LAS VEGAS — Lily LaBeau is perched on the edge of an armchair in a spacious Hard Rock Hotel suite. In the smoke-filled casino below, a red carpet is being rolled out for the AVN Awards, the so-called Oscars for the porn industry. This evening, LaBeau will walk that red carpet, past eager fans and hulking TV cameras, but it’s this conversation right here that seems to really make her nervous.
There’s a camera on a tripod sitting in front of her. John Stagliano, a legendary pornographer and owner of the film studio Evil Angel, stands nearby with a second handheld camera. He’s been asking about her experiences performing in BDSM porn. Then Stagliano says, “So, have you ever had, like, a really bad experience?”
“Yes,” she says and sighs heavily. “OK, deep breath for that one. So, that’s why I’m here.”
Why she’s here is to talk about James Deen, who she and several other women in 2015 accused of abuse. More specifically, she’s here because Evil Angel barred its directors from working with Deen following those accusations—but now, three years on, Stagliano has decided to lift the ban. He and Evil Angel are not lifting it quietly, either. The company is doing it with an explicit porn-slash-documentary film titled Consent. Later, Stagliano will tell me, “I don’t like to run away from controversial subjects. I like to run toward them.”
In 2015, Deen’s ex-girlfriend posted a tweet accusing him of rape. “James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword,” she wrote. “I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.” Deen called the claims “false and defamatory.” Eventually, about a dozen women, including LaBeau, came forward with allegations against him, ranging from “belittling” behavior to claims of physical abuse and sexual assault, and several of which allegedly involved adult shoots. In an interview with the Daily Beast, he denied the allegations and offered a noncommittal apology: “If at any point I pushed boundaries past the point of comfort, I am sorry.” (Deen declined to speak with Jezebel for this story, and did not return a follow-up request.)
In the immediate wake of the allegations, Evil Angel decided to stop creating or selling any new scenes featuring Deen. At the time, Stagliano told me in a statement, “While our company presents what is consensual and exploratory about aggressive and rough sex, these accusations are of a nature so contrary to our company values that we feel it necessary to suspend the sales until more information is available.”
Stagliano’s recent change of mind came about during discussions about the aforementioned film titled Consent, which will be part of a new Evil Angel series that depicts explicit sex scenes alongside documentary-style footage. (An example of this is the award-winning I Am Angela, which pairs sex scenes with the behind-the-scenes surrounding those shoots.) Stagliano says the idea for Consent arose because, as he put it, “I’d been reading that some feminists say that a woman can’t actually consent to be in a pornographic movie because ‘she doesn’t really know what she’s getting into.’” He continued, “Showing people saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t stop me from doing what I wanna do’ is basically what [this film is] all about.’”
As part of Consent, Evil Angel wanted to feature a segment about rough sex with Casey Calvert, an experienced BDSM performer. According to Stagliano, she only wanted to do the scene with Deen. “I believe in consent,” said Stagliano. “I believe that a girl should be able to choose who she works with.” Later, he added, “Casey Calvert wants to work with James Deen. She trusts him to do a somewhat stronger scene,” he said. “I’m going to respect that.”
Of course, Calvert could shoot with Deen for any of the many other companies that have been working with him over the last three years. In fact, Calvert has worked with Deen many times since the allegations surfaced. But, says Stagliano, it was Calvert’s request that prompted him to reconsider the company’s ban more broadly. “This whole thing of ‘brand somebody for life, he’s always a bad person,’ that’s just wrong,” said Stagliano. “That is flat out wrong.”
“I figured three years was enough time,” Stagliano continued. “He’s proven that he’s able to be very polite and very fair and very asking of permission from all girls all the time. That’s what he said to me, that’s what people who work with him have said to me.” He went on: “I didn’t know how long the sentence should be, seriously, number one. Number two, I didn’t have all the information. Number three, all my competitors are shooting him anyway. Number four, he’s admitted that he did some bad stuff.”
Evil Angel cast Deen in Consent and lifted the company’s ban. Consent, which is expected to be released in a few months, will have several different distinct sections, and in one of them, Deen will be featured in a sex scene with Calvert, which has already been shot. Before that scene, Stagliano said, there will be footage from the interview with LaBeau about her own experience with Deen, as well as Evil Angel’s decision to work with him again.
Evil Angel did not send Jezebel a polished press release about this film. Last week, amid the madness of the Adult Entertainment Expo and AVN Awards, I was interviewing Stagliano outside of a cafe in the Hard Rock. Then Deen happened to walk by and he stopped to say “hi” to Stagliano. That’s when Stagliano turned to me and revealed that Evil Angel had just shot a scene with him. He called what had happened to Deen “unfair” and a “social media piling on.”
“Is he a perfect person? Probably not,” said Stagliano, who was himself recently accused of “unintentionally” violating performers’ consent during a shoot, according to the New York Post. (He denied the allegations in an email to Jezebel.) “But there are lots of imperfect people in the business.” Later, Stagliano added, “He’s not prosecuted for any crime. Nobody brought charges against him.” “There are people in porn who work all the time who have been in jail for real crimes of violence and now they’ve reformed, they’ve done their time. Are we supposed to now ban them from society even though they’ve done their time?” (Then Stagliano went on a tangent about people who have done “bad things” as teenagers: “Just as Kavanaugh did some stuff when he was drunk at age 15, allegedly, you’re going to hold that against him now? That’s just fundamentally wrong.”)
The issue here seems to be about the bar for reformation. In Deen’s case, is the passage of time amid modest industry sanctions enough? Can one be reformed if you’ve never publicly admitted anything? Stagliano does say that Deen addresses the allegations in Consent, but the extent of that is unclear. And, ultimately, public opinion might not matter much here. Market pressures do not apply in quite the same way in porn as in the mainstream entertainment industry, because of stigma, shame, and marginalization.
So the question really becomes: What is the standard to which adult companies want to hold themselves and their performers? That question is particularly poignant amid the series of allegations of on-set abuse that have arisen in the years since the allegations against Deen. As I’ve reported, in several cases the accusers’ careers have suffered greater consequences than the accused. In fact, as Ashley Fires, one of Deen’s accusers put it to me late last year, speaking out was “devastating” to her career. “That was almost more hurtful than anything he did,” she told me. Of Evil Angel lifting the ban on Deen, Fires told Jezebel via Twitter DM, “I’m not happy about the Stagliano decision.” Fires says she initially agreed to be interviewed for the film, but that she’s having second thoughts.
Calvert says that “the goal of the film was to honestly and earnestly educate viewers about consent,” so she wanted to work with “the person I felt most comfortable with,” and that person was James Deen. “As a performer, I have the right to control who I work with, especially for rough scenes, because it directly impacts my body,” she said. “We haven’t figured out as an industry what to do about allegations of misconduct on set, and until we have those systems in place, my priority is my own safety and well-being.”
It’s clear that there is disagreement within Evil Angel about the movie. Evil Chris, a young director at the company who won a best director award at this year’s AVNs, was sitting with us as Stagliano, 67, detailed the movie and his political beliefs around it, all the while looking like he had seen a ghost. There’s a dynamic of lighthearted intergenerational antagonism between the two. “This movie makes me uneasy, just so you know,” Evil Chris told me at one point. In what way, I asked. “Well, it’s a movie called Consent and James Deen is in it,” he said, plainly.
Stagliano told me that the next day they would be interviewing LaBeau, whose allegations I reported back in 2015, so I asked, multiple times, to attend the shoot. Ultimately, he paused and then confidently said, “Sure.” Evil Chris all but threw up his hands: “I would say no, but—”
LaBeau, sitting in front of the two cameras in the Hard Rock suite, describes “the incident” just as she described it three years ago. LaBeau says that she was hired for a shoot for Kink.com, which took place during a group sex party scene. Deen, she alleges, was not hired as talent for that shoot and had been drinking. He “decided to jump into the scene,” LaBeau alleges, and pulled out a cattle prod, an electrical device sometimes used in BDSM, and turned it on. The device was on LaBeau’s “no list,” a commonly used tool within porn that details the acts to which a performer does and does not consent. “I immediately went into shock and started yelling, ‘It’s on my ‘no list,’ it’s on my ‘no list!’”
Then, she says, Deen got out her “no list” and began reviewing each item until he arrived at “face slapping.” Then, she says, “he hit me so hard that I heard my ear crack—from ear to jaw, I heard a crack. I couldn’t shut my mouth for 10 minutes. It was very scary. Very, very scary.” She says she remembers thinking, “Wow, that was too hard, why was that so hard? Why did you hit me so hard?” Then, she says she realized, “I can’t shut my mouth, I have lockjaw, I cannot close my mouth, so I’m crying,” she says. “I can’t even yell, I’m so mad I just want to start yelling, I can’t even speak at that point.”
LaBeau explains that she worked with Deen a few times after the shoot in question. “Because he worked so much it was heavily suggested that I don’t put him on my ‘no list’ from my agent,” she says, which shows the ways in which consent can be complicated by economics. Then she adds, “I don’t think at the time that I really let myself feel it. It was later when I’m chewing and my jaw starts locking up—again to this day this still happens, and I just get immediately brought back to that moment of like, ‘Motherfucker, you damaged me,’ you know?”
LaBeau mentions that she ran into Deen a couple days earlier at a party amid the expo. It was the first time they had talked since the allegations, she says, but declines to share the details of the conversation on camera because she feels it was held in confidence. Stagliano asks her whether she thinks he’s changed. “I don’t know,” she says. “I have no idea.” Of the women who continue to work with Deen, LaBeau says, “I don’t fear for them, I don’t fear for myself, I’m never going to work with him again.” When Stagliano asks her whether she thinks Evil Angel has made a mistake in choosing to work with Deen again, she says, “I think you guys are all aware, everyone’s aware, I don’t think he’s going to pull any shenanigans anymore.”
Then Stagliano gives me a chance to ask her a question, so I ask whether she believes the industry should forgive him. “We’ve forgiven people that have done some fucked up stuff in this industry.” LaBeau later adds, “It’s hard, because I think in the industry you understand how hard it is to be outside of the industry. So to think about shoving James into the public and saying, ‘You’re blacklisted, you’re never going to work again,’ in a way that’d be condemning him as well to something that’s very terrible.”
Later, after her mic has been taken off, as she’s filling out her model release and just before she receives the modest paycheck for the interview, I ask how it feels to see Deen accepted back into the industry by a company like Evil Angel. “A lot of people love him and love working with him and have had great experiences with him,” she says. “I’m happy about that. I don’t want more problems happening.”
LaBeau continues, “It’s that feeling where you’re like, ‘I want things to be good, I want him to be welcomed back and things to go well and to have good stories.’ I really do, because, if not, then it’s somebody else getting traumatized.”