James Deen, Pornography, and the Difference Between Conscience and Hypocrisy

In the world of sexual freedom activists, sex workers, kink and pornography, we have a problem when it comes to determining right and wrong. This is an issue that I’ve been mulling over repeatedly for decades, and occasionally something hits the headlines which makes me take a few moments to put those swirling thoughts into words.

We have issues with the concept of saying that anything anyone does is categorically wrong, even when the actions in question literally land people in criminal court (or should.) I’m not referring to the kinky things that are done with informed consent, which can still lead to legal difficulties. I’m still on the front-lines of the relative battle to get legal protections for those things. No, I’m referring to things that are non-consensual or at least highly unethical – the kind of things that James Deen had been accused of doing.

A while ago, The Atlantic published portions of an interview Deen gave for a podcast, and somehow managed to construct the theory that he was having a crisis of conscience over his career in porn. This article is like many others out in the mainstream media about the porn and kink industries in general since it places Deen’s comments in context with the “everyday knowledge” that is already out there. It misses the nuance of his words, even though he said it plainly enough.

In a nutshell, while Deen thinks it’s bad that kids have access to pornography on the web, his actions to prevent them from seeing his own content are limited by the demands of his bottom line as a businessman. It is important to point out that the interview in question that yielded Deen’s comments against kids seeing porn was conducted by people who are definitely on the side of placing all “adult material” behind pay-walls, since that’s as close as we can get to a true age verification procedure. The fact that Deen is at least self-aware enough to realize that his work doesn’t resemble “real sexual relations” for the majority of people out there might also be recognition of the audience he was dealing with – two ostensibly conservative interviewers who Deen had to realize were hoping to get him to admit that his work was “wrong” or “evil” on some level.

This is a cynical view, but given that this involves a man who ended up with a reputation for blurring the lines of consent and non-consent both on set and in life, it’s fair. There’s no reason for anyone who is aware of how things work in the world of porn should view Deen’s comments as a “come to Jesus” moment of contrition, even if the mainstream media almost bought it completely. The Atlantic already built a reputation for itself when it comes to being clueless about kink, when they ran a first-person feature from someone who decided to take advantage of a “BDSM therapy” session – something that in kink world still should be considered highly unethical at best.

The bottom line is that Deen should be seen as a hypocrite, not a porn star with a conscience. If he truly believed that the films and websites he produces are harmful to children, then why doesn’t he quit?

There is one film where he is listed as a participant that also gets deep into the territory of misrepresentations of kink world to the mainstream. Kink, the documentary directed by Christina Voros, and produced by James Franco, blithely wanders through the studios of Kink.com, where Deen worked. People from the world of ethical BDSM should cringe when viewing this film, but it’s likely that many hold that back under the excuse of not wanting to be judgmental. There’s nothing wrong with being hopping mad at a film director who takes an actress to the point of nearly losing consciousness, then merely smacks her to startle her awake instead of fully stopping the action that caused her medical problems on set. The fact that this scene is in Kink, is offered as a “normal” day on set, and no one from the BDSM community seriously calls out against it is a problem. Deen, while not in that particular scene of the documentary, has repeatedly been accused of going “off script.” They brushed over this in the documentary, because they were from Hollywood. What’s the big deal if people go off script?

In their world, it’s fine.

In porn world, that means you might have actors doing things to each other without informed consent on film.

To an activist like me, that’s the break point where I want to say, “I quit!”

How can anyone expect any of these things to get legal protection if what they’re doing already is intentionally going into the territory of rendering simple contracts void?

This is why I say that Deen didn’t have a crisis of conscience, because if he had, it wouldn’t have been just over kids seeing his stuff online. If he’d truly had a crisis of conscience, that interview would have been about the ethical dilemma of going “off script” on set at Kink.com. That’s not even taking a leap into the allegations against him, but it certainly makes them understandable. While it pains me to say this, why is anyone surprised that Deen probably ended up with no clue how to respect boundaries when he was encouraged to ignore them on set at Kink.com? It’s a fair assumption, since at least one of those situations was depicted for all to see on a mainstream documentary!

But, we’re not supposed to be judgmental, so we can’t speak against that, right?

Image: By Queenofthesky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons