James Deen: Feminist Hero or 'Lady Porn' Star?

Illustration for article titled James Deen: Feminist Hero or Lady Porn Star?

James Deen, the porn star that GOOD recently described as the only option for women "interested in watching a young, heterosexual, nonrepulsive man engage in sex," is enjoying a wave of popularity as an empathetic Jewish boy with a naughty side. But Molly Oswaks at The Atlantic Health argues that Deen's brand of porn is sexist because he represents the idea that women only enjoy certain types of erotica — "lady porn," if you will. Oswaks briefly notes Deen's bondage work but dismisses it to discuss his "non-threatening" aesthetic and "his talent for performing vanilla sex scenes — for example: XXX parodies of TV shows like Seinfeld, 30 Rock, and Scrubs" which is what she believes truly makes him a "novelty in the porn world." She writes:

Why at this late date are we still reinforcing the idea that women are modest and fragile and in need of gender-specific accommodations? ... As I see it, the only thing necessarily lady-friendly about soft-core scenes is that they come with less stigma than the real stuff. Watching this vanilla variety of porn might feel, for some, like less of a betrayal of one's feminist values — because the sex depicted is a little gentler, not quite as rapey as what you might expect of, say, a typical S&M scene — but there is nothing at all feminist, or psychologically healthy, about limiting the expression of a woman's sexuality.

Oswaks' frustration with the concept that women only respond to emotional, non-threatening porn is definitely legitimate, but it's unfair to completely push aside the rougher sex play that Deen's actually known for — according to a recent New York Observer profile, Deen films roughly one bondage and S&M scene for every three straight scenes. "I've been into rough sex pretty much my whole sexual life and so I'm not, like, bad at it," Mr. Deen told the Observer. "I don't know how to say it without being a hideous prick, but I'm pretty good at having rough sex. It got to the point where a lot of girls who aren't into that type of sex were afraid to work with me because they thought I was going to slap them in the face or something."

Doesn't really make him seen all that "vanilla," does it? I asked Oswaks to expand on her point via email, and she told me she was less concerned with Deen than with the attitude toward female pleasure that he represents. "For whatever reason, something to do with gender archetypes I imagine, we like to think that pleasing or pleasuring woman only happens one way," she wrote. "I know plenty of woman, including myself, who don't get anything from the more 'respectful' angle of 'porn-for-ladies.' I like very kinky shit, I'm into BDSM, I'm also a feminist––people have a very hard time accepting that those aren't all mutually exclusive. Which is a shame."


Fair and valid! But why hate on Deen just because he's in the spotlight? It seems like most of Deen's fans like him less because they think he's "safe" and more because he's the only male porn star out there who actually seems into the women he works with. "He doesn't have some stupid blank expression on his face; he seems to be enjoying himself — and she, enjoying herself — far more than in the typical fare," one Jezebel staffer said. Plus, as the Observer puts it, Deen's the "the flip side of a good girl with a dirty mind," a trope that's totally overplayed in mainstream porn, in which most male stars look like Ken dolls or juiced-out guidos and lack any three-dimensional qualities. It's hard to see whats wrong — or sexist — about that kind of fantasy.

Porn for Ladies: The Subtle Sexism of Assessing Female-Friendly Smut [The Atlantic]

The Boyfriend Experience: Can Bret Easton Ellis Mainstream Porn Star James Deen? [NYO]

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Jenna Sauers

The Atlantic writer is correct insofar that the stereotype that women are only interested in "vanilla" "soft core" "lady porn" is based on sexist assumptions. (That that kind of porn exists, and some women like it isn't the problem — the assumption that women should or do only like that kind of porn, because they are women, is.)

But James Deen is not evidence of that problem: he's the counter-example to it.

It's obvious the writer has little familiarity with Deen's work. She ought to watch some; she might like it. "Vanilla" it is not.