James Deen: Bad Apple or Bad Barrel?

The current controversy around Stoya's (and seven others') rape accusation against James Deen is being tried in the court of social media. People on both sides spout vitriol from the safe distance of their Twitter feeds, and news sources from Buzzfeed to The Daily Beast to Huffington Post continue to cover this story at length. Most sources seem to take the somewhat obvious "feminist" stance, which asserts a disclosure of rape need always to be believed. As a rape survivor myself, I'm not opposed to this, and am awed by the courage of these performers coming forward regardless of the unhinged scrutiny they will no doubt have to face. Some Deen supporters (mostly a special subculture of Twitter Trolls) argue that these performers, many of whom may like their sex--on and off screen--on the rougher side of the sheets cannot therefore lay claim to rape, as violent sex is just part of the job. Still, in all of the dialogue flurrying across our feeds, the following conversation needs to arise: Did the porn industry actually create the fertile ground upon which women would be raped? Or is James Deen just the bad apple ruining it for the rest of the team?

The porn industry is notoriously unregulated by state or federal labor laws. The one organization that somewhat resembles a union, APAC (the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee), arguably fails to protect all the people in the business, including, for example, performers who may wish to use condoms in scenes - teamed with the Free Speech Coalition, APAC's anti-condom sentiment at a May Cal/OSHA Standards Board Meeting represents the status quo, and doesn't advocate inclusively. In times of crisis, performers have no human resources department because they're independent contractors--they have to go to their agent or the police, the latter of which tends to a dim view of the industry. Were you raped on the Microsoft campus or in the break room of a Walmart franchise, the corporation would by necessity take action, if nothing else to get ahead of potentially damaging lawsuits. In fact, a coworker slapping your ass while you were stocking cans at Safeway would be grounds for a sexual harassment case should you want one. In porn, sexual harassment is not an accusation you can easily level- even though sexual harassment happens. Sex workers-- including not just porn stars but also strippers, BDSM professionals, burlesque performers, and all level of prostitute from streetwalker to expensive escort--lack enforceable labor rights that mainstream industries take as a given. Regardless of how you might feel about porn, we can agree that all people should have equal rights at work. If your work happens to be sex, whatever the reason, you still need protection. You probably need more protection than most.

It's often argued that porn is a great employment solution if a person is sexually adventurous, morally unafflicted by the work, and in financial need-- some get paid, others get off, everyone is happy. But taking a step back, it's the financial need that can create an element of coercion--desperate times, desperate measure--which is, for example, why it's the mandated practice of institutional review boards (IRBs) to approve all research studies and monetary compensation offered to research participants. If you're testing out a new drug for, say, erectile dysfunction, and the person considering participating is in desperate need of money, the amount of money offered can't be so much that participant is willing to put themselves in (psychological) harm's way. There are checks and balances when it comes to how we allow people to function as a member of the non-control group, especially in uncharted territory that could impact a person's health. But in the greater experimental fold of the porn industry, required STI testing aside, the checks and balances don't really exist. It's the wild wild west, and those who work within it are consigned to fend for themselves.

Experimental is the key word, and as we've seen from the broad fetish-accomodating variety of films available to us, porn is willing to experiment with anything: porn pushes limits of taste, legality, and performer safety to an ever-advancing brink to get "us" off. From somewhat vanilla Giantess or Crush scenes to Max Hardcore I'm-so-extreme-I-might-end-up-in-jail scenes, the industry continually pushes in the name of consumers' desires. Consider, though, that a person in financial need who perceives their earning options as limited likely has the option to participate in porn; and if that person opts in, he/she/ze will, to their foreknowledge and with a patina of consent, be pushed to their limits and even endangered, with little in the way of recourse should something not awesome occur. Honoring their right to make decisions against the status quo will be questionable at best. Seems like it'd take a certain kind of person to opt into that sort of deal.

Philip Zimbardo had a similar thought when he started the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. Zimbardo hypothesized that certain traits of prison guards or prisoners caused their bad behavior (i.e. "Bad Apples"). He selected a group of middle class mentally stable college kids to participate in his fake prison, assigned some to be guards and some to be prisoners, and then ensured that the process of becoming a guard or prisoner felt real. Within 6 short days, Zimbardo (who was playing the prison superintendent) and the study's participants became the roles: Guards abused their power without question, prisoners' mental stability deteriorated, and of the reported 50 people to witness the study, only one person questioned the ethics of continuing. The study was cut short by 8 days, and ultimately showed that situations can cause behaviors (i.e. "Bad Barrel"). Zimbardo went on to work with the defense team on the Abu Ghraib case, seeing situational similarities between the two prisons. Similar lines can be drawn between this study and the financial crisis of 2008. Yes, it's critical that we hold people accountable. It's also critical to consider the role the environment plays.

And I'm not arguing that porn, as a concept, is bad. These performers aren't in any sort of prison, and participation, with a few extreme exceptions, is entirely optional. There is, in one of the major moral shades of grey, coercion if performers lack recourse to earn adequate income, a culture of unbridled extremism in that one needs stand out in an fully saturated market, and a broad failure to enforce or advocate for sex worker (read: human) rights. For f*ck's sake, most of these rape survivors described incidents that happened at work! The question is much bigger than "Is porn a bad barrel or is James a bad apple?" The question is, "Do the lack of labor rights and regulations in porn make porn an unsafe place to be sexually adventurous?"

Sexual adventure--at home, or on screen--requires safety (respecting safewords, and an element of "trust"), and of course the right to refuse or reject at any point (even in situ) during the adventure. This right of refusal exists regardless of who they are, the lean of their predilections, or what they do for a living. Today, courtesy of, Mr. Cosby and a few others, we are primed to talk big about what defines rape; yet due to the occupation of those accusing James Deen of rape, social media is the best (and arguably only) place to begin shedding light on an otherwise dark and forbidden topic. If the accusations' public unraveling have the potential to reinvent the way we define rape, they should also make us reevaluate the way we view porn, and the beliefs we have about what we see.