By Jugal Mody
“Hi, I’m Stoya. My politics and I are feminist… But my job is not.”
– From Stoya: Feminism and Me on Vice
For about a year or more now, I had lost track of what porn “superstar” and writer Stoya had been up to. Unlike any pornographic film actor who I’ve read (there’s only one other woman in this category – Asa Akira, whose review of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a delight to read) or followed on social media, I found Stoya’s writing before I looked her up. She was talking about sexuality, porn, relationships, feminism and a lot more – a lot of it situated around her relationship with James Deen (a porn actor popular for having everyman looks and perceived as being a feminist, despite his statements to the contrary).
I’d read enough of Stoya’s tumblr to know that if someone could break down sex and relationships to its bare bones for me, it was her – I guess mostly because where I come from, there was no such thing as sex education, there was only porn. Even after actively looking, I had not found that lucidity in the writing of anyone I had ever read, especially when talking about the complex nature of sexuality and consent. Something as simple as: “Comfort levels and boundaries are specific to each person and to each relationship. Definitions of sex and infidelity are incredibly varied.”
I was kicked when Vice offered her a column. (She now has another column on The Verge called Ask Stoya, where she – in her capacity as “a professional sex-haver” – answers questions adults have about sex.)
The first video I found of hers kinda blew my mind. Because it was a clip from a hardcore scene with James Deen, and the two were going at it in a bedroom with a mirror. She wasn’t acting like she was giddy and drugged and so-deconstructed-by-dick. She was giving it right back, turning around and even laughing and giggling at Deen. Like you know, sex-for-funsies is supposed to look like: fun.
Quoting from the first piece of hers that I read (about using the word “Daddy”), a few years ago:
“See, I underwent gestation in the uterus of a second-wave feminist. It’s like some need to intellectualize my vulva and femininity was transmitted through the amniotic fluid. Outside of the (metaphorical) bedroom I have been known to agonize at length over the moral and political ramifications of the fact that something turns me on. At the end of the day, though, if it makes my pussy wet and is reasonably safe, sane, and consensual, I’m going to keep doing it.”
Stoya, who is also is also an aerial gymnast, was dating James Deen when she had written those positively awesome tumblr posts. Through following her on Twitter and tumblr, I found a couple of other voices who I still follow – Susannah Breslin, Molly Crabapple and feminist pornographer Shine Louis Houston. Stoya also performed for a video project called Hysterical Literature. Photographer Clayton Cubitt created this video series in which he films women reading from a book while something happens out of sight beneath the table at which they’re seated. For the first installment, Stoya chose to read an excerpt from Necrophilia Variations while being masturbated by a vibrator.
One of the pieces that I’ve read and many times looked for since, even today when writing this piece, was one where she talks about the women-friendly work guidelines in the porn industry (which may have been specific to the American porn studio Digital Playground, but I’m not sure). One of the guidelines in there was that the man could never hold a woman’s head/hair while she was going down on him – such a small thing but such a direct expression of how power is shown on screen.
Meanwhile, James Deen had been branded as the feminist porn star the world wanted. Women on porn forums have praised his scenes, and the kind of attention screen-Deen has showered on the women he was, well, fucking roughly (for the lack of better words). I’ve seen more than a few posts and comments by women appreciating the eye contact he makes and the sweet nothings he exchanges before and after (in the same-ish vein as this web comic) sex. I was like, cool.
While appreciating his work in satiating the female gaze, I did not think about him much beyond that. Then one day, I ran into an interview on The Vulture after his first non-porn movie (The Canyons) and in the interview, he gaslit American porn star Sasha Grey for quitting porn and having Hollywood ambitions. That was quite a disappointment. When I read that piece, I did not know Stoya and him were no longer an item anymore.
Cut to November 2014: I was having two parallel discussions involving porn, feminism and kink – one with a friend who worked at a feminist publishing house and the other with a feminist filmmaker. I had enthusiastically recommended reading Asa Akira and Stoya to them, so I went to look for links I could send them with their writing.
But when I logged onto Stoya’s tumblr, THE WRITING WAS GONE. At that point, I did not care enough to ask why. I just assumed that due to the popularity of her Vice columns and her personality, she might have just gotten a book deal or something. Plus I had gotten distracted by Barcelona-based feminist pornographer Erika Lust’s latest project, and had gotten busy enough in my day-life to read something only if it appeared on social media while I was on it. Needless to say, I did not check up on what Stoya was writing around then.
So that day when I wanted to send links to my friends, I discovered that Stoya had started this new blog (graphicdescriptions.com) and the latest post on it was about how she felt threatened by a creepy fan when she was chilling at a café, and how she got out of that situation. The voice and the confidence in that post were very different from the Stoya I recollected. The Stoya I had imagined would have had a different piece about how she took care of the situation. I remembered thinking that maybe it’s just human, how we all react differently in different situations, to different people, to different spaces, at different times in our lives.
I caught up on Stoya’s Twitter feed. There was no mention or reference to James Deen anywhere. I was sure I had seen some in the now-missing tumblr posts (maybe I read too much into them or I was certain there were Instagrams with him in them).
Cut to December 2015: Yesterday, I saw a tweet from journalist and author Laurie Penny – another woman I ever so often recommend that everyone read – which was a link to an article on The Daily Beast where porn star Tori Lux graphically described how James Deen sexually assaulted her on a porn set, and how she never spoke of it, because who would take her seriously? The incident happened with everyone from the crew being present. The details of the incident are terrifying and repulsive.
The same article also had links to two tweets by Stoya:
That thing where you log in to the internet for a second and see people idolizing the guy who raped you as a feminist. That thing sucks. (Source)
James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword. I just can’t nod and smile when people bring him up anymore. (Source)
For the first half hour, I was a little brain-fried by all the news around this. I wondered if those tumblr posts vanished because of how that relationship ended, but stepped out of it because I realized that it wasn’t my place to speculate.
More women in the porn industry have since come out and accused James Deen of assault too. I was certain that people were just going to ask, “If she didn’t have a problem doing these things on camera, what was her problem if it happened off camera?” Or “If she liked it once why would she say no the next time?” In case you’re asking that, please take some time off and discuss “consent” with your lovers. Because by asking the aforementioned questions, you equate people to objects. People have different choices, wants, needs and freedoms at different times.
Thankfully, the replies to her tweets didn’t seem to attack her. Almost all of them were tremendously supportive and conveyed either shock or sympathy (though not all of the women who came forward with allegations of assault have escaped this entirely). I had written a part of this piece yesterday as an email to a few friends but did not think of writing more because I was scared of how the world might react to this situation and these people at the centre of it.
This morning, imagine my relief when a headline said that the entire adult film industry is standing in solidarity with Stoya, and another said James Deen was being dropped from an adult production house’s list of performers.
The other questions I had yesterday go unanswered: How will the people, the consumers of porn, treat this piece of news from the adult entertainment industry? Will people talk about separating the man from his work like they do with Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and the many other men who have been accused of assault or rape? Or talk about separating the women from their work and not victim-blame? Or because the work entails sex, will people just mix the idea of sex on-screen and off-screen? Or worse: will people confuse power for consent?
Let me wrap this up by recommending two pieces by Stoya, which you must read.