‘Sex-positive’ women’s sites push young women to support misogynists like James Deen

Writer, Mandie Williams, wrote an open letter to James Deen a couple of years ago, professing her adoration for the famous male porn actor and producer which she now, naturally, feels horrible about:

“Two years ago, I wrote an essay titled ‘This Angry Feminist’s Open Letter to James Deen.’ It was one of my first pieces of writing to be published on a major women’s website, and I was over the moon when it came out. At the time, I thought myself very radical for writing what was essentially a fan letter to the only male adult film star I could recognize by name. Look at me, writing about porn and feminism on the Internet! I am a sex-positive feminist, hear me roar!”

She wrote this piece for one of the many women’s sites that traffic in this kind of thing — The Gloss. There are many more of these types of online publications — The Frisky, xoJane, Bustle, Ravishly, The Hairpin, etc. — all purporting to cover “women’s issues,” all pumping out various levels of feminism-lite, often in the form of personal stories (in order to get the most clicks while being the least political), always squarely avoiding critiques of structural oppression. The only way to get published at these places is to, as Williams clearly understood, write “radical” essays gushing about porn stars or explaining how burlesque cured you of patriarchy.

If I was still a newbie hopeful, I’d know to do the same — sadly, there are few other options for young women but to buy into the only thing you have any hope of selling, as a writer. Pour your guts out about some weird sex thing or prove how hip and cool and subversive you think gang bangs are.

After Stoya’s disclosure, Williams was riddled with guilt: “I felt like [Stoya] was talking directly to women like me. I felt complicit for my part in a culture that keeps women like Stoya silent.”

And in some ways, she’s right. Stoya was talking to women like her. But it’s more than that. Moreso than writers who are getting paid $50 to push Playboy Feminism, desperate to “make it” in the competitive writing world, it’s these platforms that are at fault. Young women like Williams are pitching every day, trying to come up with “sex-positive” headlines that some editor will pick up, knowing exactly what kinds of “analysis” sell and which don’t.

It’s not, of course, solely the fault of sites like The Gloss, The Frisky, Bustle, and xoJane… I mean, they didn’t invent neoliberalism or porn culture, they just profit from it and indoctrinate their readers with it, uncritically.

You feel kind of desperate when you’re a new writer — so much so that you’re almost willing to write anything, just to get your foot in the door. Combine that with this overwhelming pressure to seem like a “cool girl” (and to avoid getting screamed at by the internet), and you’ve set young women up for the kind of experience Williams is reeling from now. Thinking she was saying all the right things, Williams ended up burying the truth.

Now she’s left feeling like Deen “duped” her and other “feminist fans,” but, as I wrote last month, he didn’t really “dupe” anyone. He was always an abusive misogynist. He was always a fan of rape. He certainly never respected women.

Women like Williams have been duped by “sex-positive feminism.” They’ve been duped and continue to be duped by all these women’s sites — growing in numbers — that seem to exist as a backlash to (actual) feminism and to celebrate the porn industry and men like Deen.

WWJDD the frisky

Williams writes:

“I feel ill now for so enthusiastically believing Deen’s sexual exploits were good for women, when the complete opposite is alleged to be true. I wanted to write this piece in part so that the last words I speak about Deen on the Internet won’t be fawning admiration. I, like so many women, side with the accusers and wish I could take it all back.”

I feel badly that Williams is blaming herself for something these platforms and editors and, more broadly, the current climate in popular feminism, has practically forced on young women. If there were anywhere else for women to go with their writing, to go for real feminist analysis, if they weren’t shouted down on Twitter and called “pearl-clutchers” and “prudes” every time they questioned the dominant liberal narrative about “sex work,” if men like Deen weren’t shoved down their throats by sites like The Frisky, I bet they’d come up with some ideas that were actually radical.

“I wonder now why we were so eager to put Deen on a pedestal. Were we so desperate for a feminist-friendly male sex icon that we were willing to accept just a few words and a smile as proof that he was worthy of not just our lust, but our support?”

Well yes, of course. You’ve learned to accept misogyny as feminism. You’ve learned that “sexuality” is always male-centered and that objectification is empowering if you say it is.

If we truly want to “work towards honouring people who really respect women’s sexuality, instead of just putting on a good show,” we need to start asking hard questions and bringing forward real challenges. We also need all those women’s sites who are collaborating with the porn industry and with misogynists to stop. It’s causing harm.

Williams concludes by saying her “sincerest hope is that the conversation about James Deen and his alleged victims will not be reduced to tired arguments about whether porn empowers or demeans its female performers.” She asks that we, instead, “keep the conversation focused on consent and power, and why we crowned this man as our sex positive champion.” It seems like she’s falling back into the same trap, sadly, knowing that there are few other responses allowed to this particular situation if she wants to continue to get published…

But as far as not having “tired arguments” and having real conversations about “consent and power” go, we’re having that conversation. Over here in the feminist movement. We’ve been having it for decades. And you’re more than welcome to join us.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • pjwhite

    Great article! I am not a journalist or even a professional writer. But I have been DM’d by professional journalists on twitter who tell me they are afraid to participate in some of the online conversations I have, because being associated with “RadFems” is the “kiss of death” for a female journalist. One woman told me she is a lesbian who doesn’t feel safe using the term “biological female” for fear of being called a “terf”. She doesn’t even feel safe centering lesbians in her politics – she feels as if she has to center genderqueer/gender non-binary people instead. I wonder how many other women out there are afraid to share their real thoughts & feelings about these issues. If people are DM-ing me, someone they don’t know, to share these fears, they must feel so alone. Thank You for having the courage and integrity to take a real stand on behalf of women. We need brave women like you so much right now. Solidarity!!!!

  • Shari Slater

    I never could “get” the whole Deen worship thing. Just another nice Jewish boy with a decent dick and a whiny fake-bad-boy demeanor, no hotter or more “sexy dangerous” than any of the dozens of guys working in Valley Porn. The whole choking & trash-talking thing looked actually cartoonish. He had a calculated “feminist porn-dude” PR machine built around him by Brazzers and kink.dotcom, which generated all the media buzz which the feminista-blogerati chickies (who’ve mostly never been within 10 miles of an actual porn set) cooed & gushed over like panty-throwing Elvis fans, right on cue. Since he’s now proven to be a power-tripping. rapey little weasel, they can’t backpedal fast enough. Business as usual in Porn Studies-Land!

  • In response to the idea that we should “work towards honouring people who really respect women’s sexuality”. Why not just honor people who respect women? Contrary to liberal belief, not all women have the same sexuality and some sources of sexual arousal are quite horrific (e.g. violence, rape, slavery, fascism). Sorry liberals, but whether the person experiencing the sexual desire is a man or a woman, I only respect sexualities that are worry of respect. Same thing with ideas that demand respect.

    • radwonka

      In response to the idea that we should “work towards honouring people
      who really respect women’s sexuality”. Why not just honor people who
      respect women? Contrary to liberal belief, not all women have the same
      sexuality and some sources of sexual arousal are quite horrific (e.g.
      violence, rape, slavery, fascism).”

      Indeed, when 3rd wave feminists say that men who respect women’s sexuality are “good men”, they don’t question what this sexuality is about, in fact we all know that it is “rough sex” that they’re talking about, and they don’t want to criticize that “sexuality”, they just want to banalize it.
      Sadistic men need to be criticized and named not protected/promoted.

      • Meghan Murphy

        “In response to the idea that we should ‘work towards honouring people
        who really respect women’s sexuality.’ Why not just honor people who
        respect women?”

        YES. This really isn’t about ‘respecting women’s sexuality’… Porn has nothing to do with ‘women’s sexuality’ anyway… It’s about respecting women. As humans. As a society.

  • OneEyeWalker

    It is a bloody minefield. You would think that the sex positive crowd would be first in line when it comes to being critical of the sex industry, but that is sooo not the case. If you love the sex industry, you should be clamoring to call out the aspects that make people think it is inherently exploitative.

    Do women who elect to be sex workers deserve respect, safe working conditions, decent pay, comprehensive health care, and protection under the law? OF COURSE! But the sex positive crowd seems to view these views are mutually exclusive to expressing any criticism of the industry itself. How is that helpful? Self-examination is healthy.

    From what I’ve read, several performers had Deen on their “No” list of people to work with, but the companies ignored these women and hired him anyway—essentially violating their sexual consent before they even started shooting, and putting them in harms way. Where’s the think piece calling out those people/companies as complicit in rape? Have they changed their policies since 7 women came forward, or will they still knowingly make women work with dangerous men as long as they’re a draw?

    If you don’t want porn to be casualty of Deen’s actions, stop acting like Deen is an isolated incident and push for real policy changes within the industry, instead of trying to separate his actions from the industry that made them possible. Hold them accountable!

  • will

    ” …her “sincerest hope is that the conversation about James Deen and his alleged victims will not be reduced to tired arguments about whether porn empowers or demeans its female performers.” She asks that we, instead, “keep the conversation focused on […] power…””

    Oh my oh my. How sadly incoherent this libberish nonsense renders people. Even when someone is trying to dig their way out from under the layers of doublespeak, the self-contradiction thrives.

    I hope that Williams and others who are slowly waking up to the contents of the kool-aid they’ve been drinking discover sooner than later that conversations about power and diminishment (ESPECIALLY when a person being demeaned is seen as arousing) is the key to unpacking this poisonous ideology. There’s nothing “tired” about it and describing it as such only demonstrates the depths of the colonization of womens’ minds with this crap.

  • artemix

    I wanted it to be known that in the early 1970’s there was a Feminist School that set up in Northern Vermont with major feminist thinkers including Mary Daly and Gloria Steinem. It was called Sagaris. The second year the project fell apart over a dispute on whether to take Playboy money or not. I remember that Ti-Grace was one who opposed collaborating with Playboy. She was also the author of an essay titled The Vaginal Orgasm as Mass Hysterical Survival Response. I think a lot of hysterical survival responses are going on today.

    • Meghan Murphy


  • Meghan Murphy

    I know, it’s hilarious. “But things are changing! The Frisky cut ties with the man whose been making rape porn all along!” Like, as they continue to publish rape-porn-is-so-great-but-rape-is-so-bad pieces, feigning shock that Deen turned out to be…uh… exactly what he always was…? Pathetic.

  • Meghan Murphy

    It does feel like a betrayal… Because it is!

  • Kate Christie

    Wow – you don’t give women much credit, do you? How is it that magazines & websites are to blame?Every writer, & more importantly, every consumer (female or male) has a choice. These “feminists” (whatever the hell that even means these days) & their audience, actively choose to write & consume this stuff – good, bad, or in my humble opinion, simply stuff. Aren’t you taking away a person’s power when you choose to perceive a situation from this point if view? In fact, aren’t you participating in the same thing you’re writing about here?

    • Meghan Murphy

      I’m not clear on the point you’re trying to make here… Not being facetious, I’m sincerely confused as to what your argument is.

    • Jude

      Taking away a person’s power when you choose to perceive them differently than they see themselves. Is that what you meant to say? “a situation from this point of view” Any situation? From “this” point of view? Which one?

      What are you saying? Don’t blame the platform/business, just the writers/workers and the consumers? Like, don’t criticize McDonalds for their food or treatment of animals or how they pay their workers, just the workers themselves for choosing to work there and the people who the food? Is that about right? Because… otherwise you’re taking away a person’s “power”??

  • Cassandra

    Welcome to the side that tells the truth, sister! We’re the real feminists.

  • Cassandra

    Well, I hate to state the obvious, but the reality is that this is about money. Mainstream media makes its money from advertising and nobody’s gonna publish anything that isn’t pro-patriarchy/exploitation of women/beauty products/femininity/objectification and other assorted barf because that’s how ya sell shit.

    Germaine Greer said something like “More women in the corporate world isn’t going to really change anything. That world changes you before you change it.”

    • femmom

      And advertising has never been taxed, a 5% tax on advertising would pay for 20 PBS publicly funded channels. There are so many solutions to our problems, take heart.

  • AJ

    I have just started reading Our Blood by Andrea Dworkin and I am struck by the similarity between this article and Dworkin’s statements in the preface to the book.

    Here is an excerpt –
    “I had been offered magazine assignments that were disgusting. I had been offered a great deal of money to write articles that an editor had already outlined to me in detail. They were to be about women or sex or drugs. They were stupid and full of lies. For instance, I was offered $1500 to write an article on the use of barbiturates and amphetamines by suburban women. I was to say that this use of drugs constituted a hedonistic rebellion against the dull conventions of sterile housewifery, that women used these drugs to turn on and swing and have a wonderful new life-style. I told the editor that I suspected women used amphetamines to get through miserable days and barbiturates to get through miserable nights. I sug­gested, amiably I thought, that I ask the women who use the drugs why they use them. I was told flat-out that the article would say what fun it was. I turned down the assignment. This sounds like great rebellious fun—telling establishment types to go fuck themselves with their fistful of dollars—but when one is very poor, as I was, it is not fun. It is instead profoundly distressing. Six years later I finally made half that amount for a magazine piece, the highest I have ever been paid for an article. I had had my chance to play ball and I had refused. I was too naive to know that hack writing is the only paying game in town.”

    She was writing this preface in 1981. Depressing much!

  • northernTNT

    Hopefully many funfems will wake up with this

  • northernTNT

    and SNCs (Stereotype Non Conforming) 🙂

  • asialita

    As far as I am concerned, anyone who promotes the sex industry as safe, harmless, fun, empowering, an “expression of a woman’s sexuality”, etc. is participating in the grooming process and acting as recruiters, whether they mean to or not.

    • Jem Leav

      That’s exactly it. It’s a grooming process.