“I respect women and I know and respect limits both professionally and privately,” tweeted adult film star James Deen, the highly contentious defendant of a rape case breaking headlines shortly after Thanksgiving.
Deen, the most popular male star in porn today, never fully adhered to the classic qualifications of adult film icons. Substituting a slender silhouette for the traditional block of brawn and rounding off his sweet, sensitive spunk with deep blue eyes, Deen has spent the last 11 years of his career cultivating a softer reputation his industry simply had not seen before.
In fact, many fans have revered Deen as a feminist for promoting the sexual agency of women. Dean’s demeanor in his performance has always been subtler and therefore more empowering than other performances one might come across in the porn world.
Though crowned as such by his admirers, Deen has never explicitly made such a statement, even in a media world where “feminism” seems to be the latest trendy “it” item. In an interview with Elle earlier this year, in response to claims made by his fans, Deen responded to a remark noting his belief in equal rights between men and women, concluding, “Maybe I am a fucking feminist!”
As it turns out, that “maybe” was a loaded one.
On Nov. 28 just last week, Deen’s ex girlfriend and colleague, Stoya, tweeted the first of statements composing allegations made within the exchange. “That thing,” she described, “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.”
Just 13 minutes later, she wrote a follow-up tweet:
Breaking headlines, shattering perceptions and questioning facts, this news has surely endowed Stoya with a wave of support, though also, and perhaps more crucially, with a substantial collage of criticism — a bombarding mosaic of disdain, shame and accusation.
Since then, six other women have come forward accusing Deen of sexual assault. Performers Tori Lux, Ashley Fires, Nicki Blue, Amber Rayne, Kora Peters and a last anonymous woman T.M. have since come out against Deen to back up the claims further.
This is not just about porn. This is not even about Islam’s or the Muslim community’s attitude toward porn. This is about women, rights, agency and the rampant diversity contextualizing the narratives of sexual assault.
A series of both individuals and authors have exceedingly criticized Stoya for her method of publication, noting that Twitter was a medium far too casual and public. Yet such accusations themselves profoundly reflect the climate of the world in which we live — one where allegations of an offense as central and egregious as sexual assault are not scrutinized as closely as the adorning parameters in which they are made.
Despite our personal stakes, it’s no secret that by virtue of technology today, social media has evolved into its own medium of news — where individuals featured crucially in story can now offer their instant and constant primary accounts, as opposed to the often sensationalized work by removed journalists.
It thus grows increasingly important that readers consider the narrated perspective of those seizing social media to express stories and headlines, especially when such content would otherwise easily be distorted in other forms of publication.
Stoya’s tweets are potent. Stoya’s tweets are powerful.
The two issues of sexual assault and porn, in fact, frame a series of serious points of urgent concern within Muslim communities. Sexual assault and a clearer form of its definition surely mount foundational aspects beyond the Deen case.
This is not just about porn. This is not even about Islam’s or the Muslim community’s attitude towards porn. This is about women, rights, agency and the rampant diversity contextualizing the narratives of sexual assault.
To outline it in the clearest of terms, sexual assault can affect anyone — and no professional occupation or status invalidates a victim claiming assault. Sex workers maintain equal voice and, like any other human, deserve equal consent.
The nature of one’s profession does not in any way substantiate agreement to any future action, even affiliated with that work. If a porn star is having sex on scene, they are never eternally, unconditionally obligated to that action or person, ever. Consent is not a tattoo for life or for some other person.
Sex is still moderately taboo in Muslim communities, from East to West — a phenomenon whose problematic effects range significantly. As a teen in the U.S., I notice that there remains a severe lack of healthy, diverse and open sex-ed conversations within any sort of religiously affiliated environment — especially in a society where sex often marks the normal pace of conversation.
Such deficiencies tend to breed both false misconceptions within the context of religion, as well as unhealthy attitudes toward sex.
The rhetoric in communities frequently used to describe Muslim women, for example, expects the unwed to remain “pure” and “untainted” until marriage, at which point she is assumed to morph into some sexual goddess (monstress) whose primary duties consist of satisfying her husband while pumping out babies in the process.
This zero-to-one hundred mindset also introduces the idea that a woman’s marriage waives her off as the sexual property of her husband — that tying the knot might also just be tying up any future reservations regarding sex and sexual activity.
As with the porn star situation, one’s profession — seen here with marital status — does not concretely translate into some immutable edict that signs away a women’s agency over consent for life. Marriage does not equate to affirmed consent. Again, consent is not a tattoo for life or for some other person.
One’s consent, in other words, is never the right of the partner — but simply and solely the right of the individual providing their own consent.
Some organizations are trying to fill the dearth of resources currently lying at this intersection of sex-ed and religious taboo. HEART Women & Girls, an organization currently working out of Chicago, Ill. and Canada, states on its website that it “promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in faith-based communities by developing culturally-sensitive health education, advocacy, research and training,” — specifically targeting Muslim communities.
A past history of its recent events include workshops such as “Sex Education for Muslim Youth: Understanding its Challenges & Opportunities” and “Creating Safe Spaces: Empowering the Muslim Woman’s Reproductive Health Experience.”
While groups like HEART are striving to make an impact via resources and workshops for Muslim youth, dismantling further engrained mindsets regarding the role of boys and men in such scenarios remains an obligatory step to consider.
In a case similar to Stoya and Deen, MMA fighter “War Machine,” previously known as Jonathan Koppenhaver, is facing charges of both sexual assault and attempted murder of porn star and ex-girlfriend Christine Mackinday. The vivid accounts from this case serve as a chilling reminder regarding the power play and and accompanying attitudes regarding sexual violence.
Behind gruesome photos of Mackinday in her hospital bed following the incident lies a haunting story of War Machine stalking and trespassing Mackinday and a friend one evening in her house. That night, he proceeded to physically attack the friend, then demanded Mackinday to emphatically shower for him before beating her up with an assault that culminated in non-consensual finger penetration.
Injuries sustained included broken teeth, injured ribs and blood all over. After he expressed “disappointment in himself” because he “could not get hard,” War Machine began rummaging for a sharper implement to stab Mackinday to death after his failed attempt to vaginally rape her.
Seceding to the only option to salvage her life, Mackinday leapt and ran to neighbors, naked.
This assault, though far more savage, was not the first encounter of violence in the couple’s relationship, which included War Machine beating Mackinday every time he disapproved of content on her Twitter or Instagram feed.
Yet, despite such a graphic account, War Machine’s defense remains grounded upon the fact that Mackinday’s line of work in the sex industry predicates her very immunity to classification as a rape victim.
In court just last month, he reportedly blew a kiss to Chief Deputy District Attorney Jacqueline Bluth during the the trial — an act which he then denied, soliciting a firm response in front of the court by Bluth: “I’m not going to make up that he blew a kiss at me, which I find offensive.”
War Machine’s behavior in court, which features more juvenile gestures and crude comments, resembles the maturity of a 10-year-old boy. “Boy,” I use deliberately, to point to highly toxic vernacular that only reinforces this corrosive phenomena of rape culture, i.e. “Boys will be boys.”
Rape culture is not exclusively or necessarily an environment that witnesses a clear-cut rape and actively declare to dismiss it — to employ solely such a narrow definition robs this critical phrase the weight it bears on our communities.
Rape culture is rather one in which any range of sexual violence or assault calls upon the victim to reflect upon their choices to conclude what “induced,” “prompted,” even “tempted” the assault, rather than questioning the perpetrator.
It is further one in which focus is placed disproportionately on any form of promiscuous behavior or sentiment displayed by those attacked, rather than the aggression or lack of respect exhibited by those who attack. Rape culture is the pervasive normalization of sexual assault, as well as the social framework and gender standards that advocate for such normalization — whether explicitly or implicitly.
“Boys will be boys” is perhaps one of the iconic phrases to encapsulate a relevant chunk of the rape culture in the discussion at hand. To excuse a “boy” of distasteful, sexually inappropriate behavior on the sole premise that he is a “boy” normalizes horrendous actions and justifies his mistreatment.
This logic is both improper and stupid, firstly, in that boys will not eternally be boys. They will, or at least the should, grow into men with a developed sense of maturity, all while comprehending how to respect women and be held accountable for actions that illustrate otherwise.
This element of mutual respect between the sexes can be no more relevant than in several contexts of Muslim-American communities today.
The majority of mosques in America today are set up under a physical space that intrinsically prioritizes the respect of men, often at the cost of leaving women by the wayside — as seen, for instance, on the Tumblr “Side Entrance.” This photo blog founded and managed by Hind Makki publishes submissions by women around the globe who photographically compare the men’s sections of their mosques with the women’s (given, of course, that the latter even exists).
Its mission on the site is listed so eloquently as, “Photos from mosques around the world, showcasing women’s sacred spaces, in relation to men’s spaces. We show the beautiful, the adequate and the pathetic.”
Physical spaces directly create platforms and foster environments that determine whether female leaders, speakers and participation in general are also being encouraged in a community — which means that how our communities elect to symbolize respect in terms of physical edifice tends to profoundly span a lot further than concrete, carpet and marble. Such introspection and epiphanies have given rise to recent movements within Muslim communities, such as #addfemalespeakers and #NoAllMalePanels, to encourage the voices of women throughout the Ummah.
Such examples, again highlight, the importance social media plays in voicing the traditionally trivialized and massively marginalized. Stoya’s use of social media to voice her rape only bolsters the assertion that some voices are not taken as seriously in the usual process of speaking out.
Social media and media also help an issue span a scope it may not otherwise be able to range, especially when there does not exist a place for it in the customary lexicon. Earlier in 2015, a highly conservative Imam of a Chicago-area Masjid was charged with sexual assault by an employee of his former place of work, the boarding school “Institute of Islamic Education” — an accusation his community was obstinate to believe, that is, until three other women spoke out too.
Mohammed Abdullah Saleem, a thoroughly obeyed Imam who vocally opposed men and women even shaking hands, was formally charged with sexually assaulting four women in an alarming window of time that spans from 1982 until this very year, 2015.
Published in the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago, released a statement following the surfacing of these incident earlier this year:
The details in each account spans locations from the boarding school to inside his office in the Masjid — as well as countless other specifics, from assaulting a minor to persuading a woman to remove her Hijab in his presence. Regardless, a play-by-play summary of each situation is frankly a stupid request, considering this often leads to an mental investigation for “what went wrong?” in terms of the victims.
In other words, what solicited the account? What did the victim do? **rape culture alert!**
Age? Didn’t help. Location? Uh, most of this was in the Masjid, so no dark, sketchy alley in “shady” city neighborhoods. Protected body? Coverings, you say? Um, do you mean hijab? Because no, clothing does not prevent sexual assault either, even in a religious setting — Something I, too, can assure from personal assault as a minor.
There is simply no formula for protection in the world in which we live today.
This hunt for “what went wrong?” is the same exact issue we are seeing with Deen and Stoya. Deen, the pretty boy of the sex industry, whose fans crowned him a feminist due to the sensitive schtick he upheld in his movies, could “never do such a thing.”
And Stoya, by virtue of her female profession in the sex industry, apparently signed the “Treaty of Giving-Up-My-Right-to-Actually-Voice-Consent-Or-Not-Forever-And-Goddamn-Ever” when her career took off.
It is critical to shatter the “classic rape narrative.” This is not to invalidate those few who are, in fact, attacked under such circumstances alone by a stranger in a dark part of town and sexually assaulted in any way, but to simply underscore how critical it is to remain vigilant that other forms of damaging assault invade our communities.
This is particularly critical in Muslim communities, where we suffer from perilous purity myths, slut-shaming, lack of women’s representation and even other phenomena. For example, there’s something I call the hijab asymptote — in which a woman’s faith and value in a Muslim community is directly correlated to whether she wears the hijab — particularly in that her ultimate dedication to faith is inextricable from her ultimate dedication to the headscarf.
An upcoming documentary, “Breaking Silence,” produced and directed by Nadya Ali, follows the stories of a few Muslim women and their experiences with sexual assault.
Such courageous projects are those that are beginning to simultaneously occupy this void and also create space for conversation to launch new ideas and initiatives to bridge our understandings with rape culture, sexual assault and Islam.
This is the same space that will destroy the inherent blaming of women and combat the automatic forgiveness of men. From Deen to Saleem, it is clear that a man’s respect for women lies beyond the public face he presents to fans and followers.
They may align; they may not; but they certainly do not correlate. Feminism is ultimately a practice — not a label you toss around like a salad in an interview.
How covered or not, how sexually active or not, how previously consenting or not — there is no determinant, excuse or reason for rape, assault or any form of sexual violence. The current culture that promotes complicity, ratifies blame and validates shame continues to violate the fundamental human right of safety for countless on a daily basis.
Ranging taboos, values and attitudes cannot convolute the lucid obstacle chiseled before us all right now: A common culture with a shadow that lurks from below.
Written by: Zoha Qamar