask performers.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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