After James Deen, How Can the Porn Industry Keep Performers Safe?

Photo by SDPD

When porn star and feminist activist Stoya tweeted on November 28th that she had been sexually assaulted by fellow star James Deen, the porn-watching world gasped in collective horror. Deen, Stoya’s ex-boyfriend, has in recent years rocketed to fame because of his seemingly consent-driven, woman-friendly porn. Though he has repeatedly rejected the identity of “feminist,” his popularity with feminist-minded porn fans nevertheless helped him earn a position as possibly the most famous straight-male porn star on Earth. In the weeks following Stoya’s tweet, ten other women stepped forward with their own stories accusing Deen of assault and violating consent, including five who say they were assaulted during the course of filming. 

And yet, these allegations of assault, abuse, and rape didn’t seem to surprise porn industry insiders. While some reported that they have never seen bad behavior from Deen, much of the porn industry seemed more relieved than shocked that years of nasty rumors swirling around “the well-hung boy next door” were finally being aired. It seems that Deen’s friendly public persona was a cover for his not-so-secret dangerous behavior

So why had nobody outside the industry heard about this? How had this alleged monster fooled the public for so long? 

What’s needed now, says director Tristan Taormino, who films educational and sex-positive feminist porn, is a “deep inquiry into labor conditions, systematic inequalities, and the culture those at the top have either created or let flourish. I don't have an easy answer, but a lot needs to change before we can truly say that sex workers in the porn industry truly have free choice and truly are protected from harm.”

Consent can be a difficult subject to discuss in any situation, and it can become even more complicated in the porn industry, where sexual activity is monetized. With the supply of female performers far outpacing demand, some women decide not to speak up if their boundaries are crossed. Ryan Driller, a popular male performer, says that for performers, “There's always going to be a fear of saying anything [negative] experienced on a set. There's a fear that the company won't hire them again, and [will] label them to other companies as ‘difficult.’” 

With reputations at stake, inexperienced performers can particularly feel pressured to go along with their directors’ or costars’ desires, even if they are uncomfortable. Retired performer Aurora Snow, who has done most of The Daily Beast’s reporting on the allegations against Deen, wrote that in her time in the adult industry, she saw directors, agents, and some performers—like Deen—“cash in on inexperienced newbies who haven’t yet made a name for themselves and don’t possess the agency to take a stand yet.” In Kora Peters’ allegations against Deen, Peters told Snow that the director, crew, and her costar were all comfortable crossing her boundaries in order to get more than they paid for out of the “newbie.” When she was new to the industry, she says, Deen choked her before penetrating her anally against her will as the camera kept rolling. After the scene was finished, she said, “The crew all high-fived [Deen] and told him what a great job he did getting an anal scene for the price of a [non-anal] boy/girl scene.” 

Former adult performer Alia Janine has also experienced a production crew trying to push a performer to do more than she wants. Money can be a motivator for going with the flow as well, Janine told me. Some companies do not pay until a scene is completed as planned, which can lead performers to grit their teeth and finish a scene even when they feel uncomfortable. During one scene, she recalls, “The director tried to coax me into letting him stick a very large dildo inside of my vagina while the equally large male performer was also inside of me, otherwise known as double vaginal penetration.” Unwilling to allow an act she hadn’t agreed to, she says, she stopped the scene.  “I got into porn to explore and try new things sexually, so I wasn't against it, but I was also smart enough to know that type of sexual act is worth a lot more money. Of course he didn't want to pay that, so I told him to stick it in his ass.” The scene continued as planned, with no double penetration, she says, and she went home.

In porn, where sexual contact is work, it seems that for some, those lines around acceptable behavior can get blurry. Driller notes, “In an industry and a career where we already push the limits for the camera, why would we not test our own boundaries and limits when we could?” In this climate, he says, it can be hard to answer the question: “What really does define aggressive acts in the setting where the extreme is already the norm?” Amber Rayne reported to the Daily Beast that during an anal scene with Deen early in his career, Deen punched her in the face and used so much force on her anus during a scene that, she said, “He ripped it and I bled everywhere” as the director continued to film. She had to get stitches to repair the damage. Lily LaBeau told Vocativ that Deen assaulted her during filming on two different Kink.com sets, once in which he hit her so hard that her jaw locked. According to these women, on-set violations of consent, apparently, weren’t rare for Deen. 

Backstage, without cameras running, Deen was an alleged menace as well. Tori Lux wrote at the Daily Beast that Deen antagonized her after she had finished shooting a scene with someone else. After she rebuffed him “with a firm ‘No,’ in order to establish my boundary,” Lux wrote that Deen responded by “grabbing me by the throat and shoving me down onto a mattress on the floor,” then beating her, all while other people stood by. Ashley Fires says that Deen assaulted her backstage after a shower: “He comes up from behind me and pushes himself and his erection into my butt,” she said. She immediately added him to her “no list,” refusing to ever work with him and telling her story to everyone she could. 

There are sometimes complicated issues around consent for performers, says Mona Wales, a frequent performer for Kink.com. “One of the issues of consent is: How do you give consent for something you’ve never done before?” she notes. “How do you know how you’re going to feel about something until after you do it?” As Aurora Snow wrote, “Adult actors exist in a reality that many would find difficult to fathom … Displaying an aggressively physical sexual desire for fellow performers is the norm. In these situations consent may feel implied or assumed, even when it isn’t.” 

It’s unclear exactly how Deen’s prominent place on many performers’ “no lists" and his reputation as a “dangerous” man were so overlooked for so long that Deen remained “the world’s most popular male adult performer” until Stoya’s tweet. The answer may lie partly in his popularity within the industry: Deen has acted in over 2,000 sex scenes to date. Producers could have viewed stories of assaults as exceptions over the course of his long career. Snow wrote, “As a former adult actress who has worked with Deen on many occasions, I must admit that I’ve never witnessed this side of him.” Actress Tasha Reign told Broadly, “I've never seen any behavior that correlates with any of the allegations,” but she decided to cancel an upcoming shoot with him to show solidarity with his alleged victims. 

Another reason that Deen’s actions may have been kept quiet is all too familiar: Deen is an extremely powerful figure in the adult entertainment world. As is the case in many other industries, bankable male stars carry a lot of weight. Deen’s wild popularity with fans made him a hot commodity for porn companies. LaBeau, for instance, also told Vocativ that although Deen violated her consent several times on set, she still saw him regularly, since he got so much work, and she remained polite with him because she didn’t want him “getting pissed off.” Deen was also a dependable actor, able to reliably meet the grueling physical standards required of male porn stars, which made him a solid investment for many producers. In addition to all this, industry publicist Erika Icon notes that due largely to most men’s inability to live up to the aforementioned rigorous physical standards, straight male porn stars are in much shorter supply than their female colleagues. “It’s such a small pool of male performers—they work all the time,” Icon says. “It’s hard to get in.” Deen, as a profitable, reliable, and popular performer, was in a coveted position, which could lead casting directors and producers to conveniently overlook any discussion of his history of assault. 

Individual performers can face stigma if they go public with stories of abuse, too. “These women who have come forward over the last week or so feel judged,” says Icon. “The public at large (or civilians, as we call them) don’t understand what it’s like to be a porn star and aren’t offering these women the compassion that they deserve. They already condemn the industry at the drop of a hat.” The misguided but shockingly prevalent idea that porn stars can’t be raped adds another layer of difficulty for victims who want to speak out, and rape survivors’ stories are often dismissed even without the added stigma of sex work. 

Deen’s behavior—whispered-about as it was—may have been kept quiet for the additional reason that, as many porn insiders have pointed out, the porn industry is leery of exposing itself to the long-held contempt of popular culture. Kayden Kross, Stoya’s partner in the production company, TrenchcoatX, wrote on her blog that “already our industry battles … the claims that porn is rape, that consent is questionable, that no woman given a fair choice would engage in it.” The allegations against Deen, unfortunately, could be fodder for people who argue that porn can’t exist without exploitation. 

Although there are always anti-porn activists—both feminist and otherwise—ready to shout down the industry as a hotbed of rape culture, porn producers say that consent is and always has been sacrosanct on most porn sets. Several porn industry professionals I’ve spoken with since Stoya’s revelations have agreed that Deen’s habitual and egregious overstepping of boundaries is an aberration, not business as usual. Industry insiders want to be very clear, in the face of stigma against sex workers, that coercion and assault is a very rare exception to the rule in porn. As former performer Alia Janine says, “Most real performers really enjoy their jobs. They want to be there, so consent, as far as I have ever seen, has never been an issue … Without consent there is no porn, and that is the most important thing you need to know.”

Performer Mona Wales says that because of the hardcore nature of the BDSM content it films, Kink has an extensive consent establishment process that involves interviews with casting directors, informal conversations with scene partners and other performers backstage, off-camera discussions with directors, on-camera negotiations and establishments of consent, check-ins during scenes, post-scene filmed interviews, and confidential exit interviews. Wales adds that the revocation of consent during filming is not frowned upon at Kink. “That happens. Consent escalates, and then de-escalates. We are constantly changing the setup while it’s going on.”  On Kink sets, she says that she sees “continuous consent, continuous consent, continuous consent. Getting consent, again and again and again… There are so many checks in place.” Still, that process could have failed in the case of Deen.

Ethical porn producers have processes in place to make sure everyone in each scene feels comfortable with their role. “I interview my performers before the scenes and ask them specific questions about their preferences, their turn-ons, their dislikes, their boundaries, their vision for the scene, etcetera,” says Taormino. “These interviews are incorporated into the narrative of the film,” she says, specifically so audiences can see, very transparently, how the performers feel about their work. 

Driller reports that on the sets he works on, a cameraperson or producer “will video record each performer’s statement acknowledging what they're about to do. Following most scenes, on camera again, [a producer] will ask the performers if they were asked to do anything they didn't want to do, if they were harmed in any way physically, emotionally, or mentally.” Even during the shooting process, consent is typically checked as the action progresses. Driller insists that consent is sacred. “The moment anyone says, ‘No,’ even if unintentionally, the action is stopped, cameras are stopped, and everyone makes sure everything is OK,” he says. 

LaBeau emphasized that her experiences with Deen should not just be used to condemn him, but should also serve as evidence that the industry needs to better protect its performers.  “James isn’t the only one who’s crossed boundaries,” she said. After Stoya's revelation, feminist indie pornographer Ms. Naughty wrote, “Now it’s time for the wider industry to stand up and be counted, to make an effort to ensure that performer safety and consent is given priority.”

Wales agrees that an industry-wide discussion needs to happen around issues of consent in light of the allegations against Deen. “We need to help assist people when they have something to say, and educate and stand behind people in our community when they have something to say,” she notes. “I think that openness is part of making positive change… It sounds like it’s on the forefront of people’s minds, and the community at large is willing to listen, so the first step has been accomplished. And we just need to continue that good work.” 

In an interview with  Snow, Deen defended his aggressive behavior, saying, “When I show up on set it doesn’t matter what type of sex I feel like having that day, it only matters what type of sex the company hiring me dictates me to have.” 

But Wales points out that in much of Deen’s work, he plays the dominant role. “As a top in a [BDSM] scene, you have to set your own boundaries about how far you’re willing to push someone. Because you’re ultimately responsible for what happens. It’s not the porn company, it’s you …  James Deen is not listening to what’s going on,” she continues. “He’s denying it.” 

Whether he's listening or not, the discussion around James Deen's history should be wakeup call for even the most consent-driven porn producers. 

When severing ties with Deen on Monday, Kink.com pledged to “review its Model Bill of Rights and make changes to ensure performers feel comfortable coming forward.” Company spokesperson Michael Stabile told Buzzfeed that Kink hopes to find ways of “establishing clearer, and perhaps anonymous, ways for performers to report incidents.” Though Wales is not involved in the decision-making process at Kink, she says that she’s heard talk about establishing an anonymous tip line or hiring a performer-advocate to be on site. Kink did not respond to requests for comment.

In an interview with AVN, Kross said that so far, “The conversations that are being explored now are much bigger than [Stoya] intended or expected, and for all of the negativity surrounding this story, I think we can at least be thankful for that. Sex workers are not merchandise or property that can be stolen from or trespassed on."

While the porn industry works to keep their performers safer from abuse and assault, it’s important for porn consumers—especially feminist consumers who may have once enjoyed Deen’s work—to do their part by supporting clear consent in the products they purchase. Performer Jiz Lee is adamant that consumers must purchase porn to ensure ethical production. “Ethics fall apart when people pirate porn,” says Lee. “I'm not going to force people to pay for porn, but want them to understand [that] it hurts the industry and creates non-consensual situations and representation for performers.“

“If the audience becomes more vocal in their desire to see performers treated well then the industry will respond,” Ms. Naughty wrote. “And if those consumers vote with their money, you can bet there’ll be a real move toward ethical, consent-driven production.” 

Related Reading: Why You Should Pay For Ethical Porn 

by Lynsey G
View profile »

Lynsey G is a writerly type who focuses on the congruent corners of sex, feminism, porn, and culture. She's written for outlets as diverse as Juggs, McSweeney's, Luna Luna Magazine, Refinery29, Menacing Hedge, and the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. The winner of a Feminist Porn Award for her documentary film, "Consent: Society," she's blogging at LynseyG.com, finishing a graphic novel, and writing a memoir (forthcoming from the Overlook Press, 2017).

Still Reading? Sign up for our Weekly Reader!

0 Comments Have Been Posted

Add new comment