Amanda Hess over at Good Magazine has a really fascinating profile of porn star James Deen, who apparently has a raging, youthful, female fandom on the internet. In “What Women Want: Porn and the Frontier of Female Sexuality,” Hess writes:
It’s not that more normal-looking guys don’t want to be in porn, it’s that the industry isn’t exactly looking for them. Within the major porn talent agencies, female performers outnumber male ones almost 5-to-1. The directors and producers hiring them are mostly men. They’re staffing porn’s workforce with an eternally refreshed slate of female bodies, and a handful of guys who look like what men think women want: Big arms. Big abs. Big dicks.
The porn machine churns out performers to satisfy every fantasy, be it MILF, dwarf, fat, granny, or gang bang. But if you’re interested in watching a young, heterosexual, nonrepulsive man engage in sex, James Deen is basically it.
According to Hess, Deen has a vocal online fandom comprised largely of adolescent girls:
Deen is not supposed to be the star of his scenes—his sex partners are. But on Tumblr, a network of teenage bloggers has emerged to turn the focus on him. The young women trade Deen videos, post candid photographs, and pluck out all the minute details that turn them on: the way he looks at a woman, touches her, stares into her eyes, whispers in her ear. “There was just something about the way he moved,” Emily says of her first exposure to Deen. He seemed to be “speaking to the girl, but not with his mouth, with his hand over the girl’s throat, and with his eyes.” Now, Emily says it doesn’t matter if Deen is having intimate sex with a woman on a bed or shoving her into the trunk of his car: “I go for just about anything.”
Deen’s young fans gush over the sight of him thrusting into a woman while holding her hand. They sigh over a private photo of a clothed Deen commuting by plane. They create animated GIFs of Deen’s greatest moves so they can watch him execute them again and again and again without rewinding.
I think this piece says a lot more about the shifting power dynamics of those who create and those who consume erotic materials — be they textual, visual or otherwise. The technology of Internet inter-activity means that adolescent girls are taking pornography that is generally created by and for the idealized male viewer and re-mixing it, so to speak, to suit their own individual and collective vocabulary of attraction and arousal. As Hess concludes:
Meanwhile, teenage girls are cutting and pasting Deen’s work to fit their needs. On their blogs, James Deen is their own personal star. They call on him for love or sex or idle conversation depending on the hour of the day. They collect his tweets and photos and craft their own narrative fantasies. He comes wherever they want him to.
I was also struck, reading the article, by the way in which the young women interviewed are carefully negotiating the line between claiming their sexual desires and protecting themselves from social approbation. Online platforms like Tumblr allow them to express their sexual feelings in a social setting, but somewhat separate from who they are in their offline worlds. As one interviewee observes to Hess, “I don’t really discuss it at all; it kind of just stays where it’s supposed to, online.” I see both positive and negative sides to this divide — the anonymity of the Internet allowing young people to explore sexual desire more freely, but in a way that is perhaps not anchored in their embodied selves. I hope that sort of fantasy life eventually leads them back to exploring what it is they really, really want — as individuals in their own real-world relationships. I absolutely believe in the power of fantasy to think about what we desire, but I also think our culture is really, really shit at teaching our children how to build bridges between fantasy and reality rather than cordon them off in two strictly separate worlds.
And as much as I admire Hess as a journalist, I have to admit I’m a little bit irritated by the way this piece frames the excitement over James Deen as something new and slightly mysterious. As if “what women want” sexually is so much more difficult to determine than what men want … and that adolescent girls developing massive crushes on the hottie du jour is a new phenomenon instead of simply more visible thanks to the transparency of the Internet age. When I was fourteen my friends and I were swooning over our favorite fictional characters — we just didn’t have the technology to build Tumblr blogs around them. I would have liked to see analysis that acknowledged more overtly the complicated relationship between our individual desires and the cultural narratives in which they develop. I also would have liked to see more of a challenge to the notion that we can define what “women” and “men” want sexually (both in fantasy and real life) in generalizable-yet-meaningful ways. But … you can’t have everything in the space of one short magazine article, and I still think it raises a lot of really interesting questions about the changing nature of production/consumption of sexually explicit material in the Internet age.
I’d love to hear what y’all think about the piece.