So I was reading articles on The Daily Life, as I do most days, and came across this opinion piece republished from SMH, and after some initial gnashing of teeth over yet another misunderstanding and misrepresentation of women and porn, I decided to respond to Jen Vuk. For brevity, I have not included all of Vuk’s words, but feel free to give her piece a read in full over at the Daily Life. The article in question starts by setting the mood rather nicely, using phrases like ‘brooding’ and ‘launching menacingly’ to describe Deen’s performance in the forthcoming Bret Easton Ellis film, The Canyons (I know, I know: A male lead in an Easton Ellis film being menacing or broody, that sure is unusual, amirite?), but we’ll skip right past that and get in to the meat of the piece:
“If you haven’t heard of Deen, chances are you aren’t a female in your 20s (or, more worryingly, in your teens, but more on that later) who counts online porn as a pastime.”
Or perhaps you veer away from mainstream pornography or kink pornography (the two areas Deen’s work is largely concentrated in). It isn’t as though Deen’s films are only watched or noticed by young women or girls; his rise to porny stardom has been well documented in both adult and mainstream media and he’s been an award-winning performer for some years now. So uh, Jen? I think this is what they call ‘old news’.
“This blue-eyed, curly-haired ”Jewish boy-next-door” (real name Bryan Sevilla) has amassed a formidable body of work (more than 3000 blue films and counting) in which not only his enthusiasm, but God-given charms are on full frontal display. Deen is one of the few male porn stars to boast a genuine female following. He’s certainly a marketer’s dream comes true, but his recasting as romantic hero in the least romantic of formats is not only problematic; it’s pure fantasy.”
Whilst true that James Deen is a marketing dream (and one that is being taken full advantage of with the line of branded products available on his website, including but not limited to a reworking of Deen as a cartoon panda wielding a Hitachi Magic Wand and asking if you would like to be his prom date. Yeah, I’m confused and smitten with it as well), I have to question why the author struggles to see how Deen might be cast as ‘romantic hero’ in an industry where few male performers are known by name, and even fewer are noted for their attractiveness to women; male performers have long needed to be functional (able to get and maintain an erection under less than natural circumstances), but not necessarily attractive. So when along comes James Deen, a younger guy with boy-next-door charm and a cheeky grin, and we see him making eye contact, passionately kissing his co-stars and enjoying getting them off, no wonder he is a bit of a hero with the ladies, and really, what is romance if not hugely subjective and individual? What’s that old saying, ‘screw the roses, send me the thorns’? I’ll take the Gomez/Morticia romance over the candied hearts and predictable red roses any day, thanks.
“Deen’s foray into porn reads as a cautionary tale… His ascendancy in adult entertainment reads like a page ripped out of a Hollywood script. Despite being told his ”skinny, boyish looks were not fit for porn”, Deen threw himself into his work and before long ”excelled to be the top performer in the industry”…”
So… homeless kid beats the odds and achieves his career goals, not only succeeding at entering the industry he wanted, but working his arse off, excelling at his job and rising to the top. And somehow this is a cautionary tale? Surely this is the kind of story that we, were he a doctor or a scientist or footballer, would want our children to know. We’d want them to know these stories so they see that dreams are achievable, even when life has thrown you more than your fair share of hard times, and that your hard work and dedication can pay off in the end. So really, at this point it seems obvious that Vuk has a moral issue with the type of work that Deen does, and I would hazard a guess that the cautionary tale she refers to is in fact one of Christian morals and negative attitudes towards non-procreative sex, sex outside of marriage or just, you know, general sinfulness. It seems redundant to say it but I’d like to remind Vuk that these attitudes are not shared by everyone in our secular society, and there is no law that says we need to place the same type of value on the sexual relationships we have.
“Really? When I Googled Deen it wasn’t his romantic side that popped up, but something called the ”Lemon-stealing Whore” skit. How to explain it? Let’s just say that for close to 30 minutes (although I barely lasted five) Deen’s character deals with the ”thief” in a manner that’s neither illuminating nor edifying.”
I do so love a media review penned by someone who didn’t bother to watch the media in question. Vuk says she watched five minutes of this hilarious, hammy scene from Burning Angel after Googling Deen, and despite knowing that he has performed in over 3000 films, feels that was enough to establish as fact the lack of romance in Deen and his body of work. I may only be a lowly undergraduate, but even I know that is a pathetic sample size to use and that conclusions drawn from 5 minutes of what must be thousands of hours of screen time are probably not all that valid.
“With a spate of hard-core films favouring anal sex and a blog that makes more than a passing reference to S&M and women being ”bound and publicly f—ed and humiliated”, it’s probably safe to say that the degradation of women – hammed up or otherwise – doesn’t end there.”
Uh, no. Being an established and well-regarded kink performer or scene participant is not degrading to women. Liking rough sex is not degrading to women. Being a part of the BDSM scene is not degrading to women. Liking how anal sex feels is not degrading to women.
I know that nothing exists in a vacuum and truly believe there is validity to be found in critiquing the problematic elements of pornography as well as BDSM culture; what I think is invalid is the idea that a man with a predilection for these activities is inherently degrading women as a result. I don’t buy that, and I think it is simplistic and moralistic to shame people for liking sex that does not fit into a ‘making love’ framework, or that on the surface would seem to replicate the problematic gender dynamics that exist in the ‘real world’ (for lack of a better term).
As Jessa pointed out in season one of HBO’s Girls, there is no right way to fuck like a lady and there are no inherently degrading sex acts (“what if I want to feel like I have udders” she asks Shoshanna, who read that doggy style sex means he doesn’t respect you, “this woman doesn’t care about what I want.”) and when women suggest there is, it only serves to demonise the women who enjoy these acts.
“Keep this in mind when reading the advice Deen has for his youthful ”loyalists”, some as young as 15: ”I would like to think that I’m, you know, opening up their sexual experience. They’ll be able to take their boyfriends and say, ‘Hey, I saw this in a porno, I want to try this’.”
Oh no, girls as young as fifteen are making dreamy eyes at a porn star? Lock up your daughters, people. I grew up in the 1990s, and knew plenty of boys who had posters of Jenna Jameson on their walls. Yet, I don’t recall this sort of moral outrage over teenage boys with centrefolds and porn-star crushes; boys will be boys, amirite? This just smacks of another way in which we as a society have a tendency to become slightly hysterical about the sexuality of girls and young women. If a fifteen year old girl sees one of Deen’s films, she’ll probably note the attention that Deen pays to his female costars. The way he makes eye contact with them and checks in with them and appears genuinely interested in their pleasure.
More to the point, what kind of backwards logic dictates that teenage girls being vocal with their chosen sexual partners about the sexual activities they want to explore is a Bad Thing[TM]? We should be encouraging girls to communicate their wants and desires with their partners, because we should be encouraging girls to feel positive about pleasure and confident about communicating what they do and don’t like the idea of. The status quo sees girls pleasure ignored or dismissed in favour of performative sex for their male partners, and we discourage girls from being confident about their sexuality for fear of being labelled a slut.
Plenty of us knew we were kinky as teenagers, and muddled our way through that, and it isn’t unreasonable that a fifteen year old might see Deen and a female co-star performing an activity that turns them on and that they want to try out. This isn’t a damaging thing, especially not if they are receiving quality sexual health education to go along with it (which they may not be, but lets not point the finger at pornography, because pornographers should not be tasked with the role of educating our youth about sex, that isn’t their job).
“The critical issue here isn’t morality, it’s mental health. As The Guardian reported back in 2011, ”women who become regular users can suffer depression and low self-esteem because it can be hard to reconcile their enjoyment of porn with their intellectual dislike of seeing women used as sex objects”.
Perhaps if we stopped trying to feed women the Dines-esque rhetoric about how a woman can not really enjoy or consent to rough or kinky sex, and no sane women who would want to be stuffed in every orifice and fucked five ways ’til Sunday; then heavily promoted ethically-produced pornography in the same way we promote ethically-sourced coffee, perhaps then women would have less troubles with depression and low self-esteem.
I find this particularly disingenuous given that the Guardian article in question was addressing the issue that women feel isolated and embarrassed by their reliance or overuse of pornography, because it is widely believed to be something that could only affect men: this is not the fault of pornography, and the answer does not lie in the denial of pornography as a valid sexual activity or aid. Further, the same article goes on to say “But as porn becomes more pervasive, Hodson observes that women are now also using it as a quick way to have sex without emotional investment, just as men traditionally have.”
I don’t know about you, but given that only 17% of female pornography users self-reported a pornography addiction (which is obviously a problematic method to obtain a reliable statistic anyway), and plenty of women are watching porn and having a quick wank without any dramas, I don’t know that the mental health of young women watching James Deen have consensual sex is really a critical issue. As always, my queendom for a comprehensive, mandatory, ongoing and age appropriate sex education curriculum that includes detailed information about both consent and sexual media, so that any fears young women have about being turned on by what they see can be processed and alleviated.
“With about one in three visitors to adult entertainment websites female, it’s time to dismantle the rhetoric around Deen being a ”sex-positive feminist”. As Deen himself says, he’s just a ”worker bee”. Yes, but one with a serious sting in the tail.”
If being really into consensually pleasing women and loving confident, self-assured sexual women and trusting women to be honest with him about their desires is akin to having a sting in one’s tail, then bring it the hell on.