On November 28, writer, director, and porn actress Stoya fired off two tweets that would upend the porn world.
@Stoya: "That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks... James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can't nod and smile when people bring him up anymore."
Stoya was talking about her former partner, James Deen—the adult-video-industry icon, he of the boyish good looks and crossover media fame, whose swooning female fan base dubbed him "the feminist porn star."
Deen was silent for a day and then posted to Twitter: "There have been some egregious claims made against me... I want to assure my friends, fans, and colleagues that these allegations are both false and defamatory... I respect women and I know and respect limits both professionally and privately." He then went silent until earlier this week, when he gave an exclusive interview to the Daily Beast denying all allegations. He has not replied to a request for comment from The Stranger.
I believe Stoya. Unpleasant stories about Deen have circulated in the sex-work community since well before they were a couple, and in the days following her tweets, nine other women also came forward to say that Deen has assaulted them. One of the women, Joanna Angel, was in a relationship with him for six years. Their stories don't sound like descriptions of misunderstandings or moments of bad judgment. They sound like persistently abusive behavior, dating back nearly 10 years in Deen's life. I believe all of them.
However, one development out of all this did pleasantly surprise me: Major porn companies responded swiftly to the women's allegations. Shortly after the allegations began coming out, major porn studios Kink.com and Evil Angel announced they would no longer work with Deen, effective immediately. Other adult businesses that had connections with Deen also distanced themselves, and non-porn website The Frisky dropped Deen's sex-advice column from its site. In a matter of days, James Deen went from being the golden boy of porn to probably unemployable in the industry.
Of course, there was a backlash. Any allegation of sexual assault invariably brings forth strident deniers, and this was catnip for whorephobes. But it wasn't just people accusing the women of "lying" and "slander." One person replied to Stoya's original tweet with "Rape a whore? Isn't that just shoplifting?"
Defending a man accused of rape by calling his accuser a "whore" is especially irksome when that man is himself a sex worker. But there's another reaction that bothers me, not only from outsiders, but also from a disturbing number of women in the sex industry. They're defending Deen because Stoya accused him on Twitter.
Over the last two weeks, I have had a lot of conversations with people who say things like Deen is being tried in the court of social media. His professional reputation is ruined because he can't prove himself innocent. None of them made a police report at the time, so how do we know it was REALLY rape? You can't accuse someone of a crime without proof! There was a nearly constant thread of "innocent until proven guilty."
But no one has filed criminal charges against Deen. He has exactly the same access to social media as his accusers do, he can talk to the reporters of his choice, and he has an agent and a lawyer to advise him. In my opinion, James Deen is not being victimized by the women who are saying he has harmed them.
When you say, "If it was rape, why didn't you go the police?" here's what it really means: If you don't go to the police, you're not allowed to talk about your sexual assault. Rape is like a ticket in a parking garage, apparently—if you didn't get it validated by the powers that be, you will pay for that later. This is a silencing tactic, nothing more. No one spewing about "due process" to a sex worker who's been assaulted until her ass needs stitches actually gives a shit about the sanctity of law.
And the law certainly does not give a shit about sex workers.
I have a lot of power and privilege for a sex worker, and still I can't imagine going to the police if I were raped. To a sex worker, police are as likely to be the problem as they are to protect you from one. Take Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, for example, who was just on trial for sexually assaulting 13 black women, many of whom had been sex workers. He was found guilty on 18 charges, including rape and sexual battery. We're supposed to get a rape-note stamp of approval from that guy?
Another gut-churning lesson on how sex workers fare in courtrooms is the case of Christy Mack, a nude model, dancer, and porn performer who was the victim of a horrifically violent attempted rape by her ex-partner, MMA fighter War Machine. Last year, War Machine, aka Jonathan Koppenhaver, allegedly entered her Las Vegas house, assaulted a friend of Mack's who was also present, and then beat Mack so savagely that she suffered 18 broken bones, missing teeth, and a ruptured liver.
Koppenhaver was arrested and is now facing trial on 34 felony charges, including attempted murder. His defense? Since Mack was a sex worker, she enjoyed the attack. Koppenhaver's defense lawyer, Brandon Sua, said in court that Mack's career shows she had a "desire, the preference, the acceptability toward a particular form of sex activities that were outside of the norm." Koppenhaver laughed openly when Mack testified in court, and at another point blew a kiss at the prosecuting attorney.
Even if Koppenhaver is convicted, it's a stark reminder of what every sex worker learns: For us, there is no due process, no unbiased hearing. When it first became known that police were seeking War Machine for the assault, MMA fans on social media vilified Christy Mack as (of course) a lying whore. Then she tweeted pictures of herself in the hospital with shocking injuries, and public sympathy shifted considerably (if not completely) in her favor.
In the case of Deen, Stoya's high social-media visibility is part of what made it safe for her to speak. Other women joined her, and their supporters made the hashtags #standwithstoya and #solidaritywithstoya go viral. If our suffering is plain, or our numbers many, then the court of public opinion is a place where sex workers may have a chance of prevailing.
James Deen is a porn brand whose stock has dropped. Doubtless that stings, but Deen is not headed to court and he's not headed to jail, so the frenzied cries of "twitter lynch mobs" are absurd. It's too soon even to say for sure his porn career is finished; other pop-culture heroes have recovered from sexual-assault accusations. Although really, if Deen truly can't tell when he's crossed over someone's boundaries, is he really a guy who should be employed pushing them?
Moral questions about Deen's behavior aside, it's simply his job to have the consent of his scene partners, the professional trust of his producers, and the admiration of his fans. If he loses that? Then he loses his livelihood. That's how fame works: You must cater to "the court of public opinion," or the public will have no use for you.
Stoya punched a hole in the wall of silence about sexual assault against sex workers, as did all the women who joined her, and I'm grateful. You may decry the court of public opinion, but until sex workers are given equality before the law, we will use it, because it's the only one open to us.
This article has been updated since its original publication.