The James Deen Rape Allegations Reveal a Huge Problem With "Male Feminism"
On Saturday, adult performer and writer Stoya posted two tweets alleging that her ex-boyfriend, fellow adult performer James Deen, had sexually assaulted her while they were in a relationship.
Since the accusation Saturday, at least two more adult performers have come forward with similar allegations, with one claiming Deen hit her in the face and head multiple times after filming a scene. The allegations have sent ripples of shock and confusion through the Internet — not just because Deen is one of the most well-known names in porn, but because he's also known as one of the nicest.
Widely seen as porn's boy next door, Deen has built his porn bona fides on his sensitive, "nice Jewish boy" persona. With his sheepish good-guy grin and goofy Twitter presence, he's the antithesis of the muscle-bound, gel-tipped meatheads so common in mainstream porn.
For what it's worth, Deen's brand of kink isn't more or less violent or aggressive than that of other male porn actors. ("I've been into rough sex pretty much my whole sexual life and so I'm not, like, bad at it," he told the Observer in 2012.) Yet he has struck a chord among young, feminist-minded women, to the point that feminists have written thinkpieces about how they want their daughters to masturbate to him.
Deen has never explicitly called himself a feminist; the closest he ever came was an 2015 Elle interview, in which he acknowledged, "Maybe I am a fucking feminist!" because he believes in equal rights for women. Yet as a reformer of health and safety standards in the adult industry and a vocal advocate for consent culture, Deen is the closest thing to a Male Feminist the mainstream porn world has — which makes the accusations against him all the more jarring.
The fact that Deen may or may not be guilty of sexual assault doesn't just cast doubt on his status as porn's reigning Male Feminist star. It casts doubt on what it means to be a Male Feminist in general.
When "male feminism" is actually toxic: In the pantheon of entitled white male tropes, the self-proclaimed, all-caps Male Feminist is quickly ascending in status beyond the standard flip-flop-wearing bro or gingham shirt-swathed fuckboy. The Male Feminist is similar to the softboy, a term coined by writer Alan Hanson in Medium, in that he is "emotionally intelligent but does nothing with this knowledge. He is artistic. He is aware. He is still a dick."
The Male Feminist might be floppy-haired and blue-eyed, with tattoos of children's book characters etched on his unthreateningly large deltoids. He might claim he'd rather have sex with Jenny Slate than Kate Upton, and he might accompany his girlfriend to SlutWalks and donate to Planned Parenthood. Yet, when she actually needs a ride to the nearest clinic he will claim he has band practice and disappear into the ether.
This is not to say that all men who self-identify as feminist fall into this category. Male celebrities like Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Matt McGorry have been lauded by the media (including this publication) for self-identifying as feminist, thus serving as a positive example for men to openly embrace feminist principles. As feminists have tirelessly pointed out, to identify as a feminist is to say that you agree with the idea that men and women are social, political and economic equals — a concept that, according to a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll, nearly 82% of men and women agree with.
But for some men, a specific breed of Male Feminist, it's their quickness to the draw, their willingness to embrace a label that has, until recently, been widely vilified by mainstream culture, that arouses intense skepticism. At best, they are hopelessly naïve. At worst, they are charlatans using the veil of feminism to disguise their sins.
"There's something suspicious about anyone eager to identify with the oppressed," Kat Stoeffel wrote for New York magazine in 2014. "Many men seem to reach for the 'feminist' label first to shore up their sensitive-dude bona fides and, second, to get a little female validation."
When feminism serves as a shield: James Deen's alleged actions can hardly be blamed on porn, a conclusion some radical feminists have been quick to jump to. As adult performer and writer Kitty Stryker wrote on Medium, plenty of prominent Male Feminists outside of the industry have been accused of harassing or assaulting women, from ex-podcast host and feminist blog founder Ben Schoen to Portland feminist activist Hart Noecker.
"This is not about sex. This is about power," writes Stryker, "and that power, mixed with toxic masculinity, is a poison that affects all aspects of life, not just the sex industry."
When Mic put out a call to women on Twitter to send horror stories of relationships with self-declared Male Feminists, we received dozens of responses from women who were eager to talk about their toxic encounters, the offenses ranging from garden-variety infidelity and general shadiness to major consent violations, including sexual assault.
A few narratives emerged. At first, this Male Feminist will typically try to endear himself to a feminist woman by citing his feminist credentials in almost laughably specific detail. Caitlin, 23, described going on a Hinge date with a self-identified Male Feminist. "We spent a good hour talking about our favorite feminist authors and making jokes about the patriarchy," she told Mic. "I felt like he was the perfect blend of hilarious and intelligent, with an acute awareness of social issues."
Social media makes it easier for these men to bring their feminist credentials to the forefront. It also enables them to reach out to women who might be baited by their sienna-tinted avatars and the bell hooks quotes in their bios. More than a few women told Mic that they had first encountered a toxic Male Feminist on Twitter, including Annie*, 30, whose engagement to her Male Feminist fiancé ended when she discovered he was hitting on other women on Twitter.
"Because most of these guys are overly sensitive themselves ... they can't just act like a frat bro and hit on a million girls IRL at a bar," Annie explained to Mic. "They can do it on Twitter with less threat/fear of rejection."
Samantha*, 23, told Mic that she was date-raped by a man who self-identified as a Male Feminist two years ago. "He often tweets about feminism and recently tweeted something with the #heforshe hashtag about how men should pay more attention to sexual violence, and it got RTed into my timeline and made me so angry," she told Mic.
She speculated that his aggressively liberal social media presence is inspired by his own guilt over his actions. "I find that often when men are obnoxious, vocal 'feminists,' they are doing so to hide their own shitty, predatory behavior," she said.
A profound lack of awareness: In general, the women who reported being assaulted or abused by self-identified Male Feminists said their abusers fell into one of two categories. Either they, like the man who abused Samantha, used feminism as a fig leaf to conceal their own abusive behavior, or they simply thought they weren't being abusive to begin with.
Lindsay*, 32, said that she was sexually assaulted by a self-identified Male Feminist when she was 28. "We'd slept together consensually earlier in the evening but as I was leaving to go, he wanted to go at it again," she told Mic. "I said no, I was tired and as I bent down to put my shoes on, he yanked down my pants and shoved his cock in me and fucked me right there over the back of his couch."
Afterward, Lindsay felt ashamed and guilty for not being more assertive. But after she got home and over the next few weeks, her rapist repeatedly tried to text and call her to ask her what he did wrong and to apologize. Often, the Male Feminist won't even realize that his conduct is anything but feminist to begin with.
"He was very, very angry around issues of rape. Like 'how can men do that etc etc.," she said. "I honestly think he has no idea what he did was rape and I feel like I should have said something but it's too late now."
"I honestly think he has no idea what he did was rape."
Caitlin and her feminist author-quoting Hinge date went on a few more dates before he tried to get her to go home with him. She said no, but he drove her to his house anyway, saying that he knew she actually wanted to have sex with him and accusing her of leaving him with "blue balls." While he eventually relented and took her home, she wonders if other girls haven't been so lucky.
"What's scary to me is the idea that he genuinely believes he is a feminist and doesn't see the larger implications of that kind of behavior," she told Mic. "He's an asshole, but how many other fake feminist assholes are out there, and how long will it take people to notice?"
Avoiding male feminists: The bad behavior demonstrated by self-identified Male Feminists has prompted many women to be wary of becoming involved with anyone who uses the term.
Amanda*, 28, who described being sexually harassed on Twitter via DM by a prominent Male Feminist comedian, said that her experience has prompted her to shy away from any man with a Planned Parenthood sticker on his canvas bag. "I would never date a man who announced it to me without asking me first," she said. "It would make me on high alert that he's actually not."
Stryker has dated two self-identified Male Feminists, both of whom were prominent in the activist or sex-positive communities and both of whom abused her over the course of their relationship. Her interactions with these men have understandably prompted her to be wary of dating such Male Feminists in the future.
"It's hard not to feel like these things are linked. Correlation is not causation, but [I've joked that] if I hook up with a guy on Tinder, I'm gonna only fuck misogynists 'cause at least they're fucking blatant about it," she told Mic.
"If I hook up with a guy on Tinder, I'm gonna only fuck misogynists 'cause at least they're fucking blatant about it."
This demonstrated skepticism obviously presents a conundrum: If women want to date men who are sensitive to gender issues, but not those who proudly beat their chest and declares themselves as such, what's a man who respects women and equality to do?
It's a tough line to walk, and it's one that male feminists themselves are all too aware of. As one male feminist told Mic, it's easy for a man who wants to respect women to constantly feel self-conscious about his own privilege.
"We can't get rid of the fact that we were raised in this society," he told Mic. "We can try to compensate for it, but it still is not a natural egalitarian thing ... The true solution is just to do as much as I can, try to be aware of my own biases, and listen to her more, and understand that I am coming from the position with the advantage even if I want to stomp and gnash and wish that we were just equals."
To dismiss all Male Feminists as scam artists waiting to whip out their NARAL membership cards to pounce on their female prey does men and women a disservice. But what is important is walking the walk, not just talking the talk. And that takes self-examination before slapping on a label.
"It's similar to white feminists about race. You have the rhetoric and the critique, but not necessarily as it relates to yourself," Stryker said, adding:
They can see how these patterns of behavior are enacted in the world, but there is a cognitive dissonance about their contribution to that. To reflect on your own behavior is very troubling and requires an action plan, and a lot of these guys are not prepared to do the work that needs to be done to begin to unpack the ways in which they're engaging in these behaviors.
If you're a man who wants to legitimately earn his feminist badge, you don't need to actually treat it like a badge. Feminism, as any other ethos, is an approach, not an orientation or accomplishment. As Amanda put it, "People who are rich don't go around talking about how rich they are. People who fuck a lot don't talk about how much sex they have. And real Male Feminists don't need to promote it. They just have to be it. It's like marathon runners: Just run. Don't tweet about it all the time."
Just don't be an asshole: In April 2015, Deen did an interview with the website Project Consent about sexual assault and the porn industry. (The interview has since been removed from the website.) Toward the end of the interview, Deen was asked if he had any other thoughts to add about consent and sexual assault.
"It's not that hard to not be an asshole," Deen said. "Just respect other people and their action to common human rights. It just seems kind of simple to me."
Whether or not Deen is guilty of the allegations against him or whether his career will suffer, what's clear is this: Men may choose to identify as feminists or not, but the more important choice is to not be an asshole to women.
Editor's note: For more information about sexual assault, refer to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. If you need to speak confidentially and securely about sexual assault, contact RAINN's free online helpline or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 (U.S.)
*Some first names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.