In November 2015, the porn industry was shaken when one of its high-profile performers revealed a rape allegation in a now deleted series of tweets. Stoya had resorted to Twitter to share how her then on-screen and real-life partner, James Deen, paid no heed to her boundaries despite her attempts to stop him even with the use of their safe word.
Following her unsettling revelation was her silence. But eight other performers, including a woman who went by the name T.M., filled it in with their own narratives of sexual assault by the same man. Arabelle Raphael and Sydney Leathers were warned to put the Golden Boy in their blacklist. Leathers recounts Joanna Angel’s disturbing admonition during a conference in 2013, “He likes to try to break women.” It was disturbing news for the legion of sex-positive feminists who reverenced him as the hero of the unsung female fantasy.
The industry was quick to respond. The Adult Entertainment Expo created its first ever panel discussion on sexual consent; it was subsequently cancelled because Stoya could not make it. Two of the industry’s biggest companies, EvilAngel.com and Kink.com, ended their ties with Deen—the latter even amended their performer guidelines. Producers refused to shoot with him. The Frisky put down his column. Eventually, he had to resign as the Chairperson of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee because the allegations posed a conflict between him and the Committee. Even though no criminal charges were filed, within a few days, the industry’s award-winning performer became an outcast.
In The Daily Beast exclusive, James Deen denied all the allegations; giving a run through of how consent works in pornography and in BDSM, and how his personal relationship was with some of the women who accused him. When asked if the line between performance and reality ever became hard to define in aggressive violent sex, he responded with a confident “no” and provided video evidence of him and Stoya doing a scene—the word that differentiates the simulation of aggressive violent sex from a replication, defined in Patrick Hopkins’s Rethinking Sadomasochism: Feminism, Interpretation, and Simulation (1994)—in a BDSM dungeon where Stoya says, “Stop.” In the video, Deen immediately stops slapping her aggressively and asks, “Stop what?” “I don’t want to do that,” she says to which he replies, “We absolutely don’t have to do that.” While she’s in his arms sobbing and apologizing, he says, “All you have to say is you don’t want to do it, then we won’t do it.” How baffling, then, that what is captured on video diverges from the women’s truth.
Both the sex industry and the BDSM community pride themselves for giving importance on consent, which includes its withdrawal when the safe word is used. While pornography is deemed as created by men for men and while BDSM receives criticisms for reinforcing “Marquis de Sade’s boundless prudish carnal gratification of the flesh”, they have now evolved into a form of self-empowerment that has their core rooted on being consensual.
To differentiate the coercive and degrading sadomasochism de Sade popularized in his The 120 Days of Sodom (1904), New York’s Gay Male S/M Activists’s slave david stein coined the phrase “safe sane consensual” (SSC) kink. It is essentially a reminder to “Have a good time but keep your head and understand what you’re doing so you don’t end up dead or in the hospital—or send someone else there.” Its popularity spread like wildfire. The rest of the sex-positive communities, including the sex industry, adopted the principle, even making it their creed.
SSC demands a negotiation between or among those playing in the scene. During the negotiation, they must disclose their hard and soft limits, as well as their affirmative consent to what exactly they would want to do, their health conditions, and their agreed safe word. Negotiation makes all boundaries explicit; determining what is deemed as abusive in acts where the dynamics of shackles, power, and pain are always in play.
2015’s #SolidarityWithStoya demanded for a new discourse in rape culture, but this seems to have been forgotten in 2017’s #MeToo. The abuses in the sex industry, also in the kink community, must be given equal light for it is within these nuances the unspoken forms of abuse thrive.
The punitive aspect of the issue is social in nature: those who overstep their partner’s boundaries would be banned in sex-positive communities. The Philippines has Shibari.PH and Manila Rope to turn to when such abuse happens. They provide emotional support for the victims, regardless of the degree of trauma endured. Victims are always portrayed as traumatized, some even to the point of being dysfunctional. These cases are rampant and true. However, this leads to the assumption that abuse is serious only when it has inflicted trauma.
Abuse is abuse regardless if it’s traumatic. In Kitty’s Stryker’s essay I Never Called It Rape (2011), she recalls “As I reflected on the number of times I’ve had fingers in my cunt that I hadn’t consented to, or been pressured into a situation where saying ‘no’ was either not respected or not an option, or said that I did not want a certain kind of toy used on me which was then used, I’m kind of horrified.” Stryker continues, “…these things didn’t traumatize me, and I didn’t call it sexual assault or rape, because I felt ok afterwards. There was no trauma, no processing that I needed.”
With the lack of collective discourse about kink, and even about sex work, outside the community, communities can only do so much. But, what happens next? Does it simply end with the assailant banned?
J.A. Rock, in Talking About Kink and Consent (2016), leaves a thought-provoking remark on Stryker’s that remain unanswered amidst the aggressive cry for justice, “…how do you explain to likely-vanilla authorities that yes, you wanted to be whipped until you bled, but no, you didn’t want to be fingered?” To this, I add: Would victims in the sex industry still be seen as victims when their livelihood is largely seen as criminal in nature? How would the legal system address such cases, in a milieu where victim-blaming and patriarchy still exist, and when people are still shamed for engaging in misunderstood subcultures?
Stoya’s bravery provided relief for both communities because it’s something that they are dubious to talk openly about. Most members of society would likely claim that as a sex worker or as an individual designated as sexually liberated, they should have seen it coming—in society’s eyes, the nature of their work or of their decision to exercise their sexuality have made them “unrapeable”. Even though there is nothing inherently wrong with the practices they believe are empowering, the abolitionist and the conservative communities might turn a blind eye to the fact that rape could happen regardless of one’s work or lifestyle. Even worse, there are those who stop these communities from being heard. At that exact point where the unfamiliar and unconventional begin, is the point where saying “Me, too” might end.