Here's Why James Deen Is the Bob Dylan of Porn

Despite how badly we'd like him to be our feminist hero, the guy just wants to have sex on camera.

James Deen isn't a feminist. He just wants to have sex on camera. (Getty)

James Deen isn’t a feminist. He just wants to have sex on camera. (Getty)

James Deen does not identify as a feminist. He’s said it before, and he said it again when the two of us had lunch recently on the Lower East Side.

We’d been talking about Mr. Deen’s fan base — specifically, his legion of devoted female followers. I’d asked if he took credit for introducing so many women to porn, and for letting them know that it’s okay to enjoy watching people have sex on camera.

“No,” he said instinctively. “I, uh, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t take credit for it. If you gave me credit for it, I would take it, but I don’t, like, I don’t run around and be like, ‘Guess what I did, guys?!’ But, uh, I mean, that would be pretty cool.”

“Would you say you’re a feminist?” I asked point-blank.

“No.”

I was surprised, even though I should have seen it coming. “No?” I asked again.

“Absolutely not.” He was clumsily and messily picking apart his grilled cheese sandwich because he didn’t like it.

“So why don’t you identify with that word?” I asked, eating my salad as calmly as possible, in a way that I hoped concealed my growing fury.

“I don’t know, I’m a dude,” Mr. Deen said. “I believe in equality, and I think a lot of feminism has a – I think there’s a lot of really bad people in the feminist movement. And I think that it is just, uh, I just don’t care. I think that people should all just be good to each other, and it doesn’t matter if they’re men or women, and it doesn’t make a difference, and I’ve had whole tirades about this. Now I’m just kind of tired of it.”

At first, I was angered by Mr. Deen’s responses. I’d been so looking forward to learning a sex positive man’s perspective on feminism and gender, and I didn’t get why that wasn’t happening. This was porn performer and director James Deen, lauded by countless women — myself included, at one point — for being a hero of feminist porn. In a world of pornos appealing to heterosexual men — you know, the kind where the woman’s sole purpose is to bring some creepy, mustachioed, big-dicked guy to orgasm — Mr. Deen’s work stands out because it actually seems to take women’s pleasure into account.

People who write about sex have been quick to depict Mr. Deen as some kind of bold crusader for the feminist cause. Jezebel has referred to Mr. Deen as the “Ryan Gosling of porn.” Good Magazine profiled him in an article called “What Women Want: Porn and the Frontier of Female Sexuality.” In a 2012 profile, we, the Observer, also portrayed Mr. Deen as a sort of feminist rebel in the porn industry:

“Mr. Deen taps into a female fantasy that hasn’t seemed to interest porn studios much: a sensitive boy with closed-door swagger—the flip side of a good girl with a dirty mind. Onscreen he seems to exhibit savant-level responsiveness to his partner’s cues, anticipating (correctly, by the sounds of it) when she’d like to be kissed and when she’d like to be slapped.”

And yet, Mr. Deen seemed repulsed by the word “feminist.” Not only that, he was seemingly incapable of and uninterested in talking about gender whatsoever, his responses jokey and immature.

Mr. Deen with adult film star Joanna Angel. (Getty)

Mr. Deen with adult film star Joanna Angel. (Getty)

“I don’t identify as a feminist. I absolutely do not,” he continued, still playing with his grilled cheese. He’d later push it away and tell the waiter he couldn’t eat it. “I think the concept of any –ism is horrible. I think people should just treat each other with respect, and don’t be a dick and call your mother sometime. That’s my philosophy.”

Was this seriously the Ryan Gosling-esque guy Jezebel said was capable of talking about gender policing?

But maybe, I thought as I headed home at the end of the day, my frustration with him was misplaced. Mr. Deen, after all, didn’t become a porn star so he could become a feminist activist — he did it because, as his own blog so eloquently states, “he knew he was destined to have sex with girls on camera. Ever since he was in high school he was a true exhibitionist — who enjoyed having sex with girls in front of his friends at different parties all over Los Angeles.” No, the man isn’t exactly the next Simone de Beauvoir, but then again, it’s not something he ever purported to be, either.

If you think about it, James Deen is basically the Bob Dylan of porn.

In the 60s, Mr. Dylan struggled with fans who insisted on linking his music to the Civil Rights Movement. In interviews, reporters would bombard Mr. Dylan with analytical questions about the meaning of each and every one of his lines, seemingly desperate to neatly package him as a symbol of social change. In response, the young musician would often respond with an immature giggle and goofy response.

“For some reason,” Mr. Dylan later said, “the press thought that performers had the answers to all these problems in society, and what could you say to something like that? It’s just kind of absurd.”

Perhaps, like Mr. Dylan’s interviewers, we’ve tried too hard to package Mr. Deen neatly into the feminist hero we want him to be. Perhaps we’ve thrust the role of feminist porn superstar onto a person who, as he told me at lunch, really just feels like a regular guy having sex with people on camera.

In the evening following our lunch, I sent Mr. Deen a follow-up email. “Do you think the media — and people in general — have gone out of their way to label you as a feminist? Why do you think so many people expect you to be a feminist?” I asked.

His two-line response could as well have come from the mouth of young Mr. Dylan, when asked in 1965 about the symbolism of a motorcycle t-shirt on one of his album covers.

“hmmmm i don’t know,” Mr. Deen wrote. “i really don’t know what or why other people think things.  i don’t really think about it either.  i just try to do what i think is right and not worry about the opinions of others.”

James Deen really doesn’t want to talk about feminism, y’all.

And that’s okay! The guy’s a porn star, not a Women’s Studies professor. While it’s undeniably disappointing to meet someone who can’t talk seriously about feminism — particularly someone who has so many feminist fans — it’s not like Mr. Deen has pretended to be something he’s not. The fault lies with us, for wanting so badly for there to be some kind of feminist porn hero, that we assigned Mr. Deen a role he never set out to play.

The reason we’ve been so intent on worshipping Mr. Deen — on blinding ourselves to his obvious shortcomings —  is that there is a demand, no matter how hard the porn industry pretends there isn’t, for intentional feminist porn that purposefully focuses as much — or more — on women’s pleasure as on men’s. Yes, there is plenty of lesbian porn out there. But when it comes to porn featuring heterosexual couples, the emphasis is almost solely on the man’s orgasm. Moreover, there’s also a clear demand for some kind of feminist trailblazer to take the porn industry by storm. It probably won’t be Mr. Deen, and that’s okay. But if anyone’s interested, let it be known that your market exists. The opening is there.

None of this means that fans of Mr. Deen’s actual porn videos need to stop watching them. The fact that Mr. Deen doesn’t personally identify as a feminist doesn’t change the fact that his work is, for many, much more palatable than a lot of the other stuff out there. The style of his videos might not be fueled by any passion for gender politics, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are uncommonly sensual, and that Mr. Deen does seem to enjoy pleasuring his female costars more than a lot of male porn stars out there, and that’s all really cool.

Simply put, he’s still really good at making porn. But let’s just leave it at that.

Here's Why James Deen Is the Bob Dylan of Porn