In rape culture, there’s no such thing as a safe word

The porn industry makes boundary-crossing erotic.
The porn industry makes boundary-crossing erotic.
Image: AP Photo/David Azia
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Once upon a time in Los Angeles, California, hipster pornographer Eon McKai was shopping for male talent for his first film, “Art School Sluts.” He found a well-endowed baby face with a sharp jaw line: 18-year-old Bryan Sevilla, or James Deen.

After his debut in “Art School Sluts,” Deen went on to become one of the most-booked male porn performers to date, doing multiple jobs per day and even crossing over into mainstream consciousness—complete with a regular sex advice column on feminist website The Frisky, profiles in GQ and Good, and a leading role in the noir Hollywood film The Canyons. But his reputation as the golden boy of porn has collapsed since his ex, Stoya, accused him of rape on Twitter.

At least eight other women in the porn industry have since come forward with similar stories, accusing Deen of assault. Deen has denied the charges.

For my part, I believe women. The question we should be asking is how a man accused of so much violence and misogyny could have been allowed to rise so high.

The answer is complex. It has everything to do with the insular, clan loyalty culture of the porn industry. It also has to do with how the industry eroticizes boundary pushing, and how that contributes to the erosion of consent and a culture of silence and shame surrounding sex work. And the problems in the porn industry mirror issues of sexual violence that affect women everywhere—and reflect a broader popular culture in which violence against women is on wild display, normalized and glittering on every television network.

Let’s start with McKai’s description of what makes a male porn performer popular in the first place. The pornographer spoke about an actor’s ability to build rapport with his female co-stars.

“A male performer must be able to push her to do things she doesn’t know she can do yet—on cue,” McKai said. “He has to build trust while pushing her, and it has to look natural.”

Being pushy is very different from raping someone. But in the adult industry, actors participate in sexual fantasies in which boundaries are often warped and eroded. That erosion is in turn applauded and rewarded professionally. Wouldn’t that make the adult industry an ideal place where a rapist can thrive?

I’m not suggesting that the sex industry is inherently nocuous or that it invites rape. There are hundreds of male porn stars who have not been accused of assault on Twitter or elsewhere. Some are respectful. Some truly love women and care about their safety. And with a respecting, trustworthy partner, edge play, rape play, blood play and lots of other boundary-pushing sex can be extremely pleasurable, healthy and fun both on- and off-camera.

But as someone who has spent her entire adult life working in the sex industry, I can attest to the fact that women in this business face inherent, unique physical risks. I’ve been bitten, drugged, smacked and ripped off. Years ago, a large man tried to block me from leaving a private room in a nude strip club in San Francisco. When I yelled for help, the person who came running was a stripper named Cinnamon. She yanked him by his shirt from behind. I ran.

In sex work, issues of consent and articulating boundaries are a constant negotiation. Fighting off unwanted hands is an art form. Incorporating the word “no” into our vocabulary requires finesse when good-natured compliance is in our job description. People often don’t believe us when we say that lines have been crossed. The stage is set for abuse.

Young, curious, kinky people enter the adult industry to pay their bills, seeking like-minded people with which to safely, professionally explore socially unacceptable fantasies in a healthy, lucrative way. They may be attracted to the porn industry because they are genuinely into pushing sexual boundaries in their personal lives in a way they can’t freely explore on Tinder.

These are all understandable reasons to enter the industry. Yet in the same way that a sexual predator might choose to become a schoolteacher, coach or priest in order to gain access to a pool of possible victims, so he might be drawn to porn. There he could have his pick of vulnerable, young women who, if they accused him of rape, would be met with skepticism or chuckles.

Our culture remains all too receptive to the idea that it’s not possible for women in the adult industry to be raped, by virtue of their chosen career. This mirrors a broader cultural tendency to dismiss women’s accusations of rape because they were drunk, or because of the way they dress.

Even people who pride themselves on feminist, pro-sex worker views may not be immune to such assumptions.

While I was deeply saddened by Stoya’s statement that James Deen had raped her when they were a couple, I had a horrible thought that sickened me immediately.

I wondered about the “safe word” that Stoya had mentioned in her tweet. It hinted at a BDSM relationship. I wondered if somewhere along the way, he (or they) could have become confused where to draw the line. I wondered if Stoya could be embellishing the facts because she felt angry and resentful toward Deen in the aftermath of their relationship. Perhaps now, as a feminist, she wanted to stir up controversy in order to gain momentum for her career. After all, we live in an era in which personal conflicts are blasted live for all to see and judge—when reputations are churned and burned as quickly as fingers can tweet.

And then it dawned on me.

If I were a rapist, wouldn’t this mindset make Stoya the perfect victim?

And if I could be so quick to entertain doubts about Stoya’s accusations—despite my pro-sex worker, feminist training and education, despite my investment in discussions about consent—then other people might too.

As uncomfortable as it was for me to acknowledge, I went there. By doing so, I was contributing to a culture that discourages us from believing women’s boundaries when they assert them.

We may never know the full details of Stoya’s experience, since sex workers who are victims of sexual assault often find little reprieve (or justice) in the courtroom. But here is what we know:

Stoya says she said “no.” She says she said “stop.” She says she used her safe word. She says the person whom she had trusted and cared about kept raping her anyway.

I believe Stoya. For a rapist, there is no such thing as a safe word.

Safe words cannot be heard in a culture that does not accept sex workers and diminishes the value of our humanity. They cannot be heard while the sex industry provides a good hunting ground for sexual predators and systematically fails to protect workers. They cannot be heard as long as the sex industry and our culture at large foster environments where rapists can find women to victimize without fear of prosecution.

Safe words cannot be heard as long we fail to believe women when they say, “stop.”

As a diehard optimist who is committed to hope, I believe Stoya is changing the culture now by making her voice heard.

Here is the evidence: Soon after Stoya’s tweet went live, companies previously associated with Deen cut ties with him. Articles are circulating in massive support of Stoya, and other women are coming forward to say that they too have been assaulted by Deen.

It is as if legions of sex workers have sprinted to her aid in seven-inch stilettos, pulled Deen by his shirt, and kicked him out of the club where he was once a VIP. We will remain by her side, until all of us are safe.