Last month, sexual assault allegations against porn’s reigning “nice guy” rocked the industry.
On November 28, Stoya, a well-known adult film star and writer, alleged that her former boyfriend, James Deen, raped her in a series of messages posted to Twitter.
“James Deen held me down and fucked me while I said no, stop, used my safeword,” Stoya tweeted to her 237,000 followers. “I just can't nod and smile when people bring him up anymore.”
In the days since, other porn actresses—Tori Lux and Ashley Fires—have come forward with similar allegations of sexual assault against James Deen. The industry has since distance itself from Deen: Kink.com vowed to cease working with him, while Deen was dismissed from his position as the chairman of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee’s board.
These allegations have also led to widespread soul-searching among his largely feminist female fanbase, and men—myself including—should pay attention to that conversation. In an industry dominated by violent machismo, Deen offered a sensitive, soulful alternative—the Luke Perry in a world of juiced-up jocks.
That persona is exactly why screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis cast him for the 2011 movie The Canyons. “He’s not some hot-blooded, super-tanned caveman pumping it—he’s a cute boy you could have gone to college with,” Ellis said. And as Mic’s EJ Dickson writes, his boyish charms “struck a chord among young, feminist-minded women”: “Deen is the closest thing to a Male Feminist the mainstream porn world has.”
For Dickson, the Deen case indicates the danger of “male feminists,” a genus of guy she likes to the “softboy.” That term was coined by Alan Hanson in an essay for Medium to describe men who use a sensitive persona to disguise the fact that they’re no more enlightened than your run-of-the-mill frat bro: “He is artistic. He is aware. He is still a dick.”
But if EJ Dickson believes that James Deen reflects poorly on male feminism as a brand, Flavorwire’s Sarah Seltzer notes that Deen wasn’t a feminist and never explicitly identified as such. According to Seltzer, the actor “simply coasted to fame on a reputation and persona that was constructed for and by women online.” Slate’s Amanda Hess agrees: “[W]omen molded Deen into someone who appealed to them.”
But therein lies the exact problem—the “male feminist” label is often nothing more than sound and fury, signifying nothing. You can profit from and actively exploit the movement for gender equity and justice, even though you never ever actually said you were part of that movement. You can even harm women while allegedly supporting their political goals.
Male feminism too often acts like a Replacements button you can pin to your leather jacket, until someone asks what your favorite song from Tim is and you confess that you’ve never listened to the Replacements. It’s a way of saying, “I get it” without needing to actually get it or do the work of getting it.
Rebecca Solnit famously wrote in Men Explain Things to Me about the phenomenon of mansplaining—in which a man presumes to know more about a given subject than a female counterpart and condescendingly distills into a version she seemingly can understand. It’s the Bic for Her of academic discussions.
And too often, male feminism acts as another means for men to talk over women, explain gender issues to them, or invalidate their actual perspectives in their own movement. In New York Magazine’s The Cut, Kat Stoeffel explains that blogger and activist Charles Clymer has used his self-proclaimed feminism to silence female critics, arguing that they represent “the very worst of the feminist community.”
Men are applauded for showing up to the party, often despite what they actually bring to it. Instead, we should judge men not on their words—whether they embrace the feminist label—but their actions: Are they educating themselves (and others)? Do they listen to women, especially when those women are calling them out for getting it wrong? Do they use feminism as an opportunity to let women be heard or to drown them out by explaining inequality to them? Are they the kind of guy who insists that they’re one of the “good guys” or do they work to be a better one—by challenging their own ingrained biases?
In asking these questions of myself, I’m forced to admit I don’t always like the answers.
Last week, I made the decision to hold myself accountable not through labels but by the actual work I’m doing—and I have a lot of work that needs doing. I’m still not great at dealing with criticism and have a bad habit of taking it personally when someone calls me out for being another shitty male feminist, which I am sometimes.
As Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist reminds us, we’re all allowed to perform our politics imperfectly or not fit someone else’s stands of what a feminist should look like, but I don’t want to simple fact of being a “male feminist” to ever be a shield for me—or anyone else. You can’t throw a rock without hitting some guy who hopes his stated politics make him invincible.
Instead of being just a male feminist with a lot to learn, I would rather strive to be an ally to the movement. The allyship model has long been used by the queer community to describe straight folks outside the LGBT spectrum who are aligned with the movement’s goals.
As the Anti-Oppression Network reminds us, to be an ally isn’t an “identity” or a label you can choose for yourself: “Our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.” The group, thus, defines allyship as “a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.”
This framework moves us out of the idea that working alongside marginalized or oppressed groups is an identity you can choose. Instead, I’ve heard allyship described as a verb, and there’s an important lesson in that for self-proclaimed male feminists: Men can work for gender justice, but sometimes that requires less labeling and more action. As Lane Moore argues at Cosmopolitan, the guys she’s known who were the best allies to women were those less interested proclaiming their male feminism than living those principles through their own example. Moore writes:
“The men I've known over the years who are real, true feminists, rarely proclaim it because they don't need a cookie for believing in equality and they know they don't deserve one for that fact alone. They see inequality in the world, they're pissed off about it, and they know that women's issues are men's issues too and patriarchy sucks. … Even if they've never used the word, I know they're feminists because of the way they talk to women, and because of the way they listen to and support me.”
That distinction is important, not just for those who strive to be allies to feminists, but for everyone working with from a community whose history they cannot claim for themselves. Allyship is not ownership; it’s being a humble guest in someone else’s struggle, learning from it, and doing what you can to make the world a more just and equitable place.
This is true not just for queer allies but those involved in the movement for racial justice, whether that’s white people tweeting #BlackLivesMatter or those protesting the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. For white allies, these stories and this pain are not our own, and it should be our job to help elevate the voices these issues directly affect.
I think famous men like Aziz Ansari, Matt McGorry, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are doing an important job of speaking up about women’s issues—thus, bringing gender equality to a wider audience—but too many guys still need to learn to pass the mic. What I’d like to see more men do is worry less about feminist cred than worry about doing the real work of combating rape culture and male privilege.
One important way we can do that is by—as overused as the phrase has become—checking our own privilege. As the James Deen accusations show, that privilege cannot only be dangerous for those who are shielded by perceived labels but the women who are allegedly victimized by the very men who are supposed to be supporting them.
If male feminists want to be part of the movement, let’s focus less on claiming labels and more on earning our solidarity.