Limits and limitations

This may be slightly outside my area of analytical competence, but it’s sort of bothering me, so here we go.

Here’s Lily LaBeau describing how James Deen assaulted her:

“At one point in the scene, Deen grabbed a cattle prod, a shocking device that is sometimes used in kink, and held it near her head. LaBeau said the device was on her ‘no’ list and that Deen was well aware of it. ‘The cattle prod makes me go into complete panic,’ she said. ‘When you pull it out, I’m done, I’m scared, I’m crying, I can’t think.’

. . .

While his foot was in her mouth, she said, ‘I just remember him taking his hand really far back and then just hitting me hard. Hard. Like, too hard,’ she said. ‘I heard and felt an almost crack in my ear, from my ear down to my chin. I couldn’t close my mouth.’

. . .

‘I honestly don’t remember what happened after that,’ she said. ‘I’m still dealing with trauma from it. Even talking about it right now, little tears come to my eyes.’ LaBeau later added, ‘Even to this day, certain people holding my head a certain way will bring up a lot of trauma and cause me to start crying.'”

What was notable about the Cosby allegations was the consistency of his M.O.; America’s goofy dad turned out to be a classic predator. What’s notable about the Deen allegations is that they all describe different situations, but they evidence a consistent motivation. Deen is clearly the type of person who gets off on knowingly violating boundaries (with the awareness of the victim that this is what’s happening). The enlightened cool dude turned out to be a class-A creeper.

(Fun fact: living cautionary tale Hugo Schwyzer once had Deen deliver a guest lecture to one of his classes. Birds of a feather flock together.)

[Update 2: Here’s an informative article explaining what the actual deal with Deen’s fanbase is/was. I didn’t talk about the Deen-as-alleged-feminist thing here because I didn’t actually know what was going on, but this pretty much clears it up.]

Of course, in neither case should this have been a surprise. Cosby was a patriarch through and through; his show was sexist entirely apart from his personal behavior (as is generally the case with family sitcoms. Family structure is a microcosm of social structure). It’s the same deal with Deen: the fact that he’s primarily known for making rape porn is bad enough without his let’s say “cavalier” attitude towards the subject.

That link includes the hypothesis that Deen was a “missing stair;” that is, his rapism was a known issue that everyone ignored because it would have been too much of a bother for them to have done anything about it. Given Deen’s apparent ubiquity, this is almost certainly the case, but it’s insufficient as analysis. It amounts to bad apple-ing him.

Here, for example, is Joanna Angel:

“Angel brought a notebook with her to the show with notes she had about the relationship, clarifying that Deen’s behavior ‘does not represent porn; this represents a specific individual.’”

LaBeau disagrees:

“LaBeau emphasized multiple times that she believed this incident should be used as evidence that the industry needs better safeguards to protect performers, not just to condemn Deen. ‘The thing is, James isn’t the only one who’s crossed boundaries,’ she said. ‘James is the one that was the worst, but there’s been other ones. It’s not just James and that’s the problem.’”

The swiftness of the retribution against Deen may seem heartening, but it’s actually suspicious. Not that it’s a bad thing; it’s actually completely amazing that a sex worker can go on Twitter, accuse a successful, popular man of rape and get instant results, especially since this is a new development that has occurred within the past 10 years. The problem is that the current dynamic allows everyone to take the correct, socially approved set of actions (hashtag solidarity), wash their hands of the issue, and change nothing. In particular, the fact that Kink.com dropped Deen immediately is cause for extreme eyebrow-raising. This is a popular actor who’s done tons of work for the company, and they axe him on the basis of one accusation? Doesn’t this suggest rather strongly that Kink.com was already aware of the problem, that dropping Deen was a deliberate attempt to get positive press ahead of the news cycle, knowing that the floodgates had been opened? Indeed, doesn’t this attempt to save face indicate Kink.com’s recognition of its own culpability?

[Update: corroborating evidence. Not that this was a hard call or anything.]

Which is to say that LaBeau is correct. Consider the context in which she was assaulted:

“In a later incident, LaBeau was performing in a scene for Kink.com’s Upper Floor, a live-streaming BDSM group sex series. LaBeau was the star of the scene, the conceit of which was that she was being initiated as a sex slave; there were several other female performers involved, as well as multiple male performers and a number of people simply in attendance watching. LaBeau and Pierce, who was also performing, said Deen was not scheduled to perform in the scene, but that he began to participate.”

Isn’t this pretty clearly a lit match/powder keg type of situation? Is it at all probable that someone like Deen wasn’t going to push boundaries here? And let’s be clear: LaBeau was doing her job; she was no more free to say “fuck this, I’m out” than you are when your boss starts swinging his dick at you.

“Pierce said he asked LaBeau why she had greeted Deen politely in the first place and she responded that she saw him all the time, since he got so much work, and didn’t want him ‘getting pissed off.’ According to Pierce, when he then asked her why she agreed to the impromptu filming with Deen, she responded, ‘I didn’t, he just picked up the stuff and I didn’t want to make a scene.’”

This is why the “missing stair” angle is not good enough: the problem is not individual behavior; indeed, the supportive response to the accusations indicates that we’re actually doing a good job on that front. The problem is institutional incentives.

“It was supposed to be a regular boy/girl sex scene (anal was one of her ‘no’s’), but her co-star apparently had other plans. ‘James [Deen] kept trying to get inside my ass but I kept pushing him away, so he choked me, then he slammed my face down into the couch and forced himself in my ass anyway,’ says Peters. ‘The crew all high-fived him and told him what a great job he did getting an anal scene for the price of a boy/girl scene.’”

Yes, these are bad people. But the problem isn’t that they think rape is a good thing, the problem is that they don’t care, they’re just happy that they got a good scene out of it. They’re happy to have done a good job.

Of course, there are Serious Official Policies in place for preventing this sort of thing:

“When shooting a scene, performers and the director typically set boundaries and expectations for all individuals before filming. Particularly in BDSM, for which actors are often involved in pain play and seemingly aggressive acts, these boundaries help to keep the cast safe and ensure that their limits are respected. Prior to a scene, an actress might, for example, indicate parts of her body where slapping or flogging is off limits or what specific sex acts she consents to—often she does so on a physical checklist that is given to performers on-set.”

So official. Much checklist. Note that the assumption here is that the male performer is going to be as much of an asshole as possible, and it is the woman’s responsibility to articulate each individual action that is “off limits.” Recall that in LaBeau’s scene, a cattle prod, which was on her “no list,” just happened to be present and available for Deen to use (also, maybe I’m a prude, but: a cattle prod? Really?). Indeed, the “no list” concept itself precisely illustrates the problem: the industry creates a maximally dangerous situation for its female performers, and then puts the onus on them to defend themselves. We’re in a situation where women actually have to say “don’t electrocute me.” This is not an accident. It is a natural limitation of the consent standard.

In an ideal world, consent would imply mutuality. But the fact that we don’t live in a world where men and women can engage each other on equal terms is sort of fundamental to the whole “feminism” idea. In the world we actually live in, consent implies acquiescence.

Crucially, this applies even to the stronger standard of informed consent. Again, ideally, an active “yes” to a sexual encounter would indicate real desire. But in the world we actually live in, women are expected to cater to men’s desires. Women are expected to be “cool,” to not “make a scene,” to be emotional managers who consistently put their own feelings second. Because of this, informed consent is a mere improvement that retains the consent standard’s fundamental flaw: a “yes” can be coerced.

We need to quit patting ourselves on the back for meeting basic standards of human decency and realize that we’ve entrenched ourselves in a fully defensive position. The true standard of justice is mutuality: the condition in which all participants do not merely accept what is happening, but actively will it. As I’m sure you realize, this requires a complete rehabilitation of the way we conceptualize sexuality. Despite everything that’s happened, we’re still very much stuck in the “man fucks woman: subject verb object” framework. And porn, particularly in the absence of substantive sex education, is the primary vector for reproducing this ideology.

The second wave feminist critique of porn has fallen entirely out of vogue, which is the right conclusion, but it happened for the wrong reasons. We’re all aware by now that the “ban all porns” approach is a non-starter. You can’t really ban a mode of expression. More than that, you can’t fix anything by just identifying the “bad things” and getting rid of them. Ideas have an inconvenient stickiness; having come into being, they rarely die out completely. The only workable approach to dealing with bad concepts is redemption. You have to engage them in order to transform them into something that’s compatible with justice.

This may strike you as exactly what’s happening with porn right now. To an extent, that’s true; like I said, the right conclusion was reached for the wrong reasons. The errors in the second wave approach were tactical, but they’ve been taken as foundational. Second wave feminists were not prudes, they had an actual critique of porn, which was that it reflected and reproduced patriarchal ideology regarding sexuality. This is still the case, and it’s what is missing from the current discourse.

What this means is that there’s a world of difference between engagement and naive engagement. Ideas are powerful. Anyone participating in the porn industry (including consumers) is necessarily going to end up reproducing its ideology. It doesn’t really matter how much of a feminist you are when the institutional logic of your situation is against you. Again, this does not mean that asceticism is the only option. It means that any engagement not backed up by a substantive critical framework is doomed. This is a battle, and we need to be armed.

Obviously, this doesn’t just apply to porn. It applies to everything. Naive engagement is perhaps the great failing of our current era. Feminists have been doing a spectacular job in recent years of rejecting the flawed approaches of their predecessors – too spectacular. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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