Editor’s note, Dec. 2, 2015: In light of the recent allegations against James Deen purporting that he has sexually assaulted and raped several women working in the industry, Mia Steinberg has expressed that she no longer endorses or supports Deen’s work.
What is hot about pornography? There are as many answers as there are people who enjoy it. The Internet has made pornography easier to access, giving us a webpage for every imaginable fantasy and orientation. It can be a vital part of a normal, healthy sex life, and sex-positive educators have worked for the past several decades to increase porn’s legitimacy as a product and career choice. But even with these strides, porn still faces major hurdles when it comes to inclusivity; the mainstream industry makes erotic films geared towards an overwhelmingly heterosexual male demographic. While a lot of people definitely enjoy it, many others — men and women, straight and LGBTTQ alike — find themselves bored, frustrated and unaroused. I am a straight, cis-gendered woman; for me, most porn elicits a roll of the eyes instead of a roll in the hay.
Whatever your moral position on erotica might be, it can be tough for straight women to understand why mainstream pornography is such an incredibly successful product. The female performers are usually tanned, made up and surgically enhanced; they look nothing like us. The male performers can vary wildly in age and body type, but they’re barely onscreen — they’re basically well-endowed props that can moan on demand. Often, their ability to sustain themselves for hours on demand is more important than their looks, charisma or chemistry with their co-star.
Porn has a rigid script that looks very little like what happens between two real-life lovers; the motions, positions and visuals have turned onscreen sex into a surreal puppet show. Even sex-positive women can have trouble getting a rise out of regular porn; the medical-school close-ups and fake orgasm sounds jar many a lady out of her fantasy and back into the boring reality of yet another blowjob-missionary-cowgirl scene. Recent attempts to make mainstream porn for women have fallen flat. There are some fantastic feminist pornographers out there, like Tristan Taormino and Nina Hartley. But when the mainstream tries to appeal to the ladies, we get a soft-lit version of the same old song — or, worse, poorly written Twilight fan fiction reworked as a modern kink revolution. What’s a girl to do?
Enter James Deen, born Bryan Matthew Sevilla. He has a disarming smile, boyish brown curls and sweet blue eyes; he’s the kind of guy you’d want to bring home for Friday night dinner. He’s recently garnered fame due to his role in the upcoming Bret Easton Ellis-penned film The Canyons, where he stars opposite Lindsay Lohan. Oh, and he’s also been in over 1 300 porn films since 2004.
Deen is quickly becoming one of the most likable men in the porn industry, popular with men and women alike. The Hollywood Reporter calls him “the hardest-working boy next door in porn,” walking the line between hard-core erotic performer and down-to-earth, nice Jewish boy. He even has a fan base of teenage girls, who swoon for his long lashes. Unlike many of the men in mainstream porn, Deen genuinely seems to want to connect with his female partners onscreen; he is a man doing his dream job and doing it well. He makes porn that is worth watching instead of just enduring. And despite engaging in activities that many of us could never dream of, he never comes off as a creep. Deen’s charisma and skill have made him a rarity: a true male porn star, known in households across the nation. With his role in The Canyons, Deen has proven that he can draw a Hollywood audience, too — something that most porn stars never achieve.
For many women, including myself, he’s a lightning bolt: when watching Deen perform, enjoyment of porn suddenly seems to make sense. For once, it’s actually erotic. While he’ll engage in the more brutal aspects of mainstream pornography — slapping, spitting, etc. — Deen won’t have sex with anyone who doesn’t want to be with him. This might be the biggest difference between Deen and other performers: while many porn stars go through the motions with obvious boredom on their faces, Deen and his partners have a spark of chemistry. A smile here, a believable gasp of arousal there; the gestures may be small, but they make the scene real. This isn’t porn “for women,” with soft lighting and dorky candle-strewn sets; this is hot sex with someone you can fantasize about.
One of Deen’s best-known scenes — at least in my circle of friends — is from a movie called Manhandled 4, a collection of vignettes about the residents of a sleazy motel. The scenes are all about male dominance, which I’ve always found a little unsettling in mainstream movies, but Deen’s scene with Kristina Rose is positively heart-stopping. They perform in a darkened room, illuminated only by a spotlight; it travels up and down their bodies, giving mere glimpses of their forbidden rendezvous. Even with the focus on Deen as an aggressive, dominant figure, you can see the moment when Rose truly loses herself in the scene; the porn facade drops, and you’re watching something powerful and real.