On Believing Women

Sunday Content #18: December 6, 2015

So anyway being a human is fine.

You’ve probably followed the story: this week several women, beginning with Stoya, accused Bryan Sevilla, a.k.a. the mega famous porn actor James Deen, of being a sexual predator who has raped and otherwise sexually and physically abused and humiliated women, including his past professional and romantic partners.

Like many people, I’m familiar with Deen because I’ve masturbated to videos of him having sex. I didn’t consider myself a ‘Deenster’ or fangirl; I’ve never spent time on tumblr. But I did follow his Instagram for while, so I guess I was something of a fan. Mostly, I liked his videos because when I watched them I was able to have orgasms. James Deen has probably made me come more than anybody else.

When I was first trying to find things to masturbate to on the internet, most of what I found, on tube sites and such, depicted the aggressive penetration of female bodies, bodies with balloon-like boobs and flawless hairless pussies and gargantuan false eyelashes, bodies that intimidated me and further alienated me from the differently proportioned female body I was stuck inside. And a body that had a lot of trouble coming. Namely, I couldn’t come when someone was in the same room, let alone touching me. A lot of the time I couldn’t come when I was alone, either. I found looking for pornography online embarrassing, but I also was desperate to figure out what was wrong with me.

But then one day I clicked on a video that included James Deen. Unlike nearly every other man in the porn I’d encountered, Deen was not horrifically ugly. Nor was he merely a penis connected to a gut and ass whose head was cut out of frame. Deen seemed to be a real and somewhat desirable guy, and a guy who, it seemed, made women orgasm. This was something I just hadn’t seen before. For me it was revelatory.

Amanda Hess was first to write in-depth about the phenomenon of James Deen fandom for a ‘mainstream’ audience in this 2011 Good profile. She’s argued that women such as myself liked Deen because we faced an “extreme erotic scarcity.”

I remember finding it bizarre when, not long after, GQ ran a Wells Tower profile of Deen as well, alongside a cheeky photoshoot. I remember wondering why another woman wasn’t chosen to write about Deen, but Hess has written that a GQ editor told her that they were trying to do her story from a man’s perspective. In other words, the story of “James Deen” stopped being about what Deen represented for women—which is why he had become popular—and became what he represented to men.

In her must-read Slate piece from this week, Hess talked about the implications of this shift.

And hence, she notes, many of those same fans, myself included, have little trouble dumping him, in light of these revelations. It is not hard for me to call Deen what he is, which is a rapist.

It’s a little ironic that I’d certainly be less of a feminist—and therefore less able to say that Deen is a rapist—if it hadn’t been for existence of “James Deen,” by which I mean, an occasion for a ‘mainstream’ conversation that related to the concept of female pleasure, one that gave me permission to try to understand and respect my own body. In other words, one that helped teach me how to speak up.

The two Deen profiles came out when I was in my mid twenties. Around that same time, something else happened to me that hadn’t happened before: I was talking with a friend, and she told me about the time she was raped.

Soon after, I was talking to another friend, and she told me about the time she was raped. Not long after that, another friend told me about the time she was raped. And another friend. And another. Recently I was talking to someone much older than me and she told me about how she was molested as a child. She said she had never told anyone before. I’m not saying much here because these aren’t my stories to tell. But each of these conversations was extremely painful, and I say that from the advantaged position of merely being the person hearing about the realities of sexual violence.

Each of these conversations has shown me: Anyone you know may have been the victim of sexual violence, and it’s totally possible, nah, it’s likely, that he or she has chosen to never talk about it.

Which isn’t surprising because our country’s totally lousy at talking honestly about sex. Those who do speak honestly about sex are often punished, as Amanda Hess has also written about. Our sex education is a literal joke. Our government does not adequately police nor punish those who perpetrate criminal acts of sexual violence.

People like Stoya, and Chelsea G. Summers, and Melissa Gira Grant, and Susan E. Shepard—they are the exception. For a long time, they’ve risked much in choosing to speak publicly and honestly about sex, and about sex work, and about sexual violence. They’ve done so because to sex workers, sexual violence is rarely a hypothetical.

As these women and others have aided in breaking the James Deen story this week, I think what we’ve witnessed is a segment of our culture — one that is better at talking about sex than any other — demonstrate to ‘mainstream’ society, which pretends, constantly, that sex is not real, how a violent criminal like James Deen should be treated.

I remember it was really hot the afternoon I read the New York Magazine story, the one in which thirty five women made accusations of sexual abuse against Bill Cosby.

These women gave their full names. They told their stories and allowed themselves to be photographed. Some even told their stories on video. Each was accusing a beloved and very wealthy man, one who, like so many powerful rapists, has been more or less immune to punishment given our society’s present attitudes about rape, and despite a flabbergasting amount of evidence. I read as many of their stories as I could. I watched many of the videos. I let each confession hit me, like the way when I was little that I’d stand in the ocean right where waves were breaking and let each one take me under.

I left my apartment feeling ill. It was hot. I walked through Brooklyn’s streets. I dialed a friend on the phone and we talked. She lives far away. I stumbled past dogs on leashes and families with strollers and the air was heavy like spit.

These women were speaking out despite a great much; I felt the very least that I could do was listen.

Today I googled the words “powerful men accused sexual assault” and one of the first results a The Daily Beast story from September by Asawin Suebsaeng. Its headline was: “Not Just Cosby: Hollywood’s Long List of Male Scumbags.”

Of course it’s not just Hollywood types, who are ‘male scumbags.’ You and I both know this.

You and I both know now that there are priests who are rapists and there are rabbis who are rapists and there are teachers who are rapists and there are politicians who are rapists and there are police who are rapists and there are

So try listening. Follow the people I’ve mentioned. Read the New York story. From this week, read Chelsea G. SummersGuardian piece and also Melissa Gira Grant’s, which includes Stoya’s first interview since her tweets last weekend.

It also includes this photo of Stoya, one I find very powerful:

So in this newsletter, I planned on writing next about guns and then giving some links to smart things but it took me all day to write this. Talking about sex is hard. Next week I’ll do those other things, unless we solve guns this week. Fingers crossed.


p.s. Science writer Perrin Ireland has been recapping the climate change talks in Paris in comic form. Read ’em:

p.p.s. Comedian Jamie Loftus is selling Shrek nudes to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Here’s the Esty link. Sorry folks; she says no donkeys.

p.p.p.s. ICYMI, Billy on the Street with Julianne Moore acting for tips in Time Square is perfect:

Can we talk about how there is maybe no scene in any movie ever I love more than the pharmacy one in Magnolia?

p.p.p.p.s. Every cool bar tender is making them: how to make a vodka sandwich.

p.p.p.p.p.s. What Rahawa said:

Author of A KIND OF MIRRACULAS PARADISE (Scribner, 18) | Host of podcast MAD CHAT (www.madchatshow.com) | www.hellosandyallen.com | they/them

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