Culture

On “Feminist” James Deen, The Failings Of White Ribbon, And The Pathetically Low Bar We Set For Men

"It's too easy for men to claim 'feminist hero' status. We must demand more from them."

This piece deals with violence against women and sexual assault.

This was the week that James Deen’s spectacular career came crashing down.

Deen – an extraordinarily popular porn actor beloved for his boy-next-door persona – was accused of rape by ex-girlfriend and fellow performer Stoya. Since then, at least two more women have come forward with harrowing allegations of abuse.

Deen’s unparalleled popularity in his industry makes the accusations particularly jarring. He is probably the closest a male porn actor has been to a household name, surpassing the likes of Ron Jeremy for the genuine and intense nature of his fans. They are unironic in their adoration, they’re women, and they think he’s totally cute.

Deen’s mainstream appeal can partly be attributed to his perceived feminist credentials. He wrote a sex advice column for feminist site The Frisky (who, following the allegations, immediately dropped him), and in an interview with Elle, he rejected the ‘feminist’ label but stated: “I think our society in this day and age should admit, agree, and accept that females have sexuality … I don’t know, maybe I am a fucking feminist!” Cool, though not exactly groundbreaking.

In the Observer, he spoke about some women’s reservations about having sex with him because of his work with hardcore site Kink.com: “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. But I only do that if the girl is into it. There’s no reason to choke somebody if they don’t like getting choked. Then you’re basically being an asshole.”

Basically.

Amanda Hess argues that, rather than being a legitimate and active feminist ally, Dean’s fans created Feminist James Deen in the image of what they wanted him to be. Hess writes: “Deen was little more than just a conduit for expressing their sexuality, or a key to an online erotic world that had previously been closed.” While Deen never wore the label himself, he certainly exploited and benefitted from it.

The case has parallels in Australia, where our own male feminist badge-waver, the White Ribbon Campaign, has fielded fresh criticisms of its own. The Australian recently reported that the White Ribbon-accredited Royal Australian Navy bestowed full funeral honours to a man who brutally murdered his wife. In October, high-profile White Ribbon Ambassador Hazem El Masri was charged with domestic violence against his wife. And back in 2013, the AFL – long-time supporters of White Ribbon – had teams play for a White Ribbon cup after Stephen Milne was charged rape. Saints captain Nick Riewoldt supported Milne and advocated for him to continue playing, saying, “Milney is the absolute heart and soul” of the club.

The list of failings of White Ribbon champions go on. It’s not hard to see the White Ribbon as an exercise in male self-congratulation, with little substance. And it’s not hard to see the link between the questionable merit of the campaign, and the creation of Deen’s feminist image: both demonstrate the remarkably low standards men are held to.

As former Victorian Police Chief and actually legit good bloke Ken Lay said in his Our Watch address on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the bar is set so low for men that “we congratulate each other for not being monsters.”

White Ribbon simply asks men to take an oath: “I will stand up, speak out and act to prevent men’s violence against women.” Fill out the online form and click “I swear” and you’re done – as if men’s promises have ever protected women.

Men are routinely celebrated for doing the bare minimum. Dads who take on more than the pathetic average male share of child-rearing (and do it in public); men who notice that women are absent from major industry awards; guys like Deen, who courageously agree that women like porn, too.

We demanded nothing of Deen. Even as he apathetically rejected the label of feminist, and made numerous rape jokes on Twitter, his image of being the “nice guy” of porn combined with the sheer belief and desire of him to be our feminist hero allowed him to ride high.

While men are held to standards that are so low, women are held to standards impossibly high. While Deen became a superstar, female porn stars have been doing great work. Stoya is an accomplished essayist and writer for Vice, while another ex of Deen, Joanna Angel, is a politically active punk rock porn star with a paraphrased Margaret Atwood tattoo that reads “Touch me and you will burn”.

Yet somehow Deen was our feminist porn hero?

That it’s so easy for (allegedly) violent men to claim ‘feminist hero’ status (remember Hugo Schwyzer?) shows that we must demand more from them. It’s not enough to once a year promise not to hit women – men’s commitment to ending male violence against women must be more than a slogan, it must be proved in their actions.

When we demand that men prove their feminist cred we tell men that the bare minimum is not longer good enough, and that we believe that they are capable of more than just not being monsters. When simply saying you won’t hit women makes you a good bloke, we lose sight of the fact that “the absolute heart and soul” can be, and often are, the monsters.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

Jessica Alice is the co-director of the National Young Writer’s Festival and poetry editor of Scum. She tweets @jessica_alice_.

Feature image via Franco Origlia for Getty.