‘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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.